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The Gods of Greece and Rome

The Gods of Greece and Rome

by Talfourd Ely

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The deities of the ancient world — from the famous denizens of Olympus to anonymous river nymphs and sea monsters — come to life in the pages of this classic guide. Richly readable, informative, and colorful, it is drawn mostly from the great epics of Homer and the works of Apollodoros, an Athenian scholar of the second century B.C. Not only does it define


The deities of the ancient world — from the famous denizens of Olympus to anonymous river nymphs and sea monsters — come to life in the pages of this classic guide. Richly readable, informative, and colorful, it is drawn mostly from the great epics of Homer and the works of Apollodoros, an Athenian scholar of the second century B.C. Not only does it define the myths in terms of their influence on Western literature, it also depicts the role of the deities in everyday life, from the earliest tribal rites to the grand festivals at the height of Graeco-Roman civilization.
Each of the primary and minor gods receives an individual chapter that recounts both the Greek origins and the later Roman adaptation. Profiles of less-familiar figures from the ancient pantheon include the Dioscuri, better known as Castor and Pollux, the patrons of athletes and sailors; Aesculapius, the god of health and healing; Rhea, the mother of the gods; and Pan, the frolicsome woodlands god. No finer survey of classical mythology exists than this instructive and entertaining guide to the gods.

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The Gods of Greece and Rome

By Talfourd Ely

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12034-8





WHEN earth in springtime clothed herself afresh with herbage and with flowers; when summer's glow withered alike the foliage and the grass; when the refreshing storm burst forth from the hills, or winter's grim tempests wrapped the land in snow,—then knew the Greeks full well that a mightier power than man's guided nature on her path,—a heavenly power, whose name was Zeus. Unseen of mortal eye, he yet was known by his works; and his presence was often felt very near,—aye! nearer and nearer the higher men climbed the mountainside. For there on the mountaintop he mostly had his dwelling. So lofty and so awful did the nature of Zeus appear in olden time that in such places ordinary men cared not to draw too nigh to him. So, amidst Arcadia's mountains the lonely towering "Wolf's Peak," or Lykaios, was a specially sacred abode of the god of heaven; Lykaios, from which men gazed over the whole Peloponnese, and in whose forests wolves, bears, and wild boars had their home. Here the pious of olden times had established a holy place for Zeus, the wolf-god (Lykaios). For was it not a destructive frenzy as of a ravening wolf, if in mid-summer the scorching heat of heaven blasted nature's blossoming life, and spread death and barrenness over the fields? So raged, then, Zeus Lykaios against nature and against man. Him to appease, nought else but human sacrifice availed, and thus horrid rites lingered here on the lonely peak of Arcadia's highlands, perhaps even till Christian times. He who tasted of the victim's flesh, that the god alone had a right to taste, was changed for nine years' space into a were-wolf, wandering in loneliness, and shunning the company of human kind. He who, unbidden, burst into this holy place of Zeus lost his shadow; that is, he vanished from the number of the living, for the disembodied dead alone no shadows cast.

Yet the god's wrath was not without end; nay, 'twas the same Zeus that sent, too, the refreshing shower. The priest need only stir with an oak twig the waters of the mountain-stream, and mists came forth and rolled together into the cloud teeming with rain.

And as on Arcadia's Wolf-mount, so, too, in Crete men had to tell of a god of heaven, destroying what he had brought into being; only here such deeds were portioned out between two persons, and it was not Zeus that was regarded as the destroyer, but his father Kronos. He devoured, so ran the tale, all the children his wife Rhea bore him, save the youngest, Zeus. In his stead shrewd Rhea gave her husband a stone, wrapped in swaddling clothes, to swallow, while she carried the young Zeus, fair as springtime, to a cave on Mount Ida, where he was reared by honey-laden bees, and by the nymph Amaltheia, who nurtured the boy with goat's milk. But when the little fellow cried, then the youths (Kouretes) would begin their war-dance, and by striking together spears and shields raised such a din that the father heard not his child's cries, and could do him no harm. Long did they in Crete celebrate this festival of the birth of Zeus with such armed dances, and struck upon their shields as though they would frighten away evil spirits, and keep them off from the child awakening with the spring.

Here, then, there was divided between two persons that which really belonged to one and the same. For Kronos also might have originally been a god of heaven, as Zeus, the giver of growth and bloom. So in honour of him too, as god of the harvest, was celebrated the festival of Kronos in Greece about the time of the winter solstice, when the seed had been sown and the farmer rested from his toil. In like fashion the Romans, who recognised Kronos in their own god of the sowing, Saturnus, celebrated at the same season the Saturnalia, the farmer's merry feast, at which men sought to keep green in general jollity the memory of a golden age long past and gone. It was about our Yuletide. Then all gave themselves up to sports and feasting, and at table the master served the slave.

For a short time, then, it seemed as though all men were brothers and all wealth was shared alike. But the festival passed, and those happy days were never to return! They had long since passed away; hence Kronos (or Saturnus) stood for the representative of the most ancient time. The poets too told of the transitoriness of his rule. When the stripling Zeus had grown up in Crete he forced his father Kronos to disgorge the devoured children, and thrust him from the throne deep down into the murky abyss of Tartaros, the lowest deep. Later, indeed, the Greeks would hear nothing of this story that told of such misdeed of a son against his father; for men had gradually learnt to see in Zeus a milder being; and so from the old greedy Kronos cast out from his throne there was made a mild god of the Dead, who in restful peace held sway over the Islands of the Blest.


If, however, men had ceased to see in the god of heaven the wild destroyer of what he himself had made, yet knew they full well that Zeus ruled earth and the realms above, and let this power be known in many a sign of heaven. Should tempests rage, and the storm burst over the fields, and terrify feeble man with gloomy cloud, or flashing bolt, or with sheet lightning, or should heaven's azure gleam and tranquil air attune to a like calm the soul of man,—'twas ever at the bidding of Zeus that this befell.

And how could he have more clearly displayed his majesty? If the storm-cloud drew nigh dark an gloomy, till the furious shock of the tempest shattered it with the din of thunder, then it was known that Zeus had grasped that wondrous armour which he could throw round him as a cloak or brandish as a shield. Then quaked all on earth; then there was clattering on high, as when the thunder-god of the old Teuton race drove over the clouds on his chariot drawn by steeds of flame.

To that storm-mantle of Zeus the Greeks gave the name of Aigis, or goat skin; a skin believed to have been that of the goat that had nurtured the god as a child.

Wondrous was the look of this ægis, now dark as if a cloud were passing over the mountains, now varied with a hundred tassels of twisted gold that sparkled as the lightning. How must the dread cloud have appeared from which Zeus, to punish men's brutal deeds, poured forth the mighty deluge on the earth, when the waters rose above the mountains so that fish lodged in the tops of elms, and gazelles swam on the surface of the flood? Then Zeus delivered but one pair of mortals from destruction, Deukalion and Pyrrha, the ancestors of the human race; and Deukalion in turn raised the first altar in his honour, and built at Athens the first temple of the Olympian Zeus.

The rain-streams of Zeus, however, not only flood the fields to the harm of men and crops, but bestow on rivers their water and on earth her fruitfulness. "Golden" was the name the Greek gave to such rain, and into such golden rain could the god transform himself when secretly he made his way into Danaë's dark prison, where her father had immured her through fear of what might be born. All in vain! for Zeus gave her.a son Perseus, sprung from a god. But the Greeks also called Zeus "The Down-comer," so closely was the belief in the god's nature bound up with the idea of falling rain.

Yet not only rain, but hail and snow did Zeus hurl with his right hand over the earth. Nobly does Homer mirror for us this might of the god:—

"As falls a snow-shower all a winter's day,
When Zeus in his high purpose hath ordain'd
Snow-fall on man, and speeds his feathery shafts;
He lulls the winds to slumber, and sheds down
Snow upon snow, enfolding every peak,
Mountain and headland, hill and dale alike,
Meadows of lotos, and the fruitful works
Of man, the shore, and harbours to the brink
Of heavy ocean, where the washing wave
Gives it the limit which it shall not pass;
But else the face of all the world is wrapp'd
Within that heavy mantle from above."

There are no phenomena of the heavens that do not proceed from Zeus, and therefore he is called also "The Cloud-Gatherer," "The Ægis-Bearer," "The Rejoicer in Thunder," and "The Far-Resounding."

The rainbow, too, with its many colours, has he placed in the clouds as a token of his might for mortal men. Above all, however, his favourite weapons are the lightning and the thunderbolt, companions of the storm.

Thunder and lightning the Kyklopes are bound to forge for him, those mighty beings, each with one round eye, the smithy-god's helpful comrades in the dark forge of fire-vomiting Ætna. With such lightning did Zeus dash down the giants when they threatened to scale heaven. Who is not reminded of the Teutonic thunder-god, that with his lightning-hammer in like fashion dashes down the giants of mountain and of frost? But as the lightning, so too the wind is a sign of the might of Zeus. We hear, indeed, also, of a king of the winds, Aiolos, who, cut off from all the world, dwells on a floating island in the distant sea. Steep rises the island from the water, and a bronze wall cuts off his realm from the outer world, that the wild winds may not burst forth. But so much the more comfortable is it within with the king, who, in the midst of his twelve married children, takes his pleasure in a richly-decked table and the sound of wind-instruments. Of his winds he lets forth which he will, and coops up the rest; so to Odysseus, who had come to see him, he gave the west wind as guide for his voyage, and, that the other winds might not drive him back, gave them into his keeping in a leather sack, which he, by way of precaution, had tied up tight with a silver thread. In vain! The imprudent companions of Odysseus unloosed the thread, the winds blustered forth, and drove the unlucky hero back again to Aiolos.

Aiolos, however, is merely the manager of the winds, and has no power to rouse or calm, them without the consent of Zeus.

Lightning and storm, then, are the tokens of the power of Zeus, and are his weapons. When the god came to battle with the serpent-footed giants the eagle first brought him the lightning; hence the eagle, king of birds, circling high in air, has become his armour-bearer. When he roams alone round the mountain peaks, then is he nearest to the throne of Zeus. Here first gather together the rain-giving clouds, and here bursts forth the storm at its wildest. While the battle between Greeks and Trojans was raging, Zeus let his voice be heard in thunder from the Trojan Ida's snow-capped peak. His most famous abode, however, was Mount Olympos in Thessaly, whose summit is for the most part veiled in mysterious cloud; and because men forthwith fancied the homes of the other gods allotted on the mountain-slopes, the gods were generally styled the "Olympians," and their dwelling-place "Olympos."

In many parts of Greece the lofty oak, the special "lightning-tree" of the forest, served as a sanctuary of Zeus, and especially renowned were the holy oaks in the grove of Dodona. On this spot were the thoughts of Achilles fixed when, far from his home, he was warring round Troy, and with ardour he prayed to Zeus of Dodona, the god of his race. Unseen and depicted by no mortal hand, here in the oak grove Zeus held sway; only in the rustling of the trees and the plashing of the sacred rill that rippled adown the forest glade did men believe they heard his voice. Bronze bowls hung on the boughs, and, blown hither and thither by the wind, chimed in wondrously with these murmurs of air and water. To lay folk it was but an empty sound; but the god's learned priests, the "Selloi," and with them grey-haired priestesses, knew how to explain from this the will of Zeus, so that this oracle of Dodona soon gained great repute. It was perhaps the oldest of all in Greece, and old-fashioned and peculiar seemed the ways of these priests of the Dodonæan Zeus to the Greeks of a later age. They had to sleep on the bare earth, and were not allowed to wash their feet; though perhaps this applied only to the water of the spring at Dodona, so as not to profane its sanctity. For such were the powers of this water, that while burning torches were quenched in it, yet when quenched they took fire once more if dipped therein. So wondrously here did Zeus hold sway over air and water alike.

Lastly, however, Dodona was noteworthy in the eyes of the Greeks on account of this also, because here was maintained the worship of a spouse of Zeus, Dione. Poets called her later the mother of Aph rodite, goddess of love.


Zeus then made his will known to men through signs, and sent his divine sons to declare to them his pleasure. Apollo, the god of prophecy at Delphi, is only "the mouth" of his father Zeus; he is the servant, Zeus the king. For only a king can make his will known and claim obedience.

Assuredly there was no need for each man who would learn to know him first to go to Delphi and ask Apollo. There were interpreters outside Delphi who understood the will of the gods, and among many a portent the heart itself told mortal man whether the god approved his undertaking or not.

Of especial importance was it if the eagle of Zeus appeared, and it was auspicious if he came from the right hand. When King Priam set forth on his journey to the Grecian camp, to beg for his son Hektor's body from the tents of Achilles, his bitterest foe, he prayed first thus to Zeus:—

"Father, who from thy throne on Ida rul'st,
Great Zeus, most glorious! grant me that I find
Favour and grace before Achilles' sight.
So send thy wingèd messenger, best-loved
By thee, and mightiest of the fowls of air,
A sign on my right hand, that, when I see
The sign, my heart being strengthen'd, I may go
Bold through the ships and chariots of my foes."

And in fact the old man gained what he wished. But the interpreters of omens seem not to have enjoyed a particularly good reputation, and in any case it was more important if the god himself set in man's heart the true perception. Thus it was when Hektor was preparing to cast the firebrand on the ships of the Greeks; there appeared to him from the left hand, as boding ill, the eagle of Zeus, with a blood-red serpent in his claws; still writhing, it twisted round and bit the eagle's breast, and the eagle, with a loud shriek of pain, let the creature fall to earth.

"The Trojans, shuddering, in their midst beheld
The spotted serpent, dire portent of Jove."

But brave Hektor was not to be disheartened by the qualms of his comrades, for Zeus had placed in his heart courage for battle, and so he could shout aloud:—

"Surely the gods have reft thee of thy mind;
Who bidd'st abandon the commands of Zeus,
His word, and pledge, and nod, as things forgotten,
To follow the behests of feather'd fowls!
For whom I swerve not from my course one jot,
Whether their flight be toward the gates of Dawn,
Or westward to the cradle of the mist.

* * *

Best of all omens is a country's cause."

Nor did this feeling lead him astray, for victorious he forced his way into the Grecian camp.

But not only the eagle and other birds of prey were sent by Zeus; lightning also and thunder could warn men from an undertaking, or give them courage for it; clear above all were the terrible portents of heaven, if blood-red dew had fallen, or light from moon or sun turned suddenly to darkness. In general, all tokens from unknown distance that filled the heart with uneasy foreboding, all such came from Zeus; so, too, the mysteriously rising rumour, the "Ossa," which can spread further and further with furious haste, and fill a whole host with dread; this too is called the messenger of Zeus.

Yet the kingly might of the highest god shows itself not only in the counsel and the warning with which he gives help to man through wondrous signs. Zeus is also the actual giver of all good. 'Tis he that ordains the course of the moon and all the phenomena of heaven; he that sends the sailor the favouring breeze, and loads such nations as he will with wealth.


Excerpted from The Gods of Greece and Rome by Talfourd Ely. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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