By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ancient Greek mythology is full of classic stories which have become part of Western literature and culture; these stories have even given us some well-known words and phrases commonly used in English, and in other languages.
Below, we introduce 12 of the greatest and best-known tales from the world of Greek mythology, from curious women to brave men, people who overreached themselves and people whose greed got the better of them.
Everyone knows about the myth of Pandora’s box – except it wasn’t a box at all, but a jar, as we reveal in our discussion of this classic story (linked above).
Pandora was the first woman in Greek mythology, and Hesiod tells us that her curiosity led her to take the lid off the jar (not box) containing all of the world’s ills, unleashing them upon the world in the process.
Another important ‘origin-story’ from Greek myth, the tale of Prometheus – whose name literally means ‘forethought’ in some interpretations – is well-known because it explains how mankind came into possession of fire, thus enabling man to form civilisation as we know it.
Prometheus, a Titan or god, stole fire from his fellow gods and gave it to humanity, and for this act he was punished by Zeus: chained to a rock and then subjected to the agonising ordeal of having his liver pecked out by an eagle. His liver would grow back every night, so Prometheus would have to endure the same fate every day for eternity. Ouch.
As well as explaining where man came from and how we came to create civilisation, the Greeks also used their myths to explain the origins of natural phenomena, such as the seasons. Why do we have summer and winter?
For the ancient Greeks, it was thanks to Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, and taken away with him; because she was connected to vegetation, Persephone’s absence from the land led to the failure of crops, and everyone began to starve.
Hades was told by Zeus to return Persephone to Demeter above-ground, but (thanks to Hades’ trick which involved, effectively, drugging Persephone with some pomegranate seeds), eventually a compromise was reached, whereby Persephone would spend the winter months in Hades and the rest of the year with Demeter. And this explains the origins of the seasons.
In the vast Labyrinth on the island of Crete, built by the cunning Daedalus for King Minos, there dwelt the Minotaur: a man with the head and tail of a bull.
Minos demanded seven Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens be given to the Minotaur to be devoured on a regular basis (some accounts say every seven years, while others state this was an annual treat for the Minotaur). This mythic story, by the way, inspired Suzanne Collins’s idea of ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games.
Anyway, Theseus was a brave Athenian man who, with the help of Ariadne (who gave him a ball of thread so he could find his way back out of the Labyrinth), went into the Cretan maze and slew the Minotaur. Unfortunately, after Ariadne had helped him to accomplish his task, his abandoned her … but that’s another story.
The story of Icarus is one of the most famous tales from Greek myth. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the craftsman who built the Labyrinth from the Minotaur story recounted above. Ever the inventor, Daedalus fashioned some wings out of feathers and wax, for him and his son to use to fly their way off the island of Crete.
However, Icarus got carried away and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax in his wings. He fell to his death, drowning in the Aegean. Now, Icarus’ name is a byword for one of the Greeks’ most favourite themes: hubris, or overreaching oneself.
Perseus’ defeat of Medusa, one of the Gorgons, is well-known. Famously, to look upon snake-haired Medusa (the snakes were her punishment for being vain and proud of her hair) was enough to turn the viewer to stone, so Perseus cunningly used a mirrored shield to approach Medusa in her cave so that he could cut her head off without looking directly at her.
One of the great tragic love stories from Greek mythology, the tale of the musician Orpheus and his lover Eurydice features the Underworld. But as with the tale of Echo and Narcissus (see below), this is a doomed love story made more famous through Roman writers (Ovid, Virgil) than Greek originals.
The lyrist Orpheus fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice, only for her to die shortly after; Orpheus made the journey into Hades, the Underworld, to try to bring his beloved back.
His wish was granted – but on the condition that he mustn’t look back at Eurydice as she followed him out of Hades, until they were both safely back in the land of the living. Orpheus couldn’t resist one quick glance … and Eurydice was lost to him forever.
Better-known as Hercules (the Latin version of his Greek name), Heracles was the all-round action hero of Greek mythology. He was ordered to carry out his famous ‘Twelve Labours’ as penance for the murder of his own wife and children, while he was in the service of the king Eurystheus.
A few of them are quite famous – Heracles killing the Nemean lion, or stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides – but others, such as slaying the Stymphalian birds, are more obscure.
Narcissus was a beautiful youth – so beautiful, in fact, that he fell in love with his own reflection, which he saw while gazing down at the surface of the water while drinking one day. Echo loved Narcissus, but he shunned her because he only had eyes for himself, and Echo pined away until only her voice remained.
Echo found it hard to tell Narcissus how she felt for him, in any case, because she had already been cursed so that she could only repeat what others said, rather than speak for herself.
Although we feature this classic mythological tale on this list of best Greek stories, the introduction of Echo into the tale of Narcissus appears to have been the invention of a Roman poet, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. But the figures are so closely associated with Greek myth that we felt they should be included here.
The poster-boy of existentialism, Sisyphus has become associated with laborious and pointless tasks, because he was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down to the bottom just as he was about to complete the task. He was thus doomed to repeat this action forever.
Midas is known for two things: being given the ears of an ass, and turning everything he touched into gold. The latter of these was his reward from Dionysus, although he soon discovered that his gift was a bane rather than a blessing, and that he couldn’t even do simple things like take a drink without the water turning into gold.
Curiously, like many other classic myths, this one may have arisen as an origin story to explain the rich gold deposits in the river Pactolus.
To be ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ is, if you will, to be caught between a rock and a hard place – in other words, between two equally unappealing dangers or prospects. The phrase derives from two dangerous entities found in the Mediterranean sea, which Homer tells us about in his Odyssey.
They were supposedly found on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, with Scylla being a monster with six heads and Charybdis being a deadly whirlpool. Ships had to navigate between these two dangerous forces when travelling through this part of the Mediterranean sea.