Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Gods and heroes

  • The Greek gods

    The Greeks believed that gods and goddesses watched over them. The gods were like humans, but immortal (they lived for ever) and much more powerful.

    A family of gods and goddesses lived in a cloud-palace above Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece The gods looked down to watch what people were doing, and from time to time, interfered with what went on.

    The gods did not always behave very well. Their king, Zeus, was always being unfaithful to his wife Hera. He appeared on Earth as a human or an animal to trick women he had fallen in love with.

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  • Zeus and his family

    Zeus was king of the gods. He threw thunderbolts to punish anyone who disobeyed him. His brother Poseidon was god of the sea. Another brother, Pluto (also called Hades), ruled the underworld.

    Zeus had many children, among them Apollo, Artemis, Athena and Ares. Apollo was the sun god, and the god of the arts, medicine, music and poetry. His twin sister Artemis was goddess of the moon, and goddess of childbirth, and of all natural things. She is often shown as a hunter with a bow and arrow. Athena was goddess of wisdom, and of crafts such as spinning, weaving and pottery. Ares was the bad-tempered god of war - not even his own father liked him!

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  • What were Greek temples like?

    The Greeks put statues of the gods inside temples. Some temples were quite small, others very large and beautiful, with amazing decorations. The most famous temple in Greece is the Parthenon (which you can still see today) in Athens. Every city in Greece had a 'patron' god or goddess - a special god whom people believed protected them from harm.

    People went to a temple to pray for help - perhaps when they were sick, going on a journey, or worried about the harvest. To please the gods, they brought gifts of money, flowers, food and drink, which were offered as sacrifices. Temple priests kept the most valuable gifts under guard in the temple treasury. Animals, such as cattle, were killed as sacrifices, and then people feasted on the roasted meat.

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  • Greek heroes

    All Greeks loved stories about adventures and brave heroes. A hero was someone like Perseus. He killed the Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned people to stone. Perseus used his shield as a mirror, so he saw only her reflection - and was not turned to stone. Perseus also rescued a princess named Andromeda from a sea serpent - by using Medusa's head to turn the monster to stone!

    The most famous Greek hero was Heracles (the Romans called him Hercules). Zeus was his father, and he was so strong he could kill a lion with his bare hands. He sailed with Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece, and performed 12 "impossible" tasks, and was only killed by a trick - he put on a poisoned robe. Zeus liked Heracles so much he took the dead hero to Mount Olympus to live for ever with the gods.

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  • Where did dead Greeks go?

    Greeks believed the dead went to an Underworld, ruled by Pluto (he and his world were also known as Hades ). Good people and heroes went to the Elysian Fields (Elysium). Wicked people ended up in Tartarus, a horrid pit deep below the Underworld.

    Pluto let his bride Persephone leave the gloomy Underworld for half the year. The time she spent above ground was the season when farm crops grew.

    To reach the Underworld, the dead had to cross three rivers, called Acheron, Lethe and Styx. If they drank from Lethe, they forgot everything in their past lives. To cross the Styx, they had to pay Charon the grumpy ferryman. So at funerals a coin was placed in the mouth of the dead person, to pay Charon.

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Fun Facts
  • A sculptor named Pygmalion made a statue of the goddess Aphrodite - and fell in love with it!

  • Heracles showed his amazing strength as a baby. He strangled two snakes sent to kill him and his brother.

  • In Hades, you would not want to meet Hecate, a witch-goddess who lurked in the gloom with a pack of ghostly dogs.

  • Pluto wore a helmet that made him invisible and drove a chariot pulled by four black horses.

  • The god Pan was half-goat, half-man. A Triton was half-man, half-fish. A Centaur was half-horse, half-man.

  • The winged horse Pegasus helped the hero Bellerophon kill the Chimera. The Chimera was a fierce mixed-up monster, with bits of human, goat, lion and snake!

  • The three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the gates to the Underworld. Funeral mourners left honey cakes for him.

  • A woman named Arachne boasted she could weave better than the goddess Athena. She lost, and Athena changed her into a spider.

  • At a big religious festival, like the Panathenae in Athens, as many as 100 cattle were sacrificed.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.