Big in Ephesus

James Davidson

  • The Gods of Olympus: A History by Barbara Graziosi
    Profile, 273 pp, £18.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 321 3

When I imagine the Greek gods on Olympus I conjure up a lofty polished marble palace with colonnades and porticos open to the air, its Ionic and Corinthian capitals picked out in gold, rather like the Athenian Acropolis redecorated by Catherine the Great. Its dozen or so denizens pose listlessly in gaps between columns, dressed in fine white robes rather flimsier than the high altitude might warrant, surrounded by banks of fog and talking in an English accent.

This is childish, I know, a vision informed by staying up too late to watch Jason and the Argonauts. Since then I have learned an awful lot more about ancient Greek religion. I know that different Olympians were differently honoured in different cities. Athens belonged to the virgin goddess Athena, Aphrodisias to Aphrodite, Potidaea to Poseidon. In Argos and Samos, wifely Hera was queen. Artemis was big in Ephesus. So far as we can tell there were no daily multitudes making a lung-testing pilgrimage up the great and mostly snowy mountain in the far north of Greece that was identified as Olympus by Homer and Hesiod.[*] To get close to Apollo you might go to Delos, the place of his birth, or to Delphi, where you could actually ask him a question and receive an answer of some kind. To establish a relationship with Demeter, and to enjoy all the benefits she could bring in this world and the next, you would do better to travel to Eleusis on the borders of Attica and be initiated into her ancient mysteries there. To get nearer to Dionysus you might choose to climb Mount Cithaeron, get drunk and/or go a bit wild.

In certain respects, Olympus resembles a rather jolly Senior Common Room, where the gods met to feast and debate in between attending to their responsibilities elsewhere. The gods seem to have had their own establishments within the compound. When Thetis goes to fetch a new set of armour for Achilles we learn that the house of Hephaestus the master craftsman is the most impressive of the houses of the immortals, completely made of bronze. His dwelling takes on a more active role in the Odyssey, where it is the site of an affair between Ares and Aphrodite, Hephaestus’ wife. Hephaestus learns the truth from the all-seeing sun-god and plots revenge in his forge. He announces that he’s off to Lemnos. As soon as he’s gone, Ares comes cuckolding, but he and the goddess of love are trapped in Hephaestus’ bed by a web of fine invisible wires rigged up between the bedposts and the roof beams. Hephaestus has meanwhile doubled back and summons the gods to witness the crime against his marriage bed. The gods obey, although ‘the female goddesses stayed each at her home from a sense of shame.’

Olympus also features in the so-called Homeric Hymns, which sing the praises of individual gods in Homeric language and metre. In several of these the arrival of the god on Olympus serves as a quasi-formal recognition that they have reached the status of a true god and/or been acknowledged as a true son of Zeus, triumphing over the obstacles placed on their path to godhead by the jealous Hera. She did her utmost to prevent Leto giving birth to Apollo, so one feels for her a bit when the poet describes Apollo returning home to Olympus and his mother, who proudly hangs his bow and arrows ‘on a golden peg on a pillar in his father’s house’.

Hera was also the main obstacle to Hephaestus’ taking up his proper place on the mountain. Although he was her own son, she had thrown him off Olympus because he was born with a club foot. He took refuge in the sea with Thetis and turned for the first time to the anvil, making for his mother a lovely throne which ensnared her until she begged him to return and release her. Demeter, on the other hand, voluntarily abandoned Olympus because of her fury and grief over Hades’ rape of her daughter Persephone. As a result the earth ceased to be fruitful, and starving men starved the gods in turn by ceasing to offer sacrifice, until eventually Zeus was forced to reach a compromise and sent his mother, Rhea, to persuade Demeter to return to the mountain.

Who were the Olympians? In addition to Demeter, Apollo, Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite and Hephaestus, most would follow the hint offered by the frieze of spectator gods on the Parthenon and list Athena, Artemis, Ares, Poseidon, Hermes and Dionysus, while ignoring Eros, who appears on the frieze leaning against Aphrodite’s knee. But there were very many metaphysical powers at large in ancient Greece, such as Ino, the white goddess; Hecate, the witch goddess; Eileithyia, a very ancient goddess of childbirth. Almost every time a new calendar of sacrifices is uncovered from an ancient Attic village or an Aegean island, listing who got what when, new divinities are revealed to sit alongside Nemesis, with her temple at Rhamnous, and Peitho (‘Persuasiveness’), who was honoured by courtesans and orators alike on the slopes of the Acropolis. In Sparta, we are told, they worshipped Aidos (‘Sense of Shame’), in Athens ‘Rumour’ and Boreas, the north wind, who once blew up a storm and saved them from the Persians. Then there was Pan and a great variety of nymphs – of the seas, of springs, caves and trees – and river gods, some very powerful and all of them needing and receiving presents and promises. Olympus would be overcrowded if all these divine beings were given a residence permit, especially since there were other divinities with an acknowledged place on Olympus apart from the Olympians. Leto was there; Rhea, mother of the gods, often seemed to feature; Ganymede, the never-ageing Trojan prince, served as cupbearer; his predecessor in the role, Hebe, the goddess of youth, was still hanging around; as was Hestia, the stay-at-home goddess of the hearth. Olympus also had its GP in the form of the ancient but obscure healing god Paieon; even Hades would visit the heavenly peak to consult him. It had entertainers in the form of the singing and dancing muses. And there was room for further arrivals. In Works and Days, Hesiod imagines a time when Aidos and Nemesis will join the gods on Olympus, a sign that they’re abandoning mortals – the earth will go to Hobbesian hell as a consequence.

And then there were the huge number of demigods and sometime gods who were given offerings and could repay favours and slights, some of them well known from tragedy and epic poetry, like Hippolytus, Achilles, Castor and Pollux, others dimly remembered from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Cephalus, Procris), some extremely obscure (Philonis, Aristomachus), or unnamed and possibly nameless: ‘Wife’, ‘Young Man’, ‘the heroines at Pylon’, ‘the hero at the tower’. You could argue that heroes are a separate category from gods, especially Olympian gods, but the boundaries are sometimes blurry. One of the favourite themes of Athenian vase-painters in the sixth century bc was the triumphant arrival of the hero Heracles on Olympus.

So what was the relationship between the Olympians and all these other daemons and divinities who may or may not have had a place on the mountain? The knee-jerk response is that they were the principals in the pantheon. But in what sense was Ares a principal deity? Cults of Ares were neither very widespread nor very important – if we take that to mean lavish, time-consuming, spectacular, disruptive – in comparison with those of non-Olympians such as Persephone, hugely popular in southern Italy, or Asclepius the doctor demigod, especially big in Epidaurus, or Heracles, pretty big everywhere. And many polities would honour local non-Olympian gods and heroes with bigger temples and grander festivals than those that flattered Hephaestus. I can think of a number of places in the territory of Athens where goat-footed Pan was honoured, but I find it hard to recall even one temple in the city where one could cultivate Zeus’ queen, Hera, although in the Iliad she declares herself ‘top goddess by birth and by marriage’. Conversely, Artemis is a minor figure in Homer and Hesiod barely mentions her, but her temples and cults were important across Greece and Asia Minor.

The first definite evidence of a cult of the dodekatheoi, the ‘12 gods’ of Olympus, is an altar of 522 bc discovered in Athens during the construction of the Athens-Piraeus railway in 1891; it marked the ancient city’s official centrepoint from which all distances were measured. At around the same time we hear in a Homeric hymn of the terrible-toddler god Hermes earning his way to Olympus by sacrificing the cattle he stole from Apollo at Olympia (hundreds of miles away from Homer’s Mount Olympus) and dividing it into 12 portions. Was he presuming himself one of the 12? Was he sacrificing to himself? The story may relate to the fact that there were six very ancient double altars at Olympia said to have been dedicated by Heracles to 12 divinities.

Of course 12 has been an important number for lots of civilisations: 12 lunar months, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples. But the idea of a canonical 12 gods, the dodekatheoi, did not become fully institutionalised in ancient Greek religion until the middle of the fourth century bc, probably informed by the sexagesimal systems of Near Eastern astronomy/astrology, the same system that gave us 12 hours and 12 signs of the zodiac. It’s also a number useful in fractions, dividing into sixths, quarters, thirds and pairs. So Plato in Laws makes the 12 gods the central organising system of both time and space in his theoretical city state called Magnesia, with monthly festivals alloted to each divinity including Pluto-Hades, to whom the last month is dedicated, and 12 tribes named after the 12 divinities, each possessing a 12th of the land. For Plato the number seems to offer a possibility of a universalising order, both natural and divine, as the foundation of his city. Soon afterwards – if not before – real cities began to organise their calendars on this pattern, including the real city of Magnesia.

But the canonisation of twelveness seems to have been separate from the canonisation of any particular 12 gods. By substituting Hestia for Dionysus, you got a neat set of six gods and six goddesses. Heracles and/or Asclepius could push out the ever unpopular Ares. It would be nice to know who was pushed out of Plato’s 12 in Magnesia by the inclusion of Pluto. Often we have no idea which 12 are included; sometimes their identity is very surprising. The 12 gods honoured with six altars by Heracles at Olympia, for instance, were Zeus and Poseidon, Athena and Hera, Hermes and Apollo, the Graces and Dionysus, Artemis and the River Alpheius, Cronos and Rhea. In witchy Thessaly it seems likely that Hecate Enodia would have been chosen.


Barbara Graziosi turns out to be uninterested in what it means to be Olympian or in who or what the gods of Olympus are, glossing them merely as ‘the supreme’, ‘the 12 main’ or ‘the most important’ gods. She is more concerned with their ‘history’. So in 18 short chapters we learn about the gods in epic, in the pre-Socratics, in Plato, in the history of Alexander, in Rome, in Roman epic, in the Church Fathers, in medieval Arabic astrology, in Boccaccio and Petrarch, in Malatesta’s Rimini. A conclusion reviews the narrative and looks forward to baroque opera, the Berlin Olympics and Borges.

There are some nice details along the way. In the late Alexander Romance, dating from the third century ad, Alexander’s mother has to hold her baby inside her womb until the heavens come into an alignment suitable for the birth of the conqueror of the world. The planet Mars (Ares) seems like a good bet, but the pharaoh-magician Nectanebo warns her against it: ‘Ares is a lover of horses and war, but was exhibited naked and unarmed by the Sun on his adulterous bed. So whoever is born at this hour will be a laughing-stock.’ The early Roman poet Ennius fits all 12 Romanised Olympians into two lines of verse: ‘Iuno Vesta Minerva Ceres Diana Venus Mars/Mercurius Iovis Neptunus Volcanus Apollo.’ As Graziosi notes, all the goddesses are in the first line, while the second line is devoted to male gods. But Mars-Ares has slipped up into the women’s quarters and sidled up to Venus.

It’s such a huge topic that it’s unsurprising that the treatment is patchy, but what is surprising is that Graziosi seems to have felt the need to pad it out with extraneous material. The Alexander Romance’s description of Alexander’s birth occupies half of the brief chapter on astrology. Boccaccio’s descriptions of Canary Islanders (‘they dance rather like the French’) take up a quarter of the chapter on ‘Old Gods in the New World’. It’s hard to see any connection at all between Boccaccio’s Canaries and the history of the gods of Olympus. There is much more substantial material that could be used to discuss the way pagan antiquity informed understanding of the religions of the New World. This seems not just patchy but random.

Much of the chapter on Alexander is devoted to an account of what he got up to and where he went – map usefully provided – before it turns to the question of his rivalry with Dionysus. Some of the sketches of historical background that Graziosi provides are seriously misleading. A chapter on the Romans informs us that ‘Hannibal kept two Greek writers in his retinue to record his deeds for a global audience … The Romans for their part captured the Greek historian Polybius.’ Polybius was simply one of a thousand prominent Greek statesmen taken by the Romans as hostages for good behaviour after the battle of Pydna; he wasn’t captured as a potential source of pro-Roman propaganda.

This padding seems to have replaced thoughtful analysis, which is surprising as well as disappointing since Graziosi is the author along with Johannes Haubold of some work on Homer and the epic tradition which is very thoughtful indeed. It is also disappointing for another reason. Stories about the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece are often the first point of contact with the world of antiquity for young people. But at the point when these young minds want to move on from Percy Jackson they are faced with a library of bewildering complexity, its shelves stacked with volumes with the word ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ in the title. And if that doesn’t put them off they will be confronted with a variety of unfamiliar powers (Nemesis, Leto, Sense of Shame), weird festivals and rituals that no one can fully explain, and a lot of space devoted to arguments over what can and can’t be known.

In these debates even the most familiar Olympians are quickly fragmented. There might be several different cults to one god, all of them employing quite separate altars and distinguished by a cult surname or epiklesis that emphasises a distinct form or character or interest. Heavenly ‘Uranian’ Aphrodite and Aphrodite Pandemos ‘of all the people’ were carefully separated and sometimes given different origins, one arising from Heaven’s male genitalia, the other born in a more regular fashion from the goddess Dione. To this pair we could add Armed Aphrodites, the Bearded Aphrodite, Black Aphrodite, Sailing Aphrodite, the Courtesan Aphrodite and, strangest of all, Aphrodite the devoted wife of Hermes. Which Artemis would one bump into as one wandered the halls of Olympus: a mini-skirted virgin huntress or the Ephesian Artemis, swaddled in hard-boiled eggs?

Much academic work on gods and goddesses focuses precisely on this diversity and complexity, but as well as being off-putting to non-specialists it presents a false picture of what the Greek gods were for the ancient Greeks. Alongside the oddities and specificities of local versions of gods there must have been room for a more generalised vision drawing on a wealth of popular images, a vision not that different from the one presented by Jason and the Argonauts, minus the English accents. A book that bridged the gap between Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece in the children’s section and Greek Religion on the adult shelves would not only be useful but might also help us understand how ancient Greeks imagined their gods and managed to resolve the tension between the gods of stories and pictures and the gods of sacrifice and cult. I’m still waiting.

[*] The only religious monument on top of Olympus is one of those shrines to the Prophet Elijah found on every peak in Greece; the only evidence for Zeus-related activity so far discovered seems to belong to a later Roman period.