Where did the names of the gods come from in Greek mythology?

By: | Post date: 2016-07-13 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics

Many are Greek, though they’re old and obscure enough to be headscratchers. If they aren’t Greek, they certainly aren’t going to be Hebrew or Persian (Greeks were in Greece a long time before they were anywhere near either); the origins of non-Greek names are more readily sought in old Anatolian and Middle Eastern civilisations, like Ugaritic or Lycian.


Zeus is the Greek continuation of *Di̯ēus, the name of the Proto-Indo-European god of the daytime sky, also called *Dyeus ph2tēr (“Sky Father”). The god is known under this name in the Rigveda (Vedic Sanskrit Dyaus/Dyaus Pita), Latin (compare Jupiter, from Iuppiter, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European vocative *dyeu-ph2tēr), deriving from the root *dyeu- (“to shine”, and in its many derivatives, “sky, heaven, god”). Zeus is the only deity in the Olympic pantheon whose name has such a transparent Indo-European etymology.

That wikipedia artcle quotes from Burkert’s Greek Religion, so let’s see what etymologies he mentions as likeliest:


  • Hera: hōra “timely”? “ready to get married”?
  • Poseidon: Lord of… the Earth? of the Waterways? Source of Waters?
  • Athena: Athens may have come first, -ene is a location suffix.
  • Apollo: God of the Apellai initiation ritual
  • Artemis: probably from Asia Minor; proposals include “healthy”, “butcher”, and “Bear Goddess”
  • Ares: Chaos of War.
  • Hermes: from herma, a cairn of stones (with phallic cultic connotations)
  • Demeter: not in love with the traditional etymology “Earth Mother”, but somehow it connects to cereals.


  • Aphrodite: Proceeding from the foam? Adaptation of Phoenecian Ashtoreth? Phoenecian “dove” or “fertile”?
  • Dionysius: Zeus’ Something, but Zeus’ Son is guesswork, and the second bit may be non-Hellenic. The other names are certainly non-Hellenic: Bacchus is Lydian, Thyrsus Ugaritic.
  • Hephaestus: Not Greek, and there has been speculation of Etruscan (via Lemnos) and Lycian origins.

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