The “Twelve” Gods

Category: Gods

1 Articles included under this category

Aphrodite (Venus)
Ares (Mars)
Artemis (Diana)
Athena (Minerva)
Demeter (Ceres)
Hades Pluton (Dis)
Hephaestus (Vulcan)
Hera (Juno)
Hermes (Mercury)
Hestia (Vesta)
Kronos (Saturn)
Poseidon (Neptune)
Rhea (Ops)
Zeus (Jupiter)

2 Who are the Twelve Gods?

It was customary, in ancient Greek, to swear “by the Twelve Gods!” It was not so customary, unfortunately for us, to explain who these twelve are, even when such explanation seems called for.

The Twelve Gods in the Platonic tradition

In Plato’s Laws, for instance, it is proposed that the ideal city have twelve tribes named after the Twelve Gods, but they are not enumerated, except that Pluton is apparently one of them (Laws 8.828b–d; this is not entirely clear).

In the Phaedrus, Plato makes Zeus the leader of the Twelve, while “Hestia alone remains in the house of the gods” (Phaedrus 247a). Of the remaining ten, he names only Ares (ibid. 252c), Hera and Apollon (ibid. 253b). It was left for later Platonists to fill in the rest.

The Middle Platonist Apuleius quotes a two-liner of the Latin poet Ennius, giving the following list (although he says that there are more gods of the same kind; see On the God of Socrates 2): “Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jove, Neptune, Vulcan, Apollo” – which in Greek would be Hera, Hestia, Athena, Demeter, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Poseidon, Hephaistos, Apollon.

The Neoplatonist Sallustius (probably following Iamblichus) gives the same gods, but divided into four classes:

  • Demiurgic gods: Zeus, Poseidon, Hephaestus.
  • Ensouling gods: Demeter, Hera, Artemis.
  • Harmonizing gods: Apollon, Aphrodite, Hermes.
  • Guarding gods: Hestia, Athena, Ares.

A later Neoplatonist, Hermias, once again uses the same list of gods but associates it with the numbers leading up to twelve:

  • Zeus and Hestia are monads (ones) excepted from the sequence.
  • The monad (one) belongs to Apollon,
  • The dyad (two) to Hera,
  • The triad (three) to Poseidon,
  • The fourth to Hermes,
  • The fifth to Ares,
  • The sixth to Aphrodite,
  • The seventh to Athena,
  • The eighth to Demeter,
  • The ninth to Artemis,
  • The tenth to Hephaestus.

He adds that Hekate “is said to enclose the number twelve, as defining the limits of the whole divine number; whereas Dionysus is allotted the thirteenth, as being after the gods, and one of the (merely) deified” (Hermias, On the Phaedrus, p. 138).

This list is consistent among the Platonists not because that tradition was continuous (in many ways, it was not), but because the same list was also known and accepted more widely. Yet it was far from universal.

The Twelve Gods in the grammatical tradition

In one bilingual textbook from antiquity (Hermeneumata Leidensia), the names of the twelve gods are listed as follows:

  1. Hera : Juno
  2. Hestia : Vesta
  3. Poseidon : Neptune
  4. Ares : Mars
  5. Demetra (=Demeter) : Ceres
  6. Aphrodite : Venus
  7. Athena : Minerva
  8. Artemis : Diana
  9. Leto : Latona
  10. Hermes : Mercurius
  11. Apollon : Apollo
  12. Zeus : Jove (=Jupiter)

This is, incidentally, an example of how the Greek and Latin names of the gods were seen as directly translatable, but more to the point, it differs from the previous lists in one point: it has Leto in place of Hephaestus. An odd choice, perhaps, since Leto was not among the most worshipped deities – but then again, neither was Hephaestus. (Pausianias’ Description of Greece mentions only a single temple dedciated to Hephaestus.)

Another list similarly varies from that of the Platonists by just one member, exchanging Ares for Hades. It is transmitted by a commentary on Apollonius of Rhodes, who arranges the names into four triads: sons of Kronos, sons of Zeus, daughters of Kronos, daughters of Zeus. The text runs: “The twelve gods are these: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades; Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollon; Demeter, Hera, Hestia; Artemis, Aphrodite, and Athena” (Scholia on the Argonautica, p. 173).

So far, then, we have already collected fourteen “Twelve Gods”, and another bilingual textbook (Hermeneumata Montepessulana), there are actually sixteen entries under the heading “Twelve Gods”:

  1. Zeus : Jupiter
  2. Hera : Juno
  3. Athena : Minerva
  4. Aphrodite : Venus
  5. Apollon : Apollo
  6. Artemis : Diana
  7. Demeter : Ceres
  8. Poseidon : Neptune
  9. Hermes : Mercury
  10. Baetylus : Abaddir
  11. Ares : Mars
  12. Kronos : Saturn
  13. Hephaestus : Vulcan
  14. Heracles : Hercules
  15. Karpophoros : Frugifer
  16. Curetes : ‘dancers’

Now, this list has clearly been expanded somewhat thoughtlessly, with such relatively obscure deities as the Phoenician Baetylus, the Egyptian Karpophoros and a group of daemons, the Curetes. But the inclusion of Kronos and Heracles is harder to fault, and we have to retain at least one of them to get to a list of twelve.

At Olympia (which is not near Mt Olympus!), the Twelve Gods were worshipped with six altars. Hermias wrongly thought that they were divided between a masculine and feminine deity each, making up his list of twelve (Hermias, On the Phaedrus, p. 137). Better informed sources, however, tell us that, of these six altars,

  1. The first was of Zeus and Poseidon,
  2. The second of Hera and Athena,
  3. The third of Hermes and Apollon,
  4. The fourth of the Charites (Graces) and Dionysus,
  5. The fifth of Artemis and the local river Alpheios
  6. The sixth of Kronos and Rhea.

“So says Herodorus” (Scholia on Pindar’s Olympian Odes 5.10).

My “Twelve”

On this website, I have (arbitrarily) chosen to include Hades, Kronos and Rhea in addition to the usual twelve, but not Heracles, Dionysus, the Graces, let alone any rivers or the like.

2 Misconceptions about the Twelve Gods

The term “Twelve Olympians” is modern; I cannot find it in any ancient Greek or Latin work. The Olympian gods (regardless of how exactly one defines them) were never limited to twelve, and the Twelve Gods can include gods that are not Olympian.

(If we did want to speak of “Twelve Olympians”, they would be the Twelve worshipped at Olympia, not twelve gods of Olympus.)

Consequently, when Dionysus was received among the gods, there was no need for Hestia to give up her seat among the Twelve – that entire story is a modern invention by Robert Graves, and based on a mistake. As Hermias says, Dionysus is among the gods (and among the Olympians) but not among the Twelve.

(To the extent that Dionysus was included, as at Olympia and perhaps elsewhere, these were simply alternate lists, which were not connected to the others by any kind of succession narrative.)