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Take the Easy Greek Mythology Quiz!
Show Off Your Knowledge of Ancient Greece!
Welcome to the first of my Greek Mythology Trivia Quizzes! Some of these quizzes are tough, and may stump even students and fans of Greek mythology (which makes them a fun way to study for tests).
However, this quiz is for everybody, even if you've learned your Greek mythology from The Lightning Thief, Disney or Xena. Be sure to browse the "mini-myths," art and other goodies following each quiz!
Greek Mythology Quiz
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The Power of Twelve
What's with this twelve business, anyway?
Twelve labors of Hercules, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve signs of the Zodiac -- why 12? Why not 10?
The answer lies in the stars -- or rather, the moon! Ancient Mesopotamians figured out that there were twelve months in a year. Their method of dividing time and circles into twelve parts caught on, and was later adopted by the Greeks. They saw the number 12 as celestial ("heavenly") and important.
Finally, some modern scholars have noticed that you can count to 12 with one hand. Huh? We've got 5 fingers per hand! Yes, but try this: using the thumb of each hand, count finger bones of the other fingers. 1, 2, 3 on the pointer finger. 4, 5, 6 on the index finger. See?
Kerberos (Cerberus) the Guard Dog of Hades
Hercules' best prank
Kerberos is the Greek name for this hound; Cerberus is Latin. He's a popular figure in Greek art and mythology, because he's so much fun to draw or describe. His job is to scare the dead into staying down in Hades, and to keep the living from intruding on the land of the dead.
Some stories say his three heads represent past, present and future. Like many figures of Greek myth, his coat has a fringe of snakes, scary animals that seem to have powers over life (they shed their skin and become young again) and death (lethal bites).
The last of Hercules' twelve labors was to bring up Kerberos from the underworld, symbolizing his transition to immortality. His taskmaster was his cousin Eurystheus. There are several amusing Greek vases depicting Eurystheus hiding in a pot after his cousin shows up with the ferocious beastie.
Who's the Fairest of Them All?
The Judgment of Paris
The prequel to the Trojan War in 500 words or less:
Eris the goddess of discord was annoyed. Peleus and Thetis, future parents of Achilles the great hero of the Trojan War, had not sent her an invitation. So she showed up at the reception like a bad fairy and tossed out a golden apple inscribed with the words, "To the fairest." Zeus, wise politician, knew better than to judge between the three contenders: Athena, Aphrodite and Hera. He had Hermes the messenger-god lead the three goddesses down to Paris, ladies' man, for his expert judgment.
Each of the goddesses promised him something. Dominion, whispered Hera. Victory in battle, vowed Athena. Aphrodite just flashed him and said, "I'll give you the hottest babe in the world." Naturally, Aphrodite got the apple.
Paris forgot to check the terms and conditions, however. The hottest babe was Helen, wife of powerful King Menelaus. Her abduction was the spark that ignited the Trojan War. Paris wouldn't give her back, and was thus caused the destruction of his city, his father, his brothers, and eventually him. Oops.
[Sources for this myth: various authors translated on theoi.com]
Everybody Must Get Stoned
At least until Perseus spoils the fun
Perseus' mother Danae was in big trouble: she'd been banished by her father after giving birth to a boy out of wedlock (not her fault; Zeus, as usual, was playing around). She washed up on an island ruled by King Polydektes. Unfortunately, he had the hots for Danae as well.
The king thought he would get rid of young Perseus by sending the aspiring hero on a quest to prove himself. His assignment: bring back the head of Medusa, a fearsome monster whose gaze turned anyone to stone who looked at her. Luckily for Perseus, his half-siblings Athena and Hermes were looking out for him. They loaned him winged sandals, a cap of invisibility, and various other goodies to help him on his quest, and advised him to look into his shield so as not to get petrified.
That worked. He lopped of Medusa's head and brought it back. When King Polydektes stupidly said, "Well, have you got it, then?" Perseus brought it out and petrified him.
[Ancient source for Perseus myth: Apollodorus 2.4 in translation]
Photo Gallery: Glimpses of Greece - From My Trip to GreeceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Oedipus Gets a Bum Rap
If his real story wasn't bad enough, Freud had to give him a complex
Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.
When his parents heard this terrible prophecy, they exposed their newborn son. A kind-hearted shepherd rescued the baby and passed it off to a friend in a neighboring kingdom. There the childless king and queen received Oedipus with joy, raising him as their own, never telling him he was adopted. So when he heard a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he fled to protect his parents from himself. On the road to Thebes, he was nearly run over by an elderly man in a chariot and killed him in self-defense.
Thebes was then being ravaged by a terrible monster, the sphinx, who would eat anyone that could not guess her riddle. (Can you?) Oedipus solved the riddle, drove the monster to kill herself, and married the grateful queen, recently widowed. The couple ruled Thebes happily until a plague swept through the kingdom.
Deeply worried for his people, Oedipus consulted oracles and prophets to learn why the gods were angry. He boasted that the fate of Thebes was in his hands, not the gods', and he would save them. Finally the truth came out: his pollution for his sins was the cause of divine punishment. The queen committed suicide. Oedipus put out his own eyes in self-loathing and banished himself.
In modern times, Freud named a complex after Oedipus, claiming that he'd done all that because he wanted to kill his father and marry his mother. But in the original story, Oedipus did everything he could to avoid his fate. He's actually a lot like Job, except that at first he does not have humility, and only after the awful truth comes out does he realize that there is no escaping god's will.
[Chief source for this myth: Sophocles' Oedipus in translation]
Affairs of Zeus - Making up for his castrated grandfather, maybe
If I tried to summarize even a fraction of all of Zeus' affairs and offspring, this page would go on forever. Here is a really great chart of all the Greek gods, goddesses and heroes, with lots information on various myths.
There is actually an explanation for Zeus' extramarital extravagance. Greece was not originally unified, and neither was its mythology. As Greece began to coalesce into one culture, local goddesses and heroines were explained away as paramours of Zeus. That also accounted for their demigod offspring.
Earth, Air, Water
The three senior Olympians
Threes and twelves -- Greeks do love their numbers.
In classical mythology, the three sons of Cronos divide up all parts of the world into respective dominions. Zeus is king of the gods, rules the sky and wilds a thunderbolt. Hades is lord of the underworld and the dead, and also of wealth, since minerals are delved from under the earth. Poseidon rules the sea.
At right is a cult statue of Poseidon that I photographed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Don't Look Back
Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus is the mythical founder of popular "mysteries" which promised a blessed afterlife for followers who emulate him. They purify themselves with vegetarianism, with special garments, and with prayer and ascetic practices. There are many stories about how Orpheus descended and returned from the land of the dead. In some versions, he succeeds in bringing Eurydice back!
However, late classical writers seized upon a tragic variant of the Orpheus myth. In this version, his journey to Hades ends in disaster. He uses the sweet music of his lyre to calm Kerberos and the fearsome beasts of the underworld. Even Hades and Persephone, king and queen of the dead, are moved by his music. They allow him to take Eurydice home if he does not look back. Orpheus nearly makes it to the surface, but he cannot hear her, cannot tell she's behind him, and looks over his shoulder. She vanishes like mist.
Right: "Orpheus" by Canova. Photo by Yair Haklai, CC.
Jason and Medea
The twit and the witch
Greek writers portray Jason as rather a sap. He takes a whole band of adventurers with him to the north shore of the Black Sea retrieve the Golden Fleece. There he seduces and gains the aid of the king's daughter Medea, granddaughter of the sun-god Helios.
She helps Jason slay the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and guides him through various perils. He brings her home, then ditches her to marry another king's daughter as a stepping-stone to power. Medea avenges herself by sending the bride a poisoned gown. Then she kills her children by Jason (they would have been killed as bastards) and flies up to heaven on her grandfather's chariot.
Later writers have a field day portraying Medea as a sinister, terrifying villainess. Euripides' Medea is a more subtle drama that leaves you trying to decide whether she was a woman backed into a corner in a man's world or a psychopath.
Pandora: A Riddle for the Ages
What happened to hope?
Most people know the myth of Pandora, but there's a riddle buried in it which has no answer.
Pandora was yet another early Greek goddess who suffered a serious demotion in the archaic period. The early writer Hesiod told two stories about how the first woman, Pandora ("all-gifted"), was created by the gods to torment mankind.
She comes with a box containing all the world's ills. She does not know what's inside; she's simply been told not to open it. Naturally, she yields to temptation. Out fly disease, old age, and every other form of suffering. Just in time, she slams down the lid and traps Hope inside.
But wait. Does that mean she kept Hope away from us? Or saved it? My own thought is that this kind of hope is not what we now mean by hope; it's more of a concept of knowing the future, anticipation. Not knowing, we can still hope. But that's a stretch, and many have debated what this myth really means.
Not Too High, Not Too Low
The myth of Daedalus and Icarus
Daedalus the great architect and inventor is trapped on the island of Krete by King Minos, so he creates wings for himself and his son to fly away.
The Roman poet Ovid tells a poignant version of their story, describing young Icarus innocently playing with the feathers and the wax.
Daedalus instructs his son not to fly too low or too high. However, the boy forgets his father's instructions (of course) and flies too near the sun, melting the wax fastenings of his wings. He plummets into the sea.
Their names are Daidalos and Ikaros in Greek, but I love Ovid's poem, so I use their Latin names.
© 2009 Ellen Brundige