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Myths & Legends retells the stories central to every culture that have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Coverage extends from the well-known tales of the Ancient Greeks, which hold the key to the origin of such phrases as "Achille's heel," to the lesser-known, but richly colorful, myths of the Americas and the East. Topic spreads explore characters and stories in terms of their cultural, psychological, and religious meanings and show their power, purpose, and influence both in their own time and in today's world. Feature spreads visit the sacred sites that can still be seen today, and underline the importance of themes that appear across cultures and through the centuries. In looking at such universal themes as creation, heroic trials, tricksters' lessons, and death and the afterlife, Myths & Legends investigates how different cultures have addressed questions such as How was the world created? How did man learn to use fire? and Why do we grow old?
Year:
2009
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DK Publishing
Language:
english
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352 / 354
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2342362382
ISBN 13:
9782342362381
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Myths

& legends

Myths

& legends
Philip wilkinson

LONDON, NEW YORK, MELBOURNE,
MUNICH, AND DELHI
This book is dedicated to John Wilkinson

Contents

DK London
Senior Editors Sam Atkinson, Paula Regan
Editors Patrick Newman, Manisha Thakkar
US Editor Elizabeth Brais
Project Art Editor Anna Hall
Designers Dean Morris, Adam Walker
Managing Editor Debra Wolter
Managing Art Editor Karen Self
Art Director Bryn Walls
Publisher Jonathan Metcalf
Associate Publisher Liz Wheeler
Production Editors Joanna Byrne, Luca Frassinetti
Production Controller Inderjit Bhullar
Picture Researcher Roland Smithies
Illustrations Anshu Bhatnagar and Debajyoti Dutta

DK Delhi
Project Editor Rohan Sinha
Editors Suchismita Banerjee,
Kingshuk Ghoshal
Design Manager Arunesh Talapatra
Project Designer Tannishtha Chakraborty
Designers Mitun Banerjee, Mahua Mandal, Ivy Roy
Illustration co-ordinator Malavika Talukder
DTP co-ordinator Balwant Singh
DTP Jagtar Singh, Preetam Singh
Head of Publishing Aparna Sharma
Published in the United States by
DK Publishing
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
09 10 11 12 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
MD564—July 2009
Copyright © 2009 Dorling Kindersley Limited
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved
above, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the
copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Published in Great Britain by
Dorling Kindersley Limited.
A catalog record for this book is available
from the Library of Congress.
ISBN: 978-0-7566-4309-6

4

Printed and bound in China
by Sheck Wah Tong

Discover more at

www.dk.com

Introduction	   6

Europe	  10

Classical Europe	  14
Ancient Greek Creation	  16
Cosmic War	  18
The Twelve Olympians	  20
Zeus 		  24
The Creation of Humankind	  26
Apollo		  28
Poseidon and the Flood	  30
Mythical Beings	  ; 32
Dionysus	  34
Athena		  36
The Loves of Aphrodite	  38
The Greek Goddesses	  40
The Underworld	  42
Orpheus in the Underworld	  44
The Labors of Heracles	  46
The Garden of the Hesperides	  48
Theseus and the Minotaur	  50
Bellerophon and Pegasus	  52
The Exploits of Perseus	  54
Abandoned Children	  56
Oedipus		  58
The Trojan War	  60
The Odyssey	  64
Classical Antiheroes	  68
Classical Antiheroines	  70
The Argonauts	  72
Roman Gods and Goddesses	  76
Aeneas and the Origins of Rome	  78
Guardian Deities	  82

Fertility Deities	  84
Pan and Syrinx	  86
Northern Europe	  88
Norse Origins	  90
The Norse Cosmos	  92
The Norse Gods 	  94
Loki		  96
The Last Battle	  98
Kalevala		
100
Tales of Heroism and Chivalry
104
Beowulf		
106
Legends of the Ring
108
Earth Deities
110
Western Europe
112
Myths of the Ancient Celts
114
The Ulster Cycle
116
The Fenian Cycle
118
Magical Worlds
120
The Mabinogi
124
King Arthur and his Knights
126
The Holy Grail
128
Central and Eastern Europe
130
Koschei the Immortal
132
Legends of the Witch
134
Myths of Wood and Water
136
Gods and Goddesses of Love
138
The Firebird
140
Slavic Gods of Power
142

West and Central Asia
West Asia
Enuma Elish
Inanna		

144

148
150
154

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Myths of Ugarit
Myths of the Hittites
The Great Sky God
Deities of Fate and Fortune
Central Asia and Arabia
The Fight Against Evil
The Legend of Rustum and Sohrab
Animal Myths of Mongolia
Gods of War
The Epic of Gesar Khan
The Goddess Al-Lat

south and east asia

South Asia
The Vedic Gods
Brahma and the Creation
Shiva		
The Ten Avatars of Vishnu
Durga		
The Ramayana
The Mahabharata
The Origin of the Ganges
East Asia
Pan Gu Creates the Universe
Legends of the Chinese Heroes
The Court of the Jade Emperor
The Ten Suns of Heaven
The Adventures of Monkey
The Japanese Creation
Susano-O and his Descendants
Kintaro		

156
158
160
162
164
166
168
170
172
174
176
180

182

186
188
190
194
196
198
200
206
208
210
212
214
216
218
220
222
226
228

africa

230

Ancient Egypt
The Beginning of the World
Book of the Dead
A King’s Murder
Goddesses of the Nile
Journey to the Land of the Dead
West Africa
African Origins
Ananse		
Mythical Heroes
Central Africa
Lonkundo
Mwindo		
The Wise King
East Africa
The First Cattle
Shamans		
Southern Africa
Myths of the San
Hlakanyana
Southern African Folk Tales

234
236
238
240
244
246
248
250
252
254
256
258
260
262
264
266
268
270
272
273
274

the americas

276

North America
Navajo Emergence
Ancestors
Raven Steals the Light
Journey to the Sky
Myths of the Far North
Mesoamerica
Popol Vuh

Myths of the Plumed Serpent
Aztec Nature Gods
The Caribbean
The Five Eras
Gods and Spirits
Ghede		
South America
Inca Beginnings
Sky Gods of the Andes
Spirits of Place

oceania

298
300
304
306
308
310
312
314
318
320

322

Australia
The Rainbow Snake
The Primal Sisters
The Killing of Lumaluma
The Bram-Bram-Bult
Polynesia
Tangaroa		
The Origin of Death
Sacred Stones

326
328
330
332
334
336
338
340
342

Index		
Acknowledgments

344
351

280
282
284
286
288
290
292
294

5

introduction

M

introduction

yths—stories of the gods, of heroes,
and of great cosmic events—are told
in all of the world’s many cultures.
They deal with the deepest, most fundamental
issues: the creation of the universe and of the
human race, the nature of the gods and spirits,
what happens to us when we die, and how the
world will end. They examine love and jealousy,
war and peace, good and evil. Myths explore
these crucial issues with intriguing plots, vivid
characters, memorable scenes, and concepts
that touch our deepest emotions; and so they
have become eternally fascinating.
Myths began as tales told around the fire by
successive generations, and in places they are
still passed on orally. Later, with the invention
of writing, people began to write their myths
down and adapt them in new ways—turning
them into plays, poems, or novels, for example.

6

Some of the world’s greatest literature, from
the Greek epics of Homer to the sagas of the
early Icelandic writers, are based on much
older myths that were originally told orally.

myriad myths

Because of their oral roots, myths are not set in
stone. Each one, endlessly retold, has spawned
variations. Often, there is no single “correct”
version of a myth. The name of a god will
change from one tribe to the next; a twist in
a tale will be explained in different ways by
neighboring groups. Written versions of a
myth multiply the retellings still further.
This book can only tell a fraction of the
world’s myths, and usually only gives one
version of each story. But it does contain a
generous selection of myths from around the
globe, including many from the cultures of

some cultures have thousands of
deities, so the scope for variations
in their myths is almost infinite.
Europe that, because they have been written
down and widely circulated, have had an
enormous influence across the world.

Cosmos and people

Among the seemingly endless variety of myths
are common themes. Nearly every mythology
starts with the question: “How did the universe
begin?” Often, a shadowy creator takes the first
step; a god, perhaps, who wills himself into
being. Frequently, the creator is faced with a
cosmic egg. In one variation of the Chinese
creation myth, for instance, the god Pan Gu
has to break such an egg to form the land and
sky. Sometimes the creator has to fetch land
from the depths of a primal ocean—like the

Earth Diver, a common figure in Native
American myths. In other myths the world is
the offspring of a male and a female creator.
Often, people come much later. Usually
they are molded from clay or carved from
wood. Like human sculptors, the gods often
make several false starts. Myths from Mexico
to Greece tell of three versions of people, only
the last being right. Sometimes the first people
are male, and when they begin to die the gods
make women so that the people can reproduce.

Gods and their powers

Most cultures have a large number of gods or
spirits—sometimes thousands, because there
are spirits everywhere. In places as far apart as

introduction

7

For early peoples, the existence of
deities explained why the sun shone
and where the rains came from.

introduction

Japan and Africa, every rock, stream, lake,
and hill may have its own spirit. Many are
local deities, worshipped mainly by the people
who live nearby and share their sacred space.
Yet even in cultures that have thousands
of deities there are “core” groups of widely
known gods with special powers. There are
gods of the sun, the rain, the sea, the sky, the
mountains, and the rivers. Specific gods look
after hunting, farming, love, childbirth, war,
and death. The myths involving these gods
tend to relate closely to their roles.
Many other myths involve mortals with
extraordinary superhuman powers. These
heroes accomplish apparently impossible tasks,
win battles single-handedly, and even visit the

8

Underworld. They may also be culture heroes,
who teach people important skills such as
fire-making. Their achievements are often so
great that they become gods when they die.

Myths of the elements

Among the most prominent gods are those
of the elements, notably the sun and the rain.
They determined whether crops grew, so the
sun and weather gods were often the most
widely worshipped of all the gods. From the
Inca sun god Inti to the Greek sky god Zeus,
they were supremely powerful.
Some of the most familiar mythical themes
concern the elements. Many cultures have a
myth in which the sun disappears, depriving

the world of food and warmth and explaining
night and day. Other cultures, such as China
and parts of Africa, have a myth in which there
is too much sunlight, which the gods reduce, or
counter with night. Worldwide, wrathful gods
send great floods, sometimes wiping out all but
one human family before normality is restored.
Stories like these explain natural disasters and
encourage people to honour the gods, so that
they will not unleash their anger; they are also
gripping tales of adventure and rescue.

the importance of myths

Myths reinforce the cultural identity of the
people who tell them. For the Aborigines of
Australia, the origin myths of each tribe tell not
only of the ancestors, but of the routes they
took across the land when they brought each
natural feature into being: the land, its people,
and their myths are united inextricably. Myths
were just as important to the ancient Greeks,
who named their greatest city, Athens, after its

patron goddess, Athena; to the Incas, who
believed their rulers to be descended from the
sun god himself; and to the Norse, whose
warriors tried to emulate their great god Odin.
The vitality and importance of myths is
seen not only in their countless retellings, but
in the way their gods, heroes, and creatures
have inspired artists. From China to ancient
Rome, artists have painted and carved images
of the gods, an activity that is sometimes itself
an act of worship, sometimes more simply a
celebration of the deities and their deeds.
Myths arise from an intimate relationship
between people and the natural and spirit
worlds—something so many of us have lost.
They operate on the borders between reality
and fantasy, celebrate oddity and uncertainty,
and describe terrifying cosmic forces. But they
also deal with great excitement and inspiration.
Myths are the most enthralling stories we have,
because they touch our hearts and minds and
reach to the very core of our being.

introduction

9

EUROPE

C

europe

ompared with the vast land areas
of the continents of Africa and
Asia, Europe is relatively small;
nevertheless, it does have a long
cultural history.Part of the legacy
of this heritage is a body of myth that contains
many thousands of different legends, split into
a number of very distinct traditions across the
continent. These range from the stories told by
the Slavs of Eastern Europe to the myths related
by the Norsemen of Western Europe, and from
the complex pantheon of ancient Greece and
Rome to the chivalric stories of the Middle
Ages. Most of these traditions have become
well known all around the world because of
Europe’s long history of written culture.
But the myths and legends of Europe, like
those of all other parts of the world, originated
long before the invention of the written word.
Some evidence of these
prehistoric traditions
survives, but it is

12

often minimal. The Romans, for example, wrote
about some of the gods and goddesses of the
pre-literate Celts whose territories they overran,
but their descriptions of Celtic deities and
religious practices are patchy. Even when put
together with the archaeological evidence of
inscriptions, statues, altars, jewelry, and other
paraphernalia, they form only a partial picture.
Other aspects of European mythology have
come down to us through popular stories from
oral traditions—stories that were not recorded
by writers and folklorists until much later, some
not until the 19th century. Many of the gods
and stories from Central and Eastern Europe
have survived in this way, and have been given
new life when they have inspired writers,
painters, and composers to re-imagine them in
new works. Stories from Russian mythology, for
example, have given rise to paintings by such
well-known illustrators and stage designers as
Ivan Bilibin, and music by famous composers
such as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

men create the gods
in their own image.
	The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570 – 480 bce)

However, the most familiar European myths
have come down to us through literature.
Myths originating in ancient Greece—of the
gods of Mount Olympus, of heroes, and of
many semi-divine beings—were given long
life by the Greeks’ later poets and dramatists.
Fascinating in their own right, stories of gods
such as Zeus and Apollo, and of heroes such
as Heracles and Perseus, have been made still
more enduring and popular because they
became the subject matter for, among other
Greek writers, Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus,
and Euripides. When the Romans adopted
the myths of the Greeks, a new generation
of writers, such as Ovid and Virgil, developed
these stories even further. Another example of

a rich literary culture embracing mythology
that had roots in a much earlier period is found
in the works of the poets and writers of the
Middle Ages, who retold stories of King Arthur
and his knights, as well as other tales of chivalry.
The literary retellings of European myth
remind us of the sophistication of the societies
that produced them, from ancient Greece to
medieval Christendom. Yet this sophistication is
only one side of the myths, because the world
of European mythology is often very far from
sophisticated. Extraordinarily bloody battles,
bodies torn limb from limb, gods who behave
with little or no concern at all for morality—all
of these are regular features of Classical Greek
and Roman myth, for example. And the witches,
ogres, water sprites, werewolves, and other dark
beings that loom large in many of the stories
from Central Europe can be just as violent and
fearsome. For all of its great age and apparent
sophistication, then, the mythology of Europe
remains as ambiguous and edgy as it ever was.

Introduction

13

classical europe

14

Altar to the goddess Fortuna
This altar comes from the city of Cerveteri, built by the Etruscans, who were the Italian
forerunners of the Romans. It depicts a sacrifice to Fortuna, a goddess of destiny who
steered the course of people’s lives and who was also later worshipped by the Romans.

classical europe
The myths of ancient Greece and Rome, with their tales of the great loves,
rivalries, and achievements of the Classical deities and heroes, are some
of the most familiar stories in all world literature.

classical europe

The civilization of ancient Greece, which
of heroes like Heracles and Jason, involving
reached its zenith in the 5th century bce,
great adventures and journeys as far as the
was founded not by one large nation or
Underworld, have been endlessly retold.
empire, but in a series of city-states, each of
An enduring influence
which had its own traditions, culture, and
When Greek civilization declined, the
deities. As a result, many of the gods and
myths lived on in various ways. As the
goddesses of ancient Greece had local
Romans built up their vast empire, they
followings. For example, Athena was
adopted local deities wherever they went.
closely associated with Athens, Zeus
They found the gods and goddesses of
with Olympia, and Apollo with Delphi.
Sicilian temple
Greece especially appealing, and combined
But ancient Greeks everywhere came to
Classical temples such as this one in Agrigento in Sicily
their personalities with their own deities
recognize a large group of deities who
were rectangular structures enclosed by rows of columns.
to create figures that were closely related
interacted with one another—and with
Inside was a room with a cult statue of the temple deity,
but subtly different. The sky god Jupiter,
the world of people—rather in the
where valuable offerings such as gold and silver were left.
for example, is the Roman equivalent of
manner of an extended human family,
the Greek god Zeus, but differs from him
with its myriad close relatives. Members
in several ways: the Romans linked him with justice, with the
of this great pantheon of gods and goddesses fell in love and
keeping of oaths, and with their magistrates, who made
had relationships—even with mere mortals—had immense
sacrifices to him when they took up their office.
personal and political rivalries, and frequently went to war.
The art, architecture, and mythological depictions of the
The Greeks and their gods
Greeks were also preserved and had a longer-term impact,
The ancient Greeks worshipped their deities by leaving
particularly on artists and writers in Western Europe during
offerings to them in temples, and honored them by holding
the Renaissance (c.1350–c.1550).
regular festivals. Much is known about this worship because
many of their temples, together with ritual objects and cult
statues, have survived, and ancient Greek writers described
religious rituals such as making offerings of food and wine.
In return, worshippers hoped that the deities would look
kindly on them, since most gods and goddesses were said to
take a keen interest in human affairs. In the mythical great
war between Greece and Troy, for example, every stage of the
conflict, together with the final outcome, was influenced as
much by the actions of the deities as by what the men of the
two sides actually achieved on the battlefield.
The myths of Greece also show this interaction between
The sacred robe of Athena
deities and humans in the guise of numerous heroes: figures
This scene is part of a frieze—a series of carved reliefs—that once decorated
who are mortal but, because they often have one divine
the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens dating from
438–432 bce. It depicts temple officials holding up the sacred robe of Athena.
parent, have some of the characteristics of the divine. Stories

15

ancient greek
creation
Classical mythology contains several accounts of the creation,
telling how creator deities gave the universe shape and form
before the first races to inhabit the cosmos were born. These
creation stories give the background to the birth of the gods
and goddesses who dominate much of Classical mythology
and who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus.

The Myth

classical europe

In the beginning there was nothing but a vast, dark void
called Chaos. Out of this emptiness the creative force
emerged. The various Greek accounts of creation give this
force different names. In some, she was a goddess called
Eurynome, who coupled with a primal serpent called
Orphion to begin the process of creation, while in others,
she was Gaia, Mother Earth.

16

Orphion
The serpent Orphion coiled
itself around the egg laid by
Eurynome, which contained the
beginnings of all things that exist.

the lakes and seas, but also
the earliest races of creatures
that inhabited the Earth. The
first of these were the HundredThe primal egg
Handed Giants, each of whom had 50 heads and 100
Eurynome took the form of a dove and laid a great egg,
arms branching out from their shoulders. Then came the
around which Orphion coiled. Warmed by the serpent’s
Cyclopes, a race of one-eyed giants who were skilled in
coils, the egg hatched, and out of it came all things that
metalworking. Some say that later they attacked the god
exist: Uranus, the sky; Ourea, the mountains; Pontus,
Asclepius, so his father, Apollo, killed them. Their ghosts
the sea; and all the stars and planets. Gaia, the Earth, and
still haunt the caves beneath the volcano Mount Etna.
her mountains and rivers emerged from the egg at the
Others claim that the power and skill of the
same time. When all these things were born, Eurynome
Cyclopes frightened Uranus, who thought
and Orphion travelled to Mount Olympus and made
that they might rob him of his power. So
their home there. But Orphion declared himself
Uranus banished them to the Underworld.
sole creator of the cosmos, and Eurynome
The most important race produced by Gaia
punished him for this by
and Uranus were a group of giants known
first kicking him and
as the Titans. They became the
then, when he persisted,
first rulers of Earth and started families
by banishing him to the
with their female counterparts, the
Underworld forever.
Titanesses. Their children became some
of the most powerful gods and goddesses,
Mother Earth
such as Helios, the sun god, and Eos, the
The dove
Others say that the primal creator was
goddess of dawn, who were the children
The story of the primal goddess
Gaia. She and Uranus, the sky, made love,
of Hyperion. Most influential of all were the
Eurynome taking the form of a dove is
and Uranus sent life-giving water onto her
children of Cronus, the leader of the Titans,
a very early one that exists mainly in
fragments of ancient Greek writings.
surface. From this union were born not just
who became the deities of Mount Olympus.

key characters
The ancient Greek cosmos begins with shadowy characters whose
main purpose is to get creation started, but who do not have the
highly developed personalities or complex myths associated with
the later Olympian deities. Eurynome, for example, is described as
the goddess of all things, a figure who can dance across the primal
chaos, brood on the water, or take the form of the bird that lays the
universal egg. Other characters, such as Cronus, originally a harvest
god, preside over natural forces. The Titaness Rhea was a primal
goddess like Gaia, a maternal figure strongly identified with the
Earth. The Titans also ruled the various heavenly bodies. Phoebe
and Atlas ruled the moon, while Rhea and Cronus governed the
planet Saturn. Theia and Hyperion
were the rulers of the sun.

Gaia, the mother goddess
With her consort Uranus, Gaia
was said to be mother of such
geographical features as seas,
rivers, and streams.

Cronus eating his child
Famous for swallowing the first five
of his children (see p.18), the Titan
Cronus lived with his consort Rhea
in a rocky citadel on Mount Othrys.

Rhea tricking Cronus
To save her sixth child from being
swallowed by his father, Rhea
handed Cronus a stone wrapped
in swaddling clothes (see p.18).

Uranus
Uranus was castrated by his son,
Cronus, who was incited by his
mother, Gaia, since Uranus had
imprisoned her other children.

the Trinities

Among the first creatures in the universe were races of giants, such as
the one-eyed Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed Giants. These races
had superhuman strength and because of this (and their disturbing
appearance) the Titans banished them to the Underworld. Later
myths, however, tell of a number of Cyclopes who found a route
back to Earth, where they lived as shepherds.
Most of these Earth-dwelling Cyclopes were
gentle, but a few liked to eat human flesh.

The Titans and other primal beings
produced a number of children who
had the status of lesser deities, but
could still have great influence over
the lives of others. They often came
in groups of three, such as the three
Hesperides and the three Fates. The
latter were endowed with tremendous
power, controlling the lives not only
of humans but also of the gods—
the Greeks believed that no one
could escape the power of fate.

Cyclopes
The name Cyclopes means
“round-eyes,” and these
creatures were so called
because of the single eye in
the middle of their forehead.
Hundred-Handed Giants
The Hundred-Handed Giants lived in Tartarus,
the deepest part of the Underworld, guarding
those who were condemned to dwell there.

The three Hesperides
The three daughters of the Titan
Atlas were called the Hesperides,
which means “daughters of the
evening.” They tended a beautiful
garden with a tree bearing golden
apples (see pp.48–49).

The three Fates
The three Fates were the daughters of
Night. Clotho was believed to spin the
thread of life, and Lachesis measured
its length. Atropos, the third daughter,
cut it at the moment of death.
SEE ALSO European creation stories 90–91, 100–03 • Giants 64–67, 96–97, 104–05

ancient greek creation

the giants and cyclopes

17

Cosmic War
The gods of Mount Olympus, who are the
dominant characters in most of the myths of
ancient Greece, took control of the universe
by fighting a long war with their ancestors
and rivals, the Titans. The story of this
Cosmic War, which is also known as

The Myth

administered to Cronus, would make him
vomit up all his children. Zeus followed Metis’s
instructions and rescued his siblings—the gods
Poseidon and Hades, and the goddesses Hera,
Hestia, and Demeter. Then Zeus freed the
Cyclopes, the one-eyed giants whom Uranus had
banished to the Underworld. The gods and the
Bronze shield and sword
The Greeks used to make fine bronze Cyclopes led by Zeus declared war on Cronus.
weapons. Myths about metalworkers
The two sides were equally matched and
like the Cyclopes show how vital
the
conflict seemed destined to last forever.
these skills were to them.
But the Cyclopes were master metalworkers,
and they created a number of magical weapons, including a
The return of Zeus
thunderbolt for Zeus, a trident for Poseidon, and a helmet
After Zeus grew up, one day his foster-mother, Amalthea,
for Hades that made the wearer invisible. These eventually
revealed his true identity to him and narrated how Cronus
gave the gods the upper hand in the conflict. At the end of
had swallowed all his siblings. An enraged Zeus then resolved the war, the gods controlled the cosmos and the Titans were
to take revenge
imprisoned in Tartarus, a region in the Underworld full of
on his father for
fearsome monsters guarded by the Hundred-Handed Giants.
this crime. When
Further battles
he declared his
Gaia, outraged that her children had been dispatched to
intention to the
Tartarus, began another war against the gods, bringing the
Titaness Metis, she
Giants, who were also her children, into battle against Zeus
told him that he
and the other gods and goddesses. The gods were finally the
could still rescue his
victors in this battle, known as the Gigantomachia, and the
brothers and sisters.
She gave him a drug Giants were buried beneath volcanoes. But even then their
rule was not secure. Zeus was challenged one last time by
that, when it was
Typhon, yet another of Gaia’s offspring. Although Zeus injured
In battle
Typhon—a huge creature with many heads and countless legs
Hurling heavy rocks was one
and arms—with his thunderbolt, the monster continued to
way in which the gods and
giants attacked each other.
hurl enormous rocks at him. Zeus retaliated by attacking the
This painting shows a scene
rocks with thunderbolts, so that they rebounded on Typhon,
from the Gigantomachia, the
knocking
the strength out of him. Finally, Zeus hurled him
battle between the gods and
down to Tartarus. His rule was secure at last.
Gaia’s children, the giants.

classical europe

An oracle had told the Titan Cronus that one
of his children would kill him. As a result,
whenever a child was born to his wife, Rhea,
Cronus would swallow it. After Cronus had
disposed of five children, Rhea hatched a
plan. When their next child, Zeus, was born,
she sent him to Crete, where Amalthea, a
friendly goat-nymph, brought up the child.
Meanwhile, Rhea wrapped a stone in swaddling
clothes and gave it to Cronus to swallow.

18

the Titanomachia, involves many themes—
such as oracles, lost children, and revenge—
that are prominent in later myths. At the end
of the struggle, Zeus emerged as the supreme
ruler of the entire cosmos, and the defeated
Titans were banished to the Underworld.

weapons of the Gods

atlas

The deities of ancient Greece resembled humans in several ways.
When the gods fought a war, the Greeks imagined them as beings in
human form, fighting with weapons. These weapons were made for
them by Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, craftsmanship, and fire,
who was a kind of celestial blacksmith. But the weapons of the gods
had powers that went far beyond earthly swords and daggers. When
Zeus wielded his thunderbolt or Poseidon struck his trident, the entire
cosmos shook. Hephaestus sometimes made armor for mortal heroes
like Achilles (see pp.60–61), and when a hero showed special prowess
in arms, people said his weaponry must have
been made by Hephaestus.

Son of the Titan Iapetus and a
sea nymph called Clymene,
Atlas ruled a large island
kingdom called Atlantis.
He had many subjects, but
they became degenerate, so
the gods decided to punish
them by destroying the entire
race. They sent a great flood that
killed all the people and sank the
island beneath the sea. Resentful
towards the gods at the loss of his
kingdom, Atlas led the Titans
in the Cosmic War. When
the gods won the war, they
punished Atlas for his part in
it by making him hold the sky
on his shoulders forever.

Trident
Poseidon’s weapon
was the trident, which
he used to stir up
storms, to shake the
ground—thereby causing
earthquakes—and even to
fork up new islands from
the sea bed.

Thunderbolt
Zeus used a thunderbolt as his
weapon. As well as making the
whole sky shake with its power,
he could aim it with precision,
either to kill an opponent or to
shatter his opponent’s weapon.

Helmet
Hades’s helmet made him invisible,
so that he could attack his enemies
without being detected. Because
he ruled the dark realms of the
Underworld, Hades was never
depicted in ancient Greek art.

Bearer of the skies
The celestial globe held
by Atlas was sometimes
mistaken for the Earth,
leading both to the belief
that he held the world on
his shoulders, and to the
use of Atlas’s name for
books of maps.

typhon and the winds

Disguises of the Gods

himself as a ram, a creature that was
aggressive and impressively armed
with a pair of horns.
The crow
While hiding, Apollo
took the form of a
crow, a rather unassuming
disguise considering that he
was the god of music.

The cat
Artemis, who was a huntress and
the goddess of the chase, chose
to transform herself into a
cat, also a hunting creature.

Gaia bore the fire-breathing monster Typhon, who
was the god of winds, with the intention of creating
a son so powerful that he could defeat the gods.
Some accounts say that after Zeus overcame him, he
was condemned to the Underworld. Other versions
of the story relate how he survived and went to live
on Mount Olympus. There he made peace with the
gods, occasionally giving birth to mighty storms
called typhoons.
Certain myths also
claim he dwelled in
Mount Etna where
he spewed out
smoke and lava.

Typhon in hell
In the most widespread
retelling of the myth,
Typhon was imprisoned
in the Underworld after
his defeat by Zeus.

SEE ALSO Wars 60–61, 98–99, 104–05, 116–17, 118–19, 126–27, 170–71, 176–77, 206–07

cosmic war

One enduring theme in Greek mythology is the way
in which the gods could disguise themselves. Deities
used their shape-changing ability to serve different
purposes—from fighting battles to pursuing loved
ones. When they were challenged by the monster
Typhon, all the deities except the brave Athena fled to
Egypt, where they disguised themselves as different
creatures and went into hiding.
However, Zeus eventually
forsook his disguise and came
The ram
forth to fight the monster.
The normally brave Zeus disguised

19

the twelve
olympians

Gaia

The twelve dominant deities in Greek myth lived on
Mount Olympus and controlled life on Earth: they were
Zeus (king of the gods), Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis,
Athena, Demeter, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, and
Poseidon. This family tree shows their relationships to
each other, as well as to some of the Titans (see pp.16–19),
such as Cronus and Rhea, and a number of lesser gods.

cyclopes

cronus

poseidon

hestia

demeter
hades

zeus

rhea

hera

zeus

persephone

Classical Europe

Demeter

20

Poseidon

Hestia

hephaestus

Hephaestus

aphrodite

ares

Ares

hebe

Aphrodite

uranus

aphrodite

giants

monsters
Zeus and Hera

zeus

coeus

phoebe

leto

asteria

oceanus

tethys

Artemis

clymene
apollo

iapetus

artemis
prometheus
zeus

Epimetheus

metis

pleone

atlas

zeus

maia
Athena

Apollo

The twelve Olympians

athena

hermes

Hermes

21

The gods of Mount Olympus
The ancient Greek gods were said to live on
Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece,
but artists of the Renaissance (c.1350–c.1550)
often depicted them living in a heaven of clouds.

zeus
Zeus, son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, was the god of the
sky and thunder. His most feared weapon was his thunderbolt,
fashioned by the Cyclopes. He became ruler of the gods when
he led them in their defeat of the Titans during the Cosmic War
(see pp.18–19). Though he married the goddess Hera, he was famous
for his many other sexual conquests, which included goddesses,
nymphs, and mortal women. Some of the numerous children of
these liaisons wielded immense power over the people of Earth.

the disguises of zeus

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Zeus’s shining body could terrify mortals and his thunderbolt
could burn to death anything that came too near. For these
reasons, and because many of his sexual partners were
unwilling, Zeus adopted various guises when approaching
his loves. He charmed Europa by taking the form of a bull,
got through Danaë’s prison by turning into a shower of gold,
became a satyr to rape Antiope, a princess of Thebes, and
approached Leda as a swan. He tricked Alcmene (see p.46)
by disguising himself as her husband, Amphitryon, and
turned into an eagle to carry off Ganymede, a young
man he had fallen in love with. Zeus could disguise
the objects of his love too, turning Io, a priestess of
Hera, into a cow and Callisto, a nymph of Artemis,
into a bear to allay the suspicions of his wife.

24

Zeus the ruler
Although he was the king
of the gods, Zeus generally
left the work of influencing
the lives of humans to his
many children, using his
personal power sparingly.

Danaë and the shower of gold
Imprisoned by her father because her child
was destined to kill him, Danaë fell prey to
Zeus in the form of a golden shower.
Leda and the swan
Zeus took the form of a swan to woo the Spartan
queen, Leda. Their children included Helen of Troy
(see pp.60–61) and the Dioscuri (see p.83).

Europa and the bull
Europa, a Phoenician maiden, saw Zeus
in the form of a white bull. Just as she
stroked it lovingly and climbed on its
back, the bull sped away with her.

zeus and hera

The divine couple
Although Hera was famously jealous, her worshippers
stressed the importance of marriage, and some artists
portrayed her and Zeus as a tender, loving couple.

Zeus took his sister, Hera, the goddess of marriage, as his wife.
Hera had been ignored when the great gods Zeus, Poseidon, and
Hades divided up the cosmos between them, so marrying Zeus
and ruling the sky as his consort gave her the power she had
been denied. Most of the stories about Hera recount the jealousy
she felt at her husband’s affairs and the vendettas she launched
against her rivals. When Io was transformed into a cow, Hera
sent a fly to sting her perpetually and drive her mad. When the
goddess Leto was expecting Zeus’s children, Hera banned her
from giving birth on the mainland or on any island. She tricked
Semele into demanding that Zeus appear to her in all his glory.
When he agreed reluctantly, Semele was burned to ashes by his
powerful thunderbolt. Hera also persecuted the offspring of
Zeus’s affairs, including Dionysus (see pp.34–35) and the hero
Heracles (see pp.46–47), whom she drove insane—as a result
of which he killed his own wife and children in a fit of madness.
However, the effects on Hera’s victims were rarely permanent.

The three Graces
The three Graces accompanied Aphrodite and Eros.
They brought people happiness, especially in love,
and their breath helped plants flourish.

the muses

the children
of zeus

Zeus

Zeus had dozens of children by
his various partners, and some
of these offspring had prominent
parts in other Greek myths—either
as immortals who ruled different aspects of the cosmos,
or as heroes whose exploits became famous among mortals.
Zeus and his wife, Hera, were the parents of deities such
as Ares (the god of war) and Hebe (the handmaiden of the
gods). Hermes was the product of his union with Maia, and
his affair with Metis resulted in the birth of Athena (see p.36).
With Leto, Zeus fathered the twin deities Apollo and
Artemis, while with Eurynome he produced the three
Graces. His liaison with the Titaness named Mnemosyne
(memory) produced the Muses, and his affair with Ananke
produced the Fates. Among his mortal loves, Europa was
the mother of Sarpedon (a hero of the Trojan War), Minos
(the King of Crete), and Rhadamanthus (who became a
judge of the dead). Danaë gave birth to the hero Perseus,
while Alcmene was the mother of the famed Heracles.

The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne were the Muses,
who presided over the arts and were associated with Apollo
in his role as the god of the arts. There were originally said
to be many Muses, who together inspired poetry and other
arts, but later writers named nine, giving each a specific art.
The nine Muses were Calliope (Muse of poetic inspiration),
Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (instrumental
music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (harmony),
Terpsichore (dance and choral song), Thalia (comedy), and
Urania (scholarship or astronomy). The Muses were said
to dwell on mountains, where their singing and dancing
charmed and inspired all those who encountered them.

The Muses with Apollo

SEE ALSO Sky deities 114–15, 142–43, 158–59, 160–61, 162–63, 188–89, 236–39, 252–53, 266–67, 294–97, 318–19, 338–39

25

the Creation
of humankind
Unlike many cultures, ancient Greece did not have a single
story narrating the origins of humanity. Greek myths mention
several attempts at creating humans, or mortals as they were
known. Three of these attempts failed before the current race
of humans finally emerged, although it is not clear who is
responsible for their creation. However, the origins of key
cultural skills, such as fire-making, are firmly attributed to the
Titan Prometheus, who is portrayed as a friend of humanity.

classical europe

The Myth

26

Prometheus steals fire
Prometheus stole a spark from Mount
Olympus and wrapped it in a stalk
of fennel, where it burned safely as
he carried it to humanity.

The first attempt at creating a human race took place when
the Titans, led by Cronus, ruled the cosmos (see pp.16–17).
The result was the Golden Race, a group of people who
The human race
lived an ideal existence without work or ageing, and for
Finally, the current race of humans
whom life was one long feast. When the people of the
appeared. Some say that the great Titan
Golden Race finally died, their death was like a peaceful
craftsman, Prometheus, was its creator. Whether or not he
sleep. Nevertheless, it left the Earth unpopulated.
Intent on filling up the void, the Olympians (see pp.20–21) actually created humanity, Prometheus certainly became its
protector. He taught humans many important skills, including
created the Silver Race, who lived for a long time but grew
navigation and medicine, and showed them how to make
very slowly to maturity. Their children were brought up
sacrifices, by keeping some of the meat for themselves and
carefully by their mothers, and spent one hundred years
offering the rest to the gods. Once, the people killed a bull but
as babies before reaching adulthood. However, they
could not agree on which part to offer the gods. Prometheus
turned out to be dull and unintelligent people, fighting
cleverly wrapped the meat in the bull’s
continuously among themselves, and
skin, and the bones in its fat. Zeus chose
once they became adults they tended
the bones covered in fat, and became so
to die quickly. These qualities,
angry at the deception that he refused
together with their refusal to
to give fire to the humans.
worship or even respect the gods,
exasperated Zeus, so he banished
The theft of fire
them to the Underworld. Zeus then
Taking the side of humanity, Prometheus
crafted a new race out of clay. The
stole fire from heaven and carried it to
people of this race wore bronze
Earth so that the people could cook
armor and used tools made of the
their food and heat their homes. Zeus
same metal, so they were called the
The forge of Hephaestus
punished Prometheus for the theft by
Bronze Race. Like the Silver Race,
Prometheus found his fire in the workshop of Hephaestus,
having him chained to a rock, where an
they were aggressive, and destroyed where the craftsman god (and, some say, the Cyclopes)
eagle came to peck at his liver every day.
themselves in ruthless battles.
forged Zeus’s thunderbolts and other powerful weapons.

The golden age
During the Golden Age, the world was ruled by Cronus (known
to the Romans as Saturn). It was a time of peace and tranquillity,
as there was no war or injustice, and the Golden Race did not
have to work because enough food was readily
available from plants and trees. In later eras, the
Golden Age became a byword for a time in the
distant past when things were much better than
the present. The idea of the Golden Age became
fashionable in the Renaissance (c.1350–c.1550),
when Italian artists and writers rediscovered the
culture of ancient Greece, and this Classical era
became a favorite subject for painters.
The Golden Race
Renaissance artists saw
the Golden Age as a
time of such peace that
humans could live side
by side with wild animals
without any fear of attack.

Prometheus bound
As punishment for stealing fire from the gods, Zeus had
Prometheus chained to a rock in a place said to be on the
borders of Earth and Chaos. Here, he was condemned to
suffer while an eagle pecked at his liver, which constantly
repaired itself so that the torture could continue. Zeus
decreed that Prometheus should remain bound until
another creature offered to be bound in his place. After
thousands of years, a wounded centaur called Cheiron
offered to take Prometheus’s place. When he arrived at
the rock, Zeus turned Cheiron into a constellation of
stars, while the Greek hero Heracles
(see pp.46–47) killed the eagle,
ending Prometheus’s agony.

Pandora

Aeschylus
The Greek dramatist
Aeschylus, who lived
in the 5th-century bce,
wrote several plays
about the myth of
Prometheus.

Zeus wanted to punish the humans after Prometheus stole
fire for them, so he (or, some say, Hephaestus) created a
beautiful mortal woman called Pandora. She married
Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus,
who took her to Earth. The gods
gave her many gifts, which she
kept in a jar. When she opened the
jar, it contained plagues and
disasters, which condemned
humanity to a life marred by
misery. The only positive
thing in the jar was hope,
the sole consolation for the
human race.
Pandora

Storage jar
Artists often portray Pandora carrying
a box, but Greek sources describe her
bearing a pithos, or large storage jar.

SEE ALSO The first humans 90–91, 162–63, 168–69, 250–51, 282–83, 306–07, 314–15, 328–29, 338–39

the creation of humankind

Prometheus’s punishment
The eagle came each morning to
peck at Prometheus’s liver all day
long, then left in the evening.
By night the liver repaired
itself, ready for
the next day’s
torment.

Cronus
Despite his violence towards
his own children (see p.18),
Cronus is often seen as a
gentle, just, and kind ruler
of the Golden Age. He was
worshipped as a harvest deity.

27

APOLLO
Portrayed as a handsome young man, the god Apollo had power
over many aspects of life. Patron of archers, his bow brought pain to
humans, but he was also a god of healing and father to the
mythical physician Asclepius. He was the god of
music and the arts, and an accomplished player
of the lyre. The son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo was
also worshipped as the god of light and the sun.

The Lyre of Apollo
Once when Apollo went on a journey in pursuit of one of his lovers, he
left his fine herd of cattle untended. Hermes, who had long admired the
creatures, saw that they were left alone and decided to steal them
and hide them in a cave. But Apollo, who had the gift of prophecy,
knew exactly where the cattle were and went to find
Hermes and demand his animals back. When Apollo
arrived, Hermes began playing an instrument that
he had created from the intestines of one of Apollo’s
cattle. Apollo was enchanted on hearing the music of
the lyre, and agreed to exchange it for the cattle.

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Apollo with his lyre
The lyre of Apollo (also called
the kithara) was originally made
with the strings stretched
across the shell of a tortoise.

28

Apollo and Daphne
When Apollo scorned the archery skills of Eros, the god of love,
Eros decided to take revenge. He shot Apollo with a gold-headed
arrow, to make him fall in love, but shot the object of his desire,
Daphne, with an arrow tipped with lead, so that she would reject
him. Apollo chased Daphne, but she would not give in to
him and, as she ran, she prayed to Zeus to be transformed
into something that would save her from Apollo’s pursuit.
Zeus responded by turning her into a laurel tree.

Hermes
Both a trickster (see p.97) and the messenger
of the gods, Hermes wore winged sandals
to enable him to fly between Olympus,
Earth, and the Underworld.

Eros
Eros was the son of Aphrodite,
from whom he got his beauty,
and Ares, from whom he
inherited his love for mischief.

Daphne
When Zeus turned
the fleeing Daphne
into a laurel tree,
Apollo made a
wreath from her
leaves, which he
wore as a crown.

Apollo and Delphi
When Zeus’s wife, Hera, found out that her husband had had an
affair with Leto (see p.25), she decided to take revenge on her and
sent a great serpent, known as the Python, to attack her. The snake
lurked around the great peak of Mount Parnassus and laid waste
the area of Delphi. Apollo killed the serpent with a bow and arrows
given by Hephaestus, the divine craftsman (see p.39). Afterwards,
Delphi became sacred to Apollo, and his shrine was built there. The
Pythian Games were held there every four years to commemorate
Apollo’s triumph over the Python, and Apollo has been associated
with Delphi ever since. The activities at the games included poetry
and music competitions, in addition to several athletic events.
Apollo killing the Python
The god slew the mighty Python with
his poison-tipped arrows. The healing
power of Apollo was balanced by the
ability to kill with the deadly poison
and disease his arrows bore.

The temple at Delphi
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, first built around the
7th-century bce, stands on a hillside and was originally
surrounded by statues of mythical Greek heroes.

The oracle of Delphi
Apollo had the power of prophecy, and at Delphi, his priestess,
known as the Pythia, delivered oracles as she sat on her tripod
seat holding laurel leaves and a bowl of water from the Kassotis
spring. She answered people’s questions while in a trance-like
state. These questions could be on matters of political and
religious policy, as well as enquiries about the questioner’s future.
Since the Pythia’s words were hard
to understand, priests stood
by to interpret them for
the listeners. However,
these interpretations
were also puzzling
and difficult to
understand—but
often they came
true in the most
unpredictable ways.
The Pythia

The flaying of Marsyas

SEE ALSO Sun deities 114–15, 160–61, 188–89, 218–19, 222–23, 238–39, 290–91, 314–15, 318–19

apollo

Musical duel with Marsyas
Marsyas was foolish to tangle with Apollo, who tricked him
into losing the musical challenge, then punished him for his
impudence in one of the cruelest ways imaginable.

The satyr (see p.32) Marsyas was just as accomplished a performer on
the double flute as Apollo was on the lyre. Marsyas thought that he was
the better musician and challenged the god to a contest. Apollo agreed
on the condition that the winner could punish the loser in any way he
chose. No one could decide who was the better player until Apollo
suggested they both play their instruments upside-down. This worked
with Apollo’s lyre, but not with Marsyas’s flute, so Apollo was judged
the winner. He punished Marsyas by skinning him alive.

29

POSEIDON AND
THE FLOOD
Many ancient Greeks lived on islands or in settlements
close to the coast, so their lives were dominated by the
sea. Consequently, the sea god Poseidon, a bringer of
violent storms, who also controlled natural forces such
as earthquakes, was one of the most powerful gods of
Mount Olympus. But he longed for more power, and
became involved in a dispute with Athena for the great
honor of being the patron deity of the city of Athens.

The Myth
Poseidon and Athena both wanted to be the controlling
deity of the city of Athens. Rather than declaring war and
fighting a battle, the two gods decided that they would
settle their dispute by competing to provide the best gift
for the city’s people. The sea god climbed the Acropolis
(the hill overlooking Athens); when he reached the top,
he struck the ground hard with his trident and a saltwater
spring began to flow. Then Athena came to the Acropolis
and offered her gift: the first olive tree to grow in the city.

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The gods’ judgement

30

Zeus summoned the other gods from Mount Olympus
to judge the gifts and decide which of the two was greater.
The appearance of the spring was impressive, but salt water
was of little use to the people. The olive tree, on the other
hand, provided a
source of olives, and
their oil was useful
for both cooking and
lighting. Olive oil was
valuable not just to the

The dispute with Athena
Poseidon with his trident and Athena with
her spear made formidable opponents,
although they decided to settle their
dispute peacefully.

Poseidon
The god of the sea is often
shown as a bearded man holding a trident
and enthroned in a giant clam shell or aboard a
shell-like chariot pulled by dolphins or sea horses.

Athenians but also to those with whom they traded—so
the tree could both nourish the people of Athens and make
them rich. They would be able to use the olive wood, too, to
construct things. King Cecrops, the ruler of Greece, confirmed
that such a tree had never been seen on the Acropolis. After
hearing all the evidence, Zeus declared Athena to be the
winner of the contest. She became the city’s patron deity,
and the place was named after her.

The coming of the flood

Poseidon was furious when he heard the result
of the competition. He took up his trident and smote
the sea many times, causing a great storm. The waters
rose and the plain of Eleusis, where Athens stood, was
flooded. The waters covered the plain for a long
time, but finally they subsided, allowing the Athenians
to repair their city. They built a temple to their new
goddess, Athena, who would bring them prosperity, but
also made offerings to Poseidon, to placate the angry god.

Poseidon and
the beasts
Poseidon was linked closely
with the vitality and energy of
animals. Two creatures especially
associated with him were the bull
and the stallion. Both were singled out
by the Greeks for their sexual potency
and violence. During his sexual exploits,
Poseidon sometimes took the form of a
horse, as on the occasion when he was
pursuing the goddess Demeter, who had
turned herself into a mare. The destructive
bull that rose from the sea in some myths,
such as that of Hippolytus (see p.70), is
also a manifestation of Poseidon’s power.

Other Classical sea gods

Stallion
One myth tells how the
first horse grew from
semen that Poseidon
had spilled on a rock.

The Greeks worshipped several other sea gods, although they
were not as powerful as Poseidon. Some of them were linked with
particular sea creatures. For example, Glaucus was associated with
fish, while Proteus was a herder of seals. Others
possessed special abilities. Triton, for example,
was famous as a musician who played on
the conch shell. Proteus was
also known for his great
wisdom, although he
did not like answering
people’s questions.
Glaucus
Originally a fisherman, Glaucus was
made immortal when he ate a herb
with magical powers. He became
one of the minor gods of the sea.

Proteus
Renowned for his
wisdom, Proteus was
called the “ancient one
of the sea.” He often
changed his shape to
avoid being questioned.

Triton
Half-fish, half-man, Triton
was a familiar deity of the
sea. Some myths say there
were several Tritons.

Pasiphae and the Cretan Bull
After a curse from Poseidon, the queen of Crete, Pasiphae,
fell in love with, and mated with, a bull sent by the sea god.
The offspring of this union was the Minotaur (see pp.50–51).

Temples to Poseidon

Homer’s Odyssey (see pp.64–67) describes the return of the tragic
hero Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as a series of mishaps at sea.
Most of these were due to Poseidon and came about because
Odysseus had blinded the Cyclopes Polyphemus, who was the
sea god’s son. The poem describes vividly how the god stirred
up storms and tempests, which wrecked Odysseus’s ship and
drowned his companions. Many of the perils Odysseus faced,
such as the whirlpool Charybdis, were the offspring of Poseidon.

As a powerful deity, Poseidon was widely revered and some of his
temples have survived. He was not always worshipped as a sea god
—some temples were dedicated to Poseidon Hippios (“Poseidon of
horses”), and many people worshipped a form of Poseidon who was a
god of plants. At least one of his temples in Greece, though—the
temple at Sounion, in Attica—is sited on a
spectacular cliff top overlooking the sea, a
clear reminder of the deity’s sphere of
influence. Boat races were held
there in honor of the god.

Poseidon stirs the waves
Sometimes Poseidon smote the sea with
his trident to create stormy waves, and
sometimes he stirred them up with it.

Temple at Sounion
Poseidon’s temple at
Sounion could be seen by
ships far out at sea. Now it
survives as an evocative ruin,
with two rows of columns
set on a stone platform.
SEE ALSO Sea deities 158–59, 160–61, 290–91, 294–97, 338–39 • Flood stories 196–97, 212–13, 214–15, 288–89, 314–15, 328–29

poseidon and the flood

Poseidon and Odysseus

31

Mythical beings
Bizarre beings sharing human and animal features, violent giants,
and tiny fairies are among the most common kinds of mythical
creatures that can be found across world mythologies. These varied
creatures often intervene in human affairs and are frequently
described as “ancient,” because they precede the creation of the
gods and goddesses or occupy a time frame different from humanity.

Hybrid races
Mythologies often include beings with the attributes of two
different species, as a way of combining contrasting psychological
qualities in one creature. Greek mythology contains several such
examples, while hybrid beings such as mermaids, water nymphs,
and water fairies appear in many different cultures.

Mermaids
Many mythologies feature
creatures, usually female,
which are half fish and half
human. Fatally attractive,
they lure men to their
underwater homes.

Centaurs
Part human, part horse, the centaurs of Classical
mythology were said to be the offspring of Ixion,
King of the Lapiths (see p.68), and a cloud
molded by Zeus into the form of the goddess
Hera. They are a combination of the wild nature
of the horse and human wisdom.

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Satyrs
In Greek mythology, a satyr had the upper body
of a man but the lower parts, and sometimes the
ears and horns, of a goat. Satyrs were the noisy
and lustful followers of Dionysus (see pp.34–35).

32

Controllers
of destiny
The unpredictable twists and turns of
life are frequently explained in myths
and legends as the results of the
activities of mythical beings.
These creatures, such as the
Greek Furies and Fates, or the
Norns—female beings, often
depicted as giantesses, who
control fate in Norse mythology
—have little regard for the
emotions of their human victims.

Furies
The Furies, usually appearing as a trio of old
women, punished anyone whose actions violated
the natural order. They were also known as the
Eumenides, an ironic title meaning “kindly ones.”

Fates
The Fates controlled
human destiny. At
first they were three
deities—Lachesis,
who set life in motion;
Clotho, who spun
the thread of life; and
Atropos, who cut the
thread—but later
they were seen as a
larger race of females.

Demons and malign beings

Hidden races

Races of malign beings exist in many cultures, wreaking havoc,
threatening the innocent, and challenging humans and gods
alike. Many are giants, creatures of superhuman strength who can
be defeated only by heroes or those armed with magical weapons
or impenetrable armor. Others, like the vampires and werewolves,
are humans with bizarre powers or evil personalities. Their stories
may have helped early peoples to explain crimes or deformities
that otherwise seemed to have no obvious cause.

Members of the hidden races are usually
concealed from human view. Some, like
the dwarfs, dwell far away from people,
while others, such as the fairies or
the Irish “little people,” can make
themselves invisible or can be seen only
by those with special vision. Often,
these creatures take two forms, one
well disposed towards humans, the
other meddling or malign—the latter
perhaps originating as a means of
explaining unpleasant phenomena.

Werewolves
Much feared in Northern European legends,
werewolves are born of human mothers with
mainly human characteristics, but turn into
howling wolves at full moon.

Trolls
Trolls are giant-like creatures
in Norse mythology. They
often appear in parent-child
combinations to harass or
attack humans and can be
fearsomely violent.

Vampires
In Slavic myths, vampires are
humans who are dead, but cling
on to their bodily existence by
drinking fresh blood, which they
suck from sleeping humans.

Dwarfs
In Norse mythology,
dwarfs are wise and
highly skilled in crafts such
as metalworking. They
dwell in dark, rocky places.
The ancient texts say little
about their small size.

Elves
Northern European myths feature many kinds of
elves —some malign, shadow-dwelling, and ugly,
others beautiful and helpful to humans.

Demons
Hindu mythology has many
demons or rakshasas, who
are active at night and are
said to attack women and
children. Sometimes, they
unleash formidable strength
in hard-fought battles with
the gods. In some texts,
vanaras, monkey-like
forest-dwellers, are also
seen as demons.

Fairies
Fairies, creatures who can intervene in human life
in all kinds of ways from bountiful to mischievous,
occur in the legends of many different cultures.
They usually have the power of flight.

my thical beings

Ogres
There are several races of
ogres in European legends;
they are usually large, ugly,
muscular, and slow-witted.
Some are cannibals, others
corpse-eaters. In the
Christian world, the Devil
is sometimes said to
take the form of
an ogre.

33

Dionysus
The god of wine, Dionysus, was an anarchic figure who presided over
drunkenness and other irrational or altered states, such as religious
ecstasy. A shape-changer, he could take the form of an animal but also
appeared as a human, when he was often accompanied by revellers or
animals. These qualities made him a patron of actors, and plays were
regularly performed at the Athenian festivals held in his name.

The rescue of dionysus

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When Zeus, disguised as a mortal, began an affair with Semele, the daughter of King
Cadmus and Queen Harmonia of Thebes, his wife, Hera, grew jealous and plotted her
revenge. She took the form of an old woman and persuaded Semele to ask the god to
appear before her in all his splendor. When he did so, the heat from his thunderbolt
killed Semele, who was a mortal. One of the gods—some say Hermes, others the river
goddess Dirce—rescued her unborn child, Dionysius, and took him to Zeus, who cut
an opening in his thigh and placed the child safely inside until it was ready to be born.
When Dionysus emerged from Zeus’s thigh, Hera was so angry that she incited the Titans
(see p.16–19) to tear the baby into pieces. His grandmother, Rhea, took pity on Dionysus,
put his body back together, and carried him to foster parents. Again, Hera discovered
what had happened, so to protect him Rhea disguised the child as a ram.

34

Hera
In the story of Dionysus, Hera plays her
usual role as jealous wife. She defeats
her rival Semele, but not Semele’s child.

Semele
Flames from Zeus’s thunderbolt killed
Semele. Her story became a popular
subject for painters and for the composer
Handel, who wrote an opera about her.

Dionysus
The god of wine in all its aspects,
Dionysus has often been portrayed
as a handsome young man carrying
a cup, with vine leaves in his hair.

The journey of
dionysus
As he grew up, Dionysus became restless and
went on a series of long journeys. Wherever he
traveled, he became famous for his drunken
excesses, which ended in a kind of insane frenzy.
Many said that this frenzy was caused by Hera,
who was still resentful that the son of Semele
had survived. Dionysus was accompanied on his
travels by satyrs, led by their king, Silenus. Also
among his companions were a group of female
followers called the “Maenads.” The Maenads
were possessed with a kind of madness, in which
they worked themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.
As they did this, they danced a wild dance,
eventually getting so out of control that they
would rip apart any creature they came across.
The Maenads drew their strength from Dionysus,
so that nothing—
neither fire nor
the sword—
could stop their
dance or bring
them to harm.
Satyrs
The offspring of a mountain nymph
and a goat, a satyr was half-man,
half-goat. Satyrs were famous for
getting drunk and for being lewd.

As he travelled around the Mediterranean, Dionysus
told those who met and followed him how to harvest the
grapes, press them, and turn their juice into wine. When
people tasted the results, he became very popular. Once
the god was on his travels when he was captured by
pirates, who thought he was a wealthy young man. When
the pirates tried to tie him up, however, the knots kept
untying of their own accord. Dionysus then made the mast
and rigging turn into grape
vines, and transformed
the sea around the ship
into wine. The pirates
were so frightened
by the sight of this
that they jumped
into the sea.
turned .

Pirate porpoises
When the terrified pirates jumped
into the sea, Dionysus turned them all
into porpoises, as depicted in this
painting on the inside of a cup from
around 530 bce.

The tragedy of pentheus
Maenads
The Maenads wore sheer dresses
and danced to the music of the
double flute and tambourine.
They had power over wild
beasts and were sometimes
shown riding panthers.

The dancing journey of Dionysus and the Maenads brought
them to Thebes, which was ruled by Pentheus. The young
king’s mother, Agave, was attracted to Dionysus and became
a Maenad, getting drunk and joining the frenzied dance.
Pentheus was horrified to see his mother’s behavior and
decided to try to stop the dance. He turned for advice to
Dionysus, who told the king to
hide and watch secretly
before doing anything.
However, the Maenads
discovered Pentheus and
tore him to pieces.

Death of Pentheus
Among the Maenads who
attacked Pentheus was his
own mother, Agave. In her
frenzy, she at first thought
she was killing a lion, before
realizing it was her son.
SEE ALSO Journeys 44–45, 64–67, 78–79, 120–21, 220–21

dionysus

Silenus
A wise old satyr, Silenus led
Dionysus’s followers.
Some myths say he
was one of those
who brought up the god
when he was a child.

the wine-dark sea

35

Athena
A powerful war goddess, Athena was usually depicted with her shield
or protective cloak, known as the aegis. She was also a patron of
crafts, especially pottery, weaving, and shipbuilding, and the
goddess of the city of Athens. She inherited the wisdom of her
mother, Metis, an attribute that made her favor Odysseus, the
wisest and most cunning of the Greek heroes. In all these roles
she was especially valued because she was always accessible,
unlike many gods who kept their distance from humans.

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The Birth of Athena

36

One of the first loves of the god Zeus was Metis,
daughter of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. Metis
was known not only for her beauty but also for her
brains—her name means “cunning intelligence.”
She was especially dear to Zeus, but when she
became pregnant, Gaia and Uranus told Zeus that
after she had given birth to a daughter, Metis would
then have a son, also by Zeus, who would take
away all his power. They advised Zeus to act at
once to prevent this. Gaia told Zeus that the best
way to stop this chain of events was to swallow
Metis whole before she gave birth. Zeus did this,
but when it was time for Metis’s daughter to be
born, Hephaestus intervened, splitting open Zeus’s
head with an axe and enabling the child to step
forth. Miraculously, Athena emerged from Zeus’s
skull fully armed, uttering a war cry. According to
several accounts, Athena was her father’s favorite
child, and the only one allowed to use his aegis.

Athena’s birth
Early depictions of the
birth of Athena, such as
this vase painting, show
the goddess emerging
from her father’s head,
already equipped with
arms and armor.

Athena armed for war
Athena’s favored weapon
was her spear, which she
held upright when at rest,
and brandished aloft when
in battle. She also wore a
helmet to protect her head.

Goddess of Athens
Athena won the right to be venerated as the goddess of Athens
when, in a competition with Poseidon, she gave the citizens of
Athens the valuable gift of the olive tree (see p.30). The people
acknowledged her importance by putting images of her and her
sacred bird, the owl, on their coins. To worship her, they built
the Parthenon on the Acropolis above the city, where the contest
between Athena and Poseidon was depicted in a sculpture. This
temple also housed a massive ivory and gold statue of Athena,
created by the noted sculptor Phidias. Unfortunately, the statue
no longer exists, though many miniature reproductions of it have
been found. The temple’s name comes from the title Parthenos
(virgin), given to the goddess because she
guarded her chastity so carefully.

The Parthenon

Athenian coin

Arachne turning into a spider
Athena took pity on Arachne and turned her into
a spider, so that she could go on spinning and
weaving forever while hanging by a thread.

Arachne weaving
Athena was spellbound by the beauty and quality of
Arachne’s work. Some say she was so jealous that in a fit
of anger she struck the girl with her own weaving shuttle.

The weaving contest
One of Athena’s roles was as the goddess of weavers and embroiderers. When
someone was good at weaving, people said their gift came from Athena. But
Arachne, a mortal girl and a fine weaver, insisted that her gift was her own,
and had nothing to do with the goddess. This angered Athena, so she
challenged Arachne to a weaving and embroidery contest. Athena
saw that Arachne’s weaving was at least as good as her own
work, which showed the gods victorious over the mortals.
However, she was offended by the subject of Arachne’s tapestry, which
depicted the various infidelities of her father, Zeus. In her jealousy and rage
she tore up Arachne’s work. A humiliated Arachne resolved to hang herself.
But Athena decided that this was too harsh a punishment and transformed
Arachne into a spider instead, so that she could continue weaving.

to the goddess yield,
and humbly meek
a pardon for your bold
presumption seek.
	Ovid, Metamorphoses

The Bathing of Athena

The craftsman god Hephaestus, who rescued Athena
from her father’s skull, had a lasting interest in the
goddess. As she grew up, Hephaestus fell in love with
her and asked Zeus for permission to marry her. Zeus
agreed, provided that his daughter was willing. But
Athena valued her virginity and did not want to marry,
so she turned Hephaestus down. Hephaestus then
tried to rape Athena, but the powerful goddess pushed
him away and Hephaestus spilled his seed onto the
ground. The seed fertilized Gaia (Mother Earth) and
Erichthonius was created.
Athena agreed to rear the
child, and he grew up
to later become the
ruler of Athens.

Athena, who was a modest goddess, did not like others
to watch when she bathed at the sacred spring called
Hippocrene on Mount Helicon. But Tiresias, a man
from Thebes, was so entranced by the beauty of the
goddess that he followed her and her
attendant nymphs, and spied on the
goddess as she took off her clothes and
bathed. When Athena realized she
was being watched, she climbed out
and in her anger hit Tiresias across
the eyes, making him go blind.
One of the nymphs was sorry for
Tiresias and begged Athena to give
him something in compensation for
the loss of his sight. So Athena gave
Tiresias the gift of prophecy.

Athena the foster mother
Gaia hands over her newborn son
Erichthonius to the waiting Athena
while Hephaestus looks on.

Tiresias
The seer Tiresias predicted many events, using his gift of
prophecy to intervene in numerous myths, including those
about Oedipus and the city of Thebes (see pp.58–59).
SEE ALSO War deities 38–39, 40–41, 142–43, 174–75, 244–45 • Virgin goddesses 40–41, 82–83, 86–87

athena

Athena and Hephaestus

37

the loves
of aphrodite
The name of Aphrodite, the goddess of love,
means “born from the foam.” She was born in
the frothing sea and was famous both for her
exquisite beauty and for her many lovers, who
included both gods and mortals. Her partners
found it impossible to resist her charms, and

The Myth

Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the divine
blacksmith. He adored her and crafted beautiful gifts for
her. Among them was a golden chariot drawn by doves,
which were sacred to her. However, she was frequently
unfaithful to him. Of her many affairs, the most famous
of all was with Ares, the god of war. This affair produced
four children, the first two of whom
took after their father, while the
second two inherited their mother’s
character. They were Deimos (Terror),
Phobos (Fear), Harmonia (Harmony),
and, according to some accounts of the
story, Eros (Sexual Love).

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The lovers trapped

38

It was some time before Hephaestus found out
about his wife’s liaison with his brother, Ares,
but when he did, he decided to take revenge
by ridiculing the couple. He used his skill in
metalworking to make a large net out of bronze
wire, and secretly suspended this above the lovers’
bed. When the pair were in bed together,
Hephaestus tugged the net so that it fell on to
the couple, trapping them. Then he called the
gods to witness the ludicrous sight.

Mortal loves

Another of Aphrodite’s loves was a mortal called
Adonis. Unfortunately, Persephone, wife of
Hades, the god of the Underworld, also fell in

this magnetic attraction made her one of the
most powerful of all the deities. Yet some
accounts describe her as vain, ill-tempered,
and easily offended. Her children included
the Trojan prince, Aeneas (see pp.78–79),
and Priapus, the god of fertility.

love with him. Of the two, Adonis
preferred Aphrodite, and a jealous
Persephone told Ares about the affair.
Enraged, Ares unleashed a wild boar,
Dove, symbol
of Aphrodite
which attacked Adonis and killed
him. When he died, Adonis
arrived in the Underworld, where he was
immediately pursued by Persephone. Aphrodite
appealed to Zeus, and the king of the gods decided
on a compromise. Adonis would spend half the
year in the Underworld with Persephone, and the
other half with Aphrodite.
The death of Adonis shows how
dangerous it was for a mere mortal to fall
in love with Aphrodite. Another mortal
who fell for her charms, Anchises, also
paid dearly. Anchises was a shepherd, whose
liaison with Aphrodite produced the hero
Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans. Aphrodite
disguised herself as a mortal to sleep with
Anchises, but he glimpsed her in her true
form. Aphrodite made him promise not to
reveal the affair—an alliance with a mere
shepherd would damage her reputation.
But once, when Anchises was drunk, he
revealed the secret and was blinded (or,
some say, lamed) by Zeus as punishment.
The goddess of love
Usually depicted as a beautiful young woman, Aphrodite
is often shown naked. Because she represented physical
perfection, she was a favorite subject for sculptors.

aphrodite’s birth

aphrodite’s lovers

Aphrodite is said to be the daughter of the
Titan Uranus. Gaia and Uranus had many
children, including the Cyclopes and the
Hundred-Handed Giants. Aghast at their
monstrous appearance, Uranus decided
to imprison all of them in Tartarus. Gaia
did not want any more children and
pleaded with her offspring to protect her
from Uranus’s advances. Finally, Cronus
borrowed a sickle from his mother and cut
off his father’s genitals, which he threw into
the sea. Their seed fertilized the water,
and Aphrodite rose fully
grown from the
foaming waves.

Aphrodite’s power to make others fall in love with her came from
her great physical beauty. She also had an aphrodisiac girdle, ironically
gifted to her by Hephaestus, which she wore next to her breasts. This
girdle was the envy of other goddesses who wanted Aphrodite’s allure.
Homer’s Iliad, for example, tells how the goddess Hera borrowed it to
distract Zeus with her charms during the Trojan War so that the Greeks
could win. Although Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus and was in
love with Ares, she also used her charms to attract many other lovers.
Adonis
The mortal Adonis was a passionate hunter. He
disregarded Aphrodite’s warning about hunting
an animal that knows no fear, and paid the price
when he was killed by a wild boar sent by Ares.

Aphrodite
The birth of Aphrodite is
often depicted in paintings
where the goddess is shown
rising from the waves on a shell.
Hermes
The messenger of
the gods was attracted to
Aphrodite when he saw her
under the net with Ares. His
affair with her produced the
child Hermaphroditus.

Hephaestus
The god of fire and metalworking, Hephaestus was also the deity
who controlled volcanoes, which were said to be his workshops.
He was lame, as the result of an injury that came about when he
had an argument with Zeus, who then threw him off Mount
Olympus. This infirmity gave Hephaestus a comic quality for the
Greeks, who revered physical perfection. In spite of this, he was
admired for his ingenuity and skill in making things, from the
net that captured Aphrodite and Ares, to a magical throne on
which he could imprison his enemies.

Pygmalion
Pygmalion was a remarkable sculptor who
poured all his energy into his work.
He was so skilled that once he
carved a statue of a beautiful
woman that was incredibly
lifelike. He fell in love with it and
prayed to Aphrodite to let him make
love to his creation. Aphrodite took
pity on him and transformed the statue
into a real woman named Galatea,
whom Pygmalion later married.
Pygmalion and Galatea
SEE ALSO Love deities 138–39, 154–55, 180–81, 244–45, 310–11 • Jealousy 24–25, 200–03

the loves of aphrodite

Hephaestus’s net
The gods looked down from
Mount Olympus and laughed at
the sight of the adulterous couple
ensnared in Hephaestus’s net.

Ares and Aphrodite
The sun god Helios, from whom
nothing was hidden, spied Ares
and Aphrodite together and
informed Hephaestus, who
then planned his revenge.

39

The greek Goddesses
The Greeks had many goddesses who played
a variety of roles in their mythology. Some
were primal, shadowy figures, such as Gaia
(Mother Earth), who existed before most
other deities, and Rhea, often seen as a
Titaness, who was the mother of many of the
Olympians. Others ruled over different aspects

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Demeter and Persephone

40

Persephone was the only daughter of Demeter, the goddess
of the Earth, grain, and fertility. Hades, the ruler of the
Underworld, fell in love with Persephone, but knew that
Demeter would not part with her because she helped her
mother in making the plants grow and the crops ripen. So,
one day, when Demeter’s attention was elsewhere, Hades
snatched Persephone while she was playing with her
companions, and dragged her down with him to the
Underworld. Demeter was enraged and distraught. She
went on a long search for her daughter, during
which time all the crops withered and died.
Zeus realized that if this state was allowed
to continue, life on Earth would
perish, since Demeter was also
responsible for the cycle of the
seasons. Finally, he persuaded Hades
to agree to a compromise, whereby
Persephone would be allowed to live
on Earth with Demeter in spring and
summer, but would have to spend the rest of
the year with Hades. Accordingly, the land
prospers whenever Persephone visits
her mother, but becomes infertile when
she goes back to the Underworld
during autumn and winter.

The gift of corn
The ancient Greeks believed that
Demeter taught the art of cultivation
to humans. Her most cherished gift
was the crop of corn.

of the daily life of the people. Like most
ancient cultures, the Greeks sought to explain
natural phenomena by attributing them to the
activities of the gods. Greek myths typically
ascribe human emotions to their deities,
hence there are numerous stories featuring
the loves and rivalries of the Greek goddesses.

Demeter in mourning
While Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter, she
neglected her duties as the goddess of vegetation and
fruitfulness. Consequently, the Earth became barren
and life itself was threatened.

Artemis the huntress
The Greeks portrayed Artemis
as a young woman carrying
a bow and arrows. She
is often shown with a
stag to symbolize her
role as the patroness
of hunting.

Artemis
The goddess Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo (see pp.28–29) and the
daughter of Leto and Zeus. She was the patroness of hunting, and the protector
of the weak. The deer and the cypress tree were sacred to her. Artemis was
a virgin and devoted to the hunt, but she also used her weapons against her
enemies. When the hunter Orion tried to rape
one of her followers, Artemis killed
him. When another hunter, Actaeon,
spied on her while she was bathing,
she turned him into a stag and he
was killed by his own hounds.
Artemis with her family
Zeus and Leto had two children—Apollo,
who became the god of music, and Artemis
(far left), the goddess of the hunt.

Hecate

The daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Hestia was the
goddess of the hearth and domesticity. Unusually for
an Olympian goddess, Hestia remained a virgin—in
spite of the fact that both Poseidon and Apollo were
in love with her. She had sworn an oath upon the
head of Zeus that she would always be chaste and
never marry. Another way in which she differed from
the other Greek deities was that she did not travel.
Instead, she lived her life on Mount Olympus,
becoming the symbol of home and family. She had
no throne, but was responsible for tending the
sacred fire at Mount Olympus.
Hestia represented domestic
stability and the hearth was her
altar. In every sacrifice, the first
offering was made to Hestia.

The goddess Hecate is a shadowy figure—some say
her parents were Titans, some that she was a daughter
of Zeus. Hecate had many different aspects. As the
moon goddess, she travelled across the night sky in
her chariot, casting her cold light across the whole
cosmos. She was also worshipped as a goddess of the
Underworld. In addition, as she
was the goddess of childbirth, she
was often invoked to ease the
pain of labor. Crossroads
were sacred to Hecate, and
offerings of meat were often
left by the ancient Greeks at
places where three roads met.

Triple Hecate
Hecate was sometimes portrayed as a triple
goddess carrying a torch (symbolizing lunar
fire), a serpent (representing immortality),
and a knife (symbolic of midwifery).

Mount Olympus
Hestia tended the fire on Mount Olympus.
Since it was shrouded in clouds, the Greeks
believed it to be the home of the gods.

Hestia and the hearth
The Greeks made their domestic
hearths into shrines where the
goddess Hestia was worshipped.

Selene
The Greek moon goddess Selene was
often confused with Hecate. She was
usually depicted with a windblown veil
resembling the arched canopy of the
sky, and a half-moon on her head.

SEE ALSO Fertility deities 84–85, 114–15, 158–59, 214–15, 244–45, 308–09, 310–11 • Virgin goddesses 36–37, 82–83, 86–87

the greek goddesses

Hestia

41

the Underworld
The Underworld is usually seen as a parallel world to our
own, with its own deities. In most cultures it is populated
by the souls of the dead, and fenced off by rivers, walls,
or flames, making it impossible for living mortals to enter.
Souls pass through on their way to a new life—or spend
an eternity among the demons of this dark realm.
Rulers of the Underworld
The ruler of the Underworld has supreme power there, acting with all the authority
of an earthly ruler, and as such is one of the most feared beings in the cosmos. He or
she is also often a judge, hearing each newly arrived soul’s account of its life in the
world of the living before passing sentence. Underworld rulers vary greatly in their
appearance—some look like decaying corpses, while
others are so dark that they are barely visible.

Mictlantecuhtli
The Aztec Underworld has nine
layers, the deepest of which is
Mictlan, ruled over by the
terrifying Mictlantecuhtli.

the underworld

Hades
The ruler of the gloomy Greek Underworld
bears the same name as his kingdom and
is usually invisible in his dark domain.

42

Hel
The Norse ruler of the dead, Hel (see p.99) is said
to recline on a bed called Disease, where her lower
body rots while her face remains beautiful.

Yama
In Tibetan and Chinese
Buddhism, Yama is the
king of hell and judge of
the dead. He is said to
be directly answerable to
the supreme ruler of heaven.

chthonic Creatures
The Underworld would be frightening enough if it was populated solely by a
ruler and the souls of the dead. But mythologies add to its terrors by imagining
all kinds of hellish demons and monsters—creatures that exist either to terrify
the souls or inflict agony on them. In addition, the gates of the Underworld are
usually guarded, to prevent mortals intruding and souls attempting to escape.
Cerberus, the guard dog of Hades, is one of the most famous of these chthonic,
or Underworld, creatures. Some accounts give him three heads, others 50.

Cerberus

Guiding the Dead

Hermes
The Greek god Hermes escorted souls
to Hades. Some sources say that as
he was a trickster deity, he could not
be fooled into neglecting this task.

A dark and remote place, the Underworld is not
easy to reach or find, so some cultures tell of
figures called psychopomps, who lead the souls
of the dead on their way. Images of these guides
are often found on coffins or on the walls of
tombs, to ensure that the dead person’s soul has
a safe passage. Psychopomps can take many
different forms, although a number of them
have wings or inhabit the bodies of birds, for
swift flight to and from the Underworld.
Baron Samedi
The spirit Baron Samedi (see p.311) is a key
figure in Haitian voodoo. He is said to wait
at crossroads, where dead souls will pass,
ready to guide them to the Underworld.

Ankou
In the folklore of the Breton
people of Western Europe,
Ankou gathered up the souls
of the dead in an old cart.

Xolotl
In some stories this dog-shaped
Aztec god created the human
race, but so hated his handiwork
that he took on the job of leading
the dead to the Underworld.

Charon
The Classical Underworld Hades was surrounded by the dark waters of
the River Styx. For the fee of a single coin placed on the dead person’s
tongue, the ferryman Charon took his or her soul across in his boat.

Underworld Goddesses
Many goddesses of darkness are associated with the
Underworld. Some act as queens there, alongside male
rulers; others have a less clear, but equally terrifying,
role—some even visiting Earth. Because of the contrast
between the light Earth and the dark Underworld,
many are also linked with the sun, rain, and fertility.

Hecate
A Greek moon goddess
and queen of the ghosts
of Hades, Hecate (see
p.41) led her troop of
howling, dancing
spirits on terrifying
visits to Earth.

Mari
In the Basque region of Spain, Mari
was a rain-bringing fertility goddess
who came out of her Underworld
realm by way of mountain caves.

Persephone
When this beautiful Greek goddess of fertility was
kidnapped by Hades (see p.40), Zeus decreed that
she should spend half the year in his world, and
half on Earth, where she could make crops grow.

the underworld

Izanami
This Japanese creator goddess
(see pp.222–23) was so badly
burned when she gave birth to
the fire spirit Kagutsuchi
that she went down
to rule Yomi, the
Underworld.

43

ORPHEUS IN THE
UNDERWORLD
The hero Orpheus was famed for two major qualities. The first
was his remarkable musicianship, which, according to some,
he had learned from Apollo. With his music, he was able to
charm gods and mortals alike. Orpheus was also very brave,
and had accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden
Fleece (see pp.72–73). But his most daring adventure
was his legendary journey to the Underworld.

The Myth
The power of Orpheus’s music was mirrored in his very
mysterious origins, because it was not known for certain
where he came from or who his parents were. Although
it was rumored that he was a son of Apollo (see pp.28–29),
his real father was purportedly a man from Thrace—an
area that many southern Greeks considered uncivilized.
His mother was believed to be one of the nine Muses.

classical europe

orpheus and hades

44

When Orpheus’s beloved wife, the nymph Eurydice, died from
a snakebite, he decided to go to the Underworld to get her
back. It was a journey from which virtually no mortal had ever
returned. The great hero Heracles (see pp.46–47) had made the
journey and survived, but his strength was superhuman.
Orpheus was not as strong, but he had his incredible musical
skill. He sang and played
the lyre so well that people
believed he could move
even inanimate objects.
After arriving in the
Underworld, Orpheus
played his lyre to Hades, the
king of the dark realm, and
Orpheus in the Underworld
According to some versions of the
myth, it was Persephone who was
so moved by Orpheus’s music that
she asked Hades to let Eurydice
leave with Orpheus.

Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus’s concern for Eurydice
made him disregard Hades’
warning, and he paid the price as
Eurydice was snatched from him.

his queen, Persephone. Hades was generally not moved by
appeals from mere mortals, but Orpheus’s eloquent music
softened his heart and he listened to the musician’s request.
Hades decreed that Eurydice could accompany Orpheus back
to Earth, but forbade him from looking at his wife on the way.

the return journey

Orpheus and his wife began their journey and it went well
initially, with the musician playing his lyre and the beautiful
chords guiding Eurydice back through the darkness of the
Underworld towards the light of the Earth. But Orpheus was
concerned about his wife, and worried that Hades had not
allowed her to follow him.
Unable to resist himself, he
took one fleeting glance at
her. As soon as he looked
back, Hades pounced on
Eurydice and pulled her
back into the Underworld.
Orpheus had to continue
homewards on his own,
and was condemned to
wander the Earth,
lamenting his lost wife,
and moving those who
heard him to tears.

Orpheus and his music
The beguiling beauty of Orpheus’s music was
famous. It was said that when he played his lyre
or sang, rivers changed their courses and trees
uprooted themselves to move closer so that they
could hear the beautiful sounds more clearly. For
the culture-loving Greeks, this musical ability gave
Orpheus a special place in their mythology. But the
beauty of his music was not always art for its own
sake. For example, when Orpheus accompanied
the Argonauts on their journey (see pp.72–73), his
music saved his fellow adventurers by distracting
them from the entrancing song of the Sirens.

Greek lyre
Musicians like Orpheus may
have played a seven-stringed
lyre (also called a kithara) with
a wooden sounding board.

The head of Orpheus
After Orpheus’s death, his head floated down the
River Hebros in Thrace and out to sea. When it
reached Lesbos, still singing, it gave its musical
and poetic gifts to the people of that island.

Orpheus‘s death

the cult of orpheus

Later in his life, Orpheus retired to a cave and
gave up the company of women. He attracted
many male followers, who were worshippers of
Apollo like him. He taught them musical skills
and the hidden mysteries that he had learned
as a result of his trip to the Underworld.
Eurydice’s fellow nymphs, worshippers
of Dionysus, were already angry with
Orpheus because of the way he had
looked back in the Underworld and
lost his wife. They were further enraged
over his decision to forsake women and
because of his devotion to Apollo. When
they came upon Orpheus teaching his
male followers, the nymphs attacked him
and tore his body apart.

The wisdom and songs of Orpheus lived on
after his death. He became the object of a cult
that began on Lesbos, where a shrine was built
at a place called Antissa for people to consult
an oracle that supposedly relayed Orpheus’s
wisdom. The followers of the cult believed that
they could cheat death by freely passing in and
out of the Underworld. Orpheus’s spirit was said
to have inspired many famous poets who lived
in Lesbos, notably Alcaeus and Sappho, who
both flourished in the late 7th century BCE.
Sappho
The lyric poet Sappho was the greatest female writer
in antiquity. Her love poems, addressed to other
women, have inspired poets and are still read today.
Apollo
Orpheus was devoted to
Apollo, who was the god
of music, poetry, and the
arts, and the rival and polar
opposite of Dionysus.

Orpheus’s story is a popular Classical myth that has been
retold many times, inspiring musicians, poets, and writers.
Its musical content has made it popular with composers of
opera—Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), Monteverdi’s Orfeo
(1607), and Gluck’s
Orfeo Ed Euridice (1762)
were all based on the story.
Offenbach’s comic
opera, Orphée aux Enfers
(1858), was also
inspired by the myth,
and was followed by a
stage version, as well as
a movie, Orphée (1949),
made by Jean Cocteau.
Poster for Orphée aux Enfers

SEE ALSO Love stories 78–79, 100–03, 108–09, 116–17, 124–25, 126–27, 140–41, 176–77

orpheus in the underworld

The death of Orpheus
The nymphs who killed Orpheus were Maenads
(see p.35 ), worshippers of Dionysus, acting in
a frenzy of drunken violence.

later interpretations

45

The labors of
heracles
The hero Heracles, renowned for his great
strength, was the son of Zeus and the mortal
woman Alcmene. Zeus’s wife, Hera, was
jealous of the affair and resentful towards
Heracles, and she persecuted him throughout
his life. The hero married Megara, daughter

The Myth

classical europe

The labors imposed on Heracles by King Eurystheus
involved slaying horrific monsters, bringing back trophies
for the king, and other tasks, each of which was more
difficult and sent the hero on a longer journey than the
preceding one. The first labor was to kill the lion of
Nemaea, not far from Mycenae. Heracles throttled the beast
and skinned it, taking the creature’s pelt as his cloak. The
second labor was to slay the Hydra, a water monster with
many heads that lived at Lerna. Heracles found that each
time he cut off one of the creature’s heads, two new ones
grew. So he asked his helper, Iolaos, to cauterize the
stumps, to stop the new heads growing. The third labor was
to capture and bring back the Keryneian hind, a goldenhorned deer consecrated to the goddess Artemis. This
involved the hero in a long chase, but eventually he
succeeded. The fourth task was to seize the Erymanthian
boar, a fierce creature that posed little problem for Heracles.

46

With Athena’s help

Next, Heracles undertook
two tasks that required
more ingenuity. He was
helped in these by
Athena, the goddess

Heracles and the bull
The powerful bull of Crete was
the target of Heracles’s seventh
labor. The hero needed all his
strength to subdue the beast.

of King Creon of Thebes, but Hera made
him go mad and kill his wife and children.
To punish Heracles, King Eurystheus of
Mycenae set him 12
apparently impossible
tasks to accomplish.

The Stymphalian birds
This vase shows Heracles shooting the
Stymphalian birds with a sling, a more
effective weapon than his club or bow.

of wisdom. For the fifth labor, he
was told to go to Elis and clean the
stables of King Augeas, which were
fouled with great heaps of horse dung.
Heracles ingeniously cleared out the
stables by diverting two rivers so that they washed the mess
away. Then, for his sixth labor, Heracles had to visit Lake
Stymphalis, northwest of Mycenae, to rid it of a plague of
birds. He frightened the birds with castanets that Athena
had lent him, then shot them as they flew into the air.

Farther afield

For his subsequent labors, Heracles had to travel farther,
leaving mainland Greece. His seventh labor was to capture
a monstrous bull belonging to King Minos of Crete. After
that he was sent north to Thrace, where he caught some
man-eating mares that belonged to King Diomedes. The
ninth, tenth, and eleventh labors required Heracles to steal
items of great value. First he took the belt of Hippolyta,
queen of the Amazons, who lived to the south of the Black
Sea. Next he led away the cattle of the giant Geryon, who
dwelled in the far west. After this, he managed to obtain the
golden apples of the Hesperides (see pp.48–49). But even
these labors were straightforward compared with the
twelfth: to go to the Underworld and bring back its guard
dog, Cerberus. To the amazement of Eurystheus, Heracles
succeeded in this seemingly impossible feat too.

the monsters of greece

Heracles and nessus

Like other Greek heroes, such as Perseus (see pp.54–55), Heracles
was tested during confrontations with numerous creatures, many
of whom were monsters that would terrify most people. These
creatures ranged from the Nemaean lion, an animal of supreme
strength, to monstrous creatures—such as the three-headed dog,
Cerberus—which seemed to come from the world of horror and
nightmare. By overcoming them, Heracles was able to demonstrate
both his superhuman strength and his exceptional bravery. He
also gained from some of these combats by adopting
the attributes of his adversaries—for example, he
took the lion’s skin as his cloak and the Hydra’s
gall to poison his arrowheads.

Heracles was travelling with his third wife, Deianira, when they met a
centaur, called Nessus, who offered to carry Deianira across a river.
When they were across the water and a safe distance from Heracles,
Nessus raped Deianira, but Heracles saw what was happening and
shot the centaur with one of his deadly arrows. As he died, Nessus
told Deianira that if she wove Heracles a shirt from the hairs on his
back, the wearer would never leave her for another woman. Some time
later, Deianira suspected her husband’s fidelity, and gave him the shirt
to wear. But when Heracles put the shirt on, he discovered it was an
evil trick. Its hairs made his skin blister and burn as if attacked
by flames. In agony and begging for death, the
hero asked to be put on his funeral pyre.

The Nemaean lion
Wrestling the Nemaean
lion brought Heracles into
danger from the animal’s
claws and jaws, but he
finally prevailed.

The Erymanthian boar
When Heracles brought the
vicious boar to Eurystheus,
the frightened king hid from
the beast by climbing into a
large storage jar.

The Hydra
Heracles dispatched the
multi-headed Hydra with the
help of Iolaos. As Heracles
cut off each head, Iolaos
cauterized the stumps.

Heracles fighting the centaur
The centaur Nessus had once been
defeated in a fight with Heracles,
and longed for revenge.
Cerberus
After showing the terrifying guard
dog of the Underworld to Eurystheus,
Heracles returned the creature to
Hades, its master.

On his funeral pyre
As the smoke from Heracles’s pyre
reached the heavens, Zeus saw his
agony. He drew him up to Olympus
and made him a god.

the character of heracles

King Thespius, ruler of a kingdom called
Thespiae, was troubled by a lion that attacked
his cattle. Thespius’s men had failed in killing
the lion, so Heracles volunteered to try. He
made himself an enormous club by tearing up
an olive tree. He clubbed the lion to death and
was allowed to sleep with all but one of
Thespius’s fifty daughters as a reward.
A formidable weapon
The legendary club of Heracles, with which he
overcame many opponents, was so heavy that
only he could pick it up and wield it with ease.

The dramatists Aeschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides

SEE ALSO Quests & challenges 44–45, 50–51, 52–53, 54–55, 64–67, 72–73, 100–03, 126–29, 294–97

the labors of heracles

the hero’s club

First and foremost, Heracles is a hero, a figure of incredible
strength and outstanding bravery. But ancient Greek writers treat
his character in different ways according to the parts of his story
they are narrating. For example, in The Children of Heracles,
Euripides portrays him as the tragic figure who kills his own
children, but in another play, Alcestis, he gets comically drunk.
Sophocles deals
with the hero’s
relationship with
his wife, Deianira,
and other writers
concentrate on his
heroic adventures.

47

48

Classical Europe

the garden of the hesperides
For the eleventh of his twelve labors (see pp.46–47), Heracles was told by his
master, King Eurystheus, to go to the garden of the Hesperides—the daughters
of Hesperis and Atlas (see p.19)—and steal the precious golden apples that grew
on a tree there. The apples belonged to the goddess Hera and were a wedding gift
from her grandmother, Gaia. To accomplish his task, Heracles first had to find the
garden, which was at the far western edge of the Earth, then somehow slay the
ever-watchful serpent that guarded the tree. In some versions of the myth, the
wily hero persuaded Atlas to carry out the task on his behalf. This depiction
by the British painter Frederic Leighton (1830–96) dwells on the beauty of
the garden and its inhabitants, together forming a scene of peace and repose.

1

3. Symbols of vigilance
In the foreground of the picture are two cranes, one of which bends to
take a drink from a spring issuing from beneath a rock. The Hesperides
often gathered to sing near one of the springs in their garden—springs
that spurted forth not water, but ambrosia, the nectar-like food of the
gods that made whoever drank it immortal. In Christian art, cranes
symbolize vigilance, so their prominent presence in Leighton’s painting
is an ironic reminder to the viewer that the sleepy Hesperides are
meant to be alert and standing guard over the apples.

6
4

2
5

3

2. Music and song
The Hesperides lived a life of ease. They spent a lot of their time making
music, and in Leighton’s picture one of them plays a lyre to accompany her
song. Her instrument has seven strings, and is the version of the lyre most
commonly shown in depictions of ancient Greek musicians.

5. Serpent in the garden
The creature that helped the Hesperides guard the apples was called
Ladon. Some versions of the myth say that he was a dragon with 100
heads, each of which spoke a different language, although here he is
depicted as an enormous serpent entwined around both the tree and
one of the Hesperides. Never sleeping, he kept constant guard of the
tree and its fruit. Ladon’s parentage was uncertain. Some say he was
the offspring of the monsters Typhon and Echidna, others that he was
a child of Gaia, and so a relative of Hera, owner of the apples. After
Heracles slew Ladon, Hera, in her grief, turned the creature’s body
into the constellation Draco, the dragon.
6. The golden apples
Hera, the wife of Zeus, was the most powerful of all the goddesses of
Mount Olympus. Eurystheus was confident that stealing such precious
possessions as the golden apples from such a powerful deity would be
beyond Heracles. When the hero succeeded, Eurystheus feared Hera’s
notorious anger, so he decided to give the apples back to her with the
aid of the goddess Athena, who returned them to the garden.

the garden of the hesperides

1. The garden in the west 
The garden was a place of great beauty, surrounded by a high wall.
Accounts of its location varied—some put it in the north, but the name
Hesperides means “daughters of the evening,” so most people said it was
in the west, where the sun sets. Heracles had to travel far to reach it, and
had many adventures on the way, including freeing Prometheus from
torment by killing the eagle that pecked at his liver (see pp.26–27), and
killing the cruel Egyptian ruler Bousiris, who practiced human sacrifice.

4. Daughters of the evening
Leighton’s picture shows three Hesperides, although some accounts
say there were four. The most commonly named three were Aegle
(Brightness), Erythia (Scarlet), and Hesperarethusa (Sunset Glow)—
the last name is sometimes said to be a conflation of the names of two
nymphs, Hesperia and Arethusa. When the Hesperides lost the apples,
their life of leisure turned into one of sadness and despair, un