Five Female Olympians of Ancient Greece: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Greek Mythology consists of numerous gods and goddesses, although the Greek pantheon itself is comprised of just twelve main gods ruling Mount Olympus. Among the twelve, there are five female rulers, all just as powerful as their male counterparts. These strong female Olympians inspired, protected, and punished the humans they ruled over. Their legends continue to be told throughout the world even today, although they aren’t always depicted in the most favorable light.
Hera: The Beautiful Queen of the Olympians
Hera, the queen of the Olympians, the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. When it came to prestige, she came second after her husband, Zeus. Like the rest of her siblings, she had been swallowed by her father, Cronus when he learned of a prophesy that claimed he would be overthrown by his own offspring. Remaining alive in her father’s stomach and growing to adulthood, she was finally liberated by Zeus when he tricked and incited a rebellion against his father.
Hera is described as one of the most beautiful goddesses, who resided in the Olympian pantheon. In Greek mythology, she is the goddess of marriages and motherhood, also being the protector of the wise. Hera’s beauty enchanted Zeus, who pursued her to become his wife. In the beginning, Hera rejected his advances but ultimately succumbed when Zeus seduced her in the guise of a distressed cuckoo bird. Afterwards, Hera and Zeus were married and ruled Olympus together.
Together with Zeus, the female Olympian had several children: Ares, Hebe, and Eileithyia. Hera even created Hephaestus without the aid of a man, but when she saw that he was imperfect she tossed him from Olympus. Mother and son only reconciled when Hephaestus tricked Hera by entrapping her. Hera was only released when Hephaestus was readmitted back to Olympus.
Hera, the Queen of the Olympians was a sight to be seen, but not to be crossed! ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
Hera the Faithful, and Jealous
Hera is often associated with faithfulness, while ironically her husband is known for his infidelity and scores of mistresses. This may have been why Hera was opposed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who was responsible for Zeus’ many love affairs. Hera’s jealousy led to her persecuting the consorts of her husband and his illegitimate children, such as Artemis’ mother Leto who had been hounded by Hera, making it difficult for her to find a place to give birth.
The most famous persecution was that of Zeus’ favorite illegitimate son, Heracles. Hera cursed the heroa to be consumed by madness. In his state of insanity, Heracles ended up murdering his wife and children. The hero regained his sanity, but he needed to face twelve trials to atone for his sins, each trial being more difficult than the last. Heracles was haunted throughout his life for having murdered his family, and when the trials finally ended he tried to burn himself. By this point Zeus had seen his son suffer enough and so he brought Heracles up to Olympus and made him a deity.
Not all Heroes faced the wrath of Hera, there were some that received the assistance of the goddess. Her favorite being Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, who she assisted during his quest to retrieve the golden fleece. Hera even had a part to play in the Trojan War , where she sided with the Greeks. The support for the Greeks may have stemmed from the Judgment of Paris, where the Trojan prince Paris awarded Aphrodite with the golden apple, proclaiming her the most beautiful goddess, much to the dismay of Athena and Hera.
One of the most significant events in Hera’s life was the attempted coup she orchestrated against her husband. Zeus had been subdued but the rebels became divided when it became time to choose the next ruler of Olympus. The rebellion failed and Zeus was freed by his supporters. Hera, being the leader of the rebellion, was imprisoned by her husband and was only forgiven when she promised Zeus that she would never dare to rebel against him again. With this promise in place, Hera was restored to her rightful place as queen.
Athena: Female Olympian Goddess of Wisdom and Heroic Endeavors
Athena was the Olympian goddess of wisdom and war, depicted as a stately woman armed with a spear and shield. Athena was born from the union of Zeus and Metis, however, before her birth, a prophecy reached the ears of Zeus. The prophecy claimed that the son born from Metis’ womb would be stronger than Zeus and would overthrow his father. Afraid of losing his throne, like his father, Zeus swallowed Metis, then pregnant with Athena, whole in an effort to prevent her from getting pregnant again.
After Zeus swallowed his pregnant lover, he began experiencing excruciatingly painful headaches. To discover the reason for the pain, Zeus ordered that his head be split open. It was from this opening that the goddess Athena emerged, fully grown and dressed in her armor. Her strength and beauty made her the favorite daughter of Zeus. Athena was intelligent and wise, valuing warriors who fought using their wit rather than brute strength.
Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, the city dedicated to knowledge. However, to become the patron of the city, she had to win against Poseidon, who was vying for the same role. The city of Athens had been known as Cecropia and was ruled by a wise king. It was before the king that both Poseidon and Athena presented themselves. The gods had come to guarantee Cecropia protection in return for becoming the patron god or goddess of the city.
In a show of power, Poseidon hit the ground with his trident and from it emerged a saltwater spring, which would tell sailors when it was safe to travel. On the other hand, Athena struck her spear in the ground and from the hole emerged a beautiful olive tree, which could be used for food and trade. The king left the choice to the people, whereby all the men voted for Poseidon and all the women voted for Athena. The women, being greater in number, won and so Cecropia became Athens, with Athena as the patron goddess.
Athena, the female Olympian goddess of wisdom and war, had many human traits including jealousy and anger. ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
Spiders, Monsters, and the Wrath of Athena
Athena’s most famous myths are those of Medusa and Arachne. In ancient Greek mythology the gods and goddesses had many human traits, such as jealousy or anger. In the myth of Arachne, a woman boasts that she can weave better than the goddess, to which Athena answers with a challenge. When Arachne wins, Athena is consumed with anger and transforms the poor woman into a spider.
Medusa, on the other hand, was a priestess in the temple of Athena whose beauty began to attract the attention of the men. One night she was attacked by the Greek god, Poseidon, who raped the young woman in the temple. Instead of taking her fury out on Poseidon, Athena transformed the wounded Medusa into a monster.
Athena is one of the bravest female Olympians and yet, as her myths show, she had many flaws. A question that comes to mind is why was Athena unable to protect the women of her own city? Why did she feel so threatened by her own priestess? Despite all these questions, it cannot be denied that Athena was the most revered and widely worshipped goddess of the Greek world.
Artemis: Goddess of the Wilderness and the Hunt
Artemis, the Olympian goddess of the hunt, wilderness, and wild animals was born from the union of Zeus and Leto (a titaness) and was the elder twin sister of Apollo. Artemis’ beginning wasn’t simple. Her mother, while pregnant, was harassed by Hera, who did not allow her any safe place to give birth. Leto found refuge on the Island of Delos, and it was here that Artemis was born. Only a day old, Artemis learned how to assist in childbirth, helping her mother give birth to her brother, Apollo.
As children, Artemis and her family were chased by a serpent known as Python who was ultimately defeated by Apollo when he grew older. Artemis saw the pain and suffering that her mother had gone through, so she was determined to remain a virgin for eternity. In a hymn recorded by Callimachus, he writes about a request Artemis made to Zeus:
“Pray give me eternal virginity; as many names as my brother Apollo; a bow and arrow like his; the office of bringing light; a saffron hunting tunic with a red hem reaching to my knees; sixty young ocean nymphs, all of the same age, as my maids of honor; twenty river nymphs from Amnisus in Crete, to take care of my buskins [boots] and feed my hounds when I am not out shooting; all the mountains in the world; and, lastly, any city you care to choose for me, but one will be enough, because I intend to live on the mountains most of the time.”
Artemis, the virgin deity, was the goddess of the wilderness and the hunt. ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
The Purity of Artemis, the Virgin Deity
Artemis came to be known as the virgin deity, remaining pure for all of eternity. In one myth, a handsome giant called Orion tried to rob her of her purity leading Artemis to kill him. In another version, Apollo tricked Artemis into killing her companion, Orion. In both cases Orion’s death was mourned by Artemis who placed him amongst the stars as a constellation. Artemis’ strength can be seen when she single-handedly faced off against the Aloadae giants who tried to storm Olympus. Artemis took the form of a dove and flew down between them. To kill the goddess, the pair cast their spears, which missed the tiny dove and hitting the giants instead and striking them dead.
The most famous event in Greek mythology is the Trojan War, during which the Olympic gods were divided in their loyalties. Artemis was a divine ally of the Trojans, like Aphrodite, however, she only played a minor role in the war. In a clash amongst the gods, Artemis came up against Hera, but unfortunately Artemis proved to pose little challenge to the Queen of the gods. Hera tore Artemis’ bow from her hands and beat her about the head with it. This ultimately sent Artemis fleeing back to Olympus in tears, her pride wounded.
Artemis was a brave warrior, but as the above proved she may not have been the strongest among the goddesses. However, she was someone who cherished her purity above everything else. When one of her nymphs was seduced by Zeus, Artemis transformed her into a bear and then killed her in a hunt. She was a divine being who had been scared by the events of her birth. Her stories show that she kept the trauma close to her heart and would not tolerate anyone’s disobedience of her rules.
Demeter: Kind Goddess of the Harvest
Demeter was a very different goddess among the Greek pantheon and was considered the kindest of the goddesses. She was the female Olympian goddess of the harvest; therefore, she was mostly worshipped by farmers and agriculturalists. The daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Demeter was the elder sister of Zeus. She was also the patron of the mystery cults, which unlike other cults, promised its believers a path to a blessed afterlife.
Like other goddesses, Demeter also had offspring, the most famous of them being Persephone, who relates to the myth of the changing seasons. Persephone and Dionysus were the products of the union between Demeter and Zeus. Demeter had both mortal and divine consorts with whom she had many children, but among them, Persephone was her favorite, the goddess of Spring. Mother and daughter were always together, that is until one day Hades, the god of the underworld, saw and fell in love with Persephone.
Demeter was the kindest of all the female Olympians and worshiped as goddess of the harvest ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
The Changing Seasons: Demeter and Persephone
With the usual Greek god heavy-handed seduction, Hades kidnaped Persephone and brought her down to the underworld. In desperation, Demeter wandered the world in search of her daughter and began neglecting her duties, engulfing the world in winter. When Demeter discovered the truth, she went to Zeus and threatened to make the world infertile forever. Unfortunately, the bond between Hades and Persephone could no longer be broken, so it was decided that Persephone would spend part of the year in the underworld and the rest of the year with her mother.
This myth was used by the Greeks to explain the changing of the seasons. Whenever Persephone was reunited with Demeter, flowers would bloom and the soil would become fertile, spring and summer. However, whenever she would return to the underworld the world would become infertile and cold, autumn and winter.
There were cases where humans also received her divine punishment, one being that of Erysichthon, a man who cut down the Demeter’s holy grove and for that she cursed him with an unquenchable hunger. The curse would lead to his ruin, however, when compared to the punishments given by the other gods, this seems pale in comparison. Agriculture led to the creation of the first human settlements, and thus Demeter, according to mythology, played a prominent role in the appearance of the first cities. She garnered the reputation as the most beloved goddess of the Greeks.
Aphrodite is remembered as the Greek goddess of love and beauty, with a penchant for lust and lovers. ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)
Aphrodite: Goddess of Love and Beauty
Aphrodite may be the most famous of the female Olympians. Known as the goddess of love and beauty, from ancient times to modern literature she has been depicted as a beautiful woman. In Greek mythology, she is often accompanied by the winged godling, Eros. There are two versions of Aphrodite’s birth, the first one being that she was born from the union of Zeus and Dione. Whereas the second version is that she was born from the sea foam, produced by the severed genitals of Uranus (the father of Cronus).
No matter how she came to be, the one thing that all myths agree upon is that her beauty mesmerized the gods of Olympus. Therefore, to prevent Aphrodite from creating problems between the male gods, Zeus married her off to Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Aphrodite had countless lovers despite her marriage, making Hephaestus a laughingstock among the deities. The most famous of her affairs was with the war god, Ares. It was from this union that Eros was born. Hephaestus had been aware of the affairs but there was little he could do to stop his wife. Ultimately, Hephaestus divorced his wife, to preserve any honor he had left.
Later on, Aphrodite fell in love with a human named Adonis, a very handsome young man. However, the young man met an early end, when he was killed during a hunting expedition. In the underworld, Persephone had fallen in love with Adonis as well, which caused a huge dispute between the two goddesses. The dispute came to an end only when Zeus intervened, declaring that Adonis would spend one third of the year with Persephone, one third with Aphrodite and the last third with whoever he chose. Adonis ended up choosing to spend the final third with Aphrodite.
Rivalry Between Female Olympians
Aphrodite’s rivalry was with the Queen of Olympus was legendary, as Hera blamed Aphrodite and her son, Eros, for the many love affairs of Zeus. Things became worse between the two when Paris, the prince of Troy, awarded Aphrodite with the golden apple, declaring her the most beautiful among the goddesses. In return for the award, Aphrodite had promised Paris Helen’s hand in marriage. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Aphrodite sided with the Trojans.
The five goddesses each had their individual powers and abilities, however, it should be acknowledged that they are almost equal to their male counterparts. Mythology gave them human qualities that made it easy for the ancient Greeks to relate to their pantheon. Their existence also helped explain the natural phenomena that occurred in the Greek world far from Mount Olympus .
Top image: The five female Olympians of the Ancient Greek Pantheon. Source: local_doctor / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef