Ancient Greek Religious Beliefs

The ancient Greeks were polytheistic. They had many gods and goddesses that represented the forces of nature (like the sky, the sea, and death), and to represent human nature (like love, war, and wisdom). The Greeks also told many myths about their gods, their heroes, and their wars. During the Dark Ages (1100 BC - 800 BC), oral tradition kept these stories alive and helped to pass Greek culture down from earlier generations.

Greek Mythology
Achilles and Ajax play dice. Dice represented a game of chance that was similar to the way luck affects life. 
Mythology is based on oral tradition. Myths are meant to be spoken aloud by a storyteller. Each storyteller adds his own emphasis and keeps the audience engaged.

Mythology has several purposes: Entertainment, Religion, Cultural Norms, Heroic Ideal

Greek mythology is the foundation of Western Literature.

Even though Greek city-states were separated by geography, it is their stories and language that made them all united as Greeks.

The two most important works of Greek mythology are the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics were often memorized by average people, and recited around campfires, after dinners, and whenever groups of Greeks came together.

While the Iliad and the Odyssey are long poems, they were almost never recited in their entirety—Instead storytellers would choose particular parts to perform.

Other myths explain natural phenomena, human behavior, or explore the heroic feats of real or imagined characters. While we might ask, “Did these things really happen?”, to the ancient Greeks, it didn’t matter because the telling of the story made it real.

While some folks today look for the “original version,” or “correct version” of a myth, as with all oral tradition there are many versions with different emphasis or characters.

The gods are a fun part of the mythology, but the most important aspects of the Greek myths were meant to explain the human experience, and to teach what it was to be a good Greek. 

Ancient Greek Deities

The Ancient Greeks told stories and sang songs about their gods and heroes as part of their religion. The gods appear in many different, sometimes contradictory stories. The best way to understand the different personalities, drama, relationships, and temper tantrums of the Greek gods was to listen to a storyteller tell myths.

For your notes, here are some of the major divine characters and some basic information about each. Of course, there are many more gods, heroes, and creatures than listed here!

Then there was that one time when a fully grown warrior goddess popped out of Zeus's head!

The Primordial/Cthonic Gods:

Primordial Gods are those that come before the Olympians, and represent a time before human civilization

Cthonic Gods represent the primordial gods that were associated with the earth and underworld. 

Olympian Gods are those gods and goddesses associated with Mt. Olympus, are led by Zeus, and represent human civilization

Titans are the monstrous offspring of the primordial gods who fight the Olympians and are overthrown

Ouranos and Gaea: Ouranos was the original god who represented the sky, and his wife was the earth goddess Gaea. They gave birth to the horrible Titans, including their crooked son, Kronos. After each Titan was born, Ouranos would shove the monster back inside of Gaea to keep it away from him. 

Ouranos represented the sky, while his wife Gaea was the earth

Kronos and Rhea: Kronos and his mother Gaea conspired to overthrow the cruel and tyrannical Ouranos. Gaea crafted a giant bladed sickle and Kronos used it to slice off Ouranos's "man parts." This made Ouranos powerless and unable to create more monsters. 

Rhea, the goddess of the fertile land, married Kronos and was his sister.

Kronos damages his father in a very rough spot. The image of Kronos and his sickle was adapted as that of the grim reaper.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born from the sea foam when Ouranos's man parts fell into the sea. Aphrodite represented the type of love that creates new life.

A marble carving showing the emergence of Aphrodite from the sea. Once born, she went to the island of Cyprus.
I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments: on her head they put a fine, well-wrought crown of gold, and in her pierced ears they hung ornaments of orichalc and precious gold, and adorned her with golden necklaces over her soft neck and snow-white breasts, jewels which the gold-filleted Hours wear themselves whenever they go to their father's house to join the lovely dances of the gods. And when they had fully decked her, they brought her to the gods, who welcomed her when they saw her, giving her their hands. Each one of them prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so greatly were they amazed at the beauty of violet-crowned Cytherea.                   -- Homeric Hymn VI. Trans. H.G. Evelyn-White

Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, often depicted in a clothing-optional setting, and usually on a clam shell.

Worried that his children might overthrown him, Kronos devoured each one of his children as his wife Rhea gave birth to them. Since Kronos was the god of time, the myth also explains how time consumes all things!

Kronos, or Saturn to the Romans, had interesting ideas about fatherhood.
After swallowing their first five children, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia, Kronos was annoyed to learn about another child -- Zeus-- and determined to eat him too. This time, however, Rhea had a plan... She wrapped up a rock in baby clothes...
Rhea presented the rock, wrapped in baby blankets, to Kronos.

Kronos was easily fooled by Rhea's scheme and promptly swallowed the rock, convinced it was his youngest son, Zeus.
Rhea then hid baby Zeus in a cave on the island of Crete. There he was raised by a magical goat that spouted milk from her horns. Also, mythical warriors would clatter their armor to mask the crying of baby Zeus.

The Diktaean Cave - A perfect hiding place for a god-baby whose father wants to eat him!

Also a great place for a goofy archaeologist to visit!
Once Zeus grew up to be a man-god, he planned the overthrow of Kronos with the help of his mother and grandmother. The earth goddesses created a vomit potion and Rhea gave it to Kronos to drink...

Once he drank it, Kronos barfed up all of Zeus's siblings, and gave him some powerful allies in the fight against their father.

After that, the Olympian gods always hated their father, Kronos.
It must have been quite a scene, seeing an old god throwing up five new gods...
Once free, Zeus and his siblings started a cosmic battle for control of the universe against Kronos and all the Titans. This epic battle lasted 10 years and was a struggle among all the powers of the world called the "Titanomachy." The Titanomachy was a favorite subject for Greek artists and poets.

The Titanomachy matched up newer Olympian gods against older monsters and giants.

The battle was pretty epic...literally, there were epics written about it.

The Titanomachy was also called the gigantomachy.

The very famous sculptures of the Pergamon Altar show vivid scenes from the Titanomchy.

The struggle against the Titans represented the struggle of civilization against the wild and dangerous world of nature.
Here's a Khan Academy video describing the Pergamon Altar, one of the most famous works of Greek art, which depicted scenes from the Titanomachy:

After winning the battle, the Olympian gods took over the different aspects of nature that the Titans had controlled, and made their base on the top of Mt. Olympus, the tallest peak in Greece.

Of course, start with a BrainPop:
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Zeus: As the leader of the Olympian gods, Zeus won control of the sky, weather, kings, and a leadership position among all gods. Zeus was known for spending time with pretty ladies (that were not his wife), being the father of many mythical heroes, and for wielding the lightning bolt as a weapon of choice. Zeus represented the power of the sky.

The statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Zeus's patron animal was the eagle, and his weapon was the thunderbolt.

Poseidon: Poseidon was the short-tempered power of the Mediterranean Sea. He caused earthquakes and carried a trident. Blue-bearded Poseidon could make sailors have a safe and prosperous journey to far away places, or kill them with a storm and a wave. Poseidon really gets angry at Odysseus when the hero blinds Poseidon's son, the Cyclops.

Poseidon was a god that all sailors were taught to respect and fear.

Poseidon's trident was a symbol of his power. His animal was a horse, and his beard was bright blue.
Hera: Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus. Ironically, she represented marriage even though her husband was often hanging out with lots of other women. Hera has no problem choosing heroes that she likes, and those that displease her.

Hera was a strong partner to Zeus and she never failed to tell him exactly what she thought.

Hera had temples all over Greece, and was a patron of marriage and childbirth.
Hestia: Hestia was the goddess of the hearth and home. She represented the settled life and the proper role of women in the household. Later, she gives up her seat on Mt. Olympus when Dionysus arrives.

Hestia's main job was to make a house into a home-- safe, comfortable, and at peace.
Demeter: Demeter represented agriculture and the cultivation of land. She is a more civilized version of Rhea or Gaea. Demeter has special, secret rituals and ceremonies in her honor. She is also the mother of Persephone, who is kidnapped by Hades.

Demeter was often shown with bunches of grain, fruit, or other agricultural products

Demeter never got over the kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, to become queen of Hades
Hades: Hades represented the power of death. He ruled in the underworld with the three-headed dog named Cerberus beside him. Hades used the helm of darkness to sneak up on unsuspecting people while appearing invisible. 

Hades and Cerberus greeted the souls of the dead into the underworld

Hades and dreaded Persephone were the rulers of the underworld, allowing no one to leave.

Aside from the six Olympian gods that sprang from Kronos and Rhea, there were several other important deities that were children of one or two of those gods. 

Apollo and Artemis: These twin gods were the children of Zeus and Leto. Apollo represented the sun, light, telling the future, archery, and male good looks. Artemis was his sister, and a single, independent woman. She was the goddess representing the moon, the hunt, wilderness, and girl power.

Apollo and Artemis represented the sun and the moon

Apollo and Artemis once killed the 14 children of Niobe, a woman that once made fun of their mother

Dionysus: Dionysus was the god of wine and partying. He also represent transitions and acting differently. Theater was invented as a way to honor Dionysus. He was also the god of consequences, like feeling so sick after drinking too much wine the night before. He had an interesting birth, having been carried in Zeus's thigh as a baby because his mother, Semele, was exploded as a result of one of Hera's tricks. He carried a thyrsos -- a stick with a pine cone on top, representing the wildness of the party!
Dionysus was often shown with grapes in his hair and wearing a leopard skin

Where the party at?? Look how big his drinking cup is!
Athena: Athena was clearly Zeus's favorite daughter. He swallowed her mother, Metis, as a fly and nine months later, Athena sprang fully formed from Zeus's full battle armor. Athena represented cleverness, good ideas, battle strategy, and was referred to as "the grey-eyed goddess."

Athena was usually shown in full battle armor and deep in thought.

Athena wore a special cape called the aegis--made from the skin of the goat that raised Zeus
Ares: Ares was a son of Zeus and Hera and he represented the death and destruction of war. It was said that he was actually a coward, and ran away whenever wars started. His sons were Fear and Terror, and his wife was Discord.  He was also know to sneak around with Aphrodite, although they were both already married. 

Ares loved to start wars among the humans and watched to see what would happen

Ares also liked to hang out with Aphrodite, even though they both were already married
Hephaestus: Hephaestus represented craftsmanship, blacksmithing, and creating objects for use. He was a master builder and even had fem-bots taking care of his palace. He once made a magical chain net to trap his wife Aphrodite and her boyfriend Ares at a particularly sensitive moment. 

Hephaestus was often hot and sweaty from working in his workshop
Hephaestus built the weapons and homes of all the gods
Hermes: Hermes was a son of Zeus and a quick, tricky, and useful god. He was the only god able to travel easily from the Olympian palace of the gods, to the earth where humans lived, and to the kingdom of Hades where the dead souls were. He loved playing pranks and wore sandals that had wings. 

Hermes brought the souls of the dead down to Hades

Hermes had a wicked pair of kicks!
Aside from the Twelve Olympian gods, there were many more deities the Greeks payed tribute to, including nymphs, satyrs, heroes, and other natural forces, not to mention so many monsters and creatures that came from the gods as well. 

Confused yet? Here's a simplified family tree of the gods and monsters:
Click the family tree for a larger view!