Derived from the Greek words ‘πᾶν’ pan – all, and ‘θεός’ theos – god, pantheon literally means ‘of all gods’. Although any polytheistic religion (religion with multiple deities) can have a pantheon – and they existed in Norse, Aztec and Sumerian cultures to name a few – we’re taking a look at the classical pantheon, and the 12 major deities included in it. You may also know this group as the ‘Twelve Olympians’.
According to Greek mythology, the world began when Gaia (the Earth) emerged from Chaos – an empty nothingness. She then gave birth to Ouranos (the Sky) and other primordial deities like Pontos (the Sea) and Ourea (the Mountains).
Together, Gaia and Ouranos had 12 children – known as the Titans – including Cronos and Rhea, Zeus’ parents. The Titans rebelled against their father Ouranos, overthrew him, and Cronos became the ruler of the gods until Zeus deposed him to rule over the Olympic gods – more on that shortly.
There is evidence for Greek religious practice involving 12 gods from the late 6th century BC. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, from around 500 BC, Hermes stands at Olympia on the bank of the river Alpheius and divides a sacrifice into 12 portions for the gods. According to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the ruler Pisistratus established an altar of the 12 gods in Athens around 522 BC.
But how can you tell Ares from Apollo? Do you know the difference between Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite?
1. Zeus or Jupiter
King of the gods is Zeus – or his Roman equivalent, Jupiter – who rules over Mount Olympus and is the god of thunder and lightning, as well as law and order.
You can recognise Zeus by his symbols – the thunderbolt, the eagle and the oak tree – and as a sky god he is often shown among clouds or sitting on top of Mount Olympus.
Zeus’ parents were the Titans, Cronos and Rhea, and he is the youngest brother of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon (who are also gods in the pantheon). According to Greek mythology, Zeus’ father Cronos learnt that one of his children was fated to dethrone him as leader of the gods, so ate each one as soon as they were born.
When Zeus was born, his mother Rhea hid him in a cave on the island of Crete, and instead fed Cronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. When Zeus grew up, he forced Cronos to throw up his brothers and sisters, waged war on his father, and won.
2. Hera or Juno
Hera – or Juno in Roman religion – is the wife and sister of Zeus, and is queen of the gods.
Her symbols are the peacock, the cuckoo and the cow – animals she considered sacred – and her chariot is pulled by peacocks instead of horses.
In this gold hat jewel, made in the 16th century, she is shown at the Judgement of Paris (read more on that here and here) accompanied by a blue peacock.
She is the goddess of marriage, childbirth and fertility. Although she is often depicted as reserved and calm, she repeatedly sought revenge for Zeus’ many affairs with mortal and immortal women, punishing them and their offspring.
3. Poseidon or Neptune
God of the sea, horses and earthquakes, Poseidon – or Neptune – is often shown driving a chariot of horses or sea creatures and wielding the trident he used to control the waves.
Poseidon’s symbols include his trident – a three-pronged spear – as well as the horses and dolphins that pull his chariot. On this ewer, Poseidon or Neptune is shown at the stem, riding a sea monster and holding his trident.
As his brothers Zeus and Hades rule the skies and the underworld, Poseidon was given control of the sea and protected sailors and seafarers.
His many children include both the winged horse Pegasus – whom he fathered with the Gorgon Medusa – and the Cyclops Polyphemus, who was blinded by Odysseus and his crew in Homer’s Odyssey, which you can read more about here.
4. Ares or Mars
This Romano-British statuette shows Mars, the god of war, fully decked out in his characteristic armour, missing the original spear and shield he would once have held.
You can recognise Mars or Ares by his armour and weapons – usually a spear and a shield – and the god is sometimes accompanied by a boar or a vulture.
The son of Zeus and Hera, Ares – Mars’ Greek counterpart – was the god of bloodlust and violent warfare. His half-sister Athena represented the more ‘noble’ aspects of civil conduct during war.
Although he was unpopular with the other gods of the classical pantheon, with the exception of his lover Aphrodite, Ares was particularly admired in Sparta as the ideal soldier.
By contrast, his Roman equivalent Mars was far more popular, seen as second only to Jupiter, and was considered to be the protector of Rome.
5. Athena or Minerva
Ares’ half-sister is the Greek goddess Athena. Goddess of reason, handicraft, wisdom, and war, she is the daughter of Zeus and according to legend, sprang fully grown from his forehead, dressed in armour. She also gives her name to the city of Athens.
Athena – and Minerva, her Roman equivalent – is often shown wearing a helmet to demonstrate her prowess in war, and her symbols include the owl and the olive tree. In the founding myth of Athens, Athena beat Poseidon in a competition over patronage of the city by growing the first olive tree, hence its association with her. By contrast, Poseidon gave Athens a spring of salted water which was far less useful to the city.
This tetradrachm coin from 5th century BC Athens shows Athena wearing a crested helmet decorated with olive leaves, and an owl with an olive spray features on the reverse side.
6. Demeter or Ceres
Demeter – and her Roman counterpart Ceres – was the goddess of agriculture and the harvest and is often depicted with crops such as barley and wheat, or a cornucopia of produce. Demeter also presided over the fertility of the earth and the natural cycle of life and death.
She was the mother of Persephone who was abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld for six months of the year. According to Greek mythology, when her daughter was abducted, Demeter searched for her continuously, preoccupied with grief, and as a result, her attention was diverted from the harvest and plants began to die. When Persephone returned, Demeter cared for the earth again and things began to grow and this cycle was said to create the seasons.
This 2nd-century AD statue shows Demeter bearing a torch, which is associated with her endless search for her daughter. You can visit this object on display in the Enlightenment gallery.
Apollo is the only god in the classical pantheon to share the same name in both Greek and Roman traditions. The twin brother of Artemis – or Diana – Apollo has many associations including the sun, music, archery, prophecy and healing.
His symbols include (naturally enough) the sun, a bow and arrow, a lyre, and a swan. He is shown on this 4th-century BC Paestan bell krater, or large wine-mixing bowl, with a white sun shining brightly above his head.
Apollo and Artemis were the children of Zeus and Leto. On hearing of Leto’s pregnancy, Hera – Zeus’ wife – banned Leto from giving birth on land. Leto found the island of Delos (in the Cyclades archipelago of Greece), which was a ‘floating’ island and wasn’t anchored to the mainland, and gave birth to Apollo and Artemis safely there.
When the twins were born, swans are said to have circled the island seven times – hence their association with Apollo – and the island later became sacred to him. Zeus also gave his son a golden chariot pulled by swans as a gift.
8. Artemis or Diana
Apollo’s twin sister Artemis – or Diana – was the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, chastity and childbirth.
She is often shown with a stag or hunting dog, and you can recognise her as the only goddess who wears a shorter dress, with the hem lifted and tied with a belt so she could run with ease.
One of her most famous myths is the story of the hunter Actaeon. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Actaeon stumbled into Diana’s grove as she bathed, catching a glimpse of the goddess naked. In retribution, she splashed him with water, cursing him and transforming him into a deer, and he was subsequently killed by his own hunting dogs.
This bronze figure of Artemis from Ephesus on the west coast of modern-day Turkey dates to the second or first centuries BC and shows the goddess with her skirt raised up, ready to run. There was a major temple of Artemis at Ephesus which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
9. Aphrodite or Venus
Goddess of love, sex, and beauty, Aphrodite – or Venus – is said to have emerged from the white foam generated when the Titan Cronos threw the severed testicles of his father, Ouranos, into the sea.
Aphrodite’s symbols include doves, roses and myrtles. This marble relief shows the goddess with a dove next to her right foot, holding a palm branch – symbolic of victory – in her left hand.
Although Aphrodite was married to Hephaistos, the master blacksmith, she had multiple affairs including with the god Ares. She is almost always accompanied by Eros, the god of love or lust, or Cupid in the Roman tradition. Her name gives us the word ‘aphrodisiac’, while the word ‘venereal’ is derived from Venus.
10. Hephaistos or Vulcan
Aphrodite’s husband was Hephaistos – or Vulcan – the god of fire, a master blacksmith and craftsman to the gods. Hephaistos made weapons and tools for the gods and select mortals – like Hermes’ helmet and winged sandals, Achilles’ armour, and Aeneas’ shield.
His symbols include the anvil, hammer and tongs, and this earthenware saucer shows him forging an arrow, accompanied by his wife and three putti – winged infants.
Hephaistos became the patron of craftsmen, and volcanic fires were often considered to be his workshops. Vulcan gives his name to ‘volcano’, and, less excitingly, vulcanised rubber.
11. Hermes or Mercury
The messenger of the gods was Hermes, known as Mercury in ancient Roman religion, and he was also a pastoral god, protecting livestock and travellers.
Hermes’ symbols include the caduceus – a staff intertwined with two snakes – as well as his winged sandals and cap, and a tortoise.
Hermes was the second youngest of the Olympian gods, older only than Dionysos, and was the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. He could travel quickly between divine and mortal worlds with his winged sandals and was responsible for transporting souls to the underworld. He was also the patron god of merchants and thieves.
The Farnese Hermes shows the god wearing his winged sandals, holding the caduceus in his left hand, and wearing a chlamys – a small Greek cloak which was often the sole item of clothing for young soldiers and messengers, hence its association with Hermes.
12. Dionysos or Bacchus
Finally, we come to Dionysos, the youngest of the Olympian gods and son of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele. In some versions, Hestia (one of the children of Cronos and Rhea) is counted as the twelfth Olympian, instead of Dionysos.
Dionysos was the god of wine, vines, fertility, and festivity. He is most often shown with grapes and vines, as well as big cats like panthers, leopards and tigers. For Romans he was known as Bacchus, and the Bacchanalia – or Dionysia – were raucous festivals celebrating the god.
This Pompeiian wall painting shows the god accompanied by a panther, holding a wine cup with vines and grapes in his hair.
Read more sensational stories of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters from Greek mythology in this book.
You can find replicas of some of these objects, and other products inspired by the Greek and Roman gods, in our online shop here.
If ancient Rome is your thing, our special exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth is a must-see! The show takes a closer look at the infamous emperor and lets you decide whether he was a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society, or the merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be.
Book tickets here.
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