INTRODUCTION TO GREEK MYTH
The people of Athens (the city was named after the goddess Athene) built the
Parthenon temple in her honor. Decorations on the Parthenon depict the birth
of Athene, who springs fully armed from Zeus’s head. This illustrates a
mythical paradox, a male creating life without the participation of a female.
Zeus also gave birth to a male child, Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication,
who emerged from his father’s thigh.
Zeus’s giving birth to these two children suggests that myth has the power to
integrate polar opposites such as rationality and emotionalism.
When Zeus swallowed his pregnant first wife, Metis, he took into himself the
cunning intelligence that she represented. Their daughter Athene was powerful
like her father and wise in counsel like her mother.
The Greeks had no sacred text like the Bible or Torah or Qur’an. Instead, they
learned about “holy things” (ta hiera) through customary rites, public and
private, and by listening to stories about the gods and seeing the gods in visual
In the hands of the great poets, Greek myths acquire a focus on humanistic
values, placing human consciousness in the center of the universe. Protagoras
declared, “Man is the measure of all things.”
Although Greek myth emphasizes the great gulf between the human and the
divine, in important ways the Greek gods resembled their human worshipers:
they were anthropomorphic; while they could not die, they could be injured
and “bleed” ichor; like humans they ate and drank, but the divine food was
called ambrosia and the drink nectar.
The Greeks chose to organize their gods in a family characterized by the same
tensions, affections, hostilities, and rivalry that marked their own
intergenerational human families. Like human families in ancient Greece, the
family of the gods was patriarchal.
According to one telling of Greek myth, gods and humans sprang from a
common source—Gaea, Mother Earth. Humans often compete with each other
and sometimes even with the gods, but such challenges to the divine powers
usually have disastrous results for the vulnerable humans.