“Every people have gods to suit their circumstances.” - Henry David Thoreau
A myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or one explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. Mythology refers to a collection of myths and their study. All cultures have their own rich mythology that has initially been passed down the generations orally, and if that culture becomes literate, the myths are written down, some of them being incorporated into religious systems. The ancient Greeks are a good example of a people with a rich mythology, the advantage being that all of these myths were written down early in their history, surviving in their entirety to the present day. Ancient Greek religion is richly interspersed with myth, although during the Classical period, the Greeks themselves were the ones that doubted the veracity of some myths.
In appearance, the ancient Greek gods of myth were supposed to resemble mortals, whom, however, they far exceeded in beauty, grandeur, and strength. They were of commanding stature, height being considered by the Greeks an attribute of beauty in both men and women. The gods resembled human beings in their feelings and habits, intermarrying and having children, requiring daily nourishment to maintain their strength, and needing refreshing sleep to restore their energies. Their blood, a bright ethereal fluid called “ichor”, never engendered disease, and, when shed, had the power of producing new life.
The Greeks believed that the intellectual capacity of their gods was of a much higher order than those of men, but nevertheless, they were not exempt from human passions, and we read myths where the gods are driven by revenge, deceit, and jealousy. Gods, however, always punish the evil-doer, and any impious mortal who dares to neglect their worship or despise their rites is punished with untold calamities. We often hear of gods visiting mankind and partaking of their hospitality, and quite frequently both gods and goddesses become attached to mortals, with whom they unite. The offspring of these unions are called heroes or demi-gods, who are usually renowned for their great strength and courage, for example, Herakles (=Hercules), the offspring of Zeus, king of the gods and Alkmene, a mortal woman.
Although there were many points of resemblance between gods and men, there remained the one great characteristic distinction, namely that the gods were immortal. Still, they were not invulnerable, and we often hear of them being wounded, and suffering in consequence such exquisite torture that they have earnestly prayed to be deprived of their privilege of immortality.
The gods knew no limitation of time or space, being able to transport themselves to incredible distances with the speed of thought. They possessed the power of rendering themselves invisible at will, and could assume the forms of men or animals as it suited their convenience. They could also transform human beings into trees, stones, animals, either as a punishment for their misdeeds, or as a means of protecting the individual, thus transformed, from danger. Their robes were like those worn by mortals, but were perfect in form and much finer in texture. Their weapons also resembled those used by mankind; we hear of spears, shields, helmets, bows and arrows being employed by the gods. Each deity possessed a beautiful chariot, which, drawn by horses or other animals of celestial breed, conveyed them rapidly over land and sea according to their pleasure.
Most of these divinities lived on the summit of Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece, each possessing his or her individual palace, and all meeting together on festive occasions in the council-chamber of the gods, where their banquets were enlivened by the sweet strains of Apollo’s lyre, whilst the beautiful voices of the Muses poured forth their rich melodies to his harmonious accompaniment. They drank nectar, a delicious fluid, the word origin of which is derived from stems meaning “overcoming death”. They ate ambrosia, a fragrant food that was sometimes described liquid as a soup or solid like bread. Once again the word is derived from stems meaning “immortal”.
Magnificent temples were erected to the honour of gods and goddesses, where the divine beings were worshipped with the greatest solemnity. Rich gifts were presented to them, and animals, and indeed sometimes human beings (more so in pre-classical times), were sacrificed on their altars. Greek mythology is rich with incident and vivid descriptions of the deeds of the gods and heroes many of these myths explaining natural phenomena, the origin of many things and animals, demonstrate important moral lessons and illustrate ways in which human beings are either rewarded for good deeds or punished for wrongdoing.
The illustration is Raphael's fresco "The Council of the Gods".