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Greek Myths and Legends

Greek myths and legends are the backbone of Western civilization. Among the ancient Greeks, these myths and legends were allegories for morality and ethics and provided insight into the origins of man, his gods, his heroes, and the very nature of the world. The narratives focus on heroes, heroines, gods, goddesses, titans, and mythological creatures.

Greek Myths

Influencing Western Literature

The remarkable tales of the Greeks survived for thousands of years, living through philosophers and storytellers from the Roman Empire to the Egyptian nation to the Renaissance.

One of the oldest surviving Greek myths is Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. These works detailed the ten-year conflict of the Trojan War and the ten-year journey home undertaken by the Greek King Odysseus (also called Ulysses by the Romans). According to Homer's account, the war began when three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, charged a young prince by the name of Paris to choose the most beautiful amongst them. Each goddess offered Paris a bribe, but it was Aphrodite who promised him the most beautiful woman in the world.

Paris chose Aphrodite and she sent him to take Helen, the Greek queen married to Menelaus. Paris and Helen stole away into the night, pursued by Menelaus and his allies, leading to a ten year siege that would end with the fall of Troy and the greatest deceptive ploy of the ages: the Trojan Horse.

Pandora's Box

An enduring myth that warns against curiosity unleashing horrors is the tale of Pandora's box. The box, which was said to contain all the ills of the world, was given into the charge of a priestess named Pandora. The gods warned Pandora to never open the box. Pandora's curiosity, however, was too great. She opened the box and released sloth, greed, hate, murder, war, and more upon mankind. She closed it too late, leaving only one creation behind. Upon hearing it call to her, Pandora opened the box and allowed hope to go free. So despite all the ills of humanity, hope is there to help them fend against the dark.


Narcissus was a beautiful boy, so beautiful, that all who looked upon him fell in love with him, including a nymph named Echo. Cursed by Hera to only repeat the last three words spoken to her, Echo could never tell Narcissus how she felt. He teased the nymph, but Aphrodite took offense at Narcissus' cavalier treatment of the nymph and bid him to fall in love with the first person he saw. Soon after, Narcissus looked into a pool of water and became entranced with his own image. Yet every time he tried to touch it, the water rippled and his image faded. So in love with himself, Narcissus neither moved nor ate nor drank until his looks faded away and he sat on the precipice of death. Taking pity on him, Aphrodite transformed him into a flower. The tale is a cautionary one for being too cavalier of others' feelings and too engrossed in one's self.

The Labors of Hercules

The son of Zeus, Hercules' great strength was a blessing from his father. Haunted by dreams sent from Hera, Hercules feared murdering his own family. He went to the Oracles for help, consulting the gods on how to avert such a disastrous fate. The Oracle told him he must complete twelve great labors. Hercules submitted himself as a slave to the King Eurystheus, who gave him twelve impossible tasks:

  • Slay the Lion of Nemea
  • Catch the Golden Hind
  • Slay the Nine-Headed Hydra
  • Capture the Wild Boar of Mount Erymanthus
  • Slay the Stymphalian Man Eating Birds
  • Clean the Stables of King Augeus
  • Capture the White Bull of Crete
  • Catch the Flesh Eating Mares of Dimoedes
  • Take the Golden Girdle from the Queen of the Amazons
  • Bring Back a Herd of Chestnut Cattle from a Giant
  • Fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides
  • Capture the Three-Headed Dog Cerebus

Hercules successfully completed his twelve labors, winning his freedom and the safety of his family.

King Midas

A wealthy King, Midas loved collecting everything. When he won a boon from Dionysus, he asked that everything he touch turn to gold. But the wish soon became a curse as Midas could not eat, drink, or touch anyone because his touch transformed them to gold. Humbled by his greed, Midas begged Dionysus for a cure and the god granted him the task of bathing in a river to remove the golden touch.

Perseus and Medusa

Like Hercules, Perseus was the son of Zeus. Legends vary on whether he was trying to save a princess or his mother, but a king set before Perseus the impossible task of capturing the head of the Medusa, a gorgon who turned all who looked upon her to stone. Aided by the gods, Perseus received a shield from Athena and a sword from Hermes. He traveled to the cave of the grey sisters and captured their one eye, holding it hostage as he demanded from them the secret of where to find Medusa. He followed their instructions and received a helmet of invisibility from the island's Nymphs to avoid Medusa's sisters. When he found Medusa, he used her reflection in the shield to fight her and cut off her head. With the head in his possession, Perseus transformed the wicked king into stone and freed the princess.

Myths, Monsters and Legends

Each Greek myth tells stories of heroes who must overcome hardship and tasks or whom are cursed for their bad choices and greedy behavior. While the Greek gods are often portrayed as willful and capricious, they were also given to random acts of kindness and reward. The power of these legends continues to affect Western literature, art, and film more than 4,000 years after they first appeared.