Greek myths take place in a word that does not correspond to any specific historic period; rather, the mythological world was developed and altered over time.

You may wonder why these myths are so important over 2000 years later. The characters, stories, themes and moral lessons of Greek mythology continue to influence our everyday lives. References to Greek mythology can be found in brand names like Nike and Amazon; in movies like Wonder Woman and Percy Jackson; and are used by NASA and other government bodies; in advertising and much more. A name, phrase, or image based on a familiar myth can speak volumes to those who have been absorbing these tales since birth, as they capture aspects of the human condition that are still relevant today.

 

the HISTORY OF

 MYTHS

Without wide spread literacy, the dissemination of mythologies and historical events were part of an oral tradition that began in the Bronze Age. Their plots and themes gradually developed as written literature of the archaic and classical periods, and as a result, myths often have multiple versions, each slightly different.

Most myths explain or justify things in some way, be it the creation of the world; the cycle of life; the seasons; or the origins of a city.  This is not to say that the Greeks believed these myths as the literal truth, nor should it be thought that they were wholly sceptical of them.

 

The first written record of Greece, known to us, comes from Homer’s Iliad. Most likely produced in the 8th century BCE, it tells us of the mythical Trojan War as not only a divine conflict, but a human one as well. In this, the gods and goddesses used humans as their pawns, taking sides and warring among themselves.

Much like the mortal world, the mythological world was very hierarchical.

This hierarchy is a key factor to be considered as part of ethical decisions made by the characters in the myths, as different rules applied about how it was appropriate to treat people dependant upon their position in the hierarchy.

 

The hierarchy of Greek mythological world extends to the gods, who are at the very top. Like the nobles, the gods jealously guard their place at the top of the hierarchy and brutally punished any person who disrespected them. This is why Greek myths often include many examples of people suffering - because they have affronted the gods.

Many of the myths had recurring characters: the gods and goddesses; heroes; monsters and other fantastic creatures (many of which were half human, half beast). The hero's quest is often a profoundly transformative experience and often marks the shift from youth to adulthood. Like life however, the quests, and myths in general, do not always have happy outcomes.

MYTHS

DISCOVER THE TRUTH ABOUT HEROES AND MONSTERS.

 

HERACLES

Heracles was the greatest of the Greek heroes and is known as a prolific slayer of monsters. He was especially suited to this task as he was the half-god son of Zeus.

 

Zeus came to the home of a mortal woman, Alcmene, disguised as her husband Amphitryon. In this disguise, Zeus had an affair with Alcmene without her discovering his true identity. Hera, Zeus’s wife, was outraged at her husband’s infidelity however there was little she could do to him directly as Zeus was the all-powerful King of the Gods. Instead Hera took retribution on Heracles.

 

Hera’s schemes to make Heracles' life miserable are a recurring theme of his mythic story. The myth of Heracles 12 Labours, became the most famous of his exploits:

 

1. Slaying of the Nemean Lion (a huge lion whose hide was impervious to weapons)

2. Slaying of the Lernean Hydra (the Hydra was a gigantic many headed water serpent which sprouted two heads for every one decapitated)

3. Capturing the Ceryneian Hind (an enormous deer sacred to Artemis, which was faster than an arrow in flight, had antlers of gold, and hooves of bronze)

4. Capturing the Erymanthian Boar (an enormous and powerful boar)

5. Cleaning the Augean Stables (Heracles was sent to clean the stables of the King Augeus, who had a large amount of immortal cattle, and therefore they produced a lot of dung. This was meant to be a humiliating labour as opposed to his previous heroic efforts)

6. Slaying of the Stymphalion Birds (a flock of man-eating birds with beaks of bronze, and metallic feathers. Heracles killed them using arrows dipped in the poison of the Hydra)

 

7. The capture of the Cretan Bull (the bull who was the father of the minotaur)

8. The theft of the Mares of Diomedes (The Mares of Diomedes were a team of four man-eating and fire-breathing horses owned by the giant Diomedes. Heracles captured the horses and fed Diomedes to them)

9. Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta (Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons. In some versions of the myth she is impressed by Heracles and gives him the girdle freely, whereas in others, he kills her and takes the girdle)

10. Stealing the Cattle of Geryon (Geryon was a with 3 bodied four winged giant who Heracles had to kill in order to steal his cattle)

11. Stealing the Apples of the Hesperides (either by killing a dragon or having Atlas get the apples for him)

12. The capture of Cerberus from Underworld (Cerberus was the three headed hound who guarded the gates of the Underworld)

PARIS

According to an ancient myth, Paris’ mother, Queen Hecuba of Troy, dreamt that she would give birth to a flaming torch which would destroy her city. A seer subsequently advised her to kill her infant son Paris at birth. Instead of doing so directly, Queen Hecuba left the baby to die on a mountain. Here, the boy was rescued by a shepherd, who brought him up as if he were his own son. Eventually, a sequence of events led Paris back to his royal family, where he fulfilled the prophecy by eloping with (or abducting) Helen, instigating the Trojan War.

ODYSSEUS

Odysseus was the King of Ithaca who fought for the Greeks during the Trojan War. Known for his cunning and schemes he had many notable exploits during the war.

 

In the Iliad, he and the warrior Diomedes went on a night raid which resulted in the death of many Trojans. He later obtained the armour of Achilles over rival warrior, Ajax by bribing the Greek elders.

 

Finally, he is the Greek who devised the plan to build the Trojan Horse which led to the final downfall of the Trojans and the end of the war.

 

 

Apart from these heroic exploits, Odysseus is best known as the protagonist of the Odyssey. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus encounters a variety of both friendly and unfriendly people and monsters on his ten-year journey home. The most well-known of these are the Cyclops Polyphemus and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Others encountered, include the savage Laestrygonians, who hurled massive boulders at his ships, and the Lotus-Eaters who spent all day under the influence of drug like plants which made those who ate them forget all that was important. On his journey, Odysseus also encountered the witch goddess Circe, and the sea nymph Calypso, with whom he lived for a time.

 

After these many adventures, Odysseus eventually made his way home to Ithaca where he killed the suitors who had been attempting to woo his wife Penelope, and was finally reunited with his family.

perseus

Perseus is one of the oldest Greek mythological heroes who was most famous for slaying Medusa. According to his myth, Perseus was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Danae. When he was grown, Perseus was sent on a quest to slay the Gorgon Medusa, a monster whose gaze turned people to stone.

 

With the guidance of Hermes and Athena, he travelled to meet the Graea, three sisters with a single eye and tooth between them. By holding these to ransom, Perseus discovered the location of the Nymphs who possessed the weapons which would kill Medusa: winged sandals, a bag to hold the Gorgon’s head and Hades’ helmet of invisibility. Hermes gave him an adamantine sickle, and Athena, a polished bronze shield. With these tools, Perseus managed to kill Medusa and escape the lair with her head as a prize.

theseus

Theseus was a mythical hero and King of Athens. He is involved in a great number of exploits, the most famous of which is the slaying of the Minotaur.

 

According to the myth, King Minos of Crete housed a terrible monster, the Minotaur. A beast with the body of a man but the head of a bull. The creature lived in a labyrinth which was designed to be so difficult that anybody who entered would never escape. When the son of King Minos was killed in Athens, the king decided to take his revenge by ordering that 7 girls and 7 boys be sent to Crete every nine years to be fed to the Minotaur. They were left in the labyrinth for the monster to devour them one by one.

 

Theseus, the young son of the King of Athens, decided one day that it had been enough! Volunteering to go to Crete, Theseus vowed to kill the Minotaur and put an end to King Minos’ human sacrifices. When he announced his intentions, King Minos only laughed as he trusted that even if Theseus could slay the Minotaur, he would never find his way out of the labyrinth.

But Theseus had a secret! He had met with Princess Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, who had fallen madly in love with him and decided to save his life. She gave him a thread to unravel as he walked further and further into the lair of the beast. Once Theseus had slain the Minotaur, he was able to use the thread to retrace his steps and escape the labyrinth.

JASON

Jason’s quest to find the Golden Fleece is the myth for which he is best known. According to the story, Jason sailed toward Colchis on his ship, the Argo, with a crew of many famous heroes known as the Argonauts. Although the exact crew differs depending on the source, the various heroes counted as Argonauts include Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux. During their quest to find the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts encountered hostile tribesmen, harpies (half-woman half-bird creatures and the Gegenees (a race of six armed giants). Upon arriving in Colchis, the local King Aeetes agreed to give up the fleece if Jason could complete a series of tasks.

 

The first part of his tasks was to yoke and then plough a field with fire breathing oxen. Once this was completed, he was to sow dragon’s teeth into the field. From these teeth, warriors would grow, which Jason would have to defeat. Jason agreed to the task not knowing that Aeetes knew no mortal could complete the task unaided. Jason, however, was supported by the goddess Aphrodite, who made Aeetes daughter Medea fall in love with him. Medea, herself a sorceress, helped Jason complete his tasks and retrieve the Golden Fleece.

BELLEROPHON

Bellerophon was a Greek hero whose story largely took place in Anatolia. In the myth, he was sent on a mission to kill the Chimera.

 

In order to kill such a dangerous monster, Bellerophon needed to capture the winged-horse Pegasus who would help him in his quest. He went to the Temple of Athena (Parthanon), and while there Athena came to him in a dream and presented him with a golden bridle which he used to capture Pegasus. Bellerophon went to Lycia where the Chimera was ravaging the land and flew on Pegasus just out of reach of the Chimera’s fiery breath and killed the beast with spears and arrows.

 

Echidna, the mother of all monsters, is described as having the upper-half of a woman and the lower-half of a snake. Echidna has a very confused origin and her genealogy differs depending on the author. Her main role is that of the consort of the monster Typhon with whom she gives birth to a great number of the famous monsters in Greek mythology.

ECHIDNA

TYPHON

According to the poet Hesiod, Typhon had hundreds of snake heads sprouting from either shoulder. However, on Greek pottery he is depicted with a human upper body, wings, and the lower body of a snake. Some versions of the myth state that Typhon managed to defeat Zeus by ripping out the ligaments from his body. The other gods were able to heal Zeus and he returned to battle Typhon with his thunderbolts, which he used to finally defeat the monster. After his victory, Zeus imprisoned Typhon under Mount Etna in Sicily, where he constantly shakes the earth and spews fire from it. This myth explains the origin of how Mount Etna came to be a volcanic mountain.

NEMEAN LION

Offspring of Typhon and Echidna, the Nemean Lion is described as being monstrous in size, with claws sharper than swords and a gold fur coat which was impervious to mortal weapons. The Lion intimidated the inhabitants of Nemea until Heracles slayed the Lion as the first of his twelve labours, later skinning it and wearing its pelt as a cloak of armour.

 

When Heracles arrived at the Lion’s lair, he initially attempted to shoot it with arrows which merely bounced off the Lion’s fur. He then managed follow it into its cave and strike it with his club. The blow stunned the Lion, allowing Heracles to grapple with it and eventually choke it to death. Other versions of the myth say that Heracles shot arrows at the inside of the Lion’s mouth which was vulnerable, unlike the rest of its body.

sphinx

The Sphinx is described as having the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle and a snake for a tail. The Sphinx figures prominently in the myth of Oedipus. In the myth, the Sphinx guards the road to Thebes where it asks travellers a riddle: Which creature has one voice, but becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed respectively? When people invariable answered the riddle incorrectly, the Sphinx killed and devoured them.

 

On travelling to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx and managed to solve the riddle. His answer was 'man' - this is because a man crawls on four legs as a baby, two legs as an adult, and three legs (with a cane) as an old man.

COLCHIAN DRAGON

The Colchian Dragon was the unsleeping creature that guarded Golden Fleece. In the myth, the fleece was owned by Aeetes, the King of Colchis.  In order to obtain the Golden Fleece, the hero Jason travelled from Greece to Colchis on the Eastern Black Sea. To prevent the fleece from being stolen, Aeetes had hung it from a tree which was guarded by a dragon that never slept. Luckily for Jason, the goddess Aphrodite was on his side, and used her power to make Aeetes' daughter, Medea fall in love with him. Medea gave Jason a potion to make the Colchian Dragon sleep, allowing Jason to steal the fleece.

LADON THE DRAGON

Ladon was a fierce, many headed dragon, who guarded the garden of the Hesperides.

The Hesperides were a group of nymphs and in their garden grew golden apples which granted anyone who ate them immortality.

 

As part of Heracles eleventh labour he was ordered to retrieve the golden apples. In one version of the myth, Heracles killed Ladon and took the apples. In another, he had the Titan, Atlas retrieve the apples in exchange for taking his place in holding up the heavens. After Atlas obtained the apples, Heracles decided that he did not want to resume his place, so he tricked Atlas into holding the

heavens just for a moment and then departed with the apples, leaving Atlas to his fate.

CHIMERA

The Chimera was a monster from Lycia in modern day Turkey. In appearance, it had the body of a lion, a snake for a tail and the head of a goat coming out of its back. It also had the ability to breathe fire. After terrorising Lycia for a number of years, the Chimera was finally defeated by the hero Bellerophon after he had tamed the flying horse Pegasus. As Bellerophon rode Pegasus, he was able to stay far away from the Chimera’s fire while still staying close enough to shoot it with arrows.

HYDRA

The Lernaean Hydra is described as a large serpentine monster with many heads, that emitted poisonous fumes. Heracles, sent to slay the Hydra, covered his mouth and nose to protect himself from the fumes and managed to decapitate the beast. Unfortunately, anytime the Hydra lost a head, two more regrew in its place.

 

Heracles, realising he was fighting a losing battle, called upon Iolaus for help. Iolaus took up a torch and cauterised the stump of each head after Heracles had cut it off, preventing the Hydra from regenerating, he buried the final immortal head under a rock and thus killed the monster.

MINOTAUR

The Minotaur was a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull who subsisted on human flesh. The birth of the Minotaur involved an offense to the god Poseidon.

 

The story began with Minos, the future King of Crete, who claimed sovereignty over his brothers by stating that what ever he prayed for would come true. He prayed to Poseidon, and the god of the sea decided to show his favour by sending Minos a divine bull which Minos was expected to sacrifice as thanks for the god’s help. Minos, however, kept the bull for himself as he was impressed by the majestic animal.

 

This sacrilegious act offended Poseidon who took revenge by having Minos’ wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull, as a result she gave birth to the dreadful Minotaur. In order to contain his horrific step-son, Minos constructed a giant labyrinth from which the Minotaur could not escape.

CERBERUS

Cerberus was a monstrous dog who served Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld. Most commonly depicted with three heads, his main duty was to guard the gates of the Underworld and prevent anyone who had died from returning to the land of the living.

 

Assuming it was an impossible task, Heracles was sent, as a part of this twelve labours, down to Hades to bring Cerberus back with him. With the help of Hermes and Athena, Heracles was able to catch Cerberus by choking him with his lion skin until he submitted.

SCYLLA + CHARYBDIS

In the Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis are a pair of monsters who were positioned on either end of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. As part of his journey back to Greece, Odysseus was instructed by the sorceress, Circe, that he would have to sail through the strait in order to get home.

 

Charybdis sucked in the sea to create a giant whirlpool which, if Odysseus sailed too close, would consume him and his entire crew. On the other side, Scylla, a six headed monster, would reach down and consume at least 6 of Odysseus’ crew. Thus, Odysseus was left with a dilemma; he could sail closer to Scylla and be guaranteed to lose six men, or sail next to Charybdis and risk all of his crew in the hope that everyone would live. Odysseus ended up choosing the former option by sailing on Scylla’s side and as a result, six of his men were eaten, but the majority survived.

THE HELLENIC MUSEUM

 

280 William Street, Melbourne 

Victoria, 3000

 

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