The mythos of the Greeks was not limited to the major gods and the demigods (such as Heracles). A number of other characters would find an important role in the belief system of the ancient Greeks.
Prometheus was the most important character in regard to humankind, for he was their creator. The son of the Clymene and the Titan Iapetus, Prometheus did not participate in the direct conflict between the Titans and the Olympian gods (in other versions, he fought on the side of the Olympians). He was, therefore, spared their fate.
Prometheus fashioned the first human beings out of clay or mud and showed his creations to the goddess Athena. The goddess was so impressed that she breathed life into them. Thrilled by his creations being given life, Prometheus would teach the humans everything that he knew of math, science, and civilization. This would cause the first rift between Zeus and Prometheus.
Zeus, upset by Prometheus’s indiscretion of teaching the humans the knowledge of the gods, made humankind mortal and cast them away from Mount Olympus.
At a dinner between gods and mortals, Prometheus presented Zeus with an option of two meals. One meal was that of an ox (unbeknownst to Zeus, Prometheus had set a meal of beef in the stomach of the ox), the other was that of gleaming fat (beneath which, Zeus would find only bare bones). Zeus, tantalized by the fatty plate, chose it as his meal. When he discovered that the plate was made up of bones which had been stripped of their meat, Zeus became furious with Prometheus.
Prometheus also gave humans fire. Accounts differ as to whether the humans already had the use of fire, but were stripped of it after Prometheus’s fat and bones trick on the king of gods, or whether they didn’t have fire in the first place. What is common though, is that Zeus at one point forbade the humans to be allowed the use of fire.
Seeing his creations suffering, Prometheus stole away the fire of the gods which Zeus had hidden and presented it to the humans, giving them (or returning to them) the use of flame.
For this, Zeus would levy one of his most extreme punishments. He had Prometheus chained to a rock where every day an eagle (a symbol of Zeus) would devour his liver. At night, the liver of Prometheus would regrow, allowing this cycle to continue on eternally.
Depending on the version of the myth, Prometheus was never freed from his bondage or, in some versions, was unchained by Heracles.
Perseus and Medusa
Medusa is, no doubt, one of the most familiar figures from Greek mythology. What is often not known about her is that she was once a stunningly beautiful, virginal priestess of Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom.
As Athena was a virgin, so too were all of her priestesses. Medusa had many suitors, but always held firm to her oaths of chastity. It was not only mortal men, however, that found Medusa irresistible.
The god Poseidon came to Medusa while she was inside Athena’s temple on the hill of the acropolis. He viciously attacked and raped her. The act was not only a heinous violation of the young priestess, but a sacrilege to Athena.
Athena, however, did not take the side of her priestess. For the crime of being raped, Athena placed a terrible curse upon Medusa. Her skin was cracked and aged, her beauty turned to hideousness, her long hair was transformed into snakes and all who looked upon her would be turned to stone. Medusa was transformed into a gorgon.
Medusa was cast into exile, but quickly became hunted. According to the myth, even after Medusa was slain, her head would still cause any who looked upon her to turn to stone. Warriors came from all around to capture this tactical prize, only to be turned to stone in Medusa’s growing rock garden.
Medusa would meet her match, however, at the hands of a warrior named Perseus. Danaë, the mother of Perseus, had been locked into a stone tower by her father Acrisius, the king of Argos. With no male heir, Acrisius consulted an oracle to discover whether his daughter would bear a grandson. The oracle instructed Acrisius that if Danaë were to become pregnant, her son would one day kill him and take his throne.
The theme of the older generation fearing their overthrow by a younger generation has persisted throughout the world, not only in myth and culture, but in real life as well.
Acrisius, fearing his as yet unconceived grandson, locked Danaë into the stone tower, expecting her to die from starvation as she was given very little food. The one thing that Acrisius hadn’t prepared for, however, was the attention of the gods.
Zeus, always the philanderer, came through the window as a shower of gold. He impregnated Danaë with a son. When the news of his daughter’s death never came, Acrisius went to investigate, finding his daughter holding her newly born child Perseus.
Afraid of offending Zeus, he didn’t dare kill the two outright; however, he placed Danaë into a boat and set her adrift in the sea. They would eventually land on the island of Serifos. As Perseus grew, the king of Serifos became enamored with his mother. Hating Perseus, the king demanded that all occupants of Serifos provide him with a lavish gift; those who did not would be banished.
As Perseus was poor, the king expected him to be unable to present a fitting gift. In order to prevent the king from taking his mother as his wife and banishing him, Perseus promised the king that he would bring as his offering the head of Medusa.
The problem for Perseus was that he not only lacked any weapons, armor or knowledge of what Medusa looked like (as any who had actually seen her form would have been turned to stone), he also had no idea where he was going.
He prayed to the gods and, having heard his prayer, Zeus sent forth Hermes who gave the young man a pair of winged sandals. Hermes then told Perseus of a group of nymphs who would help him further. In order to find the nymphs, Perseus had to confront the Graeae, sisters of the gorgons.
The Graeae were three beings who shared use of one eyeball. In order to gain their cooperation, Perseus snatched the eyeball from the sisters and demanded that they tell him how to reach the grove of the nymphs. This was the same garden which Heracles encountered while searching for the golden apples.
Upon reaching the grove, the nymphs gave him a satchel within which Perseus could store the severed head of Medusa without fear of being turned to stone. Before he reached Medusa though, he would require much more.
He gained the necessary items by the kindness of the gods. Hades provided Perseus with a helm of darkness; Zeus gave Perseus an adamantine sword; and Athena gave Perseus the polished shield which would become iconic of the hero.
Now very well prepared for the confrontation, Perseus traveled to the island where Medusa had been exiled. By walking backward, he was able to view Medusa by looking at her reflection through the polished shield that Athena gave to him. By this means, he was able to sneak up on her and cut off her head.
When Perseus returned to the island of Serifos, he found his mother about to be married to the king against her will. The king had been making violent advances toward Danaë, and so Perseus, always protective of his mother used Medusa’s head on the foul king. Acrisius had also come to attend the wedding and, justly enough, he too caught a glimpse of the gorgon’s head.
Perseus would eventually offer Medusa’s head to Athena as a tribute.
Son of a human mother and a bull father, the Minotaur was one of the most feared of all the monsters in ancient Greece. Residing in a labyrinth on the island of Crete, the Minotaur lied in wait for a prisoner to enter its dwelling. Once found, the victim would be torn limb from limb and devoured by the ravenous beast.
The Minotaur was brought into being by an offense toward the god Poseidon by the king of Crete, Minos. The king had prayed to Poseidon to send a white bull, showing him favor and as the rightful heir to the throne of Crete. Upon its arrival, Minos had promised to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon; however, having become an admirer of the beauty of the bull, Minos reneged. (In another version of this story, Minos would slaughter the most prized new calf every year to Poseidon, but when the white bull was born, he couldn’t bring himself to sacrifice it. Instead he slaughtered another bull, thinking that the god would call it even).
What is consistent in the myths is Poseidon’s reaction to the sleight. He caused Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull. The queen longed to copulate with the beast. She commissioned a great inventor named Daedalus to build her a wooden cow, hollow on the inside.
The queen took the decoy into the pasture where the bull lived, climbed inside and the rest is best left to the imagination. She became pregnant and, upon her delivery, the Minotaur (or bull of Minos) was born.
In an effort to turn lemons into lemonade, Minos decided to use the Minotaur to his own advantage. He commissioned Daedalus to envision and build a prison wherein the Minotaur would be placed, and any prisoners would be forced to face it.
Androgeus the son of Minos was in Athens, competing in Panathenaic Games, an early predecessor to the Olympics. He won every event, angering the other competitors. These men killed him. When Minos heard of this, he declared war on Athens.
In lieu of a full on attack, Minos demanded that seven male virgins and seven female virgins be offered to him as tribute to be sacrificed to the Minotaur once every nine years. This repeated until the third cycle when Theseus, son of not only the king and queen of Athens, but of Poseidon as well.
Having this dual paternity allowed Theseus to be an heir to the Athenian throne and also possess some of the powers of the gods. When he grew, the third set of virgins was rounded up, and he joined with them, vowing to bring down the terrible beast which had killed those sent before him. Having grown enough to retrieve his father’s sword from beneath a boulder (where Aegeus, the king of Athens and father of Theseus had placed it), Aegeus had only one request of his son. Should he survive and return home, he should raise the white sail instead of the black sail in order to show his father that he lived.
When Theseus arrived at Knossos, the capitol of Crete, he quickly caught the eye of Ariadne, the daughter of king Minos. She fell in love with him and went to Daedalus in order to find some way to help the young man return from his imprisonment in the labyrinth. Daedalus gave her a clue (or ball of string) so that she could offer Theseus a way back to the entrance of the maze. She had one condition though. If Theseus survived, he would have to agree to marry her. Theseus agreed.
The fourteen virgins were led the next morning to the entrance of the labyrinth and locked inside. With his ball of twine, Theseus would lead the way. He bore the sword of Aegeus, and made his way in the dark through the labyrinth, searching for the Minotaur.
By the time his clue was one-quarter the size it had been upon his entry, Theseus comes across the sleeping Minotaur. Theseus ambushes the bull-headed creature, catching him off guard. The two would do battle: the Minotaur wielding an axe, Theseus with a sword.
The two do battle, but Theseus quickly has the upper hand. He corners the Minotaur and is able to slay him, but he’s not out of the woods yet. Day is approaching and, should Theseus and the other virgins be caught by king Minos, they will surely be slain. He quickly makes his way back through the labyrinth, following the string that Ariadne had given him. Theseus and the others would escape in the dark of the night. Before dawn arrived, Ariadne met Theseus on the Athenian’s boat and the group set sail toward Athens.
Aegeus, Theseus’s father, had gone to a cliff overlooking the sea every day in order to ascertain his son’s fate. When the ship came into view, Theseus had neglected to raise the white sail. Aegeus, thinking his son to be dead was so distraught that he cast himself over the cliff and to his death. These waters would come to be called the Aegean Sea.