In this lesson, you will explore the mythology of ancient Greek civilization, including the gods, heroes and monsters of legend. Then, test you understanding with a brief quiz.
Long ago, the ancient civilizations in Greece began trying to understand the world around them, and they developed a complex series of myths and legends to help them explain their history, the universe and their culture.
Greek mythology included a polytheistic religion, meaning that they worshiped multiple different gods. All of these gods together are called the Greek Pantheon.The Greek gods had the figures of humans, although many could transform into other objects or animals, were immortal and were associated with certain aspects of life, which they controlled. For example, Aphrodite was the goddess of love. Others performed duties like holding up the sky or pulling the sun across the sky. The main gods lived on their mystical home, called Mount Olympus, and were called the Olympians.
Other lesser deities lived in the countryside and were what we might call spirits rather than true gods. Nymphs, for example, were the spirits of rivers. To the Greeks, the world was full of spirits and gods and supernatural beings who were very much a part of real life and could save or kill you.In Greek mythology, history was divided into three basic divisions. First came the creation of the world and the age of gods.
Next was the age of gods and men, when gods interacted with humans on a routine basis. After that was the age of heroes, when the gods stopped interfering as frequently and powerful people controlled the destiny of Greece.
Creation of the World
In Greek mythology, the world, a goddess named Gaia, came out of nothingness, along with a few other ancient deities. Gaia and the god of the sky, Uranus, had six male children and six female children of incredible power, called the Titans. The youngest of the Titans was Cronus, and he soon betrayed his father and became the ruler of the universe.Worried that any children of his would eventually betray him, Cronus ate his children as they were born, except for the youngest, Zeus, because his mother tricked Cronus into eating a rock instead.
Zeus grew up and returned to battle Cronus, defeating him and releasing the other gods from Cronus’ stomach. These gods became the first Olympians, taking up residence on Mount Olympus and included notable figures such as Hades, god of the underworld; Poseidon, god of the sea; and Ares, god of war.
Gods, Heroes and Monsters
In Greek mythology, there was a period in between the creation of the world and recorded history, when humans and gods coexisted. These myths are semi-historical and tell stories about how humans developed fire, culture and other foundations of society through their interaction with the gods.
During this time, the gods were said to mingle with humans on Earth, sometimes punishing and sometimes rewarding people for developing their societies.After the age of gods and humans was a new era when the gods were less directly involved on Earth and powerful humans, called heroes, directed social change. This was called the Heroic Age and featured notable people like Heracles, Achilles and Odysseus, who engaged in events like the Trojan War. The events – and most of the people – from these myths are based on actual historic moments, but are retold with a supernatural slant.
For example, the Trojan Wars were a real event, but the goddess Athena was not responsible for the victory of the Greeks. Few historians doubt that there were actual people who inspired the legends of Heracles or Achilles, but they were probably not imbued with the strength of the gods or semi-immortal life. The myths from this age represent attempts by early Greeks to record, preserve and understand events from their history as their societies grew more and more complex.One of the other important features of Greek mythology was monsters, terrible beasts that gave heroes purpose. Some had supernatural powers, like Medusa, who turned people into stone when they looked at her.
Monsters presented heroes with unique challenges that no ordinary human could resolve and often served as metaphors for problems in life or traumatic historic events.
The ancient Greeks had a complex mythology that included a polytheistic religion that worshiped multiple deities. Together, these gods made up the Greek Pantheon. The major gods, called the Olympians, lived on Mount Olympus after the leader of the gods, Zeus, defeated the Titan Cronus. These gods had human bodies, but were immortal and possessed supernatural abilities.
According to Greek mythology, there are three periods of history. In the creation and the age of gods, the world was born and then the gods defeated the Titans. Later, in the age of gods and men, the gods frequently interacted with humans as people began developing civilization for the first time. After this, in the age of heroes, the gods interfere less frequently and powerful people shaped the fate of the world. Although each age probably reflects some truth, the age of heroes is most directly drawn from actual historic events and people. In fact, almost all of Greek mythology represented the ways that ancient people understood the world around them, recorded their history and understood their society.
Watching this lesson should enable you to:
- Summarize the basics of Greek mythology and their polytheistic religion
- Name and describe the three periods into which Greek mythology divides history
- Identify some notable gods and heroes from Greek mythology