Top 10 Greek Myths to Know for Your Greek Vacation
Greece is a land of mythology. A place where every relic and statue is intertwined with the deeds of heroes and the legacies of gods. Being familiar with Greek myths thus imbues any Greek vacation with greater meaning and enjoyment. Here are 10 Greek myths to know for your dream holiday in this ancient land of the gods. Even if you aren’t heading to Greece any time soon, the life lessons in these classic tales would still do you much good in the years to come.
1. Theseus and the Minotaur
In classic Greek myths, Theseus was the son of Athenian King Aegeus, though his father could also be said to be Poseidon, God of the Sea, as his mother was possessed by Poseidon when she slept with Aegeus. Separated from Aegeus at birth, the adult Theseus eventually learned about his royal parentage and successfully claimed his place beside his father. He did so after surviving six labors on his way to Athens. Each labor involved him slaying a notorious villain.
The joy of Theseus’ reunion with his father was short-lived, though. At that time, Athens was subjugated by the powerful King Minos of Crete, and as tribute, the city was to send seven of her best youths and maidens to Crete once every seven years. Unable to stomach this injustice, Theseus volunteered to be one of the youths and promised his father that should he survive, he would return on a ship with white sails. On reaching Crete, Theseus was stripped of his weapons and sent into the Labyrinth. Here, the young prince quickly discovered the grim truth behind what happened to previous tributes. All were eaten alive by the monster residing within the giant maze. A half-bull, half-man known as the Minotaur.
Even with his divine lineage and prowess, Theseus wouldn’t have survived the Minotaur, especially with the battle taking place in the confusing and confining corridors of the Labyrinth. Fortunately for him, he caught the eye of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who fell deeply in love with him. Not only did Ariadne give Theseus a ball of thread to mark his path within the Labyrinth, she also helped smuggle in a sword, which Theseus would ultimately use to slay the monstrous Minotaur. After escaping the Labyrinth, Theseus fulfilled his promise to Ariadne by fleeing back to Athens with her. For reasons unclear, though, Ariadne never made it to Athens. Midway through the journey, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Subsequently, the young prince was either so stricken with distress or guilt, he forgot to change the sails on his ship. On seeing a ship with black sails returning from afar, the devastated King Aegeus assumed Theseus had perished. In grief, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.
Interesting to Know
Different versions of this famous Greek myth disagree on the reason behind Athen’s subjugation by Crete. Some claim Minos attacked Athens after his son Androgeos was murdered while competing in Athenian games. Rather than surrender the murderers to Minos, Aegeus handed Minos the city instead. In other accounts, Minos had simply conquered Athens with military might.
The Minotaur was in actuality, Minos’ punishment by the gods. While competing with his brothers for the throne, Minos prayed for endorsement by Poseidon in the form of a bull, promising he would sacrifice the bull in the sea god’s honor should he become king. After claiming the throne, though, Minos decided to keep the beautiful bull for himself, instead sacrificing a lesser beast of his own. Incensed by the deceit, Poseidon charmed Minos’ wife Pasiphaë into sleeping with the divine bull. The resulting offspring was the Minotaur.
- In all versions of the myth, the Labyrinth was the brainchild of master artificer Daedalus. Its original purpose was to imprison the Minotaur.
Again, versions disagree on why Theseus abandoned Ariadne. Some say he was instructed to do so by Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. Others merely state the young prince grew tired of her, or have never truly loved her.
- King Aegeus is said to have committed suicide at the Cape of Sounion. Athenians believe this to be the story behind the naming of the Aegean Sea.
- Some myths claim Ariadne was eventually rescued by Dionysus, the God of Wine. She later became his bride.
- Both Aegeus and Minos were ultimately made into judges of the underworld. They became part of the trio that determines whether a soul would enjoy paradise in the Elysian Fields or be tormented for eternity in Tartarus. The remaining member of the trio was Rhadamanthus, another Cretan king.
Today, the ruins of Minos’ palace and the Labyrinth could be “viewed” at Knossos. Note, though, that there is no archeological evidence suggesting that these ruins are indeed the palace of Minos, or that the king even existed. The labyrinthine impression largely stems from the numerous narrow corridors crisscrossing the ruins.
2. Perseus and the Slaying of Medusa
One of the most famous illegitimate sons of Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, Perseus was conceived after Zeus rained himself onto the lap of Perseus’ mother, Danaë, in the form of a shower of golden coins. In spite of Perseus’ divine parentage, however, his maternal grandfather, Acrisius, despised him for he was told in a prophecy that a son of his daughter would slay him. Not daring to directly kill Zeus’ offspring, Acrisius then got rid of mother and child by imprisoning them in a wooden crate and casting that out to sea. Perseus and Danaë would subsequently be rescued by a kind fisherman named Dictys, with Perseus raised to adulthood by Dictys on the island of Seriphos.
Unfortunately for Perseus, the brother of Dictys and ruler of Seriphos, Polydectes, eventually fell in love with Danaë. To rid himself of Perseus, who disapproved of the relationship, the wily ruler tricked the hot-blooded young man into agreeing to bring the head of the Gorgon Medusa. This was considered to be an impossible task for the very gaze of Medusa was enough to turn any mortal being into stone. So that his son would survive, Zeus then instructed the Greek gods to aid Perseus with divine gifts, the most famous of which being a polished/mirror shield from Athena. Perseus ultimately succeeded in beheading Medusa by only viewing her reflection using his shield. While returning to Seriphos, he also rescued Princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus, thus earning her hand in marriage.
Interesting to Know
- Medusa was not the only Gorgon, though she was the only mortal one. In Greek mythology, she was once a beautiful woman with lovely hair who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. (Some versions claim she willingly gave herself to the sea god) As punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena turned Medusa into a Gorgon, a horrific humanoid with a serpentine body and slithering snakes for hair.
- Prior to her rescue, Andromeda was intended as a sacrifice to appease Poseidon. Andromeda’s mother, Queen Cassiopeia, had bragged that Andromeda was equal in beauty to the Nereids (sea nymphs). Irked, Poseidon dispatched the sea monster Cetus to devastate Cassiopeia’s kingdom.
- The evil Polydectes was ultimately turned into stone by Perseus using Medusa’ head.
- At the end of his adventures, Perseus gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who then magically incorporated the grisly trophy into the middle of her shield. Today, many depictions of Athena include Medusa’s horrific visage in the middle of her shield.
- Perseus had other lesser known adventures. He is also believed to have founded the Peloponnesian city of Mycenae.
- The legend of Perseus is probably the best known among all Greek myths, thanks to the 1981 movie, Clash of the Titans. However, it should be noted that the movie significantly changed the story.
- Perseus, Cassiopeia and Andromeda are also immortalized as constellations. The mythical winged horse, Pegasus, which was birthed from the blood of Medusa, is also a constellation.
- As one of the most famous Greek heroes, Perseus wielding the severed head of Medusa is a very popular motif in art and sculpturing. The head of Medusa by itself has also appeared in several European art masterpieces. Most famously, the Testa di Medusa by Caravaggio.
- Today, Seriphos, Mycenae, and Perseus’ birthplace of Argos could easily be visited by tourists. However, there are no specific relics or ruins directly related to the legend of Perseus and the slaying of Medusa.
3. The Twelve Labours of Heracles (Hercules)
More famously known worldwide by his Roman name of Hercules, the adventures and tribulations of Heracles need little introduction. Yet another illegitimate son of Zeus, this time with the mortal beauty Alcmene, Heracles was originally named Alcides. Foreseeing the infant’s destiny to be a great hero, Athena tricked Hera, Zeus’ long-suffering and jealous queen, into nursing the baby with her milk, thus greatly enhancing the newborn’s supernatural strength. Famously, when Hera later sent serpents to kill the infant, Alcides effortlessly strangled the two reptiles without suffering any injury.
Alcides would continue to be tormented by Hera throughout his life. That he was renamed as Heracles i.e. the Glory of Hera did little to soothe the hatred of the Queen of Gods, it probably mortified Hera even more. In adulthood, Heracles’ worst tragedy came when he was temporarily driven mad by Hera, resulting in him killing his wife and children. As atonement for this heinous crime, the Oracle of Delphi sent Heracles to King Eurystheus, where Heracles was to perform 12 “labors” over ten years. These labors either involved killing a mythological menace or accomplishing what was commonly deemed an impossible task. In sequence, the 12 labors were:
- Killing the Nemean Lion, which had an impregnable hide.
- Slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra. A new head grows back every time one is cut off.
- Capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt.
- Capturing the Erymanthian Boar, a huge and terrifying beast.
- Cleaning the Augean stables. Not only were these stables huge, they had not been cleaned for decades.
- Slaying the Stymphalian Birds. These were man-eating birds with metallic beaks and feathers.
- Capturing the Cretan Bull. Like the Erymanthian Boar, the bull was huge and fearsome. It was also the bull the Queen of Crete slept with. Therefore, the father of the Minotaur.
- Stealing the Mares of Diomedes. These beautiful horses were a sight to behold. And man-eating.
- Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the warlike Amazons.
- Obtaining the cattle of the monster Geryon. Geryon had three heads and a two-headed watchdog named Orthrus.
- Stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, the nymphs of evening and sunset.
- Bringing Cerberus, Hound of the Underworld, for a visit.
Heracles, as is well-known, succeeded in all labors, thus liberating himself from Eurystheus’ service. He would go on to have more adventures, including with other famous heroes from classic Greek myths, before ascending to Olympus after his mortal passing.
Interesting to Know
- Heracles is one of the most popular subjects in Classic and Western Art. He is almost always portrayed as a bearded muscular man with a club. He is also arguably the most recognizable heroic character on Greek travel souvenirs.
- Like Perseus, Heracles, as Hercules, eventually became a constellation.
- As a symbol of masculine perfection, Heracles had both female and male lovers. According to Roman biographer Plutarch, Heracles’ male lovers were numerous.
- Despite his many adventures, there isn’t any site particularly associated with Heracles within Greece. However, the Italian (ruined) city of Herculaneum is supposedly named after him.
- Heracles is the last mortal son of Zeus, and the only one of his many illegitimate sons to be transfigured into a god after death.
- There have been many movies and television series about Heracles (Hercules) over the years. Interestingly, few are recognized for artistic merit. Some, such as Disney’s animated version, were even condemned for their liberties with the original myth.
A Lot of Greek Myths End in Tragedy. Why Is This So?
4. The Birth of the Divine Twins
In yet another example of his compulsive infidelity, Zeus fell in love and impregnated Leto, daughter of two Titans. Enraged, Hera then cursed Leto to never find any place on Earth to give birth to her children. This did not “punish” Leto, though, for Zeus simply raised an island from the sea to be his lover’s sanctuary. There, Leto safely gave birth to the divine twins. The boy, Apollo, then became the Greek God of the Sun, Arts, Medicine, among other things. The girl, Artemis, became the Greek Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt, and eventually, of childbirth and virginity too.
Interesting to Know
- Being the birthplace of two Olympians in Greek myths, Delos was an important and popular religious site in Ancient Greece.
- Geographically, Delos is a tiny island in the Cyclades. The name Cyclades literally means a cycle/circle, with Delos at the heart of this sacred gathering.
- Today, Delos is one of the foremost archeological sites of Greece. It is easily reached from nearby Mykonos by ferry.
- The excavations on Delos are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean.
5. Saving the Future King of the Greek Gods
Appalling as it sounds, bloody family feuds recurred often in Greek myths. The primordial sky god Ouranos was incapacitated by his son, Cronus, the latter thereafter ruling the world together with his siblings, the Titans. In turn, it was foretold that Cronus himself would one day be violently disposed of by his own sons. Fearful of this, Cronus devoured all of his children, swallowing them whole upon their births. Unbeknownst to him, though, his wife Rhea managed to save their sixth child, Zeus, by fooling Cronus with a stone swaddled in cloths. Subsequently, Rhea also hid Zeus on Mount Ida in Crete, where the infant god was fed the milk of a goat named Amalthea. Once of age, the young Zeus used an emetic given to him by Gaia to force Cronus to disgorge all his siblings. Together, the new gods overthrew Cronus and took over ownership of the world as the Olympians. In some accounts, the disposed Cronus was imprisoned for eternity in the depths of Tartarus.
Interesting to Know
- In all accounts, Cronus disposed Ouranos by castrating his father with a sickle. The Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, was formed from the resulting foam after Cronus threw his father’s testicles into the sea.
- The stone that fooled Cronus is alternatively called the Omphalos. This means the “navel” stone and was an important religious symbol in Ancient Greece.
- Mount Ida is the highest mountain on Crete. In ancient times, it was also the sacred mountain of Rhea. Modern excavations have revealed a large number of votive offerings at the mountain.
- The war with the Titans is a cornerstone of Greek myths. There are also various stories involving the Titans' subsequent fracases with the Greek Gods.
- The conflicts between the Greek Gods and the Titans is the premise for Rick Riordan's bestselling book series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
- As ruler, Cronus imprisoned many primordial monsters and beings, such as the Cyclopes and the hundred-arm Hecatoncheires. Many of these would later be released by Zeus to assist his uprising.
6, The Tragedy of Oedipus
Oedipus was the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, and somewhat similar to the fate of Perseus, was left to die in the hills because Laius was told the prophecy that his own son would kill him. The act, expectedly, did not kill Oedipus, who was soon rescued and adopted by King Polybus of Corinth. Once of age, Oedipus himself was told he was destined to kill his father, and in the first of a series of tragedies, assumed this prophecy to refer to his foster father Polybus. Leaving Corinth, he then headed for Thebes to resettle. During the journey, he had no notable adventures, except the killing of an older man after a trivial quarrel.
At Thebes, Oedipus learned that the ruler, Laius, was deceased, with the city also besieged by a riddle-spouting monstrosity named the Sphinx. The intelligent Oedipus easily solved the riddle of the Sphinx and destroyed it, though, and as reward, was given the city and the hand of the recently widowed Jocasta. Later, while investigating who killed King Laius, he discovered the murderer was none other than himself. Laius was the old man he slew on the way to Thebes. Worse, he thus ended up marrying his own mother as the consequence of his actions. In extreme grief and shame, Jocasta committed suicide. As for Oedipus, he blinded himself with pins from his mother/wife’s dress.
Interesting to Know
- Oedipus was the subject of Greek playwright Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus Rex. Sophocles used his work to expound the flaws of humanity and the role of the individual in a predestined universe.
- In modern times, the “Oedipus Complex” is used to describe the neurosis of male children harboring exclusive love for their mothers.
- The riddle of the Sphinx is the famous, "What crawls with four legs as a baby, walks with two legs as an adult, and hobbles with three legs when old?" The Sphinx devoured all who failed to solve the riddle.
- The Sphinx itself was a popular subject in ancient Greek art, much more so than Oedipus. It is usually represented as a four-legged beast with wings and the face of a beautiful woman.
- While it was a major site in Greek myths, modern Thebes is not a major tourist attraction of Greece. Its museum and archeological sites are largely bypassed by tourists and tour operators.
7. The Contest for King Cecrops's City by the Greek Gods
In Greek mythology, Cecrops was the half-man, half-serpent founder of Athens. Wise and humane, he taught his subjects reading and writing, as well as instituted the concept of marriage. Impressed by his accomplishments, many Greek gods desired to become the patron of Athens, the foremost contenders being Poseidon and Athena. To decide which god would enjoy the honor, a competition was held, the challenge being which god could offer Athens a better gift. In the case of Poseidon, the sea god struck the ground with his trident and brought forth a saltwater spring, thus promising Athenian domination over the seas. Athena, on the other hand, planted the world’s first olive tree, offering the versatile fruit of the plant as her gift. After consideration, the Athenians chose Athena’s offer of peace and prosperity over Poseidon’s gift of seafaring supremacy. The Goddess of Wisdom thus became the permanent symbol of Greece’s most famous city.
Interesting to Know
- The saltwater spring created by Poseidon is named Erekhtheis.
- As is obvious, the Athenians chose Athena’s fruit because of its many uses.
- An alternative version of this founding myth describes Poseidon’s gift as the world’s first horse. In this version, the Athenians still preferred Athena’s olive.
- This myth partly explains why the famous Temple of Sounion to Poseidon is located outside of the population center of Athens.
- It certainly explains why the Parthenon, Athen's crowning jewel, was dedicated to Athena.
- While it seems the case, modern etymologists generally agree that Athens did not take its name from the goddess. Rather, it was the other way around.
- Ironically, some experts feel the over-cultivation of olives led to severe soil erosion in Greece. This resulted in Greece's distinctly rugged landscape.
8. The Sacred Oracle of Delphi
So it was said, Zeus wanted to determine where the center of the world was. To do so, he released his two sacred eagles in opposite directions. When the two eagles eventually met at Delphi, Zeus declared the site to be the heart of the ancient world.
Delphi was indeed a splendid location. High on the slopes of Mount Parnassus and overlooking the valley of Phocis. Unfortunately, though, it was also the nesting site of the huge serpent Python, and would have remained so, had Apollo not slain the giant snake with his golden arrows. Because of the deed, Delphi will forever associated with the Greek God of the Sun. It will also be famous for the Delphic Oracle, which started many Greek myths and epics. Nowadays, the ruins of Delphi is recognized as a UNESCO site for its influence on the ancient world, and for its monuments and archeological relics.
Interesting to Know
- A version of the myth by Hyginus states that Apollo bore a deadly grudge again Python. While pregnant, Apollo’s mother Leto was relentlessly pursued by Python, the huge serpent dispatched by a furious and jealous Hera. (See above) Once of age, Apollo sought out Python and slew it with his magical arrows.
- The same version by Hyginus also states that Delphi was previously the site of the Oracle of Gaia, the primordial earth goddess. Apollo thus “inherited” prophetic powers after killing Python before Gaia’s oracle.
- So it was said, Zeus ordered Apollo to purify himself for the sacrilege of killing Python in the presence of the Oracle of Gaia. To do so, Apollo was forced to preside over the Pythian Games that Zeus started. The ruins of a stadium could still be seen today at Delphi.
- The Pan-Hellenic Pythian Games were the precursors of the modern Olympics.
- The practice of bestowing laurel wreath, a practice associated with the Olympic Games, began at Delphi. Winners of the Pythian Games were awarded such wreaths.
- Historically, the Delphic Oracle was an Apollonian high priestess who would inhale the volcanic fumes at Delphi and deliver prophetic mutterings. These were then interpreted by a priest.
- The high priestess was also known as the Pythia.
- Delphi was a major religious, social, and political site in the ancient world. Powerful cities maintained treasuries along the Sacred Way to house their tributes. Several of these could still be seen today.
- Delphi is mentioned in many Greek myths. Typically, a hero's journey, or tragedy, begins with a prophecy at Delphi.
Divine Prophecy or Human Machination?
Today, many consider the Delphi Oracle nothing but political machinations. It was entirely up to the priest to decipher the nonsensical mutterings. He could say whatever benefited him.
9. Asclepius, the God of Medicine
A minor god in Greek myths, Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman named Coronis. Compassionate and intelligent, he was taught the secrets of medicine by a serpent whom Asclepius had shown kindness to. In adulthood, he also became so proficient in the art of healing, his skills surpassed even those of his divine father. Asclepius ultimately crossed the line when he raised the dead and accepted gold as reward. Acting on the complaint of Hades, Lord of the Dead, Zeus killed Asclepius with his thunderbolt. Subsequently, Asclepius’s body was placed among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus.
Interesting to Know
- Asclepius was raised by the famous Centaur Chiron, who also taught the prodigy medicine.
- The constellation Ophiuchus is alternatively known as the snake holder.
- Asclepius was a very popular subject for sculptors, during and after the Ancient Age.
- Asclepius' most famous symbol is that of his staff. Often mistaken for the staff of Hermes, the Divine Messenger, Asclepius' staff differs by having one instead of two snakes around it. Many paramedic services erroneously use the staff of Hermes (with two snakes) to represent themselves.
- The Asclepeion at Epidaurus, famous for its acoustically splendid theatre, was a healing center of Asclepius.
10. Jason and the Argonauts
One of the longest and most elaborate Greek myths, the story of Jason and the Argonauts featured an ensemble cast of heroes from many other Greek legends. The son of King Aeson of Iolcus, who was overthrown by his treacherous brother Pelias, the infant Jason escaped death after his mother lied about him being still-born. Years later, when confronted by a grown-up Jason, Pelias demanded the legendary Golden Fleece in exchange for his abdication, to which Jason readily agreed. To locate and retrieve the fleece, Jason assembled a large crew of legendary heroes, members of which included Heracles, Orpheus, Peleus, Castor and Pollux (Gemini), etc. He also commissioned the shipwright Argus to construct a magnificent ship to facilitate their journey. On completion, the vessel was named the Argo and blessed by none other than Hera, Queen of the Greek Gods. Hera then considered Jason her personal champion.
Jason and his Argonauts faced many tribulations and disasters on their way to Colchis, where the Golden Fleece was. Surviving reasonably, their final task was to complete three challenges by Aeetes, the ruler of Colchis. To assist Jason, Hera convinced Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, to make Aeetes' daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. Through the assistance of Medea's magical abilities, Jason succeeded in all three tasks and claimed the fleece. Jason, the Argonauts, and Medea then fled Colchis hurriedly when an enraged Aeetes renegaded on his promise.
In a subsequent curious twist reminiscent of the story of Theseus, Jason and Medea would not settle down happily ever after as the king and queen of Iolcus. So as to strengthen political ties with Corinth, Jason agreed to marry a princess of Corinth, despite already having children with Medea. Embittered, Medea killed the Corinthian princess with a cursed, flaming dress, in the process also incinerating the king of Corinth. Before fleeing in a magical chariot, she also killed her own two sons, fearing they would be abused or enslaved as the consequence of her vengeance.
As for Jason, he survived Medea’s revenge unscathed. Years later, he would have another son too. However, by breaking his vow of love to Medea, he permanently lost the favor of Hera, who was the Greek Goddess of Matrimony. Jason ultimately died lonely and unhappy. While sleeping under the rotting remains of the Argo, the stern fell on him, crushing him to death.
Interesting to Know
- The Argonauts encountered many mythical obstacles on their way to and from Colchis. These include murderous wives, sirens, a giant automaton, harpies, and clashing rocks.
- The Golden Fleece has an extensive backstory to it. In short, it was the fleece of a winged ram fathered by Poseidon in his ram form, which famously saved royal siblings Phrixus and Helle from their murderous stepmother. After Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Poseidon, the ram become the constellation of Aries.
- Medea is regarded as one of the most powerful sorceresses in Greek myths. She was the niece of Circe, another powerful sorceress. She was also the granddaughter of Helios, the personification of the sun.
- Iolcus was a city on the eastern coast of Greece, while Colchis was on the eastern end of the Black Sea.
- The most famous cinematic adaptation of Jason’s quest was the 1963 production, Jason and the Argonauts starring Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack. The movie remains beloved for its stop-motion effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Particularly the climactic scene of the Argonauts fighting risen skeleton soldiers while fleeing from Colchis.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong