6 of the Most Popular Greek Myths

Tristan Hughes

Ancient and Classical Ancient Greece
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The Greek myths are some of the most famous, most popular, stories that survive from antiquity. From the Cyclops to the terrifying sea monster Charybdis, this mythology has inspired the works of tragedians, comedians, poets, writers, artists and film-makers right up to the present day.

Below are 6 of the most popular Greek myths.

1. Cerberus – Heracles’ 12th Labour

Hercules and Cerberus. Oil on canvas, by Peter Paul Rubens 1636, Prado Museum.

The last of Heracles’ 12 labours, King Eurystheus ordered Heracles to fetch him Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed hound that guarded the gates of Tartarus (an infernal abyss within the Greek Underworld, reserved for the most terrible punishments).

Alongside its three heads Cerberus’ mane was covered with snakes. It also had a serpent’s tail, great red eyes and long sabre-like teeth.

Having reached the Underworld, Hades allowed Heracles to take Cerberus, so long as he didn’t use any weapons to subdue his ‘pet’. So Heracles wrestled with Cerberus and was eventually able to place a great chain around Cerberus’ neck.

Heracles then dragged Cerberus to Eurystheus’ palace. Frightening Eurystheus senseless, Heracles would later return Cerberus to Hades. It was the last of his twelve labours. Heracles was free at last.

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2. Perseus and Medusa

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy.\

Perseus was the son of Princess Danae and Zeus. To save his mother from marrying the king of Seriphos, he was ordered to kill the gorgon Medusa.

To help him with this task, Zeus sent both Athena and Hermes to meet Perseus en-route and provide him special equipment for killing Medusa. Athena provided him with a magic shield, polished like a mirror. Hermes provided Perseus a magical sword.

Perseus’ journey to the Gorgons’ rocky island included several encounters. He first met with the Three Grey Women, who only had one eye and one tooth between them. Perseus then headed to the Nymphs of the North and received a magical leather bag, winged sandals and a cap of invisibility.

With this special equipment Perseus headed to Medusa’s island. Medusa was one of three gorgons, but she had the face of a beautiful woman. Anyone who looked directly at her would be turned to stone, so Perseus used his magic shield to find the sleeping Medusa. Cutting off her head, he then made his escape.

3. Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens. He was sent to Crete to kill the Minotaur of King Minos. Half man and half bull, the minotaur lived in a specially-constructed maze in the dungeons of Minos’ palace. It was infamous for eating children, demanded by Minos from subject cities such as Aegeus’ Athens.

Just before he left, Theseus and his father agreed that, upon its return, the Athenian ship would raise a black sail if the mission had failed and Theseus had died. If he had succeeded, the sailors would raise a white sail.

When he arrived on Crete, Theseus was aided in his task by Ariadne, Minos’ daughter. She provided Theseus magic string so he would not get lost in the maze. She also gave him a sharp dagger, with which to kill the minotaur.

After entering the maze, Theseus killed the Minotaur and then retraced his steps using the string. Along with Ariadne and the captive Athenian children, Theseus quickly made his escape. Leaving the labyrinth behind, they fled to the ships and sailed away.

The story did not have a happy ending. On the island of Naxos, Ariadne was taken away from Theseus by the god Dionysius. Dismayed, Theseus sailed back to Athens, but he forgot to change the sails of his ships from black to white.

When he saw the black sails Aegeus, believing his son was dead, threw himself into the sea. The sea was thereafter called the Aegean Sea.

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4. Icarus – the boy who flew too close to the Sun

Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637).

With the death of the Minotaur, King Minos of Crete sought someone to blame. The blame fell upon his chief inventor Daedalus, the man who had designed the maze. Minos ordered Daedalus to be locked away at the top of the highest tower in the palace at Knossos with neither food or water. Icarus, Daedalus’ young son, was to share his fathers’ fate.

But Daedalus was clever. Together with his son, they managed to survive long enough to prepare a famous escape.

Using the tail feathers of the pigeons sleeping in the rafters above, combined with beeswax from a deserted bees’ nest, Daedalus was able to craft four large wing shapes. Then, having made leather straps from their sandals, the two prisoners jumped out of the tower with the wings on their shoulders and started flying west towards Sicily.

Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, so that its heat did not melt the boy’s wings. Icarus didn’t listen. Flying too close to the sun god Helios, his waxen wings fell apart and the boy crashed into the sea below.

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5. Bellerophon and Pegasus

Born from the blood that had spilled from Medusa’s body onto the sand after Perseus had cut off the gorgon’s head, it was said that this winged horse, Pegasus, could only be ridden by a hero.

Bellerophon was asked by the King of Lydia to kill the pet monster of the neighbouring king of Caria. This was the Chimaera, a beast that had a lion’s body, a goat’s head and a snake’s tail. It also breathed fire.

To kill the beast, Bellerophon first had to tame the winged Pegasus. Thanks to the help of Athena, who provided him a golden bridle, he was successful. Riding above the Chimaera, Bellerophon killed the beast by striking it in its mouth with a spear tipped with lead. The lead melted inside the Chimaera’s throat and killed it.

Pegasus-Bellerophon
Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC.

6. Jason and the Argonauts

Jason was the son of Aeson, the rightful King of Iolcos (in Thessaly), who was overthrown by his brother Pelias. Jason went to Pelias’ court to demand his father be reinstated as the rightful king, but Pelias demanded that Jason first bring him the magical golden fleece from the land of Colchis (on the eastern coastline of the Black Sea).

Jason agreed, collecting a group of comrades to aid him in this adventure. Their ship was called the Argo; they were called the Argonauts.

The Argo, by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907).
The Argo, by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907).

After several adventures across the Black Sea – fighting poo-throwing harpies and rowing through clashing rocks – the ship of heroes finally reached the Kingdom of Colchis.  Not wanting to give up the fleece, the King of Colchis set Jason an impossible task of ploughing up and sowing a field with dragon’s teeth. Not to mention that the plough animals were two fiery bulls that burned anyone that came near!

Against all odds, Jason successfully ploughed the field thanks to divine intervention. He was aided by Medea, the witch-daughter of the King of Colchis, who fell in love with Jason after Eros shot her with his love darts.

Medea then took Jason to the grove where the golden fleece was kept. It was guarded by a fierce dragon, but Medea sang it to sleep. With the golden fleece Jason, Medea and the Argonauts fled Colchis and returned to Iolcos, claiming his father’s throne from wicked uncle Pelias.

Jason Pelias Golden Fleece
Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece, Apulian red-figure calyx krater, ca. 340 BC–330 BC.

Tristan Hughes