The Lesser Gods of Olympus

There were other divinities in heaven besides the twelve great Olympians. The most important of them was the God of Love, EROS (Cupid in Latin). Homer knows nothing of him, but to Hesiod he is

Fairest of the deathless gods.

In the early stories, he is oftenest a beautiful serious youth who gives good gifts to men. This idea the Greeks had of him is best summed up not by a poet, but by a philosopher, Plato: “Love—Eros—makes his home in men’s hearts, but not in every heart, for where there is hardness he departs. His greatest glory is that he cannot do wrong nor allow it; force never comes near him. For all men serve him of their own free will. And he whom Love touches not walks in darkness.

In the early accounts Eros was not Aphrodite’s son, but merely her occasional companion. In the later poets he was her son and almost invariably a mischievous, naughty boy, or worse.

Evil his heart, but honey-sweet his tongue,
No truth in him, the rogue. He is cruel in his play.
Small are his hands, yet his arrows fly far as death.
Tiny his shaft, but it carries heaven-high.
Touch not his treacherous gifts, they are dipped in fire.

He was often represented as blindfolded, because love is often blind. In attendance upon him was ANTEROS, said sometimes to be the avenger of slighted love, sometimes the one who opposes love; also HIMEROS or Longing, and HYMEN, the God of the Wedding Feast.

HEBE was the Goddess of Youth, the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Sometimes she appears as cupbearer to the gods; sometimes that office is held by Ganymede, a beautiful young Trojan prince who was seized and carried up to Olympus by Zeus’s eagle. There are no stories about Hebe except that of her marriage to Hercules.

IRIS was the Goddess of the Rainbow and a messenger of the gods, in the Iliad the only messenger. Hermes appears first in that capacity in the Odyssey, but he does not take Iris’ place. Now the one, now the other is called upon by the gods.

There were also in Olympus two bands of lovely sisters, the Muses and the Graces.

THE GRACES were three: Aglaia (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer). They were the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, a child of the Titan, Ocean. Except in a story Homer and Hesiod tell, that Aglaia married Hephaestus, they are not treated as separate personalities, but always together, a triple incarnation of grace and beauty. The gods delighted in them when they danced enchantingly to Apollo’s lyre, and the man they visited was happy. They “give life its bloom.” Together with their companions, the Muses, they were “queens of song,” and no banquet without them could please.

THE MUSES were nine in number, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, Memory. At first, like the Graces, they were not distinguished from each other. “They are all,” Hesiod says, “of one mind, their hearts are set upon song and their spirit is free from care. He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.”

In later times each had her own special field. Clio was Muse of history, Urania of astronomy, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy, Terpsichore of the dance, Calliope of epic poetry, Erato of love-poetry, Polyhymnia of songs to the gods, Euterpe of lyric poetry.

Hesiod lived near Helicon, one of the Muses’ mountains—the others were Pierus in Pieria, where they were born, Parnassus, and, of course, Olympus. One day the Nine appeared to him and they told him, “We know how to speak false things that seem true, but we know, when we will, to utter true things.” They were companions of Apollo, the God of Truth, as well as of the Graces. Pindar calls the lyre theirs as well as Apollo’s, “the golden lyre to which the step, the dancer’s step, listens, owned alike by Apollo and the violet-wreathed Muses.” The man they inspired was sacred far beyond any priest.

As the idea of Zeus became loftier, two august forms sat beside him in Olympus. THEMIS, which means the Right, or Divine Justice, and DIKE, which is Human Justice. But they never became real personalities. The same was true of two personified emotions esteemed highest of all feelings in Homer and Hesiod: NEMESIS, usually translated as Righteous Anger, and AIDOS, a difficult word to translate, but in common use among the Greeks. It means reverence and the shame that holds men back from wrongdoing, but it also means the feeling a prosperous man should have in the presence of the unfortunnate—not compassion, but a sense that the difference between him and those poor wretches is not deserved.

It does not seem, however, that either Nemesis or Aidos had their home with the gods. Hesiod says that only when men have finally become completely wicked will Nemesis and Aidos, their beautiful faces veiled in white raiment, leave the wide-wayed earth and depart to the company of the immortals.

From time to time a few mortals were translated to Olympus, but once they had been brought to heaven they vanished from literature. Their stories will be told later.