The following is a supplement to our Greek History 101 page.
The Twelve Olympians
Archaic Period - 800 - 500 BC
During the Archaic Period religion was very important. There were twelve gods, each with an area of expertise and associated with a natural element ( and often a place in Greece). It was believed that the gods lived on Mount Olympus. Roman name equivalents are in parentheses.
Zeus (Jupiter)- Leader and father of the gods, the god of lightning and thunder and associated with Olympia and Athens
Hera (Juno)- Zeus' long suffering wife (and sister), the goddess of marriage and childbirth
Poseidon (Neptune)- the brother of Zeus, god of the sea, earthquakes and horses
Hades (Pluto)- Another brother of Zeus, god of the dead and the underworld including the mineral wealth from the earth
Athena (Minerva)- The favorite daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom, the owl is her symbol and Athens is named for her.
Apollo (Apollo)- Zeus' son, the god of the sun, music and healing, associated with Delphi
Artemis (Diana)- Apollo's twin sister, goddess of the moon, chastity and hunting, associated with Arcadia
Aphrodite (Venus)- goddess of desire, love and beauty, associated with Corinth
Hestia (Vesta)- goddess of the hearth and home
Area (Mars)- son of Zeus, god of war, associated with Thrace and Sparta
Hermes (Mercury)- son of Zeus, messenger of the gods, god of travelers, merchants and thieves, associated with Arcadia
Iphestos (Vulcan)- god of fire, volcanoes, blacksmiths and weavers, associated with Ephesus and Mt. Aetna
Two other Olympians were later added.
Dionysus (Bacchus)- god of wine, fertility, arts and rage
Demeter (Ceres)- goddess of the earth and agriculture
Prior to the Olympians were the Titans which included Gaea (mother earth), Uranus (sky god), Cronus (Uranus' son who killed him to become king. He was later killed by his son, Zeus!), Hyperion (the sun), Phoebe (the moon), Oceanus (the seas) and Prometheus (gave fire to humankind)
The Legend of Theseus
Minoan Period - 2800 - 1500 BC
Athens and Crete had an agreement by which 7 boys and 7 girls would be sent to Crete each year as a tribute to be devoured by the half-man, half-bull Minotaur living in the labyrinth at Knossos. Theseus was the son of the King of Athens (Aegeus) and he volunteered to be one of the 7 boys. When he left for Crete the King asked that when his ship returned to Athens they should fly a white flag if Theseus lived and a black flag if he died. When Theseus arrived in Knossos the daughter of King Minos fell in love with him. She (Ariadne) gave him a piece of string and advised him to use the string to find his way back out of the labyrinth. Her plan worked and Theseus got to the heart of the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur and then followed the string out of the maze. Together they fled to the island of Naxos. Theseus was not in love with Ariadne so he abandoned her there and headed home to Athens. He forgot to change his ships flag to white and his father, in despair at seeing the black flag jumped from a sea cliff to his death. The Aegean Sea is named after him.
The Homeric Legends
Mycenean Period - 1500 - 1100 BC
The Homeric legends began in the Mycenean Period and were orally passed down for 400 years. In the 8th century BC, the poet Homer put them on paper. These poems (The Iliad and The Odyssey) tell the story of the Trojan Wars and are considered among the greatest pieces in western literature.
In The Iliad, Helen the wife of the King of Sparta (Menelaus) was taken by the Trojan prince (Paris). In revenge Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon gathered 1200 ships and men to wage war on the Trojans. In the process Agamemnon killed a stag of Artemis (goddess of the hunt), so she caused the winds to die and the ships could not sail. She would only allow the winds to return if Agamemnon would sacrifice his daughter. He did so and the winds came back and the fleet sailed for Troy. Agamemnon's wife could not forgive her husband and spent her years plotting against her husband.
In The Odyssey, the Greeks decided to offer the Trojans a gift of a giant horse statue. This was actually a ploy to get into the fortified city. The giant horse was filled with Greek soldiers who would open the city gates once the Trojans and gone to bed. The Trojan princess Cassandra had told her countrymen to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. She had the gift of prophecy but was punished by Apollo for rejecting him. Her punishment was that when she told the truth, no one would trust her. The Trojans did not believe her and they accepted the giant horse and ultimately lost the war.
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