Myths and legends of Ancient Greece

The Greek myths may have evolved from the merging of various regional tales and religious practices. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, for instance, have left evidence suggesting they influenced Greek religious thought.
From the enigmatic Sphinx to the terrifying Medusa and the monstrous Minotaur, Greek myths abound with creatures that challenge heroes and represent societal fears.

Many myths might have originated as explanations for natural events. For example, the story of Demeter and Persephone could be an allegory for the changing seasons. Myths served as tools to instill moral values and societal norms. The tale of Prometheus, for instance, warned against the perils of hubris and the consequences of defying the gods.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, pioneers of psychoanalysis, frequently referred to Greek myths. They saw mythological motifs as manifestations of universal psychological patterns or archetypes. For instance, the Oedipus complex, named after the tragic Greek hero, represents a child’s feelings of affection for the opposite-sex parent and rivalry with the same-sex parent.

Myths can be seen as societal reflections. They may represent collective anxieties, hopes, and values of a society at a given time. The constant conflict between gods in myths might mirror the political and social upheavals of ancient Greek city-states.

Myths, as part of the oral tradition, can provide insights into the cultural, religious, and societal structures of ancient civilizations. The emphasis on heroism, honor, and the afterlife, for example, can offer glimpses into the societal values and beliefs of the ancient Greeks.

The Myth of the ants (Myrmidons)

AeacusmyrmidonsAeacus lived alone on the island of Aegina, Zeus, in order to put an end to his loneliness, turned the ants of the island into people who were called Myrmidons.

However, some claim that the people of Aegina were called Myrmidons because during a famine they dug up the earth like ants and spread the soil over the rocks to have soil to cultivate and produce bricks.

Others claim that the problem in Aegina was not famine but an epidemic sent by Hera, wanting to punish the island named after her husband’s mistress. Thus a pestilence fell on Aegina, which affected first the animals and then the people. This epidemic was of such proportions that hardly anyone was left alive and the corpses were so numerous that they remained unburied. It is also said that many committed suicide and thus the country became desolate.

It was then that Aeacus prayed to Zeus under an oak tree and seeing the ants marching in a long column said:

“Oh! great father, give me as many beings as ants and fill my empty walls.”

The ants then turned into men, first in Aiacus’s dream and later in reality, for the next day he could see them with his own eyes as they came to greet him as king. Because of the prayer and the dream he called them Myrmidons, from the word ant. However, others believe that Zeus raised the inhabitants of Aegina from the earth.

The apple of Eris

Zeus learned from Prometheus, after his liberation from Heracles, that like Cronus‘ father, he too would be dethroned by one of his sons. His fear was that a son of the sea deity Thetis, whom Zeus fell in love with, would become more important than his father. For one of these reasons, Thetis married the elderly mortal King Peleus, son of Aeacus, at the urging of Zeus. All the gods were invited to the wedding, and brought gifts except the Dispute, which by order of Zeus was not allowed to approach, because it always caused discord and upset. Infected, Eris threw a golden apple (the apple of contention) towards the wedding venue, which read: to the most beautiful. The apple was claimed by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.

Their quarrel was very intense and no other god was in danger of expressing an opinion in support of any of the three, because it would provoke the wrath of the other two. Finally, Jupiter ordered Hermes to lead the goddesses to Paris, the prince of Troy. Paris then lived as a shepherd on Mount Ida and did not know of his royal descent, because his family had abandoned him as an infant, due to an oracle that he said would cause the destruction of the city.

The goddesses appeared before him and because he was not able to choose, they offered him gifts in case he chose each one: Athena offered him wisdom and dexterity in battle, Hera gave him leadership skills to rule Asia and Europe, while Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, the beautiful Helen, queen of Sparta.
Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite. He later returned to Troy where his family recognized Helen as a member therefore her name became Helen of Troy.

The Abduction of Persephone

persephones-abductionPersephone was the daughter of the goddess Demeter and Zeus. Her beauty was so great that Pluto, god of Hades, fell in love with her and decided to steal her. So one day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, she bent down to cut a daffodil, when suddenly the earth split in two. Then Pluto appeared in his chariot and took the girl to the Underworld.

Demetra searched in vain for her daughter and from her sadness and tears, the land and crops withered. The people were hungry and days passed without Persephone being seen. One day the Sun, having seen everything, took pity on Demeter, told her what happened and then Zeus ordered the god of Hades to free his daughter. Unable to disobey Zeus’ orders, Pluto trapped Persephone by giving her a pomegranate to eat before letting her go; knowing that if she consumed food in the Underworld, she would not be able to escape.

The daughter ate only six seeds and so they agreed that she would spend six months of the year in Hades, while the others next to her mother. Thus, during half the months of the year, the trees and nature languish with Demeter, while in the rest it blooms and rejoices.

The Trojan Horse

trojan-horse Athena advised Odysseus to commission Epius to build a huge wooden horse. This horse went down in history as the Trojan Horse. And indeed, Epios, using timber from the neighboring mountain Ida, managed to build a huge wooden horse with hidden openings on the right and left.

The Achaeans carve on the Trojan Horse the inscription “Danai Athena charistirion” that is “Dedicated to Athena by the Greeks”, for their return to their homeland and then enter the most courageous of the Achaean heroes, Odysseus, Dio Menelaus, Ajax , Neoptolemus, Teukros, Idomeneus, Mirionis and of course Epios, who knows how to open the hidden openings. Once the Trojan Horse is completed, the others set fire to their tents, drag their ships into the sea, board them, and sail for Tenedos, at a point not seen by Troy. They leave behind only one of Odysseus’ relatives, Sinon, who with his acting skills will try the next day to deceive the Trojans.

The next morning, the Trojans discover that the enemy camp has been abandoned. In their excitement they believed that the ten-year war was over and considered that they had to move the Trojan Horse inside the city. Sinon helped them in this decision, who told them a false story according to which he himself suffered at the hands of the Achaeans, who were forced to leave because they fell out of favor with the goddess Athena.

Some individual Trojans thought it was cursed and had to throw it off the cliff or burn it. Cassandra and Laocoon warned that it would only bring disaster to the city. Laocoon shouted “Fear the Danes and bring gifts”, that is, fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts. But Cassandra, while she had the insight, from Apollo to be able to predict events, she also had the curse of Athena, not to be able to convince anyone.

Laocoon and his two sons were attacked by huge sea snakes which drowned them in the sea. Aeneas and his followers, believing these predictions, withdrew to Mount Ida. The Trojans finally, full of enthusiasm, decided to carry the Trojan Horse inside the walls. In fact, because it was quite a large construction, they had to demolish part of the main gate of the city, the “shadow gates”. Shortly afterwards, they took to the streets of the city to celebrate the successful outcome of the war.

Pandora’s box

pandora Pandora, the first woman on Earth, was created by an act of revenge. Zeus, the king of heaven and the gods, was angry with Titan Prometheus for offering fire to humans. Zeus ordered the god Hephaestus to create Pandora to avenge Prometheus.

Pandora was placed on an idyllic version of Earth and Zeus gave her a box that he told her never to open. Pandora could not resist the temptation and opened the box, releasing a multitude of plagues into the world, including disease, old age and death.

French painter Odilon Redon was fascinated by women from classical mythology and painted Pandora several times. In one of his works from 1914, Pandora appears naked and surrounded by many bright flowers, but the focus is on the small box in her hands. Redon painted the work before World War I, possibly drawing a parallel between the horrors of opening the box and those of war. Pandora’s influence also reaches modern art.

The myth of Perseus and Andromeda

perseus-andromeda Perseus is one of the leading heroes of Greek mythology, best known for the murder of Medusa and Cetus, the sea monster guarding Princess Andromeda. Queen Cassiopeia, who ruled a mythical version of Ethiopia with her husband, boasted that she and her daughter Andromeda were as beautiful as the Nereids or sea nymphs.

This remark offended Poseidon, the god of the sea, and in an act of revenge against Cassiopeia, set Keto free in the kingdom. After consulting an oracle, Andromeda’s father, King Kipheus, in order to save the kingdom from Ketos, tied Andromeda to a rock on the shore, sacrificing it to the god Poseidon. So Perseus killed Ketus and made Andromeda his wife.

Myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha

deucalion-and-pyrhaDeucalion was a particularly popular figure in the ancient world, as writers recorded and retold his story for centuries up to the 5th AD. century. His myth is essentially anthropogenic, that is, it explains the origin, describes the creation of the human species, which here is linked to a terrifying natural disaster: a merciless deluge.

The accounts want Deucalion to be the son of the Titan Prometheus. His wife was Pyrrha, daughter of Epimetheus (also a Titan) and Pandora – the first wife. In the age of the pair, the human race had fallen so morally that Zeus decided to wipe it out with a flood. Prometheus protectively advised his son to build an ark to save himself, which he did, equipping it with all the necessities.

The myth of Arachne and Athena

arachne-and-athensArachne was the daughter of the dyer Idmonos from Colofona. He lived in the Lydian city of Hypapa. Her weaving art was so famous that even the Nymphs went to admire her works.Everyone believed that Arachne had been taught her art by the goddess Athena. But she refused and even challenged the goddess to a contest to see who could weave better.

Athena transformed into an old woman and advised the girl that it was disrespectful to try to challenge the gods. But the Spider did not listen to her advice and continued to challenge the goddess. Then Athena took her normal form and the fight began.
Athena presented two subjects to her weaving. The central theme was her struggle with Poseidon for the protection of Athens. The other depicted four mortals (one at each corner of the loom) being punished for daring to confront mortals.

Athena took the Arachne’s work into her own hands and tried to find fault with it. When she failed to find any fault with him, angered by the weaver’s performances and blinded by jealousy, she tore it up and hit the girl in the face with her spine.

Arachne, ashamed of the insult done to her, tried to hang herself. But the goddess did not let her die. She transformed her into the familiar insect and cursed her to always be hanged as she practices her old craft.

The myth of Icarus and Daedalus

In addition to trapping the Minotaur in his labyrinth, Daedalus is also known for the tragic death of his son Icarus, who has inspired countless songs, poems and works of art. In order to escape from Crete, Daedalus created wings for himself and his son Icarus.

Despite his father’s warnings, Icarus flew very close to the sun and the wax that held his wings together melted, causing them to be cut and he to fall into the sea and drown. His story is often told as a warning, displaying the trap of excessive pride and ambition.

Leda and the Swan

leda Leda and the Swan is perhaps one of the most enigmatic stories in Greek mythology for the modern reader. It is also one of the most important myths that resonates in the centuries of art history.

In the myth, Zeus takes the form of a swan to flirt with Leda, the Queen of Sparta, resulting in the birth of Helen. The story becomes even more frightening if we consider that Eleni became the occasion for the Trojan War.
The image of the woman and the bird, as well as the destruction it would bring, have been inspired various artists over the years.

The myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus

promytheus-epimytheusOnce upon a time before animals and humans were born, the gods wanted to equip each with a weapon so they could survive. The distribution was entrusted to the two gods who were brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Epimetheus begged his brother Prometheus to do the distribution himself, which was done. So Epimetheus scattered all the abilities to the animals by giving them also one ability, so that they could survive. To another he gave speed, to another strength, to another thick hair, to another strong teeth, etc. He also cared about how they would be protected from cold and rain, and what each would eat, other grasses and other meat.

But he didn’t pay attention and spent all his abilities on the animals and there was none left for the people. Then Prometheus comes to inspect and sees that there is no skill to be given to humans. And then he thought to steal from Hephaestus the “skilled art” and from the goddess Athena the “artistic wisdom” together with the fire from Hephaestus, with which he could create civilization. But Prometheus was tried for theft and sentenced to eternal bonds. We know the rest from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.

But the people were still powerless, because they lacked political art, which includes the art of war, with which they protect themselves from wild animals. He then decided to give the people aido, that is, piety, and justice, to organize themselves into states. These, then, were distributed by Hermes by order of Zeus to all men, and thus all men possess them

The myth of King Midas and golden touch

king midas Κing Midas once, asked the gods of Olympus to gain power so that what he caught would become gold.
The gods listened to his desire and gave him this magical power.
Midas gained great strength from this ability. Knew knew that no one else could ever be richer. But when he was hungry and sat at the table, he realized that he could not eat because what he touched turned to gold: the meat, the spoon, the grape. At that moment, his daughter came in to greet him and by touching her, she became a golden statue.

Midas, regretting his decision but also realizing his tragic mistakes, asked Dionysus to take back this ability and he would change. He shared his goods with the world. Dionysus felt sorry for him and told him to touch the river Paktolos and his power would cross the river. So it happened. Midas, having lost his daughter for good, kept his word and became the fairest and most generous king the world has ever known.

The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice

orpheus-and-euridiceOne day while walking in the forest he met the nymph Eurydice, whom he fell in love with and eventually married. But their happiness did not last long. Eurydice, after a snake bite, dies leaving Orpheus inconsolable.

The young man spent his days playing sad tunes on his lyre. So sad was his music that it moved even the gods, who decided to give him permission to go to Hades and see his beloved again.

The young musician with his “miraculous” music bewitched Cerberus, the guardian of Hades, and even moved the cruel Pluto, god of the Underworld. Pluto even allowed Orpheus to take back Eurydice and return to earth together, on the condition that he not look back to see her even once.

Orpheus accepted the condition, but on the way, just before going out into the sunlight, he is overcome with doubt that the gods have deceived him. Overwhelmed by his anguish, Orpheus will turn to face his beloved and finds that his wife is indeed following him.

But it is now too late. With his fleeting glance at his wife he condemns her to death for the second time. From then on he wandered the rest of his life in the forest playing sad tunes.

The myth of Autolycus the thief

autolycusThe information about the origin of Autolycus is confused, many claim him as a son or son-in-law, as a husband or as a father. This confusion may also be due to the attempt to restore or replace lost information. Thus, and because theft was always exaggerated, he was considered the son of the divine prototype of the thiefs, the god Hermes, and the daughter of Augerinus Stilbe or Telaugi, or the daughter of Daedalion Philonida or Chionis, in which case he is the half-brother of Philammon who for his father was Hermes’ brother, Apollo.

In other versions Daedalion is referred to as his father instead of his father-in-law and Neaira is considered his wife or his daughter! Mythographers also give him Mystra, the daughter of the Athenian Erysichthon, as his wife, and as daughters Polymedes or Polyphemi, mother of Jason by Aeson, but also Anticleia, daughter of Amphithea and mother of Odysseus.

It was also said that Autolycus took part in the Argonautic expedition and that he trained Hercules in wrestling. Autolycus, a famous thief, stole a leather helmet from Amydorus, which he gave to Odysseus—it was worn by Odysseus during his night raid against Troy with Diomedes. He unsuccessfully tried to steal Sisyphus’s animals and was justifiably accused, due to the reputation of chasing him, of having stolen Eurytus’ oxen, indirectly causing the death of his son Iphitus by Heracles, which resulted in the hero’s servile service in Ophalia in order to be cleansed of murder.

the Legend of Apollo and Daphne

apollo-and-daphneApollo, the god of the Olympic Games, was struck by an arrow from Cupid which caused him to fall madly in love with the nymph Daphne. He chased her anxiously through the forest because instead she had received an arrow that had the opposite effect on her and Apollo’s presence was unbearable for her.

The character of the nymph was also indomitable and she never intended to marry. That is why, when she saw herself very close to the arms of Apollo, she asked her parents, the god Ladon and the goddess Gaia, to transform her into a tree.

In this way, Daphne expressed a desperate desire to stop she exists as a nymph, managing to escape from Apollo and become part of the natural habitat she loved. His transformation consisted of a laurel which symbolizes the leaves that crown the victors in the Olympic Games.

The kidnapping of Europa

europaEuropa was a Phoenician princess standing in a pool of water with other girls enjoying the day. While everything was going smoothly,

Europa was seen by Zeus who felt a terrible attraction for the girl. He decided to transform into a bull, a stocky, muscular one with white fur and apparently meek and placed himself next to the young woman.

At first he was a little intimidated by the size of the animal, but he immediately started petting it and ended up climbing on its back. Zeus, without missing an opportunity, flew and took her to the island of Crete. Together they will give birth to Sarpedon, Minos and Rhadamantis.

The myth of the Alcyonids

alcyonidsWhen, in the heart of winter, some sunny days suddenly appear, we say that the Alcyonian days have arrived. But did you know the legend behind this name? In Greek mythology, Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, lived happily with Kyekas by the sea. Their happiness was such that at one point they considered themselves equal to immortal gods.

This, as expected, angered the twelve gods. Indeed, when the pair began calling each other by the names of Zeus and Hera instead of their own, Zeus waited for Cycas to set sail one day, and struck his ship with lightning. Alcyone watched the shipwreck from afar and at the sight of her husband drowning, she rushed into the sea from a high cliff to kill herself.

At that time, the gods changed their minds and took pity on them, and transformed them into birds, named kingfishers. As birds with bright blue wings now, the pair continued to live by the shore, and lay their eggs in the dead of winter. But the raging sea was destroying their eggs, so in a last gesture of compassion, Zeus decided to bring every year, in the middle of winter, a few days of sun and summer so that the kingfisher could spin her eggs. Hence the Alcyonian days.

The myth of Perseus and the Graeae

perseus-and-graieWe all more or less know the legend of Perseus, the young man from Serifos who offered the King the head of Medusa, whom he managed to kill with the trick of reflection. What we do not know, is that from Perseus’ promise to the King to Medusa’s death, an adventure with terrible and terrible figures of mythology intervened.

The goddess Athena undertook to help him, frustrated by the impossibility of Perseus’ mission, by taking him to the Naiads. The nymphs of the liquid element endowed him with winged sandals and a helmet that made him invisible.

He thus set out to find Medusa, but the only ones who knew where she was were the Graias. These three nightmarish entities of mythology were goddesses in the form of aged women. Her gloomy appearance was completed by their congenitally bald heads and the fact that they shared only one eye and one tooth, which they borrowed in turn.

So one of them each time took their eye and guarded their cave, but the moment the next Graia changed shift and took the eye in turn, all three of them were blind. This moment of change was taken advantage of by Perseus, who was waiting, grabbed the eye and declared that he would return it to them only if they told him where Medusa was hiding.

The myth of Embusa

myth-of-embousaAustere and strange, Hekate was a chthonic deity of the ancient Greeks, to whom magical powers were attributed – she was even called the goddess of the magical art of the Underworld. In her “magic”, she made sure to do this too: To create the Ebusa, a ghost creature sent by the goddess as a harbinger of misfortunes, and which frightened travelers. Embusa was presented as a cow, a bird, a beautiful woman, a dog, a tree, a stone, etc., while in her normal form – as normal as one can call her – she had a fiery, glowing face, a copper leg and a donkey’s leg.

The myth even wanted her to feed on human flesh – the carnivorous insects “embusids” even owe their name to her. According to mythology, Ebusa could only be dealt with by specific, ferocious curses, at the sound of which she would squeal away. The darker aspects of the mythology want her to transform into a beautiful girl, seduce men, lie with them and during their naps suck the “life” out of them.

These qualities – or at least, without its more macabre aspects – were used by ancient mothers to persuade mischievous children to eat their food and stay sane. Also, the Athenians mockingly called the mother of the famous orator Aeschines, who was a priestess of the Mysteries, and at night she would suddenly appear before the initiates and frighten them.

The Myth of Phrixus and Helle

phrixos-and-helleAthamanta’s first wife was Nefeli from whom he had twin children Phrixus and Helle. Afterwards, the couple separated and Athamas married Ino, daughter of Cadmus, from whom he had two more children, Learchos and Melikertis.
Jealous of Nefeli’s children, Ino came up with an unusual plan: she convinced the women of the town to roast the wheat seeds intended for sowing, so that they would not sprout.

Athamas sent emissaries to the oracle of Delphi, to reveal the cause of the grain shortage. Ino persuaded them on their return with a bribe to give a different answer from the oracle to Athamas and to say that the grain donation would stop if Phrixus was sacrificed on the altar of Zeus.

Thus Athamas was forced to order preparations for the sacrifice, and Phrixus (along with his sister, according to variants of the myth) was led to the altar. Nepheli, who learned of the events from afar, sent the Golden Ram, a gift from Hermes, to carry the children on his back, away from Boeotia.

During their flight, as they were flying over the sea, Helle could not hold on to the back of Aries and fell into the sea, which has since been called the Hellespont. Elli was taken to him by Poseidon. Phrixus continued on his way and Aries brought him to Colchis, where King Aetes received him willingly and gave him his daughter Chalciope as wife.

Phrixus then sacrificed the golden ram on the altar of Zeus and donated its skin (fleece) to Aetes. He dedicated it to Ares and hung it from an oak tree in the god’s sacred forest. A great dragon was assigned to guard him, which did not sleep. The Golden Fleece was later the target of the Argonaut Expedition.

The myth of Phineas and the Harpies

phineas-and-the-harpiesPhineas was the king of Thrace and the Bosphorus, and he also happened to be a well-known diviner of the region. He was so good at his oracles that the legend says that Zeus became terribly angry because Phineas revealed to the people in detail all his plans. So he made sure to punish him: First, he threw his lightning bolt and blinded him. But this did not stop Phineas from continuing his work as a blind fortune teller.

Thus, Zeus moved on to the next “track”: He sent to their places the Harpies, five mythological beings with the body of a bird and the head of a woman. These, every time Phineas was about to eat, they grabbed his food or threw him… scraps, apparently to “break it” and keep him forever hungry and impoverished.

The passing Argonauts tried to free him from this torture. Two of them, the gorgopodaris Calais and Zetis, were “destined” by an oracle to hunt the Harpies and either catch and kill them, or fail and be killed. In the end, much to the discredit of the oracles, neither happened: Argonauts and Harpies came to a compromise: The former spared their lives, and the latter agreed to emigrate to Crete and not trouble Phineas again. The blind soothsayer, to please them, revealed to them how to pass the Sympligades safely.

The myth of the birth and death of Asclepius

myth-of-asclepeiosThe famous “healer god”, as he was worshiped in ancient Greece, Asclepius, had – always according to the myth – a birth as tragic as his death. His mortal mother, Koronida, sided with the god Apollo and became pregnant with Asclepius. In the meantime, however, she met another man in Thessaly, who was considered the father of the fetus.

When Apollo learned of the mantas, he became so angry that he lashed out at his white messenger bird, the white raven. As a result of the curse, the crow became black, and has remained so ever since. He then had his sister Artemis kill the man with an arrow and burned Coronis at the stake. But he appeared, as if from a machine god, at the last moment, and took the newborn Asclepius from her burning body.

He was destined to become a great physician-healer with awesome abilities, which reached the point of healing many Argonauts, but also resurrecting so many others from death. This was something that was not particularly appreciated by the god of the Underworld, Pluto, who, seeing his clientele dwindling, hurled Zeus’ thunderbolt and killed Asclepius. Apollo, to avenge the god of Hades, killed the Cyclops, who had gifted Zeus with the deadly thunderbolt. In order to restore the balance in the ranks of Olympus,