10 Major Events in Greek mythology

Greek mythology is filled with numerous events, stories, and tales that have shaped Western thought, art, and culture for millennia.

In no particular order, World History Edu present ten major events from Greek mythology:

Creation of the World

In Greek mythology, the creation of the world is a fascinating blend of primordial deities and cosmic events. Initially, there was only Chaos, a vast, dark void. From Chaos emerged Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (the underworld), and Eros (Love).

Gaia then gave birth to Uranus (Sky), who enveloped her, becoming her mate. Together, they produced the first beings: the Titans, the one-eyed Cyclopes, and the Hecatoncheires, giants with fifty heads and a hundred arms.

Image: Gaia (bottom-right) rises out of the ground, detail of the Gigantomachy frieze, Pergamon Altar, Pergamon museum, Berlin.

However, Uranus, fearing the power of his offspring, imprisoned the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires in Tartarus. Gaia, in pain and anger, forged a sickle and conspired with her youngest Titan son, Cronus, to overthrow Uranus. Cronus castrated his father, and from the blood that spilled onto Gaia, the vengeful Furies and the Giants were born.

Cronus took dominion over the world but, prophesied to be overthrown by his children, he swallowed each one at birth. His wife, Rhea, desperate to save their youngest, Zeus, hid him on the island of Crete. Once grown, Zeus freed his siblings and waged war against Cronus. The victorious younger gods, led by Zeus, established their reign on Mount Olympus, marking the dawn of the age of the Olympian gods.

In the beginning, Chaos existed as a void. From Chaos came Earth (Gaia), the Abyss (Tartarus), and Love (Eros). Gaia gave birth to Uranus (the Sky), and together they produced the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Hecatoncheires (hundred-handed giants). Portrait: British painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts.

ALSO READ: 13 Creation Myths From Around The World

Titanomachy

The Titanomachy, often referred to as the War of the Titans, is a pivotal saga in Greek mythology describing the ten-year conflict between the old gods, the Titans, and the new gods, the Olympians. The war was rooted in generational power struggles. Cronus, the leader of the Titans, fearing a prophecy that foretold his overthrow by one of his offspring, swallowed his children. However, Rhea, his wife, managed to save their youngest, Zeus, by hiding him away.

Upon maturing, Zeus freed his siblings from Cronus’s belly and rallied them, along with allies like the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires, to challenge the Titans. The ensuing war, marked by immense ferocity, reshaped the cosmos. Armed with weapons like the thunderbolt, given by the Cyclopes, the Olympians eventually triumphed.

The defeated Titans were mostly imprisoned in the abyss of Tartarus. With their victory, the Olympians, led by Zeus, established their reign, marking a new era in the cosmos and signifying the transition from ancient to more contemporary deities in Greek belief.

The battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods. Led by Zeus, the Olympians defeated the Titans and imprisoned them in Tartarus. Image: The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans, oil on copper, by Dutch painter Joachim Wtewael, 1600

Birth of Athena

Greek goddess Athena‘s birth stands out as one of the most unique and intriguing tales of divine origin. Zeus, the king of the gods, was forewarned by a prophecy that a child born from his union with Metis, a Titaness renowned for her wisdom, would surpass him in power. Fearing the prophecy, once he learned Metis was pregnant, Zeus swallowed her whole to prevent any offspring from challenging his reign.

However, inside Zeus, Metis was undeterred. She began crafting a suit of armor and a helmet for her unborn child. The hammering caused Zeus immense headaches. Unable to bear the pain, he commanded Hephaestus, the smith god, to cleave open his head. From the fissure in Zeus’s skull, Athena emerged, fully grown and clad in the armor, a shimmering, formidable warrior goddess.

Athena’s birth, devoid of maternal involvement, underscores her unique attributes among the pantheon. Revered as the goddess of wisdom, warfare, and crafts, Athena epitomized a blend of intellect and strength, becoming a central figure in numerous myths and the patron deity of Athens.

Zeus, having swallowed the pregnant Metis, later experienced a headache. Hephaestus split open Zeus’s head, from which Athena emerged, fully grown and clad in armor. Image: Pallas Athenas (1657) by Dutch painter Rembrandt

ALSO READ: The Three Maiden Goddesses in Greek Mythology

Prometheus and the Gift of Fire

Prometheus, a Titan, defied Zeus and stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. As a punishment, Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver every day, only for it to regrow each night. Image: Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger.

Prometheus, a Titan known for his intelligence and foresight, stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Before this audacious act, humans lived in darkness, without the warmth or utility of fire.

Prometheus, defying Zeus’s authority, sneaked up to Mount Olympus and took fire, hiding it within a hollowed fennel stalk. He then bestowed this gift upon mankind, allowing them to cook food, forge metal, and generally progress in culture and technology.

ALSO READ: Creation of Man in Greek Mythology

However, this act of rebellion did not go unpunished. Zeus, enraged by Prometheus’s defiance, had him chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where an eagle would eat his liver daily. The liver would regenerate overnight, making his punishment eternal. Later, he was freed by the hero Heracles. Prometheus’s sacrifice symbolizes enlightenment, progress, and the risks taken for the benefit of humanity.

ALSO READ: Most Famous Heroes and Heroines in Greek Mythology

The Torture of Prometheus, painting by Salvator Rosa (1646–1648).

The Twelve Labors of Heracles

To atone for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness, Heracles (often called Hercules in Roman tales) was commanded to perform twelve nearly impossible tasks, which he successfully accomplished. Image: “Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar” by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634 (Museo del Prado)

Heracles, known as Hercules in Roman tales, was tasked with Twelve Labors as atonement for killing his family, influenced by Hera’s curse.

Set by King Eurystheus, these challenges included: slaying the Nemean Lion, defeating the Lernaean Hydra, capturing the Golden Hind without harm, seizing the Erymanthian Boar, cleaning the vast Augean Stables in a day, ridding the Stymphalian Birds, apprehending the Cretan Bull, obtaining man-eating Mares of Diomedes, securing the Amazon Queen’s belt, rounding up Geryon’s cattle, collecting the Hesperides’ golden apples, and retrieving Cerberus from the Underworld.

Demonstrating immense strength and intelligence, Heracles accomplished all tasks, cementing his legendary heroism and embodying the victory of human perseverance against daunting odds.

Image: The Farnese Hercules, Roman marble statue on the basis of an original by Lysippos, 216 CE

Stymphalian Birds: One of the Most Legendary Creatures from Greek Mythology

The Trojan War

Trojan War

The Trojan horse was a giant wooden horse left behind by the Greeks for the Trojans. Image: Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Latin poet Virgil’s “The Aeneid”.

The Trojan War, a central event in Greek mythology, was a decade-long conflict between the city of Troy and the Achaeans (Greeks). Sparked by Paris of Troy abducting Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the King of Sparta, it led to a massive Greek expedition against Troy.

Key figures included Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon. Despite prolonged combat, the city’s walls seemed impenetrable until Odysseus devised the Trojan Horse stratagem. Feigning retreat, the Greeks left a large wooden horse outside Troy’s gates. Curious Trojans brought the horse inside.

By night, Greek soldiers hidden within emerged, opening the gates for their returning comrades, which led to the city’s downfall. The war’s tales, epitomized in Homer’s “Iliad” and other works, explore heroism, fate, and the whims of gods.

Aeneas: The legendary Trojan hero who founded Rome

Odysseus’s Journey Home

Calypso and Odysseus

After the fall of Troy, Odysseus embarked on a ten-year journey to return to his homeland of Ithaca, facing numerous challenges like the Cyclops, the Sirens, and the witch Circe along the way. Image: Calypso calling heaven and earth to witness her sincere affection to Odysseus (i.e. Ulysses) by Swiss Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman (18th-century)

Following the fall of Troy, Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca takes ten years, a tale famously narrated in Homer’s “Odyssey”. This odyssey is marked by various adventures and encounters.

Odysseus blinds the Cyclops Polyphemus, incurring the wrath of Poseidon, who then makes his journey treacherous. He withstands the bewitching songs of the Sirens, evades the deadly pass between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and spends years detained by the nymph Calypso and the sorceress Circe. He even visits the Underworld, consulting spirits to find a way home.

Image: Odysseus and the Sirens, Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century AD

Upon reaching Ithaca, he finds his palace overrun by suitors for his wife, Penelope. With the help of his son Telemachus and Athena, he devises a plan, slaughters the suitors, and reunites with Penelope, concluding his arduous return.

Odyysseus

Odysseus slaughtering the suitors at his home

Pandora’s Box

Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, was given a box (or jar) and instructed not to open it. Curiosity overcame her, and when she opened it, all evils and hardships were released into the world, leaving only hope inside. Image: Pandora by English Painter John William Waterhouse, 1896

Pandora’s box is a tale of curiosity and unintended consequences. Pandora, the first human woman, was created by the gods and gifted with talents by each deity.

However, Zeus, in retaliation against Prometheus for stealing fire for humanity, gave her a sealed jar or box with instructions not to open it.

Driven by enormous curiosity, Pandora eventually opened the container, unwittingly releasing all the world’s evils: sickness, death, and myriad misfortunes. Realizing her mistake, she quickly closed it, leaving only one thing inside: Hope. Thus, while the story introduces the sources of negative aspects in the world, it also emphasizes the importance of hope.

The phrase “opening Pandora’s box” has since become an idiom in many cultures, referring to unleashing problems or complications that were previously unknown or contained.

The Kidnapping of Persephone by Hades

Abduction of Persephone

Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was abducted by Hades to be his queen in the Underworld. Her mother’s grief affected the seasons. Eventually, a deal was made where Persephone would spend part of the year in the Underworld (winter) and the rest with her mother (spring and summer). Image: Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, circa 340 BC

In Greek mythology, the kidnapping of Persephone is a central tale that explains the seasons. Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of harvest and fertility, was gathering flowers when Hades, the god of the underworld, enchanted by her beauty, abducted her to be his queen in the dark realm.

Distraught, Demeter searched for her daughter, neglecting her divine duties, causing crops to fail and famine to spread. Learning of Persephone’s fate, Demeter demanded her return. However, Hades had given Persephone pomegranate seeds, and having consumed them, she was bound to the underworld.

In the end, a compromise was reached: Persephone would spend part of the year with Hades and return to the surface for the remainder. Thus, when Persephone is with Demeter, the world experiences spring and summer, but her absence brings autumn and winter.

Greek goddess Persephone

Persephone’s return to the land of the living ushered in the spring season and bountiful harvests. Painting: The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton, 1891

ALSO READ: Forced Relationships in Greek Mythology

Oedipus and the Prophecy

King Laius of Thebes was prophesied to be killed by his own son. To prevent this, he ordered his newborn son, Oedipus, to be killed. Oedipus survived and, unaware of his true parentage, later fulfilled the prophecy, unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Image: Oedipus and Antigone by C. W. Eckersberg (1812)

Oedipus is best known for the tragic events surrounding a haunting prophecy. Before his birth, it was foretold that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In an effort to prevent this, his parents, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, abandoned their infant son with pierced ankles on a mountainside.

Rescued and raised by the King and Queen of Corinth, Oedipus later learns of the prophecy. Believing his adoptive parents to be the subjects of the prophecy, he flees Corinth.

Oedipus and the Sphinx. Painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

On his journey, he unknowingly kills his biological father, Laius, and later solves the Sphinx’s riddle, saving Thebes. As a reward, he’s made king and marries the widowed queen, his mother Jocasta. The tragic truth eventually unravels, leading to Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus blinding himself.

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