Minor Deities and Monsters

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Minor Deities and Monsters



Asclepius (Greek Asklepios; Latin Aesculapius) . Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas. He was a god (or hero) of healing, who learned his art from the centaur Chiron. His main cult was at Epidauros and included a sacred snake; lesser shrines existed at Athens and Cos. Sick people slept at his shrine, and the god sent them dreams concerning cures for their maladies. (The most detailed extant description of this process is Aristides’s Sacred Tales). The Asclepiadae, a famous clan or guild of doctors, traced their descent and wisdom from Asclepius.

Atlas . A Titan and the son of Uranus and Gaea, Atlas was punished for rebelling with the other Titans against Zeus. He was condemned to hold up the sky on his shoulders.

Bendis . A Thracian goddess of hunting and fertility (similar to Artemis), Bendis was worshiped in her native land with orgiastic rites. Thracian residents in Piraeus brought her cult with them, and it was established officially in 430-429 b.c.e. In Piraeus, her festival was celebrated by a procession, vigil, and torch race on horseback. This festival is mentioned at the opening of Plato’s Republic (circa 380-360 b.c.e.).

Centaurs (Greek Kentauroi; Latin Centauri) . Offspring of Ixion and Nephele, centaurs were beings with the head, torso, and arms of humans and the bodies of horses. They lived on Mt. Pelion, in Thessaly, and were considered wild and uncivilized, with certain exceptions. The centaur Chiron was exceptionally wise and tutored Asclepius, Achilles, and Jason.

Chaos . In Hesiod, Chaos (or the void) was the first phase of the universe, from which were generated Gaea (Earth), Tartarus (the underworld), Erôs (Love), Erebus (Darkness), and Nyx (Night).

Cybele (Greek Kubêlê, Latin Cybele or Cybebe) . Cybele was the Phrygian mother goddess whose consort was Attis. She was a fertility and nature goddess of the type sometimes known as the Agreat Mother” (Magna Mater). In the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) she was known to the Greeks and sometimes identified with Demeter, but she did not become important in the Graeco-Roman world until the Hellenistic Period (323-331 b.c.e.).

Cyclopes (Greek Kuklôpes) . Cyclopes were giants with single eyes in the middles of their heads. In Hesiod’s Theogony (circa eighth century b.c.e.), they were considered sons of Uranus (heaven) and Gaea (earth) and helpers of Zeus and Hephaestus. The walls of the ancient cities of Mycenae and Tiryns were called “Cyclopean” because they were believed to have been built by the Cyclopes. In Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh century b.c.e.), the Cyclops Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, lived on an island where he captured and devoured unfortunate humans until he was blinded by Odysseus.

Diônê . Consort of Zeus, Dione was worshiped primarily at Dodona, and as mother of Aphrodite in Homer. She appeared in Mycenaean tablets. Her name is a feminine version of Zeus; what her relationship was to Hera is unclear.

Dionysus Zagreus . The god Dionysus appears not only in the Olympian Pantheon but also in mystery religions. The aspect of Dionysus, worshiped by the Orphics especially, sometimes can be distinguished from the one found in the Olympian cults and myths by the epithet Zagreus; the stories surrounding him differ in several, but not all, details from the Olympian ones. Dionysus Zagreus, according to the Orphics, was a son of Zeus (in snake form) and Persephonê. Zeus gave the child Dionysus rulership of the world and the Corybantes (guardians of the infant Zeus in Olympian myth) as guardians. The Titans seized Dionysus and tore his body to pieces, devouring all but the heart, which Athena saved. Zeus implanted the heart in Semele, who gave birth to Dionysus. After Zeus punished the Titans by hurling lightning bolts at them, the human race sprang up from the resulting ashes.

Eos (Latin Aurora) . Eos was the daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Thea, and sister of Helius (Sun) and Selene (Moon). She was the goddess of the dawn and loved, with uniformly unfortunate outcomes, several mortal men, including Cephalus, Orion, and Tithonus.

Eris (Latin Discordia) . Eris was the goddess or personification of strife or discord who threw the Apple of Discord (inscribed “For The Most Beautiful”) among the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera during the wedding of Peleus and Thetis—an event that led to the Trojan War (thirteenth-twelfth centuries b.c.e.). In Hesiod there were good and bad strifes, one leading to productive competition and the other to unproductive squabbling.

Erôs (Latin Cupidus) . The god of love who appears in Hesiod as a quasi-impersonal attractive and generative force, Erôs originally signified intense physical desire, but by the seventh century he acquired a more complex nature. Erôs was personalized as the son of Aphrodite, portrayed in art as a winged child with a bow and arrow. Plato’s Symposium (circa 380-360 b.c.e.) distinguishes heavenly from common love, the former spiritual and the latter purely physical.


I begin my song with the Helikonian Muses;

they have made Helikon, the greatest god-haunted 
mountain, their domain;
 their soft feet move in the dance that rings
 the violet-dark spring and the altar of mighty Zeus.
 They bathe their lithe bodies in the water of Permessos
 or of Hippokrene or of god-haunted Olmeios.
 On Helikon’s peaks they join hands in lovely dances
 and their pounding feet awaken desire.
 From there they set out and, veiled in mist,
 glide through the night and raise enchanting voices....
 It was they who taught Hesipd beautiful song
 as he tended his sheep at the foothills of god-haunted 
 Here are the words the daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
 the Muses of Olympos, friist spoke to me.
 “Listen, you country bumpkins, you swag-bellied yahoos,
 we know how to tell many lies that pass for truth,
 and we know, when we wish, to tell the truth itself.
 ”So spoke Zeus’s daughters, masters of word-craft,
 and from a laurel in full bloom they plucked a branch,
 and gave it to me as a staff, and then breathed into me
 divine song, that I might spread the fame of past
 and future, 
and commanded me to hymn the race of the 
deathless gods,
 but always begin and end my song with them.

Source: Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

Fates (Greek Moirai, Latin Fata or Parcae) . The Fates were daughters of Zeus and Themis, according to Hesiod; generally portrayed as three old women—Clotho (spinner), who held a distaff; Lachesis (apportioner), who pulled the thread; and Atropos (inescapable), who cut the thread.

They determined the fate of each person at birth and thus were often associated with childbearing and found, with Artemis, in cults. Even the gods’ powers or honors were apportioned (for example, Poseidon’s ruling the sea or Hades, the underworld), and thus the gods could not overturn the decrees of fate. Homer speaks of Kêres thanatoio, goddesses of death, who play a role similar to that of the Fates; kêr in the abstract means “fate” (in the sense of doom). In later authors the Keres come to be polluting powers of evil.

Furies (Greek Erinues, Eumenides, Semnai, Latin Dirae, . Furiae). The Furies were goddesses of vengeance, especially concerned with murder, harm done within the family, and broken oaths. They were also known by the positive names of Eumenides (Kindly Ones) and Semnai (Majestic Ones); Aeschylus’s play the Eumenides (458 b.c.e.) accounted for this dual tradition as an evolution from a harsher to more benevolent type of deity.

Gaea (Greek Gaia or , Latin Terra) . Gaea represented the Earth, sometimes quasi-personified as a goddess. Her cult was generally superseded by that of more fully personalized deities. She was the mother and husband of Uranus (Heaven) and mother of the Titans, Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, Giants, and Furies.

Giants (Greek Gigantes) . The Giants were a race born from where Uranus’s blood fell on and fertilized Gaea (Earth). In epic, Heracles aids the Olympian gods in a battle against the Giants. This battle, the Gigantomachy, was frequently described in literature and portrayed in art.

Gorgons . Winged monsters of quasi-human female shape, the Gorgons had snakes in place of hair. Their glances could turn people to stone. Medusa (Greek Medousa) was the most commonly portrayed Gorgon, but she also was described as having two sisters, Sthenno and Euryale. Perseus killed Medusa with the help of Athena. Medusa’s severed head was often represented in art, and had an apotropaic (warding off evil) function.

Graces (Greek Kharites, Latin Gratiae) . Goddesses personifying beauty and grace, the Graces were daughters of Zeus and associated with joy, blessing, and celebration. Although originally they were not strongly individuated, by the Classical Period they acquired several individual names, including Thalia (Flowering), Auxo (Grower), Kale (Beautiful), Euphrosune (Joy), and Aglaia (Radiant). They traditionally were portrayed as a group of three and appear frequently in minor roles in myth and literature. The Graces had cults in Athens, Orchomenos, and Sparta. They frequently appeared in the company of Aphrodite and Eros.

Hades or Plouton (Greek Aidoneus, Latin Pluto) . Hades was the son of Cronus and Rhea, brother to Zeus and Poseidon. He was the ruler of the Underworld, sometimes confused with Ploutos (Latin Plutus or Dis\ the god of wealth. The two were associated because precious metals were dug up from underground and plants grow from buried seeds. Hades was best known in mythology for his

abduction of Persephonê, daughter of Demeter, to be his queen in the underworld. Mythological descriptions of his kingdom varied, but it usually was described as having three major parts: the Plains of Asphodel where shadowy, and insubstantial shades wandered; Elysium, or the Isles of the Blessed, which was home to dead heroes; and Tartarus, where the enemies of the gods were punished. The river Styx separated Hades from the living world. If the dead had been buried properly (with small coins in their mouths) they could pay Charon to ferry them across the river; the shades of the unburied dead wandered on the banks of the river. The dog Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades and prevented the dead from escaping. In some accounts Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus judged the dead, sending them to their appropriate fates. Lethe, the river of for-getfulness, was located also in Hades. In Plato’s Republic (which diverged radically from popular religious belief), souls would drink from Lethe before being reincarnated, thus forgetting their previous existence.

Hebe (Greek Hêbê) . Hebe was the daughter of Zeus and Hera, who appeared as a young girl, cupbearer to the gods. She was married to Heracles and sometimes shared a cult with him.

Hecatë (Greek Hekatê) . Hecatë was the daughter of the Titans Perses and Asterië, or of Coeus and Phoebë, who allied herself with Zeus and the Olympians. She was an ancient chthonian deity whom Hesiod describes as benevolent, but his praise for her may be evidence of a cult and understanding of her, unique to his home in Boeotia. She sometimes overlapped with Artemis (in her role as moon goddess) and was also described as an attendant of Persephonê. She was associated with night, ghosts, and demons; dogs howled at her presence. She was frequently invoked in curse tablets and other magical spells. Her rites were performed at crossroads, where she received dog sacrifices and monthly offerings of food. She rarely appeared in art, but did so occasionally as a triple goddess (much as the Roman Janus, god of doorways, appeared in double form.)

Hecatoncheires . The children of Gaea and Uranus, Hecatoncheires were monsters with one hundred hands, named Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes. They helped Zeus in the war against the Titans.

Helen of Troy . Helen of Troy was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, whose elopement with Paris was described in Homer and mythology as the cause of the Trojan War. She was probably a pre-Hellenic fertility or earth goddess who faded to a demi-goddess and mythological founder of a royal dynasty. She retained a cult at Sparta.

Helius (Latin Sol) . Helius was the son of the Titans Hyperion and Thea, brother to Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn), and father of Circe and Phaethon. He was the Greek personification of the Sun. In art he drives his chariot across the sky from east to west. Helius was a patron deity of Rhodes, but not widely worshiped elsewhere and later identified with Apollo.

Cronus (Greek Kronos, Latin Saturnus) . Cronus was one of the Titans, who were children of Gaea and Uranus. The latter had prevented his older children from being born and confined them inside their mother, Gaea. Because she was in pain from the weight of the sky lying on top of her, Gaea persuaded Cronus, her youngest son, to castrate his father with a sickle. Cronus married his sister, Rhea, and their offspring included many of the Olympian deities (Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, and Zeus). Cronus, knowing one of his sons would supplant him as king of the gods, swallowed all his offspring. Rhea tricked him into swallowing a stone rather than his youngest child, Zeus. When Zeus grew up, he forced his father to regurgitate his siblings. The younger gods fought a war against the Titans and eventually cast them down into Tartarus. The story of Cronus and Gaea has analogues in Phoenician, Babylonian, and Hittite mythology, and may have represented the severing of the heavens from the earth. Cronos appeared in myth and had a festival, the Kronia, in Athens at harvest time, when slaves and masters would feast together.

Leto (Greek Lêtô, Latin Latona) . Leto was a Titan, daughter of Coeus and Phoebë, and mother of Apollo and Artemis. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo described how Leto, persecuted by Hera, wandered from island to island, seeking a place where she could give birth to Apollo, until she finally was welcomed by Delos. She shared a cult with her children.

Metis . When Metis (counsel or wisdom) was pregnant, Zeus was advised that her first child would be Athena, and her second, a more powerful god who would overthrow Zeus himself. To prevent this, Zeus swallowed Metis. Thus, wisdom was always inside Zeus.

Muses . The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosynë (Memory), the muses were the goddesses of the artistic and intellectual pursuits, often invoked at the beginnings of epics by Hesiod and Homer as the source or inspiration of poetic wisdom, and, of course, of remembering. Different traditions give various numbers of Muses—three, four, or nine; they were always considered as a group, but by Roman times they had also acquired individual identities associated with patronage of specific disciplines: Calliopë (Epic poetry); Clio (History); Euterpë (Flute-playing and elegiac poetry); Melpomene (Tragedy); Terpsichore (Choral dance and song); Erato (Lyre and lyric, erotic poetry); Polyhymnia (Hymns to the gods and pantomine); Thalia (Comedy and bucolic poetry); and Urania (Astronomy). They had early cults in Pieria and Mount Helicon and several later minor cults. Several major philosophical schools such as the Pythagorean community, the Platonic Academy, and the Aristotelian Lyceum were actually organized as thiasoi (associations for the cult of the Muses). Museums were originally places devoted to the cult of the Muses or, consequently, places where people pursued the cultural activities of which the Muses were the presiding deities.

Nemesis . The goddess or personification of retribution, Nemesis had a wide disparity among her cults that suggests that several distinct goddesses may have been worshiped under her name. One group of stories identified her as a minor goddess pursued by Zeus, who changed into several different forms, especially fish, to avoid him. At her best-known shrine at Rhamnus, she was similar in character to Artemis, but in Boeotia she was worshiped as a goddess of resentment or vengeance. She normally appeared in literature as a goddess of retribution, punishing injustice.

Nereus . The son of Pontus and father of the Nereids, Nereus was an old sea god who was gifted with wisdom and prophecy. In his contest with Heracles he was able to transform himself into many different shapes. He may have had a small cult in Gythium.

Nikê . Hesiod says that Nike, the Goddess of victory in battle or peacetime contests, was the daughter of the Titan Pallas and of the river Styx, and sister of Zêlos (Rivalry), Kratos (Strength), and Bia (Force). She fought on the side of the Olympians in their war against the Titans and was honored for her loyalty by Zeus. She was often assimilated to, or syncretized with, other gods (such as with Zeus at Olympia, or with Athena at Athens; there is a temple to Athena Nike on the Athenian Acropolis). She is usually depicted with wings. Soldiers going to war, and even poets competing in dramatic competitions, would pray for her help.

Nymphs (Greek Numphai, Latin Nymphae) . Nymphs were quasi-divine female nature spirits. Each mountain, stream, tree, lake, city, state, or region had its own nymph. They were depicted as young unmarried women, daughters of Zeus. Although long-lived, they were mortal. They had various local cults throughout Greece and were very important in popular religion. There were many small shrines to nymphs in the countryside and caves. They were generally benevolent deities and fond of dancing and music, but appear in folktales as causing difficulties for or seducing unwary or disrespectful travelers. Nymphs were divided into several categories: Dryads (forests and groves); Hamadryads (individual trees); Leimoniads (meadows); Naiads (water); Nereids (ocean); Oceanids (ocean); Oreads (mountains); and Potameids (rivers).

Pan (Latin Faunus) . Pan was the god of shepherds, portrayed as half-goat, half-human. He was a son of Hermes, native to Arcadia, and associated with wilderness. He was responsible for the fertility of the flocks, and in his rare appearances in mythology he tended to be amorous. Pan supposedly invented the syrinx, a pipe made of seven reeds. When the flocks were unfertile, his statue was flogged to arouse him to fulfill his duties.

Pandora . According to Hesiod, Pandora was the first woman, created by Zeus as revenge on humanity for the tricks of Prometheus. She was made of clay by Hephaestus and endowed with beauty by Aphrodite, craft skill by Athena, and deceit by Hermes. After her marriage to Prometheus’s less intelligent brother, Epimetheus, she was prompted by curiosity to open a jar where diseases and other evils were stored, thus bringing evil into the world. Her name means “all gifts” (Greek pan+ dora), and she may have been an early earth goddess before being demoted by arrival of a new pantheon.

Persephonê (Greek Korê, Latin Proserpina) . Persephonê was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, she was described as having been abducted by Hades, who wished to make her his consort and queen of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, wandered around the world searching for her daughter, eventually stopping at Eleusis, where the Mysteries were founded in her honor. Zeus agreed to restore Persephonê to Demeter if Persephonê had not consumed any food during her sojourn in Hades. On her way back above ground, she consumed several pomegranate seeds. Zeus decreed that Persephonê should thenceforth spend half her life underground with Hades and half above ground with her mother. When Persephonê (the personification of grain) was underground, and Demeter was mourning her absence, no crops grew. Many mystery festivals celebrated Persephone’s return, i.e. the new growth of the crops in early autumn after the end of the summer drought.

Plutus (Greek Ploutos) . The son of Demeter and lasion and the god of wealth, Plutus is often identified or confused with Hades because wealth (in the form of precious metals and grain) is underground. He was associated with Demeter and Korê. In popular tales and Aristophanes’s play PloutoS, he was represented as blind and, thus, visiting the wrong people.

Pontus (Greek Pontos) . Pontus was the son of Gaea, father of Nereus, and married to Thalassa (a feminine Greek word for sea). He was a personification of the sea.

Prometheus . The son of lapetus and a nymph (either Thetis or Clymene), Prometheus was also a Titan. His name means “forethinker.” He was portrayed as a wise figure, often a trickster, and sometimes as having created humankind out of clay. He taught humankind arts and crafts and was described in epic as a defender of humanity. He was worshiped among craftspeople in Attica. Hesiod describes his stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humanity. He also tricked Zeus into choosing for the gods the portion of the sacrifice including the skin, fat, and bones of the sacrificial animals, leaving the meat for mortals. As a punishment (variously for stealing fire from the gods, for the trick concerning the sacrifices, or for not revealing an important secret), Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, where his liver was gnawed all day by a giant eagle and grew back every night, a punishment from which he was rescued by Heracles.

Rhea (Greek Rheia) . Rhea was the daughter of Uranus and Gaea and both sister and wife to Cronus. She was the mother of many of the Olympian gods, including Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, and Zeus.

Satyrs and Sileni (Greek Saturoi and Silênoi) . Wood spirits like the god Pan, Satyrs and Sileni were associated with wildlife in remote areas. They had a mixture of human and animal (horse and/or goat) characteristics and were bestial in nature, often drunken and lecherous. They

formed the choruses of the bawdy comical satyr plays performed after tragedies at the festival of Dionysus and appear with him in art and myth. Sometimes they are portrayed as possessors of important secrets or wisdom.

Tartarus (Greek Tartaros) . Tartarus was the son of Aether and Gaea and father of Typhon, a monster defeated by Zeus. Tartarus was also the part of the Underworld where those who had rebelled against the gods were sent for punishment.

Themis . A personification of justice, Themis (according to Hesiod) is a Titan, the daughter of Gaea. Zeus and Themis were the parents of the Fates and the Seasons. Themis was sometimes described as the mother of Prometheus. Her cult reflected her origin as an earth goddess, connected in some sources with the Delphic oracle. She was associated with the establishment of religion, sacrifices, divination, and the general harmony of the social order, presiding over the ethical and legal obligations that mortals have to one another and to the gods.

Thetis . Nereid of surpassing beauty, Thetis excited the lust of the gods. As she was destined to bear a son greater than his father, however, Zeus and Poseidon decided to marry her off to a mortal, Peleus, by whom she bore a son, Achilles. Thetis appeared in the Iliad (circa eighth-seventh century b.c.e.), interceding with Zeus on behalf of Achilles.

Titans (Greek Titanes, Latin Titanus) . Children of Gaea and Uranus, the Titans formed the generation of gods before the Olympians and were eventually conquered by them and imprisoned in Tartarus. According to Hesiod, there were twelve Titans, six of each gender. The male Titans were Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, lapetus, Cronus, and Oceanus; the females were Mnemosynë, Phoebë, Rhea, Tethys, Theia, and Themis. Children of the original twelve Titans, such as Atlas and Prometheus, were also called Titans. Their origins are puzzling. Oceanus, lapetus, and Cronus are non-Greek names; Mnemosynë (Memory) and Themis (Justice) are personifications of abstract concepts.

Uranus (Greek Ouranos) . Uranus was the personification of the heavens from whom many of the gods were descended. Uranus impregnated his mother, Gaea, but would not allow the children to be born. With the help of his mother, Cronus castrated his father, and then Gaea brought forth the rest of her children.

Winds . Worship of the Winds was common in Greece. They were portrayed as horses or winged humans who could be beneficial (bringing rain) or destructive. In myth the winds can appear as a poorly differentiated group carried in a sack by Aeolus or as a group of four (Boreas, Zephyrus, Notus, and Eurus) or eight (the aforementioned four plus Kaikias, Apeliotes, Lips, and Skiron). The most commonly named wind gods were: Aeolus (son of Hippotes, given control of the winds, which he kept in a leather bag); Boreas (son of Eos and Astraeus and personification of the North Wind); Zephyrus (West Wind and husband of Iris, the goddess of rainbows); Notus (South Wind); and Eurus (East Wind).


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