Nicolas Poussin: Apollo and the Muses / Prado National Museum
Nicolas Poussin: Apollo and the Muses / Prado National Museum - Image credits:

Is ancient Greek mythology dead, a collection of ancient stories with no connection to the modern world or does it remain a pivotal and integral part of everyday life, surrounding the world we live in? In a try to answer this question, the following article explores some of the aspects of life where ancient Greek mythology is very much alive!

Every time we think of ancient Greek mythology, images of terrifying creatures, heroic battles, idealised figures and sometimes perversive stories pop into our heads. This collection of stories, of such pivotal importance for the ancient Greek mindset, nurtured the development of Greek civilisation teaching generation after generation how to be a proper Greek. By developing, adapting and thus evolving through the centuries, and the expanse of Greek culture by the conquest of Alexander and the Rome’s Greek affiliation, ancient Greek mythology managed to break the chains of locality and became a universal heritage of humankind. Its power and attraction literally starred the life of everyone, found on mosaics, depicted as marble statues, decorating the vessels of everyday life.

Today, we think of these stories as dead, remnants of the ancient world, irrelevant to the modern one or themes for a box-office action movie and inspiration for our pop-culture. Is it true though? How often are we surrounded by those stories during our day and refer to them inadvertently? Here is how ancient Greek mythology is very much alive, and with the following examples, you will realize how big part of your life it really is.

Fell into hypnosis

Bronze head of Hypnos - Image credits:

Hypnosis, hypnotherapy, hypnotise, hypnopompia, etc. are words directly associated with Hypnos, the god of Sleep. During Roman times, he was known as Somnus (e.g. insomnia). According to mythology, Hypnos was the son of Nyx (the Night) and Erebus (the Darkness), always close to his twin brother Thanatos (Death). He was thought to be a benevolent deity, that controlled half of people’s life. Homer says that the entrance to the Underworld where he lives is to be found on the island of Lemnos, at the northern part of modern Greece. The entrance of his cave is filled with poppies and other hypnotic plants, watered by the water of River Lethe (Forgetfulness). The sunlight never showers his cave, and the concept of sound is an unknown thing in his territory. He is a god of great power, even among the rest of the Olympian gods. With Pasithea, the youngest of the Graces (goddess of relaxation and hallucination) he had his three sons Morpheus (meaning Shape), the god that can intrude and take human form in dreams, Phobetor the one responsible for nightmares and Phantasos, the maker of illusions and hallucinations.

Hypnos and Thanatos carrying the body of Sarpedon, Euphronios Krater - Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri - Image credits:

Hypnos is found in many myths of the Greeks with the most famous one found in Homer’s Iliad. During the battles of Troy’s siege, Patroclus the dearest friend of Achilles and the son of the Argonaut Menoetius encountered the son of Zeus, Sarpedon. When he witnessed Patroclus being on a rampage, slaying one Trojan after the other, he stood against him to face him. The two men starting fighting with every mean the had, and Zeus was closely observing the situation, anxious about the fate of his son. At one point, he tried to interfere only to be stopped by Hera, reminding him that his actions might provoke terrible consequences. With a final blow, Patroclus hit Sarpedon on his chest, killing him on site. Before he died though, he begged Glaucus to protect his body from the Greeks. The armies of the Greeks and Trojans engaged in a battle around the fully-armoured dead body of Sarpedon. The battle ended with the victory of the Greeks and the order of Patroclus to take the armour of Sarpedon. Then, Zeus covered the naked body of Sarpedon with darkness and sent Apollo to retrieve it, clean it from blood and dust, cover it with ointments and perfumes and give it to Hypnos and Thanatos to: ”... to carry him away, until they come with him to the countryside of broad Lykia (Lycia) where his brothers and countrymen shall give him due burial with tomb and gravestone.”

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To tantalise

The punishment of Tantalus - Tableaux du temple des Muses, Marolles Michel 1600-1681 - Image credits:

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the definition of the verb to tantalise is: to torment or to tease (someone) with the sight or promise of something that is unobtainable.

The origin of that word comes from the horrifying story of the king of Phrygia Tantalus, the son of Zeus and Plouto. By being the son of two major deities, Tantalus was thought to be equal to the rest of the Olympian gods. Having his mind blurred by vanity and greed, he stole ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the gods, granting immortality to anyone he wanted. He even went another step further, claiming that the gods could easily be manipulated and deceived. In order to prove his point, he committed a hideous crime. He murdered his son Pelops, cut him into pieces, cooked him and offered him as food to the gods. The Olympians (except for Demeter who distracted by the loss of her daughter was deceived) quickly realised the sacrilege of Tantalus and repulsed by his action decided to punish him in the most brutal way possible. Zeus struck him immediately with his bolts of lightning and his soul was led to the deepest level of the Underworld, the Tartarus. There the gods let his soul retain its earthly needs and put him in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any.

After Tantalus’ punishment, the gods resurrected Pelops as a youthful young man and Poseidon himself took him under his protection. The story of Tantalus is one of the most brutal stories of ancient Greek mythology. The famous artist of antiquity, Polygnotus depicted his punishment in one of his paintings.

Enchanted by the colour of your eyes

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One of the most charming features of a person is the iris of his/her eyes that make their look irresistible. Different cultures around the globe rendered the iris of the eye into the window to a person’s soul, and practitioners used to examine them to reveal the future of someone’s life.

Iris escorting wounded Aphrodite in front of Ares - George Hayter (1792-1871) - Image credits:

The iris took its name from the ancient Greek deity Iris, the daughter of Thaumas and Oceanid Electra. She was the messenger of the gods, just like Hermes, had a set of golden wings on her back and carrying an ewer filled with water from the River Styx. With this water, she was putting to sleep the ones that committed the crime of perjury. According to ancient Greeks, the rainbow was the only visible sign of the goddess when travelling from one place to another. An obedient follower of Hera, she is often mentioned by Homer in his work Iliad. A passage describes an event of Aphrodite and Iris: “She mounted the chariot and beside her entering Iris gathered the reins up and whipped them into a run, and they winged their way unreluctant. Now as they came to sheer Olympos, the place of the immortals, there swift Iris the wind-footed reined in her horses and slipped them from the yoke and threw fodder immortal before them.”

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Pour some milk on my cereals

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By the time we wake up every day, one of our first impulses is to grab a bowl and fill it with cereal and have our breakfast. Next time you grab the box of your favourite cereals, take a moment and realize how the past is actually interacting with you at this very moment. The word cereal derives from the name of the Roman deity Ceres, who is the equivalent of the dearly loved, mother deity of Demeter. According to ancient Greek mythology, Demeter is the older sister of Zeus and the goddess of prosperity, grain, agriculture, harvest, growth, and nourishment.

Demeter and Kore - Image credits:

The myth says that after the sudden and cruel abduction of her daughter Persephone by the almighty god of the underworld Hades, Demeter fell into depression, neglecting her obligations to the land and leading the humankind into starvation. In one of her journeys seeking for her lost daughter, she reached the lands of Eleusis, transformed herself into an old lady and found refuge at the court of king Celeus. There she felt so welcomed and loved that she became the nanny of Celeus sons, Triptolemus and Demophon. As a reward, she secretly tried to make Demophon an immortal by anointing the infant with divine ambrosia and laying him in the flames of her hearth. Before the completion of her ritual, the mother of the young boys, Metanira stormed into the chambers of the goddess and saw her child in the flames. Terrified by the sight, she screamed and rushed to protect Demophon putting an end to the ritual before the completion of his immortality. Demeter though, taught to Triptolemus the craft of agriculture, granting that way cereals and every kind of crops to humankind.

Hence, next time you will enjoy your bowl of cereals, take some time to remember this priceless gift of Demeter to the world.

Panic attack

Statue of Pan and Aphrodite / 100 BC, National Archaeological Museum Athens - Image credits:

According to Oxford dictionaries, panic is the “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behaviour”.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the god responsible for this emotion is Pan (Pan-ic), a secondary but greatly respected deity of the Greek pantheon, representing the forces of nature and the wild, protector of shepherds and flocks and companion of the Nymphs. This deity had a strange form reflecting its attributes. Son of Hermes and Dryope, Pan had a human form with goat-like legs and horns crowning his head. One of his great powers was his terrifying and ominous roar that provoked the emotion of panic to anyone hearing it. The Athenians paid great respects to this deity because they believed that the god himself imbued panic in the hearts of the Persians and helped them to win the battle of Marathon. Many sanctuaries honouring the god were founded in Attica after the battle and just below the Acropolis, a cave was dedicated to the fearless god Pan.

The previously mentioned examples are only a few of the many examples of how ancient Greek mythology is very much alive and remains an integral part of everyday life. In case you want to dive into the wealth of Mythology plan your own trip to Greece, especially focused on the ancient Greek mythology or check out one of our Greece tours.