The 12 Olympian gods of Greek mythology were actually the third generation of gods, six of them having been born of the powerful Titans who had overthrown their father, Uranus, the sky. The leader of the Titans, Cronus, feared that his children would someday rise against him. To prevent this, he swallowed his children as they were born. In the end, his fears proved correct, for his wife Rhea concealed their son Zeus and saved him from being ingested. Once grown, Zeus managed to free his siblings, and with the help of their gigantic half-siblings, the three Cyclopes and three fifty-headed monsters, the Olympians triumphed over the Titans. They ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace atop Mount Olympus.
Zeus – King of the Gods
After leading the battle against Cronus, Zeus became the chief god, and ruled over the other divinities living on their divine mountain. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controlled the weather, using his ability to hurl thunder and lightning to enforce his reign. Zeus’s first wife was Metis, one of the Titan sisters. He later married his own sister Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth.
Hera – Queen of the Gods
Hera ruled as queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. One of these, Io, was turned into a cow, and Hera sent a gadfly to pester her unceasingly. She turned Callisto into a bear and set Artemis to hunt her. Another woman, Semele, she tricked into asking Zeus to reveal his full glory before her, the sight of which killed the unfortunate mortal woman. Zeus’s tryst with Alcmene produced his son Hercules, and Hera focused her hatred on the boy. She sent snakes to poison him in the crib, arranged his twelve labors in the hopes that he would not survive, and set the Amazons on him when he visited their land.
Poseidon – The God of the Sea
When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers. Poseidon received dominion over the seas and waters of the world. He also held the power to produce storms, floods, and earthquakes. He was also the protector of seamen and the god of horses. His own majestic team of horses intermingled with the sea foam as they pulled his chariot through the waves. Poseidon lived with his wife Amphitrite in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was also prone to stepping out. Amphitrite was no more forgiving than Hera, using magic herbs to turn one of Poseidon’s paramours, Scylla, into a monster with six heads and twelve feet.
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Demeter – Goddess of the Harvest
Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. Demeter had one daughter, Persephone, who caught the eye of Zeus’s third brother, Hades. Eventually, he abducted the girl and brought her to his gloomy palace in the underworld. Distraught, Demeter searched the entire earth for her daughter, and neglected her duties.
The resulting famine consumed the world and killed so many people that Zeus eventually commanded Hades to return his prize. However, wily Hades tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds from the underworld, forever tying her to the land of the dead. They struck a deal that Persephone should spend four months of each year with Hades. During those four months, Demeter is so heartbroken at the absence of Persephone that nothing can grow, leading to each year’s winter.
Athena – Goddess of War and Wisdom
Athena was the daughter of Zeus and his first wife, Metis. Fearing that a son would usurp him as he had his father, Zeus swallowed Metis to prevent this. However, Metis survived, and fashioned armor for her coming child from within Zeus. Eventually, the pounding gave him a splitting headache – quite literally – for Hephaestus split Zeus’s head open with an axe. From the wound sprang Athena, fully grown and armor clad. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. The owl was one of her most important symbols, and she planted the first olive tree as a gift to her favorite namesake city, Athens.
Artemis – Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt
Artemis and her twin brother Apollo were the children of Zeus and his fling with the Titaness Leto. Hera threatened every land in the world with a terrible curse if they gave Leto refuge, and prolonged Leto’s labor to last an entire nine months. Yet despite all of that, the twins were born, and became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. The bear was sacred to her.
Apollo – God of the Sun, Light, and Music
Artemis’s twin brother Apollo was her exact opposite, the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge. His oracle at Delphi was the most famous of the ancient world. Apollo won a lyre from his mischievous little brother Hermes, and the instrument became irrevocably linked to the god. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women, though not always with good success. The river nymph Daphne had her father turn her into a laurel tree rather than succumb to his advances.
Hephaestus – God of Smiths and Metalwork
Accounts differ as to the birth of Hephaestus. Some name him the son of Zeus and Hera, others say he was conceived by Hera alone in order to get back at Zeus for the birth of Athena. However, Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses. Repulsed by his appearance, Hera hurled him from Olympus, which left him permanently lame. He learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire, metallurgy, sculpture, and crafts, though to a lesser extent than his sister Athena. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes.
Hephaestus married the unrivaled beauty, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Zeus may have arranged the marriage to stop the Olympian gods from fighting over her. However, a popular tale says that Hephaestus trapped his mother in a specially crafted throne in anger for her treatment of him, and only agreed to release her when he was promised the hand of Aphrodite.
Aphrodite – Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Sexuality
Aphrodite’s marriage to Hephaestus was not to her liking, although he crafted intricate jewelry for her as an attempt to woo her affections. She preferred the wild and rough Ares. When Hephaestion learned of Aphrodite and Ares’ affair, he once again used his craftsmanship to fashion a trap. He placed an invisible web of chains around his bed and trapped Aphrodite and Ares, naked, in the midst of one of their amorous meetings. He summoned the other gods and goddesses, who joined him in mercilessly mocking the ensnared lovers. When they were finally freed, they both fled Olympus in humiliation for a short time. Aphrodite also enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, and is perhaps best known for promising the beautiful, already married Queen Helen to the youth Paris and thus kicking off the legendary Trojan War.
Ares – God of Violent War
Ares was the god of war, but in direct contrast to his sister, Athena. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares reveled in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. His aggressive nature and quick temper made him unpopular with the other Olympians, with the exception of Aphrodite, and he was equally disliked among mortals. His cult of worship was far smaller than other gods and goddesses, though he was quite admired by the war-like Spartans of southern Greece. Despite his association with war, he is often described as a coward, running back to Olympus in a sullen fury every time he received the slightest wound. Whereas Athena’s constant companion was Nike, or victory, Ares’ chosen compatriots were Enyo, Phobos, and Deimos, or strife, fear, and terror.
Hermes – Messenger of the Gods
Hermes had a very diverse collection of skills, as the god of trade, eloquence, wealth, luck, sleep, thieves, travel, and animal-raising. He is also always characterized as mischievous. He was constantly in search of fun and entertainment. It was his thieving of Apollo’s sacred herd of cattle, when he was still only a baby, that lost him his lyre in recompense. As the messenger of the gods, Hermes ran many errands, including killing the monster Argos to release Io, rescuing Ares from his imprisonment by giants, and talking Calypso into freeing Odysseus and his men from her clutches. It was also his duty to escort souls into the underworld.
Dionysus – God of Wine
As the god of wine, wine-making, merriment, theater, and ritual madness, Dionysus was an easy favorite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, the princess of Thrace, whom Hera tricked into asking to see Zeus in all his glory. Semele could not survive the revelation, but Zeus saved her unborn child by sewing him into his thigh. Dionysus was born from that thigh some months later and raised by the nymphs of Nysa. He was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, travelling widely and gifting them with wine.
12 Olympians and Two Extra
The above 12 Olympians are traditionally the Olympians of Greek mythology, but that list excludes two of Zeus’s siblings, Hestia and Hades. So, who were those deities and why are they not considered Olympians?
Hestia – Goddess of the Hearth
Hestia was the final sister of Zeus, but she is often excluded from the official pantheon of twelve Olympians. Hestia was the most gentle of all the goddesses, and protected the home and the hearth. According to the myths, she was originally one of the twelve. However, when Dionysus was born, she graciously gave him her throne, insisting that she was happier sitting near and tending to the fire that warmed Olympus.
Hades – King of the Underworld
The other brother of Zeus, Hades, is also not considered an Olympian, as he did not live in the divine palace. Hades was the god of the dead, overseeing the underworld and the souls that came there. He was not welcome among the other gods or mortals, and is usually described as a sour, stern, and unsympathetic individual. Despite this, he caused less trouble than his brother Poseidon, who on one occasion attempted a revolt against Zeus. Hades also had a soft spot for his wife, Persephone.