HOLIDAY: The press will be closed from Monday, December 22 through Thursday, January 1.

Greek Myths

[ Classics ]

Greek Myths

By Lucilla Burn

Here retold in all their dramatic power are some of the most exciting and influential of all Greek myths: the epic struggle of the Trojan War, the wanderings of Odysseus, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, and the heroic adventures of Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason.

1990

Here retold in all their dramatic power are some of the most exciting and influential of all Greek myths: the epic struggle of the Trojan War, the wanderings of Odysseus, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, and the heroic adventures of Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason. The author introduces the complex pantheon of Olympian gods and goddesses, describing their attributes, genealogies, and often comic relationships, and illustrates the personalities and their stories by drawing upon the artistry of the ancient culture which created them. A concluding chapter reviews the powerful and continuing imaginative legacy of Greek myth, from Botticelli to Freud.

  • Map of the Greek world
  • Introduction
  • The labours of Herakles
  • Theseus of Athens
  • The Trojan War
  • The story of Odysseus
  • Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece
  • Perseus and Medusa
  • Oedipus and the Theban Cycle
  • The imaginative legacy
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Index and picture credits

Browse the book with Google Preview »

Persephone, daughter of Demeter the goddess of grain, was with the daughters of Ocean in a grassy meadow picking flowers. There were roses, lilies, saffron plants, violets, irises and hyacinths, but most beautiful of all, according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, was a narcissus,

a trap planted for the blossoming maiden by Earth in accord with Zeus's plans ... it was radiantly wonderful, inspiring awe in all who saw it, whether immortal god or mortal man; a hundred stems grew from its root; and the whole wide heaven above, the whole earth, and the salt surge of the sea smiled for joy at its fragrance.

As Persephone reached out to the irresistible flower, the earth fell from under her feet, and out from the chasm rushed the chariot of Hades, king of the Underworld and brother of Persephone's father Zeus. He snatched up Persephone and, despite her cries and screams, carried her off to his underground kingdom to be his wife. Only one goddess, Hekate, heard her, and only the sun-god Helios saw the rape; but as Persephone passed out of the light, the mountains and the rocks sent back echoes of her cries to her mother Demeter.

Distraught with grief and worry, Demeter cast a veil over her head and for nine days searched the earth for her daughter, never stopping to rest or even eat. Then Helios told her what had happened and that it was the will of Zeus for Persephone to marry her uncle. Demeter's grief was now mingled with fury; leaving Mount Olympos and the other gods, she wandered in disguise over the earth among mortal men until she arrived at Eleusis. There, in the house of Keleos, she became nursemaid to Keleos's infant son Demophon. She tried to make Demophon immortal by placing him at night in the flames of the fire. One night his mother stayed awake to watch, but when she saw her son in the hearth she cried out in terror and the wrathful Demeter was provoked to reveal her true identity. The people of Eleusis built a temple for the goddess and there she remained, totally neglecting her duties, and mourning for her lovely daughter:

She made the most terrible, most oppressive year for men upon the nourishing land, and the earth sent up no seed, as fair-garlanded Demeter hid it. Cattle drew the many curved ploughs in vain over the fields, and much white barley seed fell useless on the earth ...

Eventually Zeus, king of all the gods, took notice and summoned Demeter to his presence. But she utterly refused to return to Olympos, or to allow the crops to grow, until she saw her daughter again. So Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to fetch Persephone home. The cunning Hades obeyed his brother's command to release Persephone into the upper world, but before he let her go he made her eat a pomegranate seed, which meant that she would have to return to him again. Persephone was therefore only temporarily reunited with Demeter and Zeus ordained that she should spend two-thirds of the year above ground with her mother and one-third in the misty darkness as the wife of Hades.

Demeter had to be content with this arrangement. Now, as she sped over the earth, the barley sprang up and ripened below her feet. Returning to Eleusis, she explained to the leaders of the people the rites that were to be performed there in her honour and in honour of Persephone. These rites were to be the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose contents were a closely kept secret: all the Hymn to Demeter will reveal of them is that

Blessed of earthbound men is he who has seen these things, but he who dies without fulfilling the holy things, and he who is without a share of them, has no claim ever on such blessings, even when departed down to the mouldy darkness.

Myths have recently been defined as 'traditional tales relevant to society', and although this definition may seem a little colourless, its two propositions clearly do apply to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Like most other Greek myths, it is so 'traditional' that it is scarcely possible to say when it arose. The Hymn to Demeter is the earliest extant version of the story, and in its present form it is generally thought to date to the seventh century BC. But like the slightly earlier epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Hymn probably existed for several centuries before this in the form of oral poetry handed down through the generations. Very few Greek myths appear to have been invented in historical times: the vast majority seem as old as Greek civilisation itself.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone is also highly 'relevant to society'. Not only is the division of Persephone's year between the upper and the under worlds a vivid image of the division of the year into its different seasons; the myth also encompasses some of the most fundamental issues of human existence. In the first place it is concerned with the provision of food, necessary to sustain life. In the Greek world the most basic food was bread. When Demeter ceases to look after the crops and the grain fails to grow, man faces starvation. The Eleusinian Mysteries, it is thought, were in part concerned with propitiating Demeter in order to ensure the fruitfulness of the fields. But at the same time the myth of Persephone is an allegory of the natural social requirements for girls to grow up and leave home. In the end Demeter does not get her daughter back on a permanent basis, for Persephone must be reconciled with fulfilling her function as a wife. In Greek literature of the fifth century and later it is clear that the rape of Persephone is seen as the paradigm for all weddings; all girls weep as they are dragged from their mothers' sides, and again and again the imagery of marriage is that of rape and death. Like Persephone's descent to the world of the dead, from which she emerges as a wife, Greek marriage was a rite of passage, involving a girl's separation from her own family, her initiation into the duties of a wife, then her reintegration into society, where she may again mix with her own relations, but with a different status.

Greek myths permeated Greek life, private and public. In the well-documented society of Athens in the fifth century BC, for example, it is clear that a major part of education was learning and reciting epic poems on heroic subjects. Guests at drinking parties might entertain each other by reciting stories from myths, or they might listen to a professional performer, who would sing of the deeds of heroes while accompanying himself on the lyre. Private homes contained pottery vessels decorated with scenes from the adventures of the gods and heroes; these same vessels accompanied their owners to the grave. Scenes of myth could also be woven into fine textiles.

Moving outside the home, most of the great public religious festivals were linked with specific mythological incidents, and these were commemorated in the rites which marked such occasions. At the spring festival of the Anthesteria, for instance, there was both a re-enactment of the sacred marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne and a silent drinking competition which commemorated the occasion on which Orestes, polluted by matricide, sought sanctuary at Athens. To comply with the laws of hospitality and yet avoid contaminating anyone who shared a table with him, Orestes was put to sit on his own, and he ate and drank in silence. At the Anthesteria, therefore, each participant in the drinking contest sat silently at his own table and drank from his own jug. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, interweaving its mythological narrative with allusions to the great Mysteries of Eleusis, provides another typical example of the way Greek myth and cult were inextricably blended.

Greek myths inspired great art and great poetry. The large-scale mythological paintings which decorated the walls of such important fifth-century Athenian buildings as the Theseion (the Shrine of Theseus) do not survive, and we are left to imagine from ancient descriptions how impressive they must have been; occasional survivals, such as the painting of the Rape of Persephone in a fourth-century tomb at Vergina in Macedonia, are a tantalising reminder of what we have lost. Much more architectural sculpture survives from all periods of Greek art. In the sculptured metopes of the Parthenon, for example, we can see episodes from the battle between men and centaurs; the sculptural programme of the Great Altar at Pergamon in Asia Minor, built in the second century BC to honour the gods and glorify a ruling dynasty, provides not only an extremely vivid representation of the battle between gods and giants, but also a rare and invaluable record of a lesser myth, that of the local hero Telephos. Not just for painters and sculptors, but for poets too, the great corpus of Greek myths was their basic raw material and source of inspiration. Each year at the great dramatic festivals of classical Athens, versions of the familiar myths, either freshly worked or in popular old revivals, were brought before the public; and at the festivals of the gods hymns of praise and commemoration, both new and old, were sung; the Hymn to Demeter may well have been composed for such an occasion. Were it not for the remarkable poetic qualities of these reworkings of the old stories, and the lasting appeal of their beauty, both our present knowledge of Greek myths and their fascination would be far less.

The principal characters of the Hymn to Demeter are gods and goddesses, but in most Greek myths heroes (and heroines) play a more prominent part. The Greeks of the historical period liked to think that the Age of the Heroes had preceded their own times. As the poet Hesiod explained in the late eighth century BC, Zeus, the king of the gods, had created five successive races of men. The race of Gold had been the first to inhabit the earth: these fortunate people had lived a carefree existence like the gods, with the earth producing food for them of its own accord. They were succeeded by an inferior Silver race of people weak in both body and mind; and in their turn the men of Silver were replaced by those of Bronze. The men of Bronze lived principally for war; they were great and terrible warriors, and in time they destroyed themselves entirely.

To replace them Zeus created a new and glorious breed, 'a godlike race of heroes, who are called demi-gods— the race before our own'. These were the men whose deeds and characters inform Greek myth: they routed fabulous monsters, crossed the sea in search of Helen, died on the plain of Troy or ringed the seven-gated citadel of Thebes; after death they enjoyed a god-like existence in the Islands of the Blessed at the ends of the earth. To the fifth and last race of men the pessimistic Hesiod himself belonged. His was the race of Iron, in which unceasing work was relieved only by death: 'I wish I were not of this race, that I had died before, or had not yet been born.' Hesiod's feelings were echoed by many later Greeks, who looked back with regretful nostalgia to the lost Age of the Heroes as a not far-distant time when life had been both more noble and more glorious.

Nobility and glory were fundamental to the Greek concept of the hero. While many heroes had a divine father or mother—the father of Herakles was Zeus and the sea-nymph Thetis was the mother of Achilles—all were of noble birth; they were kings or princes, rulers of countries or cities, commanders of armies, possessors of fabulous wealth. They were invariably good-looking, athletic and brave. They adhered to strict standards of behaviour: they were respectful towards women and others in need of protection—the laws of hospitality, for example, were sacred, and no hero worthy of the name would drive a beggar from his hearth. Most important, however, was the heroes' obsession with fame and glory. Like the knights of medieval chivalry they rose eagerly to every challenge, whether it were the sacking of a city or the slaying of a Minotaur.

The world of the heroes was not distinctly segregated from that of the gods; the gods came and went among them, helping their sons or particular favourites and laying traps for those with whom they were displeased. Both gods and heroes, however, were subject to the higher authority of fate. Again and again we come across characters who are aware of their destiny, like Achilles and his parents, who knew that if Achilles went to Troy he would die there. Fate might be revealed through oracles, such as that of Apollo at Delphi, or through such intermediary agents as prophets, dreams and omens. But very often heroes had only a partial understanding of what was fated, and their inability to recognise and accept their destiny might well lead to tragedy, as in the case of Oedipus.

In the chapters which follow we shall be more concerned with heroes than with gods, but the gods are always present in the background: their relationships, passions, jealousies and spheres of influence and responsibility formed the backcloth against which the heroes played out their dramas. Before looking at the myths themselves, therefore, we will first look briefly at the gods.

The principal gods of the Greeks are often referred to as 'the twelve Olympians', after their home on Mount Olympos. There were actually at least thirteen important deities and numerous lesser figures besides. Chief among the gods was Zeus, whose grandfather was Uranos, personification of the sky; Uranos lay over Gaia, the earth, and she produced countless children, the youngest of whom was Kronos. Growing weary of child-bearing, Gaia enlisted the aid of Kronos, who cut off his father's genitals with a sickle and threw them into the sea. Kronos went on to marry his own sister Rhea, but since he knew that he in his turn was destined to be overthrown by one of his own sons, he swallowed his first three daughters and two sons as soon as each was born. When she was pregnant with Zeus, Rhea escaped to Crete and gave birth in a cave on Mount Ida. Leaving the infant there in the care of the nymphs, she returned to Kronos and presented him with a large stone wrapped up in swaddling clothes, which he duly swallowed, thinking it was his newborn child. When Zeus grew up, he forced his father to regurgitate all his older brothers and sisters; they then declared war on Kronos, overcame him and confined him forever in the depths of Tartarus, below the surface of the earth.

Next, Zeus and his brothers drew lots to determine how their power should be divided. Poseidon was given control of the seas and Hades power over the underworld and the dead, while Zeus won overall sovereignty, ruling over the earth and the sky. Their three sisters were Hestia, goddess of the hearth, Demeter, goddess of crops and grain, and Hera, wife of Zeus.

These six were the older generation of the Olympians, but many of the children of Zeus became equally important. Some were born to Hera, the rest to a variety of mothers. Hera gave birth to Ares, the god of war, and the lame smith-god Hephaistos, as well as Hebe, goddess of youth, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. There are differing accounts of the parentage of Aphrodite, the goddess of love: either she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, or else she was born from the foam which arose when Kronos threw the genitals of Uranos into the sea. Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war, was the daughter of Zeus and Metis, the personification of counsel; her birth was unusual, for when Metis was already pregnant, Zeus learnt of a prophecy that if she gave birth to a daughter, she would go on to produce a son who would rule the universe. So Zeus swallowed Metis, and in due course Athena sprang fully grown and fully armed from her father's head, helpfully split open by Hephaistos. The daughter of Zeus and Demeter was, as we have seen, Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. Leto bore Zeus the twins Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and Artemis the huntress; Semele bore Dionysos, god of wine; and Maia was the mother of Hermes, the messenger god.

It is not possible here even to attempt to answer the question of how the Greeks saw their gods. Undoubtedly they regarded them in different ways at different times, their views changing with the progress of their civilisation, and the development of their scientific knowledge and moral philosophies. For the present it must suffice to take the gods as we find them in the myths. In the Homeric poems, for example, the gods are at their most anthropomorphic, resembling nothing so much as a large, powerful, talented and extremely quarrelsome human family. The story of Ares and Aphrodite, as recounted in the Odyssey, serves as a useful example of their behaviour and may conclude this introduction.

The beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love, was married to Hephaistos, god of fire and metal-working, but conceived a passion for Ares, god of war. Hephaistos, though a consummate smith and craftsman, was lame and ugly, while Ares was handsome and virile. Aphrodite and her lover used to meet secretly in Hephaistos's palace, until one day the Sun saw them and told the smith-god what was going on. Hephaistos was furious, and immediately contrived a wonderful net, light as gossamer but strong as iron, invisible to the naked eye; this he fastened around Aphrodite's bed before departing on a well-publicised trip to the island of Lemnos. Ares was quick to seize the opportunity and went straight to Aphrodite. But as the pair lay entwined in each other's arms, the net fell around them and caught them up so that they could not move. Hephaistos, warned again by the Sun, hurried home and gave vent to his rage; standing in the doorway he shouted to all the other gods to come and look at the shameless couple. Poseidon, Apollo and Hermes all turned up, though the goddesses stayed modestly at home. When they saw Hephaistos's clever trick, 'a fit of uncontrollable laughter seized these happy gods'; there were suggestions that Ares would have to pay Hephaistos the fine paid to husbands by adulterers, and Apollo asked Hermes if he would care to take Ares's place; Hermes replied that even if the chains were three times as strong and even if all the gods and goddesses were looking on, he wouldn't give up such a chance of sleeping at Aphrodite's side. The respectable Poseidon, however, was rather embarrassed by the affair and urged Hephaistos to set them free. Eventually, when Poseidon offered to guarantee any recompense that Ares promised to pay, Hephaistos relented and released the chains. The luckless pair fled in disgrace, Ares to Thrace and the discomfited Aphrodite to her sanctuary of Paphos in Cyprus, where the Graces bathed and anointed her and dressed her in fine clothing, so that she was once more a marvel to behold.

Lucilla Burn is a curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, where she specializes in Greek painted vases and terracottas. She lectures widely and has published books, articles, and reviews on various aspects of classical archaeology.