Goddesses and Heroes
of the Ancients

Copyright 2002, Helen Marakis

With the coming of the Olympic games once again, I am reminded of the history behind the legends of the gods and goddesses and the games themselves. In the history of my culture, truths were passed down from one generation to another in the manner of tales, riddles, and stories since time immemorial. Partly, this is because the crucial truths of life served in this way for the children to learn, and children love and remember stories better than lessons, and partly because riddles were considered the wealth of the wise and good exercise for the mind.

Many of the historical facts of ancient Greece were incorporated into these stories, as well as basic truths and lessons of life, and then many of these were turned into various forms of art such as sculpture and paintings to last for millennia. These stories were most often told surrounding the Greek family of Gods, each with their own personality and positive and negative attributes. Originally worshipped, as well as popularized in the widely told stories and fables, the fall of the religions which had for so long held court in the region came over time, slowly and surely like a deep fog over the ocean as it slowly creeps up onto land.

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One scholar puts it:

"The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct. The so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men. They belong now not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste. There they still hold their place, and will continue to hold it, for they are too closely connected with the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern, to pass into oblivion."

A thing of beauty truly is a joy forever, and so many of the lovely classic statues and artistic renditions of the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are still revered in places like the Louvre today. Firstly, as memories from an earlier time when mankind in ancient Greece and Rome were at the cusp of creating what we now know as civilization, and secondly, as things of lasting beauty that bring joy to our daily lives in our museums, history books and homes. The word classic itself, derived from the Latin, Classicus, literally meaning "of the highest class" (of the five into which Romans were divided), had come to spell excellence in both person and sculpture, as well as the tradition that the making of a classic statue embraced.

And, even coming from the background of knowing these were my ancestors, I am still stunned sometimes at the amazing realization that this single point in time yielded so many of the arts and sciences we have today. Congress and most of our political theory, Theatre, the profession of the Physician, the position of the lawyer, the institutions that are our libraries, literature, and the court system in general, even the phrase "Classical education" and the concept of Psychoanalysis, all originated in that small time period among several hundred of the greatest thinkers, perhaps, that ever lived.

Scholars tell us that Fifty percent of everyday English words possess a Greek or Latin origin, and are expressed in a sequence of symbols, our modern alphabet, that came to use and reached their final form in the ancient Latin world of the same time period.

When we imagine the world today as it is without all of these advances it is hard to conceive the different place in which we would be, if, for instance Sophocles had not written his play Oedipus that went on to inspire Freud.

Olympiad Games

The history of the Olympic games began in Greece in antiquity as a way of bringing unity and competition to the region and as a part of a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the Father of the Greek Gods and Goddesses. The games of antiquity are slightly different from our modern games, in that only adult, free men, who spoke Greek were allowed to enter. There were also fewer events and the contests came to be held each time in the same location, Olympia, rather than moving around as they do today.

Just like our current games, however, the young men who traveled to represent their hometowns to compete were heroes in their own right who helped to put their cities on the maps of the day and brought great honor to their families and regions.

Olympia itself was a rural sanctuary holding special meaning for the Greeks in the Western Peloponnesos region. It was named after Mt. Olympus, the highest mountain in the region, which in Greek mythology was the traditional home of the greatest of the Greek gods and goddesses.

In the hierarchy, the gods and goddesses represented all the ups and downs mankind could possibly experience, and so a mother could come up with a story at a moment's notice to tell her children should they misbehave about a god or goddess in the family that had made the same mistake and what had befallen them.

Just as governments work hard to maintain a heritage of wildlife for the coming generations you need to work on providing a legacy for your heirs.

Some of the names most people are familiar with include Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and sexual love, (from whom we get our modern word "Aphrodisiac"). Apollo, the god of personified youthful masculinity; Euros, the god of the east wind; Persephone, goddess of the underworld; Poseidon, god of the sea; Demeter, goddess of corn and grain, as well as earth, vegetation, and agriculture; Kronos, god of time and father to Zeus and several of the goddesses. But there are literally hundreds of lesser and greater gods, most of who explained some form of the human condition, or of life as the Greeks knew it.

The story of Demeter illustrates this well in the story of her daughter being kidnapped by Hades of the underworld. When she disappeared, it is said that the whole earth started to brown and die since Demeter was in such grief that she was ignoring her duties as caretaker of the earth and vegetation. When her daughter was returned (by intervention of higher gods who were worried for the condition of the earth), a deal was struck whereby if the daughter had not eaten anything in her dwelling time in the underworld she could stay in the company of her mother. But it was found that the daughter had eaten a single pomegranate seed, and therefore she was required to return to Hades and the underworld for three months of every year. And it was, the story goes, because of this indiscretion that the earth browns in Greece in perpetual cycle for that same three months of every year to this day.

My ancestors have left behind for all of us a rich history of literature, of stories such as these, of statues and gods and muses, mythological beasts and simple pleasures, all that we may more fully understand the natural and everyday world in which they lived that we still live in today. And one of the finest and longest running of their traditions was the Olympic games that all countries, all colors, all races, and all nations, Greek or not, enjoy in this century. It is a rich history they have imparted, and it is yours and mine for the keeping.

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 About the author:  Helen Marakis owns Portara, Inc. (http://www.portara.com/?5), a company that combines Ancient Greek history and art through its unique sculptures, dolls and semiprecious stones that are hand-crafted and hand-finished. Portara, Inc's products are being sold for the first time in the United States and come with a 60-day money back guarantee.

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