Gods and Goddesses: the Immortals depicted on Roman oil lamps

While on a four day trip to explore the Limes Germanicus, I ended up visiting the Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Museum of antiquities) and the Glyptothek in Munich due to poor weather conditions.

The Museum of antiquities in Munich is currently hosting the “Immortal – Gods of Greece” exhibition. This one-year-round exhibition (now extended to 19 January 2014) presents a vibrant range of divine images and numerous artefacts, which were taken from the museum’s rich collections as well as national and international loans.

“Die Unsterblichen. Götter Griechenlands” 20.07.2012 – 19.01.2014
Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

Portrayals of the gods range from colossal idols made of gold and ivory to unpretentious figurines made of clay. In ancient Greece, most of the portrayals of the Greek gods are found on vessels that were not intended for religious purposes. The exhibition shows many artefacts from ancient Greece, all focused and inspired by the Olympian Gods as well as other lesser known gods, mythical heroes and demons. I was particularly attracted by the large collection of Roman oil-lamps exhibited. It is rare to see such a concentration of oil-lamps depicting gods and goddesses.

Oil lamps were one of the most common household items of ancient times. They could be decorated with scenes ranging from everyday activities to entertainment, such as gladiatorial scenes, to depictions of common myths. Oil lamps depicting gods and goddesses were very popular. They might have showed which gods were worshipped in the household.

After the Romans came into contact with the Greeks in the 6th century BC, the identities of the Roman and the Greek gods tended to meld into Greco-Roman combinations. Each of the Greek gods had his Roman equivalent although their character and attributes were slightly modified to suit the firmly established Roman culture.

The Greco-Roman Gods

Jupiter (Zeus)

Terracota oil lamp with depiction of Jupiter, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

The sovereign of all the gods was Jupiter whose main temple was dedicated on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 509 BC. Like his Greek counterpart (Zeus), his emblem was the eagle and his attributes a sceptre and lighting. The mighty bird served also as the standard of the Roman legions.

Juno (Hera)

Terracota oil lamp, Juno and her cuckoo, 2nd-3rd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Juno was the wife of Jupiter, just as Hera was the wife of Zeus. The Italian Juno was the counterpart of the Greek Hera. However the goddess had greater importance in Rome than in Greece. In addition to her role as the protectress of marriage, she also acted as protectress of the local community. In early Rome, she went by the name of Regina (“queen”), testifying to her supremacy over all the other goddesses and the heavens, which she governed alongside her husband.

Neptune (Poseidon)

Terracotta oil lamp depicting a dolphin carrying a trident, probably related to Neptune, 1st-2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Etruscans worshipped Nethuns as the god of fresh and sea water, the Romans venerated Neptune. In Rome, his temple was found on the Fields of Mars, near the Circus Flaminius.


Terracotta oil lamp depicting Apollo seated with tripod, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Apollo was the god of poetry and music. He went by the same name in Greek and Latin, because the Romans had no equivalent to this god in their own religion and they knew of him only by the Greeks. The Roman Apollo therefore had all the attributes of the Greek Apollo but for the Romans, Apollo was above all a god who cleanses sickness and blood guilt. On the occasion of a pestilence in the 430s BC, Apollo’s first temple at Rome was established in the Flaminian fields, replacing an older cult site there known as the “Apollinare”.

Diana (Artemis)

Roman oil lamp depicting the goddess Diana as a huntress, 2nd-3rd century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Roman Diana was initially the goddess of the moon and of fertility. She had a very ancient temple in Rome on the Mount Aventinus, and her feast day was August the 13th. She protected girls and women. Later, like the Greek Artemis, she became the goddess of hunting.

Venus (Aphrodite)

Terracotta oil lamp depicting Venus, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Etruscan worshipped Venos, the Romans Venus. She was known as the goddess of love well before being identified with the Greek Aphrodite. In Roman art, Venus and Mars were the classical lovers and married couple. They represented the progenitors of the Roman people and of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Venus was honored in April, the month that marks the beginning of spring.

Mars (Ares)

Terracotta oil lamp depicting Mars in chariot, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Romans honored Mars as their god of war. He was of unmistakably higher rank than the Greek god Ares who should not be confused with him. After Jupiter, he was celebrated as the most significant Roman god, and he was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Furthermore, Mars was also the god of vegetation and patron of the Roman senate.

Minerva (Athena)

Minerva, terracotta Roman oil lamp 1st cent. AD
© Carole Raddato

Minerva, assimilated to the Greek goddess Athena, was the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and defense. Together with Jupiter and Juno she forms the Capitoline Triad. Her cult was spread across the entire Empire. The goddess was the guardian of craftsmanship and commerce. Her attributes were the owl, the shield and the olive branch.

Oil lamp depicting Athena/Minerva, 1st century AD
© Carole Raddato

In Rome, Minerva was worshipped on the Capitoline Hill as one of the Capitoline Triad along with Jupiter and Juno, at the Temple of Minerva Medica, and at the “Delubrum Minervae” a temple founded around 50 BC by Pompey.

The Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva), Roman oil lamp terracotta, 1st century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Heroes

Hercules (Heracles)

Clay oil lamp depicting Hercules defeating the Stymphalian Birds (the Sixth Labour)
© Carole Raddato

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek divine hero Heracles, who was the son of Zeus (Roman equivalent Jupiter) and the mortal Alcmene. In ancient Roman religion and myth, Hercules was venerated as a divinised hero and incorporated into the legends of Rome’s founding. The Romans adapted the iconography of Heracles into their own literature and art, but the hero developed distinctly Roman characteristics. In Rome, his precinct was in the busy commercial area of the cattle market (Forum Boarium) and his altar was the Ara Maxima (Greatest Altar).

Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), terracotta Roman oil lamp 1st century AD
© Carole Raddato

Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), sons of Jupiter (Zeus) and Leda are depicted here. Their helmets crowed by a star suggest their identification with the Constellation Gemini. The Dioscuri were worshipped by the Greeks and Romans alike; there were temples to the twins in Athens, such as the Anakeion, and Rome  (located in the Roman Forum), as well as shrines in many other locations in the ancient world.

Leda and the swan, terracotta Roman oil lamp 1st century AD
© Carole Raddato

The New Gods


Terracotta oil lamp depicting Serapis above an eagle spreading its wings, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Serapis was a new god. Making his appearance in the Hellenistic period he had characteristics of the Greco-Roman father-figure gods Zeus, Hades and Helios, as well as the ancient Egyptian Osiris. In Roman times, he was revered throughout the empire. At Rome, Serapis was worshiped in the Iseum Campense, the sanctuary of Isis built during the Second Triumvirate in the Campus Martius. The Roman cults of Isis and Serapis gained in popularity late in the 1st century when Vespasian experienced events he attributed to their miraculous agency while he was in Alexandria. Serapis’ attribute was a corn measure as a headdress, a reference to the fertility of Egypt.


Clay oil lamp depicting Isis, from Egypt, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Isis was a powerful Egyptian goddess whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. During the reign of Caligula, the Navigium Isidis, an annual ancient Roman religious festival in honor of the goddess Isis, was established while Hadrian decorated his villa with Isiac scenes.

The Punishment of Evildoers


Terracotta oil lamp depicting Actaeon torn apart by dogs, 1st century AD
© Carole Raddato

The Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon can be found within Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The tale recounts the unfortunate fate of a young hunter named Actaeon, who was the grandson of Cadmus, and his encounter with chaste Diana, goddess of the hunt. The hunter became the hunted; he was transformed into a stag, and his raging hounds, struck with a ‘wolf’s frenzy’ (Lyssa in Greek or Furor in Latin), tore him apart as they would a stag.


Terracotta oil lamp depicting a blinded Orion and Artemis
© Carole Raddato

Orion was a handsome giant gifted with the ability to walk on water by his father Poseidon. He served King Oinopion of Khios as huntsman for a time, but was blinded and exiled from the island after raping the king’s daughter Merope. After this the giant retired to the island of Delos or Krete and became a hunting companion of the goddess Artemis.

Nature Deities and Demons

Faunus (Pan)

Clay oil lamp depicting Pan (Faunus) the god of shepherds and flocks, 1st-2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Pan, the god of shepherds, is part human and part goat. The Romans identified with Pan their own god Inuus, and sometimes also Faunus. In works of art Pan/Faunus is represented as a voluptuous and sensual being, with horns, puck-nose, and goat’s feet, sometimes in the act of dancing, and sometimes playing his pan-pipes.

Sol (Helios)

Clay oil lamp depicting Sol, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Helios was the personification of the Sun in Greek mythology.  The equivalent of Helios in Roman mythology was Sol, specifically Sol Invictus.


Oil lamp depicting Scylla a monstrous sea goddess, 2nd century AD
© Carole Raddato

Scylla was a monstrous sea goddess who haunted the rocks of certain narrow strait opposite the whirlpool daemon Charybdis. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XIV, she was said to have been originally human in appearance but transformed out of jealousy through the witchcraft of Circe into her fearful shape.

Further photos from the Staatliche Antikensammlungen and the exhibition can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.


* The Immortals – The Greek gods (exhibition booklet) © Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München 2012

* Roman Mythology by Joel Schmidt

Exit mobile version