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Classical Mythology A to Z
An Encyclopedia of Gods & Goddesses, Heroes & Heroines, Nymphs, Spirits, Monsters, and Places
Illustrated by Jim Tierney
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Classical Mythology A-to-Z is a comprehensive and engrossing guide to Greek and Roman mythology. Written by Annette Giesecke, PhD, Professor of Classics and Chair of Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Delaware, this brilliant reference offers clear explanations of every character and locale, and captures the essence of these timeless tales.
From the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus and the heroes of the Trojan War to the nymphs, monsters, and other mythical creatures that populate these ancient stories, Giesecke recounts, with clarity and energy, the details of more than 700 characters and places. Each definition includes cross-references to related characters, locations, and myths, as well their equivalent in Roman mythology and cult.
In addition to being an important standalone work, Classical Mythology A-to-Z is also written, designed, and illustrated to serve as an essential companion to the bestselling illustrated 75th-anniversary edition of Mythology by Edith Hamilton, including 10 full-color plates and 2-color illustrations throughout by artist Jim Tierney.
Aphrodite: Goddess of fertility and lust, born of sea foam
Dionysus: God of wine, born of Zeus’s thigh
Poseidon: God of the sea, punisher of Odysseus
Andromeda: Princess and daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus
Daphne: Daughter of Peneus, god of the river Peneus
Romulus and Remus: Twin brothers and founders of the city of Rome
Cerberus: “The hound of Hades” that guards the gates of the Underworld
The Sirens: Hybrid female monsters who lure sailors to their deaths
The Elysian Fields: A prophesied paradise of the afterlife
The Parthenon: Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena
This book is a collection of the gods, heroes, and monsters that populate Classical mythology as well as of the places that feature in stories told about them. The number of myths that have been preserved in the works of ancient authors is enormous, and the numbers of characters and places appearing in them vast. While Classical Mythology A to Z is an encyclopedia of myth, it is not comprehensive. Rather, it is limited to those Greek and Roman characters and places that appear in Edith Hamilton’s classic work, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, for which it has been designed as a companion. In her own words, it was Hamilton’s hope that by reading her book, those unfamiliar with the Greco-Roman world would “gain in this way not only a knowledge of the myths, but also some little idea of what the writers were like who told them—who have been proved, by two thousand years and more, to be immortal” (Preface, Mythology, 1942). She indisputably achieved her goal, doing so by telling the myths of Classical antiquity in a manner that was faithful to the original sources and, at the same time, fresh, relatable, and timeless in terms of language and expression. For this reason, Hamilton’s work continues to serve as an authoritative and accessible introduction to Classical mythology in all its complexities over three quarters of a century beyond its original publication.
While Hamilton’s Mythology established this book’s scope, its contents will be useful to all those wishing to dig more deeply into the world of myth out of curiosity about individual characters’ genealogies, their exploits, and places they inhabited. Greco-Roman mythology has persisted for millennia beyond its origins, retaining its ancient meanings and accruing new ones while serving as a foundation of cultural memory that has been alluded to in myriad ways and in all manner of creative media. For this reason, Classical Mythology A to Z will be indispensable to anyone looking to verify, clarify, or connect mythological characters and places to any number of literary, musical, artistic, or even pop culture references. This is a companion to Hamilton, but also so much more.
Entries in this collection have been grouped into four basic categories: deities, humans, monsters, and places. The first category includes immortal gods and goddesses as well as mortal ones. Nymphs, for example, were spirits that were believed to inhabit trees, bodies of water, and other components of the natural world, but they were subject to decline and death. The second category, which focuses on humans, encompasses individual heroes and heroines as well as groups of people, such as the female warriors called the Amazons. Characters of prodigious size and hybrid creatures are here all classed as monsters, regardless of whether they were benign or fearsome; in this case, “monster” is conceived of in the sense of its Latin etymology, monstrum, a thing or person that is strange but not necessarily evil. Landmarks, regions, bodies of water, mountains, and cities are naturally categorized as places. One particularly interesting aspect of mythological characters and places is the degree to which they resist strict categorization. Inevitably, the categories overlap, as in cases where a human hero becomes divine, or a river is conceived of both as a geographic feature and as a divine personification of the river. Hercules and Asclepius are examples of the former; the Peneus and Achelous rivers are examples of the latter. Gaia was the earth and also the earth goddess. The hunter Orion was a giant, being in this respect a prodigy or monster, but he was neither entirely mortal nor was he entirely divine. Satyrs, hybrid creatures that most would classify as monsters, were, at the same time, woodland spirits. And so on. A system of cross-referencing ensures that entries appropriate to multiple categories can be found in all of them.
Just as categorization poses challenges, so too does the spelling of names. The spellings here follow those used in Hamilton’s work, although an effort has been made to indicate alternate spellings as well. The issue of spelling is complicated by several factors. One of them is the transmission of names from the original Greek to Latin and then to English, at least in many cases. An example is Ouranos, Greek god of the heavens. For the Romans, he was Uranus, and this is the spelling with which most speakers of English will be familiar. The Greeks had no letter “c,” but the Romans used “k” only infrequently; as a consequence, the Greek god Kronos became Cronus in Latin. Another factor influencing spelling is inconsistency among the ancient authors, even those writing in the same language.
Varying spellings of a given character’s name went hand in hand with varying, sometimes conflicting traditions concerning their lives and exploits. The myths themselves, as well as the characters in them, evolved over millennia. When confronted with variants and conflicts, it is important to remember that many or most myths were transmitted orally at some stage, being influenced by cultural shifts and factors such as depictions in art. One example is the cycle of myths surrounding the Trojan War. It has long been known that these tales had their origins in the Bronze Age (very roughly 1800–1150 BCE), the time of the Trojan War itself—and, yes, there was a Trojan War, or, more properly, a number of Trojan wars. Aspects of the story of Achilles, as well of his comrades and adversaries, so familiar from Homer’s Iliad, were, at the time when it was committed to writing—perhaps 750 BCE or later—hundreds of years old, having been passed on orally previously, and doubtless altered at least to some degree with each telling. In those hundreds of years, the Greek world had changed dramatically, witnessing the flowering and fall of powerful kingdoms, a Dark Age, and the birth of city-states no longer governed by monarchs.
Not all variants of the myths surrounding the characters and places featured in this book have been documented here. The particular details included are derived from what today are the best-known sources of Greek and Roman myths, among them Homer, Hesiod, Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid, all of them authors of epic poetry; the lyric poets Sappho, Stesichorus, Pindar, and Bacchylides; the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; the historian Herodotus; the geographer Strabo; the travel writer and ethnographer Pausanias; the natural historian Pliny the Elder; and the mythographers Apollodorus and Hyginus. All of the ancient sources referenced in this book, complete with biographical details, have been assembled in a bibliography for quick reference. A number of these authors recorded more than one version of a given myth, even when they themselves were skeptical about some of them. In the spirit of Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE), who relates several alternate versions of the origins of the Pillars of Hercules—namely that Hercules created them to memorialize his extraordinary journey to the edges of the world, as a means by which to prevent sea monsters from penetrating the Mediterranean from the ocean beyond, or to create a channel allowing ships to pass between the seas—I invite readers of this book to select the versions most entertaining, credible, or far-fetched.
ACHELOUS Achelous was a river and, at the same time, the god of that river, which was one of the longest and most voluminous in Greece. While on the one hand associated with a specific river, this god could be invoked when making reference to rivers (and their gods) in general. In other words, he could be invoked as the god of all rivers. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Achelous, along with a host of other rivers, was a child of the elemental Titan gods Oceanus and Tethys. His own children included the lovely voiced but monstrous Sirens as well as a number of Nymphs who were said to draw their water from him. These included Castalia, spirit of the Castalian Spring near Delphi, a fount sacred to the Muses; and Pirene, spirit of the Corinthian spring Pirene, whose waters Pegasus caused to burst from the earth when he struck it with his hoof.
Achelous is perhaps best known for his involvement with the hero Hercules, who wrestled with him for the hand of Deianeira, daughter of Oeneus, king of Calydon. Although Achelous changed his shape into a serpent and then a bull, Hercules prevailed nonetheless and broke off one of his horns. This horn, according to the Roman poet Ovid, became the Horn of Plenty, for the Naiad nymphs took it and filled it with fruits and flowers, the bounty of the earth made possible by Achelous’s waters. According to an alternate tradition, Hercules returned Achelous’s horn, and Achelous, in exchange, gave him the horn of Amaltheia, a goat that had provided milk for baby Zeus, and it was this that became the Horn of Plenty.
(See also Achelous [place], Calydon, Castalian Spring [the], Corinth, Deianeira, Delphi, Muses [the], Naiads [the], Nymphs [the], Oceanus, Oeneus, Pirene, Sirens [the], Titans [the], and Zeus.)
ADRASTEA The nymph Adrastea (also spelled Adrasteia or Adrastia) inhabited the Dictaean Cave on the island of Crete. The mythographer Apollodorus reports that since Cronus had swallowed all of his children at their birth so as to avoid a prophecy that he would be overpowered by one of his own progeny, Rhea, his consort and sister, went clandestinely to Crete when on the verge of delivering Zeus, her last child by Cronus. There Rhea entrusted her newborn child to Adrastea and her sister Ida, as well as to the Curetes, semi-divine beings who sang and clashed their weapons to hide the baby’s cries.
(See also Cronus, Curetes [the], Nymphs [the], Rhea, and Zeus.)
AEGINA The nymph Aegina was a daughter of Asopus, a Sicyonian river god, and Metope, a daughter of the river Ladon, who together produced two sons and twenty daughters, of whom Aegina was one. The lovely Aegina was carried off by Zeus to the island Oenone, where he bedded her. When Asopus went in search of his daughter, he came to Corinth and learned from Sisyphus, who ultimately received terrible punishment for offering this information, that Aegina’s abductor was Zeus. Asopus went in pursuit of the god, who hurled thunderbolts at him and drove him back to his own streams. Meanwhile, Aegina gave birth to a son named Aeacus, and Zeus renamed the island Oenone—now called Aegina—after her.
(See also Aeacus, Aegina [place], Corinth, Nymphs [the], Sisyphus, and Zeus.)
AEOLUS When Aeolus, “Lord of the Winds,” first appeared in the literary tradition, he was a mortal favored by the gods and living on the island of Aeolia with his family. It was there that the hero Odysseus encountered him, according to Homer. In the passage of time, however, Aeolus came to be viewed as a god who controlled all of the winds.
(See also Aeolus [hero] and Odysseus.)
AESCULAPIUS Aesculapius is a variant spelling of Asclepius, name of the Greek god of healing.
AGLAIA Aglaia (or Aglaea), whose name means “Gleaming One” or “Resplendent One,” was one of the three (or more) Charites (“Graces”), who were generally said to be daughters of Zeus and were embodiments of beauty, joy, and grace. Aglaia (or Aglaea) was the youngest of the three Charites and, according to the Greek poets Hesiod and Pindar, was married to the god Hephaestus. This Aglaia is to be distinguished from the mortal Aglaia, who was the mother of the twins Acrisius and Proetus.
(See also Acrisius, Aglaia [heroine], Charites [the], Graces [the], Hephaestus, and Zeus.)
AIDOS Aidos was a female personification of the Greek aidos, which connotes modesty, shame, reverence, and respect for others. The poet Pindar refers to her as a daughter of the second-generation Titan Prometheus and the source of joy and valor. In his description of the devolution of humanity from a virtuous Race of Gold to one of iron that was prone to all manner of vices, the poet Hesiod writes that the age of Iron–Race humans would be marked by the flight of Aidos and Nemesis from the earth so that they might reside instead with the deathless gods. Consequently, bitter sorrows were left for us humans, and there was no remedy for evil.
(See also Nemesis, Prometheus, and Titans [the].)
ALECTO Alecto (or Allecto), “The Implacable One,” was one of the Erinyes, or Furies, as they were known to the Romans. She played a significant role in Virgil’s epic the Aeneid, where she is described as a denizen of the Underworld “born of Night,” a shape-shifter, an instigator of violence and wars, and a creature so awful that she is hated even by her father, Pluto. Under orders from an angry Juno, she caused Queen Amata to fly into a rage and incite the populace of the Italian town of Laurentum to war against Aeneas and his band of Trojans, who had recently arrived in Italy. Amata had already been upset that her husband, Latinus, was considering giving their daughter Lavinia in marriage to Aeneas and not to Turnus, prince of the Italian Rutulians; the queen became more maddened still when Alecto cast a serpent into her breast. Alecto dealt similarly with Turnus, whom she inflamed by hurling a firebrand at him. Turnus consequently marched on Latinus. Alecto next incited the dogs of Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, into frenzied pursuit of a prize stag that had been a pet to the maiden Silvia; when Ascanius killed it, Silvia summoned the countryside’s farmers to arms against the Italians, Alecto herself broadcasting the call to arms.
(See also Aeneas, Amata, Ascanius, Erinyes [the], Furies [the], Juno, Latinus, Lavinia, Pluto, Rutulians [the], Silvia, Turnus, and Underworld [the].)
ALPHEUS Alpheus (or Alpheius) was both a river and god of the river Alpheus, which he personified. The Alpheus, the longest and most voluminous river in the Peloponnese, flows through Arcadia and Elis. As a mythological character, Alpheus is best known for his pursuit of the nymph Arethusa from Arcadia all the way to Sicily, where she fled, emerging there as a spring that bears her name.
(See also Alpheus River [the], Arcadia, Arethusa, and Sicily.)
AMMON Ammon was the Greek iteration of Amun, the chief god of the Egyptians, god of the sun as well as a creator and fertility god. As king of the gods, Ammon became identified with Zeus and was known as Zeus Ammon. It was the oracle of Ammon in Libya that Cepheus, the father of Andromeda, consulted before offering her as a sacrifice to the sea monster that was plaguing his kingdom of Ethiopia. The same oracle reputedly declared Alexander the Great to be the son of Zeus. As regards appearance, Zeus Ammon was represented as a mature, bearded male, like Zeus, but with the ram’s horns of Amun.
(See also Andromeda, Cepheus, Ethiopia, and Zeus.)
AMPHITRITE Amphitrite was a sea goddess whose name was often used as a metonym for the sea. She was said to be a daughter of Tethys and the river Oceanus (an Oceanid), or a Nereid, daughter of the sea god Nereus and the Oceanid Doris. The mythographer Apollodorus writes that Poseidon married her and that she bore to him both the sea god Triton and Rhode, a personification of the island of Rhodes, an important center of Sun worship. According to the mythographer Hyginus, Amphitrite did not willingly become Poseidon’s consort, instead fleeing the god’s pursuit to take shelter with Atlas. Poseidon sent a certain Delphinus to plead his cause, a task that he carried out so effectively that the god rewarded him by transforming him into a star. The travel writer Pausanias describes a painting in the Theseion, or Theseus-sanctuary, in Athens that depicted an episode in the life of the Athenian king Theseus: the king Minos of Crete had challenged Theseus to prove that he was Poseidon’s son, and threw his signet ring into the sea in the expectation that Theseus would not be able to recover it from the briny depths. But Theseus did retrieve the ring and emerged from the waves wearing a golden crown from Amphitrite, further proof of his divine parentage. According to a late, post-classical source, twelfth-century CE Byzantine Greek writer John Tzetzes, it was Amphitrite who turned the once-lovely maiden Scylla into a monster out of jealousy of Poseidon’s interest in her.
(See also Atlas, Athens, Minos, Nereids [the], Nereus, Oceanids [the], Oceanus, Poseidon, Scylla, Theseus, and Triton.)
ANTEROS Anteros, “Reciprocated Love,” was the god of requited love and, as a consequence, he also punished those who scorned love and avenged unrequited love. Anteros, like his brother and companion Cupid (or Eros), was called both the son of Venus alone or, alternatively, of Venus and Mars.
(See also Cupid, Mars, and Venus.)
APHRODITE Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of erotic love, sexuality, and beauty. One of the twelve Olympian gods, she was associated with the fertility of humans and animals, the fertility of the soil, and the productiveness of plants. To the Romans she became known as Venus.
There are two accounts of Aphrodite’s birth. Homer reports that she was the child of the relatively obscure Titan goddess Dione by Zeus. The poet Hesiod, meanwhile, recounts a very different and dramatic tale of her birth in his Theogony (Origin of the Gods). Seeking to take vengeance upon his father Uranus for mistreating his mother, Gaia, Cronus castrated him, and Uranus’s severed genitalia fell from the heavens into the sea, causing the waters to churn and froth. Reflecting the etymology of her name, which means “gift of the foam,” Aphrodite arose fully grown from the waves’ froth. Roses were said to have sprung from the sand, suffusing the earth with color, when Aphrodite first stepped ashore, and the Graces offered her branches of fragrant myrtle to hide her nakedness. Some believed that the location where this took place was the island of Cythera, which earned the goddess the title “Cytherean” or “Cytherea.” Others, meanwhile, claimed her “birthplace” to have been Cyprus, whence the goddess was also called “Cyprian” or “Cypris.”
Aphrodite was one of the most important deities in the Greek pantheon, her worship being extremely widespread in the Greek world. Material evidence of her cult has been found in Northern Greece, especially Thebes; in Attica, both in the city of Athens and in the city’s territory; and in Megara and Corinth. It has been found, too, in the Peloponnese—Sicyon, Hermione, Epidaurus, Argos, Arcadia, Elis; in the islands, including Cyprus, Crete, and Cythera; at Greek colonies in Asia Minor; and in other places with close ties to Greece, including Sicily, Italy, Naucratis in Egypt, and Saguntum in Spain. Nonetheless, it was suspected even in antiquity that Aphrodite was not actually native to Greece. While the origins of Aphrodite and her cult are less than clear, it is generally conceded that Cyprus played a significant role in her genesis, likely the result of fusing Greek and Near Eastern influences. Through migrations and trade the region was exposed to new forms of fertility cult from Anatolia and the Levant during the Bronze Age (roughly 2500–1050 BCE): cults of the goddesses Ishtar and Astarte, both descended from the Mesopotamian Inanna. Aphrodite was likely a syncretization of these and, as such, adopted by the Greeks into their pantheon. The early importance of her sanctuaries on the Cyprus and Cythera in particular certainly influenced tales of the goddess’s birth.
Being the goddess of love and desire, Aphrodite was not only responsible for the romantic entanglements of numerous gods and mortals but also had a number of love affairs herself. Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, god of the forge, but in his absence, she repeatedly sought the embrace of Ares, god of war. To the latter she bore Eros, who was known to the Romans as Amor or Cupid; Deimus (“Fear”); Phobus (“Panic”); and Harmonia (“Harmony”), who would later marry Cadmus, king of Thebes. To the god Hermes, whose advances she long rejected, Aphrodite bore Hermaphroditus. By some accounts Aphrodite was also the mother of the fertility deity Priapus by the god Dionysus and of the Sicilian king Eryx by the god Poseidon. Among the best known of her mortal loves was the handsome Adonis, who was the product of an incestuous relationship between the princess Myrrha and her father, King Cinyras of Cyprus. Notably, that relationship was the result of Aphrodite’s punishment of the young princess, one of several incidents demonstrating that Aphrodite’s gifts were not always a blessing and could, instead, be a formidable punishment.
Those whom the goddess assisted in their amatory pursuits included the heroes Hippomenes, who was smitten with the swift-footed huntress Atalanta; Jason, who so badly needed the help of the sorceress Medea to secure the Golden Fleece; and the Trojan prince Paris, who awarded her the golden apple that in turn earned him the beautiful Helen and thus became the cause of the Trojan War. Aphrodite’s victims, on the other hand, included Theseus’s son Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra, whom Aphrodite caused to fall tragically in love with him; Tyndareus, king of Argos, whose daughters—most infamous of them Clytemnestra, who killed her husband Agamemnon in his bath—all betrayed their husbands; the Cretan queen Pasiphae, who was overcome with lust for a bull; and the women of Lemnos, who would murder their male relatives.
As for Aphrodite’s attributes and symbols, these included plants that featured in her mythology: the fragrant rose and myrtle; the apple, a fleshy fruit associated with love and procreation; and the poppy (or poppy anemone), which was the flower that sprang from the blood of Adonis. In the animal kingdom, doves, sparrows, swallows, geese, swans, hares, goats, rams, dolphins, and even tortoises were sacred to her, some being symbols of love or fertility and others being associated with her watery birth.
(See also Adonis, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Anchises, Arcadia, Argos, Atalanta, Athens, Cinyras, Clytemnestra, Corinth, Crete, Cronus, Cupid, Cyprus, Dione, Dionysus, Gaia, Graces [the], Harmonia, Helen, Hephaestus, Hermes, Hippolytus, Hippomenes, Jason, Lemnian Women [the], Medea, Megara, Myrrha, Olympus [Mount], Paris, Pasiphae, Phaedra, Priapus, Thebes, Theseus, Titans [the], Troy, Tyndareus, Uranus, Venus, and Zeus.)
APOLLO Apollo was the Greek god of prophecy, healing, archery, music, and poetry. By the fifth century BCE, he also became equated with the sun god Helios, whose functions he assumed. While Apollo was one of the most important of the gods and was well established by the time of Homer and Hesiod in the eighth century BCE, his origins are obscure. Among his many names and cult titles were Phoebus, “Bright One,” a name that is not well understood; Hekebolos, “He Who Strikes from Afar,” which highlights his role as archer-god; Pythian, an allusion to his slaying of the monstrous Python; Hiator (“Healer”); Mousagetes (“Leader of the Muses”), a title underscoring his close ties with the Muses; and Daphnephoros (“Laurel-Bearer”), a reference to the bay laurel, a plant that was sacred to him. Apollo was worshipped throughout Greece, but his sanctuary at Delphi, which was the site of his most important oracle, as well as that on the island of Delos were the most significant.
One of the twelve Greek Olympian gods, he was the son of Zeus and the second-generation Titan goddess Leto. Artemis, goddess of the wild and of hunting, was his twin sister. Apollo and Artemis (but by some accounts, only Apollo) were born on the island of Delos, their mother clutching a palm tree during delivery. It was not Leto, however, who nursed the infant Apollo, but rather the goddess Themis, who fed him ambrosia and nectar. According to the so-called Homeric Hymn
"Annette Giesecke has recently added a wonderful and indispensable book to the corpus of mythology.... Each generation needs a mythology reference book like this, since mythology is immortal and always relevant to successive cultures but nonetheless helpful when language is both contemporary and universal as here."
—Patrick Hunt, Electrum Magazine
"Inviting and highly readable…a beautiful book: the layout is pleasing, with pages bordered in a sepia-toned Greek key design and frequent woodblock-style illustrations. Occasional full-page color plates in the same woodblock style add to the appeal. Charts showing, for example, the genealogy of the ruling house of Troy, are double-page spreads, clearly laid out and beautifully ornamented. Finishing with an appendix of gods, a glossary of ancient sources, and a detailed index, this is an ideal work for collections in need of a solid (and attractive) introduction to classical mythology."
—Ann Welton, Booklist
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2020
- Page Count
- 376 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal