5 Fascinating Greek Myths and Their Meanings

Ana Pérez López / © Culture Trip
Photo of Kim Gregory
11 June 2020

With a strong cultural and historical identity, it’s no surprise Greece is steeped in mythology. Epic tales of gods and heroes have been passed down through the generations and remain prominent today. Here are Culture Trip’s favourite Greek myths.

Greek myths are a beautiful form of ancient storytelling that transcend generations. Since the early days of civilisation, the Greek people have shared these sweeping tales of triumph and tragedy, love and loss, jealousy and joy – and usually a lot of gore. These stories of gods and heroes in Greece were always an important part of understanding the world. The originals are complex but we’ve rounded them up.

Pandora’s Box

Ever heard the cautionary saying “Don’t open Pandora’s box”? It originates from this story, of the first woman. Pandora was a statue, brought to life by Zeus, god of sky. Other gods gifted her with intelligence, grace and skill. But some gave her cunning, falsehood and a restless curiosity. What could go wrong?

Pandora was sent to marry a titan (they came before gods in the Greek creation story) named Epimetheus. As a wedding gift, Zeus gave them a precious, bejewelled box – and its key. He said: “If you want to live happily, you must never unlock this box.”

You can see where this is going…

Happy years passed for the couple until Pandora’s restless curiosity got the better of her. She opened the box. Out flew all the terrible plagues of mankind: disease, hunger, pain, despair.

However, there’s a glimpse of a happy ending, as last to leave the box was hope – the consolation of mankind that will always remain, even at the darkest times. The myth of Pandora teaches us to resist temptation and be happy with our blessings.

Ana Pérez López / © Culture Trip

Theseus and the Minotaur

Meet Theseus, a hero who completed many powerful deeds before turning his attention to the Minotaur – the deformed half-human, half-bull son of Minos, King of Crete. Minos fed human sacrifices to the Minotaur, who lived in a labyrinth. Brave Theseus vowed to kill the beast to end the tragedies.

He boarded his ship to Crete with black sails. His loving father passed him white sails and said: “If you’re victorious, change your sails to white. If I see black sails upon the ship’s return, I’ll know you are gone.” Theseus promised.

In Crete, he met Ariadne. She presented him with string, to lay on his journey through the labyrinth so he’d find his way out.

“When you’re victorious,” she said, “we can marry.” Again, Theseus promised. The brave hero entered the labyrinth and slayed the Minotaur with his bare hands. He followed the string out, grabbed his lady friend and delightedly set sail to Athens.

Only it didn’t end there…

During the journey, Theseus decided he did not like Ariadne and, despite his promise to her, dropped her at an island and fled. Amidst the excitement and betrayal, Theseus forgot his second promise. He didn’t change his sails.

As the ship pulled into Athens, Theseus’s father spotted the black sails and, heartbroken, threw himself from a cliff.

The moral is to remain grounded. Don’t get carried away with success and fame. Always keep your promises. And always, always listen to your parents…

Icarus, who flew too close to the sun

…which leads us to Daedalus, a famous artist, architect and inventor exiled to Crete for his crimes.

Minos, his captor, had Daedalus build the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Disliking Minos, Daedalus advised Ariadne to give Theseus the string. See how they’re all linked?

Minos found out and banished Daedalus, with his son Icarus, into the labyrinth. But clever Daedalus built them wings from wax and feathers, telling Icarus: “Don’t fly too low as the sea will wet the feathers, nor too high as the sun will melt the wax.”

The father and son beat their wings and escaped, flying triumphantly over Crete. What a beautiful image!

Sadly, Greek myths never do end well. Poor Icarus got carried away. He flew higher and higher. As Daedalus had warned, the wax on Icarus’s wings was melted by the sun. He plunged into the sea and drowned.

Icarus’s tragic ending reminds us to avoid arrogance in success.

Ana Pérez López / © Culture Trip

Orpheus and the Underworld

Orpheus was a charming soul, famous for creating beautiful music and poetry. He was in love with Eurydice.

One day, Eurydice was bitten by a deadly snake. She went to the underworld: a Greek form of the afterlife, run by the god Hades.

Orpheus was heartbroken and couldn’t accept her death. He went to Hades, played him a beautiful song and begged for Eurydice’s return to the mortal world.

Charmed, Hades agreed – on one condition. Orpheus had to walk ahead of Eurydice on the path from the underworld, and Orpheus could not look back until they reached the surface.

The pair set off on their journey but, ever the forlorn soul, Orpheus turned to ensure Eurydice was safe. He broke the trust of Hades and that was that. Back Eurydice went, into the underworld forever.

It’s a lesson in trust, listening and resisting temptation.

Heracles the Hero

Finally to Heracles, the most famous Greek hero then and now. You might know him by his Roman name, Hercules. But things weren’t as squeaky clean as Disney might have us believe…

Heracles was a demi-god, son of Zeus and a mortal mother, after an affair.

Zeus’s goddess wife Hera was jealous of Heracles and his famous strength.

Once he’d grown up, she put a spell of temporary insanity on Heracles and he murdered his wife and children. Yikes!

Sober, Heracles was overcome with grief. He sought advice from the renowned oracle of Delphi, who told him to atone by serving his cousin, King Eurystheus.

But Eurystheus was vindictive and set Heracles a series of near-impossible tasks.

So began Heracles’ famous 12 labours, including fighting a lion, slaying a many-headed serpent, holding up the Earth to give Atlas a rest, and taming the underworld’s giant three-headed guard dog, Cerberus.

The great hero conquered every task, securing his legendary status.

But inevitably (this is a Greek myth after all), a smattering of terrible tragedy followed. Eventually, Heracles ascended triumphantly to Mount Olympus, to reside happily ever after with the gods.

The myth teaches us that vindictiveness doesn’t pay, you can overcome any obstacle, and you’ll be rewarded for good deeds with a happy ending, even if you have to endure hardships first.

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