The Major Deities of 11 Ancient Cultures (2024)

All ancient civilizations on our planet have gods and goddesses, or at least important, mythical leaders who brought the world into existence. These beings could be called on in times of trouble, or to pray to for good harvests, or to support the people in wars. Commonalities are widespread. But ancient people configured their pantheon of gods whether they were all powerful or part human, or stuck to their own realm or visited on earth, meddling directly in the affairs of humans. The cross-cultural study is a fascinating one.

Greek Gods

Many people can name at least some of the major Greek deities, but the list of gods in ancient Greece runs into the thousands. The Greek creation myth begins with the god of love, Eros, who creates the sky and the earth and makes them fall in love. From their perch on Mount Olympus, the major gods such as Apollo and Aphrodite acted like and even associated with, humans, leading to god/human hybrids called demigods.

Many of the demigods were warriors who walked and fought alongside humans in the stories written down in the Iliad and Odyssey. Eight gods (Apollo, Areas, Dionysus, Hades, Hephaestus, Hermes, Poseidon, Zeus) are arguably the most important of the Greek gods.

Egyptian Gods

Ancient Egyptian gods are recorded on tombs and manuscripts beginning in the Old Kingdom of about 2600 BCE and lasting until the Romans conquered Egypt in 33 BCE. The religion was remarkably stable throughout that time, made up of gods who controlled the sky (the sun godRe) and the underworld (Osiris, god of the dead), with one brief adventure into monotheism under the New Kingdom reign of Akhenaten.

The creation myths of ancient Egypt were complex, with several versions, but they all start with the god Atum who creates order from chaos. Monuments, texts, and even public offices bear the marks of Egypt's myriad gods. Fifteen gods (Anubis, Bastet, Bes, Geb, Hathor, Horus, Neith, Isis, Nephthys, Nut, Osiris, Ra, Set, Shu, and Tefnut) stand out as being the most significant religiously or the most prominent in terms of the political power of their priesthoods.

Norse Gods

In Norse mythology, the giants came first, and then the Old Gods (the Vanir) who were later supplanted by the New Gods (the Aesir). The Norse myths were written down in fragments until The Prose Edda, compiled in the 13th century, and they include pre-Christian stories of the great deeds of old Scandinavia and the myths of its creation.

The Norse creation myth is that the god Surt both creates and destroys the world. Modern-day moviegoers know of the likes of Thor and Odin and Loki, but becoming familiar with 15 of the classic Norse gods (Andvari, Balder, Freya, Frigg, Loki, Njord, the Norns, Odin, Thor, and Tyr) will better illuminate their pantheon.

Roman Gods

The Romans sustained a religion that adopted most of the Greek gods for their own with different names and slightly different myths. They also incorporated without too much discrimination the gods of particular interest to a newly conquered group, the better to foster assimilation in their imperialistic ventures.

In Roman mythology, Chaos itself created Gaia, the Earth, and Ouranos, the Heavens. A handy table of equivalents between 15 similar Greek and Roman gods—Venus is Aphrodite in Roman clothing, while Mars is the Roman version of Ares—shows just how similar they were. In addition to Venus and Mars, the most significant Roman gods are Diana, Minerva, Ceres, Pluto, Vulcan, Juno, Mercury, Vesta, Saturn, Proserpina, Neptune, and Jupiter.

Hindu Gods

The Hindu religion is the majority religion in India, and Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer represent the most significant cluster of Hindu gods. The Hindu tradition counts thousands of major and minor gods within its ranks, who are celebrated and honored under a wide variety of names and avatars.

Familiarity with 10 of the most widely known Hindu gods—Ganesha, Shiva, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Durga, Kali, Saraswati— offers an insight into the rich tapestry of ancient Hindu belief.

Aztec Gods

The Late Postclassic period Aztec culture of Mesoamerica (1110–1521 CE) worshiped more than 200 different deities spanning three broad classes of Aztec life—the heavens, fertility and agriculture, and war. To the Aztecs, religion, science and the arts were interconnected and meshed almost seamlessly.

The Aztec cosmos was tripartite: a visible world of humans and nature lay suspended between supernatural levels above (illustrated by Tlaloc, god of thunderstorms and rain) and below (Tlaltechutli, the monstrous earth goddess). Many of the gods in the Aztec pantheon are much older than the Aztec culture, called pan-Mesoamerican; learning about these ten deities—Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, Tonatiuh, Tezcatlipoca, Chalchiuhtlicue, Centeotl, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec, Mayahuel, and Tlaltechutli—will introduce you to the Aztec cosmos.

Celtic Gods

The Celtic culture refers to an Iron Age European people (1200–15 BCE) who interacted with the Romans, and it is that interaction that provided much of what we know of their religion. Mythologies and legends of the Celts survive as oral tradition in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, and Germany.

But early druids didn't commit their religious texts to paper or stone, so much of Celtic antiquity is lost to modern-day students. Luckily, after the Roman advance into Britain, first the Romans and then the early Christian monks copied down the druidic oral histories, including stories of the shape-shifting goddess Ceridwen and the horned fertility god Cernunnos.

Nearly two dozen Celtic deities remain of interest today: Alator, Albiorix, Belenus, Borvo, Bres, Brigantia, Brigit, Ceridwen, Cernunnos, Epona, Esus, Latobius, Lenus, Lugh, Maponus, Medb, Morrigan, Nehalennia, Nemausicae, Nerthus, Nuada, and Saitama.

Japanese Gods

The Japanese religion is Shinto, first documented in the 8th century CE. The Shinto creation myth has an agricultural bent to it: The world of chaos was changed when a germ of life created a muddy sea, and the first plant eventually became the first god. It combines a traditional pantheon of gods, including a creator couple Izanami ("He who invites") and Izanagi ("She who invites"), while borrowing from Japan's neighbors and ancient homegrown animism.

The most universal of the Japanese gods and goddesses include Izanami and Izanagi; Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, and Susanoh; Ukemochi, Uzume, Ninigi, Hoderi, Inari; and the seven Shinto gods of Good Fortune.

Mayan Gods

The Maya predate the Aztec, and like the Aztec, based some of their theology on the existing pan-Mesoamerican religions. Their creation myth is narrated in the Popul Vuh: six deities lie in the primordial waters and eventually create the world for us.

Mayan deities rule over a tripartite cosmos and were applied to for assistance in war or childbirth; they also ruled over specific periods of time, having feast days and months built into the calendar. Important gods in the Maya pantheon include the creator god Itzamnaand the moon goddess Ix Chel, as well as Ah Puch, Akan, Huracan, Camazotz, Zipacna, Xmucane and Xpiacoc, Chac, Kinich Ahau, Chac Chel, and Moan Chan.

Chinese Gods

Ancient China worshiped a vast network of local and regional mythological deities, nature spirits, and ancestors, and reverence for those gods persisted well into the modern era. Over the millennia, China has embraced and developed three major religions, all established first in the 5th or 6th century BCE: Confucianism (led by Confucius 551-479 BC), Buddhism (led by Siddhartha Gautama), and Taoism (led by Lao Tzu, d. 533 BCE).

Important and lingering figures in the historical texts on Chinese gods and goddesses include the "Eight Immortals," the "Two Heavenly Bureaucrats," and "Two Mother Goddesses."

Babylonian Gods

Among the most ancient of cultures, the people of Babylon developed a diverse melting pot of deities, derived from the older Mesopotamian cultures. Literally, thousands of gods are named in Sumerian and Akkadian, some of the oldest writing on the planet.

Many of the Babylonian gods and myths appear in the Judeo-Christian bible, early versions of Noah and the flood, and Moses in the bullrushes, and of course the tower of Babylon.

Despite the vast number of individual gods in the various sub-cultures labeled as "Babylonian," these deities retain historical significance: among the Old Gods are Apsu, Tiamat, Lahmu and Lahamu, Anshar and Kishar, Antu, Ninhursag, Mammetum, Nammu; and the Young Gods are Ellil, Ea, Sin, Ishtar, Shamash, Ninlil, Ninurta, Ninsun, Marduk, Bel, and Ashur.

Did You Know?

  • All ancient societies included gods and goddesses in their mythologies.
  • The role they played on earth varies greatly, from none at all to direct one-on-one meddling.
  • Some pantheons have demi-gods, beings who are the children of gods and humans.
  • All ancient civilizations have creation myths, explaining how the world was created from chaos.
The Major Deities of 11 Ancient Cultures (2024)
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