Other Gods Beyond the Twelve

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Other Gods Beyond the Twelve

Too Many to Count.

In addition to the twelve most important gods, there were innumerable other gods in Greek mythology. Any list made of them would be very long and still be incomplete. Some were old deities whom the poets passed over as uninteresting, though they still attracted worshippers. Eileithyia, whose worship on Crete went back to the Stone Age, was still indispensible. Sea gods belonged to the periphery of Greek religion, though they also were very ancient. One of them, the Old Man of the Sea, is known under various names: Proteus, Phorkys, Nereus, or Glaukos, meaning "blue-green," the color of the sea. Anyone wanting his cooperation had to overpower him, which was difficult, for he could change from one form to another at the blink of an eye. Only Heracles, the strongman of mythology, had the muscular strength to capture him and then hold on to him.

Thetis, Mother of Achilles.

Thetis was a sea goddess, and her attendants were mermaids called Nereides, who were the daughters of the Old Man of the Sea. She had a sanctuary in Thessaly which the tragic poet Euripides made the setting of his drama Andromache. Myth relates that both Zeus and Poseidon desired Thetis, but when they learned from Prometheus that her son would be stronger than his father, they saw to it that she married a mortal, Peleus. She bore him a son, Achilles, whom she tried to make immortal by burning away his mortal element, but Peleus interrupted the ritual and she left him in a rage and returned to the sea. Another story relates that she tried to make Achilles invulnerable by lowering him into a magic well, but since she held him by one heel as she immersed him, the water could not cover that part of his body, and it remained unprotected. Achilles died from an arrow wound in his heel, and this story gave rise to the modern phrase "Achilles' heel" to describe an area of vulnerability.

The God Pan.

Pan was an ancient god of fertility who was not completely anthropomorphic. He was half-man, half-goat, and his homeland was Arcadia, a mountainous region in the central Peloponnesos. He was worshipped in sacred caves, one of which has been found in Athens under the Acropolis. The finds from this cave show that Pan was worshiped there in Mycenaean times and then, after a long period of neglect, worship began again after 490 b.c.e. In that year, the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, and they believed that Pan helped them. Thereafter, the Athenians held an annual sacrifice and a torch-race in his honor.

The Spirits of Rivers, Mountains, and Trees.

Rivers were gods, and they could take part in human life. The river god Achelous was Heracles' rival for Deianira, Heracles' last wife, and Heracles had to wrestle with him to win her. In the countryside and sometimes even the cities there were the nymphs who associated with Pan, and were like the fairies of European folklore. They embodied the divine essences of the mountains, woods, trees, and waters where they lived. The nymphs of the woods were the Alseides, the Napaeae, and the Dryades. The Hamadryades were tree-nymphs—the life spirit of the trees—and when a tree died, its Hamadryas died with it. The water nymphs were Naiads, Potameids, Creneids, and Hydriads. Like Pan, they were often worshipped in caves. They were usually kindly sprites who patronized springs of sweet water and danced with Artemis on the mountainsides, but they could be dangerous. When the nymphs fell in love with Hylas, a handsome boy whom Heracles loved, they dragged him down into a spring as he fetched water there, and he drowned. It was dangerous to be loved by a nymph.

Castor and Polydeuces.

The twin gods, Castor—the famous horseman—and his brother Polydeuces—equally famous as a boxer—were called the Dioscuri, or Dios kouroi in Greek, which means "the youths of Zeus," and there is a "Homeric Hymn" which hails them as the "sons of Zeus." Greek mythology had various versions of the Dioscuri-myth: the Iliad explains that they did not take part in the Trojan War because they were already dead, whereas the Odyssey explains that they are living and dead men on alternate days. This refers to a myth in which Polydeuces was the immortal son of Zeus who loved his mortal brother, Castor, so much that he agreed to share his immortality. Thus they spent alternate days alive and dead. Sparta was their homeland, where they were worshipped with a cult image consisting of two upright pieces of wood connected by two crossbeams. They represented the spirits of the young warriors who rode horses into battle, for though Castor was a more famous horseman than his brother, both were known as "riders on white steeds." Under the name of "Castor and Pollux" or sometimes simply the "Castores," their cult spread very early to Rome, where the Theoxenia festival was held every year on the Ides of July (15 July) in their honor, and the Roman cavalry performed a ceremonial parade. The parade supposedly commemorated the Battle of Lake Regillus in the early days of the Roman republic when it defeated an effort to restore the Etruscan kings, and Castor and Pollux aided the Romans. They had a temple in the Roman Forum near the spring of Juturna where the two gods were seen watering their horses after the battle.

The Mysterious "Mistress."

Near Lykosoura in Arcadia a goddess called simply "The Mistress" had a temple which she shared with Demeter. There is some indication that "The Mistress" was reared by one of the Titans, but little else is known about her. She is reminiscent of the title Potnia meaning "Mistress" found in the Mycenaean "Linear B" tablets, often in phrases such as the "Mistress of Horses" or the "Mistress of Wild Beasts." A goddess named Potnia without any further qualification was an important deity in Mycenaean Pylos. The name of Zeus' wife, Hera, is thought to mean "mistress": a powerful female deity whom the poets transformed into Zeus' shrewish wife, shoving aside Zeus' first wife, the colorless Dione.


At Rhamnous outside Athens there was a temple to a puzzling deity called Nemesis. There was a myth that Zeus tried to rape her, and she turned herself into various non-human forms to escape him, particularly into various kinds of fish. The word nemesis means wrath aroused by any unjust deed, or righteous indignation. The goddess Nemesis presided over retribution, and her adversary was hubris, an act of arrogant violence. She preserved the social order by visiting retribution on those who would destroy it.

Asclepius, God of Healing.

Asclepius, whose famous healing shrine at Epidaurus in the Peloponnesos attracted the sick from all over Greece, is a reminder of how blurred the distinction could become between a hero, who was mortal and descended to the Underworld when he died, and a god, who belonged to the world above. Homer in the Iliad referred to Asclepius as a "blameless physician" who was already dead at the time of the Trojan War, where his two sons served in the Greek camp as doctors. Yet at Epidaurus a temple was built for him which housed a cult statue made of gold and ivory, and to the south of the temple was his great altar where sacrifices were made to him as a god. His festival at Epidaurus, held every four years, required a theater that could hold 14,000 spectators. It is now the best-preserved ancient theater in Greece.

The Birth of Asclepius.

Ancient authors had no doubt that Asclepius' father was the god Apollo, but they differed on his mother. The most common version of the myth relates that Apollo impregnated Coronis, the daughter of Phlegyas in Thessaly. Thus Asclepius was of Thessalian origin, and the Asclepiads—Asclepius' priests on the island of Cos whose most famous member was the doctor Hippocrates who is still known for the "Hippocratic Oath"—maintained that Asclepius was born in Trikka, in Thessaly. Epidaurus, however, also claimed to be his birthplace. That version of the myth maintained that Coronis was unfaithful and slept with another man while she was pregnant with Asclepius, and a crow brought the news to Apollo. Apollo wrathfully cursed the crow, turning its color from white to black, and then he slew Coronis. As she lay on the funeral pyre, he snatched the infant Asclepius from her womb and gave it to the centaur Chiron to rear, who taught him the arts of healing. He grew up to be so skilled a doctor that he restored a dead man to life, and for that Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, for restoring the gift of life was a prerogative of the gods. In fact, only Zeus could do it, and he refrained from the deed. Thus Asclepius went down into the Underworld to live with the heroes. As his cult expanded, the myth was adjusted accordingly. Zeus, it was said, brought Asclepius into the circle of Olympus and made him a god. Thus he could receive sacrifice as a god and not merely the sort of offerings that were made to the chthonic deities, or the earth-bound heroes as they were called, for the Greek word for earth was chthon.

Spread of the Healing Cult.

The cult of Asclepius grew increasingly popular. In Pergamum, a Hellenistic kingdom in Asia Minor that was carved out of Alexander the Great's conquests, there was an immense shrine to Asclepius a short distance out of the city, and it included a theater that could seat 3,500. The Romans, who called him Aesculapius, brought him from Epidaurus to Rome after a plague in 293 b.c.e. Instructed by an oracle in the Sibylline Books, they brought a sacred snake incarnating the god to Rome, and as the ship bearing the snake up the Tiber River to Rome reached the island known today as the Isola Tiberina, it slithered ashore. A temple for Aesculapius was built there and to this day there is a hospital on this island, named after the physician apostle, St. Bartholemew. Early Christians found Aesculapius a difficult pagan god to extirpate, and at the Isola Tiberina their solution was to Christianize his sanctuary by substituting St. Bartholomew for him.


John Boardman, The Great God Pan: The Survival of an Image. The "Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures" (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998).

Philippe Borgeaud, The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece. Trans. Kathleen Atlass and James Redfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

Harry Brewster, The River Gods of Greece: Myth and Mountain Waters in the Hellenic World (London, England: I. B. Tauris, 1997).

Jacques Désautels, Dieux et mythes de la Grèce ancienne (Quebec, Canada: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1988).

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Other Gods Beyond the Twelve

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Other Gods Beyond the Twelve