Worldbuilding Wednesday 11/22/23: Myths of Ancient Greece

Jupiter and Thetis

Jupiter and Thetis, by Dominique Ingres (1811)

Pretty much all fantasy writers are familiar with Greek myths, or they should be: they’re one of the unfailing constants of Western Culture. The Iliad, which told of the fall of Troy (and the Trojan horse.) The Odyssey, about the hero Odysseus’s epic journey to find his way home. Theseus and the Minotaur, Icarus who flew too close to the sun, Pandora’s Box… these are but a few.

What’s little known, however, is that the contents of these myths varied from age to age, teller to teller, sprouting countless variations like the heads on a Greek hydra (another myth.) For example, in one myth the gods Athena and Poseidon were rivals to rename the city of Cecropolis in their own honor, depending on whose gift was more valuable to the citizenry. Of course Athena won, which is why the city is called Athens, but whether she won because Poseidon’s gift of a spring was too salty (in one version) or her gift of an olive tree proved more useful than a horse (another version) depends on the teller.

Modern takes on Greek myth lean on snappy teen comedy (The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan) or ignore the source material entirely (Disney’s 1997 animated movie Hercules, which didn’t even touch on the Twelve Labors, sacrilege!) Of course, there are other writers who get it right, like The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

A word on the painting above. It depicts a scene from The Iliad in which the nymph Thetis begs Zeus, her ex-lover, to protect their half-divine offspring Achilles in the war. It’s right-out wacky, which is why I love it: Ingres’ anatomical liberties taken with both figures, the way Zeus rests his left arm so casually on a cloud, the way Thetis is playing coochy-coochy-coo with his beard and mouth like he’s a big baby she’s trying to make smile. It’s absolutely delightful.

Need to a pull a never-before-documented Greek myth out of your hat? Here’s a few.


Unknown Myths of Ancient Greece

Aristotle and the Tale of the False Yolk

Amphitrite and the Unwanted Brazier

Theseus and the Wise Woman

Ares and the Gift of Cheese

Poseidon’s Olive Press

The Harp of Eris

Orion the Hunter and the Champions of Thebes

The Swineherd of Athens

Ariadne and the Spirited Stitch

Zeus and the Divine Egg

Dionysus and the Wayward Wine

Hades and the She-Goat

The Taming of the Hippalectron *

The Hundred Puzzles of Chiron the Boatman

How Hephaestus Found the Pearls of Charybdis

How Suffering Came to the Aegean Sea

The Judgement of Samothrace

Asclepius and the Surgeon of Knossos

The Boxer of Ithaca

The Ruby Pomegranate

Sisyphus and the Curse-Tablet

Chronos Punishes the Historians

Odysseus and the Poets of Lesbos

The Horns of Byblos

How Hermes Cut Oceanus’s Beard

Circe and the Golden Bow

The Plight of Arachne and the Oarsmen

Heracles and the Oathbreakers

Artemis and the Swineherds

Ares and the Captives of Troy

How Daedulus Multiplied the Olives

King Midas and the Linen Inventory

Hebe and the Loose Helmet

Plutarch and the Perfect Robe

* A hippalectron is a mythical half horse, half rooster creature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.