Top 10 Greek Mythology Stories
What Is Greek Mythology?
Greek mythology is a body of myths and teachings that belong to the ancient Greeks. The stories concern their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, as well as the cultural significance of their rituals and practices. Mythology was part of the religions of ancient Greece, which were often broken up into multiple cults that worshipped individual gods.
Today, the mythology of the Greeks still holds a firm place in academic curricula and popular culture. As you may have noticed, Greek myths and legends make for some of the most successful movies, books and works of art. This is probably because Greek myths speak to the timeless elements inherent in human nature, as various schools of psychology have demonstrated time and again.
This article will provide a brief introduction to some of the most popular Greek myths, starting with primitive gods with their raw, natural forces, to demi-gods and their human offspring. These stories will walk us through beauty, ugliness, and the millions of faces of human life.
Top 10 Greek Mythology Stories
- The Legend of Prometheus
- The Odyssey
- Pandora's Jar
- Jason and the Argonauts
- The Trojan War
- Theseus and the Minotaur
- Demeter and Persaphene
- Orpheus and Eurydice
- Oedipus the Theban
1. The Legend of Prometheus
In the earliest days of human history (let's say, the Paleolithic age), fire was considered a gift of life. In every part of the world, historians can trace myths and legends about some god or hero who offered fire to humans after overcoming various obstacles, and was thus honored as a supreme benefactor.
Thief of Fire
Prometheus was a Titan, culture hero, and trickster who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humans. An act that enabled progress and civilization, Prometheus is hailed for his intellect and for being a champion of mankind.
The "sin" of Prometheus consisted of the fact that he helped humans despite the orders of mighty Zeus, who decreed that fire should remain with the gods, and not be given to men. But Prometheus rooted for the humans.
To steal the fire, Prometheus broke into Hephaestus' workshop, where the godly kilns burned and exquisite artifacts were being created for the heavenly dwellers. Some say he stole burning charcoal, while others say he stole sparks from the chariot of Helios (the Sun). Either way, he carried fire in the stalk of a fennel plant, and made the life-saving gift of fire to the human race.
In ancient Greek, the name Prometheus means, "He Who Has Foresight."
Prometheus knew he would be punished for his theft, but he nevertheless went about his self-assigned task of protecting and helping mankind.
Ages later, Heracles, son of Zeus, obtained permission from his father to finally free Prometheus the Titan from his chains.
Trickster and Craftsman
Greek mythology tells us that, besides stealing fire, Prometheus showed his magnanimous mercy for humans on many occasions:
- He was appointed by Zeus to shape humans out of clay. His brother Epimetheus ("He Who Has Hindsight") shaped the animals.
- He established animal sacrifice, which was practiced henceforth in ancient Greek religion. Zeus left to Prometheus the decision of which portions of the sacrificial animals would be offered to the gods. The leftovers would go to humans. Prometheus deviously covered bones and other animal parts of lesser value with "shiny grease," while he disguised all the nutritious parts of the animal by wrapping them in the less appetizing tripe. Then, he invited Zeus to choose the portion owed to the gods. Zeus fell for the trick.
- When Zeus was planning a deluge with the intention of eliminating mankind, Prometheus warned his son Deucalion of the imminent catastrophe, and he instructed him to build an ark in order to save himself and his wife Pyrrha.
- He warned his brother Epimetheus not to receive Pandora and her box (which was actually a jar). Epimetheus thought he was cleverer and received the girl. Male authors of Greek antiquity never forgave him this mistake.
2. The Odyssey
A wanderer of the seas was bound to make an appearance in Greek mythology. Greece has an extremely long shoreline relative to its overall land mass, not to mention hundreds of islands surrounding the country.
Odysseus, a mariner par excellence, fills a major role in ancient Greek literature and has inspired many artists from antiquity and modern times. His tale, The Odyssey, was told by Homer, a great ancient poet and singer.
Odysseus was credited with sacking, along with other "long-haired Acheans" (an ancient name the Greeks), the castle of Troy near the entrance of the Black Sea. After leaving Troy, it took Odysseus ten years to reach his home island of Ithaca. He faced many deadly dangers, fought against temptations, gods, monsters, waves, powerful witches, and, of course, men. Throughout all of this, he stood firm on his resolution: to live long enough to see "smoke rising" from the hearths of his homeland.
Plot of The Odyssey (Video)
An Epic Poem With a Fine Texture
Seen more closely, The Odyssey is more intricate than just the story of an earthly journey. Homer knew better than to lay out a simple, one-dimensional little story, or he wouldn't have been glorified as the master poet he is known as today.
I've read his poem dozens of times, both in English and Modern Greek, and I'm currently reading it in the original language in which it was written: ancient, Homeric Greek.
What's more, the composition as a whole, but also in its most detailed parts, is an ingenious piece of literary craftsmanship. Everything is tightly interwoven: the characters, mini-stories, themes, patterns, and images from ancient life.
3. Pandora's Jar
Pandora was all-gifted by the gods in order to tempt man and make him receive her, thus sealing his own damnation. Her similarities with Eve are very evident.
She was not genuinely evil, but she was curious and defiant, or that's how the official story told by Hesiod in his Theogony goes.
What Is the Story of Pandora's Box?
Before we go any further, we must expel the myth that Pandora carried a box. In fact, it was a jar, or as the ancient Greeks would have referred to it: an urn.
Pandora was forged by the divine blacksmith Hephaestus. All the gods and goddesses showered her with gifts. She was a most desirable female. Then Zeus sent her as a wife to Epimitheus, the Hind-Sighted, giving her a sealed jar as dowry for the marriage. Pandora was instructed not to open the vessel under any circumstances.
But Pandora could not refrain from lifting the lid. She released from her jar all the evils that would torture mankind for eternity. Knowing Pandora's curiosity would prevail, this was Zeus's method of taking revenge on humans for the gift of fire that her brother-in-law, Prometheus, gave to mankind.
Scholars claim that the story originated from an earlier mythological substratum in which Pandora was a great goddess and provider of gifts that made life and culture possible. According to these scholars, the entities released from her urn were not evils, but cultural gifts.
The tale of Hesiod may have been a later invention, promoting patriarchal ethics that gave women an inferior and dependent position.
In Hesiod's story, Pandora brought with her a "pithos," or a big clay jar, when the god Hermes escorted her to Epimetheus. In symbolic language, the earthen jar may represent the female uterus.
This points to an interpretation of Pandora as a symbol of fecundity, prosperity, and life. According to this interpretation, we could consider that her name, the all-gifted, refers to the gifts she brings men, and not to the gifts that the gods bestowed on her.
Many are familiar with the similar sounding, "Hercules." We are not concerned with this man here, for he belongs to the Romans, who appropriated his name from the Greek, "Heracles."
A Demi-God Who Ascended to Olympus
Heracles literally means, "The glory of Hera." The myth goes that Hera, the godly wife of Zeus, was extremely jealous of her consort's affair with Queen Alcmene of Thebes, mother of Heracles, and avenged herself by making life miserable for Alcmene's demi-god son.
There are plenty of myths about Heracles. To begin with, he was conceived by Alcmene, Queen of Thebes, while her husband was away on an expedition. That did not make her exactly an adulteress though, because Zeus disguised himself as king Amphitryon and impregnated her. Amphitryon arrived later that night and fecundated his wife with Heracles' twin brother, Iphicles.
The two boys were as different as day and night. Zeus' son was strong and stout and fearless, while his all-human brother, seed of a cheated husband, was small and whiny. One night, wanting to get rid of the boy, Hera sent two large snakes to drown him. Iphicles woke up and started to cry. Heracles strangled the snakes with his bare hands.
Serving a Penance for His Crime
Herakles married the Princess Megara of Thebes and had two sons with her. But he was not to find any rest, for Hera still carried a vengeance. The goddess inflicted him with a fit of madness, causing him to kill his own children.
When he came to, overcome with grief, he took to the Oracle of Delphi to have Pythia instruct him on how to expiate himself. The sentence was that he'd have to serve Eurystheus, King of Tiryns and Mycenae, for a period of twelve years. As part of the hero's servitude, King Eurystheus compelled him to perform 12 feats so difficult they seemed impossible.
The Twelve Labors
Those 12 labors consisted of tasks like:
- Killing ferocious beasts and monsters, such as the Nemean Lion, the Lernean Hydra, and the Stymphalian Birds.
- Capturing magnificent animals, such as the Hind of Ceryneia (sacred to goddess Artemis), the Erymantean Boar, the Cretan Bull, Diomedes' Mares (does this last task sound easy? Well, the mares were a gift from War-God Ares, and they ate human flesh), and the Cattle of Geryon, a huge monster with three heads and twice as many hands.
- Cleaning the dung created over several years by the innumerable cattle owned by King Augeus at the Augean Stables.
- Bringing back the Girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, or the Apples of the Hesperides, located in a far-away garden in the east.
- Fetching Cerberus from Hades, a ferocious, three-headed dog who guarded the underworld.
5. Jason and the Argonauts
This famous story involves a prince claiming his throne, a golden fleece, a witch, 50 Greek heroes, and a speaking ship.
In this complex and epic story, Jason sets out with his crew to reclaim the throne and kingdom of Iolcus from his uncle. At the time they embark, Jason and his crew were simply eager to see the world around them and indulge in the fun of adventure. What they didn't realize was that their journey would present many challenges that would change their lives forever. Some would not return at all.
Throughout their journey, the Greek hero meets many notable figures from Greek mythology, such as:
In the end, this story of glory and victory ends in tragedy. Jason is swayed by the princess of Corinth to leave his wife Medea and their three kids. Medea, unable to bear this betrayal, kills the princess of Corinth and the three kids she had with Jason, then flees to Athens. Jason is left without anything, and seeing his ship, Argo, washed up on the shore many years later, he sits beneath it and contemplates the sadness of his life, and the glory he once knew.
Begging Zeus to show mercy on him, a lashing snapped and beam fell on Jason, ending his life and casting him into Greek mythology as a sea-faring legend.
Back in 2008, a replica of Jason's ship actually set sail with the purpose of retracing a portion of the legendary journey. Making the whole trip would be absolutely possible, if not for the refusal of the Turkish state to let the ship pass through the Bosporus straight.
6. The Trojan War
Mythology carries seeds of truth, sometimes even more. Despite what people of medieval and later times believed, Troy (Ilion) did exist on the shores of Asia Minor, and the Trojan War did indeed take place in the early 12th century B.C.
It is important to understand that all of these ancient myths and stories were passed down orally for hundreds of years before storytellers wrote them down on parchment, and that they contain information that is rarely obvious, and often coded, hidden, or half-forgotten. The stories draw from various historical, genealogical, literary, and ethical sources, and trying to make an outright distinction between those elements is not always easy and may even prove misleading.
Archaeology suggests that peaceful commercial exchanges interspersed with intervals of war were quite common in the North Aegean during the Bronze Age. We must also bear in mind that the area had developed a thriving civilization based on metallurgy, and that it was a route towards the Black Sea, which was rich in metals and other goods. This was, of course, during the early Bronze Age, around 3,000 B.C. Later on, the advent and growth of the Mycenean kingdoms on mainland Greece gave rise to rivalries and attempts—as is always the case—to gain dominion over the financial networks in the area.
Troy was built near the coast of Hellespont, the entrance to the Black Sea. Newer evidence indicates that it was inhabited by a people of Hittite descent at the time of the Trojan War. Homer's Troy was a thriving city that was gaining power and wealth in the North Aegean area, thus being an enviable prize for a strong army.
Much has been said about the abduction of Helen, Queen of Sparta, or Helen of Troy as she was later called. Besides providing a very good pretext for the declaration of war, the story may contain an element of truth. Commercial ethics of the time deemed piracy a quite legitimate means of making oneself a fortune, and the stealing of women and treasures was very common on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.
The information related above leads us to view the Trojan War in the wider context of the epoch's life and historical movements, rather than as an isolated episode in time.
7. Theseus and the Minotaur
Theseus was a hero of the House of Athens, long before Pericles immortalized the city's power by erecting classical Parthenon and the other great monuments on Acropolis.
In fact, Theseus preceded the Trojan War by a generation. His two sons, Acamas and Demophon, fought under the command of King Agamemnon.
Theseus is said to have been fathered by both King Aegeus and Poseidon. This is not as strange as it seems, for the name of Aegeus, or "Aigeus" in the Greek spelling, is closely associated with Poseidon's territory. We will cover this later in the section.
What Is the Myth of the Minotaur?
Theseus is largely known today for slaying the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull monster that dwelt inside a labyrinth. Minos, King of Crete and ruler of the Eastern Mediterranean until the rise of the Mycenean cities in mainland Greece, had imposed on King Aegeus a cruel homage. Every seven to nine years, Athenians had to send 14 youths to be eaten by the Minotaur.
The third time this was about to happen, Theseus convinced his father to send him along as one of them. The Athenian prince killed the bull-man (the bull being the symbol of Crete), and Athens was set on her way to becoming the new thalassocrat Greek state.
The Death of Theseus' Father
While Theseus was at Crete slaying the Minotaur and bringing a Cretan princess home, his father would go to Cape Sounion and stare at the sea and wait for his son to come home.
If, when he saw his son's ship approaching land, the sails were black, they would serve as an indication that his son had died. If Theseus had survived his encounter with the Minotaur, he was to raise white sails, indicating he was safe and sound. Distracted by happiness as he brought his princess bride back to his homeland, Theseus forgot to change the sails.
When Aegeus saw the black sails, he flung himself into the sea, killing himself. Today those waters are still called the Aigaion, or the Aegean Sea.
Theseus' Enigmatic Parentage
Greek mythology is a corpus of stories created throughout a long period of time, often in various places by neighboring, though different tribes. The lack of consistency is apparent in many cases, as there may be two, three, or more versions of one myth.
The parentage of Greek heroes is often problematic. Different areas and royal houses may contest their affiliation to a famous hero, or, the myth may have become so popular, and re-told so many times, that the version one receives mostly depends on the storyteller's imagination. Sometimes, however, the differences in a myth are illusory. This is the case in Theseus' story.
Tradition says that either Poseidon, the Olympian God of the Sea, Earthquakes, and Horses, or Aegeus, the King of Athens, to be the hero's father. The fact is, there may be no difference whatsoever between the two men. Etymology, or the study of the origin of words, may explain this theory.
Etymology of "Aegeus"
In Greek, "Aegeus" is actually written "Aigeus." The root "aig-" is still used today, and is found in a variety of words, such as:
- "Aigialos," which translates to "seashore."
- "Aigis" which translates to "aegis."
- "Aiga" which translates to a "goat."
- "Kataigida" which translates to "storm."
What Do These Words Have in Common?
The root "aig-" comes from the ancient Greek verb "aÃ¯sso," which is used for a rapid, dashing, motion, meaning "to shoot, dart, glance" in the same manner as light or water. Some examples of words using the "aig-" root include:
- "Like the rushing in of waves to the aigialos."
- "Like the furious motion of the waters and the winds in a kataigida."
- "Like when Zeus shakes his terrible aigis and turmoil and uproar break upon the earth."
- "Like the brisk gambol of the aiges and their swift disappearance among the rocks and cliffs of Greek islands."
So, etymology suggests that Aegeus and the sea are somehow connected, meaning Poseidon and Aegeus may in fact be the same historical figure.
8. Demeter and Persephone
The myth of Persephone is, once more, a story of death and rebirth, of loss and recovery, and of what is dearest to our souls.
Persephone, also called Kore (Maiden), was the daughter of Demeter, the Olympian goddess of vegetation, agriculture, and cereals. Persephone was the light of her mother's eyes, and she was treasured by humans too, for she was a personification of the sprouting crop that would sustain their lives.
One day, as she was out in the fiends of Sicily gathering flowers with her girlfriends, she was abducted by Hades, God of the underworld, and forcibly married to him. Being the personification of vegetation, her abduction symbolizes the cycles of agriculture, as crops sprout in the spring and disappear underground during the winter. Persephone was allowed to leave the underworld once a year.
9. Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus was a legendary musician, poet and prophet of ancient Greece. According to ancient Greek poet Simonides, Orpheus' music and singing could charm the birds, fish and wild beasts. He could even coax the trees and rocks into dance, and divert the course of rivers.
When his wife, Eurydice, got bitten by a snake and died, Orpheus determined to claim his fair lady back from the Underworld. He made it to the throne of Hades and the power of his music persuaded the King of the Dead to release Eurydice. The only condition was that Orpheus should not turn to look back until they both set foot under the sun and out of the dark kingdom.
But Orpheus was hasty and turned his head, causing Eurydice to sink once again into the darkness. This time, his wife was permanently installed in the underworld.
Orpheus was inconsolable. He roamed the wilderness singing sorrowful songs about his lost love. On one of these depressing excursions of song, he was perceived by raging Maenads and was shred to pieces. His head and lyre were thrown into river Hebrus, and it is said that his head continued to sing and his lyre continued to play even after he had been dismembered.
10. Oedipus the Theban
The story of Oedipus is placed among a rich mythical tradition dated from prehistoric times: the Theban Cycle.
Thebes was founded by Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, the brother of Europa, and the great-grandson of the Egyptian king Epaphus, in around the 14th century B.C. One should remember that the prominent city of ancient Egypt, which rose to capital status under the 18th dynasty (c. 1550-1290 B.C.), bore the same name it does today. We should also note that the Theban Cycle is separate from southern Greece's Mycenean legends (which include Theseus and Pelops), for Thebes was at the time powerful enough to withstand pressures from these kingdoms.
The tragedy of Oedipus is about hubris, and is multifold.
First, King Laios, Oedipus' father and descendant of Cadmus, betrayed his host's and protector's trust. When an usurpation of power took place in Thebes, Laios found refuge near Pelops, the King of Pisa in Peloponnesos. To pay him back for this favor, he though it fit to kidnap and rape his son and carry him off to Thebes.
Laios deserved punishment, and was even warned about it when his wife Jocasta bore him a son. The Oracle of Delphi pronounced that the child would kill his father and marry his mother. Laios then committed a second hubris by thinking he could outsmart the gods. He gave the baby to a shepherd on mount Cithaeron, and abandoned him there. The shepherd took pity on the little boy and cared for him until he was eventually adopted by King Polybos of Corinth.
The string of hubris does not finish there. In his own turn, Oedipus, triggered by some rumors, visited the Oracle only to be told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing Polybos and his wife, Merope, to be his blood parents, Oedipus decided not to return to Corinth. On his way to the nearby city of Thebes, Oedipus met an elder who contested his right to pass and, after a short scuffle, he killed him. The elder was Laios, his father, but this would not be revealed to Oedipus until many years later. After killing his father unknowingly, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and, like the Oracle predicted, married his mother.
Who Are the Twelve Olympian Gods?
In Greek mythology, the Twelve Olympians are the major deities that make up the Greek pantheon and who reside on Mount Olympus, where they congregate as a council to discuss matters of the mortal world. A common question I receive is who, exactly, are the 12 Olympian gods. I've listed them below for your easy reference.
The sky and thunder god of ancient Greek religion, and the king of the Olympian gods.
The goddess of women, family, marriage, and childbirth, and the wife and sister of Zeus.
The god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses, and the brother of Zeus.
The goddess of grain, agriculture, harvest, growth, and nourishment. She presided over the fertility of the Earth.
The goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and strategic warfare.
The god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and the light, plague, poetry, and more. He is also the son of Zeus.
The goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth. She is also the daughter of Zeus and Apollo's twin sister.
The god of war and the son of Zeus.
The goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation.
The god of fire, metalworking, stone masonry, forges, and the art of sculpture. He is also the son of Zeus.
The god of trade, thieves, travelers, sports. He was also a messenger for the gods.
Hestia or Dionysus
Hestia was the goddess of hearth, architecture, and the right of ordering domesticity. Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, and religious ecstasy.
Depending on who you ask, sometimes Hades and Persephone are included in the list of the 12 Olympian gods. However, they are usually omitted because they spent most of their time in the underworld.
What Is Greek Mythology Based On?
Greek mythology was initially disseminated through an oral-poetic tradition in which storytellers and singers would describe the origins of the world and the lives of gods goddesses, heroes, heroines, and mythological creatures in narrative form. This practice is thought to have started sometime during the 18th century B.C.
Today, Greek mythology is embodied in a large collection of narratives and artwork, such as Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, which make up the oldest known literary sources of mythological stories, and ancient vase paintings and votive gifts that depict mythological scenes. Other poets who deserve credit for recording Greek myths in literature include Hesiod, who composed the Theogony and the Works and Days, Plutarch, Pausanias, and the many unnamed authors who composed epic poems, lyric poems, tragedies, and comedies by adapting oral tradition to literature.
Is Greek Mythology a Religion?
The people of ancient Greece practiced what is called Hellenistic religion, which encompasses any of the various systems, beliefs, and practices of the people who lived under ancient Greek culture during the Hellenistic period, which took place sometime between 300 B.C.E. and 300 C.E.
The focus of all ancient Greek religion was the 12 Olympian gods, and the Greeks honored each god by raising stone temples, statues, and sanctuaries. In this sense, Greek mythology can be considered a religion. Greek myths would have served the same purpose as the Bible does to the believer of Jesus Christ.
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