From Ancient Greece came the word "mythos” and the tales and myths that word describes. These tales echoed through the ages and appear to this day in movies about Hercules and characters like the three-headed dog "Fluffy" in the Harry Potter stories. The Greeks believed myths came directly from the Greek gods through the Muses. Although the stories vary widely, some components of Greek myths remain constant, such as the types of characters and activities and the general purposes of the tales -- explaining the world, offering insight into human behavior and entertaining audiences.
Like those of many other cultures, Greek myths often offer explanations for events and natural phenomena. The myth of the bird Nyx, for example, explains the creation of the world from the void: Nyx sat on an egg until it hatched and the halves became Earth and the sky. To explain why both good and evil exist in the world, the Greeks had the story of Pandora: The supreme Greek god Zeus, unhappy that humans had accepted Prometheus’ gift of fire that was meant only for the gods, gave Pandora -- the first mortal woman -- a box and warned her to never open it. When curiosity overcame her, she unwittingly released the malevolent concepts captured in the box -- and the one tool to fight them: hope.
Human Nature and Choices
Greek myths also try to make sense of human nature. Besides Pandora’s inability to control her impulse to open the box, human pride appears in myths and inevitably leads to tragedy. For instance, Arachne, a skilled weaver, claimed her work was superior to the work of all others. For her arrogance, Arachne was subsequently transformed into a spider by the goddess Athena. The myth of Bellerophon demonstrates how the gods favor people who are honorable and just: Bellerophon received riches and happiness early in his life because he rejected a married woman’s advances and made appropriate sacrifices to the gods. The myth suggests that choosing a righteous path leads to success in life.
Greek myths typically include supernatural creatures, some humanoid and some not. Those with human shapes often possess bizarre features and powers, such as Medusa, who has snakes for hair and turns those who see her into stone. Sometimes the creatures combine human and animal characteristics, such as centaurs, which have a horse’s feet but a man’s trunk and head. The beings may appear as a result of poor human decisions, like the Minotaur that resulted when King Minos refused to sacrifice a bull to the sea god Poseidon.
Common Character Types
Greek myths often focus on a heroic figure. For instance, the stories credit Prometheus with creating humans and giving them fire to enable their survival. But Prometheus becomes a martyr for this act, as Zeus punishes him by chaining him to a rock and subjecting him to daily attacks by an eagle. Considered role models for later Greeks to follow, these heroes vanquished enemies and braved dangers in pursuit of wealth and knowledge.
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