Professor Richard Schwartz

Department of English

Florida International University


In the Beginning 

            In the beginning the four elements -- earth, water, air, and fire -- were commingled in a shapeless mass, and neither space nor time existed.  Chaos, a rather indeterminate divinity, ruled over this indistinct realm with his black-clad wife Nyx (Night).  They had a son Erebus (Darkness), who eventually usurped his father and married his mother, thereby inaugurating a theme in Western culture that extends from the Oedipus myth to the Oedipus complex.

            Paradoxically, the dark union of Erebus and Nyx gave issue to two light-filled offspring, Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day).[1] These children eventually supplanted their parents and bore a child of their own, Eros (Love).  The three of them then separated out the elements and created Gaia (Earth; also spelled Ge or Gaea) and Pontus (Sea).  Then followed Tartarus, a dark abyss beneath Hades.

            Initially, the earth was silent, barren, and motionless, but Eros shot his arrows into Gaia's bosom, and life and vegetation sprang forth. 

            Gaia then gave birth to Uranus (Heaven).  Thus the Cosmos was now divided into 4 realms: Heaven, Earth, Sea, and Underworld (Hades/Tartarus).  Uranus, in turn, united with Gaia, and the pair soon ousted Aether and Hemera.  Uranus's rain made Gaia fertile, and she bore the Cyclops, the Hecatoncheires (hundred-headed giants), and the Titans. 

            But Uranus became jealous of his children and confined them all to Tartarus.  Gaia suffered to see her offspring incarcerated; so she conspired with the youngest of the Titans, Cronos (Saturn) to depose Uranus.[2]   Armed with a scythe that Gaia provided him, Cronos castrated his father while Uranus and Gaia were making love -- but not before Uranus cursed him, declaring that Cronos, too, would fall victim to his children. 

            Cronos cast Uranus's testicles into the ocean, and from the white foam that gathered around them emerged Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of beauty, fertility, and love.  Aphrodite stepped ashore in Paphos, Cyprus, and she remained closely associated with Cyprus.  [The famous Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus, depicts this scene]  On the other hand, the drops of Uranus's blood that fell to earth gave issue to the Furies and the Giants.

            After supplanting his father, Cronos mated with his sister, Rhea.  Their children were the gods Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.  Aware of his father's curse, Uranus swallowed each child upon its birth, so it could not kill him.  But when Zeus was born, Rhea substituted a large stone for the infant and hid Zeus on the island of Crete.  When he came of age, Rhea persuaded Cronos to surrender his fears and release the children he had consumed.  He disgorged the other gods, who then united under Zeus's leadership in a ten-year struggle against their father.  Most of the Titans sided with Cronos (but not Prometheus), and the Cyclops and Hecatoncheires sided with the gods.  Eventually the gods prevailed and imprisoned their vanquished opponents in the depths of Tartarus. 



The Olympians

[Note: Roman names appear in parenthesis]


            Zeus became the chief of the gods and ruler of the Heavens.  His brothers Poseidon (Neptune) and Hades (Pluto) took dominion over the oceans and the underworld, respectively.  No single god claimed dominion over the earth, which became common ground, though Demeter (Ceres) is typically depicted as a Mother Earth figure.  The chief gods lived on Mt. Olympus, a tall mountain in northern Greece believed by the ancients to be the center of the earth.  In general, the gods were associated with forces of nature.  There were twelve original Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Ares, and Hermes.  These were later joined by Dionysus.


Zeus (Jupiter, Jove)  Chief of the gods who had dominion over the skies and the heavens.  Homer calls him "cloud-gatherer" and he was known for the thunderbolts he hurdled.  The eagle was his bird.  Zeus was associated with the maintenance of customs, traditions, and accepted order.  He also looked after beggars and suppliants and oversaw the codes of hospitality.  (See the story of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1st century A.D.)

            The son of the Titan Cronos, whom he deposed, Zeus first married Metis, whose name means Wise Counsel.  But he feared a warning from Gaia that his children by Metis would be wiser than he, and thus capable of usurping him.  Consequently, when Metis became pregnant, Zeus swallowed her whole and absorbed her wisdom into himself.  But soon Athena, the product of their union, emerged from his forehead, fully clad in armor. 

            Zeus subsequently married his sister, Hera, but he was infamous for his many infidelities.  Their legitimate children include two Olympians: Hephaestus, the lame blacksmith of the gods, and Ares, the god of war.  Also born were Eileithyia, an obscure goddess associated with childbirth, and Hebe, the cup-bearer of the gods who, according to Homer, marries Hercules after he has become a god.  Zeus's union with Leto (Latona), a Titan known for her gentleness, produced the twin Olympians, Apollo and Artemis.  He also fathered Hermes, whose mother was Maia, the daughter of the Titan Atlas.

            Zeus was especially prone to affairs with human women, whom he often seduced in human, animal, and other incarnations.  These women and their offspring typically suffered Hera's wrath as a result.  Notable among the maidens Zeus impregnated were Europa, whom he seduced in the form of a bull, Leda (swan), Danae (shower of golden rain), Alcmene (shape of her absent husband), Callisto (shape of Artemis), and Semele (shape of human man).  Zeus also seduced Io, whom he transformed into a cow in order to hide her from his wife.  Hera (in some versions Artemis) transformed Callisto into a bear when she discovered the Castillo, one of Artemis's handmaidens, had born a child by Zeus named Arcas.

            When a god mates with a mortal, the issue is usually a demi-god -- a mortal with extraordinary qualities, often a hero.  But there was one exception.  Zeus's union with Semele produced Dionysus, who became immortal when he was seared by the same lightning bolts that killed his mother.  And Alcmene gave birth to Hercules (aka Heracles or Herakles), who became a god after his death.  Arcas, son of Castillo, became the constellation Arcturus (Guardian of the Bear), and his mother was transformed into the Ursa Major (Great Bear).  Danae bore Perseus, who in some versions also became a constellation.  Europa bore Minos, the great King of Crete who became one of the three Judges in Hades after he died; Rhadamanthus, who became ruler of the Elysian Fields, and Sarpedon, whose death in battle is recounted in the Iliad (approx. 8th century B.C.)  Leda bore Helen of Troy, her sister Clytemnestra, and the twins Castor and Pollux.


Hera (Juno)  Sister and wife of Zeus.  Hera (aka Here) was the patroness of marriage, a guardian of children, and protector of women. The peacock was her bird.[3]  Known for her magnificent face and body, "ox-eyed" Hera, as Homer calls her, married Zeus after his first wife Metis met a bad end.  In one version, Hera seduced Zeus with a love potion obtained from Aphrodite.  In still another version Zeus came to her disguised as a suffering cuckoo bird to whom she kindly gave refuge on her lap.

            However, Zeus was unfaithful, and their marriage was filled with bickering and violence.  On one occasion Zeus had to be restrained by the other gods, who bound him in unbreakable thongs and removed his thunderbolts.  He risked overthrow, but the sea-nymph Thetis helped him escape.  Zeus punished Hera by hanging her from the sky by her wrists and attaching heavy weights to her ankles.  She remained in that torturous position until the other gods swore oaths never to rebel again.

            Hera was vindictive against her mortal rivals and their offspring.  For instance, she had the Furies harass Io and tried to kill Hercules at his birth and plagued him throughout his life.  Helen of Troy was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and one could argue that the Trojan War resulted from Hera's vindictiveness against her.  Book XIV of the Iliad highlights Hera's role in the war.  Her support for the Greeks is consistent with her role as a patron of marriage, since the war was fought to restore the original marriage.


Poseidon (Neptune)  God of the oceans.  Homer calls him "Earthshaker," and Poseidon was associated with earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as the seas.  He was also associated with horses.  He and Apollo built the walls of Troy, which is why the Greeks had such difficulty penetrating them; but he sided with the Greeks in the war.

            The son of Cronos and Rhea, Poseidon was also the father of the Cyclops Polyphemus, whom Odysseus blinded.  Odysseus thus earned Poseidon's enmity, and Poseidon is responsible for many of his travails.

            His consort was Amphitrite, but Poseidon also had affairs with others, most notably the Gorgon Medusa, whom he raped while she was admiring her beautiful hair in the Temple of Athena.  Outraged by the desecration of her shrine, Athena transformed Medusa's hair into snakes, and she became so repulsive that anyone who even glanced at her would immediately turn to stone.  Perseus later slew her, and upon her death Medusa gave birth to the beautiful white horse, Pegasus, whose father was Poseidon.


Hades (Pluto)  God of the Underworld.  Hades was the son of Cronos and Rhea.  Not at all Satanic, he was neither about evil or punishment, and was not generally regarded as a fearsome figure.  In fact, he was reputed to be just.  His wife was Persephone (aka Kore, Proserpine), the daughter of Demeter whom he abducted. 

            The Underworld, itself, was also called Hades.  After a person a person died, he or she had to cross the River Styx to pass into Hades.  The gods most solemn oaths were made on the River Styx.  An ugly old man, Charon, ferried the souls across the river, and it was customary for relatives of the deceased to place a coin in the corpses's mouth as payment for the passage.

            Souls entering Hades passed the three-headed guard dog, Cerebus.  Once inside Hades, souls (aka shades) drank water from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.  This was to help prepare them for their next incarnation.  (See Aeneid Book 6).


Demeter (Ceres)  A Mother Earth figure especially associated with corn and grain.  Demeter was the daughter of Cronos and Rhea.  She was one of the most popular and widely worshipped deities and perhaps the first of the gods worshipped by the Greeks.  Mysteries were held at Eleusis held twice a year in Demeter's honor.  These rites were so respected that no one was ever known to break the vow of secrecy required of all initiates, and still today little is known about them.

            Demeter is best remembered for how she pined for her daughter, Persephone, after Hades abducted her.  The grieving mother neglected her duties, and the earth grew desolate without her care.  Therefore, Zeus forged an agreement wherein Persephone would be allowed to spend eight months of each year on earth with Demeter and four months in Hades with her husband.  During the four months she is absent, Demeter grieves, and the earth experiences winter.


Athena (Minerva; aka Pallas Athene)  Goddess of wisdom and patron and guardian of Athens.  A virgin, warrior goddess who was typically shown fully armor, she was also associated with spinning, weaving, and other domestic crafts, and was known for her shining grey eyes.  The owl was her bird. 

            Athena was the favorite daughter of Zeus, despite the painful details of her birth.  After Zeus swallowed the pregnant Metis, he developed a terrible headache and asked Hephaestus to relieve the pressure by opening a hole in his head with an axe.  Hephaestus complied, and Athena emerged from her father's forehead fully clad in armor.  She figures prominently in the Odyssey, as Odysseus was beloved to her.  She also assisted Perseus and affixed the head of Medusa onto her shield after he finished his tasks.  (See Trojan War and Perseus below).

            The story of how Athena became patron of Athens is represented in friezes on the Parthenon, which was erected in her honor in the 5th century B.C., after the great Greek victories over the Persians.  Both Athena and Poseidon vied for Athens, and Zeus decreed that dominion would go to the god who gave the city the more valuable gift.  Poseidon thrust his trident into a rock and produced a clear spring.  But Athena planted the first olive tree beside it and won the honor.  (Olive oil was a valuable commodity in ancient Greece.)  According to one version, Athenian women were denied the vote in civic matters as way of appeasing Poseidon, who was angered because all of the female goddesses had voted against him.

            As represented in Aeschylus's Eumenides (458 B.C.), Athena presided over the murder trial of Orestes and established the precedent of replacing primitive blood feuds with trial by jury.  This peaceful means of resolving disputes and establishing guilt or innocence is one of the defining characteristics of what we consider civilized society.  (See Trojan War below.)

            Athena also appears in the story of Arachne, an accomplished weaver who boasted that her talents were greater than even Athena's.  To prove her claim, she challenged Athena to a contest.  Although Arachne's work was flawless, the subject of her tapestry -- episodes depicting the gods' indiscretions and sordid behavior -- infuriated Athena.  Arachne tried to hang herself to escape the goddess's wrath, but Athena did not let her off so easily: she transformed the girl into a spider who would endlessly weave her own web. (In biology, spiders are called Arachnids.)


Apollo (Apollo; aka Phoebus)  God of light, medicine, music, poetry, and all fine arts.  Characterized by reason and emotional restraint, Apollo is also a law giver.  Ever youthful, he is considered the "most Greek" of the gods and commonly depicted with his lyre, which he obtained from Hermes.  Apollo is also known for caring for herds and flocks.  He and his twin sister Artemis are also known for their ability as archers.  Though also associated with the sun, Apollo is more technically the god of light, and Helios is the sun god.

            According to Hesiod, Zeus conceived Apollo and Artemis with the Titan Leto.  But no country would give Leto sanctuary to bear the children, because they feared the wrath of Hera, who warned all mortals and immortals against aiding her.  Leto thus wandered throughout the world but found no compassion.  In fact, when she stopped to drink from a clear pond, a group of workers, at Hera's behest, commanded her to move on.  When she tried to drink anyway, they muddied the water to pollute it.  In response, Leto prayed that these men might never leave the pool of water, and in response Zeus transformed them into huge green frogs.

            Finally, Leto gave birth to Artemis on the floating island of Ortygia (the peninsula of Syracuse, Sicily -- home to Calypso in the Odyssey), and Artemis helped her mother across to the Mediterranean island of Delos, where Apollo was born.  He is thus associated with Delos.  Subsequently, both floating islands became fixed.

            Fed on divine nectar and ambrosia, Apollo reached full manhood in four days.  Armed with weapons made for him by Hephaestus, he sought out the Python whom Hera had created to torment Leto.  Apollo found the huge snake in Delphi, where he plagued the local residents, and the god slew the serpent at a shrine sacred to Demeter there.  The Pythian games commemorate this event.  After undergoing a purification ritual because he had defiled Demeter's shrine, Apollo returned to Delphi, claimed the shrine for himself, and began the practice of issuing prophecies there through an oracle in which he spoke through a priestess at the temple.  When possessed by the god, the priestess would be in a state of incoherent ecstasy, and her statements had to be interpreted by the priest.  This, of course, gave the priests considerable power, and Delphi exerted significant political influence as a result. 

            Both in legend and historical fact people came from all over to the Delphic Oracle.  To win the god's favor they frequently brought extravagant gifts, and the temple was filled with riches until it was plundered by the Romans in 86 B.C.  Notable figures who consulted the oracle are Oedipus, who sends his brother-in-law Creon in Oedipus Rex (late 5th century B.C), and Croesus, King of Lydia, who was told that if he made war on the Persians he would destroy a great kingdom.  The kingdom he destroyed was his own.  On the other hand, some answers were less ambiguous.  When asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, the oracle simply answered "No."  Socrates's admonition to "know thyself" originated at Delphi.  

            The first people to recognize Apollo as a god were the Hyperboreans, a legendary race who lived far to the north of Greece and who sent him offerings of wheat to Delos every year.  Like the Greeks, the Hyperboreans were greatly beloved by Apollo, who vacated his shrine at Delphi during the winter months in order to visit them.  During his absence, Dionysus occupied the temple.  This demonstrates Apollo's recognition that human existence requires libidinal passion as well as cerebral reason (Id and superego in Freudian terms).

            Apollo was greatly beloved by the Greeks because he protected and nurtured them and gave them music (the lyre) and the fine arts.

            Like Zeus, Apollo enjoyed the company of mortal women, but despite his obvious attractions, his devotion was not always reciprocated.  He longed for a mountain nymph named Daphne, but she spurned his advances and fled from him.  When he pursued, she called out to her father, a river god, he saved his daughter by transforming her into a laurel oak.  Thereafter, the laurel became sacred to him, and Apollo is often depicted wearing a laurel wreath on his head. 

            Another lover, Coronis, proved unfaithful, and in a jealous rage Apollo killed her, even though she was carrying his child.  He quickly regretted his act and tried to compensate by having Hermes snatch the fetus from her funeral pyre.  The child, Asclepius, became immortal, and Apollo endowed him with great healing arts.  Thus Asclepius became the Greek god of healing and medicine.

            Apollo gave the Trojan princess Cassandra the gift of prophecy to win her love.  No god is able to retract a gift, but he or she can expand upon it; and when Cassandra later spurned Apollo, he added the condition that no one would ever believe her predictions.  Thus her warning that the Trojan Horse would doom Troy went unheeded, as did her prediction to Agamemnon that Clytemnestra would murder him, and herself, upon his return from the Trojan War.  (See Aeschylus's Agamemnon, 458 B.C.)


Artemis (Diana)  Goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and daughter of Zeus and Leto.  A virgin goddess, she roamed the forests with her attendants, hunting and sporting.  Like Apollo, she was known for her accomplishments as with the bow and arrow.

            Artemis figures most prominently in the stories of Niobe and Acteon.  Niobe was the proud mother of seven handsome sons and seven beautiful daughters.  However, she made the mistake of bragging that she was more fortunate than Leto, who had only one of each.  Stung by the insult, Leto appealed to her children, who slew all 14 siblings.  So grieved was Niobe that she could not stop weeping, and she eventually turned into a fountain.  (Hamlet describes Gertrude at her husband's funeral as being like Niobe, "all tears."  Sophocles's Antigone also alludes to her, 442 B.C.)       Acteon was a hunter who descended from Cadmus, founder of Thebes (the same lineage as Oedipus).  One day he accidentally spotted Artemis bathing in a pond, naked.  The goddess at this violation of her honor that she transformed him into a stag.  He was then torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs.

            Artemis fell in love with the slumbering Endymion, whose beauty was so great that she kept him in an eternal state of sleep to prevent the ravages of life from taking a toll.  (See Keats's poem "Endymion.")  She also fell in love with the hunter Orion, but her disapproving brother, Apollo, tricked her into accidentally shooting him.  As compensation, Artemis made Orion and his faithful dog Sirius into constellations in the sky.  (Thus in Shakespeare, Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the heavens, is referred to as the dog star.)


Hephaestus (Vulcan)  God of craftsmen and fire.  The son of Zeus and Hera, Hephaestus was the blacksmith of the gods. 

            Hephaestus was born lame and ugly, and Hera was so disgusted at the sight of him that she dropped him from Olympus.  He was then nursed by Thetis, mother to Achilles.  On another occasion Zeus flung him from Olympus when Hephaestus interceded in a domestic quarrel.  Zeus insisted that Aphrodite marry Hephaestus, but the forced union was not happy.  Though the Cyclops typically forged Zeus's thunderbolts, Hephaestus was known for the magnificent armor he crafted for Achilles, and later for Aeneas. 

Aphrodite (Venus)  The goddess of love and sexuality.  Aphrodite was born from the white foam surrounding Uranus's testicles after Cronos cast them into the ocean, and she stepped ashore in Paphos, Cyprus, where she was first worshipped.  She was also worshipped on the island Cythera, and Homer sometimes alludes to her that way.  She was known for her golden girdle which gave its wearer tremendous sexual allure. 

            Aphrodite married Hephaestus on Zeus's insistence, but had affairs with Ares and Hermes, as well as with the mortal hero Anchises.  Cupid (Amour) and Hermione (Harmonia, who married Cadmus) were her children with Ares; her child with Hermes was Hermaphroditus, who had both male and female genitals.  Aeneas was her son by Anchises, who was never able to have sex after his one tryst with the goddess -- but it was said to be worth it.  Aphrodite also loved Adonis, whom she had to share with Persephone several months a year after he was killed. (See Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, Shelley's Adonais.)  In the story of Cupid and Psyche, Aphrodite assumes the unusual role of the hateful mother-in-law.  She also figures in the story of Hero and Leander.


Ares (Mars)  God of war.  Though in Roman mythology Mars is a powerful figure, in Greek legend Ares is much less so.  In the Iliad he sides with the Trojans, but flees howling in pain after Athena wounds him.  He is best known for being trapped in bed with Aphrodite by her jealous husband, Hephaestus.  (See Homer's Odyssey, Book 8, approximately 8th century B.C.)


Hermes (Mercury)  The messenger of the gods.  A trickster, Hermes was the patron god of commerce and of thieves.  He also escorted souls on their journey to the Underworld.  Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, who was the daughter of the Titan Atlas.  He is typically shown with his golden staff and winged sandals that enabled him to fly quickly anywhere in the world to carry out the bidding of Zeus.

            As an infant Hermes made the first lyre from a tortoise shell.  While still a baby, he stole a herd of Apollo's cows and covered his tracks by wearing his shoes backward, so it appeared as though he absconded in the opposite direction.  When Apollo finally discovered the treachery, he was furious, but Hermes consoled him by giving Apollo his lyre.  In return, Apollo allowed him to keep the herd and gave him the staff of gold (kerykeion), which Hermes would place on the eyes of dying humans to induce a gentle sleep before he conducted them to Hades.

            A youthful figure and a light spirit, Hermes had several alliances with human women and one with Aphrodite, the product of which was Hermaphroditus.  He also fathered Autolycus, the greatest of thieves.

Dionysus (Bacchus; aka Bromius, which means "to roar")  God of wine, revelry, and ecstatic sexuality.  The son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, he carries his thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pine cone and wrapped in ivory and vine branches.  The Greek version of this deity is far more youthful and potent than its Roman counterpart, Bacchus, who is older and more debauched.  In general, we can associate Dionysus with the forces of the libido.  He has associations with the Egyptian god Osiris, who was also a fertility figure, and he came to Greece from Asia Minor.

            Zeus was attracted to Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, and he came to her in the guise of a mortal, though he subsequently revealed his real identity to her.  However, when Semele was pregnant Hera discovered the affair.  To exact revenge she approached Semele in the form of an old woman and advised her to have her lover prove that he was actually Zeus.  She could do this by demanding that he come to her bed in the same full glory in which he approached Hera.  Semele accepted the advice and asked Zeus to promise her a single wish.  He agreed to do anything she desired.  When she made her request, he begged her to choose something different, but she refused.  Since no god can retract a promise, Zeus came to her in his divine form, surrounded by lightning bolts and divine fire that immediately consumed his lover.  But Zeus rescued the fetus from her womb, and the same fire that killed Semele made her son immortal. 

            Zeus sewed the fetus into his thigh until he was born; then he assigned the infant Dionysus to Semele's sister Ino, but Hera drove her mad.  Subsequently, Zeus ordered Hermes to bring the child to Nysa, a mountainside near Helicon, where he could grow up safe from Hera's wrath.

            Unappreciated in his native Greece, Dionysus traveled to Asia, where he learned to use his divine powers.  He gained a following and then returned to Thebes, the land of his conception, where he demanded recognition.  When King Pentheus refused to honor him, Dionysus caused the women of Thebes to go mad in an orgiastic frenzy, during which Pentheus was torn to shreds by a group of them led by his own mother.  (See Euripides, The Bacchae, 405 B.C.) 

            After Dionysus established his identity as a god, Apollo allowed him to share his shrine at Delphi, and Dionysus became the thirteenth Olympian.



            There are a number of mortal heros in Greek legend.  Among the most important are Hercules, Perseus, Jason, and Theseus.  Hercules and Perseus were demigods, while Jason and Theseus issued from human parents.  Orpheus was another, less typical hero of unusual parentage.


Hercules  Hercules was conceived when Zeus came to Alcmene of Thebes disguised as her husband Amphitryon, who had gone off to war.  When Amphitryon returned, he also made love to his wife, and she bore a child from each father, Hercules and Iphicles.  The jealous Hera sent a serpent to kill the boys in their cradle, but the infant Hercules strangled them. 

            Later, when he reached manhood, Hercules accomplished his first great deed by slaying a lion on Mt. Kithaeron that was preying on Amphitryon's herds.  He skinned the beast and wore the pelt over his tunic and the head as a sort of helmet. This outfit and the club Hercules used to kill the beast make him readily identifiable in sculptures and paintings.  He then returned to Thebes, which had been subjugated by the Orchomenus in his absence.  With assistance from Athena, he rallied the Thebans and defeated the enemy, though Amphitryon was killed in the fighting.         For his efforts King Creon named Hercules protector of the city and gave him his daughter, Megara, as his wife.  Iphicles married her younger sister, and they each had several children.  But the ever-wrathful Hera exacted revenge by causing Hercules to go temporarily insane, and in his madness he killed six of his own children and two of his brother's.  When he regained his sanity and realized what he had done, Hercules's first response was to shut himself away in a dark, underground room.  But eventually he consulted the Delphic oracle in search of some means of atonement.  The oracle told him to bind himself in servitude to King Eurystheus of Argos, who imposed twelve labors upon him: killing the Nemean lion, killing the multi-headed Hydra, capturing the Erymanthian boar, capturing the Hind of Ceryneia that was sacred to Artemis, scaring away the Stymphalian birds, cleaning the Augean stables, capturing the Cretan bull, capturing the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, obtaining the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, stealing the cattle of Geryon, stealing Cerebus from the Underworld, and stealing the golden apples of Hesperides on Mt. Atlas.

            Once he completed these labors Hercules was again free. But in a fit of anger he killed a guest in his own house -- an unpardonable act in the Greek world.  When the oracle at Delphi denounced him and refused to assist in his penance, Hercules again became enraged and plundered the temple.  Apollo confronted him, and they fought until Zeus finally separated them.

            Once again, Hercules had to do penance.  This time he became the slave of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, for a year.  She made him her paramour and bore three sons by him.

            When his year expired, Hercules proceeded to Troy, whose King Laomedon had been required to sacrifice his daughter to a sea monster in order to appease Poseidon.  Hercules rescued her and killed the monster in return for two mares Zeus had given the king.  However, Laomedon substituted other horses, and Hercules, managing to restrain his temper, left the city after warning the king to prepare for war.  Laomedon's son, Podarces, protested his father's actions, and after Hercules returned with an army and defeated Laomedon, he made Podarces the new king.  Podarces changed his name to Priam, the redeemed, and it was he who presided over Troy during the Trojan war.

            Hercules then went on more campaigns.  He captured Pylos, and made Nestor king in gratitude for his service as a fearless soldier and wise counselor.  Hercules then married Deianira, daughter of the king of Calydon, and settled into a tranquil life until his temper once again flew out of control, and he accidently killed a serving boy, a relative of the king, who had spilled water over him.

            Hercules and his wife left Calydon, but in their travels they encountered a swollen river.  He could have carried her across but feared she would get wet; so he accepted the offer of Nessus, a centaur (half man, half horse), who offered to ferry her.  Instead, once Hercules was on the other side of the river, Nessus tried to rape Deianira, and Hercules shot him with a poison arrow that had been dipped in the blood of the Hydra.  But as Nessus was dying, he instructed Deianira to gather some of his blood and semen.  If she ever felt Hercules was about to be unfaithful, she should mix them with oil and anoint his shirt was the potion.  This would guarantee that Hercules would never betray her with another woman. 

            Subsequently, Deianira followed the centaur's advice, but when Hercules donned the shirt, it burst into flames and consumed him.  Knowing he was dying, Hercules order a funeral pyre, but no one could bring himself to kindle the flames.  Finally, a passing shepherd boy, Philoctetus, agreed to light the fire, and in gratitude Hercules gave him his bow and arrow.  (These later proved necessary for the Greeks to take Troy.  See Sophocles's Philoctetus, 409 B.C.)

            Once the fire was ignited, Zeus reduced the pyre to ashes with his thunderbolts and brought his son to Olympus, where Hera finally became reconciled to him and treated him as an adopted son.


Perseus  The son of Zeus and Danae, whose father was King Acrisius of Argos.  Advised by an oracle that his grandson would someday kill him, Acrisius locked his daughter in a tower to prevent her from having suitors.  However, Zeus noticed her, desired her, and came to her in a shower of golden rain.  After she conceived, Acrisius put her and the infant Perseus into a wooden chest and cast it adrift into the ocean.  It floated to the island of Seriphos, where a fisherman named Dictys rescued them and brought them to the palace of King Polydectes.  Polydectes desired Danae, but she resisted his overtures.  However, as Perseus grew older, the king's entreaties became more insistent.  Perseus, who was his mother's only protector, offered to give any gift to Polydectes, providing the king leave Danae alone.  Hoping to eliminate Perseus, Polydectes demanded the head of Medusa, a Gorgon with snakes for hair who was so ugly that anyone looking upon her turned instantly to stone.

            Perseus accepted the challenge.  Aided by Athena, who lent him her shield, and by Hermes, who lent him his sickle, a special leather bag for carrying the head, and a pair of winged sandals, Perseus first had to track down the Graiae, three sisters who shared a single eye and single tooth and who guarded Hermes's special helmet of invisibility.  Upon locating the Graiae, Perseus intercepted the eye as the sisters were passing it among each other, and demanded they give him the helmet and tell him where to locate Medusa.  Desperate for their eye, they relented.  He then flew to Africa, where he found the sleeping Gorgons.  Looking only at the reflection of Medusa in Athena's shield, he decapitated her with Hermes's sickle and placed the head in the special pouch.  From her body sprang her children by Poseidon, the winged horse Pegasus and the warrior, Chrysaor. 

            On his way back home, Perseus overflew Ethiopia, where he spotted a beautiful girl chained naked to a rock.  The sea monster Cetus was preparing to devour her.  Perseus killed the monster and returned the girl, Andromeda, to her parents.  She had been offered as a sacrifice to appease Poseidon, who had become angered when her mother, Cassiopeia, boasted that she was more beautiful than the sea-nymphs.  Perseus demanded Andromeda for his wife.  But at the wedding her uncle Phineus claimed the bride.  A fight ensued in which Phineus enjoyed the support of the queen.  Heavily outnumbered, Perseus commanded all of his supporters to look away and then held up Medusa's head.  His foes were immediately petrified.

            Perseus then returned home to Seriphos.  Convinced that Perseus would never return, Polydectes pressed his attentions on Danae, and she had fled with Dictys for sanctuary in a temple.  Unwilling to violate the sanctity of the shrine, Polydectes was trying to starve the couple out.  However, Perseus again used the Gorgon head and transformed Polydectes and his court to stone.  Perseus then made Dictys king and returned to Argos with his wife and mother.

            Hearing of their return, King Acrisius fled to Larissa, and Perseus became ruler of Argos.  He returned the sandals, helmet, and sickle to Hermes and gave Medusa's head to Athena, who affixed it to her shield.

            At some later time, while participating in an athletic competition, he hurled the discus beyond the field into the crowd and inadvertently killed one of the bystanders -- his grandfather.  Thus the prophecy was unwittingly fulfilled.  In some versions, Perseus then went to Asia, where his son Perseus founded the nation of Persia (modern-day Iran).  Other versions claim Perseus exchanged his throne in Argos for that of Tiryns (known for its thick walls).  A successful ruler, he also founded Mycenae, which Agamemnon later ruled.


Jason  Leader of the Argonauts and husband to Medea.  Jason was the son of Aeson, King of Iolcus.  Aeson was overthrown by his brother Pelias when Jason was a child, and the boy was sent away to be raised by Chiron, the wise centaur who also educated Achilles.  When Jason returned years later to reclaim the kingdom that was rightfully his, Pelias promised to step aside if Jason would bring him the fleece from a golden ram that King Aietes of Colchis had sacrificed to Zeus.  Jason agreed and assembled a team of heroes who set out with him on boat called the Argo.  The 50 adventurers, known collectively as the Argonauts, included Hercules, Orpheus, Peleus (father of Achilles), Nestor, and Leda's son's Castor and Pollux.

            The expedition first stopped at the island of Lemnos, which was populated entirely by women who welcomed them and begat several children during their visit.  After several other more dangerous adventures they arrived at Colchis.  Jason demanded the golden fleece, but Aietes declared he would first have to plough a large field with two bronze, fire-breathing bulls and then sow it with dragons' teeth. 

            Aietes's daughter, Medea, fell in love with Jason and offered to help if he agreed to marry her.  Media, whose aunt was the witch Circe and whose grandfather was the sun god Helios, provided a special balm that made Jason immune to the bulls' fire, and he was able plow the field.  When an army of soldiers sprang up from where he had planted the dragon's teeth, he again followed her advice, tossing a stone among them and causing them to fight among themselves until none remained alive.  Nonetheless, Aietes refused to give Jason the fleece.  But Medea used her magic to make the dragon guarding the treasure sleep, and Jason was able to abscond with the fleece.  They then fled to the Argo.  To delay her pursuing father, Medea severed the limbs of her younger brother and scattered them behind.  As Aietes stopped to pick up the pieces, the couple escaped.

            Jason and Medea returned to Ioclus, but Pelias would not surrender the throne.  Therefore, Medea convinced his daughters that they could rejuvenate him by dismembering him and boiling the pieces of his body in a large pot filled with magic herbs.  However, she withheld the herbs and thereby eliminated Jason's competition for the throne. 

            But Pelias's son roused the indignant population against them, and the couple fled to Corinth, where Jason proposed to abandon Medea in order to marry the king's daughter.  In retribution, Medea tricked the princess into wearing a poisoned garment that burst into flames when she put it on.  Her father also died trying to save her.  Then Medea killed her own two sons by Jason in order to deprive him of heirs.  Afterwards, she fled to Athens, where King Aegeus granted her sanctuary.  But when she tried to kill the king's son, the hero Theseus, she was again forced to flee, this time in a chariot provided by her grandfather, Helios, the sun god. 

            Devastated by his fate, Jason wandered throughout Greece, until he returned to the Argo, which lay rotting on the seashore near Corinth.  As he rested by the boat, the prow fell on him and killed him.  (See the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes from the 3rd century B.C. and Euripides's Medea, 431 B.C.)


Theseus  The great hero of Athens.  Son of King Aegeus of Athens and Princess Aethra of Troezen, Theseus was raised in Troezen by his mother.  But when he reached manhood, she told him who his father was and showed him some tokens by which Aegeus would recognize and acknowledge him.

            Theseus had many adventures on his way to Athens.  Theseus's first gift to the city was to make the roads leading to it safe.  At Epidaurus he killed the murderous cripple Periphetes with Periphetes's own club.  Then he killed several other murderers who plagued the countryside, including Procrustes, the owner of a travel lodge who would amputate his guests' legs or heads if they were too large for their beds, or stretch them out on a rack if they were too short.

            When he arrived in Athens, Medea was already there, having taken refuge after killing the king and princess of Corinth, as well as her own to sons by Jason.  She had married Aegeus and had a son by him, and therefore feared Theseus.  Consequently, she convinced the king that Theseus was a potential usurper and urged Aegeus to send him to kill the great Cretan bull that Hercules had brought to Marathon as one of his labors.

            When Theseus returned, Medea tried to trick Aegeus into poisoning him, but the king recognized the tokens and saved his son at the last moment.  Instead, Medea and her child had to flee.

            United at last with his father, Theseus learned how King Minos of Crete had required Athens to furnish seven young men and seven young women each year in compensation for his son, who had been murdered in Athens.  These youths were placed in a vast labyrinth that Daedalus had designed.  At its center was the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull that would devour them. 

            Over his father's objections, Theseus volunteered to be among the Minotaur's victims.  In Crete, he caught the eye of Ariadne, Minos's daughter who fell in love with him.  She explained how the victims inevitably exhausted themselves inside the maze, and were easy prey for the monster.  Secretly, she provided him with a sword and a large ball of twine, which he secured to the entrance and unwound as he proceeded into the labyrinth.  When he finally encountered the Minotaur, he slew it with the sword and then used the twine to find his way back to the entrance. 

            Theseus freed the other hostages and, taking Ariadne with him, set sail for Athens.  On the way, they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. 

            Before leaving for Crete Theseus had agreed with Aegeus that if he was successful the returning ship would raise a white sail, but if he failed it would use a black one.  However, in the excitement Theseus forgot to hoist the white sail.  When Aegeus spotted the black sail, he leapt from a cliff in despair and killed himself.  Thus Theseus became king of Athens, and the sea where his father fell became known as the Aegean.  (The medieval story of Tristan and Isolde also employs the erroneous black sail signal.  The Aegean Sea is on the eastern coast of Greece.)

            As king, Theseus expanded Athens's dominion throughout the region and attracted skilled craftsmen to the city.  He instituted the Isthmian Games and put them under the patronage of Poseidon.  He defeated an invasion by the Amazons and forced their queen Hippolyta to marry him. (See the beginning of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.)  They had a son, Hippolytus. 

            Theseus subsequently shared several adventures with his friend Pirithous, king of the Lapiths who had subdued the centaurs.  (That battle is depicted in friezes on the Parthenon in Athens.)  Their exploits included the kidnapping of Helen, whom they subsequently returned (She was later kidnapped by Paris, an act which initiated the Trojan War).  The two friends also made an ill-fated trip to Hades wherein they tried unsuccessfully to abduct Persephone as a wife for Pirithous.  Theseus was confided to a chair in Hades until Hercules came and rescued him.

            After Hippolyta died, Theseus remarried, but his second wife, Phaedra (Ariadne's younger sister) fell in love with Hippolytus.  She tried to seduce the boy while Theseus was away, but when he refused she told her husband that Hippolytus had tried to rape her.  Outraged, Theseus appealed to Poseidon and cursed his son.  When he discovered the truth of the situation, it was too late; Hippolytus had already been killed.

            After a prosperous rule in which he united the Attic settlements into a federalized Athenian state, administered justice, brought peace to the region, and showed proper respect for the gods, Theseus was killed on the island of Scyros, when King Lycomedes, who was fearful that Theseus might claim his kingdom, pushed the hero from a cliff to his death.


Orpheus Though not a traditional action hero in the manner of the others, Orpheus sailed on the Argo with Jason.  Son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope, according to some versions, he was known for his ability to make incredibly beautiful music.  So great was his power that even wild animals would gather to listen to him.  He saved the Argonauts from the destructive lure of the Sirens by distracting his crewmates with music even more beautiful than the Sirens' songs.

            When his wife, Eurydice, died from snakebite, Orpheus followed her to Hades, charming the ferryman Chiron and putting the watchdog Cerebus to sleep with his lyre.  Persephone was so moved by his music and his love for Eurydice that she prevailed upon Hades to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living with him.  The only condition was that on their return trip, Eurydice had to follow behind, and Orpheus could not look back at her.  But Orpheus was unable to resist the temptation to view her, and Eurydice slipped back into the Underworld forever.

            Afterwards, Orpheus avoided the company of women, and according to Ovid's Metamorphoses he introduced to Greece the practice of homosexual intercourse with young boys.  Orpheus was subsequently torn to pieces by Maenads -- female followers of Dionysus in a state of bacchic frenzy.  The reasons are ambiguous.  In some versions he was killed because they are jealous of his love for Eurydice; in others because he had renounced women for men and rejected the heterosexual orgies of the Dionysian cult (which, after all, was a fertility cult), and in others because he had revealed the secrets of Hades.  Still singing of his dead wife, Orpheus's dismembered head was thrown into a river and eventually carried to the island of Lesbos where it uttered the prophesies of Apollo.  The rest of his remains were buried at the foot of Mt. Olympus.  A popular Orphic cult subsequently grew up around him.


The Trojan War


            The city of Troy actually existed; archaeologists have identified the site on the western coast of Turkey, near present-day Gallipoli, where Europe and Asia are separated by a thin strait of water known as the Dardanelles (called Hellespont in ancient times).  There were several cities build on that site, at least one of which was destroyed by a great fire such as that described in ancient texts.  Strategically situated for both military and trade purposes, Troy competed with Greece for power, prominence, and commercial success, and today's scholars believe the war was fought largely for economic reasons. 

            The Trojan War is now believed to have been fought around 1200 B.C.  Homer's account of it in the Iliad is believed have appeared around the 8th or 9th century B.C., during the so-called Dark Ages that followed the Doric invasion that destroyed Mycenae and the other great Greek city-states around 1100 B.C.

            According to legend, the cause of the Trojan war goes back to the Judgment of Paris.  The Olympians attended the wedding of Thetis, a minor goddess, and Peleus, a mortal hero.  At the behest of Zeus, who believed the human race had become overpopulated and required thinning, Strife left a golden apple inscribed "To the fairest."  Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple, and Zeus chose Paris, a handsome young Trojan prince, to judge.  Paris turned down Hera's bribe of power and riches, and Athena's offer of great wisdom, in favor of Aphrodite's promise of marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world.

            Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, was the most beautiful woman in the world.  When she grew up, all the princes of Greece wanted to marry her, and her step-father, Leda's husband King Tyndareus, feared that the rejected suitors would turn against him and the marriage.  Therefore, he accepted the counsel of Odysseus, who advised that all the suitors take an oath to honor and protect the marriage.  Tyndareus then allowed Helen to choose her husband, and she selected Menelaus, King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon, who was the king of Mycenae, the richest and most powerful kingdom in Greece at the time.  Agamemnon married Helen's fully human sister, Clytemnestra.

            When Paris ran away with Helen, who either went willingly or forcibly, depending on the version, Tyndareus demanded that all of her former suitors honor their pledge and mount an expedition to reclaim her.  The unified Greek force was led by Agamemnon, though each prince or king commanded his own forces. 

            Among those who fought on the Greek side was Achilles, son of Thetis and Peleus and the greatest warrior of his time -- he is the central figure of the Iliad.  Other figures include Odysseus (Ulysses; aka Laertides), the hero of the Odyssey; Ajax, a gigantic, powerful fighter; Ajax the runner (little Ajax); Diomedes, another large, powerful warrior; Nestor, an older warrior and contemporary of Jason and Hercules who was respected for his wise counsel; and Patroclus, Achilles's beloved tutor and probably his lover whose death provoked Achilles's wrath.

            Priam was the king of the Trojans, and his son Hector was their greatest champion -- Achilles's counterpart and ultimate enemy.  Aeneas was another Trojan hero, though he played a more limited role in the war.

            Zeus remained more or less impartial throughout the war, but the other gods actively took sides.  Not surprisingly, Aphrodite sided with Paris and the Trojans, while Athena and Hera sided with the Greeks, along with Poseidon.  Apollo, Ares, Artemis, and the river god Xanthus worked on behalf of the Trojans.

            Agamemnon assembled a thousand Greek warships on Aulis, a port city close to Thebes.  However, while the troops were still gathering, some of his soldiers killed a stag sacred to Artemis, and in retribution the goddess refused to allow the winds to rise. Without wind, the fleet could not sail to Troy.  Agamemnon consulted an oracle and learned that he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis.  He reluctantly did so, thereby provoking the wrath of his wife Clytemnestra, who was jealous of Helen anyway and outraged that her daughter had to be killed in order for her husband to fight a war to save her favored sister.  (See Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis, 405 B.C.)

            The war lasted ten years.  A feud between Agamemnon and Achilles threatened to dissolve the coalition, as Achilles removed himself and his troops from the fighting when Agamemnon arrogantly slighted him.  Finally, when Hector and his troops threatened to burn the Greek fleet, Achilles permitted Patroclus to wear his armor and turn back the Trojans.  But he warned Patroclus against trying to take the city.  Seeing the armor of Achilles and believing the hero had rejoined the battle, the Trojans retreated and the fleet was saved.  But Patroclus disregarded Achilles's command and Hector killed him in battle.  This enraged Achilles, who rejoined the fighting for real and ultimately slew Hector and defiled his body by dragging the corpse around the walls of Troy.  The Iliad ends with the death of Hector, the return of his corpse to Priam, and the funeral rites for his burial.

            The death of Hector spelled doom for the Trojans, but their city walls, which Poseidon and Apollo had helped construct, remained inviolable.  Achilles died when Paris ignobly shot a poison arrow that struck him in his heel, the only vulnerable spot on his body.  (When Achilles was an infant, Thetis had dipped him in the River Styx to make him immune to weapons, but the part of his heel where she held him was not covered by the magical water.)  The Greeks arranged a great funeral for him and agreed to award his magnificent armor, which Hephaestus had forged for the hero, to the most valuable warrior.  Both Ajax and Odysseus claimed the prize, and though Ajax's feats in battle were more impressive, Odysseus was awarded the armor because his crafty plans had enabled the Greeks to satisfy certain preconditions that oracles had deemed necessary before Troy could fall.  Ajax, driven mad with anger over his rejection, committed suicide.  (See Ovid's Metamorphoses (1st century A.D.) for an extended treatment of the contest between Odysseus and Ajax for Achilles's armor.)

            Finally, Odysseus constructed a plan to pretend to give up and leave, leaving behind a large wooden horse on wheels, ostensibly as an offering to the gods.  However, hidden within the hollow horse was a small force of Greek soldiers.  Seeing the Greeks depart, the Trojans wheeled the horse inside the walls, despite warnings from the princess Cassandra and Laocoon, a priest of Apollo who warned against Greeks bearing gifts.  That night, under cover of darkness, the Greek fleet returned and the soldiers inside the horse exited and opened the gates.  The Greek army was thus able to enter the city, burn it, kill most of its men including Priam, and enslave the women.  However, Aeneas, carrying his father Anchises on his back, escaped with a small contingent and went on to found the race that became the Romans.  (See Virgil's Aeneid (1st century B.C.) and the Odyssey, Books 4 and 8.)

            Homer's Odyssey (approximately 8th century B.C.) tells the story of Odysseus ten-year journey home, and Aeschylus's dramatic trilogy, the Orestia (458 B.C.), recounts Agamemnon's fate.  After encounters with many exotic gods and magical creatures, the long-suffering Odysseus ultimately overcame his travails and reestablished himself as ruler of Ithica, killing all of suitors who had hoped to depose him and marry his wife, Penelope.  But Agamemnon was killed by Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegistis.

            When her son Orestes came of age, Orestes found himself in a dilemma.  Tribal custom based on blood feuds required him to avenge his father's death, but it also forbade matricide.  Finally, egged on by his sister Electra, Orestes killed Clytemnestra and Aegistis, but he was then harassed by the Furies, who were outraged by the matricide.  Finally, he took refuge at the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  Apollo purged him of his blood guilt but did not establish Orestes's legal innocence.  Instead, he commanded Orestes to go to Athens and take refuge in the temple of Athena.  There, the Furies demanded that Orestes be taken to the Underworld to be judged for his crime, while Orestes pled the necessity and justice of his action.  Athena agreed to resolve the matter by a jury trial in which the Furies would present the charges and Orestes would answer them.  Ten citizens of Athens heard the case but split evenly on the verdict.  Athena, acting as chief judge, then cast the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, essentially declaring that his action was justifiable homicide, but not outright innocence.  She subsequently appeased the Furies and established the precedent of the jury trial as a means of resolving murder charges.  Thus the final legacy of the Trojan War was trial by jury, which replaced the interminable blood feuds and provided a more civilized way for resolving disputes.  In the end, then, rule by law appeared literally as a gift of the gods.


[1]The paradox of light evolving from dark, good from bad, beautiful from ugly, etc. permeates Greek mythology.

[2]Cronos's name means Time.

[3]Hence the title of Sean O'Casey's 1924 play, Juno and the Paycock.