Greek mythology explained in 15 minutes.
The Greek myths are some of the greatest stories ever told, passed down through millennia. They are embedded deeply in the traditions, tales and culture of our world. In Stephen Fry’s hands, the stories of the titans and gods become a brilliantly entertaining account of warfare and worship, debauchery, love affairs and life lessons, slayings and suicides, triumphs and tragedies.
Thoroughly spellbinding, informative and moving, Stephen Fry’s Mythos perfectly captures these stories for the modern age and I found it a joy listening to his narration. This is a summary of the book that will hopefully serve as a primer for Greek mythology and also tempt you into reading Mythos.
THE FIRST ORDER
From formless Chaos sprang two creations: EREBUS (darkness) and NYX (night). The fruits of their union were HEMERA (day) and AETHER (light).
At the same time, Chaos brought forth two more entities: GAIA, the earth, and TARTARUS, the depths and caves beneath the earth. These were the PRIMORDIAL DEITIES, the First Order of divine beings from whom all the gods, heroes, and monsters of Greek myth spring. The silent emptiness of this world was filled when Gaia bore two sons all on her own. The first was PONTUS, the sea, and the second was OURANOS, the sky.
THE SECOND ORDER
The union of Ouranos and Gaia resulted in twelve children – six male, six female. The males were OCEANUS, COEUS, CRIUS, HYPERION, IAPETUS, and KRONOS. The females, THEIA, THEMIS, MNEMOSYNE, PHOEBE, TETHYS, and RHEA. These twelve were destined to become the Second Order of divine beings, earning themselves a legendary name – the Titans. Barring Kronos and Rhea, you don’t have to remember any of the other names.
Not content with these twelve beautiful children, Ouranos and Gaia gave the world yet more progeny – two horrific sets of triplets. The three CYCLOPES came first, one-eyed giants who became thunder, the lightning, and brightness. But the second set of triplets Gaia bore sent even greater shudders through all who saw them – the HECATONCHIRES, each with fifty heads and a hundred hands and were as hideous, fierce, violent, and powerful as anything that had yet been released into being.
While Gaia loved them, Ouranos was revolted by them and pushed them back into Gaia’s womb. Gaia’s agony was unbearable. Seeking revenge, she visited each of her 12 children in turn, asking them to help her kill Ouranos. While everyone refused, Rhea suggested that her brother Kronos, the last son, might be willing to kill his father. Gaia made the journey to Tartarus, where Kronos was staying, and hatched an elaborate plot with her son to kill Ouranos.
She gave him an enormous scythe whose great curved blade had been forged from adamantine and asked him to wait in hiding till Ouranos arrived. When Ouranos came to visit Gaia, Kronos stepped out from the shadows and swung the scythe at his father. The blade, hissing through the air, sliced Ouranos’s genitals clean from his body. Ouranos fell writhing in immortal agony and howled out these words:
“Kronos, vilest of my brood and vilest in all creation. Worst of all beings, fouler than the ugly Cyclopes and the loathsome Hecatonchires, with these words I curse you. May your children destroy you as you destroyed me.”
Unfazed, Kronos hurled the package of genitals far, far from sight. Across the plains of Greece they flew and out over the darkening sea. Great pools of blood formed around the scene of Ouranos’s castration. From that blood, living beings emerged. The first to push themselves out of the sodden ground were the ERINYES (Furies), whose eternal duty, from the moment of their chthonic birth, would be to punish the worst and most violent of crimes. Next to rise from the soil were the GIGANTES, who were possessed of prodigious strength, and MELIAE, who were graceful nymphs.
Kronos kept the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes imprisoned in Tarturus, while his father was buried even deeper. Brooding, simmering, and raging in the ground, deep beneath the earth that once loved him, Ouranos compressed all his fury and divine energy into the very rock itself, which became Uranium.
Kronos was now lord of earth, sea, and sky, with the scythe the symbol of his authority. He trusted no one and ruled alone. When he arrived on Mount Othrys, Kronos found his sister Rhea waiting for him. When their first baby HESTIA was born, with Ouranos’s curse echoing in his head, Kronos snatched the child from her arms and swallowed it whole. Their next child, a boy she called HADES, was devoured in just the same manner. And then another baby girl, DEMETER. Next was POSEIDON, a second boy, and finally a third girl, HERA. All of them swallowed whole. By the time Kronos consumed Hera, Rhea’s love for Kronos had turned to hate. She swore to herself that if she became pregnant again, she wouldn’t let Kronos take her child. She left Othrys and asked for help from her parents, Gaia and Ouranos. Together the three of them hatched a marvelous plan.
In order to set this plan in motion, Rhea gathered a certain stone, as suggested by Gaia, that was the perfect size for their purposes, smooth and shaped like a bean, and swaddled it in linen. Rhea tricked Kronos into eating the stone, which he assumed to be their sixth child. Meanwhile, Rhea then went to the island Crete to confer with a she-goat. Also living on the island were the Meliae. Tenderly assisted by the she-goat and the Meliae, Rhea gave birth to a transcendently beautiful baby boy, whom she named ZEUS. Just as Gaia had recruited her youngest child Kronos in order to take revenge on her son and husband Ouranos, so Rhea vowed she would rear this, her youngest child, to destroy her husband and brother Kronos. The dreadful cycle of bloodlust, greed, and killing that marked the birth pangs of the primordial world would continue into this next generation.
Rhea asked her friend Metis, the wise daughter of Tethys and Oceanus, to prepare her son for what was to come. When Zeus was fully grown, Metis gave him a goblet filled with poppy juice, copper sulphate, and other components. Later, just as Kronos himself had surprised Ouranos, Zeus came out of the shadows and proffered Kronos the jeweled goblet, which the Titan drank down in one greedy draft.
As Kronos was hit with a bout of confusion and nausea, from his gut, in one heaving spasm, erupted a large stone. The linen in which it was once wrapped had long since been dissolved by stomach acid. Kronos gazed at it stupidly, his eyes swimming and his face white. Zeus leapt fleetly forward, picked up the boulder and hurled it far, far away, much as Kronos had once flung Ouranos’s genitals far, far away from the exact same spot. It lands at a place called Pytho on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Lodged fast in the earth it would in time become the Hellenic bellybutton, Greece’s spiritual center and point of origin.
Inside Kronos, the compound of salt, mustard, and ipecacuanha continued to take its toll. One by one he spewed up the five children he had swallowed. First out was Hera. Then came Poseidon, Demeter, Hades, and finally Hestia, before the tormented Titan collapsed in a paroxysm of exhausted panting.
In the starlight over Mount Othrys, Zeus and his five liberated siblings laughed and howled with delight. Their mother laughed too, clapping her hands with joy to see her radiant sons and daughters so well and so happy, out in the world at last and ready to claim their inheritance. Each of the five rescued ones took it in turn to embrace Zeus, their youngest but now eldest brother, their savior and their leader. They swore allegiance to him forever. Together they would overthrow Kronos and his whole ugly race and establish a new order. They would not call themselves Titans. They would be gods. And not just gods, but the Gods.
CLASH OF TITANS
After the events at Mount Othrys, war was inevitable. The bloody, violent and destructive conflict that followed is known to historians as the TITANOMACHY. While most of the details of this ten-year war may be lost to us, we do know that the explosive power and colossal energy released by the battling Titans and Gods caused mountains to bellow fire and the ground itself to quake and crack. Many islands and landmasses were formed by these battles. Whole continents shifted and reshaped themselves and much of the world as we know it now owes its geography to these seismic disturbances, to this literally earth-shaking conflict.
In a straight fight it is almost certain that the combined strength of the Titans would have been too much for their young adversaries. They were stronger and more remorselessly savage. All but Clymene’s sons Prometheus and Epimetheus sided with Kronos, far outnumbering the small group of self-styled gods under Zeus’s generalship. But just as Ouranos had paid dearly for his crime of imprisoning the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires inside Gaia, so Kronos was about to pay for the blunder of imprisoning them in the caverns of Tartarus.
It was the wise and clever Metis who advised Zeus to go down and release his three one-eyed and three hundred-handed brothers. He offered them freedom in perpetuity if they would help him defeat Kronos and the Titans. They needed no further encouragement. The Gigantes too chose to side with Zeus and proved themselves brave and tireless fighters.
In the final decisive battle, the ferocity of the Hecatonchires combined quite marvelously with the wild electric power of the Cyclopes. They hammered their mastery of storms into thunderbolts for Zeus to use as weapons, which he learned to fling with pinpoint accuracy at his enemies, blasting them to atoms.
The triumphant Zeus was set to inherit an earth, sea, and sky infinitely richer than the ones into which he had been born. Zeus first made sure that the defeated Titans could never rise again to threaten his order. His strongest and most violent opponent in the war had not been Kronos but ATLAS, the brutally powerful son of Iapetus and Clymene. Atlas had been at the center of every battle, rousing his fellow Titans into combat, shouting for one last supreme effort even as the Hecatonchires were battering them into submission. As punishment for his enmity, Zeus sentenced him to hold up the sky for eternity. At the junction of what we would call Africa and Europe the Titan strained, the whole weight of the sky bearing down upon him. Legs braced, muscles bunched, his mighty body contorted itself with this supreme and agonizing effort. For eons, he groaned, before he solidified into the Atlas Mountains that shoulder the skies of North Africa to this day.
As for Kronos, his punishment, just as his father Ouranos had foretold, was perpetual exile. The Romans gave this defeated Titan the name SATURN. He hangs in the sky between his father Uranus and his son Jupiter.
THE THIRD ORDER
To the victors, the spoils. Like a chief executive who has just completed a hostile takeover, Zeus wanted the old management out and his people in. He allotted each of his siblings their own domain, their areas of divine responsibility. The President of the Immortals chose his cabinet.
For himself, Zeus assumed overall command as supreme leader and emperor, lord of the firmament, master of weather and storms: King of the Gods, Sky Father, Cloud Gatherer. Thunder and lightning were his to command. The eagle and the oak were his emblems, symbols of fierce grace and unopposable might. His word was law, his power formidably great. He envisioned an assembly of twelve major gods – a dodecatheon.
(*) – Roman name.
Of all the gods, Hestia is probably the least well known to us, perhaps because the realm that Zeus in his infinite wisdom apportioned to her was the ‘hearth’. Refusing offers of marriage from the other gods, Hestia devoted herself to perpetual maidenhood. A modest divinity, it was the custom in Greece to say a grace to her before every meal.
Note: Some lists of the Twelve Olympians omit her in favor of Dionysus, with the speculation that she gave her throne to him in order to keep the peace.
Zeus turned next to his powerful brothers, Hades and Poseidon. They had acquitted themselves with equal skill, bravery, and cunning in the war against the Titans, and he thought it only fair that they should draw lots for the two most important unassigned provinces—the sea and the underworld.
Hades picked the underworld as his dominion. Under his personal command came Erebus and Nyx and their son Than-atos (Death himself). Styx was a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. Styx’s brother Charon was appointed ferryman, who carries souls of the newly deceased. Space was also given to the Furies, from which the three of them could fly to all corners of the world to exact their revenge on those transgressors whose crimes were foul enough to merit their violent attentions. In time Hades acquired a pet, a gigantic snake-tailed, three-headed dog. His name was KERBEROS, the original hound of hell, the fearsome and tireless watchdog and guardian of the underworld.
At Lerna, the other entrance of the underworld, Hades posted HYDRA, sister to the three-headed dog, who herself was a many-headed water-beast almost impossible to kill. Chop off one of her heads and she could grow back ten more in its place.
Note: Although Hades was a major deity in the Greek pantheon, and was the brother of Zeus and the other first generation of Olympians, his realm was far away from Olympus in the underworld, and thus he was not usually considered to be one of the Olympians.
The Cyclopes, just as they had forged thunderbolts for Zeus, now created a great weapon for Poseidon too – a trident. This massive three-pronged fishing spear could be used to stir up tidal waves and even make the earth tremble with earthquakes. Under what we would now call the Aegean Sea, Poseidon built a vast palace of coral and pearl in which he installed himself and his chosen consort, AMPHITRITE, a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. As a wedding gift, Poseidon presented Amphitrite with the world’s very first dolphin.
Zeus gave Demeter responsibility for the harvest, growth and fertility. By Zeus she had a daughter, PERSEPHONE, whose story is as beautiful as it is dramatic. So beautiful and pure and lovely was she that the gods took to her at once. Demeter hid her away in the remote countryside, far from the hungry eyes of gods and immortals. But there was one powerful god, however, who had laid his covetous eyes upon the girl.
Persephone was gathering flowers in a field when Hades came to abduct her, bursting through a cleft in the earth. Demeter, when she found her daughter had disappeared, searched for her all over the earth, and in her despair, neglects the earth causing nothing to grow. Helios, the sun, who sees everything, eventually told Demeter what had happened and Zeus, pressed by Demeter’s anguish and the cries of the hungry people, forced Hades to return Persephone. Hades indeed complied with the request, but first he tricked her, giving her some pomegranate seeds to eat. Since she had tasted food in the underworld, she was obliged to spend a third of each year there, and the remaining part of the year with the gods above.
When Demeter and her daughter were reunited, the Earth flourished with vegetation and color, but for some months each year, when Persephone returned to the underworld (the winter months), the earth once again became a barren realm, which became the origin story of the seasons.
Hera, Zeus’ wife and sister, ruled over Mount Olympus as the queen of the gods. One of Hera’s defining characteristics was her jealous and vengeful nature against Zeus’ numerous lovers and illegitimate offspring.
One of the popular stories involving Hera was when she tried to catch Zeus with a mistress, Io. Zeus saw her coming and transformed Io into a little snow-white cow. However, Hera was not fooled and demanded that Zeus give her the cow as a present. Zeus could not refuse his queen without drawing suspicion so he had to give her the beautiful cow. Once Io was given to Hera, she tied her to a tree and sent her servant Argus to keep Io separated from Zeus. With Argus having one hundred eyes all over his body, it was not possible to go past him. Zeus commanded Hermes (the final Olympian whose origin story we will learn shortly) to kill Argus, which he does by lulling all one hundred eyes into eternal sleep. When Hera learned of Argus’ death, she took his eyes and placed them in the plumage of the peacock, which became her defining symbol.
We return now to the Ionian island of Cythera where Kronos had flung his father’s genitals. The whirlpool of blood and seminal fluid fomented, fizzed, and foamed, out of which emerged not just someone beautiful, but Beauty itself – Aphrodite. She stood on a large scallop shell, a demure and gentle smile playing on her lips. Slowly she alighted onto a beach on Cyprus. The Romans called her VENUS, and her birth and arrival on the sands of Cyprus on the scallop shell were never better portrayed than in Botticelli’s exquisite painting. Aphrodite would become the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
Ares, the second-born son of Zeus and Hera, was the Greek god of war. From the beginning, Ares was a violent and aggressive boy. He picked quarrels with everyone and thought of nothing but the clash of arms and horses, chariots, spears, and martial arts. It was natural that Zeus, who disliked him from the first, should appoint him the god of war.
Rather surprisingly, Ares plays a relatively limited role in Greek mythology. He is well known as the lover of Aphrodite. As Ares grew swiftly to manhood, he found himself irresistibly attracted to Aphrodite and more perplexingly perhaps, she was equally drawn to him. Love and war, Venus and Mars, have always had a strong affinity.
Hephaestus was the firstborn child of Hera and Zeus. To Hera’s dismay the child turned out to be so swarthy, ugly, and diminutive that, after one disgusted glance, she snatched him up and hurled him from Mount Olympus. Hephaestus gained his revenge on Hera’s wedding day. To cement her position as the universally recognized Queen of Heaven and undisputed consort of Zeus, Hera felt the need to institute a nuptial feast, a grand public ceremony that would forever bind her in wedlock to Zeus. The world’s first wedding was originally planned to solemnize two marriages, the other being that of Ares and Aphrodite. Presents began to arrive, the most spectacular of which, all agreed, was a marvelous golden chair addressed personally to Hera. Smiling with satisfaction, she lowered herself onto the throne. Instantly its arms came to life and sprang inward, enclosing her in a tight embrace. Struggle as she might she could not escape, the arms had locked themselves around her and she was trapped.
In a fit of desperation when nobody was able to pry open the arms, Zeus proclaimed that whomsoever managed to release Hera could take Aphrodite’s hand in marriage, the greatest matrimonial prize there was. Hephaestus, who had created this magic chair and tricked Hera into sitting into it, released her and accepted Aphrodite as his wife. Hephaestus was soon accepted into Mount Olympus and he would make gifts for Aphrodite and for all the gods and prove himself a worthy member of the twelve. He was given one whole valley of the mountain for his own forge. It was to become the greatest and most productive workshop in the world.
After his marriage to Hera, a drunk Zeus impregnated Metis. Afraid of a prophecy that Metis’ son would overcome his father, Zeus tricks Metis into transforming into a fly while he transformed into a lizard and catches and eats her. The next day, Zeus gets such a splitting headache that he begs Triton, Poseidon’s eldest son, to drown him in the sea. Then Prometheus, Zeus’s favorite young Titan, came up with an idea which he whispered to Hephaestus, who nodded eagerly before limping back to his smithy as fast as his imperfect legs could carry him. What was happening inside Zeus’s head was rather interesting. Metis was hard at work inside his skull, smelting, firing, and hammering out armor and weaponry.
Hephaestus returned with a huge axe and told Zeus that this was the only way. He brought the axe down in one swift swinging movement clean through the very center of Zeus’s skull, splitting it neatly in two. There was a terrible silence as everyone stared in stunned horror. The stunned horror turned to wild disbelief and the wild disbelief to bewildered amazement as they now witnessed, rising up from inside Zeus’s opened head, the tip of a spear. It was followed by the topmost plumes of a russet crest. The onlookers held their breaths as slowly there arose into view a female figure dressed in full armor.
Zeus gazed at the daughter who had caused him so much pain and smiled a warm smile. A name came to him and he spoke it. “Athena!”
“Father!” she said, smiling gently in return.
The qualities that ATHENA embodied were ones that would become the paramount virtues and accomplishments of the great city-state that would bear her name: Athens. Wisdom and insight were inherited from her mother, Metis. Handicraft, warcraft, and statecraft were hers. Law and justice too.
In later years Athena and Poseidon would vie for the special patronage of the city of Cecropia. He struck his trident into the high rock on which they stood and produced a spring of seawater; an impressive trick, but its saltiness rendered it more or less useless as anything more than a picturesque public fountain. Athena’s simple gift was the first olive tree. The citizens of Cecropia in their wisdom saw the manifold benefits of its fruit, oil, and wood and chose her as their presiding deity and protectress, changing the name of their city to Athens in her honor.
Artemis (Diana) and Apollo
Zeus had been pursuing Leto, daughter of the Titans Phoebe and Coeus, for a while and finally has his way with her. But when Hera found out that her husband had got Leto with child, she commanded her grandmother Gaia to deny Leto any land on which to give birth. It was maddening enough to Hera that the baseborn Athena should have taken precedence in Zeus’s affections over her noble and darling sons Hephaestus and Ares, and she was not about to let another bastard godling come muscling in to disturb Olympus’s proper order.
While Zeus was helpless to protect Leto, he did convince his brother Poseidon to cause an upswell of waves to guide her boat to Delos, a small uninhabited island floating in the eddies and swirl of the Cyclades, unanchored to the seabed and therefore immune from Hera’s curse. There in the floating island, Leto gave birth to twins, Artemis and Apollo.
Zeus loved Artemis almost as much as he loved Athena and took great pains to protect her from the wrath of Hera. When she asked him for several wishes, including a bow, dominion over forests and mountainsides, stags, dogs, and the moon, he granted them without hesitation. Goddess of the chase and the chaste, of the untutored and the untamed, of hounds and hinds, of midwives and the moon, Artemis duly became.
If Artemis was silver, her twin Apollo was all gold. If Artemis was the moon, he was the sun. His radiant features captivated all who beheld them. Apollo was lord of mathematics, reason, and logic. Poetry and medicine, knowledge, rhetoric, and enlightenment were his realm. In essence he was the god of harmony. He was a supreme archer and when necessary as fierce and fiery a warrior as any on Olympus.
During the Titanomachy (Clash of Titans), Atlas, the most ferocious champion of the Titans, had fathered seven daughters, with the eldest and loveliest of these dark-eyed sisters was called MAIA. As with the other stories, Zeus appeared to her and got her with child. Afraid of Hera, Maia in due time gave birth in a remote and hidden cave to a healthy boy, whom she named HERMES.
Hermes proved himself to be the most extraordinarily precocious baby that ever drew breath. Standing upright when he was just half an hour old, this remarkable infant announced that he was going for a walk. He found himself in a field where he was met by the wondrous sight of a herd of pure white cattle. He liked them so much that he took them back with him to the cave. Unbeknownst to Hermes, the cattle belonged to Apollo, who after some investigation of his own, tracked the theft to the cave, with his mind set on revenge. However, when Hermes gifted a lyre to his older brother, the two made amends and Apollo took his younger brother to Olympus to meet the other gods. Hermes would come to be considered as the herald of the gods, as well as the protector of human heralds, travelers, thieves, merchants, and orators. He was able to move quickly and freely between the worlds of the mortal and the divine, aided by his iconic winged sandals.
The dodecatheon is complete, and Zeus will now turn to the serious business of establishing his rule in perpetuity. Two great thrones face ten smaller ones. A great cheer goes up from the crowd of immortals gathered there to witness this great occasion, Zeus’s supreme moment. He salutes the crowd of pardoned Titans and swooning nymphs massed below. Cyclopes, Gigantes, Meliae, and Oceanids jostle each other to get a good view. Hades and other dark creatures of the underworld bow low. The three hundred hands of the Hecatonchires wave their fierce loyalty. Now, to signify the start of the Reign of the Twelve, Hestia steps down from her throne and sets light to the oil in a great gleaming bowl of beaten copper. A huge cheer rings around the mountain. An eagle flies overhead. Thunder rumbles across the sky. Zeus transfers his gaze one by one to the rest of the Olympians—Hera, Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, and Hermes.