Roman name: Jupiter or Jove. The sky-god Zeus rules Mount Olympus. His weapon is the thunderbolt, and his bird is the eagle. The central figure of the myths, Zeus epitomizes their complexity. At times he is divine and represents a pure, eternal sense of justice; at other times, he is capricious and cruel.
Read an in-depth analysis of Zeus.
Roman name: Juno. Zeus’s wife and sister, Hera is a very powerful goddess known mostly for her jealousy. She is often vicious and spiteful, and it is usually Zeus’s infidelity that incites her. Many unfortunate mortals endure hardships by provoking Hera’s wrath.
Roman name: Neptune. The god of the sea, Poseidon is Zeus’s brother and second only to him in power. Poseidon holds a decade-long grudge against Odysseus. The often cruel and unpredictable violence of the seas is assumed to be a result of his anger.
Roman name: Pluto. The brother of Zeus and Poseidon, Hades rules the underworld, the realm of the dead, with his wife, Persephone.
Roman name: Minerva. Usually just called Athena, this goddess emerges from Zeus’s head fully-grown and armed. Associated with war, cleverness, and wit, it is no surprise that she favors Odysseus. Athena is the goddess of Wisdom, Reason, and Purity and is chaste, like Artemis and Hestia.
Usually just called Apollo. A son of Zeus and Leto and Artemis’s twin, he is the god of Light and Truth, the master of Poetry and Music, and the god of Archery. His Oracle at Delphi is revered for her powers of prophecy and truth.
Roman name: Diana. Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis is the beautiful huntress goddess and, like Athena, is somewhat masculine. Artemis is normally good and just, but demands a human sacrifice during the Trojan War.
Roman name: Venus. Aphrodite is the sweet and delicate goddess of Love, Beauty, and Romance. Even so, she often shows formidable power, as in the story of Cupid and Psyche, and is herself a principal cause of the Trojan War. In a strange twist, lovely Aphrodite is married to the ugly and crippled Hephaestus.
Roman name: Mercury. Hermes is the son of Zeus and the Titan Atlas’s daughter Maia. The messenger of the gods, he is fast and cunning. Hermes is a master thief, the god of Commerce and the Market, and the guide who leads the dead from Earth to Hades.
Roman name: Mars. A vicious god, Ares is hated by both his father, Zeus, and mother, Hera. The god of War, he is always bloody and ruthless, yet we see in his vain bullying that he is also, paradoxically, a coward.
Roman name: Vulcan or Mulciber. Hephaestus is either the son of Zeus and Hera, or simply of Hera alone, who gives birth to him in retaliation for Zeus’s solo fathering of Athena. The only ugly Olympian, he is also partially crippled. Hephaestus is the armorer and smith of the gods, and he forges spectacular magical objects. He is kind, generous, and good-natured.
Also known as Gaea or Mother Earth. She is the first being to emerge in the universe, born somehow out of the forces of Love, Light, and Day. She gives birth to Heaven, who then becomes her husband. This story is vastly different from the Christian creation myth, in which a deity exists first and then fashions the Earth.
Also known as Ouranos or Father Heaven. Born out of Earth, he becomes Earth’s husband and proceeds to father all the original creatures of the earth, including the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Furies.
The original gods, children of Heaven and Earth, and parents of the six original Olympians. Defeated by Zeus and his siblings in a war for control of the universe, most of the Titans are imprisoned in the bowels of the earth. Prometheus, who sides with Zeus, and his two brothers, Epimetheus and Atlas, are not imprisoned. Atlas is forced to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders forever.
Roman name: Saturn. Cronus becomes the ruler of the Titans by overthrowing his father Ouranos. He swallows each of his children as his wife Rhea gives birth to them. Rhea is able to save one, Zeus, who forces Cronus to vomit up his siblings, with whom he defeats the Titans for control of the universe.
One of the most enduring figures in Greek myth, Prometheus is the only Titan to side with Zeus against Cronus. He repeatedly defies the gods by helping humans, most notably by bringing them fire from Olympus. Though Zeus devises a cruel torture for him, chaining him to a rock where every day an eagle comes to pick at his innards, Prometheus never surrenders.
Dionysus, or Bacchus, god of wine. He embodies both the good and evil effects of alcohol. At times he is a jovial partier and patron of music and art, but at other times he is the god of madness and frenzy.
Roman name: Ceres. Though a sister of Zeus, Demeter lives on earth. Demeter is the goddess of corn and harvest. She is kinder than Dionysus but also sadder, mostly because Hades has taken her daughter, Persephone, as his reluctant bride. Demeter thus lies in mourning for four months of the year, leaving the fields barren.
Roman name: Proserpine. The beautiful daughter of Demeter whom Hades kidnaps to be his wife. She is usually passive, agreeing to whatever is asked of her. Once she even places some of her beauty in a box.
Roman name: Cupid. The son of Aphrodite. Eros uses his bow to fire magic arrows that cause people to fall in love. He is a beautiful young man, though he is typically depicted as a winged cherub. Eros, who is often blindfolded, performs works of romantic mischief whenever Aphrodite asks.
Also known as the Erinyes, the Furies are three horrible sisters—Tisiphone, Megaera, and Alecto—who torment evildoers and punish them for their sins.
Three mysterious sisters who affect the paths of all in the universe. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis assigns each person’s thread, and Atropos snips the thread of life at its end. Since fate is the only force to rule above both gods and men, the fates arguably have more power than anyone else in the Greek universe.
Roman name: Ulysses. Odysseus is the protagonist of Homer's Odyssey. He is the king of Ithaca and a great warrior in the Trojan War but is best known for his decade-long trip home from the war. Odysseus survives the challenges he encounters by using his wits. A fine talker and brilliant strategist, he is perhaps the most modern and human of the classical heroes.
Read an in-depth analysis of Odysseus.
Another famous Greek hero, a son of Zeus who rises to Olympus at his death. Hercules is renowned for his incredible strength and bravery, but he lacks intelligence and self-control. Most of his adventures begin with a horrible mistake that he makes and then attempts to fix. His most famous feats, the Twelve Labors of Hercules, are the punishment he receives for murdering his family in a fit of madness.
The son of King Aegeus of Athens and a quintessential Athenian hero. Theseus is the model citizen: a kind leader, good to his friends and countrymen. Theseus does have his shortcomings, however: he abandons Ariadne, and later doubts his own son, which leads to his tragic demise.
One of the least impressive of the Greek heroes. Jason’s most notable feat is his assembly of a cast of heroes to travel on a long fraudulent quest—the recovery of the Golden Fleece. When Jason arrives in Colchis to retrieve the Fleece, the daughter of the king, Medea, falls in love with him. Jason abandons her and marries a princess later for political gain. In revenge, Medea kills Jason’s new wife and her own children, whom Medea had by Jason. Though he lives on, he bears the burden of this tragedy, in some ways a fate worse than death.
Zeus’s son by the beautiful princess Danaë. Danaë’s father, forewarned that Perseus will someday kill him, locks the infant and his mother in a trunk and casts it into the sea. Perseus survives, comes of age, and sets out to kill the monster Medusa and bring back her head. As prophesied, he kills his grandfather, though unwittingly, by hitting him with a stray discus.
The son of the king of Thebes. Oedipus frees Thebes from the menace of the Sphinx and marries the widowed queen, Jocasta, unaware that she is his mother. Learning the truth later, he faces fate and blinds himself as penance.
Read an in-depth analysis of Oedipus.
The hero of the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays. Orestes’s father is the great king Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, and his sister is the sacrificed Iphigenia. When his mother, Clytemnestra, kills Agamemnon to avenge Iphigenia’s death, Orestes kills her. As a result, the horrible Furies plague him until he atones for his crime.
A son of King Priam of Troy, Paris unwittingly starts the Trojan War by judging Aphrodite the fairest of all the goddesses. Aphrodite arranges for Paris to marry the beautiful Helen, but Helen is already married. Helen’s kidnapping leads the Greeks to unite against Troy and sparks the decade-long Trojan War. Paris is only a minor figure in the Trojan War battles and is usually portrayed as weak and unheroic.
The most beautiful woman who has ever lived, Helen is promised to Paris after his judgment of Aphrodite. Her kidnapping causes the Trojan War. Helen is peculiarly silent in the Iliad, living with Paris for ten years before returning home with Menelaus, her original husband. Helen is treated as more of an object than a person.
Another son of King Priam, Hector is the bravest and most famous of the Trojan warriors. Unlike his brother Paris, he faces challenges with great strength and courage. His death ends the Iliad.
The only great Trojan warrior who survives the war, Aeneas is protected by Aphrodite, his mother. He flees Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his child by the hand. His values are more Roman than Greek, as he is first and foremost a warrior.
One the great kings who leads the Greeks in the Trojan War and whose story continues in the Oresteia. Agamemnon’s stubbornness toward Achilles almost costs the Greeks the war, and his cold-hearted sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia ultimately costs him his life.
The most famous Greek in the Trojan War, whose strength and bravery are unrivaled. Achilles is selfless, courageous, and devoted to the gods—he is the finest Greek warrior. His mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, has made him invulnerable everywhere except his heel, and that is where he is struck and killed.
The first and most famously foolish woman of Greek myth. Married to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s simple-minded brother, she has been entrusted with a box that the gods have told her never to open. Pandora peeks inside the box, unleashing evil into the world. She manages to close the box just in time to save Hope, humankind’s only solace.
A son of one of the Muses, Orpheus is the greatest mortal musician who has ever lived. His most famous exploit is his journey to Hades to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. He loses her forever by ignoring Hades’ orders and turning to make sure she is behind him. Orpheus also travels on the Argo and protects Jason and the others from the Sirens. He is killed by a pack of roving Maenads, and his head floats to Lesbos, where it becomes a magical icon.
A priestess of Apollo and the most famous prophet in all of Greece. Humans typically consult the Oracle to ascertain the will of the gods or a person’s fate. She most often appears at the beginning of a story, as a character asks his fate, finds it unpleasant, and then tries to change it—only to become a victim of fate precisely because of his efforts to change it.
The daughter of King Minos of Crete. Ariadne falls in love with the hero Theseus and uses a golden thread to help him defeat the Labyrinth of the dreaded Minotaur.
Along with Circe, Medea is one of two famous sorceresses in Greek myth. Medea selflessly helps Jason defeat her own father and obtain the Golden Fleece. After Jason turns on her, she kills his new wife and then her own children.
Read an in-depth analysis of Medea.
The daughter whom Agamemnon offers at Aulis as the human sacrifice that Artemis demands. In one version of the myth, Artemis saves Iphigenia and makes her a priestess who conducts human sacrifices. In this version, Iphigenia is rescued by her brother, Orestes.
One of the three Gorgons. Medusa is a horrible woman-beast with snakes for hair. Her gaze turns men to stone. She is killed by Perseus.
The half-man, half-bull monster that terrorizes Minos’s Labyrinth. It is killed by Theseus.
A beast with the head of a woman and the body of a winged lion. The Sphinx blocks entry to the city of Thebes, refusing to budge until someone answers her riddle and eating anyone who fails. When Oedipus solves the riddle, the Sphinx promptly kills herself.
Fearsome one-eyed giants, of whom Polyphemus is the most famous. In some myths they are the children of Heaven and Earth; in others they are the sons of Poseidon. They forge the thunderbolts of Zeus, who favors them.
The terrible Cyclops who imprisons Odysseus and his men and eats them alive. They escape only after blinding him. In later myths, he becomes a pitiful character who recovers his sight but chases after the cruel nymph Galatea who mocks him.
A vile three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades.
The counterpart of Zeus in Norse mythology. Odin is a quiet, brooding figure. He trades one of his eyes and suffers for nine nights to attain the insights of the Well of Wisdom, which he passes on to men along with the mystical powers of the runes and poetry. Odin rewards fallen warriors with a place in Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. He bears the burden of delaying Ragnarok, the day of doom for both the gods and mortals, as long as possible.
A fearful goddess who presides over the realm of the dead, which is called Hel (not synonymous with our word “hell,” however). The fact that a female occupies this position is a significant and striking difference from Greek and Roman myth.
The “Choosers of the Slain,” these splendid female warriors select and carry dead warriors to Valhalla.
Signy, wronged by her husband, conceives a son with her brother Sigmund. She bides her time until the son is old enough to help Sigmund kill her husband. Signy then kills herself by walking into the fire that also consumes her husband and her other children.
Sigmund’s son, a fierce warrior who braves a ring of fire for the love of the beautiful woman-warrior Brynhild. Sigmund is always honest, brave, fierce, and giving, thus embodying the ideal Norse warrior. He is the prototype for Siegfried, popularized in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
A Valkyrie who angers Odin and is punished with imprisonment in a ring of fire. She is a dazzling character, with strength both of soul and body. She is the prototype for Wagner's Brunnhilde, the most famous Valkyrie in opera.