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Top 10 Greek Myths To Know For Your Greek Vacation
Greece is a land of mythology. Where every relic and every statue is intertwined with deeds of heroes and legacies of gods. Being familiar with Greek myths would thus imbue any Greek holiday with greater meaning and enjoyment. Here are 10 Greek myths to know for your dream vacation in this ancient land of the gods. These tales are presented in point form for easy reading and reference.
1. Theseus and the Minotaur
One of the most famous heroes in Greek myths, Theseus slayed the horrific monster, the Minotaur, in a legendary Cretan maze.
- Theseus was the son of Aegeus, a King of Athens.
- Theseus was also considered a son of Poseidon, God of the Sea, as his mother was possessed by the sea god on the night she slept with Aegeus.
- Athens was at that time, subjugated by and under threat from King Minos of Crete.
- Years ago, Minos had attacked Athens to avenge the death of his firstborn, Androgeos. The young prince was murdered when competing in Athenian games.
- Rather than surrender the murderers, who were royal family members of Athens, Aegeus surrendered the city to Minos.
- Under the surrender, Athens had to send seven of its best youths and maidens to Crete, every seven years as tribute.
- These tributes never returned from Crete. Minos fed them to the monstrous illegitimate child of his queen, the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull monster imprisoned in a huge maze.
- The maze was called the Labyrinth. It was constructed by the genius Daedalus to imprison the Minotaur. Our modern usage of the word stems from this name.
- On the occasion of the third tribute, Theseus volunteered.
- At Minos' palace, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, fell in love with the dashing Athenian prince.
- Ariadne secretly gave Theseus a ball of wool and a sword. The wool allowed Theseus to track his way in the Labyrinth. Following Ariadne's instructions, Theseus also managed to locate the heart of the Labyrinth, where the Minotaur was resting. He successfully slayed the monster.
- Theseus then fled Crete with his fellow Athenians and Ariadne. However, instead of marrying Ariadne as he promised, he abandoned her on Naxos island.
- Perhaps due to guilt and distress, Theseus forgot to change his sails to white on reaching Athens. This was a promise he made to his father, as a way to announce his successful return. When King Aegeus saw black sails sailing in, he threw himself into the sea in despair.
- It is said that Aegeus committed suicide at the Cape of Sounion. Some also believe that the Aegean Sea is named after the tragic king.
- Theseus went on to be enthroned as King of Athens.
- Some Greek myths state that Ariadne was eventually rescued by Dionysus, the God of Wine. She became his bride.
- Both Aegeus and Minos were ultimately made into judges of the underworld by the Greek Gods. They became part of the three judges of the dead. The remaining one being Rhadamanthus.
2. Perseus and the Slaying of Medusa
One of the most famous heroes in Greek myths, Perseus' greatest triumph was the beheading of fearsome Medusa.
- Perseus was by his mother, Danaë, royalty of the ancient kingdom of Argos. His father was Zeus, King of the Greek Gods. Zeus' union with Danaë happened with Zeus falling into Danaë's lap as a shower of golden coins.
- Perseus's grandfather, Acrisius, despised both Perseus and Danaë. He was told in a prophecy that a son of his daughter would slay him.
- Out of fear of Zeus, Acrisius did not kill Perseus directly. Instead, he had mother and child imprisoned in a wooden crate and thrown into the sea.
- Perseus and Danaë were rescued by a kind fisherman. They settled down on the island of Serifos.
- Danaë eventually caught the eye of Polydectes, ruler of Seriphos. Polydectes and Perseus mutually hated each other, with Perseus seeing the king as dishonourable. To rid himself of Perseus, Polydectes tricked the young hero into promising a gift. He then requested for the the head of Medusa.
- Medusa was a terrifying humanoid with the body and face of a beautiful woman, but snakes for hair. Also known as a gorgon, her gaze turns any living creature to stone.
- After surviving various tribulations, thanks to the assistance of several Greek Gods, Perseus managed to behead Medusa. He famously did this by using the polished surface of his shield to avoid looking at Medusa.
- On returning to Seriphos, Perseus discovered his mother was abused by Polydectes in his absence. In revenge, he used Medusa's head to petrify the wicked king.
- During his journey back to Seriphos, Perseus also used Medusa's head to save Princess Andromeda, daughter of Queen Cassiopeia. As divine punishment for bragging, Andromeda was to be sacrificed to a sea monster. Perseus turned the monster to stone and earned his bride.
- The legend of Perseus is probably the best known among all Greek myths, thanks to the 1981 movie, Clash of the Titans.
- 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.
- Perseus ultimately gave Medusa's (still functioning) head to Athena. Athena incorporated it into the centre of her divine shield.
3. The Twelve Labours of Heracles (Hercules)
Inspiration for numerous movies, books and souvenirs, Heracles, with his legendary strength, endured 12 impossible labours to atone for murdering his wife and children.
- Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, was notorious for his flings with mortal women in Greek myths.
- One such union was with Alcmene. The result of that union was a baby named Alcides.
- Hera, Zeus' godly queen, tried to kill Alcides out of jealousy. She failed. In an attempt to appease her, Alcides was renamed as Heracles. The name means "Glory of Hera."
- Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, also tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles. Hera's milk greatly enhanced Heracles' supernatural powers.
- Hera never did forgive Heracles. Years later, she drove Heracles mad, resulting in him killing his wife and children. Hera also manipulated the Delphi Oracle into sending Heracles to King Eurystheus. As atonement, Heracles was to labour for Eurystheus for ten years. This set the premise for the famous Twelve Labours of Heracles.
- Some labours involved killing monsters. Other were retrievals, or near-impossible tasks. Originally, Heracles was supposed to perform ten labours. However, Eurystheus refused to acknowledge two, resulting in the final count being twelve.
- The twelve labours were:
1) Killing the Nemean Lion, which had an impregnable hide.
2) Slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra. A new head grows back every time one is cut off
3) Capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt.
4) Capturing the Erymanthian Boar. A huge, terrifying beast.
5) Cleaning the Augean stables. Not only were these stables huge, they had not been cleaned for decades.
6) Slaying the Stymphalian Birds. These were man eating birds with metallic beaks and feathers.
7) 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)
8) Stealing the Mares of Diomedes. These beautiful horses were magnificent, and man eating.
9) Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the warlike Amazons.
10) Obtaining the cattle of the monster Geryon. Geryon had three heads. And a two-headed watchdog named Orthrus.
11) Stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides, the nymphs of evening and sunset.
12) Bringing Cerberus, Hound of the Underworld, for a visit.
- Heracles, as known to all, succeeded in all labours. Thus liberating himself from service.
- Other than the Labours, Heracles appeared in many other Greek myths. For example, that of the Argonauts.
- Like Perseus, the Roman adaptation of Heracles, Hercules, is a constellation.
- The most common artistic portrayal of Heracles is that of a bearded man with a club, donning the hide of the Nemean Lion.
- As a symbol of masculine perfection, Heracles had both female and male lovers in Greek myths.
A lot of Greek Myths end in tragedy. Why is this so?
4. The Birth of the Divine Twins
Tiny Delos, at the heart of the Cyclades, was the birthplace of the Sun and the Moon.
- Leto was a daughter of two titans, the ancestors of the Greek Gods.
- She caught the eye of Zeus, King of the Greek Gods. After being with him, she became pregnant with twins.
- Hera, Zeus' jealous queen, cursed Leto never to find a place on Earth to give birth to her children.
- Zeus intervened by raising the tiny island of Delos from the sea.
- On the island, Leto gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. Her children would eventually become two of the Twelve Olympian Gods. Artemis became the Greek Goddess of the Moon and Hunt. While Apollo became the God of the Sun, Medicine, Arts, etc.
- Because of this myth, Delos quickly developed as a spiritual centre of Greece. Today, it is still regularly visited on day trips from the nearby resort of Mykonos. The ruins and excavations on it are extensive.
5. Saving the Future King of the Greek Gods
Fearful of a prophecy which stated that he would be overthrown by his own son, the Titan Cronus devoured all of his children. All except for Zeus, who was hidden from Cronus by his wife.
- The family history of the Greek Gods was exceptionally bloody.
- Ouranos, the primal sky god, was dethroned by his son, Cronus. Cronus disposed of his father by attacking him with a sickle, and castrating him.
- Thereafter, Cronus and his siblings, the Titans, ruled the world.
- Cronus was fearful that he himself would also be dethroned by his children. So he swallowed all of them whole upon their births.
- However, his wife Rhea managed to save Zeus by swapping the baby with a stone swaddled in cloths.
- Rhea hid the infant Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida, Crete. There, Zeus fed on the milk of a goat named Amalthea.
- Once of age, Zeus used an emetic to force Cronus to disgorge all his siblings. Together, they overthrew Cronus and the Titans, and took over the world.
- The war with the Titans is a cornerstone of Greek mythology. Some myths also involved the Titans' subsequent fracases with the Greek Gods.
- The conflicts between the Greek Gods and the Titans is also the premise for Rick Riordan's bestselling book series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
6, The Tragedy of Oedipus
Oedipus was a man destined to be a hero and a king. As well as the undoing of his own parents.
- Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes.
- Laius, in fear of a prophecy that said his own son would kill him, left Oedipus to die in the hills.
- Oedipus was saved by King Polybus.
- Oedipus ultimately learned about the prophecy too. However, he thought it referred to his foster father. So he left the domain of King Polybus for Thebes.
- On the way, he had a quarrel with an older man. In a fit of youthful anger, he killed the older chap.
- At Thebes, he learned that King Laius had recently died. And that Thebes was besieged by a riddle spouting beast.
- That beast was the Sphinx, which was a monster with the head of a woman and the body of a beast. Its riddle was 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.
- Oedipus managed to solve the riddle. He was thereafter made King of Thebes.
- Oedipus also married Laius' widow, Jocasta. In other words, he unknowingly married his own mother.
- Years later, Oedipus discovered the awful truth while hunting for Laius' murderer. The murderer was none other than himself. Laius was the old man he bickered with on the way to Thebes.
- Oedipus blinded himself, while Jocasta committed suicide.
- Nowadays, the Oedipus Complex is used to describe the neurosis of male children harbouring exclusive love for their mothers. The story of Oedipus is also considered a classic Greek tragedy.
7. The Contest for King Cecrops's City by the Greek Gods
Greece's greatest temple is dedicated to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. The olive is its cherished fruit.
- Cecrops was the half-man, half-serpent founder of a beautiful city. Many Greek Gods desired to become the patron of his city.
- Poseidon, God of the Sea, and Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, were the foremost contenders for this position.
- Cecrops eventually held a contest to determine who should get the position.
- Poseidon struck a rock with his famous trident. This created a wondrous spring, which would later be named as Erekhtheis. It didn't impress Cecrops' people though, for the water was salty.
- Athena buried a seed which grew magically into the world's first olive tree. Cecrops' people adored this tree for every part of it had a practical use.
- Naturally, Athena won hands-down. The city was renamed as Athens in her honour.
- This myth partly explains why the famous Temple of Sounion to Poseidon is located outside of the population centre of Athens.
- It certainly explains why the Parthenon, Athen's crowning jewel, was dedicated to Athena.
- Ironically, some experts believe that the over cultivation of olives led to severe soil erosion in Greece. This resulted in Greece's distinct, rugged landscape.
8. The Sacred Oracle of Delphi
Delphi was the spiritual centre of Ancient Greece. Many myths and epics began here from the prophecies of divine priestesses.
- So it was said, Zeus himself determined Delphi to be the centre of the world. He did so by releasing two eagles in opposite direction, and marking where they met.
- A huge serpent, Python, protected the location. Python was defeated by the golden arrows of Apollo, God of the Sun.
- Thereafter, Delphi was dedicated to Apollo. It also became his sanctuary.
- Other than its spectacular mountain location, Delphi was also he seat of an Oracle. She was an Apollonian priestess who would inhale the volcanic fumes at Delphi and deliver prophetic mutterings. These were then interpreted by a priest.
- Delphi became a major religious, social and political site. Many cities built treasuries along the Sacred Way to house their tributes.
- Delphi was also known as Pythia. As a Pan-Hellenic centre, it conducted games. These games, held every fourth year and called the 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.
- Delphi featured heavily in many Greek myths. Typically, a hero's journey, or tragedy, begins with a prophecy at Delphi.
Divine Prophecy or Human Machination?
Some consider the Delphi Oracle nothing but political machinations. It was entirely up to the priest to decipher the mutterings. He could say whatever benefited himself.
9. Asclepius, the God of Medicine
You wouldn't find Asclepius in any Greek mythology action movie soon. But you would encounter more of him in any museum, compared to other Greek Gods.
- Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman named Coronis.
- He was a kind soul. So it was said, a snake taught him the secrets of healing after Asclepius showed it kindness.
- Asclepius eventually became so proficient as a healer, his skills surpassed Apollo's. Apollo, incidentally, was also a god of healing.
- While there are variations, the general belief in Greek myths is that Asclepius was killed by Zeus because he started bring people back from the dead.
- Probably as a gesture of reconciliation, Zeus resurrected Asclepius as a constellation. Asclepius became Ophiuchus. the snake holder.
- Asclepius was a very popular subject for sculptors, during and after the Ancient Age.
- Asclepius' staff is 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 centre of Asclepius.
10. Jason and the Argonauts
The tale of the Argonauts is probably the world's first road-trip. Undertaken by a band of bros on board a legendary ship.
- The story of Jason and the Argonauts is one of the longest Greek myths. It is also one of the most elaborate.
- Jason was the son of King Aeson. Aeson was overthrown by his treacherous brother, Pelias. Jason's mother managed to protect him from murder by lying about him being still-born.
- Years later, Jason attempted to reclaim his throne. Pelias challenged Jason to bring him the Golden Fleece, to which Jason agreed.
- The Golden Fleece was the fleece of a golden flying ram. The ram, a gift from Poseidon, saved two children from their stepmother in another myth.
- To accomplish his task, Jason assembled a great crew of heroes. These included Heracles, Orpheus, Peleus, Castor and Pollux (Gemini), etc.
- Jason also got the shipwright Argus to construct the Argo. The magnificent ship was blessed by Hera, Queen of the Greek Gods.
- Throughout their journey, Jason and his Argonauts encountered many monsters and challenges. These included murderous wives, giants, harpies, and clashing rocks.
- Surviving reasonably, Jason and his Argonauts arrived in Colchis. There, the current owner of the Golden Fleece, Aeetes, agreed to give him the fleece on completion of three tasks. To assist Jason, Hera convinced Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, to make Aeetes' daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. With Medea's magical abilities, Jason completed all tasks. Both Jason and Medea then fled Colchis with the fleece when Aeetes renegaded on his promise.
- On the journey back, the Argonauts faced more challenges. Including the huge automaton Talos, and the bewitching Sirens.
- Curiously, Jason mirrored Theseus in his treatment of Medea. He chose to marry a princess of Corinth, despite already having children with Medea. Embittered, Medea killed the Corinthian princess with a cursed, flaming dress. She also killed her two children with Jason, and fled in a magical chariot.
- Jason, by abandoning Medea, lost the favour of the Greek Gods. Particularly that of Hera, his patroness, who was the Goddess of Marriage. He eventually died a lonely old man. Jason was crushed to death while sleeping under the rotting hull of the Argo.
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong