Classical Archaeology and Ancient Greek Mythology

Troy archeological site / Photo by Jorge Láscar, Wikimedia Commons

Despite the scientific rigor of archaeology today, archaeological exploration is still an art and an adventure of the human mind.

Introduction to Classical Archaeology

Classical Archaeology is the study of past societies in the Mediterranean region on the basis of surviving material evidence. What this means, for all practical purposes, is that classical archaeologists – as opposed to other kinds of archaeologists – focus primarily on the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome: the glory of Athens, the greatness of Rome, and many other cities and locations in the Mediterranean area (Figure 1.1).

Oftentimes classical archaeology is extended to the area of the Near East, especially to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt, and what is often called “Biblical Archaeology” (the archaeology of “Bible Lands” has close connections with Classical Archaeology). In addition, an important branch of Classical Archaeology focuses on the prehistoric cultures of the Mediterranean: the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and others. Finally, many Classical Archaeologists today look well beyond the ancient period, and study the archaeology of the region in the medieval and modern ages. The classical periods of Greece and Rome, however, still provide the primary focus for Classical Archaeology and, for that reason, Classical Archaeology is closely related to the study of the classical languages, Greek and Latin, as well as the study of ancient art (i.e., history of art).

Nonetheless, what gives all archaeology its distinct focus, indeed that which differentiates it from other branches of study, is the emphasis on the physical evidence that has survived, buried in the soil or hidden in remote locations, providing for us a direct – but fragmentary – contact with past ages. This evidence includes all the “things” left behind by the people of antiquity, including such items as buildings, pottery, coins, fortifications, farmsteads, and even whole landscapes. Naturally, most of these objects were not left behind “on purpose,” but rather they were thrown away, lost, or abandoned as a result of the natural course of life or from natural or man-made disaster or rapid change. As a result, most objects found in an archaeological context are broken, and often exist in very small parts.

Archaeologists study all these things for the clues they provide about the past. Naturally, this analysis is normally not easy or straightforward–the objects never really “speak for themselves,” but rather they have to be interpreted. This process always involves careful description and categorization of the objects and consideration of a series of inferences about the date of the objects and how they were originally used. The dating process is an absolutely important first step, since it is necessary to understand whether an object should be related to society 100 years ago, or 1,000 or 5,000 years ago. Beyond that, the archaeologist seeks to determine the purpose or use of an object. In some cases that is fairly easy–if the object is shaped like an arrowhead or a coin, for example–but in many cases this is more difficult, in part because the objects have been broken nearly beyond recognition. Also,this may be a difficult task because certain objects appear strange to us today due to the fact that they are not used in our own societies. One type of archeological object–or artifact–most commonly found is pottery; ancient people used pottery for many different purposes, ranging from trade to household or kitchen use (Figure 1.2). Pottery remains are prevalent due to the fact that clay was always available, and it could be used to make many durable and useful objects. In addition, pottery survives longer than most other materials. Many types of pottery have been studied and dated, and their appearance forms the basis of chronology at many sites. Other kinds of artifacts, such as coins and stone tools, have been studied and dated, and archaeologists try to make associations between the various types of artifacts in order to understand the places they are exploring.

Putting these objects and features together to “tell the story” of an individual site is the most challenging part of archaeological analysis. Again, this is sometimes relatively easy since certain kinds of artifacts immediately lend themselves to interpretation: for example, the discovery of large quantities of transport vessels called “amphoras” suggests that a particular place had significant trading connections, while small buildings with the remains of cooking fires might suggest houses and a residential area. Classical archaeologists often focus their attention on large public buildings such as temples, theaters, stoas, and palaces (Figure 1.3). It is, however, often difficult to identify even these, and sometimes a building’s purpose cannot be determined with certainty unless an identifying inscription is found. The shape and size of a building is an important clue to its identification, but the kinds of objects found in and around a building are also significant: thus, expensive objects such as gold and luxurious furnishings suggest a place of special importance, while simple cooking pots or handmade pottery may indicate a building of modest purpose. Objects for religious use, such as statues or small “votives” that were gifts for the gods suggest religious activity of some kind.

In any case, the archaeologist is never content simply with discovering things and assigning dates and names to them. Rather, archaeologists constantly seek to use these bits of information to try to understand details about life in the past: how people worshipped, how they worked, how they died, and many more things besides. Naturally, determining these is much more difficult than simply providing a date for a piece of pottery, and the analysis of the archaeological data is the most important part of the archaeologist’s work.

You will notice how these goals contrast strikingly with the popular conception of archaeology as a hunt for valuable “treasures.” The image of an Indiana Jones is very far from the reality of what classical archaeologists do: instead of the “Lost Ark” or pots of gold, real archaeologists search for information to help them understand the people of the past.

First, the archaeologist gathers all information possible in order to understand what the archaeological features and artifacts were as well as how they were used. A particularly important aspect of this is what is called the archaeological “context.” This “context” means, above all, where the artifact was found and what it was found with. All this requires careful recording and a concern for detail that may seem excessive to outsiders but it is a necessary part of the archeologist’s job. In addition, the archaeologist tries to draw logical conclusions from what he/she can observe about the artifacts. This requires considerable care and an ability to “get outside of” one’s own time. For example, an archaeologist might find an object that looks like an automobile headlight in an ancient context, but we know immediately that it cannot be a headlight since such things did not exist in antiquity. But what do we conclude if we find an object that looks like a drinking cup? Maybe it was a cup for household use, but maybe it was a ritual object (something used in a ceremony, usually religious) or used to store medicines or powders. Likewise, what if we find a small statue of a human made out of clay? Was this a child’s toy, or a religious object, or an artist’s model for a larger representation? It would obviously be hard to tell, but the place where the artifact was found, and the other things with it, might help.

Furthermore, how can we date the objects we find in an archaeological context? By themselves the artifacts almost never provide a date and you cannot just say which artifacts “look old” unless they have a date on them or an inscription that can be dated. Rather, archaeologists have discovered many ways to provide dates, and some of these are quite complex; many of these methods will be discussed at other points in this website, but it is enough here to say simply that all of them require care and critical observation.

Architecture is an especially important “branch” of classical archaeology, since buildings are often the most significant kind of finds archaeologists make. We do, in fact, know quite a lot about how the Greeks and Romans built structures, and this knowledge is very helpful in archaeological analysis (Figure 1.5).

Because classical archaeology deals with the complex cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and particularly of Greece and Rome, we frequently study cities and an urban environment, rather than the simpler social structures encountered in other kinds of archaeology. It is true that classical archaeology can concern itself with villages and simple farms (where a majority of Greeks and Romans actually lived), but it more commonly looks at the great centers of civilization and their religious and cultural manifestations. Frequently these centers were occupied over long periods of time, commonly for many centuries, and this makes the archaeologist’s job particularly difficult, since it is important to separate the various periods, and this often means the disentangling of layer after layer of human habitation.

Despite all this detail, and often-tiresome study, the work of the archaeologist can still be exciting. The discoveries may be small and the study of material often takes year of work, but each new piece of evidence, each new interpretation, adds to our knowledge about the past and the people who lived in classical times. In addition, archaeologists living today are obviously influenced by the questions and issues that are important in our own time and they therefore ask questions from archaeology that are different from those that were asked 50 years or 100 years ago (or even more). Thus, archaeologists are constantly revising their views of antiquity and presenting new ways of looking at the past and our relationship to it. As a result, in archaeology there are no really “right” answers (although there may be wrong ones). As our own society shifts and changes, what we ask of archaeology also changes and we look at the past differently. This is not at all a bad thing, but one of the aspects that keeps archaeology constantly changing and always “new.” Another aspect of the excitement of archaeology is in fact the excitement of discovery: every shovel full of earth, every new exploration, may bring something strikingly new. And at every turn the archaeologist is face-to-face (or hand-to-hand) with the people of antiquity, walking where they walked, touching things they touched, and oftentimes seeing things that have not been seen for thousands of years. Despite the scientific rigor of archaeology today, archaeological exploration is still an art and an adventure of the human mind. We invite you to share a little of that excitement with us here.

Geography, Environment, and Archaeology in Greece


Mankind’s relationship with the environment is always important, and this is certainly true in the Mediterranean area. The sea itself provided relatively easy lanes of transport and communications; the numerous islands and rough coastline encouraged the movement of people and goods, throughout the centuries. In addition, the sea provided a moderating climatic influence: the so-called “Mediterranean climate” brings hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters, commonly with enough rainfall to make farming without irrigation possible. Away from the sea the climate is more extreme, with hotter summers and colder winters. The whole of the Mediterranean area is mountainous, but the mountains are not inordinately high and they do not keep their snow during the summer; the mountains, however, are relatively irregular and they break the countryside into small areas of fairly flat land, separated by often inhospitable mountains. At one time much of the Mediterranean hinterland was forested and wild, inhabited by animals that are now virtually gone: bears, wild boars and wild goats, and even in some regions strange animals – such as pigmy hippopotamus – that are now completely extinct. The whole of the Mediterranean area is seismically active, the result of large- and small-scale tectonic movements, especially the movement of the African plate to the north, toward Europe. The result of this was – and is – the devastating earthquakes that frequently devastated various parts of the region.

Archaeologists naturally have to consider the environment as a significant factor in the birth and development of the civilizations that they examine. Nonetheless, the study of geography in classical archaeology – until recently – mainly focused on the environmental factors that encouraged or inhibited the growth of individual ancient cities, and little attention was paid to the countryside, which was traditionally ignored for a variety of reasons, most especially the fact that most of ancient literature tends to emphasize human activities in cities and only underplay the sphere of countryside. Modern classicists, historians, and archaeologists largely accepted the ancient bias, focusing modern narrative primarily on war and politics; this is despite the fact that most ancient Greeks spent their everyday lives sowing, reaping, and toiling in rural areas. The shift in interest towards ancient environment has arrived with the recognition that one cannot understand ancient Greek society without understanding the ways in which Greeks interacted with their land. As a result, today one frequently encounters archaeologists walking in lines across the Greek countryside, collecting sediments from the middle of bogs, or counting pollen grains through a microscope as they ask new questions about the ancient Greek countryside (Figure 2.1).

Landscape archaeology is a relatively new approach to the study of the human-environment relationship in Greece. As will be discussed at length in a later section of this site, archaeologists are using the methods of intensive surface survey to illuminate the culture of farmer, peasant, and slave by the material remains left behind. With the help of geomorphologists, who study the processes in which landscapes are created and changed, archaeologists are now able to reconstruct the human exploitation of natural resources as well as the restrictions that geography and environment posed on local society. On the one hand, human utilization and demands on the landscape have resulted in a constantly (but gradually) changing appearance to the countryside so that the Greece of today is vastly different from the Greece of 2000 years ago (Figure 2.2). On the other hand, environmental, geographic, and climatic conditions, largely beyond the control of humans, both limited and encouraged the range of human activities for any given region. Moreover, environmental and landscape changes, such as shifting sea levels, fluctuating rainfall, uplifting land (from tectonic activity), and cooling temperatures, demanded adjustments and adaptation on the part of individual people. Humans in turn developed new technologies and ways of dealing with these ecological changes. The cycle of people effecting environment and environment limiting humans continues spiraling through time, leaving its traces on the modern landscape. Landscape archaeologists seek to illuminate this process during and between different periods of the past.

The Greeks and their Environment

The ancient Greek landscape included both city and country. The basic political unit of the Greek world was the polis that included an urban center (asty) and its surrounding land (chora), often incorporating additional towns and villages. The Greek word polis is usually t translated into English as “city-state”. But, whereas we usually think of cities only as urban centers, the Greek concept was that of the city plus its surrounding land as an integrated whole. For example, the polis of Korinth included both the urban center of Korinth as well as the extensive territory of the Korinthia, delimited by the Oneion Mountain Range on the south, the Gerania Mountain Range across the Isthmus to the northeast, and seas to both east and west; the territory also included villages and religious sites (Figure 2.3). As mentioned above, the rocky mountains throughout Greece divide agricultural plains into discrete territorial units, delimited on all sides by the seas and mountains. This geography favors regionalism and an organization like the polis where a relatively small territory of land is controlled by an urban unit.

Despite ancient and modern biases towards the life of politics within the urban center, most Greeks played out their roles living and working in the countryside. While it is true that many people lived in the urban center and commuted daily to work in their fields, the archaeological evidence suggests a wide variety of settlement patterns. Especially where a family’s parcel of land was located further from the urban unit, the preferred mode of settlement was living in farmsteads during seasons of high agricultural demands. Laborers who did not own their own land could hire out themselves to those who did, at least on a seasonal basis. But most social levels of society were involved in the production of food that was needed to support the population inhabiting the urban unit.

Greece is a varied country that presents numerous opportunities for subsistence, survival, and livelihood. Generally speaking, the terrain changes significantly from one region to the next, imposing limits on the forms of livelihood of individuals of any particular region (Figure 2.4). Coastal and flood plains provided some poleis with rich fertile lands capable of producing large amounts of barley and wheat. In dryer areas like Attica (the area around Athens), cities might not be able to produce enough grain to support the population and could trade their own products with other areas like the grain-rich Black Sea region to the northeast of Greece.

Middle range farmers were probably able to own a few animals (no more than 10) that could graze on fallow land. The ubiquitous hill slopes might produce barley and were certainly good for cultivating grapes and olives; hill slopes that could not be cultivated could at least be turned over to shepherds to graze sheep and goats, animals used for milk, cheese, and wool. Moreover, there is evidence that some farmers recognized the problems of cultivating hill slopes and so manipulated their landscape, creating terraces to retain soil and thereby increasing amount of cultivable land (Figure 2.5). The steep mountains and rocky outcroppings that divide the plains of Greece might also be useful areas to graze animals and could provide a variety of raw material like stone and timber (less available after the Bronze Age) for construction, and precious metals like silver for currency. Workmen and slaves were always needed to exploit these materials for the constant construction projects in antiquity. The sea, never more than 50 miles from any part of Greece, created the roles of sailor, merchant, and fishermen. Most of these ecosystems provided a variety of environmental opportunities for most city-states.

Beyond these typical forms of economic endeavors, the individual in ancient Greece could use the land in a number of other ways. The shepherd could lead flocks from one patch of unused or unclaimed land to the next, following seasonal patterns of migration . Local potters could make use of clay beds to produce pottery and roof tiles; builders could use the same source to construct mudbrick houses. Moreover, the gathering and collecting of a variety of vegetation could supplement local diet, as could the hunting of hares and wild boar and fishing for a wide variety of sea creatures.

But even with the variety of exploitative strategies, nature was always unfair. The geography and the climate preferred some regions to others and provided limited economic opportunities for each city-state. The necessary result at many points in the past was forced specialization and trade. Cities often exploited what was the most advantageous to them based on the land they possessed. Geography had assigned different access to resources: timber, rich soils, building material, precious minerals, clays, and harbors. Moreover, nature occasionally turned its back on individual regions. The inhabitants of cities often kept a yearly surplus of grain in case of crop failure on the farmers’ land. A citizen could always call on neighbors or kin to assist his family when the surplus was gone. Indeed, this exchange of favors between households apparently upheld the economy in temporary emergencies. It was only when famine and low rainfall continued over several years that an entire region would be endangered. At times like this, it was necessary for the city-state to have relations with other cities to provide grain in exchange for some product.

The history of ancient Greece is in many ways the story of how environment and geography shaped the ways that communities and individuals interacted with each other. A changing climate could demand the adaptation of any particular region to those changes, either by forging human ties and relations (e.g., trade/ exchange networks) or by encouraging revolutions in technology. The construction of terraces was a way of changing the face of the landscape to increase the amount of arable land for a region. In this regard, there is ample literary evidence that humans recognized the fertilizing value of manure and spread it on their gardens and fields to produce larger crop yields. Technological innovation in metallurgy, agriculture, and milling occurred at various points in antiquity, each time providing humans with a little more control over their environment. As we will discuss next, humans at different times in ancient Greece recognized the geographical importance of Isthmia in the wider Greek world.

The Place of Isthmia in the Geography of Greece

The site of “Isthmia” gets its name from its location on the Isthmus, the narrow stretch of land separating the Peloponnesos from mainland Greece, and bridging the eastern and western seas. Today, the modern Korinthian Canal cuts through the sandstone and thick marl connecting the Korinthian Gulf (on the west) with the Saronic Gulf (on the east), providing a convenient way for ships and private yachts to get from the Aegean to the Ionian Seas. Although the canal dates to modern times the idea of cutting through the Isthmus was suggested many times in antiquity and once or twice work was actually begun – but never brought to completion. The Diolkos, a built roadway across the Isthmus, was used to haul boats from one sea to the other, and thus avoid the treacherous sea voyage around the southern tip of the Peloponnesos (Figure 2.6). The Isthmus thus held an important position in antiquity for the people of ancient Korinth and the rural inhabitants of the Korinthia.

Korinth from an early period realized the economic and strategic benefit of having the 7-km wide Isthmus within its territory and wasted no time exploiting this for economic gain. The Isthmus was a heavily trafficked crossroads between two worlds. On the one hand, all land traffic between central / northern Greece and the Peloponnesos (southern Greece) had to pass via the Isthmus. The passages from Athens to Korinth, Sparta, Olympia, Nemea, and Argos occurred by this path. During the Archaic Period, Korinth saw the economic importance of this passageway and charged a tax on all land commerce transported this way. At the same time, the “gateway” to the Peloponnesos could also be used at times of military distress and threat from the north to the advantage of the gatekeepers. The Isthmus was just short enough that with enough concentrated human effort, the area could be defended or even walled. This was discussed on a number of occasions, most notably at the time of the Perian Wars, and the walling of the Isthmus actually took place in the fifth century AD under the Emperor Theodosius II. On the other hand, the closest and safest connection between Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean was via the Isthmus. Ships could dock at one of Korinth’s two harbors, Kenchreai (on the Saronic Gulf) or Lechaion (on the Korinthian gulf) and pay a fee to have their cargo transported across the Isthmus by the Diolkos (Figure 2.7). This innovation in connecting the seafaring worlds of east and west dates to the late seventh century BC. Many an ambitious ruler dreamed of cutting a canal through to connect the seas, and both the Hellenistic monarch Demetrius Poliorcetes and the Roman Emperor Nero actually began digging. As they discovered, this was a task next to impossible in ancient times and could only be accomplished at the end of the nineteenth century using heavy machinery and numerous men.

Isthmia lay comfortably within the agriculturally rich Korinthian territory that extended eastward as far as Mt. Gerania. The coastal plain (5km x 15km) of the Korinthia, which lay along the Korinthian Gulf between Korinth and Sicyon, was one of the richest agricultural areas in Ancient Greece and certainly a source of wealth, even from the Neolithic period (Figure 2.8). But Korinth’s wealth also sprung from its ability to make use of more marginal (but not destitute) areas. The Isthmus itself was a plateau of thin rocky soil but still contained fairly flat arable land that was useful for cultivating barley, olives, and grapes. Today this land is often used for citrus groves, but this is only possible with artificial irrigation. In the ancient period, much of the area near Isthmia was covered with pockets of pine forest, which provided timber for building ships and exporting.

Thick sediments of marl (over 100 meters deep in spots), laid down during the Pliocene era, provided Korinth with an abundant source of white clay for fashioning ceramics, roof tiles, and terracotta objects. Indeed, during the sixth century BC, Korinth had a significant role in exporting its pottery throughout Greece and the broader Mediterranean world. Furthermore, the clay bed that underlay so much of the region of the Korinthia, created an impermeable floor for rainfall soaked into the ground. The water seeping through the soil and limestone would stop at the clay beds and flow downward, toward the sea, creating springs in various places in the Korinthia that could be tapped and manipulated for use. The greatest spring, the Peirene (in the center of the city of Korinth), could by itself supply the entire town.

Pleistocene deposits of lightweight sandstone, overlying the thick clay marl, created a popular building material that the Korinthians learned to exploit. The stone was easily cut and it was thus especially useful for large building programs where the effort to shape the stone must have been a major expense. Various outcroppings along the ancient road between Korinth and Isthmia show evidence today that they were ancient quarry sites. Sandstone was apparently exploited intensively from the Classical period onward and exported to places like Delphi and Epidaurus for the construction of their sanctuaries. Moreover, a level of hard limestone overlay the marl in the region from Akrokorinth to Mt. Geraneia.

Like most city-states in Greece, the Korinthia was bounded by the sea, and its economy was based to a significant degree on commerce. This trade was based partly on products the Korinthians produced themselves (industrial and agricultural goods), but also included the “transit” trade of goods that were produced elsewhere but that were shipped through the Korinthia because of its favorable location (Figure 2.9). The site of Isthmia lies within walking distance of the sea (Saronic Gulf), and a small harbor of Schoinos, while the major port of Kenchreai was not far away. It would be reasonable to assume that Isthmia itself had a commercial function, although this has not been fully investigated.

The roads in the Korinthia followed the natural openings between mountains, entering Korinth at several places. Probably the most important route was that running from Attica and northern Greece along the Isthmus and entering the Peloponnesos right at the Sanctuary of Poseidon. This road, whose traces have been found by Professor Broneer in the Sanctuary itself, would have continued westward to Korinth itself, and from there to the rest of the Peloponnesos. From Korinth there were major roads running west to Sikyon and several roads running south, along the river beds, toward the Argolid. Roads also ran from Korinth to the ports at Lechaion and Kenchreai, and an important road probably connected Lechaion directly with the harbor at Kenchreai. These, along with the Diolkos (which ran along the course of the modern canal) would have seen vehicles of all kinds, carrying foodstuffs, manufactured products, and raw materials (such as sandstone blocks). The roads ran among the rich agricultural fields and also carried the foot traffic of politicians, pilgrims going to worship at the sanctuaries, and armies marching on maneuver or to fight in war. All of this activity, set against the mountains and seas that both limited and facilitated transport, characterized the Korinthia and made it one of the crossroads of the Ancient World.

Greek Mythology


History and mythology help explain the world of antiquity, the world the classical archaeologist seeks to illuminate. Classical archaeologists – unlike archaeologists working in many other areas – have many written sources and unwritten stories they can use to help them understand the way ancient people thought and acted.

What is a myth? One of the most enduring legacies of ancient Greece is the collection of stories that tell the tales of gods and heroes (Figure 3.1). Collectively these stories are known as myths. What do we mean when we call them myths? Today when we say “oh, that’s just a myth,” what we mean is “oh, that’s not true (even if many people believe it).” Are myths, then, stories that are not true?

The oldest definition of the Greek word mythos comes from Homer, and it means “word,” “speech,” or “story,” without any of the connotations of falsehood that our term myth has. As time progressed, mythos more and more implied “hard-to-believe stories” so that by the time of Plato (early fourth century B.C.) mythos had most of the connotations that our word “myth” has.

We still have not defined myth. At a very basic level, a myth is a story. However, a myth is a special kind of story. Fritz Graf, in his book Greek Mythology (Baltimore 1993) defines myth as a “traditional tale”, with two characteristics that distinguishes it from a legend or a fairy tale. First, a myth is adaptable to many literary genres. Second, although flexible, a myth’s adaptability is limited by the fact that a myth must be culturally relevant.

Because a myth is adaptable, it can take many forms. The most famous type of literature which contains myth is epic poetry. Our earliest sources for Greek myths are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, written in the 8th century B.C., though they were based on an earlier, oral poetic tradition. Later examples of epic include Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (3rd c. B.C.), which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Furthermore, myths are not confined to epic. Pindar (early 5th c. B.C.) made frequent use of myth in the odes he wrote commemorating the victors of the Olympic (and other) games. Finally, Athens’ three greatest dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Eurpides, employed myth almost exclusively in their plays; historical dramas were quite rare.

Because myth is so adaptable, we have no one “sacred text” which tells us all the Greek myths in their definitive forms. Each myth, in fact, had no definitive form, because each storyteller, poet, and playwright felt free to shape the myth according to his own needs. Sometimes the adaptations can seem minor. Aeschylus, for example, made Agamemnon the king of Argos in his play Agamemnon, while previous tradition unanimously places made him king of Mycenae. Sometimes, however, the adaptations are very significant. In his play Helen, Euripides feared that as an adulteress who deserted her husband, Helen of Troy would not be a very sympathetic character. Therefore he changed the story. Eurpides’ Helen was in Egypt the whole time, and had nothing to do with starting the war which killed so many Greeks and Trojans. The key point is that each new version must continue to invoke something in its audience. If the new story fails to do this, if it loses its relevance to its culture, it is meaningless and can no longer be called myth.

One of the distinguishing features of myth is the close interaction between gods and mortals. Gods speak with their mortal favorites as well as intervene on their behalf. They could also do severe harm to their enemies. Odysseus, for example, angered the sea god Poseidon when he blinded Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus. Poseidon killed all of Odysseus’ followers and prevented the hero himself from reaching home for ten years. The Greeks assembled their most important gods into a pantheon of twelve. Not all lists have the same twelve gods, but the list below is fairly standard.


Zeus is the sky-god who uses thunderbolts to strike those who offend him (Figure 3.2). Hesiod’s Theogony, which gives the genealogy of Greek Gods, makes him the son of the titans Kronos and Rhea. Kronos feared his children would some day overthrow him, so at birth he took them from Rhea and ate them. Rhea deceived Kronos by giving him a stone wrapped in blankets, and Zeus escaped. Eventually Zeus rescued his siblings and cast his father down into Tartaros. He divided the spheres of the world with his brothers Poseidon and Hades. Zeus received the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. Few cities claimed special relationship with Zeus, like Athens does with Athena or Argos with Hera, but Zeus’ worship was nearly universal among the Greeks. Two of the four Panhellenic Games, celebrated at regular intervals and attended by the entire Greek world, were dedicated to Zeus. These are the Olympic and Nemean Games.


Hera the wife of Zeus represents marriage. In myth Hera plays the jealous wife, persecuting Zeus’ mortal lovers and their offspring. When Zeus slept with Semele, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, Hera conspired to get rid of her. She persuaded Semele to ask to see her lover Zeus in all his glory. The sight killed her. Another of Zeus’ affairs produced Heracles, who spent his entire life facing Hera’s wrath. Hera’s most famous temples were at Argos and Samos.


Athena is a civilizing goddess who is almost always represented armed (Figure 3.3). In one version of the story of her birth, she was conceived in the mind of Zeus. Unfortunately for Zeus, she got stuck there, and the god Haephestos had to release her by hitting Zeus in the head with an axe. Athena is identifiable in art because she is armed. She also often carries an aigis, which is a goat skin usually depicted with the head of a Gorgon on it and which has a border of snakes. The sight of this makes her enemies panic. Athena is especially revered in Athens. The Athenians told the story that Athena and Poseidon competed to be the patron of their city, each giving a gift to Athens. Athena’s gift to the Athenians was the olive, and that tree was sacred to her.


Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and the Titan Leto, and the sister of Apollo. She is a virgin goddess who is associated with wilderness and wild animals. She watched over the transition of women from young maiden to adulthood. She could be cruel to those who offended her. In one myth the famous huntsman Actaion stumbled upon Artemis while she was bathing. The chaste goddess was angered at being seen naked and she turned Actaion into a deer, whereupon his own hunting dogs killed him. On another occasion she was angry at Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek expedition against Troy. She refused to grant favorable sailing weather to the expedition unless Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to her. He complied. Her most famous sanctuary was at Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.


Apollo is the brother of Artemis and had various spheres of interest. He was a musician and played the lyre. He was famous as a healer of disease. He granted oracles to those who asked. His two most famous sanctuaries were at Delphi, where an oracular priestess lived, and at Delos, where he was born (according to the Delians). Every four years at Delphi the Pythian Games honored Apollo. These were second in prestige only to those at Olympia. Apollo could not just cure disease, he could inflict in on those who angered him. At the beginning of the Iliad, Apollo has sent plague to afflict the Greeks because Agamemnon has captured the daughter of one of his priests and refuses to return her to her father. Agamemnon ultimately gives the girl up, but in recompense he demands that Achilles hand over one of his own women. The resulting temper-tantrum is the central plot point of the poem.


Poseidon was god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses (Figure 3.4). He received his lordship over the sea after the fall of Kronos, when the world was divided among Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. In myth he is famous as the persecutor of Odysseus. He was worshipped all throughout the Greek world, since much of Greece is coastal. One of the most famous temples was at the southern tip of Attica, at Cape Sounion. The ruins of the temple are one of the most picturesque spots in Greece. Another famous sanctuary lies near Korinth, at Isthmia. Games in honor of Poseidon were celebrated every two years at Isthmia.


Demeter was the goddess of grain and fertility. The most famous myth concerning her is the “Rape of Persephone.” In this myth, Hades kidnaps Demeter’s daughter Persephone and takes her to the underworld to be his wife. A distraught Demeter refuses to allow crops to grow until she gets her daughter back. In the end, Persephone returns to her mother, but she is required to return to Hades for three months each year. During the time she is absent, nothing grows on Earth. Demeter and Persephone were honored each year at the Eleusinian mysteries. People from all over Greece came to Eleusis each year to be initiated. Initiates were strictly warned not to reveal the secret rites conducted there.


Dionysus was the god of wine, theatre, and madness (Figure 3.5). His mother was Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, his father was Zeus. When Semele was killed after seeing Zeus in his full glory, Dionysus was snatched from his mother’s body and placed into Zeus’ thigh, from which he was born. Several important festivals honor Dionysus. The Athenians, for instance, honor Dionysus at the Anthesteria, where they drink new wine. At the Greater and Lesser Dionysia, dramas were performed in honor of the god. It is at this festival that the great playwrights of the Classical age put on their plays.


Aphrodite was the goddess of erotic love. In myth, Aphrodite was born when the titan Kronos (Zeus’ father) castrated his own father Ouranos (“sky”) and threw his testicles into the sea. Aphrodite rose up out of the resulting foam. One particularly famous sanctuary of Aphrodite was located at Korinth.


Hephaistos was the god of crafts, and is associated with fire and volcanoes He had crippled feet. According to the story, Hephaistos had no father, Hera bore him alone. She was unhappy with the result and threw him down from Olympus, thus injuring his legs. He later got revenge by giving her as a gift an elaborately crafted throne which trapped her when she sat in it. Dionysus had to get him drunk and bring him back to Olympus to release her. The best preserved classical temple anywhere in Greece is the Temple of Hephaistos, or Hephaisteion, in Athens. Hermes: Hermes is a trickster god, the god of messengers and thieves (Figure 3.6). Stone images of him called herms were used in Athens to mark out boundaries. In later myths and art, he also leads the souls of the dead to Charon, the ferryman of the Styx who will take their souls into the underworld.


Hermes is a trickster god, the god of messengers and thieves (Figure 3.6). Stone images of him called herms were used in Athens to mark out boundaries. In later myths and art, he also leads the souls of the dead to Charon, the ferryman of the Styx who will take their souls into the underworld.


Ares is god of war. While Athena is portrayed as a civilized, calculating warrior, Ares is more violent. There are few myths associated with him and he has few permanent sanctuaries, though, of course, armies going into battle would naturally sacrifice to him.

Other Gods and Heroes

The twelve Olympian gods do not exhaust the Greek Pantheon. Hestia, goddess of the hearth, Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, and the titans Prometheus and Leto, and the mysterious Hecate are only a few other divinities who attracted the worship of ancient Greeks. There were also a class of beings who tread the boundary between human and divine — the heroes.

Famous and exciting tales grew up around the great heroes of Greece. Though the Heroes of the Trojan War, and the Argonauts of a generation earlier, were famous, the most famous of the heroes by far was Heracles. He was the son of Zeus, and jealous Hera persecuted him before he was born. Zeus was aware of Heracles potential, and foretold on the day of his birth that the greatest man of the era would be born. Hera contrived to delay his birth until the next day. Another one of Zeus’ children was born on the predicted day, Eurystheus of Argos. King Eurystheus fulfilled the prophecy and became the greatest king in Greece. Eurystheus would eventually make Heracles a vassal and force him to perform his famous twelve labors. According to one version of the myth, Heracles was eventually granted immortality.

The final category of gods are known as “chthonic” gods, from the Greek word chthon (earth). Chthonic gods are associated with the earth or the underworld. Hades is often placed in this category, because of his control over the realm of the dead. Demeter also has chthonic aspects because of her association with the growth of crops.

What Do Myths Do?

For over a century there has been an ongoing debate about what the function of myth was in Greek society. Some have argued that myths arose when men tried to understand the natural world around them. When wondering about the source of lightning, Greeks concluded that it was the punishing arm of Zeus that cast the thunderbolt. Others have concluded that myths are a form of history, that behind every myth there is a kernel of truth waiting to get out. This is called “euhemerism,” after Euhemeros of Messene, who around 300 B.C. wrote that the gods were once famous kings and queens who died and began to be worshipped after their deaths. Another school of thought connects myth with ritual, arguing that myths arose to explain the manner in which and the locations at which the Greeks carried out their rites.

Originally published by Ohio State Archaeological Excavations in Greece, The Ohio State University, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.