The stories of Greek mythology are some of the most famous in the world: from Hercules’ labours to the voyage of Odysseus, Jason’s quest for the golden fleece to the start of the Trojan War, these stories have long outlasted the civilisation that created them.
The relationships and arguments between the gods were attributed to creation myths and origin stories, and their patronage (or not) of mortals helped shape and create some of ancient Greece’s most influential literature. Stories about them are still told today.
Whilst the Greek pantheon of deities was huge, 12 gods and goddesses dominated myths and worship: the Twelve Olympians. Hades, the god of the underworld, was viewed as important but is not included in this list as he did not reside on the legendary Mount Olympus.
1. Zeus, king of the gods
God of the skies and ruler of the mythical Mount Olympus, home of the gods, Zeus was seen as king of the gods, and the most powerful of them. Famous for his sexual appetite, he fathered many gods and mortals, often using cunning to end up in bed with the women he desired.
Frequently represented with a thunderbolt in hand, Zeus was perceived to be a god of the weather: one myth has him flooding the world in order to rid it of human decadence. Bolts of lightning were said to come directly from Zeus, targeting those who had incurred his wrath.
2. Hera, queen of the gods and goddess of childbirth and women
Wife and sister of Zeus, Hera ruled as queen of Mount Olympus and patron saint of women, marriages, wives and childbirth. One of the recurring themes in Greek mythology was Hera’s jealousy in the face of her husband’s infidelity. In particular, she wreaked vengeance on the women who fell prey to Zeus’ charms, punishing them.
Traditionally, Hera was associated with the pomegranate (a symbol of fertility used throughout history), as well as with animals including cows and lions predominantly.
3. Poseidon, god of the seas
Brother of Zeus and Hades, according to legend, Poseidon lived in a palace deep beneath the ocean and was often depicted with his famous trident, a symbol of his power.
As Poseidon was thought to be the god of the seas, sailors and seafarers would regularly build temples and make offerings to him in order to try and ensure their safe passage. Poseidon’s displeasure was thought to take the form of storms, tsunamis and the doldrums – all threats to travelers and seafarers.
4. Ares, god of war
Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera and the god of war. Many Greeks viewed him with something like ambivalence: his presence was seen as a necessary evil.
Often depicted as physically strong and dashing, Ares was regarded as a brutal and bloodthirsty god, using sheer force to achieve his aims. His sister Athena, goddess of wisdom, was the goddess of military strategy, whereas Ares’ role in war was more corporeal.
5. Athena, goddess of wisdom
One of the most popular goddesses of Mount Olympus, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, military strategy and peace. She was said to have sprung from Zeus’ forehead, fully formed and wearing her armour. Athena’s most recognisable features are her ‘grey’ eyes and her sacred counterpart, the owl.
The city of Athens was named after Athena and dedicated to her: temples to Athena could be found across the city and she was widely revered throughout ancient Greece. Many myths see Athena embark on heroic endeavours, earning her popularity as a goddess who would look out for mortals.
6. Aphrodite, goddess of love
The goddess Aphrodite is perhaps one of the most famous and enduring of the Greek pantheon: she appears frequently in Western Art as a personification of love and beauty.
Said to have sprung from sea-foam fully formed, Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus but notoriously unfaithful, taking many lovers over time. As well as the goddess of love and desire, she was also viewed as the patron goddess of prostitutes and was linked to sexual desire in all forms.
7. Apollo, god of music and the arts
The twin brother of Artemis, Apollo was traditionally depicted as youthful and handsome in ancient Greece. As well as being the god of music and the arts, Apollo was also associated with medicine and healing.
As such, Apollo could help ward off evil of many sorts, and temples dedicated to Apollo could be found across Greece. He was also the patron deity of Delphi, which was the centre of the world to ancient Greeks.
8. Artemis, goddess of the hunt
The virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis was normally depicted with a bow and arrows or carrying a spear. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was known to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Artemis was particularly popular because she was viewed as a protector of children and women in childbirth, making her important to women in the ancient world.
9. Hermes, messenger of the gods and god of travel and trade
Famous for his winged sandals, Hermes was the herald (messenger) of the gods, as well as the patron deity of travellers and thieves. In Greek mythology, he often played tricks on unsuspecting gods and mortals, earning him a reputation as a slippery trickster, with the potential to cause trouble.
For many years Hermes was associated with the underworld: as a messenger, he could travel between the land of the living and the dead with relative ease.
10. Demeter, goddess of the harvest
Demeter is best known perhaps for the origin story of the seasons: her daughter, Persephone, was taken by Hades to the underworld where she was tempted to eat and drink, thus binding her to him and the underworld. Demeter was so distraught that she let all the crops wither and fail as she went to rescue Persephone.
Fortunately, Demeter arrived before Persephone had finished eating the meal laid out by Hades: as she’d eaten half of the pomegranate he’d offered her, she had to stay in the underworld for half the year (autumn and winter) but could return to Earth with her mother for the remaining 6 months (spring and summer).
11. Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home
Hestia was one of the most frequently invoked goddesses: traditionally, the first offering of every sacrifice for a household would be made to Hestia, and flames from her hearth were carried to new settlements.
12. Hephaestus, god of fire
The son of Zeus and the god of fire, Hephaestus was thrown from Mount Olympus as a child and developed a clubfoot or limp as a result. As the god of fire, Hephaestus was also a talented blacksmith who made weapons.