Great Mother of the Gods
From The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia
by Columbia University Press

Sandro Botticelli + NASA (etc) via dimitri
Great Mother of the Gods, in ancient Middle Eastern religion (and later in Greece, Rome, and W Asia), mother goddess, the great symbol of the earth's fertility. As the creative force in nature she was worshiped under many names, including Astarte (Syria), Ceres (Rome), Cybele (Phrygia), Demeter (Greece), Ishtar (Babylon), and Isis (Egypt). The later forms of her cult involved the worship of a male deity (her son or lover, e.g., Adonis, Osiris), whose death and resurrection symbolized the regenerative power of the earth.

Gaea Gaea, in Greek mythology, the earth; daughter of Chaos, mother and wife of both Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the sea). She was mother, by Uranus, of the Cyclopes, the Titans, and others, and, by Pontus, of five sea deities. She helped cause the overthrow of Uranus by the Titans and was worshiped as the primal goddess, the mother of all things.

Adonis, in Greek mythology, beautiful youth loved by Aphrodite and Persephone. When he was killed by a boar, both goddesses claimed him. Zeus decreed that he spend half the year above the ground with Aphrodite, the other half in the underworld with Persephone. His death and resurrection, symbolic of the seasonal cycle, were celebrated at the festival Adonia.

Venus Aphrodite, in Greek mythology, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. She was either the daughter of Zeus and Dione, or she emerged from the sea foam. Married to Hephaestus, she loved and had children by other gods and mortals, e.g., Harmonia was fathered by Ares, and Aeneas was the son of Anchises. Aphrodite was awarded the apple of discord by Paris, leading to the Trojan War. Probably of Eastern origin, she was similar in attributes to the goddesses Astarte and Ishtar. The Romans identified her with Venus.

Sol Apollo, in Greek mythology, one of the most important Olympian gods; son of Zeus and Leto, twin brother of Artemis. He was concerned with prophecy, medicine (he was the father of Asclepius), music and poetry (he was also the father of Orpheus and the patron of the Muses), and the pastoral arts. A moral god of high civilization, he was associated with law, philosophy, and the arts. He was widely known as a god of light, Phoebus Apollo; after the 5th cent. B.C. he was often identified with the sun god Helios. Apollo's oracles had great authority; his chief shrine was at Delphi, where he was primarily a god of purification. In art he was portrayed as the perfection of youth and beauty. The most celebrated statue of him is the Apollo Belvedere, a marble copy of the original Greek bronze, now in the Vatican in Rome.

Ares, in Greek mythology, Olympian god of war; son of Zeus and Hera. The Romans identified him with Mars.

Artemis Artemis, in Greek mythology, goddess of the hunt. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis is associated with chastity, marriage, children, wildlife, and, as a complement to the sun god Apollo, with the moon. The Romans identified her with Diana.

Astarte, Semitic goddess of fertility and love. Dominant in ancient Eastern religions, she was the most important goddess of the Phoenicians, corresponding to the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Aphrodite. See also Great Mother of the Gods.

Athena or Pallas Athena, in Greek mythology, one of the most important Olympian deities, sprung from the forehead of Zeus. She was the goddess of war and peace, a patron of arts and crafts, a guardian of cities (notably Athens), and the goddess of wisdom. Her most important temple was the Parthenon and her primary festival the Panathenaea. A virgin goddess, Athena is represented in art as a stately figure, armored, and wielding her breastplate, the aegis. The Romans identified her with Minerva.

Atlas, in Greek mythology, a Titan. After the defeat of the Titans by the Olympians, he was condemned to hold the sky upon his shoulders for all eternity.

vegetation Bacchus, in Greek and Roman religion, god of wine, vegetation, and fertility. His worship was celebrated in orgiastic rites such as the Bacchanalia.

caduceus, wing-topped staff, wound about by two snakes, carried by Hermes. In earlier cultures, notably the Babylonian, the intertwined snakes symbolized fertility, wisdom, and healing. The staff was carried by Greek officials and became a Roman symbol for truce and neutrality. Since the 16th cent. it has served as a symbol of medicine; it is the insignia of the medical branch of the U.S. army.

Ceres, in Roman mythology, goddess of grain; daughter of Saturn and Ops. Her worship involved fertility rites and rites for the dead, and her chief festival was the Cerealia. She was identified with the Greek Demeter.

Chaos, in Greek mythology, the vacant, unfathomable space from which everything arose. In the Olympian myth Gaea sprang from Chaos and became the mother of all things.

Cronus or Kronos, in Greek myth, the youngest Titan; son of Uranus and Gaea. He led the Titans in a revolt against Uranus and ruled the world. By his sister Rhea, he fathered the great godsóZeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Hestia. Fated to be overthrown by one of his children, he tried unsuccessfully to destroy them. Zeus later led the Olympian gods in defeating him in a battle, described by Hesiod, called the Titanomachy. Cronus is equated with the Roman god Saturn.

Cybele, in ancient Asiatic religion, Great Mother of the Gods. The chief centers of her early worship were Phrygia and Lydia. In the 5th cent. B.C. her cult spread to Greece and later to Rome. She was primarily a nature goddess, responsible for maintaining and reproducing the wild things of the earth. leaf Her annual spring festival celebrated the death and resurrection of her beloved Attis, a vegetation god.

Cyclops plural of Cyclopes, in Greek mythology, immense one-eyed beings. According to Hesiod, they were smiths, sons of Uranus and Gaea, who gave Zeus the lightning bolts that helped him defeat Cronus. In Homer, they were a barbarous people, one of whom (Polyphemus) was encountered by Odysseus in his wanderings.

Delphi, town in Phocis, Greece, near the foot of Mt. Parnassus. It was the seat of the Delphic Oracle, the most famous and powerful oracle of ancient Greece. The oracle, which originated in the worship of an earth-goddess, possibly Gaea, was the principal shrine of Apollo. It was housed in a temple built in the 6th cent. B.C. The oracular messages were spoken by a priestess in a frenzied trance and interpreted by a priest, who usually spoke in verse. The oracle's influence prevailed throughout Greece until Hellenistic times. Delphi was the meeting place of the Amphictyonic League and the site of the Pythian Games. It was later pillaged by the Romans, and the sanctuary fell into decay.

Demeter, in Greek mythology, goddess of harvest and fertility; daughter of Cronus and Rhea; mother of Persephone by Zeus. She and her daughter were the chief figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and her primary festival was the Athenian Thesmophoria. The Romans identified her with Ceres.

Luna Diana1, in Roman mythology, goddess of the moon, forests, animals, and women in childbirth. Both a virgin goddess and an earth goddess, she was identified with the Greek Artemis.

Dionysus, in Greek mythology, god of fertility and wine, later considered a patron of the arts. Probably of Thracian origin, Dionysus was one of the most important Greek gods and the subject of profuse and contradictory legends. He was thought to be the son of either Zeus and Persephone or of Zeus and Semele. Dionysus was attended by a carousing band of Satyrs, Maenads, and Nymphs. He taught humans viticulture but was capable of dreadful revenge upon those (e.g., Orpheus and Pentheus) who denied his divinity. His worship was characteristically drunken and orgiastic. The chief figure in the Orphic Mysteries and other cults, Dionysus had many festivals in his honor. From the music, singing, and dancing of the Greater Dionysia in Athens developed the dithyramb and, ultimately, Greek drama. The Romans identified him with Liber and Bacchus, who was more properly the wine god.


Eleusinian Mysteries, principal religious Mysteries of ancient Greece, held at Eleusis. The secret rites, which celebrated the abduction of Persephone and her return to her mother Demeter, symbolized the annual cycle of death and rebirth in nature, as well as the immortality of the soul. Dionysus was also much honored at the festival.

Eleusis, ancient city of Attica, Greece, NW of Athens. It was the seat of the Eleusinian Mysteries, dedicated to Demeter. The Eleusinian games were also held there.

Elysian fields or Elysium, in Greek mythology, happy otherworld in the west for heroes favored by the gods.

Furies or Erinyes, in Greek mythology, goddesses of vengeance. Born from the blood of Uranus, they punished wrongs committed against blood relatives regardless of the motivation, as in the case of Orestes. Named Megaera, Tisiphone, and Alecto, they were usually represented as crones with bats' wings, dogs' heads, and snakes for hair.

Hades, in Greek mythology, 1. The ruler of the underworld, commonly called Pluto. 2. The world of the dead, ruled by Pluto and Persephone. Guarded by Cerberus, it was either underground or in the far west, and was separated from the land of the living by five rivers. One of these was the Styx, across which the dead were ferried. Three judges decided the fate of souls; heroes went to the Elysian Fields, evildoers to Tartarus.

Hebe, in Greek religion, goddess of youth; daughter of Zeus and Hera and wife of Hercules.

Hecate, in Greek mythology, goddess of ghosts and witchcraft. An attendant of Persephone, she was a spirit of black magic, able to conjure up dreams and the spirits of the dead. She haunted graveyards and crossroads.

Sol Helios, in Greek mythology, the sun god; son of the Titans Hyperion and Theia; father of Phaëthon. Each morning he left a palace in the east and crossed the sky in a golden chariot, then returned along the river Oceanus. He was a national god in Rhodes, where a Colossus represented him. In Rome, he was known as Sol and was an important god.

Hephaestus, in Greek mythology, Olympian god; son of Hera and Zeus; husband of Aphrodite. Originally a Middle Eastern fire god, in Greece he was the divine smith and god of craftsmen, worshiped in centers such as Athens. Usually a comic figure, he was represented as bearded, with mighty shoulders, but lame. He worked at huge furnaces, aided by Cyclopses. The Romans identified him with Vulcan.

Hera, in Greek mythology, queen of Olympian gods; daughters of Cronus and Rhea; wife and sister of Zeus; mother of Ares and Hephaestus. A jealous wife, she plagued Zeus, his mistresses, and his progeny, e.g., Hercules. Hera was powerful and widely worshiped as the protectress of women, marriage, and childbirth. The Romans identified her with Juno.

Hercules, Heracles or Herakles, most popular Greek hero, famous for strength and courage. The son of Alcmene and Zeus, he was hated by Hera, who sent serpents to his cradle; he strangled them. Later Hera drove Hercules mad and he slew his wife and children. He sought purification at the court of King Eurystheus, who set him 12 mighty labors: killing the Nemean lion and Hydra; driving off the Stymphalian birds; cleaning the Augean stables; capturing the Cerynean hind, Cretan bull, mares of Diomed, Erymanthian boar, cattle of Geryon, and Cerberus; and procuring the girdle of Hippolyte and the golden apples of the Hesperides. He was later involved in the Calydonian hunt and the Argonaut expedition. At his death he rose to Olympus, where he was reconciled with Hera and married Hebe. Represented as a powerful man with lion's skin and club, he was widely worshiped. He is the hero of plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca.

Hermes, in Greek mythology, son of Zeus and Maia; messenger of the gods and conductor of souls to Hades. He was also the god of travelers, of luck, music, eloquence, commerce, young men, cheats, and thieves. He was said to have invented the lyre and flute. The riotous Hermaea festival was celebrated in his honor. Hermes was represented with winged hat and sandals, carrying the Caduceus. He is equated with the Roman Mercury.

Hestia, in Greek mythology, goddess of the hearth; daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Widely worshiped, she was a kind deity who represented personal and communal security and happiness. The Romans identified her with Vesta.

Horus Horus, in ancient Egyptian Religion, sky god, god of light and goodness. The son of Osiris and Isis, he avenged his father's murder by defeating Set, the god of evil and darkness.

Ishtar, ancient fertility deity, the most widely worshiped goddess in Babylonian and Assyrian religion. Ishtar was important as a mother goddess, goddess of love, and goddess of war. Her cult spread throughout W Asia, and she became identified with various other earth goddesses (see Great Mother of the Gods).

Isis, nature goddess whose worship, originating in ancient Egypt, gradually extended throughout the lands of the Mediterranean world and became one of the chief religions of the Roman Empire. The worship of Isis, together with that of her brother and husband, Osiris, and their son, Horus, resisted the rise of Christianity and lasted until the 6th cent. A.D.

maenads, in Greek and Roman mythology, female devotees of Dionysus or Bacchus. Waving the thyrsus, they roamed the mountains and forests, and performed frenzied, ecstatic dances. They are also known as Bacchae.

Muses, in Greek mythology, the nine patron goddesses of the arts; daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, a Titan who personified memory. They were: Calliope (epic poetry and eloquence), Euterpe (music and lyric poetry), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (oratory or sacred poetry), Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Terpsichore (choral song and dance), and Urania (astronomy).

mysteries, important secret cults in Greek and Roman religion. Possibly based on primitive fertility rites, their elaborate, mystic ritual appealed to individuals who had tired of the formalistic, state-centered rites of traditional Greek and Roman religion, and who sought a promise of personal salvation and immortality. Some mysteries were survivals of indigenous rites, while others (e.g., the cult of Cybele) were of foreign origin. Especially important in Greece were the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries.

nymph, in Greek mythology, female divinity, immortal or long-lived, associated with various natural objects or places. Some represented specific localities, e.g., the acheloids of the River Achelous; others were identified with more general physiographic features, e.g., oreads with mountains, naiads with bodies of fresh water, nereids with the Mediterranean, oceanids with the ocean, dryads with trees; and some were associated with a function of nature, e.g., hamadryads, who lived and died with a particular tree. Nymphs were regarded as young, beautiful, musical, and amorous.

Olympian, in Greek myth, one of the 12 gods who ruled the universe from their home on Mt. Olympus. Led by Zeus, they were: Hera, his sister and wife; Poseidon and Pluto (Hades), his brothers; Hestia, his sister; and his children, Ares, Hermes, Apollo, Hephaestus, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis. Similar to humans in appearance and character, the Olympians are known to us mainly from the works of Homer and Hesiod.

oracle, in Greek religion, priest or priestess who imparted a god's response to a human questioner; also the response itself and the shrine. Methods of divination included interpretation of dreams, observation of signs, and interpretation of the actions of entranced persons. Among the famous oracles were those of Zeus at Dodona and of Apollo at Delphi.

Orphic Mysteries or Orphism, religious cult of ancient Greece, ascribed to Orpheus. The Orphics affirmed the divine origin of the soul, but also the dual aspect of human nature as good and evil. They believed that through initiation into the Orphic Mysteries and through the process of transmigration, leaf the soul could be liberated from its inheritance of evil and achieve eternal blessedness. Orphism followed a strict ethical and moral code and adopted practices such as Vegetarianism for purification.

Osiris, in Egyptian Religion, legendary ruler of predynastic Egypt and god of the underworld. Osiris symbolized the creative forces of nature and the imperishability of life. Called the great benefactor of humanity, he brought to the people knowledge of agriculture and civilization. In a famous myth he was slain by his evil brother Set, but his death was avenged by his son Horus. The worship of Osiris, one of the great cults of ancient Egypt, gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean world and, with that of Isis and Horus, was especially vital during the Roman Empire.

Pan, in Greek mythology, pastoral god of fertility (god of woods, fields and flocks); worshiped principally in Arcadia. He was depicted as a merry, ugly man with a goat's horns, ears, and legs. All his myths deal with his amorous affairs. He came to be associated with the Greek Dionysus and the Roman Faunus, both fertility gods.

Pandora, in Greek mythology, first woman on earth. Zeus ordered her creation as vengeance on man and his benefactor, Prometheus, to whose brother Epimetheus he sent her. Zeus gave her a box that he forbade her to open. She disobeyed and let out all the world's evils. Only hope remained in the box.

Persephone or Proserpine, in Greek and Roman mythology, goddess of fertility, queen of the underworld; daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She was abducted by Pluto, who held her captive in Hades. Demeter persuaded the gods to let her return to earth for eight months a year. daisy Her story, celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, symbolized the vegetative cycle. When she left the earth, life withered; when she returned, it blossomed anew.

Poseidon, in Greek religion, god of the sea, protector of all waters. Powerful, violent, and vengeful, he carried the trident, with which he caused earthquakes. He was the husband of Amphitrite and the father of many sons, most either brutal men (e.g., Orion) or monsters (e.g., Polyphemus). He was also important as Hippios, god of horses, and was the father of Pegasus. The Romans identified him with Neptune.

Prometheus, in Greek mythology, Titan benefactor of man, whom, in one legend, he created. He stole fire from the gods, gave it to man, and taught him many arts and sciences. In retaliation, Zeus plagued man with Pandora and her box of evils, and chained Prometheus to a mountain, where an eagle preyed on his liver. In some myths Hercules released him. Prometheus is the subject of many literary works, including Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Rhea, in Greek mythology, a Titan; wife and sister of Cronus; mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Pluto, Hestia, Hera, and Demeter. She aided Zeus in the overthrow of Cronus. Associated with fertility, her worship was prominent in Crete. In Rome Rhea was worshiped as Magna Mater and identified with Ops.

Saturn, in Roman religion, god of harvests; husband of Ops; father of Jupiter, Juno, Ceres, Pluto, and Neptune; identified with Cronus. After the Titans' fall, he was said to have fled to Italy, settled on the Capitoline Hill, civilized the people, and taught them agriculture. On his festival, the Saturnalia, work ceased, gifts were exchanged, and war was outlawed.

satyr, in Greek myth, forest and mountain creature. Part human, with horses' tails and ears, and goats' horns and legs, they were merry, drunken, lustful devotees of Dionysus.

Tartarus, in Greek mythology, lowest region of Hades, where the wicked, e.g., Sisyphus, Tantalus, were punished.

thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pine cone and twined with ivy, carried by Dionysus, Dionysian revelers, and satyrs.

Titan, in Greek mythology, one of 12 primeval deities; children of Uranus and Gaea. They were Cronus, Iapetus, Hyperion, Oceanus, Coeus, Creus, Theia, Rhea, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Themis. Their descendants, e.g., Prometheus, Atlas, Hecate, Helios, were also called Titans. Led by Cronus, they deposed Uranus and ruled the universe. They were in turn overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus, in a battle called the Titanomachy. Afterward Cronus ruled the Isle of the Blessed and Atlas held up the sky. The others, except Prometheus, who had helped Zeus, were condemned to Tartarus.

Uranus, in Greek mythology, the heavens, first ruler of the universe; son and husband of Gaea; father of Titans, Cyclops, and Hundred-handed Ones. Uranus was castrated and dethroned by Cronus. His blood, falling onto Earth, produced the vengeful Furies; from his discarded flesh and the sea Aphrodite arose.

Venus Venus, in Roman religion, goddess of vegetation; identified from the 3d cent. B.C. with the Greek Aphrodite. In imperial times she was worshiped as Venus Genetrix, mother of Aeneas; Venus Felix, bringer of good fortune; Venus Victrix, bringer of victory; and Venus Verticordia, protector of feminine chastity. Among the famous sculptures of the goddess are the Venus of Milo (Louvre) and the Venus of Medici (Uffizi, Florence).

Zeus, in Greek religion, supreme god; son of Cronus, whom he succeeded, and Rhea; brother and husband of Hera. After the overthrow of the Titans, when lots were cast to divide the universe, the underworld went to Hades, the sea to Poseidon, and the heavens and earth to Zeus. An amorous god, he loved goddesses, nymphs, and mortals, and fathered many children. Ruling from his court on Mt. Olympus, Zeus was the symbol of power, rule, and law; the rewarder of good; and the punisher of evil. Also the god of weather (his most famous weapon was the thunderbolt) and fertility, he was worshiped in connection with almost every aspect of life. The Romans equated Zeus with their own supreme god, Jupiter.


Eleusinian Mysteries
Elysian fields
Great Mother of the Gods
Orphic Mysteries

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