Mythology and Court Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1350-1800

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Robert Baldwin, Guide to Classical Mythology, rev. Jan. 25, 2012

This guide to classical mythology goes with a short essay “Mythology in Western Culture” which summarizes the changing fortunes of mythology from classical mythology to the twentieth century. That essay is available on the readings folder and on my web site, www.socialhistoryofart under “Essays Thematic”.


The ancient Roman appropriation of classical Greek culture included the assimilation of numerous Greek goddesses and gods with their Roman counterparts. In so far as the Roman Empire transmitted much classical culture to later medieval and early modern European writers who generally wrote in Latin, the pagan deities were usually known by their Latin, Roman names. Below is a chart of the major pagan deities with their Roman and Greek names.

Roman Greek

Apollo Apollo (fused with Helios/Sol in Hellenistic times)

Bacchus Dionysus

Ceres Demeter

Cupid, Amor Eros

Diana Artemis

Hercules Heracles

Juno Hera

Jupiter Zeus

Mars Ares

Mercury Hermes

Neptune Poseidon

Pluto Hades

Saturn Cronus

Sol Helios

Venus Aphrodite

Vulcan Hephaestus

Major Gods and Other Male Figures

Zeus / Jupiter or Jove. Brother to Neptune and Pluto, each presiding over a third of the universe, Jupiter the heavens, Neptune the waters and Pluto the underworld. Within this shared cosmic government, Jupiter was the supreme ruler of the gods. Recognized by his eagle and lightning. Zeus led the gods in defeating the earthly Giants when they tried to storm Mt. Olympus (a favorite theme of victorious rulers). A bisexual god, Jupiter raped numerous nymphs and young women, fathering kings, heroes, and some gods. Semele raped gave birth to Bacchus, Alceme to Hercules. Disguised as a swan, Zeus raped Leda to father Helen of Troy and the hero, Pollux. As a bull he raped Europa. As a shower of gold he raped Danae to father the hero, Perseus. As a rain cloud he raped Io to father the musician, Amphion. As a satyr he raped the nymph Antiope. Disguised as Diana, he raped her favorite nymph, Callisto, later expelled as unchaste by the virgin goddess. He also raped his grandson, the beautiful Trojan prince, Ganymede, and made him immortal as his cupbearer. (Ganymede was his grandson through Zeus’s previous rape of a Trojan princess.) Zeus was born and raised on Mt Ida and made his home on Crete.

Apollo. The sun god presides over poetry, music, philosophy, reason, the liberal arts, prophecy, and medicine. As the god of archery, he was also a fierce warrior and slayer of monsters such as the Python. Reason and victory come together in Apollo's musical defeat of satyrs like Marsyas (flayed alive) and the satyr god, Pan. Apollo was frequently tied to the fabled Golden Age, that is, the utopian beginnings of human existence within a peaceful and prosperous nature. Apollo lives on Mt. Parnassus, often accompanied by the nine Muses of poetry and music. Though his attempted rape of the virginal nymph, Daphne was unsuccessful when she turned into a laurel tree, Zeus made laurel his crown of consolation and the attribute of poetic achievement. The Romans, in turn, made Apollo’s laurel into a symbol of military victory (see Ovid). Apollo was also famous as a lover of young men such as Hyacinth and Cyparissus and was often shown as an androgynous nude with elaborate hairdos borrowed from depictions of Venus. In art he is usually nude, young, and beardless with long hair.

Poseidon / Neptune. Brother of Jupiter and of Pluto. Bisexual god of the oceans and rivers and a figure of global imperial power since Roman antiquity. Poseidon raped numerous women and fathered giants, heroes such as Theseus, and Pegasus, the winged horse. Husband to Amphitrite, a sea-goddess.

Ares / Mars. God of war, Mars was the adulterous lover of Venus, the rapist-father of Romulus and Remus, and thus the “father” protector of Rome and of Roman military victory. Mars and Venus are common in Renaissance-Baroque allegories of cosmic peace, concord, and golden age when love tames war.

Hermes / Mercury. Messenger god, inventor of (Apollo's) lyre, god of music, poetry, philosophy, and liberal arts (like Apollo and Minerva). Also god of travelers, traders, and commerce. As the messenger god sent by Jupiter, Mercury also represented obedience to divine authority as in the verso of a Renaissance medallion by Leoni of Emperor Maximilian II or in Giambologna’s Mercury in Flight (pointing to higher authority), commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici as a gift for the Emperor Maximilian II. Texts include Odyssey V.45-6 and Aeneid, IV.

Dionysius / Bacchus. Bisexual god of cosmic fertility, rebirth, sexual fecundity, drunkenness, divine inspiration and artistic genius ("poetic frenzy" or "intoxication"). Conqueror of India and occasional figure of imperial power.

Orpheus. Son of Apollo and the Muse, Calliope, Orpheus was a Thracian minstrel whose divine music tamed animals, swayed rocks and trees, and warmed even the cold heart of Pluto, God of the underworld, allowing Orpheus to enter Hades in his attempt to bring back the dead Eurydice. Torn to pieces by the frenzied female followers of Bacchus, his lyre was turned into a constellation. From the 500 B.C. to 1700, Orpheus signified a classical afterlife or Christian salvation, sacred mysteries, and the highest poetry, music, and intellectual-educational values (especially in Renaissance humanism). His cosmic musical power over lesser forms of existence also made him a common imperial or royal theme. In the nineteenth century, Romantic ideas of “divine music” fueled a revival of Orphic imagery in Romanticism and Symbolism. Because Ovid’s Orpheus rejected all women in favor of young men after losing Eurydice, he was frequently used to sanction homoerotic desire from classical antiquity to the late nineteenth century.

Hades / Pluto. Brother of Jupiter and Neptune, Pluto presided over the underworld (Hades). He raped and married his niece, Proserpina, daughter of Ceres by Zeus, and made her Queen of the Underworld.

Hephaestus / Vulcan. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera. Born crippled, he was cast from heaven by his disgusted mother and was rescued from drowning by the sea nymph, Thetis, who raised him secretly in a cave. (An alternative account had Hephaestus hurled from Olympus by his angry father and crippled when he landed on the island of Lemnos. Plied with wine by Dionysius, Hephaestus eventually reconciled with his parents and returned to Olympus.
In ancient Greece, Hephaestus was venerated as a master artist, architect, and metalworker. He built remarkable palaces for all the gods and for rulers such as Alkinous (Odyessey 7.91ff). He made elaborately decorated armor for heroes such as Achilles (Iliad 18.457ff) and later, in Roman literature, for Aeneas (Aeneid, 8.416-454, 609-731). Hesiod (Op. 70ff) writes that Hephaestus made Pandora, the first woman, while Lucian credits him with creating mankind (Hermot. 20). Using a golden net, he trapped his adulterous wife, Aphrodite (Venus), in bed with Ares (Mars) as described in Homer (Odyssey 8.266ff). In Roman antiquity, the cult of Hephaestus was fused with that of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanoes.
Like the other gods, Hephaestus raped women at will, fathering the Argonaut, Palaemon, with the wife of Lernus. In trying to rape Athena on the acropolis of Athens, he spilled his semen on the ground, from which sprang Erichthonius, the first king of Athens.
River Gods, older, bearded, reclining men holding urns from which pour water and cornucopias or horns of plenty (often held near their loins). As symbols of natural fertility and wealth tied to distinct regions, river gods were common images of imperial geography and conquest in ancient Rome and early modern Europe.

Giants, earthly race of violent, crude monsters who tried to storm Mt Olympus and were destroyed by the gods. Favorite theme of emperors and monarchs as an allegory of triumphant rule as seen in Ovid Metamorphoses I: Ovid, Fasti 5: 35-44, and numerous classical poets.

Polyphemus, cannibalistic cyclops who tried to eat Odysseus and who wooed the sea-nymph, Galatea, without success. Comical in Ovid (Met. XIII), savage in Philostratus the Elder (Imagines, II.18), and an image of the democratic mob in Plato (Laws, 700d-701a).

Atlas, giant who held up the world and was associated with geography and empire. Hercules relieved Atlas temporarily.

Major Goddesses and Female Figures

Athena / Minerva. Virgin warrior goddess usually shown in armor. Famous for her wisdom, chastity, and military fierceness and for protecting Athens. Often used in court culture to ally worldly power with wisdom and virtue.

Artemis / Diana. Virgin goddess of the hunt, famous for her chastity and fierce power. Often seen bathing with her nymphs or discovering the pregnancy of her nymph, Callisto, raped by Zeus who disguised himself as Diana (as seen in the lesbian mythologies of Boucher). While bathing, Diana was spied on by the hunter, Actaeon. She turned him into a stag to be devoured by his own dogs.

Aphrodite / Venus. Often known as smiling Aphrodite in Greek myth, Venus sprang forth from the semen of Uranus floating on the foam of the ocean waves. She presides over a cosmic sexuality bringing fecundity, prosperity, harmony, peace, and unity to all (Lucretius, Nature of Things I.1-42; Ovid, Fasti, IV.85ff). She is also known for teaching the civilizing arts of love, marriage, music to early mankind (Fasti, IV). Married to the crippled blacksmith god, Hephaestus/Vulcan, her love affair with the Trojan prince, Anchises led to the birth of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who founded a new settlement in Italy which led to Rome. Thus Venus is the mother-protector of Troy and Rome (Fasti IV). She also had love affairs with the beautiful hunter, Adonis, later killed by a boar, and with Mars, with whom she was ensnared in bed by a golden net forged by Vulcan. Their son was Cupid. Her affair with Bacchus produced Priapus. Venus sometimes appears riding her chariot over the sea in cosmic triumph.

Juno / Hera (wife and sister of Jupiter). Goddess of wealth, marriage, childbirth, and political dominion (in the Judgment of Paris). Her attribute is the peacock.

Flora, Goddess of Spring. Originally Flora was Chloris a wood-nymph raped by the winter wind God, Zephyr. To make amends, he married her and transformed her into the goddess, Flora. (Ovid, Fasti, IV)

Graces, three figures who frequently accompanied Venus and were associated allegorically with her virtues

Muses, nine female associates with divinely gifts in distinct forms of poetry and music. Usually shown with Apollo, they preside over cosmic and human music. (Female patrons sometimes have the Muses depicted alone.) They lived in a grove on Mt Hellicon but often appeared with Apollo on Mt Parnassus.

Nymphs, female inhabitants of the woods, offspring of gods and goddesses, frequently targeted for rape by gods, often shown reclining as guardians or sources for streams, rivers, and springs, especially in garden sculpture and grottos.

Demeter / Ceres. Goddess of agricultural abundance, mother of Proserpina to Zeus. Her mourning for her daughter, abducted into the underworld by Pluto, explains the seasons of fall and winter, when Proserpina is away as Queen of Hades. Spring and summer are explained by Ceres' joy when Proserpina returns to spend six months with her mother. Usually shown in allegories of prosperity, peace, good government, and Golden Age.

Persephone / Proserpina. Daughter of Demeter/Ceres by Zeus, she was raped, abducted, and married by her uncle, Pluto, and made Queen of the underworld. Usually shown being abducted.

Sirens, beautiful, musical, man-eating mermaids whose music and beauty lures sailors to their deaths. (Homer, Odyssey) Often allegorize the mortal dangers of worldly pleasure.

Three Fates, three old female spinners who determine the length of every human life by measuring out and cutting a thread.

Furies (Erinyes), Greek goddesses of bloody retribution, especially against children who offended or murdered a parent, like Orestes. They also helped punish special offenders in Hades such as Tantalus and Sisyphus. Despite their hideous features in literature (Aeschylus; Ovid, Met, 4.451-511), they were usually beautiful in ancient art, though not in later representation. Although violent, they were benevolent figures in a larger cosmic order.

Major Heroes and Other Men

Achilles, bisexual son of the sea-goddess, Thetis by rape; invulnerable to weapons except for his heel; the greatest Greek warrior who helped the Greeks defeat the Trojans; the lover of Patrokolus and the rapist of Deidamia (later his wife)

Aeneas, Trojan prince, son of Venus and the Trojan king, Anchises, who fled burning Troy with a fleet. Aeneas briefly married Dido, Queen of Carthage, but abandoned her to fulfill his heroic masculine destiny in founding a new colony in Italy at the mouth of the Tiber. His descendants, Romulus and Remus, later founded Rome upstream, thereby establishing a Roman lineage beginning with the gods and running from one great empire – Troy – to that of Rome. Julius Caesar, and his nephew and adopted son, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, both traced their lineage back to Aeneas, Venus, and Mars. (See Ovid, Metamorphoses, end of Bk. XIV and XV; Virgil Aeneid, I.197-209, 223-239, 254-291)

Hercules, (Herakles in Greek), the son of Zeus by rape; a great king and founder of cities; a heroic traveler and explorer of the known world; a destroyer of evil monsters and giants. He was most famous for performing twelve great feats or labors and was rewarded by the gods for his exploits with eternal life. In antiquity, Hercules was a common figure for the power, virtue, and apotheosis of worldly rulers. With Renaissance humanism, he became the most common mythological figure to represent male rulers. A lover of numerous women, Hercules was comically dominated and feminized by a woman known as Iole or Omphale (Ovid, Fasti, II, 303-358). He also raped many young men including Eurystheus, Abderus, Iolaus, Hylas, Admetus, Phrix, and Alcmene.

Paris, shepherd and prince of Troy, husband of the nymph, Oenone, judged the beauty contest between Venus, Minerva, and Juno. Minerva bribed him with wisdom, Juno with wealth and power, and Venus with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, and a daughter of Zeus via the rape of Leda. Paris' abduction of Helen set off the Trojan War in which he was killed and his hometown destroyed. The Judgement was often allegorized as the three paths of life (lust, wealth, wisdom) or as the beginning of a heroic, courtly, world history leading from Troy to Rome to some later kingdom.

Romulus, son of Mars by rape, descendant of Aeneas (son of Venus), founder of Rome, king, statesman and general, organized "Rape of the Sabines" to strengthen Rome, deified after his death.

Jason, great hero of imperialist travel and conquest; set sail with heroes and gods on the Argo and eventually captured the Golden Fleece.

Perseus, son of Zeus by rape, king of Mycenae, slayer of Medusa, rescuer of the chained Andromeda whom he married, a great hero with many adventures.

Theseus, son of Poseidon by rape, king of Athens, a great hero with many adventures. Slew the Minotaur and rescued Ariadne from the labyrinth. Married her and abandoned her on the isle of Naxos to pursue further heroic adventures.

Democritus and Heraclitus, "Laughing and Crying Philosophers". Democritus sees the world as a farce, Heraclitus sees it as tragedy. (Seneca, Anger, 2, 10:5; Juvenal, Satires. 10:28ff)

Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was a great Greek inventor who designed the labyrinth where King Minos kept the savage Minotaur. After imprisonment by the king, Daedalus designed wings so he and his son, Icarus, could escape. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned.

Major Heroines and Earthly Women

Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt, famous for her learning, culture, and beauty, the lover Caesar and, later, Mark Anthony, fought with him against Augustus and committed suicide to avoid the shame of capture. Demonized in Roman literature as a lascivious, power-mad, evil “Eastern” woman.

Helen of Troy, daughter of Zeus through the rape of Leda; wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Her adduction by the Trojan prince, Paris, led to the Trojan War and, indirectly, to the rise of the later Roman empire founded by the defeated Trojans.

Lucretia, virtuous Roman matron who committed suicide when raped by Sextus, son of the Roman tyrant, Tarquin. Her example led her husband and other leading Roman men to overthrow Tarquin around 500 BC and establish the Roman republic which lasted until Augustus became the first emperor of Rome around 22 B.C.. (Ovid, Fasti, II.725-852; Livy 1.57-59)

Penelope, the loyal wife of Ulysses who wove at her loom for ten years, spurning her suitors when her husband was presumed dead


PEGASUS, winged horse which sprang from the neck Medusa after Perseus cut off her head. The mount of Perseus for heroic deeds including the rescue of Andromeda and the steed of the hero Bellerophon, when he slew the monster, Chimaera. In his account of Minerva’s visit to the Muses on Mt Hellicon, Ovid tells how Pegasus stamped his hoof causing the sacred spring, Hippocrene, to gush forth. Its waters bringing divine inspiration to all those who drink. Pegasus and the Hippocrene became emblems of sacred poetry, music, and art. (Met 5.250-268). Linked to the Muses, Pegasus also appears with them on Mt. Parnassus with Apollo. Thanks to the 6th century mythographer, Fulgentius, the winged Pegasus was associated with winged Fame and became an emblem of eternal fame through the arts.
CERBERUS, three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Greek underworld, Hades.

Major Historical Examples for Male Rulers

Alexander the Great, 356-323 B.C. first Western emperor in the Hellenistic period. Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander was known, in part, for his learning and became in Renaissance and Baroque court culture the exemplary wise or cultivated prince. An alternative tradition in ancient Stoic writing and Renaissance burgher humanists saw Alexander as the epitome of princely greed, arrogance, lust, and decadent luxury, habits he supposedly acquired from his campaigns in the "corrupt" "Asiatic" East. (Dio Chrysostom, Discourses on Kingship, IV.)

Augustus, 63 BC - 14 A.D.; first Roman emperor after 22 B.C. Augustus was the nephew, adopted son, and heir to Julius Caesar. Traced his ancestry back through Romulus to Mars, Aeneas, and Venus. His poets - Virgil, Ovid, Horace - developed an politicized, Roman Golden Age and an imperial world history running from the creation of the world to Troy and Rome which became the basis for early modern European political culture and history.

Constantine, first Christian Roman emperor, c. 285 A.D. - 337 A.D. Fused Roman imperial court culture and triumph with early Christianity

Charlemagne, medieval Christian emperor, French, 742-814 A.D.

Major Historical Empires

Carthage. The ancient maritime empire of Carthage (on the North African coast) was defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars and completely razed. Usually used in court culture to describe a rival power whose defeat is deemed historically inevitable.

Troy, a favorite example of glorious empire for medieval rulers, many of whom traced their ancestry back to the Trojans, and through them to the gods.

Rome, While Troy continued as an imperial example in Renaissance-Baroque court culture, the rise of Renaissance humanism in Italy, the dawn of the Age of Discovery and Empire, and the rise of the nation-state in Spain, England, and France made Rome the primary example for all empires after 1500. Founded by the descendants of the Trojan prince, Aeneas, Rome was historically and genealogically related to Troy. Thus most references to Troy after 1500 also worked as references to imperial Rome and to a glorious Troy-Rome world history continuing into one or another modern empire (Spain, France, England, papal Italy). An alternative Rome existed for Renaissance and Baroque republics, like 14th-century Siena, 15th century Florence, 15-16th century Venice, and 17th century Netherlands. Here, ancient republican Rome (300 B.C. - 14 A.D.) embodied burgher values of moral and financial austerity, moderation, simplicity, patriarchy, hard work, and civic spirit.

Major Historical Concepts

Four Ages: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron. Historical myth of early human history. In history seen as decline, life begins with a Golden Age in harmony with nature and slowly deteriorates into "civilization", immorality, and war. In history seen as progress, life begins with a brutal, animal existence in a raw nature and slowly advances toward a higher urban civilization of political, intellectual, and cultural life. A third alternative places human perfection in an intermediary Silver or Bronze age characterized by pastoral or agricultural life.
Golden Age. History myth of perfect early existence in nature characterized by cosmic peace, bounty, and prosperity under the benevolent influence of Apollo. Heavily politicized from the time of the first Roman emperor Augustus (d. 14 A.D.) and expanded to include culture and civilization. A favorite motif in early modern European humanist political flattery whereby every new ruler was hailed for restoring a golden age or cosmic rebirth (renaissance) of peace, prosperity, and civilization (poetry and the arts) - a new solar age of Apollo.

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