Top 10 Greek Mythology stories

Top 10 Greek Mythology Stories

Updated on January 11, 2018
The Horae (Seasons), by Sir Edward John Poynter  (1836-1919)
The Horae (Seasons), by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919)

Greek Myths and Stories: A Charming World

Greek mythology still holds a firm place in academic curricula. As you must have noticed, Greek myths and legends make for some of the most successful movies, books and works of art.

They also make good bedtime stories for kids: I used to read these stories to my daughter when she was little, and she absolutely loved them!

What is it that fascinates us through the ages in studying and relishing those ancient stories? Surely, it’s more than the raw fancy of a world full of mythical creatures and superhuman deeds, as entertaining as these may be.

Greek myths speak of timeless elements inherent in human nature, as various schools of psychology have demonstrated time and again.

Parents and educators have always discovered the value of these ancient Greek stories in:

  • Shaping ethics and character.
  • Revealing the workings of the world in simple words and powerful pictures.

The wonderful universe of Greek mythology will unfold its magic for you, just keep reading. This page is a brief introduction to some of the most popular myths, starting from primitive gods with their raw natural forces, scaling down to their demi-god and human offspring, and walking us through beauty, ugliness, and the million faces of the sacred in human life.

Myth #1. Prometheus

The Seer Who Brought Fire

Well far back in human history (let’s say, the Paleolithic), Fire was a gift of life. All over the globe, we can trace myths and legends about some god or hero who offered Fire to humans –almost always connected to a perilous adventure– and was honored as a supreme benefactor.

You see, paleolithic humans absolutely needed fire to:

  • Keep warm during cold seasons and nights.
  • Go to bed a little later than the sunset.
  • Roast meat, make it tender and tasty (except for lovers of steak tartare, perhaps).
  • Scare and keep away wild beasts.
  • Harden their wooden spears and other tools.

Prometheus is Punished for Bringing Fire to Mankind

Prometheus, Thieve of Fire

The “sin” of Prometheus consisted in the fact that he helped humans despite the orders of mighty Zeus. For the Lord of Olympus had decreed that Fire should remain with the gods, and not be given to men. Thing is, Prometheus rooted for humans.

The Titan stole into Hephaistus’ workshop, where the godly kilns burned and exquisite artifacts were being created for the heavenly dwellers, in order to take some charcoals with him. Some say he stole some sparks from the chariot of Helios (the Sun). Either way, he carried Fire in the stalk of a fennel plant, and made this life-saving gift to the human race.

In ancient Greek, the name Pro-Metheusmeans “He Who Has Foresight.” Prometheus knew he would be punished for his theft; nevertheless, he went about his self-assigned task of protecting and helping mankind.

Prometheus is a Sufferer / Helper-of-mankind god.

Ages later, Herakles, son of Zeus, obtained permission from dad to finally free the Titan from his chains.

Herakles frees Prometheus, by Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912)
Herakles frees Prometheus, by Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912)

Prometheus, Helper of Mankind: Trickster and Craftsman

Greek mythology tells us that, besides stealing fire, Prometheus showed his magnanimous mercy for humans on many occasions:

  1. He was appointed by Zeus to shape humans out of clay. His brother Epimetheus (“He Who Has Hindsight”) shaped the animals.
  2. He established animal sacrifice, as practiced henceforth in ancient Greek religion. Zeus’ left to Prometheus the decision about which portions of animals would be offered to the gods after sacrifice: the leftover would go to humans. Prometheus deviously covered bones and other animal parts of lesser value with “shiny grease,” while he disguised all flesh and nutritious parts and wrapped them with the less appetizing tripe of the animal. Then, he invited the Master of Heavens to choose the portion owed to the gods, and Zeus fell for the trick.

    Prometheus is a thief and a trickster —with the ultimate purpose of helping humans.

  3. When Zeus was planning a deluge with the intention of eliminating mankind, Prometheus warned his son Deucalion of the imminent catastrophe, and he instructed him to build an ark in order to save himself and his wife Pyrrha.
  4. He warned his brother Epimetheus not to receive Pandora and her box (which was actually a jar). Epimetheus thought he was cleverer and received the girl. Male authors of Greek Antiquity never forgave him this mistake. (I’ll tell you the story of Pandora in a sec!)

Myth #2: The Odyssey

Odysseus and Polyphemus, by Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901)
Odysseus and Polyphemus, by Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901)

A wanderer of the seas could not be absent from Greek mythology. Greece has an extremely long shoreline, esp. when compared to its overall land area, and hundreds of islands dispersed all over the seas encircling the country.

Odysseusmariner par excellence, holds a major role in ancient Greek literature and has inspired many artists from Antiquity to our days. His tale was told by a great ancient poet and singer: Homer.

Odysseus was credited with sacking, along with other “long-haired Acheans” (an ancient name for who we call today “the Greeks”), the castle of Troy, near the entrance of the Black Sea. After leaving Troy, Odysseus took ten years to finally reach his home island, Ithaca. He faced many deadly dangers; he fought with temptations, with gods, monsters, the waves, powerful witches, and men, but he stood firm on his resolution:

To live long enough to see “smoke rising” from the hearths of his homeland.

The Fine Texture of an Epic Poem

Seen more closely, The Odyssey is, of course, more intricate than just the story of an earthly journey.

Homer knew better than to lay out a simple, one-dimensional little story, or he wouldn’t have had so many raving audiences to applaude and to glorify him over the centuries.

Homer was a Master poet.

I’ve read his poem dozens of times. In English, in Modern Greek, and I’m currently reading it in the original language is was recorded for eternity: in Ancient, Homeric Greek. See? There’s a whole sub-category of a language to describe the dialect used by Homer!

What’s more, the composition as a whole, but also in its minutest parts is an ingenious piece of literary craftsmanship. Everything is tightly interwoven: characters, mini-stories within stories, themes, patterns, living images from ancient life popping out at every turn of the way, … Oh, when I start speaking abou theJourney of that Man, Odysseus … it’s not easy to shut me up…

Intricate Mythic Patterns Created by Gods, Heroes, and Poets

Penelope at her Loom, by Max Klinger (1857-1920)
Penelope at her Loom, by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

Myth #3: Pandora’s Jar

No, It.Was.NOT.A.Box!

Pandora and Eve: a bias against women?

Woman, bestower of all evils, a deceitful vessel of clay, created to bring plagues and misfortune to humanity.

Pandora was all-gifted by the gods in order to tempt poor Man and make him receive her, thus sealing his own damnation.

The similarities with Eve’s story are more than evident…

Pandora was not genuinely evil, no. But she was curious and defiant, or that’s how the official story told by Hesiod in his Theogonygoes:

Pandora’s Jar

Pandora, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)
Pandora, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-191

Pandora: The All-Gifted

Pandora was forged by the divine blacksmith Hephaestus. All the gods and goddesses showered her with gifts. She was a most derirable female. Then Zeus sent her as a wife to Epimitheus the Hind-Sighted (Prometheus’ little bro, remember?), giving her a sealed jar as dowery for he marriage. Pandora was instructed not to open the vessel under any circumstances.

Guess what! Pandora could not refrain from lifting the lid, just a little bit – and then all evils dashed out of the jar to torture man in eternity. Thus, Zeus took his revenge on humans for the gift of fire that her brother-in-law, Prometheus (Foresighted), brought to them despite the interdiction imposed by the king of gods.

Various scholars claim that the story originated from an earlier mythological substratum, in which Pandora was the Great Goddess, provider of the gifts that made life and culture possible. According to them, the swarm jetting out of her urn is not the evils she released upon humanity, but instead the gifts pouring out of her sacred vessel.

The tale of Hesiod may have been a later invention, promoting patriarchal ethics that pushed women to an inferior and dependent position. But his words betrayed the poet. In Hesiod’s story, Pandora brought with her a “pithos,” a big clay jar when god Hermes escorted her to Epimetheus.

In symbolic language, the earthen jar may often represent the female uterus.

This also points to an interpretation of Pandora as a symbol of fecundity, prosperity, and life. According to this interpretation, we could consider that her name, All-Gifted, actually refers to the gifts she brings men, and not to the gifts that gods bestowed on her.

Myth #4: Heracles

Heracles is the (Greek) name.

Hercules was the Roman guy. We’re not concerned with him.

Heracles, The Demi-God who Ascended to Olympus

Heracles literally means “the glory of Hera.” The myth goes that Hera, godly wife of Zeus, was extremely jealous of her consort’s affair with Queen Alcmene of Thebes, mother of Herakles, and avenged herself by making life miserable for the demi-god.

There are plenty of myths about Heracles. To begin with, he was conceived by Alcmene, queen of Thebes, while her husband was away on an expedition. That did not make her exactly an adulteress though, because Zeus disguised himself as king Amphitryon and impregnated her. Amphitryon arrived later that night and fecundated his wife with Heracles’ twin brother, Iphicles.

The two boys were as different as day is to night. Zeus’ son was strong and stout and fearless, while his all-human brother, seed of a cheated husband, was small and whiny. One night, wanting to get rid of the boy, Hera sent two large snakes to drown him. Iphikles woke up and started to cry, while Heracles strangled the snakes with his bare hands. A parent can rest reassured with a child like this.

Or not?

The 12 Labors of Herakles

A Penance for His Crime

Herakles married princess of Thebes Megara and had two sons with her. But he was not to rest peaceful of Hera’s vengeance. The goddess inflicted him with a fit of madness during which he killed his own children.

When he came to, overcome with grief, he took to the Oracle of Delphi to have Pyhtia instruct him on how he would expiate himself. The sentence was that he’d have to serve Eurystheus, king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for a period of twelve years. As part of the hero’s servitude, King Eurystheus compelled him to perform twelve feats so hard that they seemed impossible.

The Twelve Labors

Those Twelve Labors involved

  • the killing of ferocious beasts and monsters (the Nemean Lion, the Lernean Hydra, the Stymphalian Birds).
  • He also had to capture magnificent animals, like the Hind of Ceryneia (sacred to goddess Artemis), the Erymantean Boar, the Cretan Bull, Diomedes’ Mares (this last sounds easy? well, the mares were a gift from War-God Ares, and they ate human flesh), or the Cattle of Geryon, a big-sized monster with three heads and twice as many hands.
  • He was also assigned a few other tasks, like cleaning the dang created over several years by the innumerable cattle owned by King Augeus (Augean Stables), bringing back the Girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, or the Apples of the Hesperides, located in a far-away Garden towards the East. He was even ordered to fetch Cerberus from Hades (i.e., the ferocious, three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld).

Myth #5: Jason & the Argonauts

A Prince Claiming His Throne, the Golden Fleece, and a Witch

Not to forget 50 Greek heroes and a speaking ship.

Quite a story!

“For well over three millennia, the story of Jason and his fellow Argonauts has enthralled the world. Jason’s quest to get the fabled Golden Fleece and bring it back to his homeland is a fabulous story of grit, compassion and revenge. Over the centuries many versions have been recorded, but the essence of the story remains the same; an adventure of epic proportions…”

Read more: Jason, the Golden Fleece and Medea.

Back in 2008, a replica of Jason’s ship actually set sail with the purpose of retracing a portion of the legendary journey. Making the whole trip would be absolutely possible, if not for the refusal of the Turkish state to let the ship pass through the Bosporus straight.

Myth #6: The Trojan War. Or Is It History?

What were Agamemnon and Achilles Really Seeking on the Coast of Troy?

Mythology carries seeds of truth, sometimes even more. Despite what people of Medieval and later times believed, Troy (Ilion) did exist on the shores of Asia Minor, and the Trojan War did indeed take place in the early twelfth century, BC.

It is important to understand that all these ancient myths and stories were processed over hundreds of years until people got them down on parchment (paper was not yet invented) and that they contain information that is sometimes obvious or sometimes coded, hidden, or half-forgotten; and that they draw from various historical, genealogical, literary, and ethical sources. Trying to make an outright distinction of those elements is not always easy and may sometimes even prove misleading.

Archaeology suggests that peaceful commercial exchanges interspersed with intervals of war were quite common in the North Aegean during the Bronze Age. We must also bear in mind that the area had developed a thriving civilization based on metallurgy (the island of Lemnos was home to god Hephaistos) and that it was a route towards the Black Sea, rich in metals and other goods. That was, of course, during the early Bronze Age (around 3,000 BC). Later on, the advent and growth of the Mycenean kingdoms on mainland Greece gave rise to rivalries and attempts—as is always the case—to gain dominion over the financial networks in the area.

Troy was built near the coast of Hellespont, the entrance to the Black Sea. Newer evidence indicates that it was inhabited by a people of Hittite descent at the time of the Trojan War. Homer’s Troy was a thriving city that was gaining power and wealth in the North Aegean area, thus being an enviable prize for a strong army.

Many things have also been said about the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, or Helen of Troy as she was later called. Besides giving a very good pretext for declaring a war, the story may well contain an element of truth. Commercial ethics of the time deemed piracy a quite legitimate means of making oneself a fortune, and the stealing of women and treasures was very common on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.

All the above leads us to view the Trojan War in the wider context of the epoch’s life and historical movements, rather than as an isolated episode in time.

You can read more about the historicity of the Iliad.

Myth #7: Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus' Voyage To Crete, early 16th century
Theseus’ Voyage To Crete, early 16th century

Slayer of Brigands & Monsters; Womanizer; Founding Hero

Theseus was a hero of the House of Athens, long before Pericles immortalized the city’s power by erecting classical Parthenon and the other great monuments on Acropolis.

In fact, Theseus preceded by a generation the Trojan War. His two sons, Acamas and Demophon, fought under the ultimate command of King Agamemnon.

Theseus is said to have been fathered by both King Aegeus and Poseidon.

Now, this is not as strange as it seems, for the name of Aegeus, or “Aigeus” as is its Greek spelling, is closely associated with Poseidon’s territory (a word on this below).

Is this perhaps the rock from which King Aegeus, Theseus’ human father, flung himself to the waves? And, what’s most important…

Why would Theseus’ father kill himself?

While Theseus was at Crete slaying the Minotaur and bringing a Cretan princess home (he finally lost Ariadne to god Dionysos, but this is another story), his father used to go to Cape Sounion and stare at the sea, waiting for his son to come home.

The deal was this: the ship sailed from Athens wearing black sails as a token of mourning. If Theseus was on that ship, safe and sound, upon its return, he would change them to white ones, a happy signal. Theseus forgot. Romantic holidays make you lose your mind sometimes…

When Aegeus saw the black sails, he flung himself into the sea, which is still called Aigaion, the Aegean Sea.

Back to Theseus’ story:

Theseus is largely known today for slaying the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull monster that dwelt inside the Labyrinth. Minos, king of Crete and ruler of the Easten Mediterranean until the rise in power of Mycenean cities of mainland Greece (one of which was Athens), had imposed to the defeated king Aegeus a cruel homage. Every seven (or nine) years Athenians had to send fourteen youths to be eaten by the Minotaur.

The third time this was about to happen, Theseus convinced his father to send him along as one of them. As everybody knows, the Athenian prince killed the Bull-Man (Bull being the symbol of Crete) and Athens set on her way to gradually becoming the new thalassocrat Greek state.

Theseus’ Enigmatic Parentage

Some Quick Academics

Greek mythology is a corpus of stories created throughout a long period of time, often in various places by neighboring, though different tribes. The lack of consistency is apparent in many cases, as for example there may be two, three or more versions of a certain myth, most usually differing in minor points.

The parentage of Greek heroes is often problematic. Different areas and royal houses may contest their affiliation to a famous hero; or, the myth may have become so popular, re-told so many times, that various versions circulated depending on the storytellers’ imagination; or, the thread of the myth was lost somehow and, when resuscitated, parts of it had become obscure for the newer generations.

Sometimes, however, differences are illusory. This is the case in Theseus’ story.

Tradition wants either Poseidon, Olympian god of the Sea, Earthquakes and Horses, or Aegeus, king of Athens, to be the hero’s father. Well… there may be no difference whatsoever between the two… Etymology (=the study of the origin of words) gives us some keys:

In Greek, Aegeus is actually written Aigeus.

Now, the root “aig-” is used up to our days and it’s found in a variety of words, such as

— aig–ialos: the seashore

— aig–is: Zeus’ aegis

— aig–a: a goat

— kat–aig–ida: impetuous storm, gale

What do all these words have in common?

The root “aig-” comes from the ancient Greek verb “aïsso”, which is used for a rapid, dashing, impetuous motion, meaning “shoot; dart; glance, as light.”

Like the rushing in of waves to the aigialos.

Like the furious motion of the waters and the winds in a kataigida.

Like when Zeus shakes his terrible aigis and turmoil and uproar break upon the earth.

Like the brisk gambol of the aiges and their swift disappearance among the rocks and cliffs of Greek islands.

So, Aegeus and the Sea are somehow connected. Science suggests so.

Myth #8: Demeter And Persephone

One more Vegetation Rite

The myth of Persephone is, once more, a story of death and rebirth — of loss and recovery of what is dearest to our soul.

Persephone, also called Kore (Maiden), was the daughter of Demeter, Olympian goddess of Vegetation, Agriculture, and Cereals. She was the light of her mother’s eyes, treasured by humans too—for she was a personification of the sprouting crop that would sustain their lives.

One day, as she was out in the fiends of Sicily gathering flowers with her girlfriends, she was abducted by Plouton, the sinister lord of Hades (the Underworld).

Myth #9: Orpheus And Eurydice

Orpheus was a legendary musician, poet and prophet of ancient Greece. According to ancient Greek poet Simonides, Orpheus’ music and singing could charm the birds, fish and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, and divert the course of rivers.

When his wife Eurydice got bitten by a snake and died, Orpheus decided to claim his fair lady back from the Underworld. He made it to the throne of Hades and the power of his music persuaded the King of the Dead to release Eurydice. The only condition was that Orpheus should not turn to look back until they both set foot under the sun and out of the dark kingdom. Guess what happened?

Yes, Orpheus was hasty, turned his head and Eurydice sank once again in the darkness—only permanently this time.

Orpheus was unconsolable. He roamed the wildrness singing sorrowful, pathetic songs about his forever lost love. One of his excursions ended tragically, as he was perceived by raging Maenads and was shred to pieces. His head and lyre were thrown into river Hebrus, still singing mournful songs.

Myth #10: Oedipus the Theban

The King Who Thought He Could Befool Fate

The story of Oedipus is placed among a rich mythical tradition dated from prehistoric times—the Theban Cycle, as this mythological corpus is called.

Thebes was founded by Cadmus, Phoenician prince brother of Europa (the one kidnapped by Zeus) and great-grandson of Egyptian king Epaphus, in around the fourteenth century, BC. One should remember that the prominent city of ancient Egypt, which rose to capital status under the 18th dynasty (c. 1550-1290 BC), bore the same name. We should also note that the Theban Cycle is separate from southern Greece’s Mycenean legends (Theseus, Pelops, etc.) for Thebes was at the time powerful enough to withstand pressures from these kingdoms.

The tragedy of Oedipus is about hubris, and a multifold one too.

First king Laios, Oedipus’ father and descendant of Cadmus, betrayed his host’s and protector’s trust as follows: When an usurpation of power took place in Thebes, Laios found refuge near Pelops, king of Pisa in Peloponnesos. To pay him back, he though fit to kidnap and rape his son and carry him off to Thebes.

Laios should get his rightful punishment, and he was even warned about it when his wife Jocasta bore him a son. The Oracle of Delphi pronounced that the child would kill his father and marry his mother. Laios then committed a second hybris, by thinking he could outsmart the gods. Not even wanting to stain his own hands with his son’s blood, he gave the baby to a shepherd to abandon on mount Cithaeron. The shepherd took pity of the little boy and the latter ended up adopted by King Polybos of Corinth.

The string of hubris does not finish here. In his own turn, Oedipus, triggered by some rumours, visits the Oracle only to be warned that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing Polybos and his wife Merope to be his blood parents, he decides not to return to Corinth. Once more in this family, a mere human believes he can go against fate. On his way to the nearby city of Thebes, he meets an elder contesting his right to passing first and, after a short scuffle, he kills him. The elder was Laios, but this would be revealed many years later. He then solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries his mother, and the rest is something between history and mythology.


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