The Greek army raced toward the walls of Troy.
The Trojans and their allies were broken. If the Greeks could keep up their pursuit, they might end years of war. Blood pounded in their veins as they ran, driven by the desperate desire for victory.
At their head was swift-footed Achilles, the finest warrior in the Greek army. His mother Thetis, a sea god, had made him immortal, hardening his body with fire and ambrosia. He had already slain Prince Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior. His spear was wet with the blood of the Amazon Queen Penthesileia, with whom he had fallen in love as they fought to the death. He would storm the walls of Troy and bring justice for Menelaos, whose wife had been carried off by Prince Paris.
An arrow hurtled from the battlements. Shot by Paris and guided by the god Apollo, it struck Achilles in his heel, the one vulnerable point in his whole body.
Blood sprayed from the wound. Swift-footed Achilles fell dead. Paris had revenge for his brother. Shocked at the sight, the Greek army faltered….
This is the world of Greek myth. A giddy whirlwind of love, death, loyalty, and betrayal. A realm in which gods and mortals collide. A place where personal grudges shape the fate of nations. A world where the only power stronger than arms is that of the gods themselves.
The origins of the Greek gods and their world were set down around 700 BC by Hesiod.
The first thing born into the world was Chaos. Then came Gaia, who was the world, Tartaros, the underworld, and Eros, which was love.
Chaos gave birth to Nyx, the Night, and to Erebos, a dark region much like Tartaros. Together, Nyx and Tartaros produced Day and Ether. Nyx alone gave birth to Doom, Fate, Death, Sleep, Dreams, and the Hesperides – Blame, Distress, Deceit, Sexual Affection, Age, and Strife.
Gaia gave birth to the Sky and the Sea. Then she and the Sky had children, including many monsters such as the Titans. After the Sky betrayed her, she had Kronos, one of the Titans, castrate the Sky. As his blood fell on Gaia, more creatures were born.
Kronos became king and married his sister Rheia. Together they had many children, who would become the gods of mount Olympus.
A prophecy told that Kronos would be overthrown by his own son. To stop this, he imprisoned his children within his own body.
When she became pregnant with Zeus, Rheia wanted to protect her son. She went away and gave birth to him in hiding. Zeus was raised by spirits and nymphs, while Rheia gave Kronos a stone disguised as a baby to swallow in Zeus’s place.
Once he grew up, Zeus returned and overthrew his father. Then Gaia forced Kronos to vomit up the rest of his children, giving them a new birth. As Zeus was out of their father first, he was now the eldest and became their leader.
Zeus and the Olympians fought a ten-year war against the Titans. They won and locked their enemies away. The world was now theirs to rule.
Though his origins show Zeus as the brother of some gods, he was regarded as the father of gods and men. He was the god of the sky and the weather, able to strike down enemies with his thunderbolt. He was also the god of hospitality, supplication, and oaths – important parts of royal rule.
Zeus was symbolised by the thunderbolt, the sceptre, and the eagle.
The legend of Zeus seems to have emerged from that of the Indo-European sky god Dyaus. This was the same figure who evolved into the Nordic sky god Tiw.
Zeus’s wife was Hera, the queen of the Olympians.
Theirs was not a happy marriage. Zeus was constantly cheating on Hera, leaving her angry and jealous. Despite this, her area of influence included marriage and maintaining its integrity.
While Hera was often petty and vengeful, she could also be magnanimous. She protected the heroes who set out on the quest for the golden fleece.
Hera’s symbols were the sceptre, crown, and peacock.
Poseidon is most often remembered as the god of the sea. He carried a trident and was depicted surrounding by sea creatures.
But he had other aspects as well. He was the god of earthquakes, bulls, and horses – like the sea, powerful and potentially destructive forces of nature.
Combining an unlikely pair of interests, Athena was the goddess of the domestic arts and of warfare. Her symbols included the helmet, spear, and shield, the owl, and virginity.
The helmet, spear, and shield were the equipment of hoplites. These were the elite warriors who formed the core of Greek armies. Greek heroes were usually depicted fighting with this equipment. Though the reality of hoplite warfare was ranks of closely packed troops fighting together and depending upon each other, mythical depictions were about individual heroism.
Greeks would have recognised the symbolic importance of this combination of weapons, their equivalent of a late medieval knight’s horse, sword, shield, and plate armour.
Athena was the guardian of the city of Athens. The Parthenon, one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world, was a temple to her.
The son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo was born on the run. Hera had heard about Leto’s affair with Zeus and hounded her until she found shelter on a floating island, where she gave birth to twins.
Bright Apollo brought healing and purification, as fitted his role as the sun god. He was also the god of prophecy, an important role at a time when people turned to the gods for signs of the future. On top of this, he was the god of music. He was often accompanied by the nine muses, goddesses who inspired art and music.
Apollo’s symbols were the lyre, laurel, and a bow and arrows.
Apollo’s bow and arrow symbol was shared by his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting. She was also the goddess of wild animals, representing the hunted as well as the hunter, victim as well as prey. As goddess of childbirth, she looked over both her human and her animal subjects and was the protector of young creatures.
As well as the bow and arrow, Artemis was symbolised by a hunter’s outfit. Like Athena, she could be symbolised by virginity. The two gods most linked with motherhood – those of domesticity and childbirth – were unlikely to have children of their own.
Anyone looking to make children could instead turn to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex. She was symbolized by a girdle, doves, and sparrows. Even among the gods, Aphrodite was the most beautiful and beauty was part of her remit.
During the Trojan war, Aphrodite sided with Paris, the Trojan prince whose love for Helen triggered the war.
Demeter was the goddess of corn and of the fertility of the land. She was therefore responsible for the harvests. Prayer to her was a way to try to stay fed.
Demeter was also the goddess of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous religious rites in ancient Greece. Once a year, initiates would go to take part in these sacred and secretive ceremonies at Eleusis.
The god of war, Ares was represented by a helmet, spear and shield, like Athena. He was not as important as his Roman counterpart, Mars, whose cult was central to the armies of Rome.
Ares represented the ugly side of war. Such was his darkness that he was hated by his own parents, Zeus and Hera.
A brilliant craftsman, Hephaistos toiled at the forge to produce the finest metalwork. He made the weapons, homes, and furniture of the other gods. Both fire and metallurgy, the foundations of the blacksmith’s craft, belonged to him.
Unlike the other gods, Hephaistos was not a perfect figure of beauty. Instead, he was an ugly cripple, making lameness an important symbol of his cult.
Hephaistos’s symbols included the blacksmith’s tools and anvil. He was also symbolised by the axe, a product of the forge which was both a tool and a weapon.
The swift-footed Hermes was the messenger of the gods. When not communicating between members of his family, he also carried an important message for humans, guiding their souls on the path to the underworld. Thieves, relying on a quick getaway, adopted him as their god.
While Demeter was responsible for the fertility of the land and growth of crops, Hermes was responsible for the fertility of flocks.
Hermes’s symbols were his staff, his winged boots or sandals, and the broad-brimmed hats worn by travellers to protect them from the sun.
The party god, Dionysus was responsible for wine, drama, and drunken ecstasy. When he became an adult, he set out to wander the world, teaching men how to grow vines and make wine.
He was symbolised by ivy, vines, and panthers. He also had a special symbol, the thyrsus. This was a staff of giant fennel topped with a pine cone and covered with ivy.
The god of the underworld, Hades was also associated with wealth, as precious metals came from below the ground.
Hades kidnapped Persephone, the only daughter of Demeter, and forced her to join him beneath the ground, where she became queen of the underworld.
The Titans were the dark mirror image of the Olympian gods. The children of Gaia and Ouranos, Earth and Sky, they were born before the Olympians. The Titans were powerful and monstrous. Unlike the Olympians, they strained against the natural order of the world.
Ouranos saw the darkness of the Titans and hate them, even though they were his own children. He hid them within Gaia, which stretched and strained her.
Determined to escape her pain, Gaia created adamant, a metal harder than any other, and made a sickle from it. She gave this to the Titan Kronos, who used to exact revenge for his mother by castrating his father.
Kronos and his sister Titan Rheia married. Their children were the first of the Olympian gods. The cycle of hidden children and brutalised fathers began again.
Strange creatures were almost as important as gods in Greek myth. Some were beautiful and benevolent, but many were monstrous and violent.
Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, was married to Pasiphae, the daughter of the sun god Helios. Like his father, Minos was shockingly unfaithful, pursuing many other women.
Minos was also ambitious. He wanted to become king of the island of Crete. To do this he needed to prove that he had the support of the gods, so he prayed to Poseidon, asking the sea god to provide a bull for Minos to sacrifice. The bull appeared, but it was to magnificent that Minos could not bear to kill it.
Angry at Minos’s betrayal, Poseidon turned the bull feral and made Pasiphae fall in lust with it. Turning the table on her philandering husband, Pasiphae seduced the bull by dressing up in a wooden cow costume. She became pregnant by the beast.
When Pasiphae gave birth, the result was the minotaur, half man and half bull. Minos was so appalled that he imprisoned the creature in the labyrinth, a vast underground maze built for him by the craftsman Daedalus.
The Gorgons were three sisters, children of a Titan. Like many of the offspring of Titans, they were monstrous and ugly, but the Gorgons were famed for how bad they looked. They had large tusks like those of a boar and writhing snakes instead of hair. Their hands were made of bronze and they had golden wings. Anyone who looked at them was so struck by their horror that he turned to stone.
Two of the Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal. The third, Medusa, was mortal. Unfortunately for her, word of her vulnerability got around, and she became a target for the monster-hunting hero Perseus. Catching her asleep, he was able to approach her safely by looking at her reflection in a highly polished shield. He cut off her head.
At the time of her death, Medusa was pregnant with the children of the god Poseidon. Rather than dying with her, these children emerged from the stump of her neck as she died. One was Khrysaor, the man with the golden sword. The other was a winged horse named Pegasus.
Pegasus emerged from Medusa’s neck fully grown. At the sounds of violence and new arrivals, Medusa’s sleeping sisters woke up. Perseus leapt onto the winged horse and flew away to safety.
The Cyclopes were a brother race to the Titans. These gigantic people each had a single round eye in the centre of their foreheads.
In the creation myths, the Cyclopes appeared noble and heroic. They fought with the gods against the Titans and crafted Zeus’s thunderbolt for him.
This creativity came back to bite them later. Zeus used the thunderbolt to kill Asklepios, the god of medicine and son of Apollo. Apollo, unable to revenge himself upon Zeus, instead killed the Cyclopes who had made the thunderbolt.
The Cyclopes that appeared in the Odyssey were very different. They were still one-eyed giants, but instead of civilised craftsmen they were cave-dwelling barbarians. Fierce and individualistic, they did not plant crops, use laws, or care about each other.
The offspring of a Titan’s son and mountain-living mares, the Centaurs were half man, half horse. The lived in the wild and lived off raw meat.
Centaurs appeared in many different parts of Greek mythology. They featured in the twelve tasks of Hercules; raised and educated the hero Jason; and caused chaos when they got drunk and tried to kidnap women from the wedding of King Peirithoos.
Most of the myths of ancient Greece are the stories of great heroes challenging gods and men.
Jason was the son of Aeson, rightful king of Iolcos. When Aeson’s half-brother Pelias seized control of the kingdom, Jason was the only one of Aeson’s children to survive. He was raised by the centaur Chiron.
Returning to Iolcos as an adult, Jason tried to reclaim the kingdom. Pelias said he could only do this if he first went on a quest for the golden fleece, owned by King Aeetes of Colchis. Jason assembled a band of heroes to help him, known as the Argonauts after the name of their ship, the Argo.
The journey to retrieve the fleece was full of danger. Along the way, the Argonauts fought harpies and giants and had to find a safe route between rocks that crashed together.
At Colchis, King Aeetes set three tasks that Jason had to complete to be given the fleece. These were ploughing a field using a fire-breathing ox, fighting an army that grew in the field, and defeating a dragon. Aeetes’s daughter Medea fell in love with Jason and gave him the knowledge and magical tools he needed to complete each task. At the end, Jason left with both the fleece and Medea.
He returned home, defeating the bewitching Sirens and the bronze man Talos along the way. Back in Iolcos, Medea used her sorcery to trick Pelias’s daughters into killing him, an act for which she and Jason were exiled.
The couple travelled to Corinth. There Jason betrayed Medea by deciding to marry the king’s daughter Creusa. Medea again used her magic to commit murder, this time killing Creusa with a magical wedding dress. She fled to escape punishment and Jason spent the rest of his life alone, his own punishment for betraying her.
Theseus was a legendary king of Athens who did much to shape the city and to unite the surrounding region under it. But he did not have an easy path to power.
An illegitimate son of King Aegeus of Athens, Theseus grew up in his mother’s city of Troezen. On becoming an adult, he learnt about his origins and travelled to Athens. Along the way, he defeated bandits and other menaces at six entrances to the underworld.
On arriving in Athens, Theseus discovered that his father was married to Medea, the same sorceress princess who had been the great love of Jason. She tried to kill Theseus to secure her son’s place on the throne, but at the last minute Jason’s father realised who he was and saved him.
Among Theseus’s many adventures, the most famous was his encounter with the Minotaur.
After being defeated in war by Crete, the Athenians were forced to pay tribute every seven years. This consisted of sending their seven bravest young men and seven most beautiful young women to Crete, where they were killed and eaten by the Minotaur.
Theseus decided to end this. Taking the place of one of the young men, he became part of the tribute. In Crete, he was helped by King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, and by Daedalus, the man who had built the labyrinth the creature lived in. Using a ball of string from Ariadne and instructions from Daedalus, Theseus found the heart of the labyrinth, killed the minotaur, and got out again.
Sailing back to Athens, Theseus forgot to change the black sail of his boat for a white one, the signal to his father that he was alive. Seeing the black sail and believing his son dead, Aegeus flung himself into the sea and drowned.
Theseus returned both to this terrible news and to a hero’s reception because of what he had achieved. He became king of Athens.
King Acrisius of Argos had been told that he would be killed by the child of his daughter, Danaë. To prevent this, he kept her in a courtyard of the palace, where men could not get to her. But it didn’t stop Zeus, who entered the courtyard and impregnated Danaë. The child of this union was Perseus.
Rather than risk killing Zeus’s son, Acrisius tried to protect himself by casting both Danaë and Perseus into the sea in a wooden chest. Washed up on a shore, they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys.
When Perseus grew up, Dictys’s brother, Polydectes, fell in love with Danaë. As Perseus did not trust Polydectes, Polydectes schemed to get rid of him. He threw a banquet to which the guests were expected to bring gifts of horses. Perseus, unable to provide a horse, asked what gift Polydectes wanted instead, and Polydectes demanded the head of the Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned men into stone.
To get the head, Perseus found the Hesperides, a group of nymphs, who gave him a bag that could safely hold the head. The gods also stepped in to help Perseus in his quest. Zeus gave him a sword and a helmet that would hide him. Hermes gave him flying winged sandals. Athena gave him a polished shield.
Arriving at the Gorgons’ layer, Perseus crept in while they slept. Using the shield, he safely looked at Medusa’s reflection and cut her head off. He then escaped, using the helmet to help him get away from her sisters.
On the way home, Perseus visited the kingdom of Aethiopia. There he slew the sea serpent Cetus, saving the princess Andromeda. He married Andromeda.
Arriving home, Perseus found Polydectes making violent advances on his mother. Using Medusa’s head, Perseus turned the villain to stone.
Perseus’ later adventures included accidentally killed his father Acrisius and founding the city of Mycenae.
Herakles, or Hercules as he was known in Rome, was yet another illegitimate son of Zeus. Supernaturally strong, skilful, and a gifted lover, he was the ultimate embodiment of Greek heroism. After several youthful adventures, he married Megara, daughter of King Creon of Thebes.
Hera’s greatest outpouring of bile over Zeus’s infidelities fell upon Herakles. She drove him insane, and in his madness he killed his own children. As punishment for his crime, he was forced to undertake ten tasks for his enemy King Eurysthenes, which Eurysthenes turned into twelve tasks by claiming that two of Herakles’s successes were invalid. All the tasks were unpleasant and most were very dangerous, but Herakles succeeded in every one.
He slew the Nemean lion, the nine-headed Lernaean hydra, and the Stymphalian birds.
He captured the golden hind of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, the Cretan bull, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the underworld.
He stole the mares of Diomedes and the apples of Hesperides. He obtained the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the cattle of the monster Geryon.
He cleaned the vast Augean stables in a day.
After the twelve tasks, Herakles went on to many other adventures. He eventually died thanks to poison and trickery, but in doing so built his own funeral pyre, on which his mortal side burned away, leaving him to become an immortal among the gods.
Smart, cunning, and diplomatic, Odysseus was quite unlike the vigorous fighting heroes with which he went to war against Troy. Throughout the ten-year siege of that city, he used his intelligence to the advantage of his allies. It was his idea to create a wooden horse, secretly fill it with soldiers, and leave it outside the walls as a gift. Once it was taken inside, the soldiers emerged from the horse and took the city.
The journey home took Odysseus another ten years. After being driven off-course by storms, he and his men had to face cannibals, a Cyclops, the lethargic lotus-eaters, a deadly whirlpool, and other challenges. Many died along the way, but Odysseus’s smarts always saw him through.
When he finally got home, he found that he had been presumed dead and suitors were competing to marry his wife. He won the competition for her hand and slew the suitors.
Athens – a powerful city-state that dominated the region of Attica.
Atlantis – an island kingdom sunk by earthquakes.
Crete – an island kingdom, home to the labyrinth and the Minotaur that lived there.
Delphi – a religious sanctuary where Greeks went to seek prophecy and religious insight.
The Fortunate Isles – a winterless earthly paradise in the Atlantic Ocean, occupied by the greatest of Greek heroes.
The Garden of the Hesperides – a blissful garden in northwest Africa tended by a group of nymphs.
Mount Olympus – the highest mountain in Greece and home of the gods.
Mycenae – a city that was a major centre of civilisation and a strong military stronghold.
The Pillars of Hercules – the promontories flanking the mouth of the Mediterranean and the furthest west Herakles went in retrieving the cattle of Geryon.
Tartarus – a deep dark dungeon in which the Titans were imprisoned.
Troy – a city that fought against an alliance of Greek states in a siege that lasted ten years.
Greek mythology has provided a rich source of ideas for modern society. Who haven't heard of Midas' Touch or Pandora's Box?
Many of the constellations are named are named after Greek characters, such as Cassiopeia and Andromeda.
Both film versions of Clash of the Titans combine various pieces of mythology, focusing on Perseus.
Hercules has appeared in numerous films, a TV show, and as a superhero in Marvel Comics.
The Amazons have repeatedly appeared in DC Comics, with Wonder Woman as one of their number. Her upcoming film will see them on the big screen again.
The legendary siege of Troy has also been the subject of numerous films, the most recent featuring Brad Pitt and Eric Bana in 2004. Odysseus’s struggles to return from the war have inspired more off-beat creations, including the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the 1981 Franco-Japanese sci-fi cartoon Ulysses 31.
Jason and the Argonauts became a film in 1963 with special effects by the legendary stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen. They were also the subject of a TV show in 2000.