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Greek Mythology 101: The Ultimate Guide

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Greek mythology is one of the primary sources of tales of adventure for the western world. The impact that it has had in both the ancient world and the modern world alike is profound.

Many of the tropes that we find so common to storytelling today ultimately come from Greek mythology. In many ways, it has shaped our understanding of the world around us.

By studying this mythology, we also learn about the interests of the ancient Greeks and we discover what was important to them, which in turn helps us to understand their actions.

Undoubtedly, understanding Greek mythology helps us in many ways to understand the world in which we live.

WHAT IS GREEK MYTHOLOGY?

Unsurprisingly, Greek mythology refers to the myths and legends collectively held by the ancient Greeks.

The myths and legends of the Greeks of the Mycenaean Era are unknown with any certainty. After the Mycenaean Era came the Greek Dark Ages, and then in about 750 BCE came the start of the Archaic Era.

The Greek mythology for which we have records started forming at the beginning of the Archaic Era, or possibly the late Dark Age.

This mythology contains countless tales of gods, monsters, human and semi-divine heroes, adventures, quests, and wars.

Some tales deal with things completely in the divine realm, outside of the human world. Other myths are clearly designed to explain how the human world came to be the way it is today.

There are also legends that seem to be stories of real events that have been gradually embellished over the years. The Greeks were interested in understanding how the actions of the gods were linked to events happening here on the earth.

The basis of Greek mythology was the pantheon of the gods. Famously, Zeus was the king of the gods. Many events in Greek mythology ultimately stem back to Zeus’ actions. Countless characters in the mythology were his children, many of them becoming heroes or kings. 

TYPES OF GREEK MYTHS

There are so many stories within Greek mythology that it would be virtually impossible to list every single one of them. Still, we can divide almost all the myths into several main categories, including:

  • Myths of Origin
  • Myths of Ages
  • Myths of the Gods
  • Myths of Heroes

Let’s examine each of these one by one.

Myths of Origin

As we said, the Greeks were very interested in understanding how the world came to be – more so than many other ancient cultures.

One example of an origin myth is found in the works of Hesiod, a seventh century BCE poet. He described the four primary beings that first came into existence:

  1. Chaos (primeval emptiness)
  2. Gaea (Earth)
  3. Tartarus (the Abyss)
  4. Eros (Love)

Chaos came first, and then came Gaea and Eros. From Gaea emerged Uranus (the Sky), who then became her consort. From Gaea and Uranus came many more offspring, such as the Titans.

One Titan was Iapetus, whose son was Prometheus, the creator of humans in some versions. Another Titan was Cronus, whose son Zeus became the father of many other gods and humans.

As well as the origin of the world in general, the Greeks also recorded numerous myths about the founding of specific nations and cities. Their fascination with origins is clear from the fact that they even had myths about the origin of their alphabet!

Myths of Ages

Other myths were related to the successive series of ‘ages’ of mankind.

  • The first of these ages was the Golden Age, where everything was essentially perfect and like a paradise. This was the reign of Cronus.
  • Next came the Silver Age, where humans spent an unusually long portion of their lives in childhood. They became ungodly and wicked, so Zeus destroyed them.
  • The next age was the Bronze Age. This was an exceptionally violent period. Zeus eventually destroyed this age as well, by means of a flood.
  • The fourth age was the Heroic Age. This was the period in which many of the Greek myths are set, since it was the age of heroes such as Heracles and Odysseus. Many adventures occurred in this period.
  • The final age was the Iron Age. This was the age in which the ancient Greek writers placed themselves. We could understand this as the historical Greek era.

Myths of the Gods

Many of the Greek myths are related to the activities of the gods. These are not necessarily designed to explain the origin of things in the world, but merely exist to give some insight into the divine world.

These myths tell of the conflicts between the gods, or battles between gods and monsters, or they highlight special powers that different gods had.

One example is a myth about the Muses, goddesses of the arts and sciences. In this myth, the Muses are said to have blinded Thamyris, a human bard whom they viewed as a rival.

A prominent myth is the story of Zeus and his battle against Typhon, a giant serpentine monster. Typhon initially defeated Zeus and left him in a cave, but the messenger god Hermes came to his rescue and healed him. Zeus then went on to defeat Typhon and reclaim his position as king of the gods.

Myths of Heroes

Numerous Greek myths tell the stories of heroes. These heroes were often semi-divine, such as Heracles, or kings, such as Agamemnon.

These myths relate the adventures that these heroes undertook. The Greeks were certainly just as interested in these adventures as we are today in the adventures of modern heroes, like Superman.

One of the most famous heroic myths is the legend of the Trojan War. This was a major, 10-year war fought at and around the city of Troy in western Turkey. The reason was the abduction of Helen of Sparta from King Meneleus.

Eventually, using a gambit involving a fake surrender and gift in the form of a wooden horse, the Greeks got past the city walls and burned the city to the ground.

Various other adventures could be mentioned, many of which are still famous today. There is the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to find the Golden Fleece.

Then there is the tale of Heracles and his 12 labours. These are just some of countless heroic tales within Greek mythology.

PROMINENT GREEK MYTHS

Of the numerous tales that exist among Greek mythology, some of the major ones are:

  • The Titanomachy: This myth describes how Cronus ate all his children as soon as they were born because he was destined to be overthrown by them. But after his sixth child, Zeus, was born, his wife Rhea gave him a rock to eat instead, pretending it was Zeus. When Zeus had grown up, he led a vast war against Cronus called the Titanomachy and overthrew him, taking his place as the king of the gods.
  • Pandora’s Box: This tale describes how the original Golden Age of mankind was lost. The god Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. Furious, the other gods created the first woman, Pandora, and gave her a jar (not actually a box) as a ‘present’. This jar contained all the terrible things in the world in it. When Pandora opened it, it released pain and suffering into the world.
  • Heracles’ 12 Labours: Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a human woman. In a rage caused by the goddess Hera, he killed his wife and children. As recompense, he was forced to perform 12 seemingly-impossible labours for Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. These labours included killing the multi-headed Hydra and capturing the Ceryneian Hind.
  • Jason and the Argonauts: Jason was the heir to the throne of Iolcus. His uncle Pelias seized the throne and sent him on a mission which seemed impossibly deadly – to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis, all the way over on the far side of the Black Sea.
  • The Trojan War: Helen of Sparta was the wife of the Greek king Meneleus. A Trojan prince named Paris Alexander abducted her (or eloped with her, depending on the version) and took her back to Troy. Meneleus convinced his brother Agamemnon of Argos to lead a massive war against Troy, resulting in a 10-year siege.
  • The Odyssey: This story recounts the adventures of Odysseus, Greek king of Ithaca, as he journeyed back to his home after the Trojan War. He faced many deadly situations and lost his entire crew, but he eventually made it home.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY CHARACTERS

Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in Greek mythology:

  • Zeus: The king of the gods, Zeus was an exceptionally important character to Greek mythology. He was the father of some of the mightiest heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, and he himself performed dramatic adventures, such as his battle against the Titans and his defeat of Typhon.
  • Hera: The sister and wife of Zeus. In many myths, she is portrayed as being jealous of Zeus’ many affairs with human women, and that led her to cause strife for those women.
  • Poseidon: The god of the seas. He was also associated with earthquakes and horses.
  • Athena: The goddess of war. She became the patron goddess of Athens, which was named after her.
  • Aphrodite: The goddess of love and fertility, though she was also associated with war and seafaring.
  • Apollo:  One of the most widely worshipped Greek gods, Apollo was a god of many, many things. He was a god of the Sun, but he was also the god of music, art, distance, truth, prophecy, archery, healing, law, crops and herds, among other things. Even other gods feared him.
  • Perseus:  Considered to be the first hero of Greek mythology, Perseus was a son of Zeus. He slew the Gorgon Medusa and brought back her head. He had winged sandals which enabled him to fly, as well as a cap which gave him invisibility.
  • Theseus: Prince of Athens, Theseus is famed as the hero who killed the Minotaur after being placed in the labyrinth on Crete. He was also the powerful leader who united Attica under the control of Athens.
  • Agamemnon: The king of Argos and ruler of Mycenae, Agamemnon is most famous for leading the Greeks in their war against Troy.
  • Hector: A prince of Troy, Hector fought powerfully against the Greeks. He was the eldest son of King Priam and was the chief leader of the Trojan forces. He was greatly favoured by Apollo.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY SOURCES

It would be impossible to list all the sources for the countless Greek myths, but some of the main ones are:

  • The Works of Homer: The two that have survived down to our day are the Iliad and the Odyssey. These are perhaps the earliest surviving records about Greek mythology, dating to the seventh (or arguably the eighth) century BCE. They describe certain episodes of the Trojan War and its aftermath.
  • The Works of Hesiod: Hesiod lived at about the same time as Homer or a little after. Like Homer, two notable works have survived to our day: Theogony and Works and Days. The first is about the origin of the world and the gods, and the second is about the Ages of Man.
  • Pindar: Pindar was a poet of the sixth century BCE. Many of his poems relate mythological stories, such as the founding of the Olympic Games by Heracles.
  • Herodotus: Herodotus was a historian who travelled to many countries in the Mediterranean and recorded stories that he heard. This is a detailed source for many of the heroic stories of Greek mythology, ones which might have some historical origin.
  • Diodorus Siculus: Like Herodotus, Diodorus travelled to many locations and recorded the legends he came across. Again, this is an excellent source for many of the heroic tales, and even many of the myths set before the Heroic Age.
  • Strabo: A geographer of the first century BCE, Strabo recorded many useful pieces of information about the legendary history of various locations. Often, this information is related to important Greek myths, such as the Trojan War.

FAMOUS GREEK MYTHOLOGY ARTEFACTS AND WEAPONS

Greek mythology is full of artefacts and weapons. Here are just some of them:

  • The Golden Fleece: King Pelias sent Jason after this fleece in the hope that it would be impossible. It was the fleece of Chrysomallus, a ram sent by the cloud nymph Nephele.
  • Pandora’s Box: Although mistranslated as ‘box’, this was actually a jar. It was filled with all sorts of terrible sufferings and given to Pandora, the first woman, as a deceptive present to punish humans.
  • Staff of Hermes: This weapon of Hermes was also called the Caduceus. It was a staff with two serpents entwined around it. It was not a symbol of healing as commonly believed, but was a symbol of commerce.
  • Aegis: Some type of shield used by Zeus. It is sometimes shown with a Gorgon head on it.
  • Golden Apple of Discord: This apple was created by Eris, the goddess of discord. The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite fought over it, ultimately resulting in the Trojan War.
  • Hide of the Nemean Lion: The hide, or skin, of the lion killed by Heracles for his first Labour. It was impenetrable to conventional weapons, so it was used by Heracles as armour.
  • Zeus’ Lightning Bolt: Zeus was given this lightning bolt by the Cyclopes, children of Cronus, while they were in Tartarus. They gave Zeus this weapon to help him defeat the Titans during the Titanomachy.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY CREATURES

Greek mythology features weird and wonderful creatures in many different stories. Here are a few:

  • Typhon: This giant monster was one the deadliest and most fearsome creatures in all of Greek mythology. It was the son of Gaia and Tartarus. It was serpentine in form, although it also had arms and 100 heads on its shoulders. One source describes it as fire-breathing.
  • Hydra: Similar to Typhon, the Hydra was a multi-headed serpentine monster, although it was much smaller than Typhon. When one of its heads was cut off, two more would grow back in its place.
  • Cerberus: The vicious beast guarding the entrance to Hades. It was like a dog in its basic form, but it had three heads, snakes all over its back, and its tail was a snake.
  • The Gorgons: These three sisters had snakes for hair, and anyone who looked at them would turn to stone. Medusa was the most famous of these sisters.
  • Scylla and Charybdis: These two monsters lived either side of a narrow strait. Scylla was a vicious monster with many heads, and Charybdis was a monster that swallowed large quantities of water, creating a whirlpool.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY IN POPULAR CULTURE

Although originating thousands of years ago, Greek mythology is still popular today. Here are a few examples of Greek mythology in modern pop culture:

  • Percy Jackson & the Olympians: This book series (2005) by Rick Riordon features the Greek gods in a modern-day setting.
  • Hercules: A Disney movie aimed at children, released in 1997. Although it uses the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Heracles’, it is based primarily on Greek mythology.
  • Hercules – The Legendary Journeys: A TV series based on the legend of Heracles (again, using his Roman name ‘Hercules’). This ran from 1995 to 1999.
  • God of War: This Santa Monica video game franchise, which began in 2005, is loosely based on Greek mythology. The main character is the son of Zeus.
  • Marvel Comics: These comics feature a race of beings called the Olympians who were worshipped as gods in ancient Greece. They first appear in the story Venus, released in May 1948.

These are just some of many examples of Greek mythology still being a source of entertainment even today.

Photo of author

Author

Caleb Howells is a writer from the south coast of England. He has spent years researching various different myths and legends from around the world, with his primary area of interest being the legends of King Arthur. In May 2019, Caleb published King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe, outlining his theories on the origin of the legend.

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