From “The Religions of the Ancient World” by George Rawlinson, 1883
That “in general the Greek religion may be correctly described as a worship of Nature ; and that most of its deities corresponded either to certain parts of the sensible world, or to certain classes of objects comprehended under abstract notions,” is a remark of Bishop Thirlwall in which most critics at the present day will acquiesce with readiness. Placed in a region of marked beauty and variety, and sympathising strongly with the material world around him, the lively Greek saw in the objects with which he was brought into contact, no inert mass of dull and lifeless matter, but a crowd of mighty agencies, full of a wonderful energy. The teeming earth, the
quickening sun, the restless sea, the irresistible storm, every display of superhuman might which he beheld, nay, all motion and growth, impressed him with the sense of something living and working. He did not, however, like his Indian brother, deify (as a general rule) the objects themselves ; or, at any rate, if he had ever done so, it was in a remote past, of which language alone retained the trace; he did not, in the times in which he is really known to us, worship the storm, or the sun, or the earth, or the ocean, or the winds, or the rivers, but, by the power of his imagination, he invested all these things with personality.
Everywhere around him, in all the different localities, and departments, and divisions, and subdivisions of the physical world, he recognised agencies of unseen beings endued with life, volition, and design. Nature was peopled for him with a countless multitude of such invisible powers, some inhabiting the earth, some the heaven, some the sea, some the dark and dreadful region beneath the earth, into which the sun’s rays could not penetrate. ” Of such beings,” as Mr. Grote observes, ” there were numerous varieties, and many gradations both in power and attributes ; there were differences of age, sex, and local residence, relations, both conjugal and filial, between them, and tendencies sympathetic as well as repugnant. The gods formed a sort of political community of their own, which had its hierarchy, its distributions of ranks and duties, its contentions for power, and occasional revolutions, its public meetings in the agora of Olympus, and its multitudinous banquets or festivals.
The great Olympic gods were, in fact, only the most exalted amongst an aggregate of quasihuman or ultra-human personages—daemons, heroes, nymphs, eponymous genii, identified with each river, mountain, cape, town, village, or known circumscription of territory, besides horses, bulls, and dogs, of immortal breed and peculiar attributes, monsters of strange lineaments and combinations — Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire’—and besides l gentile and ancestral deities” and ‘ peculiar beings whose business it was to co-operate or impede in the various stages of each trade or business” Numerous additions might be made to this list.
Not only had each mountain chain and mountain-top a separate presiding god or goddess, but troops of Oreads inhabited the mountain regions, and disported themselves among them ; not only was there a river-god to each river, a Simoi’s and a Scamancler, an Enipeus and an Achelous, but every nameless stream and brooklet had its water-nymph, every spring and fountain its naiad ; wood-nymphs peopled the glades and dells of the forest regions; air-gods moved in the zephyrs and the breezes; each individual oak had its dryad. To the gods proper were added the heroes, gods of a lower grade, and these are spoken of as “thirty thousand in number, guardian daemons, spirits of departed heroes, who are continually walking over earth, veiled in darkness, watching the deeds of men, and dispensing weal or woe
It is this multiplicity of the objects of worship, together with their lively active personality, which forms the first striking feature of the ancient Greek religion, and naturally attracts the attention of observers in the first instance. Nowhere have we such a multitudinous pantheon. Not only was the multiplicity of external nature reflected in the spiritual world as in a mirror, but every phase, and act, and circumstance of human life, every quality of the mind, every attribute of the body, might be, generally was, personified, and became a divine being. Sleep and Death, Old Age and Pain, Strength, Force, Strife, Victory, Battle, Murder, Hunger, Dreaming, Memory, Forgetfulness, Lawlessness, Law, Forethought, Afterthought, Grief, Ridicule, Retribution, Recklessness, Deceit, Wisdom, Affection, Grace, were gods or goddesses, were presented to the mind as persons, and had their place in the recognised Theogonies, or systematic arrangements of the chief deities according to supposed relationship and descent. Similarly, the facts of Nature,- as distinct from her parts, were personified and worshipped, Chaos, Day, Night, Time, the Hours, Dawn, Darkness, Lightning, Thunder, Echo, the Rainbow, were persons — ” persons, just as much as Zeus and Apollo “—though not, perhaps, so uniformly regarded in this light.
Another leading feature in the system is the existence of marked gradations of rank and power among the gods, who fall into at least five definite classes, clearly distinguished the one from the other. First and foremost come the Olympic deities, twelve in number, six male and six female, but not as a rule connected together in pairs—
Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, Hera, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hestia, and Demeter.
Next in order are the great bulk of the gods and goddesses, Hades, Dionysus, Cronus, Uranus, Hyperion, Helios, Nereus, Proteus, AEolus, Leto, Dione, Persephone, Hecate, Selene, Themis, Harmonia, the Graces, the Muses, the Fates, the Furies, the Eileithyise, the Oceanids, the Nereids, the Nymphs, the Naiads, and the like.
In the third rank may be placed the deities who act as attendants on the greater gods, and perform services for them, Iris, the messenger of Jove, Hebe, his cup-bearer, Kratos and Bia, the servants of Hephaestus, Boreas, Notus, etc., subordinates of AEolus, the Hours, handmaids of Aphrodite, etc.
Fourthly, we may name the more shadowy gods and goddesses, Night, Day, Ether, Dawn, Darkness, Death, Sleep, Strife, Memory, Fame, Retribution, Recklessness, etc., who do not often appear as deities except in poetry, and are perhaps rather personifications consciously made than real substantive divinities.
Finally must be mentioned the monstrous births ascribed to certain divine unions or marriages, e.g., the Cyclopes, and Centimani, the offspring of Earth and Heaven (Grea and Uranus); the Harpies, daughters of Thaumas and Electra, one of the Oceanidse ; the Gorgons and Grseae, children of Phorcys and Ceto ; Chrysaor and Pegasus, born of the blood of Medusa, when she was slain by Perseus ; Geryon and Echidna, sprung from Chrysaor and Callirrhoe ; Orthros, the two-headed dog of Geryon, born of Typhaon and Echidna ; Cerberus, the dog of Hades, with fifty heads ; Scylla and Charybdis; the Lernsean Hydra, the Sphinx of Thebes, the Nemean Lion, the Dragon of the Hesperides, the Centaurs, the Chimaera, etc., etc.
The chief interest naturally attaches to the gods of the First Order, those commonly denominated ” Olympic ” or “Olympian”.