Ancient Greek myths have captured our imagination for centuries, offering timeless stories that still resonate with modern society. These fascinating tales, deeply rooted in the cradle of Western civilization, have been passed down and retold through generations, inspiring countless adaptations in art and literature.
With a pantheon of gods and heroes, Greek myths provide a means of understanding the mysteries of the world, such as the stars, weather, diseases, and even the creation of fire.
As a vital part of the Greek archipelago’s rich cultural heritage, these myths have become some of the most popular and enduring stories in human history.
In this article, we will look at ten of the most famous Greek myths, exploring their origins, characters, and lasting impact on our collective imagination.
1. The Story of Heracles
The most famous of all Greek mythological heroes, Heracles (better known by his Roman name, Hercules) was the son of the king of the gods, Zeus, and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Blessed with strength far beyond that of other mortals, he was considered Zeus’ favorite child, even above the godly children he had with Hera: Ares, Hebe, Eris, and Hephaestus.
Heracles’ stepmother, Hera, cursed him due to her jealousy. His adventures began in the crib, when Hera sent two serpents to kill him shortly after his birth. Even as a baby, he was extraordinarily strong and strangled the snakes. Later in life, Heracles married Megara, a princess from Thebes. Hera caused him to go mad, and in a fit of insanity, he killed his and Megara’s children.
Seeking atonement, Heracles consulted the Oracle of Delphi and was told to serve the wicked taskmaster, King Eurystheus of Mycenae, for ten years. During this sentence, Heracles performed twelve great labors, any one of which would have destroyed a normal man.
Heracles’ life was also marked by tragedy. He married Deianira and unwittingly met his demise by wearing a poisoned shirt she had given him. After his death, Zeus placed him among the stars as a constellation. However, Hera ordered that all the stars of this constellation dim, making it visible only on the clearest of the darkest nights.
Heracles remains a symbol of strength and heroism, inspiring modern culture through various adaptations in literature, movies, and television.
Along with Heracles, Perseus ranks among the mythical heroes most loved by Hollywood.
Best known as the hero of the movie, The Clash of the Titans (1981, and remade 2010), Perseus was the son of Zeus and another princess, this time Danae of Argos.
Once grown, Perseus visited the Phoenicia which was ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. They had a beautiful daughter, Andromeda, with whom Perseus immediately fell in love.
At their wedding feast, the vain Cassiopeia boasted about the beauty of her daughter, calling her more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs. This angered Poseidon and he ordered the sea monster, Cetus, a kraken, to destroy Phoenicia.
King Cepheus prayed that his kingdom be spared, and Poseidon told him he had to sacrifice his daughter to the kraken instead.
Perseus was unwilling to go along with this and devised a plan to save his wife. He went to find the gorgon, Medusa, who was so hideous that one look at her would change any living creature to stone.
He managed to behead Medusa fighting with his eyes closed. He used her severed head to turn Cetus to stone, saving Andromeda and Phoenicia.
3. Hades and Persephone
Many Greek myths were used to explain natural phenomena. One such story is about Hades, god of the underworld, and his niece, Persephone. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the harvest.
Hades fell in love with Persephone and came up out of the underground and kidnapped her, taking her to the underworld. Demeter was quite distraught and all of the crops on earth began to fail.
She pleaded with Zeus to make Hades return her daughter. However, Hades made Persephone his queen, and showered her with gold and diamonds and other precious metals of which he was also master.
In an effort to appease both her mother and her husband, Persephone agreed to spend six months of the year with Hades and six months with Demeter.
During the months she had her daughter with her, Demeter was happy, and the crops flourished. During the months Persephone was in the underworld, Demeter mourned for her and vegetation of all sorts withered and died.
This was how the ancient people came to understand the changing of seasons.
4. The Judgement of Paris
During a celebration event among the gods, Eris, the goddess of discord was not invited. As might be deduced from her job, she was a bit of a party-pooper.
However, she sent a golden apple to the celebration with a label on it “For the most beautiful.” The apple was claimed by three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.
They turned to Zeus for him to decide who should receive the apple. Being far too wise to step into that trap, he ordered that a Trojan prince named Paris, famed for his judgement of character, would make the decision.
Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris with what they could offer him. It was Aphrodite who offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, who was the wife of King Menelaus of Greece.
Paris accepted this bribe giving the apple to Aphrodite, and received Helen in return. Greece, of course, did not take this lying down and declared war on Troy. Thus giving the origins to the famed Trojan War.
5. Phaeton and the Sun-Chariot
The ancients believed the earth was the center of all creation and that everything they saw in the sky, the sun, moon, stars, etc. all revolved around the Earth.
The also believed the larger celestial bodies, the sun and the moon, were great bright chariots that gods drove across the sky each day and night.
Phaeton was a son of an ocean nymph named Clymene by the sun god, Helios. As a young man, Phaeton’s paternity was brought into question and he sought out Helios to get confirmation he was indeed Phaeton’s father.
Helios promised he would grant Phaeton any wish he wanted to prove the paternity. Phaeton wanted to drive the sun chariot for one day.
Although very reluctant, Helios did make a promise, so he let Phaeton drive the sun chariot. The boy could not handle the fiery horses and he ended up letting the chariot veer wildly off course.
His actions were threatening the very existence of the Earth, so Zeus was forced to intervene and struck Phaeton dead with a thunderbolt, and Helios got the chariot back under control.
During his wild ride, when the chariot moved too far from the ground, the ground froze. When it got too close, the ground burnt.
This story was use to explain the creation of the frozen climates north of Greece, and the Sahara Desert which was across the Mediterranean from it.
6. The Titan-Olympian War
The storytellers of the ancients divided prehistory into two time periods, that which was ruled by the titans and that which was ruled by the Olympian gods.
The titans were the twelve children of the earth-goddess Gaea and the god of the universe, Ouranus. They represented the various aspects of nature, sky, ocean, vegetation, animals, etc.
They were led by Cronus. He became the ruler by overthrowing his father, Ouranus. As Ouranus was dispatched, he foretold that Cronus would also be overthrown by one of his own children.
To prevent this from happening, Cronus devoured each of his children as they were born. The children of Cronus and his sister/wife, Rhea, were Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
After losing five children to her husband, Rhea hid Zeus away and fed Cronus a stone instead.
Zeus grew to adulthood hiding on the island of Crete. He was given a potion by Gaea, his grandmother, which would cause Cronus to vomit up Zeus’ siblings.
Zeus did this, and with help of his bothers, he freed several other creatures which Gaea bore, but Cronus imprisoned. Using weapons forged by the cyclopes, such as Zeus’ thunderbolts, and Poseidon’s trident, Zeus led the gods and monsters in a war against the titans.
The gods won, locking up the titans in Tartarus, and taking up residence on Mt. Olympus, thus being called the Olympian gods.
7. The Odyssey
The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer, takes its name from the person who made this treacherous voyage, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. He was one of the commanders in the ten-year-long Trojan War, after which he set sail for his home in Ithaca.
Storms and other distractions got in his way and stretched out the trip to last ten more years.
Along the way, Odysseus and his men encountered the Lotus-Eaters, a culture which lives in a drug-induced stupor because of their steady diet of lotus leaves and fruit.
Joining the locals for dinner, Odysseus and his men were soon intoxicated to the point of not knowing time was passing. They ended up on the island for years.
Once they escaped, they were soon captives of a cyclops named Polyphemus. He ate several crew members before they got away. They got lost again with the help of god of the wind, Aeolus, and meet more cannibals.
They also find a sorceress names Circe who changes half of the remaining men into swine. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, helped Odysseus escape. After many more misadventures, Odysseus finally made it home.
Even then he had to win a contest to prove he was the long-lost King, which he did.
8. Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus was a regular mortal, but one with a great gift for music. It was said he could get the trees to bend to listen to him play. He fell in love with and married Eurydice.
However, on their wedding day she was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus was so distraught all he could do was play mournful music. His songs were so sad they touched even the hearts of the gods.
Hermes was dispatched to advise Orpheus to go to the underworld and try to persuade Hades to let Eurydice come back.
Orpheus did this. He used his music to charm his way into the underworld even though living people are not allowed there. There, he played for Hades and Persephone. They were so moved, they agreed to allow Eurydice to return to life, but on one condition.
Orpheus had to walk out of the underworld in front of her, and he could not look back until they both had returned above ground.
In the end, Orpheus’ anxiety got the better of him, and he looked back just as he cleared the doorway from the underworld. Eurydice was still on the other side and instantly faded away, forever.
9. Arachne and Athena
Arachne was a mortal weaver of extraordinary talent. She became so bolstered by her own press that she challenged Athena, the goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest.
Of course, no mortal could out do a god at their own best tasks, and Athena won the contest. To punish Arachne for her extreme hubris, Athena turned her into the world’s first spider.
All Spiders are said to descend from her and spin such beautiful webbing in memory of her.
10. Pandora’s Box
When the Olympians defeated the titans, before being captured by Zeus, the titan Prometheus gave humans intelligence, usually reflected as the gift of fire.
He also gave women a natural curiosity, and then gave one woman, Pandora, a box and told her to never open it.
Pandora kept the box for a long time, but always wondered what in it. She finally decided it was cruel of Prometheus to give her a box and not let her know what was in it. She gave in to her curiosity and opened the box.
Out flew all of the ills now known to mankind, such as depression, hatred, anger, jealousy, etc.
This was Prometheus’ revenge on the Olympians because now they had to rule free-thinking humans who had all of these bad qualities among them.
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