Gods and Goddesses

Take a tour around the world, to learn about different Gods and Goddesses, and the integral role they played in art throughout history.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

By Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

We will learn about the Greeks admiration of the human body, seen through sculptures of gods at the East Pediment of the Parthenon, or join art historians in the debate on whether a sculpture known as the Peplos Kore, representing a "young woman" is a mortal or a God.

Figures of three goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon (-438/-432)British Museum

East Pediment of the Parthenon, c.448-432 B.C.E.

These figures decorated one of the most important monuments in Western culture: the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the ancient Greek goddess Athena. 

The figures filled a triangular space (a pediment) above one of the temple’s entrances, and told the story of the birth of Athena. Though we’re used to seeing ancient sculptures as white marble, these were brightly painted. Greek sculptors achieved a naturalism (realism) in the representation of the human body that was unprecedented in Western art.

These figures are likely all gods or heroes. Greek sculptors admired the human body, and could render it moving, sitting, or reclining. The folds of drapery that almost look wet and cling to the body are typical of Greek art from the classical period.

The slope of the figures is due to the triangular space of the pediment. The horse’s head belonged to the chariot of the Moon goddess, shown sinking below the horizon at the end of the day. The three female figures likely represent goddesses.

On the walls we see figures in squares that also decorated the outside of the Parthenon. These squares are called metopes (pronounced: met-oh-pea). These depict a mythic battle between the centaurs (half man, half horse) and Lapiths (humans)—the Lapiths win.

Goddess or human? The Acropolis Museum, Athens

We’re in the galleries of the Acropolis Museum looking at some puzzling ancient sculptures. The female figures that you see are known as kore (which means “young woman”), but art historians debate whether these figures represent mortals or gods.

 Let’s look closely at one sculpture known as the Peplos Kore for the kind of garment (a peplos) that she wears and see what we can decode. Some art historians argue that she may not be wearing a peplos at all.

If we could decode what this figure was wearing and what she carried, we might know her identity. Some scholars believe that she carried a bow and arrow. If so, she would be Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Other scholars argue that this is Athena.

The Pergamon Altar, c. 200-150 B.C.E.

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is named for the monument we’re looking at here—the Pergamon Altar. The altar is enormous, and covered with dramatic sculpture showing a gigantomachy, that is, a great mythic battle between the gods and the giants. 

This is a celestial battle of enormous proportions for the supremacy of the cosmos. What we’re looking at is the frieze (a horizontal band) that once surrounding the altar. The frieze contains about a hundred larger than life-size figures.

Zeus, king of the gods, strides toward the left. He has a beautiful athletic torso and is taking on three giants at once. The kings of Pergamon greatly admired the Greeks and clearly adopted the Greek love of the human body.

Here we see Athena, holding one giant by the hair, looking calm and poised despite the fact that she is engaged in a fierce battle. Powerful, twisting, athletic bodies, movement, struggle, and emotional power characterize the sculptures on the Pergamon Altar.

Aztec sculpture in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

We’re standing in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City—in the galleries devoted to the Aztecs (or Mexica—pronounced Mé-shee-ka).

The Aztecs had an enormous and powerful empire and their capital, Tenochtitlan (complete with temple pyramids and markets), was in the heart of what is today Mexico City. The Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish Empire beginning in 1519.

Coatlicue is one of the most famous Mexica (Aztec) sculptures (her name is pronounced "koh-at-lee-kway"). Look closely and you’ll see snakes form her skirt and her belt. Coatlicue’s name literally means “Snakes-Her-Skirt.” She is a frightening figure indeed—her snake belt has a skull “buckle.”

When we get closer, we can see that where her head would have been are two snakes nose-to-nose, forming a face with two eyes, two tongues and fangs. She wears a necklace of hands and hearts. She was once brightly painted—making her even more terrifying.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150

We’re inside Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, located in Cambodia. Angkor Wat means simply “City Temple,” the original name of this monument is lost. 

 Angkor Wat is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, one of the three principal gods (along with Shiva and Brahma) in the Hindu pantheon. The five stone towers of Angkor Wat mimic the five mountain ranges of Mt. Meru—the mythical home of the gods for both Hindus and Buddhists.

Hindu temples are not places of worship, but a home to a god. Angkor Wat has beautiful relief sculptures, some have survived better than others. If you look closely, you’ll see images, like these, of Hindu supernatural beings known as Asparas (celestial maidens) everywhere.

Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat

We’re in a long passageway with one of the most famous sculptures at Angkor Wat, “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.” The subject is from a Hindu myth. The largest figure is the four-armed God Vishnu.

We see Indra, the god of the sky above Vishnu. Once the elixir is released, Indra descends from heaven to catch it and save the world. The foam from the churning produces apsaras (celestial maidens) who we see carved in relief here along the top.

You see what looks like a game of tug-of-war. On the left are demons and on the right are gods. They must work together to churn the Ocean of Milk to recover the elixir of life which has been lost. 

Below we see Vishnu as a giant turtle, supporting a mythic mountain on his back. Within the Ocean of Milk, on either side of the turtle, we see fish and other sea creatures who get torn into pieces as they swim near the churning stick.

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