The most essential item in the classical myth-kitty is a knowledge of the classical gods and goddesses-their names, attributes, personalities, areas of power, and the complex web of relationships which sometimes makes classical mythology seem like a vast divine soap opera. This chapter aims to provide a brief guide to the gods as they appear in classical and European literature and art (rather than as the objects of ancient Greek and Roman worship and ritual, a quite different matter).
Simply knowing the names of the gods is more complex than it might appear, since almost all of them go by two names, one Greek, one Roman. It was the Greeks (sometimes borrowing from older Middle Eastern traditions) who created the personalities, stories, and relationships of the gods. The Romans, on the other hand, originally worshipped mostly impersonal, faceless spirits of place and personifications. When the Romans came in contact with Greek culture they borrowed the whole colourful apparatus of Greek mythology and applied it to their own pantheon, identifying each Greek god with his or her nearest Roman equivalent. So, for instance, Hephaestus, the Greek master-craftsman and smith who has his forge under a volcano, became identified with Vulcan, a Roman god of volcanic fire. Over time-although classical scholars, naturally, maintain the distinctions between them-the Greek and Roman gods effectively fused into a single personality. It was the Roman names of the gods which were passed down through the Middle Ages, and became standard in English: eighteenth-century writers, even translating Homer or Sophocles, would speak of 'Jupiter' and 'Mars' and 'Venus'. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries the original Greek names have gradually come back. Anyone following the history of the myths needs to be familiar with both. I considered consistently using the Roman names (which are the most familiar in English literature), but this sounds absurd in relating the more archaic Greek myths; instead I have introduced each god by giving both names (first Greek, then Roman: Hera/Juno), and thereafter used either or both as seems appropriate. For quick reference the following table may be useful.