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10 Greek Myths: From Prometheus to Troy

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Troy

Greek mythology is an inexhaustible grab bag full of intriguing stories. With their timeless myths, the ancient Greeks explained the curious things in life and gave mankind some top-notch entertainment at the same time. Some myths were tragic, such as the sad fate of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. 

Others were bursting with hard-hitting gun clatter and nail-biting horror. For the Greeks were never bored with heroes like Theseus, Perseus, and Heracles. A touch of romance was never far away either. Although Orpheus’s sad history teaches us that love also brings a lot of heartache.

But they all made for great storytelling that we 21st-century mortal mortals can’t get enough of either. Time and again writers, poets and other artists reinterpret these old stories. Hollywood gratefully selects source material for blockbusters such as Wolfgang Petersen’s magisterial ‘Troy’, the pompous Dwayne Johnson vehicle ‘Hercules’, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters and MGM’s slightly less masterly ‘Clash of the Titans’ remake.

Also in everyday life you stumble across dozens of mythological figures. With a ‘trojan horse’, sneaky hackers try to get into your computer. The TU Delft Mekelpark shows off Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. The fashion house Versace promotes its ridiculously expensive fabrics with a mysterious looking Medusa head. And that bearded helmeted dude on the Ajax club logo, of course, refers to the powerhouse of the same name from the Trojan War.

The Dutch language is also chock full of references to well-known Greek myths. Just think of a ‘tantalus torment’, ‘sisyphoid labour’, ‘mucking out an augias stable’, ‘Pandora’s box’, Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex’ or an ‘Achilles’ heel’.

Listing them all is impossible. But this Top 10 Most Famous Greek Myths gives you a nice best-of!

 

10. Prometheus and the Fire

prometheus greek myth

Piero di Cosimo

In the beginning there were no humans, but there were gods: the Olympians ( read our description of the 12 most important Greek Gods here ). Their great boss was Zeus. After a fierce war against his father Kronos and the Titans, this king of the gods claimed Mount Olympus. Since then he was the Greek supreme god who kept an eye on everything from his throne, made noise with his thunderbolts and occasionally chased a human woman. But of course there had to be people first.

After the epic Titan Battle, Zeus hurled his enemies into a deep dungeon beneath the Tartarus. Atlas, the captain of the Titans, bore the heavens as a punishment until the end of time. Some Titans miraculously escaped Zeus’ wrath. Like the twins Prometheus and Epimetheus. Unlike his empty-headed ilk, Prometheus was a pretty smart Titan. Thanks to his predictive abilities, he knew that the Olympians would win the war. Therefore, he wisely chose the camp of the gods. His intellectually significantly less gifted twin brother Epimetheus meekly followed Prometheus.

Zeus did not forget that. As a thank you, the new-fangled supreme god allowed the brothers to create the first terrestrial life forms. Including a bunch of cute little pink creatures whose heads, arms and legs looked exactly like the gods – but at the same time were nothing at all. Epimetheus had to give all animal species a positive characteristic. When it was man’s turn, there was nothing left. Prometheus thought that was pathetic. That is why he stole fire from heaven, so that his people could at least have a nice barbecue, warm themselves by a crackling wood stove or beat a nice sword.

fire of prometheus

Jan Cossiers

The actual firecracker was a breeze. Athena, Zeus’ daughter and protector of many earthly heroes, trusted Prometheus blindly. Thus the Titan could easily enter Hephaestus’s smithy and sew a flaming torch with it. Hephaestus was the crippled divine handyman who knocked the Olympus thrones and all the glitzy god accessories out of his anvil, among other things. So you understand that humanity with its multifunctional gods fire suddenly made a giant leap forward in evolution.

When Zeus heard what Prometheus had done to him, Olympus shook to its foundations. Is that how that Titan thanked him? That disobedient kid would pay, and how! Throwing Prometheus into Tartarus was just a little too easy for the supreme god. He seized the renegade firethief by the guts and chained him to the Caucasus Mountains with the help of Hephaestus. That in itself is a hefty punishment. It could freeze quite a bit at night on such a Eurasian mountain range and there was not much to eat.

But that didn’t end the matter. Enter Ethon: A gigantic eagle that descended on the Caucasus and eagerly nibbled on Prometheus’ liver. While the cursed human friend chattered teeth at night, his mismastered organ quickly regenerated. Every morning Ethon flew back to the rock for his regular brunch date with Prometheus’ liver. And so the Titan endlessly endured his inhuman torment.

Theodore Rombouts

One day there was solace. Coincidentally, a burly hero in a tight lion cape was scurrying through Eurasia, searching for the coordinates of the Garden of the Hesperides. That hero was, of course, Heracles . The awesome Greek demigod who was never afraid to help someone in need. King Eurytheus’ golden apples could wait. First, Heracles would deliver Prometheus from his gruesome fate. As a thank you, Prometheus gave his savior some useful tips to outwit Atlas, his older brother who carried the heavens, in his quest. But that’s a whole different story.

9. Pandora’s Box

Pandora

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When Zeus learned of Prometheus’ theft, Olympus was a madhouse for a while. And especially in the workshop of Hephaestus. No sooner had the god of blacksmiths finished his chains to chain the devious fire-thief to the Caucasus, than he had to get back to work. For Prometheus’ beloved little people would also pay for his capital crime. Zeus, therefore, roared savagely at his crippled jack-of-all-trades that he must instantaneously make a delightful creature: Pandora — the first human woman.

Naturally, Hephaestus immediately got to work. The last time he got in the way of Zeus, the king of the gods thundered him unceremoniously off Mount Olympus. Since then, the blacksmith went through life with a disabled parking card. It may be said, Hephaestus once again did a wonderful job. Pandora was truly a picture. Moreover, the gods pimped the succulent appearance with all kinds of finery and gifts. Her name therefore meant ‘bearer of all gifts’. However, not all of these gifts proved equally beneficial to human well-being. Pandora’s unbridled curiosity, in particular, would still be quite hard on humanity.

Ah, if only Prometheus had been there. That shrewd fellow had definitely sniffed Pandora with the suspicions of an East German Stasi agent and immediately smelled that this place stank. After all, several times he had told his twin brother Epimetheus never to take anything from Zeus. But that drowsy Epimetheus saw no problem and immediately fell head over heels for Hephaestus’ ravishing creation. And that was exactly what Zeus had hoped for. Because Pandora had an amphora with him. And in that jar the resentful Zeus had locked up every possible bit of misery he could think of.

Wait a second. An amphora? come again? You mean no box? Anything but. That popular misunderstanding is attributable to Desiderius Erasmus. Ever since that Rotterdam humanist mistakenly copied Hesiod’s original Greek word ‘pithos’ as ‘pyxis’ (‘box’ or ‘chest’) in the 16th century, everyone after him copied his incorrect translation. Yes, even a bully like Erasmus was wrong once in a while.

Pandora's Box

John William Waterhouse

Back to Pandora. Epimetheus (he was only just that smart) urged his new wife never to open the amphora. To be on the safe side, he put the ominous object in a safe place. But as said, Pandora was curious. And not even a little bit.

One day Pandora couldn’t contain her curiosity anymore. With her fine, freshly manicured nails, she fiddled open the sealed thing… and then it happened. Suddenly every possible misery and disaster imaginable spewed out of the ‘Pandora’s box’! Famine, war, white sports socks in Crocs, monster wasps on outdoor cafes, genital warts, tailgaters, Covid-19, poor Wi-Fi signal, incurable diseases, corns, lukewarm beer, smelling morning coffee breath and tax returns. Truly all the misery that plagues mankind fluttered into the world that day. Yes, even the 2010 World Cup final.

When Pandora finally hit ‘the box’, there was only one thing at the bottom. The hope. And good too. Because we still need them.

8. Sisyphus

Sisyphus

titian

You sometimes hear someone sigh that he has to do a ‘sisyphoid job’. Behind that lament lies the remarkable story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the first king and founder of Ephyra, later Corinth. A brilliant fellow, under whose reign the maritime trade and navigational art soared high. The king was highly regarded by the Olympians and had several A-listers on his friends list.

But Sisyphus could also be a terrible bastard. He liked a joke and prank on time and stood. Only it was always the others who bore the unpleasant consequences. But, ah. That Sisyphus murdered innocent courtiers and travelers, or seduced his brother Salmoneus’ daughter? Zeus could still overlook that. As long as Sisyphus didn’t make fun of him himself. And that was exactly what the king did.

One day, when Zeus was having a chat with the nymph Aegina, Sisyphus the Olympian record-holder cheated on Aegina’s father, the moody river god Asopus. When Asopus came to tell Zeus about it, the supreme god struck the river god KO with a thunderbolt. Then he would teach Sisyphus a lesson once and for all, with help from Thanatos: Death.

Hades’s sinister henchman had to imprison the haughty clicker in Tartarus, the deep, unpleasant abyss of the Underworld. The devious Sisyphus remained surprisingly calm. He asked Thanatos with mock interest exactly how his crazy shackles worked. Moments later, Death was thrashing about entangled in his own chains, much to Sisyphus’s delight. In the meantime, no more human beings could die on Earth, which was, of course, bad news for Hades’ booming Shadow Realm business. Only after 2 days could the pissed-off Underworld god free his henchman.

Now Sisyphus had made one enemy too many. After a short conference call, all the gods agreed. Sisyphus had to die. But even in the Underworld, the cunning king still kicked ass. He casually stated that his wife had not properly buried him. Besides, she had forgotten his obol. The ancient Greeks put that coin under the tongues of their dead so that the ferryman Charon would carry them safely across the Styx. So Sisyphus had to go back upstairs. Hades didn’t want Charon to bring in the union, did he?

sisyphus pushes boulder

Bernard Picart

Of course Sisyphus ran off like a hare once he was back in the human world. Now the measure was really full. The travel god Hermes dragged Sisyphus to Tartarus, where he had to roll a whopper of a boulder up a mountainside. Egg, you would think. But when Sisyphus was finally up, the stone hulk thundered down again. For that was the punishment for Sisyphus’ pride. Until the end of time he pushed the leaden rock up the mountain, knowing full well that his mad labor was as useless as it was hopeless.

7. Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

‘Romeo & Juliet’ the pinnacle of romance? Then you definitely don’t know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Have some tissues ready, because ‘The Notebook’ is nothing against this!

Orpheus was a brilliant singer and master musician. His lyre-playing was so irresistible that even trees swayed when she heard his tunes and mountains got creeps in their rocks. What do you want when the artful blood of the god Apollo and the sweet-voiced muse Kalliope flows through your veins?

Artists are attractive, so it should come as no surprise that the charming water nymph Eurydice fell head over heels for Orpheus. And that love was completely mutual. The couple eagerly awaited their wedding day. But, oh Fortuna! Precisely on the day they would seal their love, Eurydice was chased by Aristaeus, a horny satyr with nefarious plans to rape. During Eurydice’s flight, an unfortunate acquaintance of her furry foot with a venomous viper put an end to her earthly days.

death of eurydice

Orpheus was inconsolable. For days he strummed the saddest emo songs on his lyre, and that made even the gods terribly sad. Hermes, that good old travel god, knew what to do. He convinced Orpheus to go to the Underworld. There he could personally ask Hades, the great Shadow Realm boss, to bring his bride back to the land of the living.

With his unparalleled oeuvre, it was a breeze to convince Persephone, Hades’ oversensitive wife. The Furies, those otherwise feared nemesis, sniffed the Styx when Orpheus sang a ballad. And in the end, even Hades, the ever emotionless Underworld god, shed a tear for a moment. For once he let his icy heart speak. Eurydice was allowed to return to the human world. But there was, of course, an important condition. Orpheus was not allowed to look back until they were both upstairs. Well, go ahead then.

Carefully the lovers walked towards the realm of the living. Orpheus led the way, listening intently to the familiar feathery footsteps of his sweetheart behind him. As they approached the sunlight, the musician was overcome with doubt. Eurydice really followed him, didn’t he? What if it was all just a sick joke from Hades? Perhaps, just to be sure, he should check everything, really just for a moment.

looking after orpheus

Enrico Scuric

Against his better judgment, Orpheus turned. Then he saw the sad look of his Eurydice. But it was already too late. The girl faded into the immense darkness again. And so Orpheus lost his dearest Eurydice a second time.

6. Perseus and Medusa

perseus and medusa

Baldassare Franceschinic

There are many stories to tell about the hero Perseus. And to film! In the MGM classic ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981), Harry Hamlin played the hero who gets into a fight with evil scorpions, the Kraken and of course the Gorgon Medusa. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters are must-read for any self-proclaimed movie buff. In 2010 a much less memorable remake followed – although that gruesome 3D debacle gave birth to the hilarious ‘Release the Kraken!’ meme and the sequel ‘Wrath of the Titans’ (2012). And honest? Secretly it is also a great guilty pleasure.

In the remake, Sam Worthington laced up Perseus’ flying sandals. For Medusa, no craft dolls were used this time. Russian model Natalia Vodianova lent her pretty face to the dreaded Gorgon, a monstrous creature with slimy, writhing snakes for hair.

Medusa hadn’t always been like this. She was once a beautiful virgin who was in the wrong place at the wrong time one day. During a visit to Athena’s temple, the god Poseidon assaulted the dear child. As if this brutal rape wasn’t bad enough, Athena put all the blame on the girl too. As punishment, the goddess transformed Medusa’s shiny locks of hair into a snake’s nest and made her pretty face so hideous that she instantly turned to stone any man who looked at her with her gaze.

On to Perseus. Perseus owed his life to an unspecified consensual intercourse between his mother Danae and Zeus, who had disguised himself for the occasion in a golden shower of dust. The Greek supreme god couldn’t help but have the sexual appetite of a festival meadow full of bonobos. And Danae looked damn good too. Even at a later age, Perseus’ mother still made men’s hearts pump like the Rotterdam Terror Corps back catalogue.

So is King Polydectes of Serifos – the island in the Aegean Sea where Danae and Perseus found shelter. Perseus was not going to call this obnoxious gentleman his stepfather. And he showed it nicely. Getting rid of the popular Perseus was not an option, so Polydectes concocted a ruse. Polydectes told a bullshit story that he would marry Hippodamia – the daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa.

 The bridal list was simple: as a wedding present, Polydectes demanded a horse from every male subject. The king knew, of course, that the ever-slumped Perseus couldn’t afford a tatty mule… but the Medusa’s head was fine otherwise, too. Of course Polydectes didn’t give a damn about that filthy gorgonian head. That old boss just hoped Medusa petrified Perseus, so that he could have free play with Danaë. And if Medusa’s gaze didn’t kill Perseus, there were always her even more hideous immortal sisters Stheno and Euryale to get the job done.

But that was beyond the gods. For even though Perseus was not yet aware of his divine parentage, the Olympians did not forsake him.

Armed with Athena’s well polished shield, Zeus’ razor-sharp adamantine sword, Hades’ invisible helmet, Hermes’ flying super sandals, and a handy Hesperide knapsack, the hero set out on his quest. Finding Medusa’s lair was a breeze. The road to her hideout was littered with petrified predecessors. Perseus would succeed where so many men had failed. He didn’t give the writhing monstrosity a glance and orientated himself with her reflection in his shield. Once close, he chopped off Medusa’s head with one firm stroke.

perseus with the head of medusa

After a long exhausting return journey full of incredible adventures, Perseus reached the island of Serifos. In his absence, Polydectes had gotten a lot of talk. Perseus pulled Medusa’s severed head from his knapsack, silencing the king for good. Well-bred as he was, the hero then neatly returned all the borrowed things. Athena got the gorgonian head as a thank you for everything. Revered, the goddess placed the throne on her shield.

5. Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur

When the Greek gods were in a good mood, they could be especially considerate. But woe betide you if you shit in their pockets. Then they definitely knew where to find you. That happened to King Minos of Crete. He knew the reputation of the Olympians very well, however. Zeus had seduced his mother Europa in the guise of a bull.

A bull was also the gift with which the sea god Poseidon surprised King Minos, as confirmation of his kingship. And what a bull! It was a beautiful snow-white specimen rarely seen in ancient Greece. The accompanying memo read: ‘Please sacrifice this bull ASAP. Regards, Poseidon.’ The greedy Minos didn’t like that, so the Cretan king kept the bull to himself.

When the sea god discovered King Minos’ treachery, the Mediterranean boiled with rage. Rather than give the arrogant monarch a brutal beating with the flat of his trident, Poseidon devised an evil plan. He made Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, sickly in love with the beast. In a fit of madness, the queen asked Athenian inventor Daedalus to build a fake wooden cow with an opening at the back. The queen then took her place in the curious construction… and what happened next is better left to your imagination.

Nine months later, Pasiphae gave birth to a baby who was half human, half bull: the Minotaur. You don’t want to come out with that, do you? At the behest of King Minos, Daedalus designed an ingenious maze from which no man could escape: the Labyrinth. There, the Minotaur practiced social distancing while impatiently waiting for the Deliveroo courier.

Every 9 years the monster was given a delicious feast. Minos ordered his rival king Aegeus to send 7 Athenian boys and as many virgins to Crete every 9 years as human flesh for the Minotaur. That suited King Minos. In this way he could avenge the death of his son Androgeus, who died in extremely suspicious circumstances during a city trip in Athens.

That is, until the hero Theseus put an end to Minos’s nasty joke. Theseus was the son of King Aegeus who swore he would make the Minotaur cold. Determined, he jumped on the Athenian ship towards the island of Crete. If Theseus succeeded in his purpose, he would turn again with white sails. If they were black, his old father knew he had failed.

Theseus was not only brave, but also endowed with the looks of a young Ryan Reynolds. When the hero arrived on the island of Crete with great fuss, Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, immediately fell into a stupor. The teenage girl in love gave him a sword and a ball of wool to unroll in the Labyrinth. After felling the Minotaur, Theseus was able to find his way out of the maze so easily.

thread of Ariadne

Geiger Richard

And guess what, Theseus slew the Minotaur. With ‘the Thread of Ariadne’ the Athenian king’s son effortlessly found the exit again. Ariadne, of course, went aboard to Theseus’ homeland. Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short-lived. Along the way, Theseus dumped his vacation sweetheart on the island of Naxos. Either because Ariadne was bleating like a hungry bezoar goat all the way back, or because Theseus knew that the girl had actually already been promised to the wine god Dionusus.

In any case, in the midst of all the relational troubles, Theseus forgot to hoist his white sails. When his loving father saw a black ship approaching in the distance from Cape Sunion, the man threw himself inconsolably into the sea. And you know that water puddle. For today it still bears King Aegeus’ name: the Aegean Sea.

4. Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus and Icarus

Charles-Paul Landon

Now say yourself. A guy who builds wooden cows in which queens in heat indulge their bestial lusts, and labyrinths where the Efteling Adventure labyrinth can still suck a bit? Would you like to know more about that? Well then!

Daedalus was an exceptionally brilliant Athenian inventor. He also sculpted hyper-detailed sculptures as a hobby, from which contemporaries swore that they were living people. But even geniuses are not spared from obnoxious traits such as jealousy. After all, Daedalus had an equally brilliant nephew: Perdix. And Perdix slowly began to surpass his teacher. For example, the little guy invented the compass when he tied two rods together. Another time, he invented the world’s first saw after he noticed a fish with a serrated spine.

Uncle Daedalus, of course, wasn’t about to give up his inventor’s throne just like that. That’s why he bowled his youthful rival during a stroll around the Acropolis. A tragic loss to science. As a tribute, the goddess Athena gave Perdix a second life as a partridge.

After the cowardly attack on Perdix, the exiled Daedalus wisely traded his birthplace for the island of Crete. There he put his prized talents at the service of King Minos from then on. To prevent Daedalus from revealing anything about the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, the Cretan monarch imprisoned the inventor and his son Icarus in a high tower. Escape by sea was not an option. Minos’s men guarded the coast with suspicion. Astute as he was, Daedalus devised a masterly plan.

Using beeswax and wire and a collection of bird feathers that would make any mattress manufacturer jealous, the inventor made two pairs of wings. A great pair for him. A second, smaller copy for his son Icarus. Before starting their escape, the concerned father urged Icarus to be careful. Under no circumstances should the boy fly too low. The wings could not withstand the foaming sea. But danger lurked above too. Because too close to the sun, the wax that held everything together would melt!

death of icarus

HJ Draper

Father and son left their dungeon and flew together towards their freedom. And that went pretty well. The tourist attractions of Samos, Delos and Lebinthos had already been checked off the list, when Icarus fluttered recklessly higher and higher. Daedalus wanted to warn the child, but it was too late. Under the blistering sun, the beeswax melted like ice cubes in a Finnish sauna. The little boy plunged straight down and drowned in the salt water. Today, the name of the Greek island of Ikaria still reminds you of Icarus’ tragic fall.

3. Oedipus

oedipus and the sphinx

birth of oedipus

Jean-François Millet

The Greek myth of Oedipus is so well known that it inspired Sigmund Freud to create the ‘Oedipus complex’. According to the founder of psychoanalysis, little boys are attracted to their mother and therefore see their father as a great rival. For that theory, the bearded Viennese psychiatrist turned to Oedipus: the man who killed his father and then married his mother. Yet the story is just a little more complicated than Freud makes it seem.

It all started when Jocasta bore a son to her husband Laius, king of Thebes. That was a small miracle, because the couple had been childless for years. Fertility testing did not yet exist in ancient Greece, so the Theban monarch asked the Oracle of Delphi what it was all about. The Oracle reassured the monarch that his royal soldiers were still doing their job… but warned that his heir would kill him one day!

Laius’s wish for children was not that great. So after the birth, he pierced his sons bound one-way tickets and ordered one of his minions to leave the baby on Mount Cithaeron. The child had no way out with his mismastered feet and a lonely death awaited him. Of course, the servant couldn’t bear that. He gave the poor little boy with a shepherd, so that the baby eventually ended up with the Corinthian king Polybus and his wife Merope. The couple raised the child as if he were their own son and named him “Oedipus” (“swollen foot”). A name that still echoes today in the unappetizing condition ‘edema’.

When Oedipus was gradually growing into a stout young man, a local drunkard one day accused him of being a bastard. Not in itself a reproach to be taken seriously: after all, Greece, frequented by Zeus, was strewn with illegitimate children, whether or not semi-divine. When Oedipus confronted his adoptive parents about the incident, they pretended to hear thunder on Olympus. 

Then Oedipus went to Delphi, for after all that Oracle had an answer to absolutely everything. Or not? Instead of pouring clear wine, the Oracle dreamed that one day Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. The young man was naturally shocked. Despite their secrecy, he loved his adoptive parents dearly. Therefore, he would evade his fate and never return to Corinth.

Of course Oedipus knew well that the Oracle meant his real biological parents. The confused lad then headed for Thebes. On the way, a madman in a team of cars savagely mowed him off the track. Because yes, even in ancient Greece traffic courtesy was missing. After the gloomy Oracle-visit, Oedipus was of course a bit excited. How would you be yourself? 

He pointed out his rights as a weak road user with a few well-aimed blows. And thus Oedipus had already unknowingly fulfilled the first part of the prophecy. This aggressive road pirate was none other than King Laius of Thebes. Also known as… Oedipus’ biological father!

No sooner was Laius’s corpse cold, than Oedipus was again troubled. This time it was about a Sphinx, who had been terrorizing the Boeotian region for a while with a completely derailed riddle. Whoever couldn’t solve the riddle (and of course nobody could!), ended up as sphinx food. On less hungry days, the monster bowled its victims off a rock. But you understand that it was not a nice prospect anyway.

oedipus and the sphinx

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Enigmatic sphinxes made little impression on Oedipus, who used to solve cryptogram, crossword puzzle, or 3-star Sudoku in his spare time. So it was a breeze to know which creature walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 in the afternoon and 3 in the evening. After all, babies crawl on all fours. Adults happily hop through life until they need a walking stick in the evening of their existence. Yes, that’s how it went in those archaic scooter-less times.

Stunned that someone finally solved her riddle, the Sphinx shattered into a thousand pieces. An impressive spectacle that immediately resulted in Oedipus becoming a milf. Creon, who ran the Theban business after Laius’s death, had promised the hand of his sister Jocasta to whom the land was delivered from the wretched monster. Oedipus did not say no to such a reward. At her age, Jocasta still looked as though she was getting a ring – and did he know much that she was actually his mother?

The second part of the prophecy was thus fulfilled immediately. Mother and son had four children together and for years there seemed to be nothing in the air. But then a terrible plague descended on Thebes. Because the Oracle of Delphi sometimes deserved a day off, the blind seer Tiresias was dragged in for a change. The wise old man said that the plague would not stop until justice was done for the murder of King Laius.

From the chaotic sequel, a seasoned soap screenwriter could easily assemble a few ‘GTST’ season finales. But in a nutshell, it boils down to this: Everything came out… and escalated into shambles without equal. Jocasta killed herself with a noose. Oedipus put out his eyes and became a mad vagabond. The incest sons perished in the ensuing fratricidal quarrel. But there was good news for Jocasta’s brother Kreon. He became king of Corinth.

2. Heracles

birth of heracles

Peter Paul Rubens

Ancient Greece had more heroes than olive trees. But Heracles (known in Roman mythology as Hercules) was the most popular without any competition. The story of his birth is well known. When King Amphitryon went off to fight a robbery, Zeus, disguised as Amphitryon, crawled into the bed of his wife Alkmene. That sultry night resulted in the strongest baby the world has ever seen: Herakles.

After his birth, Athena, the ever-vigilant protector of Greek heroes, quickly fished Herakles from his cradle and laid him on Mount Olympus in the bosom of the unsuspecting Hera. The owner sucked Hera’s nipples so hard that the goddess Olympus screamed together. Due to the abruptly discontinued sucking the god’s milk splashed into the sky and thus the Milky Way was created. Herakles, meanwhile, had clocked in enough of Hera’s nutritious lactose that he now had superpowers.

It was quite ironic that Herakles owed his powers to his stepmother Hera. Zeus’ wife hated the bastard with her life and would thwart him for a lifetime. Once the baby was safely back in his Theban crib, Hera sent two snakes at him. For any infant, the story would end here. But little Herakles cheerfully recycled the serpents as ecological rattles. As usual, Zeus kept a low profile in all this. Such was the adulterous supreme god.

Heracles and the Serpents

Peter Paul Rubens

And so Herakles grew up with his human mother Alkmene and loving stepfather Amphitryon. For Alkmene’s husband did not harbor an ounce of grudge for his wife’s misstep. On the contrary. He cherished this godsend and gave his stepson the best education one could wish for. For example, Linus, the brother of the god Apollo, taught the boy some ear training every week. Because Herakles was not the most patient, let alone steady, student, one day he smashed his music teacher in the head with a lyre.

Amphitryon then decided it might be better if Herakles took a job. Herding sheep or something, that would do his adolescent hormones good. While tending the royal flock, Heracles got into a fight with an angry lion. With surprisingly little effort, Heracles got rid of the heavily drooped jungle cat. It was the first of his many exploits. Legendary are of course the 12 Labors that the demigod performed for king Eurystheus of Mycenae and Tiryns. And yet these impressive assignments are just the tip of the iceberg.

heracles and the lion

Peter Paul Rubens

When the Olympian gods geared up for the ‘Gigantomachy’, their epic war against the Giants, Herakles was given a wildcard. It was once prophesied that the Olympians could only win this bitter Giants’ Battle with a mortal at their side. And good heavens, how true that old oracle turned out to be. When Herakles finally arrived on the battlefield during overtime, perhaps the most exciting battle in Greek mythology began. Like an unstoppable Messi, the hero dribbled his team to the overall win with his fingers in the nose.

Waiting was not for Heracles. Immediately the powerhouse aimed his arrows at Alkyoneus, the meanest and most dangerous Giant of the pack. And also invincible. After all, Alcyoneus’ mother was Gaia, the Earth. So every time the Giant went down, he pulled power from the ground and jumped up again without a scratch. But Heracles knew what to do with it. 

The demigod forcibly dragged the Giant out of his native land, after which Alkyoneus suddenly had a lot less talk. Then Heracles threw himself enthusiastically into the fray again. Long story short: of course the Olympians won the Gigantomachie with flying colours! And even Hera was reluctant to admit that Herakles had a big hand in that.

The mighty Herakles finally came to an end for some pretty idiotic reason. When his already third wife Deianeira (not counting Herakles’s many extramarital affairs) feared that Herakles was playing with his old holiday sweetheart Iole, she pulled out all the stops to win her husband back. Literally: she smeared Heracles’ favorite cloak with the blood of the centaur Nessos. Deianeira had heard somewhere that centaur blood is an excellent love potion. It wasn’t. Then what? Toxic. Pretty poisonous, besides.

death of heracles

Francisco de Zurbaran

Furious and wailing, Herakles roared all over the Greek peninsula until at last his faithful friend Philoctetes proved brave enough to deliver him from his torment on his pyre. And so the life of the greatest hero Greece has ever known came to an end. At least if you can believe the people. Because the gods know better. Herakles became immortal and was given a VIP pass by Zeus for Mount Olympus. And there he still sits, having the time of his life and now and then, beaming, Googling his name.

1. Trojan Horse

Trojan horse

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

The ancient Greeks didn’t have Netflix yet . Not that they were awake. They had the mighty story of the Trojan War. And unlike ‘Game of Thrones’, this one did have an unforgettable finale, perhaps the most famous Greek myth, the Trojan Horse. And that tuber didn’t come a day too soon. For already 10 years the Greek allies besieged the kingdom of Troy in vain. After all this time you would almost forget why.

Let’s say the Trojan prince Paris ran off with Helena, the most beautiful woman on earth. Unfortunately for Paris, this delightful apparition was already married. And with King Menelaus. This Spartan prince wasn’t exactly the sort of man to take a light-hearted approach to kidnapping his wife.

 On the contrary: he immediately gathered all his mates for a bold punitive expedition towards Troy. Menelaus’ Mannschaft counted tens of thousands of Greeks, including his brother King Agamemnon, the invulnerable Brad Pitt-lookalike Achilles, the impressively trained Ajax, the clever old-age dean Nestor and of course the crafty Odysseus.

Because what good is all that Greek muscle, if a decade later the Trojans are still sitting comfortably behind their sturdy city walls? Then you must play another trump card. And Odysseus knew perfectly which one. The insidious king of Ithaca came up with a gigantic wooden horse. That left the Greeks along with the Chinese volunteer Sinon, while their armies left the Trojan coast. But not really: they were playing hide-and-seek on the nearby island of Tenedos.

The next day the Trojans looked surprised at the wooden colossus on the beach. What did that mean? The priest Laocoön did not trust the affair at all and for a moment Odysseus’ genius plan seemed to fall apart after all. Then two stout snakes crawled out of the sea and gulped down Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus with a greedy bite.

Now that that annoying nuisance of a Laocoön was gone, Sinon could easily turn the Trojans’ wheel. He delivered his carefully rehearsed bullshit story and said that the horse had been abandoned by the Greeks. Between the besieging, Greek soldiers had stolen the Palladium of the goddess Pallas Athena from the Trojan temple. Their disproportionate tinkering now served as a make-up for the goddess to ensure peace.

The Trojans were well aware of that. After a decade of bloodshed and the horrific loss of their top shooter Hector, every divine blessing was a blessing. Only: that wooden picket fence didn’t fit at all because of their heavily reinforced city gates. Sinon knew what to do with that. What if the Trojans broke out a piece of wall now? Can’t hurt, isn’t it, those Greeks are alone at home painting amphorae and eating feta?

demise of troy

Juan de la Corte

The Trojans thought that was quite a sharp argument. They tore down an opening and rolled the horse inside the city walls. And that was their downfall. For in the wooden horse were a lot of burly Greek soldiers entrenched. At night the stowaways crawled out of the horse and swung open the city gates generously to their compatriots. And so the mythical Troy, which for 10 years had effortlessly withstood all the Greek kingdoms, fell down for good in barely one night.

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