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Enlightening Greek Myths

Updated on February 7, 2013
Famous Greek epics
Famous Greek epics

When I first started studying Classical Greek history and mythology at the age of sixteen, I confess that I had little but my love of history to recommend the subject to me, and that I ignorantly and rather hostilely assumed that its inclusion on the syllabus was merely another facet through which my school could announce its utter disdain for interesting subjects. After all, why select Greek history over the eeriness of the Egyptian mummies or the violence of the Roman gladiators or even the gallantry and nobility of the Medieval court? That I knew nothing of Classical Greece did not deter me from making this judgement, but rather solidified my abidance by it, as any history that seemed so smothered by other great nationalities felt about as worth my time as watching the grass grow. I had a total of about two classes before my opinion on Greek history was entirely inverted, however, and whilst my current passion for the subject lies largely in its political leaders and contributions, its monumental art and architecture, its lengthy and passionately fought wars, its simultaneous display of justice and corruption, and its engaging, rewarding drama and literature, my interest was initially piqued by its overtly outrageous, often obnoxious, incredibly interesting and at times hugely hilarious mythology. Here are some of the Greek tales that entranced and captivated me, serving as my introduction to the subject as a whole:

Black-figure vase detailing the Trojan War c. 590 to 570 BCE.
Black-figure vase detailing the Trojan War c. 590 to 570 BCE. | Source

The Apple of Discord

You need know nothing about Greek history or mythology to understand this one, although you might be more familiar with the subject of the myth (or at least its outcome) than with the title itself: The Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad (possibly the earliest piece of extant Western literature that has been uncovered) chronicles the ten-year Bronze Age battle between the Greeks, seeking to win back the fairest maiden in the land, Helen of Sparta, and the Trojans who had claimed her. If you’re anything like me you are, at this point, cursing the stupidity of both parties. Okay, she might be beautiful, but one woman isn’t worth the effort, especially if she’s selfish enough to ditch her husband, Menelaus, and run off with the rather cowardly Paris, prince of Troy. Furthermore, if Paris is foolish enough to claim the wife of a king who just happens to be the brother of Agamemnon, the insanely obstinate, aggressive commander, who will not and did not hesitate to marshal the armies and ship them off to Ilium, he deserves everything he gets, right? Wrong! Greek mythology is exceptionally rewarding because it is often so complex. Homer, writing for a Greek audience, details the horrors of war in general, highlighting the faults of both communities and injecting a huge amount of sympathy into his Trojan characters, primarily the brave, honourable Hector. Still think they’re foolish? Well why don’t we take a look at how the entire affair started? The god and goddess Peleus and Thetis made a grave misjudgement when they failed to invite Eris, the goddess of discord, to their wedding. Contrary to keeping their celebrations free of drama, Eris, slightly irritable, stormed the reception and tossed a golden apple inscribed ‘To the Fairest’ into the fray, where the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera, immediately reached for it. Unable to determine the one deserving of the apple, Zeus decided that Paris, the most beautiful man on earth, should be the judge. Promised power by Hera, wisdom and skill in battle by Athena, and the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, by Aphrodite, Paris or course judged Aphrodite to be the rightful owner of the apple, and set out to Sparta to claim his prize. Whether Helen was bewitched to fall for Paris, abducted by him (and he really was only taking what he’d been promised) or went willingly, the actions of the characters might not be as stupid as we originally thought. The message to take away from this story: Don’t mess with Eris … or any other god for that matter.

Eleusis in Western Attica, often claimed to be the site of Persephone's abduction.
Eleusis in Western Attica, often claimed to be the site of Persephone's abduction.

The Rape of Persephone

Being the god of the Underworld must have been quite a lonely position. It certainly wasn’t one for which Hades volunteered, and perhaps that’s why he felt entitled to abduct Persephone one afternoon as she gathered flowers in a field. That, or it might have been that his brother, the all-powerful Zeus, urged him to take Persephone without permission because her mother, Demeter, would never allow the partnership to take place. Well, at least he got one thing right. Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was distraught to find her daughter missing, and consequently roamed the earth day and night searching for her, neglecting her responsibilities to such an extent that the ground lost all fertility and produced no crops. Helios, the sun, eventually related the story of the abduction to Demeter, who continued to refuse her duties, forcing Zeus to acknowledge the hunger of the people and demand Persephone’s return. With the king of the gods on his back, Hades had little choice but to return Persephone, so that’s precisely what he … No, not really. The gods in Greek mythology hardly ever act sensibly or comply with demands that contradict their own desires, so Hades, whilst following the order, first tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds (the number is debated). As the Fates insist that all those who have tasted food or drink from the Underworld are bound to remain there for eternity, Persephone was obligated to spend a portion of every year (myths vary from three to four to six months) in the dark realm of the dead, returning to her life with the other gods for the remaining months. The time she spends with Hades corresponds to the seasons of winter and perhaps autumn, when the crops and foliage die off, with her relinquishment emblematic of spring and summer.

Theseus slays the Minotaur. Black-figure amphora c. 540 BCE.
Theseus slays the Minotaur. Black-figure amphora c. 540 BCE. | Source

Theseus and the Minotaur

The palace excavated at Knossos by Arthur Evans in 1900 belonged – according to mythology – to the Cretan king, Minos, whose reign is placed approximately one hundred years before the Trojan War, allegedly fought around 1200BCE. When a beautiful white bull roamed into his kingdom, Minos, despite the demands of the god Poseidon, refused to sacrifice the creature, instead keeping it for himself and sacrificing another in its place (by this point I’m sure you’re beginning to see a pattern of annoyed deities emerging, and I can’t say I blame you if you think that the Greeks were a little, or a lot, deranged). Outraged, the gods made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall madly in love with the animal until she gave birth to a half man, half bull creature (the Greeks loved their bestiality myths) known as the Minotaur. As the animal gradually grew more ferocious, Minos had it incarcerated in the labyrinth below his palace, constructed for him by the famed craftsman, Daedalus. Following the death of Minos’ son, Androgeus, in Athens, however, the king exacted revenge by taking fourteen children (seven boys and seven girls) from Athens every year (some versions of the myth say every nine years) and sacrificing them to the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Thesus, the Athenian prince, vowed to put a stop to the horrifying situation by journeying to Knossos as one of the fourteen selected for sacrifice, determined to do whatever he could to kill the Minotaur and thus prevent the annual tragic slaughter of so many children. His father, King Aegeus of Athens, eventually agreed to send him on the mission with the insistence that Theseus change the sails on his ship from black to white if successful, enabling him to know the fate of his son the moment the ship came into sight. Theseus agreed and, aided by Minos’ daughter, Ariadne (who had fallen in love with Theseus) the young prince managed to slaughter the Minotaur, ending the horror for the people of Athens and, using the ball of string provided by the Cretan princess, navigating his way back to the entrance of the labyrinth. Successful in his quest, Theseus boarded his ship with Ariadne and set sail for home. Finally a Greek myth that highlights unconditional bravery and chivalry on the part of the hero, right? Well, not quite. Theseus, who had really only used Ariadne as a method of escape, lost no opportunity in ditching her on the first island at which the ship docked, and watching as she faded into a speck on the horizon. The gods, who are still erratic, contradictory, and far too concerned in the affairs of mortals, thought his behaviour unjust, and exacted punishment by preventing Theseus from recalling his father’s demands for the sails, emblematic of his success, to be changed from black to white. Convinced, therefore, of his son’s death upon the ship’s return, Aegeus plunged from a cliff into the water below, giving it its current name of the Aegean Sea. Sure, there is a version of the story that insists that Theseus genuinely thought Ariadne was on-board the vessel following their stop over, became aware of her absence too late to turn around, and was rendered forgetful out of distress, but let’s face it, the former rendition is much more fun.

Johann Georg Platzer's (1704-1761) depiction of the marriage between Hephaestus and Aphrodite
Johann Georg Platzer's (1704-1761) depiction of the marriage between Hephaestus and Aphrodite | Source

Aphrodite and Ares' Love Affair

In no other myth are the gods’ shortcomings and the lack of their omnipresence on display quite like they are in this one, flouncing through every aspect of the spicy tale in an irrevocable reminder of just how deeply flawed the Greek gods were. Aphrodite, the most beautiful goddess, was offered as a bride to the only Olympian truly depicted as ugly and malformed: Hephaestus. Horrified by this marriage, she took every opportunity to love it up with Ares, the god of war, until Helios, the sun, spotted them and unscrupulously reported back to the irate Hephaestus. As the god of metallurgy, Hephaestus determined to gain the ultimate revenge by constructing a net above his bed, ultimately catching Aphrodite and Ares in a compromising position that he then put on display for all the gods. Although Poseidon eventually managed to convince Hephaestus to free the pair, it was only after they’d both received considerable humiliation at the hands of their fellow gods and goddesses. Having learned their lesson, Aphrodite and Ares were careful to have their following trysts guarded by one of Ares’ men, known as Alectyron, ensuring that Helios remained ignorant of their continued affair. When Alectyron fell asleep one day, however, allowing Helios to once again catch sight of the indecency and run off to Hephaestus, Ares, furious, turned the man into a rooster, preventing him from ever again failing to signal the arrival of the sun.

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    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Wonderful summaries - your writing reflects enthusiasm and knowledge, plus you add a bit of zazz which makes the text flow along. As a drama teacher I use Greek mythology because it combines real human emotion with the surreal unworldly characters that are the Gods. So many themes to chew on and stories that have inspired memorable productions - from Jason to Orpheus and Eurydice.

      I'll vote this up.