The Olympian Gods

In popular Greek imagination there were twelve gods and goddesses specifically associated with Olympus, each living in a palace of their own built on bronze foundations in the high mountain valleys. For the most part they were imagined in human form – which prompted the late sixth- / early fifh-century bc philosopher Xenophanes to observe: If oxen, horses or lions had hands, with which they could draw and work as men do, horses would draw gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would make their bodies like their own.

The Olympian Gods Photo Gallery

The gods possessed human emotions and their hierarchy reflected that of Bronze Age Greece -with an autocratic king, a queen, lords, princes and princesses; but they were as far removed from mankind as the most powerful mortal ruler from his lowest slave. There were other differences, too. Most crucially the gods were immortal. Ichor (divine blood) pulsed through their veins. They dined exclusively on ambrosia (literally, ‘not mortal [food]’), washed down with nectar (‘deathly’). And they could assume whatever shape they liked – bird or animal, man or woman travelling effortlessly across the earth, interacting with humankind for good or ill.

In the imagination Olympus, too, could assume different forms. Mostly it was the mountain in northeast Greece, but at other times it was something altogether more remote and less substantial. In the Iliad, Homer pictures Hera harnessing her chariot and driving with Athene to find Zeus on a journey that appears to take them from this more ethereal realm to the physical mountain.

Raising her veil, Hera turns towards Zeus on the frieze from Athens’ fifth-century BC Parthenon.

Quickly Hera flicked her lash across the horses, and the gates of heaven opened of their own accord, groaning on their hinges. The Horae [‘Hours’] are their gate-keepers, and to them are entrusted the mighty heavens and Olympus, for they decide whether to release the rolling clouds or close them in. So, through these gates they urged their horses, which responded to the goad, and they found Zeus, the son of Cronus, sitting on his own, far from the other gods, on the peak of many-ridged Olympus.

On Olympus the gods are often envisaged in assembly or banqueting. Perhaps the most stunning representation of this divine assembly appears on the Parthenon frieze (inspired by a frieze on the earlier Siphnian Treasury at Delphi). On it, Hera receives news from her divine messenger Iris, while beside her, seated on a throne, her husband looks on in majesty. He is Zeus, the undisputed ruler of the gods.

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