Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

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The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

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Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

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Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

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Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

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Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

The ἰδιώτης’s Guide to Greek Drama

greektheaterdionysiswowIf entertainment had a great great (lots more greats) grandmother, she’d be wearing a chiton instead of a sweater and feeding you samali instead of cookies, because that grandmother would be the Greek Drama. The shows that started them all. All your favorite movies, television shows, and stage productions owe a huge debt of gratitude to ancient Greek men in big dresses, Elton John shoes and creepy masks. It sounds goofy, but really, Greek Dramas were and remain some of the most sophisticated contributions to Western literature and entertainment which we still possess. With their finely crafted stories, characters and language, Greek Dramas could be the poster children for the phrase “Oldies, but Goodies”. Of course, one can easily pick up a book of Aeschylus or Aristophanes and simply enjoy, but it’s always more fun to understand the background of a thing before digging into it. So let’s begin…

Greek Dramas, as far as we know, started being written in about the 6th century BC, making them some of the oldest works still regularly enjoyed today. The very oldest surviving of these is “The Persians”  by Aeschylus, composed and performed in 472 BC. In the beginning, these dramas were only tragedies, but eventually, comedies came into practice as well. They were usually composed for competitions held at religious festivals to honor the gods. The winners of the competitions would often receive a laurel wreath, a symbol of Apollo that represents one of the greatest honors a Greek could attain.

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A Greek Chorus. Not creepy at all.

The plays featured very few characters; at first, only one. However, the character/s were always accompanied by a Chorus. The Chorus was a small to large group of people who acted as a single entity (occasionally with a leader) and were responsible for providing perspective and commentary on the actions for the audience, usually in a poetic and dramatic way. As time went on, the more daring and innovative playwrights included two or even three characters and had the Chorus actually interact with the actors, turning it into a sort of character of its own.

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Statue of an ancient Greek actor. Please notice the disco shoes.

All the characters wore the now famous theater masks. Unlike the simplified versions we use for decoration today, Greek theater masks were extremely decorative, colorful and ingeniously designed so that the open mouth functioned like a sort of megaphone, allowing the actor to be heard more easily. The actors also wore long robes, made in bright colors and enormous shoes that would put Lady Gaga to shame. All of the big masks, robes, and shoes were there to make the actors larger than life and therefore visible to even the spectators in the top seats. And not only their appearances, but their movements and voices had to be hugely exaggerated. To make things even louder (and cooler), it is believed that the plays were actually closer to being chanted than spoken, which would have made the words resonate more in the theater. No doubt, if we saw such performances today, we would think the actors insufferable hams, but that’s was what had to be done in those days.  Unsurprisingly, actors in Ancient Greece were all male regardless of the gender of the character portrayed. But to be honest, one would hardly be able to tell what they were anyway with the distance and the elaborate gear.

 

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Greek theater composed of theatron, orchestra and skene.

Plays were performed in large outdoor theaters mathematically designed for maximum acoustic amplification. These theaters were separated into three main parts: the theatron, the orchestra and the skene. The Theatron was the seating area, where the spectators (almost definitely men-only) watched the play. The Orchestra was a circular or semicircular area where the chorus was located and where they would often perform dancing and musical interludes while the actors prepared for the next scene. The Skene was an enormous set usually made to look like a building and before which the action took place. Skenes were made in such a way that natural looking exits and entrances could be made through built in doors and archways. These sets were plain at first, but became more elaborate and decorated as time went on.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx

But with all this grandeur, it was the plays themselves were of course the real reasons for being there. The tragedies were intellectual, philosophical pieces with masterful writing and drama. The comedies, on the other hand, were filled with bawdy and irreverent humor that might be considered both hilarious and vulgar even by today’s standards. The most celebrated of the tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who all won numerous competitions and were beloved by the public. The comedic scene, meanwhile, was dominated by Aristophanes and Menander, the former being far more famous than the latter. Plays by all of these playwrights were celebrated in Greece for centuries and are still popular today all over the world. The most famous of their works include Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. 

Greek influence on modern entertainment is everywhere, especially in dramatic terminology. We draw many words related to entertainment from Greek. The words protagonist and antagonist come from the Greek meaning the first actor and ‘rival’ respectively. ‘Parade’ comes from the word parados, which referred to the marching or dancing entrance of the Chorus onto the stage. ‘Theater’ obviously came from theatron , and the word skene developed into ‘scene’. Interestingly, our word ‘obscene’ is believed to come from the Greek phrase ob skene, translated as ‘off stage‘. Ob skene referred to the rule of Greek theater that any violent or offensive parts of the play must not be performed on stage but instead be described to the audience by a character. For instance, murder and suicide were ob skene events and would happen only offstage. This is why in Oedipus the King, for example, Jocasta leaves the stage to kill herself and her death is reported by a messenger instead.

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On the right is that face you make when your play survives for 2,000 years.

Sadly, countless numbers of plays were lost in time. In fact, most plays not by the playwrights I mentioned above (and many of theirs as well) are gone forever. But their legacy and influence on modern entertainment remains, and those plays which have been preserved are marvelous testament to the civilization and sophistication of ancient Greek society. For while their plays are magnificent, they are only one piece of the enormous inheritance which Western Culture received from the Greek people.