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Athena in Ancient Literature

by October 6, 2021

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
She’s one of the most famous and prominent of the Greek deities. Her symbol – the owl – still stands proudly, millennia later, as an emblem of wisdom.
Yet what do the ancient texts actually say about her? Who is she, and what does she do?
What do we know about the Goddess of Wisdom?
Athena in Homer
The Iliad and the Odyssey were both of central importance to Ancient Greek society. Even today, it is many people’s first exposure to the world of the Classics. Athena’s role in both, while comparatively small in terms of ‘screentime’, is key to the action of the story.
Of the two Homeric poems, Athena plays a much larger role in the Odyssey. She essentially acts as the protector of Odysseus. At various points across Odysseus’ journey, it is Athena’s help and guidance that allow the cunning hero to escape to safety. Moreover, it is Athena’s request to Zeus that allows Odysseus to leave the island of Circe.
Some have taken this to diminish the role of Odysseus himself. The interaction between the human and the divine in Greek literature, however, is more complex than that. Odysseus own qualities of cunning and guile are what win him the approval of the goddess. It is his own resourcefulness that makes him worthy of having a god intervene on his behalf. Odysseus own personality is so defined by the traits of cleverness and using his wits. That these are traits similar to those possessed by the goddess herself is significant.
A direct parallel is drawn between Odysseus and Athena in two incidents that bookend the epic. Early on in the Odyssey, Athena appears to Odysseus’ son Telemachus in disguise. Towards the end of the epic, it is Athena that allows Odysseus to take on the form of a beggar, which allows him to re-enter Ithaca disguised.
Ulysses transformed by Athena into beggar, 1775, by Giuseppe Bottani
Ulysses transformed by Athena into beggar, 1775, by Giuseppe Bottani
Athena’s presence in the Iliad is notably less prominent. Nevertheless, she also acts as something of a guide to Achilles at key moments throughout. For instance, she is present at the infamous quarrel of Agamemnon and Achille over Breseis which opens the epic. She helps stay the anger of Achilles, preventing him from killing Agamemnon outright!
Athena in Greek Tragedy
Athena was, naturally enough, the patron of her namesake city, Athens. The Festival Dionysia, where Greek tragedies were staged, actually took place in Athens. So, the audience for Greek tragedies consisted primarily of Athenians. The characterisation of Athena in Greek tragedies is, unsurprisingly, consistently positive.
Perhaps Athena’s most important role in Greek Tragedy is in the Eumenides by Aeschylus. Athena appears in the third and final play of the Oresteia trilogy, where she effectively acts as a judge in the world’s first courtroom drama.
The deciding vote as to whether or not Orestes should be considered guilty of his crimes is granted to Athena. The ruling frees Orestes from punishment by the Furies, while also granting the Furies a place of honour in a new system of justice.
This ruling is seen as representing in dramatic form perhaps the greatest Athenian invention – democracy.
Athena in the Eumenides
Athena in the Eumenides
Athena also appears in a number of Euripides‘ plays, such as Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, The Suppliants and Ion. In each of these plays, she acts in the role of deus ex machina, a term that literally means ‘god from the machine’.
Although that term might conjure up the sort of imagery you’d see in a Marvel or Matrix movie, it’s real meaning is much more straightforward than it might sound.
The ‘machine’ is in fact the mechane, a sort of crane that formed part of the Ancient Greek stage. It was a heightened platform, placed physically above the action of the rest of the scene, to signify to the audience that the actor was playing a god.
Whenever the drama has reached a point near the climax of the story, and all the play’s problems seem unsolvable, a god appeared on this stage. They then go on to very effectively resolve the conflict of the play, by telling each of the characters what they must do. It’s not always been a popular technique in tragedy – Aristotle was critical of the convention of the deus ex machina in his treatise on tragedy, the Poetics. Today, many would still agree with him. Yet it is a fitting role for Athena to fulfil. It’s consistent with how Athena is characterised throughout ancient literature, while also wrapping up the stories of the tragedies
There is, of course, an even more vast body of myths that surround Athena. Many of these belonged to the lost poems of the Epic Cycle. We still know many of these stories – for instance, that she was one of the three goddesses Paris had to choose between in the “Apple of Discord” story. Yet so much is also lost. Perhaps the real wisdom is found in the words of Socrates – “I know that I know nothing.”

The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios

by September 3, 2021

By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins

An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek myth, Helios was a deity who was important, but not always recognized for his powers. Until his role was usurped by a newer god, Helios was the deity of the life-giving, season-changing sun. He appeared in artwork riding his horse-drawn chariot across the sky and was a firsthand witness to several major events in the lives of other gods and goddesses, but Helios generally seemed to pass along in the background, seeing everything going on both on earth and in the heavens as he made sure to follow his daily routine.

Titans, Nymphs, Kings, and Oceanids: Helios’ Extensive Family

Helios’ parents were the Titans Hyperion, god of light, and Theia, goddess of sight. His sisters were Selene (the Moon) and Eos (Dawn). He was born/created in what is called the Golden Age of Greek Mythology and was responsible for bringing light to the world as the god of the sun. That role would gradually be usurped.

The Greek god of sun at noon

‘Helios as Personification of Midday’ (1765) by Anton Raphael Mengs.

His lovers include the Oceanids Perseis (whom some sources call his wife) and Clymene as well as the nymphs Crete and Rhodes.

His daughters with Persis include the famed sorceresses Circe, a lover to Odysseus, and Pasiphae, King Minos of Crete’s wife. His two sons with Perseis were King Aietes (Aeete) of Kolchis (Colchis) and King Perses of Persia.

Phaethon was his son born from Helios’ relation with Clymene and he had three (or five) daughters with her, known collectively as the Heliades.

Painting of the four seasons

‘Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons’ (1635) by Nicola Poussin.

With Rhode, Helios had seven sons, the Heliadae, and a daughter named Electryone. These sons were said to have been smarter and stronger than any other men and soon became the rulers of Rhodes. Three of the main cities, Ialysos, Cameiros, and Lindos, are said to be named for three of his sons.

Two of his nymph daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, were in charge of overseeing his cattle on Thrinacia.

Helios in Art – How Did the Ancients Depict the Greek Sun God?

Helios appeared in all kinds of Greek art. He’s generally depicted as a young man wearing a crown of the sun’s rays, or with bright, curly hair. His piercing eyes reflect the legends of his all-seeing gaze and he’s clothed in a garment fit for a god. A simpler Greek symbol for Helios is a large haloed eye.

The poet who authored the 31st Homeric Hymn presents a beautiful description of the sun deity’s appearance in artwork:

“As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him.”

Sculpture of the Greek Sun god

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Usually the sun god is shown riding his golden chariot at the edge or in the background of someone else’s scene. His chariot is drawn by four winged horses, or sometimes dragons, and he is sometimes accompanied by one or both of his sisters.

His image has been identified in several examples of Greek pottery dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. For example, Helios is depicted on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC, in which boys symbolizing the stars fall towards the ocean as he approaches. He’s also represented in some Heracles’ scenes on 6th century BC black-figure and 5th century BC red-figure pottery.

Pottery of the Greek sun god

Helios on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC.

The most famous example of Helios in art, however, was the Colossus of Rhodes. This massive standing figure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was constructed between 304 and 280 BC, but toppled over during an earthquake in either 228 or 226 BC. Coins from Rhodes also presented their patron deity for centuries.

Some notable historic figures also took on the likeness of the Greek sun god in their portraits. Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors Vespasian and Nero all desired to be seen as incarnations of a sun god.

Bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great as Helios. Marble, Roman copy after a Hellenistic original from 3rd–2nd century BC.

His Daily Journey Across the Sky

The most important ancient Greek myth of Helios is his daily journey. The ancient Greeks believed that there was a golden chariot of the sun that was so bright that human eyes could not bear to gaze upon it. For them, that chariot was driven from the east (Ethiopia) to the west (Hesperides) across the sky every day by the god Helios.

The journey was difficult and it was believed that Helios was a skilled charioteer to be able to not fly too close or distant from the earth. Helios’ daily trip across the sky began as his sister Eos (as dawn) threw open the gates of his beautiful eastern palace. He set off with his four winged horses (Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois, and Phlegon). The long travel had a steep ascent, peaked around mid-day, and then steeply descended towards his western palace, where his nephew, Hesperus (evening) awaited him.

Painting of the Gods

Three paintings showing three deities of Greek mythology as personifications of the times of the day. From left to right: Helios (or sun god Apollo) personifying Day, Hesperus embodying Evening, and Selene (or Diana, Luna) personifying Night or the Moon.

To return to the eastern palace, Helios was believed to have sailed under the world via the northerly stream of the realm of Oceanus with his horses and chariot in a golden boat (or large cup/goblet, or bed) created by the master smith and deity, Hephaestus. While Helios was hidden in Oceanus, Selene, the moon goddess, took her turn to cross the sky.

Minor Roles for Helios in Greek Myths

Another well-known myth involving Helios was when his son almost destroyed the earth. A popular version of the Greek myth of Phaethon says that the young man wanted proof that the sun was his father, so he went east to test the deity and ask him for a gift. Helios agreed to give his son whatever the youth wanted, but was distressed to discover Phaethon wanted to take a turn driving the golden sun chariot across the sky. He reluctantly consented and that favor turned into a disaster.

Phaethon could not control the winged horses and spun out of control, hurtling too far, then far too close, to the earth. Some of the world froze and other parts were set on fire as Phaethon struggled to control the chariot. But it was too much for him and as the gods watched the chaos unfold it was decided that something must be done before the earth was destroyed.

Picture depicting Phaeton's fall

‘The Fall of Phaeton’ (1531-1535) by Giovanni Bernardi.

Zeus saw no other option than to strike Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. The gods had to beg Helios to return to his work following the death of his son, but the sun god eventually agreed. And Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, were in such despair due to their brother’s death that their tears turned into amber and they became poplar trees.

Helios also played a minor role in many Greek myths. For example, his power to see everything on earth and in the heavens made him an eyewitness to the abduction of Persephone by Hades and the affair between Aphrodite and Ares.

Painting of Helios the Greek God

Helios (as Sol) shows the other gods Venus and Mars (Aphrodite and Ares), Vulcan (Hephaestus) stands at the front of the painting. (1540) by Maarten van Heemskerck.

He sometimes offered his assistance to other characters in Greek myth, such as when he allowed his granddaughter Medea to flee on his chariot after she murdered her children. He also lent his golden ship/cup to Heracles when the Greek hero had to cross Oceanus and capture the cattle of Geryon. Helios rescued his friend Hephaestus from the battlefield during the Gigantomachy and restored Orion’s eyesight after he was blinded by Oenipion as well. The earth mother goddess, Gaia, also sought his aid in warming and drying her when the land had been frozen by the remains of Typhon.

But Helios also showed his vengeful side when he appeared in the epic Greek tale, the Odyssey. After Odysseus’ men fed upon Helios’ sacred cattle he was so angered he had Zeus strike Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt – Odysseus was the only survivor of the attack.

The Cult of Helios

In Classical Greece, Helios was openly worshipped in Rhodes, where he was considered their patron deity since at least the early 5th century BC. Legends said that Helios was the first to see the island emerge from the waters and claimed it as his own. The island’s name came from Helios’ nymph lover, Rhodos. Every five years the island held PanHellenic games called the Halieia and a chariot and four horses were thrown into the sea as an offering to Helios.

While he was worshiped on Rhodes, it seems that Helios was not a major cult deity in the rest of ancient Greece. Temples of worship have not been mentioned to any extent, perhaps due to a belief that ‘barbarians’ built temples of worship to the sun. Nonetheless, his name was invoked in serious oaths and Plato wrote that Socrates and others would greet and pray to the sun every day.

Illustration of the Colossus of Rhodes

‘The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor’ (1886) painting by Ferdinand Knab.

Helios vs Apollo and Sol – Who was the Real Sun God?

The Greek Titans fell and the Olympians arose. Helios was not punished after the Titanomachy, but ancient Greeks pushed his role as the sun god towards someone else – Apollo.

It seems that the radiant and pure god Apollo began to gradually take over the role of sun god beginning around the 5th century BC. By the Hellenistic period the transition was almost complete. Apollo and Helios had become almost synonymous.

The Romans transformed Helios/Apollo into their sun god, Sol, and decided it was time for the deity to take a more important cult role. The Circus Maximus of Rome even had a temple dedicated to Sol and Luna (the Moon) from the 3rd century BC.

Hephaestus: The Humane God

by August 13, 2021

By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
Poor Hephaestus, God of fire, metal working and all things volcanos… he’s not quite like the other gods, is he?
To begin with, he is the only one to suffer from a physical impairment, and a significant one at that. Throughout the corpus of Greek myth, Hephaestus’ lameness is a key part of his iconography, and it is central to his role in Homer’s Iliad.
He’s also the only god to work! That is to actively partake in labour…physically demanding, painful labour… His job, of course, is to forge as a blacksmith. Homer continuously emphasises his pain and humiliation, both of which are quite removed from the carefree lives enjoyed by the other gods. Despite this mockery, being repeatedly represented as distinct, as an ‘other’ amongst the gods, Hephaestus remains respected for his artistic output. 
The Laughing Gods
Okay, so poor Hephaestus gets made fun of from time to time… that’s not so bad, is it?
But in the ancient world, it didn’t work like that. For instance, in Euripides’ Medea, the most awful fate imaginable to the central figure is the thought that her enemies would laugh at her.
      οὐ γὰρ γελᾶσθαι τλητὸν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι.
      For it is not endurable to be laughed at by one’s enemies, friends.
Considering the extreme nature of her later actions (and for anyone who needs a recap: she murders her own children), the fact that she finds laughter so unthinkable is… well… striking. Yet, this is consistent with the Homeric code. For human warriors seeking to gain fame and renown (or as the Greeks would have it, kleos), being laughed at is an unbearable humiliation. 
But let’s look at laughter.
Laughter plays a significant role in the Iliad in its designation of the separation of the worlds of the human and the divine. In Book XXI, the gods engage in battle with one another… yet it is not the earth shaking, violent confrontation that is conjured by a phrase like “Battle of the Gods”. Rather, for the gods it is ultimately a game, a distraction, that results in great laughter amongst them. The source of the humour is that the battle, ultimately, is of no consequence to them, as they are immortal.
Contrast that to the toil and sweat of the human battles, stern competitions with death as the penalty for failure!
In the world of the Iliad, laughter is a privilege for the immortal gods, not granted to the short, painful lives of mortals.
So considering all this… it’s really quite important that in his first appearance in the Iliad, Hephaestus, a god, is laughed at… Indeed, it is a recurring pattern in Homer; Hephaestus is consistently shown to have a greater share in human experiences than what is normal for a god. This is emphasised further by the Hephaestus’ ‘backstory’ – aetiological myths incorporated by Homer in order to explain his ungodly wounds.
Cast from Mount Olympus
Before the beginning of the Iliad, Hephaestus is already different to the other gods. We are told in Book I of how he attempted to protect his mother Hera during a quarrel she had with Zeus, and for doing so he was thrown from Mount Olympus by Zeus, resulting in his injury to his legs. Upon hearing this story being recalled, the other gods laugh at Hephaestus in his misfortune.
Much later in Book XVIII of the Iliad, we are told that this casting from Olympus was not an isolated event. After sustaining his lameness from the first fall and following his return to Mount Olympus, his presence was deemed unbearable to his mother, leading to him being cast off Olympus again. After falling for a day and landing in Lemnos, Thetis and Eurynome functioned as his surrogate mothers for nine years.
Mount Olympus
Mount Olympus
Mount Olympus itself can be seen as a symbol of the gods’ relationship to humankind. They are distanced and removed from the pains that mark the lives of humans. That Hephaestus is thrown from Olympus twice is illustrative of him experiencing a level of suffering deeply unusual for a god, to the point that it has more in common with human experience. Of course, the other gods have the choice to leave Olympus and visit humans if they so desire, but these other sojourns of the gods are nothing like what happened to Hephaestus, twice violently cast away…
When Hephaestus recalls his time with Thetis and Eurynome, his period of healing from the painful wounds of his fall, he also speaks of the jewels he crafted for them. Clearly there is a direct connection between Hephaestus’ suffering and his creation of beautiful artworks.
The Shield of Achilles
The most important action that Hephaestus takes in the Iliad is near the end of the epic. After the armor of Achilles is taken from the body of Patroclus, Hephaestus forges the Shield of Achilles at the request of Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis.
In one of the most celebrated sections of the epic, we are provided with an extended description of this shield. It features a vast panoramic view of both nature and the wide variety of human events. That so much emphasis is granted to these depictions of scenes from everyday life is significant…. Cumulatively, they represent an attempt to recreate the totality of human experiences.
But the importance of the shield does not end there… Indeed, throughout the Iliad there are many “arming scenes,” wherein a character is dressed for war, and this sequence is essentially the ultimate “arming scene”. At this moment, the central heroic figure of the whole epic receives armor that reflects his true power. Not only that, but the length and detail of this scene signifies that the shield is a truly divine work of art as much as it is a divine shield.
Shield of Achilles
The Shield of Achilles by Rundell Bridge, 1822
That Hephaestus is able to create such a powerful and all-encompassing work of art is due to his particular and unusual connection to humanity. He is able to understand their experiences in a way that is truly remarkable and unusual for a god. It is only through these painful experiences that the Shield of Achilles can be forged.
Oh, poor Hephaestus… It is through his connection to humanity, and the requisite suffering that it entails, that he is able to create so much beauty and craftsmanship. He, unlike the other gods, takes his divine skills for the greater good of man. Perhaps the other deities… and indeed ourselves… can learn a bit from the old crippled smith.

From Roman Sarcophagi Comes The Gospel of Bacchus

by April 9, 2021

Written by Barry Ferst, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Serving as a “billboard” for the faithful, images sculpted on Roman-era marble coffins offer a visualization of the Gospel of Bacchus, a graphic stone bible especially meaningful to devotees contemplating death’s doorway. Since much about the cult of Bacchus remains a mystery, a beautifully-carved frieze on a sarcophagus can go a long way to prying open some of the cult’s secrets.

By 100 C.E. the Bacchus mythos (known alternatively as Dionysus or Liber) had become standardized, i.e., made socially acceptable (the earlier Greek version could instill terror).  The story begins with a double birth, first from Semele whom Jupiter has inseminated, and then from Jupiter’s thigh where the infant has been hidden from Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno. The babe is brought by Hermes to woodland creatures to be tended by them.

There, the young Bacchus is taught by a centaur and recognized as a god. As a young adult he rides in a chariot pulled by panthers or centaurs. He travels to India, which he and his troupe conquer (known as the Indian Triumph). On return, he is given an emperor’s adventus, the circus-like processional proceeded by dancing maenads. When he totters, wine-intoxicated, he is held upright by one or more of his troupe. He marries Ariadne, and he retrieves his mother Semele from the land of the dead. His friends are satyrs, pans, and centaurs.

What is known of the Bacchic rituals are the manic dances of his followers, the bacchants and maenads who play cymbals, castanets, foot clappers, bells, tambourines, and pipes. There is the sacrifice of a goat’s head, and the viewing of a snake rising from a winnowing basket. Devotees carry the thyrsus (a staff decorated with ribbons and topped with a pine cone) and hand out honey-dipped hot cakes. Ritual symbols included the laurel tree, the grape vine, and the ivy leaf. The cult was easily absorbed into Christianity.

Here, then, is a small selection from the seventy-five Bacchus sarcophagi I have personally photographed (excluding the first), each displaying a part of the Gospel of Bacchus.


Bacchus sarcophagi, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, photo by Anya Leonard

This sarcophagus lid pictures the birth and early years of Bacchus. The twice-born Bacchus (first from Semele) is being taken from Jupiter’s thigh. A Homeric hymn refers to Bacchus as “insewn”:

“Be favorable, O Insewn, Inspirer of frenzied women! We singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain, and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind.”


Sarcophagus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

This frieze on this sarcophagus depicts moments in the infancy of Bacchus. At far left the infant Bacchus stands on a small hill and holds a fennel stalk in his left hand. He looks at seated Silenus, and he is being admired by three woodland divinities. At center left Silenus, a wine skin at his feet, has a hold on a young satyr. In the right half of the frieze nymphs are tending to the care of Bacchus. They are preparing him for his bath, filling the tub with water, and bringing food.


Frieze, Basilica St. Paul beyond the Walls, Rome

This frieze shows five sailors on a boat accepting the infant Bacchus from a centaur. One sailor has outstretched arms ready to receive the babe, while a second gestures with upraised forefinger. At the rear of the boat a third sailor is holding the handle of the steering rudder. Given the small size of the casket, it may have been for a child, parents imaging their child being carried far away to the Isles of the Blest. The boat carries Bacchus to a distant land where Juno cannot find him.


Sarcophagus, Princeton University Art Museum

The sarcophagus depicts the preparation for the celebration of or the Roman Bacchanalia. At left the aged Bacchus in the form of a herm statue is being raised by four young men. At far right a statue of a young Bacchus, a symbol of youthful male virility is being decorated.


Frieze, Terme, National Museum of Rome

In this frieze, twenty-four figures — both human and divine — sweep across the scene. At left sits an adolescent Bacchus, listening to the music played by his teacher, the centaur Chiron. Chiron is holding a lyre in his left hand and a plectrum in his right. According to the Byzantine writer Ptolemaeus Chennus of Alexandria, “Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.” Between Chiron and Bacchus is a bacchante holding a thyrsus. At far right two female devotees watch his lesson.


Frieze, Cathedral, Cosenza, Italy

This frieze depicts a processional honoring of Bacchus.  A youthful Bacchus with feminine breasts and his hair in curls — an androgynous portrayal — receives devotees while slouching royally on a chair. Euripides called him “This effeminate stranger”. Silenus kneels before Bacchus.


Sarcophagus, Glyptothek, Munich

This masterfully-carved panel of a sarcophagus shows Bacchus stepping from his chariot to gaze at the sleeping Ariadne. In this depiction, Bacchas is an old, bearded man dressed like a woman, again indicating the androgynous character of Bacchus.


Sarcophagus, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

By the time this sarcophagus was carved in the second half of the second century C.E., Dionysian rituals and mythos had softened. Hence this exquisite frieze, referring to when Bacchus “fell in love with Ariadne, and kidnapped her, taking her off to Lemnos where he had sex with her, and begat Thoas. Straphylos, Oinopio, and Peparethos” (Pseudo-Apollodorus), shows no kidnapping or raw sexual contact, but rather the happy wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne.


Frieze, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

This “Bacchus in Hades” cinematic frieze creatively embellishes the story of Bacchus retrieving Semele from the Underworld.


Frieze, Walters Museum, Baltimore

This frieze has quite the story. In 1885, a cemetery was excavated just north of Rome on the Via Saleria. During the excavation, the tomb of the family of Calpurnii Pisones was uncovered and found to contain ten large sarcophagi. One large coffin entitled the “Indian Triumph”, presents a grand procession marking Bacchus’s victory over the Indians. The scene mimics a Roman emperor’s adventus after a victory.


Frieze, Terme, National Museum of Rome

This sarcophagus frieze presents a parade in which devotees would have dressed in costumes to imitate their god and his companions. Could it not also be viewed as a scene of victory over death?


Sarcophagus, Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

The frieze of this large linos sarcophagus completely covers all four sides, showing a raucous Bacchic religious ceremony and Dionysian sacrificial ritual.


Sarcophagus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

The scene on this lenos sarcophagus displays a rapturous gathering of men and women in a vineyard. Symbols like vineyards, vines and wine form a key part of the intoxication-driven ecstasy of the Bacchus gospel.


Frieze, Terme Museum, Rome

This frieze shows a drunken Bacchus standing with the help of a satyr at center. Called the “Seasons Sarcophagus”, Spring is represented by the two figures to Bacchus’ immediate left: one holds a rabbit and the second holds a cornucopia above which, on the figure’s shoulder, sits is a baby. With a sheaf of wheat in his left hand and basket of fruit in the other, Summer stands at Bacchus’ right. Fall is represented by the next two figures. One holds a basket of grapes in his left hand while in his right he has a grape vine. An erote (winged god representative of love) is collecting grapes from the vine. The second figure is in the “good shepherd” pose with a sheep on his shoulder. At the far left is a man in a heavy tunic and hood, symbolizing Winter. He holds a brace of geese.


Taken together, these sarcophagi are a veritable gospel carved in marble. Tracing the miraculous double birth, infancy, education, early and late travels of Bacchus, his love affair, marriage, rites and rituals, they point to the recognition of a “world-wide” and “for-all-seasons” divinity.

Only jubilant stories are found on sarcophagi. The sheer number of Bacchus sarcophagi is proof of the great number of adherents to the cult. Its popularity shouldn’t surprise us — like any deity, Bacchus was believed to have divine powers. He shifts attention away from problems, work and worries and towards the simple act of enjoyment — be it wine, song or passion — reminding us that we, too, have the capacity to surrender to joy.


Flora, Goddess of Spring, and Her Festival Floralia

by April 2, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Many ancient civilizations had fertility goddesses that played a crucial role in their religion. Rome was no exception. Perhaps the best-known fertility goddess in ancient Italy was Flora. She was an exceedingly popular goddess and every year a major festival, the Floralia, was held in her honor.

The Goddess Flora

Flora from a fresco in Pompeii

The name Flora ultimately derives from the Indo-European word for flower. It appears that the name Flora was a combination of ancient Latin and Oscan, a tongue native to southern Italy. There is also clear Greek influence in the development of this fertility deity. Some scholars believe that Flora’s true origin is a very ancient Italian fertility goddess.

There is some evidence that the Romans incorporated the worship of the goddess prior the foundation of the Republic. This was quite common, as the Romans tended to adopt gods and deities whom they believed would be useful.

There was a magnificent temple dedicated to Flora in the Circus Maximus, testifying to her importance and influence in the Roman world. She was regarded as one of the fourteen most important gods and goddesses and one of the few with her own flamen (priests or priestesses). 

Flora was associated with vegetation and flowering plants. The Romans honored her in order to ensure her continued blessing on their lands. This was crucial for an ancient people dependent on agriculture. The goddess was worshipped throughout the Roman Republic and into the Roman Empire, until the coming of Christianity. 

The Greek equivalent of Flora was Chloris. Her importance to the Romans can be seen in the many coins that bear her image. The goddess’ name has been used as the botanical term flora and is also a popular girl’s name.

Myths About Flora

Flora and Zephyr, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617

There are a number of myths about Flora. Most are recorded in the work of the first-century poet Ovid, who wrote that originally the goddess was a nymph who transformed into Flora after being kissed by Zephyrus, the God of the West Wind. She was depicted as having the power to make both nature and humans more fertile.

In one account, she helped Juno to become pregnant with a child in revenge for Jupiter giving birth to Minerva from his head. Flora did this with a magical plant. In some myths, the goddess Flora was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of desire and love.

The Floralia

Floralia, by Hobbe Smith, 1898

The festival of Floralia was established around 250 BC and soon became one of the most popular in the Roman calendar. The festival was a five-day affair that fell, in our calendar, in late April and lasted until May.

According to legend, the festival was first instituted on the advice of the Sibylline Books, which were considered prophetic. For the Romans, the festival symbolized the cycle of life, birth, and death. It honored Flora and was a time of dancing, gathering of flowers and the wearing of colorful clothes.

The festival was also an occasion to hold Public Games, which were paid for from fines levied throughout the year. These Games lasted six days. The Games and the festival were both administered by the Roman magistrate, the aedile.

Generally, the Floralia opened with theatrical performances, often mimes that could even include a naked actress. Then came the first day of the Games and at night, a ceremonial sacrifice to Flora. There were great efforts made to make the theatrical events around the festivities enjoyable and in 69 AD a tightrope-walking elephant was part of the celebrations!

The festival gained popularity, prompting Julius Caesar to proclaim the Floralia an official holiday. It is considered an important social event in ancient Roman society, as it fostered a sense of community and allowed people to enjoy themselves after the hardships of winter. 

Some scholars believe that the Floralia was the inspiration for the May Day Festival, which is still popular in many Northern European countries. The goddess Flora was also reverenced by humanists in Renaissance Europe, who featured her in paintings, sculptures, and poetry.

The figure of Flora has been painted by some of the greatest painters in the Western tradition, such as Botticelli and Poussin.

Detail of Flora from Primavera by Botticelli, c. 1482


Flora was an important Roman goddess. The worship and cult of Flora are testament to the importance of the natural life cycle for the ancient Romans. The festival of Floralia help unite ancient Roman society as they came together to celebrate the magnificent of nature and the joy of Spring through art and sport.


Berrens, D., 2019. The meaning of flora. Humanistica Lovaniensia. Journal of Neo-Latin Studies, 68(1), pp.237-249.

Ares: The Greek God of War

by July 29, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In the Ancient World, the most powerful forces that shaped human destiny were personified by polytheistic religions in the form of Gods. In this way, the ancients believed that they could influence impersonal forces and powers. One of these was war. In the past, conflict was a constant fact of everyday life, and peace was rare. This is what made the Greek God of War, Ares, so influential in mythology and religion.

The origin of the myth of Ares

Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera, was regarded as one of the Twelve Olympians, and was one of the major deities of the Greek world. The etymology of the name Ares means curse or ruin. Unlike many other religions, such as Roman mythology, the Greeks did not worship war. They were very ambivalent about the God who personified for them the power and bravery needed for victory in war. For the Greeks, he represented the worse in war and conflict.

Ares was worshipped, it appears, by the Mycenaean Greeks from at least 1200 BC. In some sources he was born in Thrace, which was an area populated with fearsome, war-like people. This god was never popular and there were very few temples and shrines to him. He was mainly worshipped by armies who obviously needed his support in battle and on campaigns. There were some archaic practices and rituals associated with this god, such as the sacrifice of a dog in the night.


Helmeted young warrior, so-called Ares. Roman copy from a Greek original—this is a plaster replica, the original is now stored in the Museum of the Villa. Canope at the Villa Adriana

Ares had a sister named Eris, who was the divine personification of discord and disorder. The character of Ares was not an attractive one. He was touchy and quick to anger and was something of a bully. However, during the war, he always favored those who displayed the greatest courage on the field of battle. The Greeks believed that he provided soldiers with the courage and strength to win in a war.

However, the support of Ares did not always guarantee victory, as is shown in the Iliad. The god of war did not save the Trojans from their catastrophic defeat. While many Greeks were ambivalent about this deity, that was not always the case. In Sparta, which was a society dedicated to war, he was revered as the model soldier and a paragon of manly virtue.

The loves of Ares

The god of war was, like other Greek gods, a serial adulterer. He never married, but his consort was Aphrodite, the Goddess of War. This union was intended to demonstrate that both war and love were forms of strife and struggle. However, Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, a fact that would come back to haunt them.


Vatican, Rome, Italy. Statue of Ares, Scopas’s influence. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

The affair between Ares and the Goddess of Love was public, and the couple had six children. They had the attributes of one or both of their parents. For example, Eros, the God of Sex and Love, was their son and so was Phobos, the personification of fear.

Ares also had affairs with two of the Muses, a Titan, and one of the Furies with whom he had more children. Then he had several affairs and more offspring with semi-divine and human lovers. In one myth, Ares is the father of The Amazons, a race of warrior women, who were probably modeled on Scythian female warriors.

Stories of Ares

There are several tales related to Ares in Greek myths, often disrespectful of the deity of war and prowess in battle. In the Odyssey, Ares and Aphrodite are trapped in an iron net created by Hephaestus, enraged about his wife’s affair with a being he despised.

Ares and Aphrodite

Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1827) by Alexandre Charles Guillemot (detail).

The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with flowers …
how the two had first made love in Hephaestus’ mansion,
all in secret. Ares had showered her with gifts
and showered Hephaestus’ marriage bed with shame
but a messenger ran to tell the god of fire—
Helios, lord of the sun, who’d spied the couple
lost in each other’s arms and making love.
Hephaestus, hearing the heart-wounding story,
bustled toward his forge, brooding on his revenge—
planted the huge anvil on its block and beat out chains,
not to be slipped or broken, all to pin the lovers on the spot.

~ Odyssey, Book VIII

Also in Homer, Ares’ parents, Zeus and Hera, are shown as hating him, because of all the carnage that he caused. He also comes into conflict with Poseidon because his son had raped one of the God of War’s daughters.

Ares played an important role in the Trojan War, fighting alongside the Trojans—his intervention almost helped them to victory. However, Athena, the Goddess of military strategy, with the backing of Zeus, entered the fray on behalf of the Greeks and this forced Ares into a humiliating retreat.


Relief of Mars Ultor, 26–14 BCE; in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Source: Britannica.

They were not long about beginning, and Ares piercer of shields opened the battle. Sword in hand he sprang at once upon Athena and reviled her […] As he spoke he struck her on the terrible tasseled aegis—so terrible that not even can Jove’s lightning pierce it. Here did murderous Ares strike her with his great spear. She drew back and with her strong hand seized a stone that was lying on the plain—great and rugged and black—which men of old had set for the boundary of a field. With this she struck Ares on the neck, and brought him down. Nine roods did he cover in his fall, and his hair was all soiled in the dust, while his armour rang rattling round him. But Athena laughed and vaunted over him saying, “Idiot, have you not learned how far stronger I am than you, but you must still match yourself against me? Thus do your mother’s curses now roost upon you, for she is angry and would do you mischief because you have deserted the Achaeans and are helping the Trojans.” ~ Iliad, Book XXI

In another myth, Hades, the god of the dead, is outwitted by Sisyphus and imprisoned. With Hades in chains, nobody could die and war thus became meaningless. This, of course, directly affected Ares who rushed to set Hades free, delivering Sisyphus to him.

Ares and his influence

The Greek deity was very important even though he was not popular. For example, the Athenian court, the Areopagus, was built on a hill dedicated to this God. Ares was very influential in the Roman conception of Mars. Over time, the old Latin God of battle and valor in war became identical with the Greek God.


The Areopagus as viewed from the Acropolis.

Ares was often depicted with a helmet and a lance, and his symbol was the dog. The lover of Aphrodite and the personification of war has become a popular figure, appearing in movies, television series, and even video games.


The Greek God of War was one of the most important of all the deities in the Pantheon. He was not a popular God and he represented the worst aspects of war. As a result, the myths are not respectful of this deity and this signifies the hatred the Greeks had for conflict and battle.


  • Graves, Robert (1990). The Greeks Myths. London: Pelican.
  • Homer (2000). The Iliad. London: Penguin