For people living in the polytheistic cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, everyday life often interfaced with an imaginative realm richly populated by numerous deities. The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses embodied an array of human attributes, from fortitude to folly. Their characteristics represented exaggerated or idealized versions of human personality traits.
The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were worshipped in temples and exalted in myths recounted by people living ordinary lives. As stories about these deities were told and retold, the myths were also depicted in literature, architecture, and art.
Mythology in the Ancient World
In these imaginative stories, the gods and goddesses interacted with each other, as well as with humans, in exaggerated encounters of very real human experiences: fighting, loving, forgiving. Sometimes, these deities showed considerable kindness. Other times, they behaved extremely badly (one could even argue, unforgivably so). The ancient Greek and Roman deities often did terrible and cruel things, reflecting the opposite of what humans should strive to emulate.
And yet, ancient people continued to worship these gods and goddesses. They mythologized about them and created art portraying them. Symbolizing the most complex aspects of human existence, the myths always contained fantastical elements mixed with a kernel of highly relatable truth. When necessary, the myths taught moral lessons by way of negative examples.
Telling and retelling these myths helped people in ancient Greece and Rome make sense of the real world around them. Amidst warfare, famines, and droughts, as well as socio-economic oppression, disease, and frequent early death, people tried desperately to understand how to live in a world that was often confusing, frightening, and chaotic.
The imaginative portal provided by myths helped to reassure people that amidst the chaos, life had some meaning. In this sense, the gods and goddesses celebrated in ancient Greece and Rome paradoxically helped to ground people more fully within their present moment in time.
Most Popular Greek and Roman Deities
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In ancient Greece, each god and goddess bore a unique name by which the deity was known.
Ruling over this pantheon of greater and lesser deities was Zeus, King of the Gods, accompanied by his wife, Hera, from their home on Mount Olympus. Including Zeus and Hera, a total of twelve major gods and goddesses lived on Mount Olympus, with such well-known figures as Hermes (Mercury), Aphrodite (Venus), and Artemis (Diana).
In the 2nd century B.C.E., the civilization of ancient Rome conquered and spread over much of the land that had once been part of the civilization of ancient Greece. After this, the ancient Greek deities became incorporated into the Roman pantheon of gods, renamed from their original Greek names to Roman equivalents. Often, you will see a reference to both names, such as Hera/Juno, or Hera (Juno). This nomenclature reveals the name held by the deity in both Greek and Roman cultures.
In addition, each deity was known for certain special qualities or social roles. For example, some of the most frequently depicted Greek and Roman gods and goddesses include: Poseidon/Neptune (God of the Sea); Artemis/Diana (Goddess of the Hunt), and Athena/Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom), while Apollo (God of Healing and Medicine) retained his original name, even after being adopted by Roman culture.
Renaissance Depictions of Ancient Greek and Roman Deities
Throughout the centuries, artists have sought to depict the emotional drama, physical characteristics, and larger-than-life landscape inhabited by the pantheon of gods and goddesses in ancient Greece and Rome.
In particular, the Renaissance witnessed a major revival of interest in portraying the gods and goddesses of classical antiquity. Scholars during the late medieval period looked back to the ancient world for clues as to how to create a good society amidst medieval European cultures plagued by war and other political struggles for power.
Renaissance thinkers believed that the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome reflected a “golden age” during which learning flourished, the arts were celebrated, and culture reached an apogee of achievement. They sought within these ancient civilizations the seeds of a cultural revival, which they could draw upon in their present and future.
Although such beliefs about antiquity were largely a historical reimagining of reality, Renaissance efforts to study classical civilizations did leave a lasting impression upon subsequent generations of humanist thinkers. These efforts often generated artistic renderings and literary depictions of ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, such as Andrea Mantegna’s depiction of Apollo and Aphrodite (Mars and Venus) in Parnassus, 1496-97.
Modern Adaptations and Interpretations of Ancient Myths
The pantheon of ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses still captures the imaginations of people today. Contemporary Western culture continues to explore these myths through films, books, and plays.
Modern adaptations of ancient Greek and Roman myths, such as film versions of Clash of the Titans, or the Broadway play, Hadestown, portray deities with the same exaggerated human characteristics as did the original myths of ancient Greece and Rome. In some elemental ways, humans have not changed much in over two thousand years. Perhaps this is why these ancient myths still retain some of their original power.
Some scholars believe that the ancient pantheon of deities reveals a psychological projection of human emotional needs, fears, desires, and fantasies. Other scholars will argue that these ancient myths contain an archetypal source of meaning that is at the core of the human experience.
Whether current adaptations of ancient Greek and Roman myths remain true to the original narratives, or represent modern re-imaginings for contemporary audiences, people continue to enjoy seeing depictions of these deities on stage and screen, canvas and page. We seek cultural experiences not merely to be entertained, but often to connect to some part of ourselves that seeks expression or understanding.
Cross-Cultural Understandings of Ancient Deities
Just as the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses continues to capture people’s imaginations, it also continues to spark the interest of interdisciplinary scholars.
Building upon the work of Joseph Campbell, who lay much of the academic groundwork for comparative mythology in the mid-twentieth century, scholars continue to study comparative mythology. They point to many striking similarities between the pantheon of gods and goddess in ancient Greece and Rome and the host of deities found inhabiting the myths of other world cultures.
For example, the ancient Greek and Roman pantheon centers around three main deities: Zeus/Jupiter (King of the Gods), Hades/Pluto (God of the Underworld), and Poseidon/Neptune (God of the Sea). Scholars believe that this parallels the three major ancient Hindu gods: Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva.
Where similarities exist between specific deities, it may point to long ago cross-cultural contact and cross-fertilization of ideas. Or, it could point to certain innate human tendencies and characteristics that transcend any one particular culture or even any one era.
There is fertile ground for an ongoing exploration of the ways that humans once understood and inhabited the world. Analyzing the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, and those of other world cultures, could also have some bearing on how we understand and inhabit this planet in the future.
Ancient Gods and Goddesses: Then and Now
Myths about gods and goddesses in ancient civilizations can provide a powerful thread, linking contemporary humans with the ancient past.
Today, we have our technological apparatuses, our advanced modes of measurement, our everyday gadgets and gear. But two thousand years ago—long before cell phones, VR, and augmented reality—there was a pantheon of ancient gods and goddesses, and the tales that people told about them.
The myths surrounding these deities express how people in ancient Greece and Rome once perceived, imagined, and understood the world around them. And, like their counterparts in other worlds cultures, these myths helped earlier humans to find meaning and make sense of how to live.
Is it any wonder that the ancient myths have remained a powerful source of inspiration for artists down through the centuries? After all, depicting this human quest for meaning has been described by some artists as one of the most vital purposes for art.