This Primer To Greek Mythology Will Help You Learn The Legends

Greek mythology frequently appears throughout modern culture. From winged horses in fantasy stories to Cupid’s arrow, many stories and figures of speech refer back to the Greek myths. You may have referenced these stories without even knowing it. On the flip-side, if you don’t know much about Greek myths, you may want to learn.

Here is a primer to notable Greek myths that will get you started on your learning. From The Iliad to Jason and the Argonauts, you’ll learn the gist of important stories that shaped our modern culture. Trust us; these stories are fun!

Here’s What You Need To Know First

Statues of the Greek gods are on display in the Acropolis in Athens.
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Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you’re unfamiliar with ancient Greek religion, here’s what you need to know before proceeding. The Greeks mainly worshiped twelve deities called the Olympians who resided on Mount Olympus. Zeus, the god of thunder and the sky, ruled over them all.

Another important note: the ancient Greeks likely did not treat these stories as real in the same way some people approach the Bible. According to R. Scott Smith, a professor of mythology at the University of New Hampshire, the ancient Greeks likely considered the myths to be just stories and allegories.

How The Gods Came To Power

In this Roman bas relief, Rhea gives Cronus a stone wrapped in cloth instead of her child.
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Before the Greek gods came to power, the world was ruled by Titans. The King of Titans, Cronos, received a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. To avoid this fate, Cronos swallowed every child that his wife, Rhea, bore.

Fortunately, Rhea managed to save her youngest child, Zeus, by swapping him with a stone wrapped in cloth. When Zeus grew up, he gave Cronos poison that made the Titan disgorge his children. With his siblings on his side, Zeus overthrew Cronos and became king of Mount of Olympus–and the universe.

Jason And The Argonauts Is A Tale Of Trials And Tribulations

A replica of
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

During the 13th century, the ancient Mycenaeans sailed through Greece to explore their lands. Some believe that Jason and the Argonauts were based on these sailors. In the story, the prince Jason must retrieve a magical golden fleece to claim his right to the throne of Iolcus.

But getting the ram hide wouldn’t be easy. An enormous serpent guards the fleece, and Jason had to fight other monsters such as harpies and giants along the way. With the help of a magician named Medea, the Argonauts overcame their trials.

The Twelve Labors Of Herakles Was The Hero’s Penance

An illustration in a 1925 book of myths portrays Hercules wrestling Antaeus.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Those who have watched Disney’s Hercules may be surprised at how much darker the original story is. In the myth, Herakles (whose Roman name is Hercules), was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Zeus’s wife, Hera, sought revenge by cursing Herakles with blind rage. In his frenzy, Herakles killed his wife and children.

To absolve his guilt, Herakles approached his cousin, King Eurystheus. But Herakles didn’t know that Eurystheus was in league with Hera. Under the Goddess, Eurystheus assigned Herakles twelve impossible labors that he had to achieve to absolve his crime.

Icarus Flying Too Close To The Sun Is A Cautionary Tale

A painting by Carlo Saraceni shows Icarus falling from the sky.
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The myth of Icarus lends meaning to the phrase “flying too close to the sun.” In the legend, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the architect who built the Minotaur’s labyrinth. When King Minos trapped Daedalus and his son in Crete, the architect invented wings for the two to escape.

Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun since the heat would melt the wax and destroy the wings. Unfortunately, Icarus did not listen; his wings are destroyed, and he falls into the sea. Later, Hercules brought Icarus’s body to an island, which he named Icaria; and the island maintains the name today.

Taming Pegasus Popularized The Magical Horse

A 1628 illustration shows Bellerophon getting thrown off of Pegasus.
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

In some modern fantasy settings, Pegasi are a breed of magical winged horses. But in Greek mythology, there was only one winged horse, and its name was Pegasus. Poseidon, the god of the sea who created horses, made Pegasus to create streams by pounding its hooves.

Only one human tamed Pegasus, a hero named Bellerophon. The goddess Athena gave Bellerophon a magical golden girdle that allowed him to tame the horse. He managed to tame Pegasus, and he eventually believed that he could ride the horse to Mount Olympus. Ashamed at Bellerophon’s arrogance, Zeus struck down the hero.

Eros And Psyche Is The Story of Cupid

In this 18th century painting, Cupid awakens Psyche with an arrow.
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DeAgostini/Getty Images

Eros, the son of Aphrodite, is better known for his Roman name, Cupid. Eros fell in love with a woman named Psyche, but Aphrodite, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, forbid Eros from contacting her. But the clever Eros found a loophole by asking another deity to bring Psyche to him.

Psyche was told that she could talk to Eros, but she could never see him. In her curiosity, Psyche found Eros while he was sleeping; he woke up and fled. To appease Aphrodite, Psyche offered to work as her servant. Meanwhile, Eros asked Zeus to let the two marry, which he obliges.

Pyramus And Thisbe, The Ancient Romeo And Juliet

A painting from 1906 portrays Pyramus kissing Thisbe's hand.
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The story of Pyramus and Thisbe inspired Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet. In the myth, Pyramus and Thisbe were members of rival families who forbid them from interacting. The couple conspired to meet by a mulberry tree and run away together.

Thisbe arrived first, where she saw a bloodied lioness. She fled and left her veil behind, which the lion ripped up. When Pyramus came, he saw the bloodied veil and assumed that Thisbe had died. Pyramus fell upon his sword; Thisbe returned later, saw her lover dead, and joined him. The mulberries remained dyed with their blood.

The Iliad Is The Basis For Many Greek Stories

In this painting of a scene in the Iliad, Diomedes Diomedes fights against Phegeus and Idaios.
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Iliad is an epic poem by Homer and is the origin of the “Trojan horse” story. The poem was written around 750 BC, and it was likely told orally beforehand. In the story, the Greeks fight against the city of Troy in what is known as the Trojan War, with two leading warriors being Achilles (Greek) and Hector (Trojan).

Throughout the story, the gods frequently meddle to influence the war, despite Zeus’s direct orders not to. The Iliad may seem complicated if you skim a summary, but when you read it, you’ll enjoy a story about fate and heroism.

The Odyssey Takes Place After The Iliad

In this Roman mosaic, Odysseus is tied to the mast of a ship to prevent him from swimming toward the sirens.
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Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Although The Odyssey sometimes receives more attention than The Iliad, it follows the story Trojan War. The poem follows Odysseus (named Ulysses in the Roman version), who was a Greek hero during the war. Odysseus and his men travel home to Ithaca, but on the way, they’re blown off course–resulting in a dangerous ten-year journey.

The Odyssey features many story elements that have now become popular archetypes, such as the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, the singing Sirens, and the witch Circe who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs. If you’re an adventure or fantasy fan, then The Odyssey may be a good read for you.

Theseus VS. The Minotaur Gave Birth To A Classic Monster

An illustration illustrates Theseus slaying the minotaur.
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DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull, has become a famous fantasy monster, originating from the myth of Theseus. According to the story, King Minos of Athens is forced to sacrifice seven boys and seven girls to the beast to keep it satisfied. Theseus, the ruler of Attica, decides to free the Athenians by slaying the Minotaur.

To find the Minotaur, Theseus has to navigate a near-impossible labyrinth that contains the monster. King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, helps Theseus by giving him string to follow on his way back. If the myth sounds familiar, that’s because it has remained popular to this day.

The Myth Of Persephone Helps Explain Seasons

Statues of Hades (Pluto) and Persephone (Proserpine) with Cerberus are seen in a shrine.
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In the Greek pantheon, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Persephone as he saw her picking flowers. According to some accounts, Zeus gave Hades permission to take Persephone as his wife. So he did.

In her sadness, Demeter caused the earth to become cold and barren. As the drought claimed many lives, Zeus asked Hades to return Persephone. However, Hades had already given Persephone pomegranate seeds; eating food from the Underworld means that you cannot leave. As a compromise, Persephone could stay with Hades for half the year (autumn and winter) and her mother for the other half (spring and summer).

Orpheus’s Descent To The Underworld Is A Story Of Mistrust

An 1861 painting depicts Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld.
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The story of Orpheus is one of the most famous Greek legends to date. Orpheus’s mother was Calliope, one of the nine Muses who ruled over music. Hence, Orpheus was an expert lyre player, and he could move plants, rocks, and even monsters with his music.

Orpheus married Eurydice, but their marriage ended early when Eurydice passed away from a poisonous snake bite. With his music, Orpheus entered the Underworld and convinced Hades to take Eurydice with him. But there was one catch: Orpheus could not turn around and see Eurydice until they breached the surface. Because he doubted that Eurydice was there, Orpheus turned around too early–and lost his wife forever.

Perseus Slaying Medusa Promotes Clever Thinking

An Italian statue portrays Perseus holding the head of Medusa.
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In Greek mythology, Medusa is a Gorgon: a creature with snakes for hair that will turn anyone who looks at it into stone. Medusa was once a beautiful woman, but when she got together with Poseidon in Athena’s temple, Athena cursed her.

Medusa caused so much havoc that the gods entrusted Perseus, a son of Zeus, to slay her. Several gods granted Perseus the tools he needed to fight Medusa. By seeing her in his reflective shield, Perseus was able to defeat the Gorgon.

Prometheus Made The Ultimate Sacrifice To Bring Knowledge To Humans

An illustration shows Prometheus chained to a rock as an eagle approaches.
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

During the war against Cronos, Prometheus was the only Titan who joined the gods’ side. He could see the future, and he foresaw that early humans were destined for greatness–if they were given the right tools. Going against the law, he raided the workshops on Mount Olympus and stole fire.

Prometheus gave fire to humans and taught them metalwork. However, Zeus quickly caught on to Prometheus’s crime. As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver. Prometheus’s liver would regrow every night, and every day, the eagle would eat it again. Fortunately, Hercules freed Prometheus in a later story.

King Midas’s Golden Touch Teaches To Be Careful About What You Wish For

In this artwork, King Midas sees his daughter turned to gold.
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Bettmann/Getty Images

People who make a lot of money may be said to have “the Midas touch.” The expression comes from the myth of Midas, King of Phrygia. According to the tale, Midas ran into one of Dionysus’s ill satyrs (half-man, half-goat) and restored him to health. In return, Dionysus offered to grant a wish. Midas wished to turn anything he touched into gold.

The wish went well at first; Midas could turn any branch, fruit, or metal into gold. But things quickly turned dark when he accidentally transformed his food and his daughter into gold as well.

The Story Pandora, The First Woman, Introduces The Concept Of “Pandora’s Box”

A drawing by Giacinto Gaudenzi shows Pandora chasing the evil spirits released from a jar.
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In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman. Pandora received many gifts from the gods, including a husband, Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Pandora famously opened “Pandora’s box,” which was actually a jar that contained all the evils of humanity. Despite all the evils released, the jar also contained hope.

In one version of the story, Epimetheus received the jar as a gift from the gods, and Pandora opened it out of curiosity. In another version, Zeus gave the jar to Pandora as a wedding gift. He aimed to balance out the humans’ ownership of fire to ensure that they didn’t become too powerful.

Asclepius And His Healing Powers Is About A Man Who Became A God

Statue of Asclepius
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the Greek pantheon, Asclepius is the god of medicine, but he didn’t start his life as a god. According to legend, Asclepius was the son of Apollo, who ruled over the power of healing. By learning from the gods, Asclepius knew how to heal so well that he could even raise the dead.

Zeus feared that Asclepius would close the gap between humans and divinity, and killed Asclepius with his lightning bolt. Apollo protested his son’s death, and instead of remaining in the Underworld, Asclepius became the god of healing.

The Story Of Arachne Is An Origin Story For Spiders

An illustration depicts Arachne weaving.
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Print Collector/Getty Images

Arachne was a mortal woman who had a talent for weaving. At one point, Arachne bragged that she could weave better than Athena, the goddess of craftsmanship. Athena accused Arachne of hubris, and the two competed in a weaving competition to see who was better.

In one version of the story, Arachne weaved an image of the gods abusing humans. Although Arachne’s product looked better, Athena cursed her. In another version, Zeus judged the competition and deemed Athena as the winner. In both versions, Athena turned Arachne into a spider, and she continued to weave her webs.

Pygmalion And His Sculpture Is A Unique Love Story

In this drawing, Pygmalion examines his statue of a woman.
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Pygmalion was a famous sculptor of Crete. Despite carving many sculptures of women, Pygmalion decided that he was not interested in any particular woman. He presumed that he could design a statue more beautiful than any woman and set out to complete it. However, after he finished, Pygmalion fell in love with the sculpture.

During a festival for Aphrodite, goddess of love, Pygmalion left many offerings. He prayed that he could receive a woman similar to his statue. When he arrived home, Pygmalion kissed the sculpture, and it transformed into a woman. Aphrodite had granted his wish.