It’s been said that ancient Greece was the pinnacle of human creativity. We can see this in Greek symbols and meanings. The myths and legends of those people are a priceless treasure trove that has been passed down to us. Their devotion to the gods and their religious beliefs’ clarity was striking. Religious belief in supernatural beings was taken as read. One distinctive feature of this chthonic religion, perhaps unique to Voudoun today, was the belief that the gods, no matter how powerful their abilities, were always ready and willing, if not eager, to associate with mortals.
Though they were more pragmatic than their Greek counterparts, the Romans lacked the Greeks’ flair for innovation. Most of their gods were the same as the ones the Greeks worshiped, only they were given Roman names. 5, the Etruscans, who lived in northern Italy between 900 and 500 B.C.E., were the conduit through which the Greeks influenced much of Roman religion. The days of worship and the primary form of ritual were given more weight in Roman religion than in Greek religion.
As with the zodiac, many Greek magical practices were taken from the Babylonians. However, most Greek and Roman religious symbols are aspects of the gods and goddesses themselves. Think about whether Hermes didn’t have his caduceus or Poseidon didn’t have his trident. The Egyptians also left behind some symbols, such as the amulet known as the Eye of Horus.
When Did Greek Mythology Start?
The natural world humans inhabited, the natural phenomena they observed, and the passage of time through the years, months, and seasons were all explanations in Greek mythology and Greek symbols and meanings. Likewise, the gods’ beginnings and destinies, as well as those of humanity and the afterlife, were all explained in Greek mythology.
The Greek religion’s gods got human personalities in the stories of Greek myths, but the stories also provided humans with guidance on how to live fulfilling lives. Myths also served to retell historical events so that contemporary people could feel a connection to their ancestors, the battles they fought, and the lands they discovered. You will discover the remnants of these older beliefs in Greek symbols and meanings.
The word “myth” may have negative connotations in today’s society because it suggests something is untrue or unreliable.
But neither should it be assumed that the Greeks were utterly skeptical of myths or that they believed in them wholeheartedly. On the contrary, like any religious or oral tradition, Greek myths were likely accepted by some and rejected by others.
Undoubtedly, myths served essential religious and educational functions, but they may have also served the more pedestrian entertainment purpose.
The widespread artistic depiction of mythological themes—whether in sculpture on public buildings or scenes painted on pottery—indicates that the stories were well-known and well-liked by many members of ancient Greek society. These themes also influenced Greek symbols and meanings.
Since widespread literacy did not exist until the 18th century B.C.E., myths were initially transmitted orally, most likely by Minoan and Mycenaean bards.
These leaves open the possibility that myths are embellished and improved upon with each retelling, either to pique the interest of a new audience or to reflect the biases of the people telling the story.
This is a modern take on the myth, though; it’s possible that there were set conventions for how myths were told and that an educated audience wouldn’t have welcomed arbitrary changes to a well-known story.
However, it is hard to imagine that, over centuries and with increasing contact between city-states, local stories did not merge with others to create a myth with several distinct origins.
Around the eighth century B.C.E., Ionian poets Homer and Hesiod created their famous epic poems, which marked a new era in the presentation of myths. As a result, mythology was first committed to paper for the very first time.
The Iliad, written by Homer, describes the pivotal battles of the Trojan War, which may have been an amalgamation of many conflicts between Greeks and their eastern neighbors in the late Bronze Age (1800-1200 BCE), while the Odyssey describes Odysseus’s long journey home from Troy. Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony both detail the origin of man, while the latter also traces the ancestry of the gods. Not only are gods given human-like emotions and flaws, but heroes are also forged, frequently with one divine parent and the other mortal.
It wasn’t until the eighth century B.C.E. that pottery became the next primary medium for depicting myths. Ceramics of every shape and purpose are decorated with mythological scenes, which undoubtedly helped disseminate the stories to a broader audience.
Significant public buildings like the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, and the Temple to Apollo in Delphi were adorned with life-size sculptures depicting famous scenes from Greek mythology due to the enduring popularity of the mythology throughout the centuries.
In the 5th century B.C.E., the first modern historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, set out to document events as objectively as possible and record them for future generations.
The creative Greeks invented myths to account for every facet of the human experience. Two stories about a son usurping his father’s place, Cronus from Ouranos and Zeus from Cronus, explain how the world came to be. This may be symbolic of the ongoing struggle between generations and within families. Chaos was quelled twice by Zeus and the Olympian gods when they faced off against the Titans and the Giants.
Thus, these deities control human fate and occasionally intervene (for better or worse). Indeed, the existence of gods named Fate and Destiny lends credence to the idea that human beings don’t have much say during events.
The blind god Pluto, who distributes wealth at random, is another mythological example of the seemingly random nature of life. The gods also served as examples of the consequences of wrongdoing, such as when they punished Prometheus for giving humanity access to the fire. Other ‘human’ talents, such as medicine and music, are similarly attributed to the gods; for instance, Apollo is credited with teaching his son Asklepios the healing arts.
Well-Known Greek Symbols and Meanings
Prow Boat of Eye
The protective eye was painted on the bows of vessels, making it first among many Greek symbols and meanings in our list. These vessels included merchant boats and warbots from the Phoenician people. The Greek war galleys also bore this symbol. It was said that the symbol was meant to keep an eye out for danger and “see” where the ship was headed.
Both Greeks and Romans widely believed in the power of the Evil Eye. Nearly everyone believes that just by looking at them, some people can harm others, whether that harm is intended or not. To “kill with a glance of the eye” is the literal translation of the Greek word basking in. A phallus replica was used as a countermeasure.
Rod of Asclepius
The healer Asclepius was the offspring of Apollo and Coronis. He learned medicine from the centaur Chiron and performed numerous miracles, including reviving the dead.
The medical symbol is used by the medical profession and other disciplines like veterinary medicine. Hygieia, one of his daughters, was later worshiped as the goddess of health. Asclepius’s emblem was a rod with two serpents entwined around it. Hermes/Mercury eventually took this and turned it into the caduceus. Ningishzida, son of the Mater-physician Ninazu, is the original rod creator with the serpent entwined around it. An ancient Greek medical symbol, the Rod of Asclepius features a serpent coiled around a rod.
The God of Medicine and Health is Asclepius. The god Apollo (also associated with medicine, prophecy, and truth) and Coronis had him as their child.
Coronis had a secret second mortal lover during her pregnancy with Asclepius. Since Apollo now knew, he ordered Artemis to eliminate the threat.
Apollo felt compassion for the unborn child inside of Coronis’s belly as she burned on the funeral pyre. Asclepius learned everything he knew about medicine and healing from the sage centaur Cheiron and eventually became so proficient at his craft that he successfully resurrected one of his patients. Unfortunately, the king of the Gods, Zeus, saw the healer as a threat to the Gods’ immortality and killed him with a lightning bolt. At Apollo’s urging, Asclepius was given a celestial position as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.
Typically, Asclepius was depicted in stature, wearing a long cloak that exposed his chest and carrying a staff with a coiled serpent as an accessory. Only with this stuff can you say you’re practicing medicine. Asclepius was merged with the Roman god Vediovis when the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon.
He was depicted as a young man with a goat by his side and a quiver full of arrows (or lightning bolts). Among the Roman pantheon, Vediovis was considered an early deity. He was worshiped alongside the Greek god Asclepius because of his role as a healer.
The origin of the Rod of Asclepius and how it came to symbolize medicine are the subject of two competing theories. One of the earliest Egyptian medical texts, the Ebers papyrus (c. 1500 B.C. ), contains the so-called “worm theory.” Worm medication is discussed in the Ebers papyrus.
Common parasitic worms in antiquity included the Guinea worm, which infected humans by crawling around their bodies just beneath the skin. To treat this infection, doctors made a small incision in the skin directly in the worm’s path. Next, the doctor waited for the worm to crawl out of the incision, then carefully wound the pest around a stick.
Ancient doctors likely advertised this typical service by sticking a worm to a stick and placing it in front of their office.
Poseidon, Zeus’s brother, was the demigod of the oceans and seas. He earned the name “earth-shaker” because of his ability to smash rocks with his trident. His reputation was similar to that of the Roman god Neptune. The trident’s three points symbolize the past, the present, and the future. The Hindu god Shiva is often depicted with a trident, the three prongs that stand for his roles as creator, destroyer, and preserver.
The Trident of Poseidon is one of the most recognizable Greek symbols and meanings in mythology, alongside Zeus’ thunderbolt and Hermes’ winged boots. From the earliest days of Greek civilization, depictions of the sea god wielding this legendary weapon survived, and it was eventually passed on to Neptune in Rome. The legend of the trident, which has become a ubiquitous symbol, has profound significance for all humankind.
Poseidon is the brother of Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, and one of the Olympians, the original children of Cronus. He was worshiped as a god in ancient Greece and was given many names, including “The Earth Shaker,” “The Sea God,” and “God of Horses.” He was responsible for forming islands in the ocean and fought for control of Athens. Poseidon, a god of the seas, sometimes inflicts vengeance on his fellow Olympians by unleashing natural disasters like earthquakes and famines.
Legend has it that ancient blacksmiths known as the Cyclopes forged Poseidon’s trident, Pluto’s helmet, and Zeus’ thunderbolts. It was said that the legendary blade could be made out of either gold or brass.
Pluto and Poseidon freed the ancient beings from Tartaros, and the one-eyed giants rewarded them with these weapons. The three young gods used these objects, which only gods could hold, to bind the mighty Titans, including the great Cronus.
You’ve probably seen the traditional harvest symbols, like ears of corn and wheat, but do you know the cornucopia’s backstory? It’s also known as the Horn of Plenty because it’s often depicted as a horn brimming with edible goodies like fruit and nuts.
In Western culture, it has become associated with Thanksgiving because of its long-standing symbolism of the harvest. Learn more about the history and contemporary representations of the cornucopia by reading on!
Cornu copies, the Latin root of cornucopia, means “horn of plenty.” The cornucopia, a traditional food item at feasts, is said to symbolize the horn of a goat from Greek mythology. A myth says the infant Zeus was fed from this horn.
Flowers and fruit were later placed inside the horn and presented to Zeus as gifts. The horn (or a container that looks like a horn) is a classic symbol of wealth in art and decoration. In the early 16th century, the word made its debut in English; by the early 18th century, it had taken on the symbolic meaning of abundance.
Occasionally confused with the Greek goddess Tyche, Copia was the Roman goddess of abundance. The word cornucopia is derived from the Greek for “horn of Copia,” which means “horn of plenty.” The horn was a magical talisman that granted its possessor’s every wish. There are numerous other gods depicted in the cornucopia alongside Copia.
Zeus, the Olympian king and father of the gods and humans presided over the Greek pantheon. Jupiter was the Roman equivalent of him. His brothers were Poseidon/Neptune and Hades/Pluto.
God Zeus attained all-knowing and all-powerful status, becoming the source of all prophecy. The eagle is a symbol of him. The ability to hurl a thunderbolt at anyone who crossed him is yet another. All weather, including wind, clouds, precipitation, and thunder, answered him.
For the Romans, Zeus (the Greek god of the sky and weather) was the same as Jupiter (the Roman god of the same name). His name is derived from the ancient Hindu sky god Dyaus.
The thunderbolt was Zeus’s traditional weapon, as he was worshiped as the god who sent natural disasters like storms, lightning, and rain. One could refer to him as the father (or leader and protector) of both gods and humans.
After discovering that one of his children was destined to dethrone him, Cronus, king of the Titans, allegedly swallowed his children immediately after birth in a Cretan myth that the Greeks later adopted. But his wife Rhea protected baby Zeus by having him mistaken for a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes and hiding him in a cave on Crete so that Cronus wouldn’t find him.
When accompanied by a loud clap of thunder, a flash of lightning called a thunderbolt or lightning bolt serves as a metaphor for the phenomenon of lightning.