Character Traits of the Greek Gods
The Greek pantheon consisted of 12 deities who lived atop the mythical Mount Olympus. An additional major god, Hades, made his abode in the underworld, but his prominent role warrants his inclusion in a discussion of Greek divinity. A consideration of the gods' traits makes it possible to organize them into four groups and shows that, for all their power, they possessed characters as mutable as those of their mortal subjects.
The Volatile Royal Couple
As the king of the gods, Zeus stands as the ultimate authority over mortal life, and appears both fair-minded and willfully destructive. In appreciation of Ganymedes's beauty, Zeus elevated the boy to divinity, and gifted his father with horses and assurances of Ganymedes's immortality. On the other hand, Zeus also plotted and orchestrated the Trojan War. Hera, Zeus’s wife, also possesses a contradictory set of traits. Though worshipped as the goddess of virginity, birth and marriage, Hera also embodied jealousy and pride. Most of her victims were rivals for the affection of the philandering Zeus, though she also attempted to kill the babe Heracles.
No Friends of Mortals
The Greeks associated Poseidon with calamities like tidal waves and earthquakes. A spiteful god, Poseidon’s moodiness manifested itself through shipwrecks and drownings. The Greeks associated Ares with bloodshed and pillaging, and considered him the god of warfare, rebellions, banditry and rage. Ares's vengeful nature becomes apparent from his murder of innocent Adonis, whom he saw as a rival for Aphrodite's affections. The Greeks regarded Hades, god of the underworld, with trepidation and fear. The judge of the dead, Hades shows a complete lack of pity, and kidnapped his wife, Persephone, from the land of the living.
Lovers of Mankind
On the obverse, some Greek gods showed concern for humanity. Demeter, forever grief-stricken over Hades' abduction of her daughter, received tribute as the goddess of the harvest, and gave mankind the knowledge of agriculture. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, took an active interest in the affairs of mortals, and served as the protectress of Athens and helper of Odysseus. Apollo, though haughty at times, showcased his good-heartedness though miraculous healing and the gifts of poetry and dance. Though the fair-minded Apollo bears responsibility for plagues, he also destroys plague-bearing animals. The sensual Dionysus, god of pleasure, received credit for the invention of wine, and taught mortals how to cultivate grapes and honey.
Gods of Ambivalence
While Aphrodite rewarded lovers with her favors, her unpredictability and amorality reveals a deep ambivalence. For example, in order to orchestrate the birth of Adonis, Aphrodite forced his mother, Myrrha, to commit incest with her own father. Artemis, as the protectress of adolescent girls, was the only god known for her chastity, but also beset mortals with sudden illness. The deformed Hephaestus appears sympathetic thanks to his humiliation at the hands of adulterous Aphrodite. However, he also attempted to rape Athena after she rejected his advances. Hermes received worship across Greece, thanks to his connection to commerce. As the god of thieves, however, he was also seen as an enabler of crime.
Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.