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Greek Mythology Trivia Quiz: Heroes
The Heroes of Ancient Greece: Beastbusters!
Test your knowledge in this hero's edition of my Greek mythology quiz series! This quiz focuses on the classic heroes of ancient Greece.
After the quiz are "mini-myths" explaining all the answers to the quiz, with Greek art and stories of derring-do!
Don't feel bad if you don't know all the answers; some of these are a little obscure.
Heroes of Greek Mythology Quiz
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A Hero in Drag
Achilles, a real mama's boy
The sea-goddess Thetis knew her son was destined to die in the Trojan War. Like any good mother, she tried her best to protect him.
First she dipped him as a baby into the Styx, the river of the underworld, to wash away his mortality. Unfortunately, she had to grasp him by the heel, leaving him vulnerable in that one place. Apparently it didn't occur to her to double dip.
When the Greeks were drafting soldiers for the expedition, Thetis disguised Achilles as Pyrrha, "red-haired girl," and stashed him at the court of Aulis. He probably was not much pleased with the arrangement, but it's hard to argue with any mother, let alone a goddess.
The ploy might have worked, had Achilles not been so well-known, but the Greeks had learned from an oracle that they would not be able to take Troy without his help. So Odysseus the trickster was dispatched to fetch the young hero. Disguised as a merchant, Odysseus entered the court and laid out a display of pretty fabrics, jewelry, and a few weapons. Reaching for a spear to examine it, Achilles blew his cover.
Above: "Achilles Discovered by Odysseus," Dutch painting by Jan de Braij in the 1600s (Click for larger view). And we worry about anachronisms in Hollywood!
Theseus Sleeps Around
Welcome to the Hotel Hellenista
Like most Greek heroes, Theseus was a ladies' man. (Even Odysseus slept with a couple minor goddesses on the way home, and he was considered fairly faithful.)
First Theseus seduced Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete. Then he ditched her and abducted Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Finally, after the Amazons stole her back (or she was killed in the attempt), he married Phaidra, Ariadne's sister.
There was, however, one bed that Theseus famously avoided. When he was a young man earning his hero-credentials, he cleared out various thieves and robbers outside of Athens. One of them was Procrustes. This sadistic fellow would invite travelers in, feed them a hearty meal, then invite them to sleep on his very special bed. Sounds fishy? It's worse than you think. He would strap them in and cut off their feet if they were too tall, or stretch them if they were too short.
Theseus, naturally, turned the tables on the innkeeper from hell and cut him down to size.
Star Myths: Perseus and the Sea Monster
Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Andromeda, Cetus
If you look up on a clear autumn night away from city lights, you'll see a W-shaped constellation. This is just one of a cast of characters in a myth that plays out nightly across the heavens.
Open up this Autumn sky chart from a great teacher (thanks, Ms. Kaiter!) and follow along. The constellation of Perseus shows the hero returning from his hero-quest with the head of Medusa (ick). The red variable star Algol is her bloodshot eye. Next to Perseus Princess Andromeda lies prostrate next to the ocean, where of course Pisces the fishes are swimming by. What's going on?
See the W-shape? That's Andromeda's mother, Queen Cassiopeia, watching on her throne. She had boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, sea-goddesses like Thetis. Apparently they appealed to Poseidon, god of the sea. He sent Cetus the sea monster to terrorize the country of King Cepheus (whose constellation resembles a house). Cetus the sea monster, now often interpreted as a whale, is the jumble of stars next to Pisces.
The sea monster can only be appeased by a virgin sacrifice -- in particular, the sacrifice of the queen's daughter Andromeda. Perseus turns Cetus to stone with the head of Medusa, then marries the princess.
Pegasus the Flying Horse
And its rider the Billy Ruffian
But what's the story? Well, because she's done such a fantastic job, I'm going to point you to Susanna's fabulous retelling of the myth of Bellerophon and Pegasus. Also see the Bellerophon entry in Theoi.com which is followed by translations of all the ancient sources telling about this hero and his heroic horse.
The Golden Cup of Helios
Now that's an unusual way to sail
The ancients had a puzzling problem: how did the sun set in the west and rise in the east?
Since they imagined the Earth as a table, this was even stranger. In early Greek mythology, this table was surrounded by an outer Ocean (the Atlantic; they assumed that was the edge of things.) Therefore, poets proposed the charming idea that Helios the sun-god stowed himself and his sun in a golden cup and sailed around the rim of the world, just in time to rise the next day.
When Herakles needed to reach the edge of the world for one of his labors (defeating the giant Geryon and taking his cattle), Helios loaned the hero his cup for the trip. In some versions of the story, Herakles demanded the ride at arrow-point!
Above: Herakles and Athena. Photo Credit: Bibi St. Pol
The Bow of Odysseus
Indoor archery: an extreme sport
After twenty years, Odysseus came home in disguise to find a mob of aristocratic bachelors had taken up residence in his house, all hoping to marry his widow. Penelope kept putting them off, but even she was losing hope. Finally, a dream sent by the gods prompted her to act. Seeing her disguised husband as a sympathetic stranger, she opened her heart to him and asked his advice on a disagreeable plan:
[Od. XIX.572] "For now I shall propose a contest.
Those axes, those Odysseus used to set in a line
in his hall, like the props of a ship, twelve in all:
standing far off he would shoot right through them.
But now I will set this contest before the suitors:
whoever easily strings the bow in his hands
and shoots an arrow through all twelve axes,
him I will follow, abandoning my wifely home." (my translation)
Odysseus told her, "Do it!"
Of course, he asked for his turn during the contest. Once he got the bow in his hands, he made short work of his wife's tormentors.
There's two problems with this episode. One, how could he shoot an arrow through axes? Well, this was a double-headed axe, a labrys. Iif you check that picture, you'll see that a row of them would form a sort of slot or trough along the top of the axe-heads.
Second, and more seriously, how could Odysseus justify shooting guests in his own house? Hospitality is one of the most sacred traditions of the ancient world. But the poet of the Odyssey takes pains to point out how the suitors are consuming Odysseus' property, eating his cattle, drinking his wine, sleeping with his servants, and generally violating the unspoken guest-host contract.
Above: Vatican Odysseus, photo by Shakko, Wikimedia Commons
The Myth of the Dragon's Teeth
Jason and Cadmus (Kadmos), founder of Thebes
Myth, like history, tends to repeat itself. When Jason sailed off in search of the Golden Fleece with an all-star crew of heroes, he could not know he was about to reenact a famous scene from the founding of Thebes, a mythological generation or two earlier.
The Golden Fleece was guarded by a fierce dragon and an equally fierce king, Aeetes. Aeetes set the young prince a challenge: yoke a team of bronze-hoofed, fire-breathing bulls and plough a field, sow it with dragon's teeth, and defeat the spartoi, the "sown" warriors who sprouted.
Jason had to perform this task first. Only later, with the secret help of the king's daughter Medea, could he sneak out, slay the dragon and take the Fleece. So where did the teeth come from? Storytellers found an ingenious answer: it was the other half of the teeth that Cadmus had taken from a dragon he slew in the wilds of Greece. Cadmus, too, had sown the dragon's teeth, and dealt with the warriors who sprouted from the earth.
Both heroes used the same strategy: they tossed a rock in the midst of the warriors, striking some of them, causing each thinking another had struck him. The warlike men fell to fighting and slew each other. Jason, protected by Medea's powerful magic, killed the few survivors. Cadmus recruited the last five, who became the first lords of the city he founded, Thebes.
Orestes the Matricide
Talk about a sexist society
The tragedy of the House of Atreus goes back generation after generation, and includes fratricide, matricide, cannibalism, and... oh, I'm running out of words with -cide in them (from Latin caedo, "I slay").
Orestes is the last player in this long family feud. His father Agamemnon had sacrificed his sister Iphigenia to win fair winds for the voyage to Troy. Orestes' mother Clytemnestra had killed Agamemnon on his return, avenging their daughter. Then Orestes killed his mother, avenging his father.
In typical Athenian fashion, this play presents the resolution of the myth as a court drama. Apollo speaks as defense lawyer. He argues that a mother is only a vessel, so a son is really only the offspring of his father. Therefore Orestes' filial duties to his father trump any ties to his mother, whereas Clytemnestra's murder of her husband is heinous. Athena, serving as judge, agrees: after all, what does she care about mothers, lacking one? (Or so write Aeschylus, male Athenian.)
The court acquits Orestes. Athena appeases the Furies are by establishing a cult in their honor. Everyone lives happily ever after...provided you are a male Athenian citizen with property, or divine.
Above: Apollo purifies Orestes of his blood-guilt with a pig(!), while the ghost of Clytemnestra rouses the sleeping Furies at left.
Paris the Archer
Not the most honorable profession
Real Greek heroes used spears and swords. Tricksters like Odysseus and cowards like Paris (abductor of Helen, instigator of the Trojan War) used bows.
I explained the origin of Achilles' vulnerable heel above. The heel is a fairly small target for an arrow, as I can vouch! But fate -- not to mention Apollo, annoyed at Achilles killing his favorite hero, Hector -- made sure that Paris did not miss. To this day, the "Achilles tendon" is the downfall of many an athlete.
Oddly enough, the death of Achilles does not occur in Homer's Iliad. It occurred near the end of the war but before the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. We learn about it in flashbacks and later authors. He makes a cameo in Homer's Odyssey, where the dead hero in Hades says that the meanest life is still better than a hero's death.
What happened to Paris? Contrary to the movie Troy, he did not reach the war's end either; another wretch named Philoctetes shot him with Odysseus' bow (yes, the same bow the Odyssey claims was back in Ithaka -- myths have as much continuity as Marvel Comics).
Ajax the Greater, Hero of the Trojan War
One of the best warriors in Greece
Ajax is a straightforward hero in the Iliad, rated as the second or third best warrior in the Greek army. He's prominent in the battle scenes, defends the Greek ships almost single-handedly from a Trojan attack, and nearly defeats Hector the best of the Trojans on two occasions before the god Apollo intervenes.
Unsurprisingly, when Achilles died, he expected to inherit the champion's armor. After all, he was the new champion, wasn't he? The story goes that he fought off the Trojans while Odysseus secured Achilles' body and pulled it to safety. And then?
There's a gap of time between the Iliad and Odyssey, so we don't quite know what happened, but Odysseus sees Ajax in the underworld, sulking and refusing to talk to him. Odysseus attempts to mend fences, but Ajax turns away. Later writers explain: both heroes had equal claim to the armor, so there was a contest between them. Eventually (claims Ovid), Odysseus won by pleading his case more eloquently to the assembly of Greek chieftains.
Devastated by dishonor, Ajax goes mad (according to Sophocles' Ajax) and commits suicide.
He is not the same warrior as Ajax the Lesser, who earned the wrath of the gods by raping Cassandra and mocking them when he was shipwrecked.
© 2009 Ellen Brundige