It’s no secret that religion is a major tenet of any civilization, modern or ancient. Some form of worship to a higher power can be found in most histories, artifacts and ruins around the world. The Ancient Greeks were no different. They were a polytheistic society who worshipped multiple gods and goddesses in their daily lives. Temples were built in their honor and daily life was conducted with them in mind. Some of the gods, such as Zeus and Aphrodite, are widely known. However, the most influential Greek deities are lesser known and represent the more tedious aspects of daily life. Here are 8 Greek gods and goddesses that heavily influenced daily life in Ancient Greece and how we can get a better understanding of them and their society today.
1. Dionysus – God of Wine and Festivities
Most commonly known as the god of wine, Dionysus was the god you wanted to have around at a party. Wine was an integral part of Greek culture. The beverage, along with the grapevine itself, was considered an incarnation of this fun-loving god. Similar to traditional Catholicism, the Greeks believed they were consuming the god and taking in some of his essence as they imbibed. He was also known as the god of fertility, festivity, theater and the bacchanalia, or Greco-Roman festivals of ritual madness. The bacchanalia was organized by a mysterious cult that is believed to have originated somewhere in southern Italy around 200 BC. They were originally three-day ceremonies only attended by women. The invitation was extended to men and the gatherings became a way for civilized people to have one or a few nights of complete ecstasy. Dionysus was incredibly influential because he gave the Greeks a reason to carouse, let go, and celebrate life.
2. Demeter – Goddess of the Harvest and Fertility
Like many ancient yet civilized societies, the Greeks were avid agriculturalists. Their main sources of export revenue and sustenance came from wheat, grapes and olives. These are all still major components of Greek life today. Because of their dependence on agriculture, many Greeks were dedicated to Demeter. She is the goddess of grain, the harvest, and the fertility of the earth. The most well-known myth including Demeter is that of Hades and Persephone.
When Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, went missing, Demeter spent months looking for her, neglecting the earth and the harvest, which wrought havoc on the world. The goddess, with the help of Zeus, discovered that Persephone had been kidnapped by Hades. They reached an agreement to allow Persephone to spend half of the year in the underworld, and the other half in the natural world with her mother. Some have speculated that this myth originated as a way to explain the changing seasons. Demeter yearned for her daughter in the fall and winter months and rejoiced her return in the spring and summer. Others say that the periods of Persephone’s return in the myth don’t coincide with the seasonal structure of the region. Either way, it is clear that Demeter played an important role in the understanding of agriculture, fertilization, and seasons.
3. Hestia – Goddess of the Home and Hearth
The Greeks relied heavily on the use of fire as a source of light, heat, and method of cooking. The fire was seen as a gathering place for communities and families. Its light and warmth draw crowds together and create a space for debate, comradery and festivity. Each Greek city had a prytaneum, or a hearth with a sacred fire, in its center. The sacred flames were the fire of Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, family, domestic life and the state.
Of all the Greek Gods and Goddesses, Hestia was tremendously important to the daily life of the Greeks. She was so significant that she was the recipient of the first offering in the household and was given the first and last oblation of wine at feasts. Hestia’s duty in Olympus, the heavenly home of the gods, was to feed and tend to the Olympian prytaneum using the daily animal sacrifices offered to her. Because of this, tending to the fire, both in the home and in the prytaneum, was ritualistic and methodical for the Greeks. The flame was only extinguished ceremonially, and if it went out because of negligence, it was seen as sacrilege. The Greeks had a reverence for the fire, and so they had a reverence for the virtuous Hestia. Thus, they included her in their everyday religious rites and duties.
4. Prometheus – The Creator of Man
Every religious or spiritual society has its own version of the origin story. There are many variations of the Greek’s origin story depending on region, but one fact prevails. That is that mankind was made from clay by the Titan Prometheus. The legend says that Prometheus helped Zeus and the rest of the Olympians overthrow the Titans, or the old gods, even though he was a Titan himself. Because of his loyalty, Zeus granted him the privilege of creating mankind. He molded man out of clay and adored his creation so much that he disobeyed Zeus’s orders, and stole fire from the sun to give to mankind.
For his treachery, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where every day he would be visited by an eagle who would gorge itself on his liver. Every night his liver would grow back, and the eagle would return the next day, dooming Prometheus to an endless cycle of torture. The Greeks, primarily the potters in Athens who used fire daily in their kilns, honored Prometheus’s sacrifice and kindness with sacrifices of their own and the yearly Promethea torch race.
5. Poseidon – The God of the Sea
Geographically, Ancient Greece was surrounded almost entirely by the Ionian, Aegan, and Mediterranean Seas. Fishing was a large part of commerce and cuisine. The Greeks were well accustomed to the sea, and Ancient Greece was home to many deft sailors. It was no wonder that one of the most highly revered gods was Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Poseidon was not only the god of the sea, but also the god of horses, storms, earthquakes and sometimes fertility. He fathered both cyclopes, giants with only one eye, and pegasus, flying horses. He was often depicted as volatile and temperamental, probably due to the ever-changing nature of the ocean, and the unexpected detriment of earthquakes. But despite his strange backstory, the Greeks revered the god because of their dependence on the sea. Many cities had temples built in honor of Poseidon, and the Isthmia, a festival of athletic and musical competitions, was held yearly in his honor.
6. Gaia – The Creator of the Earth
In the very beginning, according to the Ancient Greek origin story, the only thing that existed was the god Chaos. He created and embodied darkness, confusion, and the absence of life. From this emptiness Gaia appeared, the embodiment of life and the goddess known as “Mother Earth.” She created the sky, and the sky god Uranus, as well as the oceans, mountains, rivers and anything else that exists on Earth.
While most other Greek gods or goddesses were worshipped by specific groups or cults, Gaia was worshipped universally. She had temples in many cities and had enough to rival the likes of Zeus. Her worship is even mentioned in popular Greek epics such as the Iliad, where people are seen sacrificing black sheep in her honor. Gaia was also seen as the creator of divine inspiration, and all oracles or soothsayers were said to have received their enlightenment from her. Just as societies today tend to devote a lot of time to worshipping whoever they believe created the earth, so did the Greeks.
7. Athena – Goddess of Wisdom, War, and Justice
When thinking of Ancient Greece, one of the first places that comes to mind is probably Athens. Athens is named after Athena, the goddess of war, craft (such as cooking and sewing), wisdom, and justice. The Parthenon, one of the must-sees of Athens to this day, was built in her honor. The people of Athens, and the Greeks at large, were devoted to Athena because she gifted the city with the olive branch in order to win their patronage. Athena was the champion of many Greek heroes, including Odysseus, Perseus, Hercules and Achilles. Because of her gift to the citizens of Athens and her wisdom, her sigils were the olive branch and the owl.
Athena was held in such high regard because of her association with everyday craftsmanship, such as sewing, weaving, and metalwork. She was revered as the goddess of wisdom as well. The Greeks highly valued intelligence, wisdom and philosophy. Her close proximity and comradery with the heroes of Greek myth made her one of the most likeable, rather than feared, goddesses.
8. Hermes – The Messenger of the Gods
The Greeks didn’t design their gods and goddesses to be perfect. They created them in the image of themselves. They gave them human flaws and the capability of error. But the realms in which they resided, Olympus and Hades, were unreachable by living humans. Hermes, the god of border crossings, trade, travelers, and thieves, was the messenger of the gods and the only god who could pass freely between Olympus, Hades, and the mortal world.
Hermes was highly influential for the Ancient Greeks, as he was one of their main godly supporters, benefactors and messengers. Long voyages were undertaken often in Greece as civilization expanded. New trade routes were developed, and new civil relationships were cultivated. Hermes was the protector of all who undertook these harrowing journeys. The Greeks also valued cleverness and intellect, and most of the myths of Hermes included a wry trick or clever move on his part. Above all, Hermes influenced daily life in Ancient Greece because he was the chain that kept the Greek mortals connected to their celestial counterparts.
The Greek gods and goddesses influenced art, architecture, warfare, relationships, and daily life throughout Ancient Greece. The mythology of Ancient Greece is so influential that it has persisted for centuries and even permeated modern media and culture. Regardless of which were the most instrumental to society, each was important in helping the Greeks understand themselves and the world they were a part of.