The Olympian Gods and their symbols | Vol. 1
Academy of Athens Sculptures

As you are digging more and more into the Ancient Greek Mythology, it is unavoidable to notice patterns and symbols that accompany mythological scenes and heroes. In this blog post, we start to clear up the symbols that are associated with the Olympian Gods. 

 

Zeus

The king of the Gods and ruler of Olympus goes the most times together with his sceptre (in Ancient Greek: skeptron), which was a long staff headed by a bird. It came to be used by respected elders, judges, priests, and in general people in authority, as well as by kerykes (heralds). A typical example is that of Agamemnon sending Odysseus to the leaders of the Achaneans, lending him his sceptre.

However, the most famous symbol of Zeus is the thunderbolt. According to Greek mythology, It is a weapon given to him by Cyclopes, the giant, one-eyed creatures. Considering that Zeus was the big one God, above all the rest of the Olympian Gods, we understand the connection between the depictions of Zeus holding the thunderbolt and the description in Heraclitus’ fragment talking about ‘the Thunderbolt that steers the course of all things’.

Temple of Zeus in Nemea

Temple of Zeus in Nemea – credits: lefpap / depositphotos.com

Other frequent -animal- symbols are the eagle and the bull, the former expressing pride and Zeus’ power over the skies and the latter referring mainly to the form he took when raping Europa -a scene depicted on the Greek 2-euro coin.

 

Poseidon

Poseidon, the sea and oceans God, brother of Zeus, was also known as the ‘Earth Shaker’ believed to cause earthquakes. How? By using his trident -a three-pronged spear divine weapon, also said to have been produced and given by the Cyclopes, before the war commenced between the Titans and the Olympians. The word ‘trident’ comes from the Latin word tridens or tridentis: tri meaning ‘three’ and dentes meaning “teeth”, referring specifically to the three prongs. The Greek equivalent is ‘τρίαινα’ (triaina), from Proto-Greek trianja, meaning ‘threefold’. The Greek term is vague about the shape.

Apart from striking the earth, if he was offended or angered, he used the trident to show his power over the seawater. For example, in his attempt to conquer the city of Athens, he struck the ground with his trident and caused a spring of salty water to bounce up. However, it is believed he always carried his trident everywhere. Being the king of the seas, Poseidon’s messengers were the dolphins. That’s why in all the depicts of the sea, Poseidon is always surrounded by dolphins, which were considering benevolent animals and a good omen for the fishermen. Not forget to mention that it was a dolphin who persuaded the sea nymph Amphitrite to marry Poseidon.

There are also many myths stating the reason why the horse is regarded as his symbol. One suggests that Poseidon was the first God who created the first horse, while hippocamps were the horses who pulled his chariot on the sea. 

 

Hades

The 3rd of the three big Olympian Gods is connected to specific symbols, some of them today could be rated as ‘creepy’. The Helm of Darkness made for Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, by the Cyclopes allowed the person wearing it to become invisible. As you see, Cyclopes helped very much the Olympian Gods to win the rest of the war against the Titans by creating weapons of different attributes, when they freed. However, Hades kept his own after the war and lent it out to other gods or demigods on several occasions. Such was when he lent it to Perseus who was hunting Medusa. Wearing it, he was invisible, so Medusa’s gaze has no effect on him. Hades is also strongly connected to Cerberus (in Greek: Κέρβερος, Kerberos), the three-headed dog, offspring of the monsters Echidna and Typhon, which guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving. In Greek mythology, Cerberus, was often called the ‘hound of Hades’.

Other symbols of Hades are the cypress tree, that in the classical tradition was associated with death and the Underworld, and the screech owl.

 

Hera

In ancient Greece the pomegrante was a symbol of fertility. So, it became a symbol synonymous with Hera, wife of Zeus and Goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth! In some Greek dialects, the pomegranate was called rhoa, thought to be connected with the name of the earth goddess Rhea, mother of Hera. As the wife of Zeus, she was an Olympian Queen. So, it is clear why diadem (an ornamental type of crown) is one of Hera’s symbols together with the sceptre. ‘Proof’ of the above symbols is the sculpture of Polykleitos depicting Hera in the Argive Heraion, portrayed with a sceptre in one hand and offering a pomegranate in the other.

Her sacred animals were the peacock and the cow. So, if you are wondering why Zeus decided to turn Io, his mortal young lover, into a cow to hide her from Hera, the answer is obvious: it was a strategic move to appease the anger of Hera with an animal that’s sacred to and symbolic of her.  

 

Athena

The Goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration, Athena is associated with many different symbols. First of all, her sacred animal is considered to be the owl, as the source of her wisdom and judgment. It is said, also, that the owl’s exceptional night vision symbolizes Athena’s ability to ‘see’ when others cannot!

In some depictions, including the famous statue Athena Parthenos, the massive but lost chryselephantine sculpture of Parthenonas, made by Phidias, carries or wears arms and armor, including a lance, a shield, and a helmet. Sometimes, this shield was goatskin emblazoned with the head of Medusa or the aegis of her father, Zeus. 

Goddess Athena statue

Goddess Athena statue – credits: Konstantinos Gerakis / Shutterstock.com

Last but not least, it is widely known that the olive tree is a symbol of Athena, and, as a result the city for which Athena was a protector, Athens. According to the myth, Zeus hold a contest between Athena and Poseidon in which he asked from the two to offer the people of Athens a gift. Athena achieved to win by producing a beautiful and fruitful olive tree to the Athenians, who turned down the salty water sprung from the striking of Poseidon’s trident on a rock, as, despite its beneficial attributes, the salty water wasn’t good for the boarding system of the citizens. 

Excited about the ancient greek mythology? Check the best mythology day trips from Athens here!

 

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