Greece was one of the main cradles of Western civilization, and from which came some of the greatest philosophers and precursors of science, such as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, as well as theorems, basic socio-cultural elements or even political systems such as democracy.
Greek culture is rich and varied, as are the myths that have accompanied the formulation of the identity and understanding of the Hellenic world.
Throughout this article we are going to see several short Greek myths , all small but valuable examples of the beliefs that have been part of one of the most recognized and extensive cultures of antiquity.
A dozen short Greek myths
Next we are going to show you a dozen of great short Greek myths, most of them highly known, that allow us to dive into the idiosyncrasy and way of seeing the world typical of the Hellenic culture, in the Greece of the Antiquity.
1. Pandora’s Box
We have all heard on some occasion the expression “opening Pandora’s box” , and most have at least the notion that this expression refers to a Greek myth, which tells us about the price of unhealthy curiosity and the birth of the evils of the world, but also about hope. Although there are several variants of this myth, the most common and well-known is the following:
“Pandora was the first human woman, created by Hephaestus by order of Zeus and being endowed by the different gods with some of her greatest qualities and virtues, but also including the ability to seduce and lie. Her creation is due to the desire of the king of Olympus to take revenge on Prometheus and his people.
The god made Pandora and Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, meet , and eventually led them to get married. But Pandora also received a box destined for her husband, in which were locked all the evils of the world, with instructions never to open it. However, one of the gifts that Pandora had received was that of curiosity. One day, the woman opened the box to see what was inside, something that would cause all the evils to come out of the box and be distributed throughout the world. Scared, Pandora closed the box, but all that remained was hope. So Pandora dedicated herself to offering hope to men, in order to help them endure the evils and vicissitudes of the world.
2. The birth of Aphrodite
The goddess of love and passion, Aphrodite is a well known deity within the Greek pantheon and was widely worshipped in the past. However, unlike other deities she was not a natural child of any god, but as her name implies she emerged from the sea foam. The myth of her birth, which comes to us from Hesiod, is as follows
” Gaea, mother Earth, gave birth by herself to Uranus, the heavens . Together with him she would generate and give birth to numerous children, who however would be buried in their mother because of the hatred and fear that Uranus had for his offspring. One day the youngest son, Cronus (a titan who would become the father of the Olympic gods, whom he would devour), with the help of a sickle provided by his mother, castrated his father Uranus by cutting off his genitals.
The remains of these genitals fell into the sea, where the blood and semen would mix with the waters forming a foam from which a deity, Aphrodite, would be born, already totally adult from birth.
3. The origin of Medusa
The name of Medusa is highly known in the western culture, being this Gorgon a very popular Greek mythological figure. The best known myth of which she is a part has to do with her death at the hands of Perseus, but another one that may be of interest is the origin of her birth. Although there are several versions, one of them states the following.
“Medusa was once a young and beautiful woman, a priestess of Athena whose beauty was admired by all who looked at her and who enjoyed multiple suitors. One day the god Poseidon observed the young woman and fell in love with her. The god of the seas decided to kidnap Medusa and take her against her will in the temple of Athens.
This fact provoked the anger of Athena, who decided to curse the woman by transforming her beautiful hair into furious snakes , as well as making anyone who looked at her closely in the eyes turn to stone”.
4. The fall of Icarus
One of the myths that most warn us of the risks of ignoring what wisdom dictates and acting carelessly without taking into account the possible consequences, or of wanting to achieve and encompass more than we can, is that of Icarus. The myth says the following.
“Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a wise old man of great knowledge who was able to build the labyrinth in which King Minos locked up the Minotaur. This king, to prevent anyone from ever knowing how to find the way out of the labyrinth, decided to lock the sage and Icarus up for life in a tower .
Daedalus dreamed of escaping from his prison, but he could not escape by land or sea. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he could escape by air, and so he made two large pairs of wax wings out of bird feathers and wax. Before leaving, the wise Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high or too fast, as the wax wings would not hold.
They both started the flight, escaping from their confinement. But Icarus, seeing the beauty of the sun, ignored his father’s directions and flew higher and higher, trying to get closer until he almost touched the sun. But the wings could not resist the heat, breaking up and causing Icarus to plunge into the void and die.
5. The people who come from the ants: the Myrmidons
The name of Myrmidon may not be particularly well known today, but it is the name of a people famous in antiquity for the high reputation and skill of their warriors, being even quoted in the Iliad . Although there are different versions of this myth, the one shown here is the one transcribed by Ovid in “The Metamorphoses”.
“Legend has it that the king of Olympus, Zeus, had relations with the nymph Aegis and later named an island after her in front of the Peloponnese. However, when Hera found out about her husband’s adventure and the name given to the island, she decided to send a horrible plague that ended up killing the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants. Among the few survivors was the king of the island, Eaco of Aegina, who begged Zeus to repopulate the island.
As he prayed a ray of sunshine illuminated a row of ants on an oak tree, something that made the king decide to ask for as many people as he had seen ants on the tree. Eaco of Egina fell asleep and dreamt that the ants in the oak tree fell to the ground and in doing so transformed themselves into people. When he woke up, the island had regained the number of inhabitants it used to have, being named after the ants from which they came (myrmidon could be translated as ant men)”.
6. The myth of Sisyphus
Another relatively short Greek myth is that of Sisyphus, king of Ephira (later Corinth, the city of which he is considered to be the founder in the myths). This myth has been used as symbolism of the price of greed and deceit , in addition to the realization of useless efforts (especially for the punishment that was inflicted on him). The myth says the following.
“There was a time when the region of Ephira had a king named Sisyphus, who was very cunning but had the great defect of being tremendously manipulative and greedy. But there came a day when his ambition and actions would provoke the wrath of Zeus by accusing him of the abduction of the nymph Aegina before her father, Aesop, in exchange for sources of fresh water for his city. Zeus ordered Thanatos to go and take King Sisyphus to the underworld, but once there the crafty king invited the deity of death to eat, tricking him so much that he managed to chain him up in a cell.
As death was locked up, there were no deaths, something that ended up infuriating Hades and made him finally decide that Ares should free Thanatos and take Sisyphus to the underworld. However, the clever king asked his wife not to honour him at his death, a request that she fulfilled. This fact would be used by Sisyphus to deceive Hades, asking him to bring her back to life since his wife had not celebrated the funeral properly and had not rendered him any honors. The god of the underworld agreed in return for him to return after doing so. But Sisyphus did not return, until death came to him many years later.
Sisyphus would finally be punished by Zeus and Hades. His sentence was to have to climb a stone up a mountainside to the top. However, when he got there, he would fall to the other side of the mountain, which meant that he would have to be pushed to the top again, something that would be repeated in an eternal cycle.
7. The myth of Tiresias
Tiresias is one of the most famous blind sighted people in all of Greek mythology, being consulted by many heroes. He is also part of one of the cases of transsexuality that appear in mythology. One of the myths that tells us about him is the following, which in turn explains the origin of his blindness.
“The legend says that one day while walking on the mountain, Tiresias found two snakes in full copulation on his way to the mountain. Tiresias wanted to separate them and hit the female with his rod , killing her. But in doing so, his action resulted in his being cursed and in revenge his sex was changed, becoming a woman. Tiresias would live as a woman for 8 years, after which she would meet the same snakes again. On this occasion he beat and killed the male, becoming a man again.
Years later, the gods Zeus and Hera would have a dispute as to which of the two sexes enjoyed sex more. Tiresias was chosen as the judge, since he had lived as both a man and a woman. But Tiresias’ response, which proposed that woman enjoyed sex more, provoked Hera’s anger. As punishment, the goddess left him blind. However, as compensation for such action, Zeus provided her with the gift of clairvoyance . This would make Tiresias one of the most famous seers in all of Greek mythology during his lifetime.”
8. The myth of Echo
Some myths attempt to explain the origin of certain phenomena, such as that of the echo. The mythological explanation of this phenomenon is explained below:
“Echo was an oread or nymph of the forest and the mountain. From her lips came the most beautiful words, but they were so beautiful that Zeus would begin to be attracted to her. Hera, having discovered the betrayal, cursed Echo by taking away her voice and making her repeat only the last words spoken to her by her interlocutor.
Time passed and the nymph fell in love with the young Narcissus, watching him in secret. One day, the young man turned away from his companions and would perceive the nymph. However, he cruelly rejected her, which caused the nymph to go into hiding in a cave, where she was consumed until her voice was all that remained.
9. The Myth of Narcissus
The myth that gives name to narcissism and that warns us not to overestimate ourselves, the myth of Narcissus is another short myth of Greek origin which is also deeply linked to the previous one. The myth tells us the following.
“Son of the god Cephysus and Lily, Narcissus was a very beautiful and attractive young man, who according to the great soothsayer Tiresias would live many years as long as he did not see his reflection. The young man generated the admiration of both men and women and was aware of his attractiveness, to the point of being highly conceited and despising the virtues and feelings of others, among whom was the nymph Echo or the young Aminias.
To the latter he would give a sword, with which the rejected young man would kill himself. Shortly before he died, he prayed to the goddess of vengeance Nemesis asking Narcissus to know unrequited love. The deity responded. One day, as he approached to drink, Narcissus saw his reflection in the water of a pond and fell madly in love with him . Finally, trying to get close to his beloved, Narcissus fell into the waters and ended up drowning”.
10. The myth of Prometheus
The myth of Prometheus is one of the best known, and in it we can see how the ancient Greeks already wondered how we had discovered and tamed fire, considering it a gift of practically divine origin . The myth goes like this:
“Prometheus was one of the titans, the son of Japetus and Climene. According to some myths, along with his brother Epimetheus, he was charged with the task of creating animals and humans, and it was Prometheus who decided to give man the ability to walk upright.
He also outwitted and deceived the gods to favor mortals. On one occasion when Zeus forbade fire to mortals and seeing the needs and difficulties of man to survive, he decided to give them fire . So Prometheus entered Olympus and stole fire from the chariot of Helios using a reed, after which he gave it to the mortals so that they could warm themselves and give light to each other.
But Zeus was enraged at the theft, condemning the titan to be chained to Mount Caucasus, where every day and forever, an eagle would come to devour his liver. The organ would grow back during the day, so that the torment would be repeated eternally for this immortal being.