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The Olympian Gods

The Olympian Gods

This is a 101 crash course in Greek and Roman gods. In ancient Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods and goddesses ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace on Mount Olympus. Besides this canon of major deities, many other gods, half-gods, human offspring and heroes visited the Olympus, and these twelve Olympians descended frequently to earth to have their wars, love affairs, parties and weddings, with other gods and humans. With 2,917 meters, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, about 80 km southwest from Thessaloniki.

Cornelis van Poeleburgh (1594 – 1667), “Feast of the Gods” (1623), 32x84cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Roman mythology draws directly on Greek mythology and the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks. Greek and Roman mythologies are therefore often classified together as Classical mythology. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” and therefore the twelve Olympians are often known under their Roman or Latin names.

There is a certain hierarchy, with Zeus being the King of the Gods and Hera their Queen. Almost all of these twelve have family relationships, Zeus often is the father although his kids have different mothers. The Olympian Gods and Goddesses have their own field of reign, covering all aspects of antique mankind. They can be recognised by their posture and physics, and by their attributes. Hereunder the Twelve Olympians, also with their Roman names and of course with their attributes. After some practising it becomes an easy and fun task to recognise them. Here is the 101 crash course!

Zeus (Jupiter)

King of the Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter. He is associated with a bundle of thunderbolts and the eagle. Zeus is married to Hera.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1751 – 1818), “Jupiter” (c.1800), 103x79cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior god, ruling over the other deities who are living on their divine Mount Olympus. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controls the weather, specifically with thunder and lightning. He married Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women and occasionally a man or boy. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals and demi-gods. His wife Hera doesn’t like this at all of course. Zeus’ amorous adventures and Hera’s counterattacks and revenge provide an endless source of fun and many of these stories are inspiration for generations of artists. On the painting Zeus (Jupiter) enthroned, with the eagle at his feet and in his hand a bundle of thunderbolts.

Hera (Juno)

Queen of the Gods, Goddess of marriage and family. The Roman equivalent is Juno. Her attribute is the peacock. Hera is the wife of Zeus.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617), “Juno” (c.1595), 13x11cm, Drawing on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Hera (Greek Ἥρᾱ, Latin Juno) rules as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse, Zeus. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. This has been depicted multiple times throughout history of art and is an endless source of stories and inspiration for painters. Acting as a matronly Queen of the deities of Olympus, she is normally associated with women, marriage and childbirth. Hera’s most usual attribute is her favourite bird, the peacock, as can be seen in-extremis on Glotzius’ drawing from the Rijksmuseum.

Poseidon (Neptune)

The God of the Sea. The Roman equivalent is Neptune. He can be recognised by his trident, horses and dolphins. Poseidon (God of the Sea) is a brother of Zeus (God of the Sky) and Demeter (God of the Land).

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815), “Neptune” (c.1754), 70x113cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers of which Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν, Latin Neptune) received dominion over the seas and waters of the world, its storm and earthquakes. He was the protector of seamen and the god of horses. Poseidon lived with his wife in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was a frequent visitor on Mount Olympus. On the painting, as usual, Neptune is depicted as an old man with long flowing white hair and beard, riding over the waves of the sea in a coach made of a shell and drawn by his horses. His head crowned as king of the seas, trident in one hand and a big pearl in his other hand.

Demeter (Ceres)

Goddess of the Harvest and Agriculture. The Roman equivalent is Ceres. Her attributes are wheat and the cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty. Demeter is the sister of Zeus and Poseidon.

Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), “Ceres” (c.1717), 142x116cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter (Greek Δημήτηρ, Latin Ceres) is the goddess of the harvest, who oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. On the paining by Watteau she represents summer. Ceres wields a sickle and sits on clouds among sheaves of wheat. The figures surrounding Ceres — the crayfish, the lion, and the nude blond woman — represent the zodiacal symbols of summer (Cancer, Leo, and Virgo). The name of Ceres comes back in the word “cereal”.

Athena (Minerva)

Goddess of War and Wisdom. The Roman equivalent is Minerva. Her symbols are the owl and the body armour including a helmet. Athena is born out of Zeus’ head.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669), “Minerva” (1635), 138x117cm, The Leiden Collection, New York.

Athena (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ, Latin Minerva), was the daughter of Zeus, born out of his head and already at birth dressed in full armour. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. In the Rembrandt painting, Minerva can be seen in her study, looking up from her large folio. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the laurel wreath crowning her head. In the background are more books and parts of her body armour, a golden helmet, a spear and a large shield.

Artemis (Diana)

Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. The Roman equivalent is Diana. Symbols are the moon, bow and arrow. She is a daughter of Zeus and Apollo is her twin brother.

Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707 – 1762), “Diana” (c.1740), 109x77cm, Private Collection, latest at Sotheby’s.

Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις, Latin Diana)  and her twin brother Apollo were children of Zeus. The twins became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. On the painting she is easily recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara, the bow and arrow on her back and a hunting dog at her feet.

Apollo

God of the Sun, Light and Music. His attributes are the lyre, sun and laurel wreath. Apollo is a son of Zeus and Artemis is his twin sister.

Rosalba Carriera (1675 – 1757), “Apollo” (c.1743), 67x52cm, Pastel on Paper, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Artemis’s twin brother Apollo (Greek Ἀπόλλων and the same name in Latin) was the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge, and thus the exact opposite of Demeter. Zeus may have been the senior of the deities, but among the most important and popular with the Greeks and Romans, and later with artists, is Apollo. He is a beardless young man, and the epitome of male beauty. His most common attribute is the lyre, his constant companion for both music and poetry. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women and from time to time a boy. On the painting Apollo is depicted as a male beauty, with his lyre and a laurel wreath on his head.

Ares (Mars)

God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629), “Mars” (1629), 107x93cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

The attributes of Ares (Greek Ἄρης, Latin Mars) are any part of arms and armour of a warrior, like a helmet and shield. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares revealed in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. Often depicted asleep, as on our painting here, which makes him more sympathetic. The God of War asleep becomes the Good of Peace. His name is still used in “martial arts”.

Hephaestus (Vulcan)

God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708 – 1787), “Vulcan” (c.1750), 98x76cm, Pinacoteca Civica, Como.

Hephaestus (Greek Ἥφαιστος, Latin Vulcan) learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire and metallurgy. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes. Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses – but he managed to marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love. His attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer and anvil as used in the working of metals. These tools can be seen on this painting, with fire in the background. The word “volcano” refers to the Roman name of Hephaestus, Vulcan.

Aphrodite (Venus)

Goddess of Love, Beaty and Sexuality. The Roman equivalent is Venus. She can be recognised a dove and beauty aspects like jeweller and flowers. Aphrodite married Hephaestos.

François Boucher (1703 – 1770), “Venus” (1751), 108x85cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη, Latin Venus) as the most beautiful woman, was married to the most ugly of the gods, Hephaestus. She enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, including an affair with the beautiful young guy Adonis. Aphrodite (mostly as Venus) has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical female nude and in the case of her affair with Adonis, also with a beautiful man. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times, already on some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Boucher painting, formally called “The Toilette of Venus” was executed for the bathroom of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. Boucher devised a summary of the key features: Venus as female beauty, and an unfurling of luxurious furniture, fabric, flowers, and pearls. The name of the goddess still lives on in the words “aphrodisiac” and “venereal”.

Hermes (Mercury)

God of travel, commerce and communication, Messenger of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Mercury. Attributes are winged sandals, hat with wings, and the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents. His father is Zeus.

Peter Paul Rubens (workshop), “Mercury” (c.1637), 180x69cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς, Latin Mercury) is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals, a distinctive staff with a pair of serpents around it, known as a caduceus, and a hat or helmet which bears wings too. The pair of entwined serpents along the caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger. This is where the word “mercurial” comes from. There’s also a touch of mischief about Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators. On the Prado painting we can see the wings around his feet and on his head, and the two snakes around the rod; and of course the male beauty of Hermes himself.

Dionysus (Bacchus)

God of Wine. The Roman equivalent is Bacchus. As God of Wine he can of course be recognised by the grapevine and a cup. Dionysus is the youngest son of Zeus.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), “Bacchus” (c.1598), 95x85cm, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.

As the god of grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, Dionysus (Greek Διόνυσος, Latin Bacchus) was an easy favourite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, traveling widely and gifting them with wine. Like on the Caravaggio painting here, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attributes are grapes, wine leaves and of course a glass of wine. His name lives on in the word “bacchanal”.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Letter” (c.1663), 82x68cm, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, London.

Gerard ter Borch, 1617 – 1681, was a highly skilled Dutch Golden Age painter, who influenced his fellow Dutch colleagues Metsu, Dou and certainly also Vermeer. Ter Borch painted men and women, mistress and servant, soldiers and civilians, in the sanctum of guard room and home and hinting at their love lives. As this is the pre-email and pre-chat era, messages were sent by letters. The love letter was the appropriate start of dating. Letters are a returning subject in Ter Borch’s paintings. And a lot is left to the imagination of the viewer. Look at the painting from the Royal Collection, London. What is the lady reading from that letter? And is the dog, symbol of fidelity and now sleeping, a hint?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Officer Writing a letter, with a Trumpeter” (1658), 57x44cm, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Gerard ter Borch situates this scene in a guard room. The ace-of-hearts card on the floor suggests that the letter being written is an amorous one. The pieces of the clay pipe scattered around the card may refer to frustrations the letter-writer is having in expressing his romantic feelings. And the Trumpeter, a soldier-messenger, is waiting to deliver the letter. And he looks at us viewers to make us part of the story.   

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Curiosity” (1660), 76x62cm, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Three women appear in a luxuriously appointed interior. On the table is a letter with a broken seal and the answer back is in the making. The girl peers over the shoulder of the writer and tries to read what’s being written. The standing woman appears pensive or lovelorn. In the 17the Century letter writing was a common feature of courtship. Perhaps the woman at the table is helping her friend craft a response to a suitor?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “An Officer Dictating a Letter” (c.1656), 75x51cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

A young officer is dictating a letter to a man with the quill, probably a soldier on duty who could write and read. Their comrade, a trumpeter soldier and messenger, will deliver the letter. His faintly amused expression and the way he catches the eye of the viewer creates a conspiratorial air: is there love in that letter?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Woman Writing a Letter” (c.1655), 38x28cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

A woman is writing a letter and we can only imagine for ourselves if its love she is thinking and writing about. Maybe the large pearl she wears has a meaning; it can be interpreted as a symbol of virginity. This painting with such minimal scene, certainly was an example for other artists, like Vermeer.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Messenger” known as “The Unwelcome News” (1653), 67x59cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Here, we see a soldier receiving a letter from a messenger. The door on the left is still open and the messenger has his hat in his hand. He came rushing in, to hand over that letter. That is for sure not a love letter, but most likely a call to the front, away from the girl who leans against him so lovingly.

Gerard ter Borch’s works are comparatively rare; about eighty have been catalogued. Ter Borch died in Deventer, The Netherlands, on this day December 8, 1681. 

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494)

Hans Memling from Bruges, Belgium, died on this day August 11 in 1494. Besides producing the standard devotional paintings, he also became one of the most sought-after Netherlandish portrait painters. He invented an unique and totally new style of portrait, with a landscape in the background, as if the sitter is portrayed outside or in front of a window.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Man with a Letter” (c1485), 35x26cm, Oil on Panel, Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Memling’s clientele was quite international. Bruges had many visitors from Florence, Tuscany, as the Italians and the Flemish were partners in textile trading and banking. The Medici family even had their permanent representatives in Bruges. These wealthy merchant guys with haircuts fashionable in Florence, asked to be portrayed against a Flemish background.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Young Man” (c1472), 38x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The portraits were shipped to Florence and many of these are now in Italian museums. Already a few years after the first Memling portraits were sent home to Florence, painters from Tuscany started to use similar Flemish backgrounds in their own paintings. Memling is the perfect example of the influence of Netherlandish art on the Italian Renaissance. Memling revolutionized Italian painting.