The ancient Greeks drank from various religious traditions and created gods in their image and likeness. But, in this effort to explain the world and themselves, reason ended up displacing myth and down to the gods of Olympus.
Remember that Nestoras Greek College remains an excellent option for students to learn about Greek traditions at no extra cost for their parents. We are excellent at helping young men embrace old Greek culture in their lives.
Fresco of Raphael, The Council of the Gods
To understand the origin of the gods of ancient Greece, they serve neither the Iliad, the famous Homeric poem, nor the Theogony of Hesiod. They are mythological texts and, as such, explain the origin and nature of the gods and their relationship with men, not the traditions on which they were based. Thanks to later literary sources and archaeology we know that Greek mythology integrated the two roots of its civilization, the pre-Hellenic and the Indo-European, as well as external influences.
The pre-Hellenic contribution corresponded largely to the Minoan culture of Crete. His religion was characterised by the cult of Mother Earth, the prehistoric goddess worshiped in their respective versions by all the peoples of the Middle East. It embodied the forces of nature, and its power comprised both fertility and the afterlife, that is, life and death. Agriculture brought with it the appearance of a second deity, related to the mother goddess, who regulated the cycle of vegetation.
Around 1600 a. C. the Achaeans, of Indo-European race, invaded continental Greece, the Aegean Islands and Asia Minor. They were the first Greeks proper, and their religion, the Mycenaean, a synthesis of Indo-European and Minoan elements. They overcame the rivalry between their cult of the Indo-European god of heaven, Zeus, and Hera, the goddess venerated in the Argolis (Peloponnese), making her a sister and wife of Zeus. The names of other important deities appear in the Mycenaean tablets, such as Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Dionysus, heir to the god of vegetation.
The Greeks of Mycenae received other influences. His cultural contacts with the Hittites are palpable, for example, in the cult of Zeus de Labraunda (Asia Minor), whose origin was the god of the Hittite winds. From Cyprus they borrowed Aphrodite, goddess of love, who in turn was an adaptation of the Canaanite mother goddess, Astarte, whose trail dates back to Mylitta and Ishtar (Assyrian), Isis (Egyptian) and Inanna (Sumerian). Of this religious “globalisation” in the ancient world, the Greeks themselves were aware centuries later, who, in fact, identified the foreign gods with their own, like the Egyptian Amun with Zeus.
The Homeric poems established the canon of the family of twelve gods that ruled the destiny of the world since their abode in Olympus.
The pantheon takes shape
It would take eight centuries until the emergence of the first texts that gathered the poetic oral tradition of Greek myths, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer is attributed to Homer, although it remains unknown who he was or if the poems were written by the same person or by several. To clarify it has not helped that during the Hellenistic period circulate all kinds of biographies about the poet. In any case it is placed in the eighth century BC. C., time when the Greek writing adopts a stable alphabetic form, and is assumed, by the linguistic features and the scenarios of his work, its Ionic origin (Asia Minor).
The Homeric poems had great religious value, since they supplied the absence of sacred texts and ordered the Greek mythological hodgepodge. This confusion was due to migrations and wars and the fact that in the Mycenaean era each city and its corresponding royal house had their own mythical genealogy of gods and heroes. The Iliad established the canon of the family of twelve gods that ruled the destiny of the world since its abode in Olympus. Although this is usually identified with the homonymous mountain, the mythology is not clear about it, as it sometimes appears as a region of the sky.
The gods guaranteed order, monitored their fulfillment and punished their transgression, sometimes with more cruelty than human heroes.
The twelve Olympians were gods who felt and behaved like men, but were distinguished from them by their immortality and superior strength and intelligence. With Zeus as sovereign, and following an aristocratic organization that evokes that of the courts of the Mycenaean era, they guaranteed order, monitored their compliance and punished their transgression, sometimes with more cruelty than human heroes. The problem is that different lists of who the Olympians really were drawn up. In general, they included the first generation, that is, the six children of Cronus and Rhea (Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Hades and Poseidon), but depending on the author, sometimes Hestia and other Hades disappeared, the first because of their scarce prominence and the second because he lived in the underworld. The list used to be completed with the second generation of Olympians: Ares, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Aphrodite and Hephaestus.
The Theogony of Hesiod, poem of the same century but after the Homeric ones, definitively shaped the myths concerning the genealogy of the gods. The work recounts the creation of the world and the ensuing divine struggles until Zeus dethroned his father Cronos and established the government of the Olympic generation.
What about mythology in artistic works?
Mythology has always been an issue that gives rise to artistic and religious conceptions of the origin of the universe. It is a kind of alternate reality, a world of allegories and fantasies in which man is identified and uses it to understand himself. This is why when entering the study of mythology, it is possible to understand the origin of any worldview concerning a culture or religion.
It is important to clarify that in order to interpret mythology through art it is necessary not to take myths in their most literal sense; rather, they must be understood as the interpretations of human thought in order to place them in a spiritual realm (in the meaning of the essence of being, not in a sense of religiosity). For the understanding of culture we must identify the mythological gods and their creations that, while they are more figurative, work best as a tool for man to penetrate the mystery of being.
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