While there were many deities, spirits and minions known to the ancient Greek religious world, usually twelve were touted above the rest. The ranking of which gods and goddesses should be in the top twelve Olympians was frequently contested, but certain gods always made the cut. Ten Olympians without fail made the list: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Ares and Aphrodite. Fighting over the last two coveted slots on the roster of the great Twelve were four more well-known deities: Hades, Hephaestus, Dionysus and Hestia—who among them received a place in the Twelve depended on the location, preference and motivation of the myth-teller. These fourteen powerful and respected deities are difficult to rank based on sheer might and influence, but many of the ancient sources claim that, if the question is who is the eldest among them, one of the fourteen can be easily singled out for being the first to be brought into creation. Curiously, the eldest among the fourteen is not necessarily the strongest, nor the tallest, or even the most magically destructive. The eldest of the fourteen mentioned above, according to many sources, is not even a male deity.
As the original Olympians had children, several of the Twelve can easily be crossed out. Athena, Ares, Hephaestus, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes and Dionysus were the offspring of the original Titan-born Olympians. The second generation came from the original six Olympians, listed in order of birth—Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus, all of which were born to the Titan couple, Kronos and Rhea. Before settling down to father this first generation of Olympian gods, the Titan Kronos had been involved in a gruesome crime which led to the birth of the eldest deity among the Twelve.
For the birth of the eldest, we have to go back all the way to the reign of the primordial deities, Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven). They were the parents of the Titans, as well as the Cyclopes and the monstrous-looking Hecatoncheires. Ouranos feared his children, especially the latter two groups, and began imprisoning his offspring in the earth without Gaia’s consent or approval. Gaia, suffering abuse and witnessing the mistreatment of her children, plotted with the Titan Kronos to punish Ouranos. She gave Kronos a specially-made weapon that could harm the primordial god of the heavens. With this blade in hand, Kronos waited in ambush for an intimate time when the god of the heavens would soon press down on the primordial earth goddess.
Ouranos, unfortunately, soon felt the temptation and went to Gaia. Yet, instead of love or release, the god would only find Kronos with a sickle. Pulling Ouranos’ delicate bits with one hand, and swinging the blade with the other, Kronos castrated his father and tossed what he had severed into the sea. At the spot where the mutilated member hit the water, foam bubbled up to cover the waves, and out of that froth came the eldest of the Twelve Olympian deities—Aphrodite.
Of course, Aphrodite’s origin was disputed even in ancient times, and even though the tale of her emerging from the gruesomely-produced seafoam was the most commonly told explanation of her birth, the poet Homer instead proposed a less-popular theory that she was a daughter of Zeus and Dione. Even if this were the case, a goddess would curiously still be the eldest among the Twelve, for, with Aphrodite out of the way, the goddess Hestia would be the next eldest.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Social media crop Venus painted by William Blake Richmond (1842–1921), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.