Greek Gods and Heroes

Robert Graves



  1. The Palace of Olympus

  2. Other Gods and Goddesses

  3. Demeter’s Lost Daughter

  4. The Titans

  5. The Underworld of Tartarus

  6. The Birth of Hermes

  7. Orpheus

  8. Deucalion’s Flood

  9. Orion

  10. Asclepius

  11. King Midas’s Ears

  12. Melampus and Phylacus

  13. Europa and Cadmus

  14. Daedalus

  15. Bellerophon

  16. Theseus

  17. Sisyphus

  18. The Labours of Heracles

  19. The Giants’ Rebellion

  20. Two Other Rebellions

  21. Jason and the Golden Fleece

  22. Alcestis

  23. Perseus

  24. The Hunt of the Calydonian Boar

  25. The Beef-eating Contest

  26. The Seven Against Thebes

  27. The End of the Olympians


Almost all arts and useful sciences were given us by the ancient Greeks: such as astronomy, mathematics, engineering, architecture, medicine, money, literature, and law. Even modern scientific language is mostly formed from Greek words. They were the first people in Europe to write books, and two long poems by Homer—about the siege of Troy and the adventures of Odysseus—are still read with pleasure though he lived more than seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. After Homer came Hesiod, who wrote among other things about gods, and fighting men, and the Creation. The Greeks greatly respected Homer and Hesiod, and the stories (now called “myths”) which they and other poets told, became part of school education not only in Greece, but wherever the Greek language had spread—from Western Asia to North Africa and Spain.

Rome conquered Greece about one hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ, but the Romans admired Greek poetry so much that they went on reading it even after becoming Christians. Roman school education spread all over Europe and, in the end, was brought without much change from England to America. Every educated person had to know the Greek myths almost as well as he knew the Bible, if only because the Greek map of the night sky, still used by astronomers, was a picture book of myths. Groups of stars made outlines of people and animals mentioned in them: heroes such as Heracles and Perseus, the Winged Horse Pegasus, beautiful Andromeda, the Serpent who nearly ate her, Orion the Hunter, Cheiron the Centaur, the stern of the Argo, the Ram of the Golden Fleece, and so on.

These myths are not solemn, like Bible stories. The notion that there could be only one God and no goddesses did not please the Greeks, who were a gifted, quarrelsome, humorous race. They thought of Heaven as ruled by a divine family rather like any rich human family on earth, but immortal and all-powerful; and used to poke fun at them at the same time as offering them sacrifices. In remote European villages even today, where a rich man owns most of the land and houses, much the same thing happens. Every villager is polite to the landlord and pays rent regularly. But behind his back he will often say: ‘What a proud, violent, hasty-tempered fellow! How he ill-treats his wife, and how she nags at him! As for their children: they are a bad bunch! That pretty daughter is crazy about men and doesn’t care how she behaves; that son in the Army is a bully and a coward; and the one who acts as his father’s agent and looks after the cattle is far too smooth-tongued to be trusted… Why, the other day I heard a story…’

That was just how the Greeks spoke of their god Zeus, his wife Hera, his son Ares the War-god, his daughter Aphrodite, his other son Hermes, and the rest of the quarrelsome family. The Romans knew them by different names: ‘Jupiter’ instead of Zeus; ‘Mars’ instead of Ares; ‘Venus’ instead of Aphrodite; ‘Mercury’ instead of Hermes—which are now the names of planets. The fighting men, most of whom claimed to be sons of gods by human mothers, were ancient Greek kings whose adventures the poets repeated to please their proud descendants.







The twelve most important gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, called the Olympians, belonged to the same large, quarrelsome family. Though thinking little of the smaller, old-fashioned gods over whom they ruled, they thought even less of mortals. All the Olympians lived together in an enormous palace, set well above the usual level of clouds at the top of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Great walls, too steep for climbing, protected the Palace. The Olympians’ masons, gigantic one-eyed Cyclopes, had built them on much the same plan as royal palaces on earth.

At the southern end, just behind the Council Hall, and looking towards the famous Greek cities of Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Mycenae, were the private apartments of King Zeus, the Father-god, and Queen Hera, the Mother-goddess. The northern end of the Palace, looking across the valley of Tempe towards the wild hills of Macedonia, consisted of the kitchen, banqueting hall, armoury, workshops, and servants’ quarters. In between came a square court, open to the sky, with covered cloisters and private rooms on each side, belonging to the other five Olympian gods and the other five Olympian goddesses. Beyond the kitchen and servants’ quarters stood cottages for smaller gods, sheds for chariots, stables for horses, kennels for hounds, and a sort of zoo where the Olympians kept their sacred animals. These included a bear, a lion, a peacock, an eagle, tigers, stags, a cow, a crane, snakes, a wild boar, white bulls, a wild cat, mice, swans, herons, an owl, a tortoise, and a tank full of fish.

In the Council Hall the Olympians met at times to discuss mortal affairs—such as which army on earth should be allowed to win a war, and whether they ought to punish some king or queen who had been behaving proudly or disgustingly. But for the most part they were too busy with their own quarrels and lawsuits to take much notice of mortal affairs.

King Zeus had an enormous throne of polished black Egyptian marble, decorated in gold. Seven steps led up to it, each of them enamelled with one of the seven colours of the rainbow. A bright blue covering above showed that the whole sky belonged to Zeus alone; and on the right arm of his throne perched a ruby-eyed golden eagle clutching jagged strips of pure tin, which meant that Zeus could kill whatever enemies he pleased by throwing a thunderbolt of forked lightning at them. A purple ram’s fleece covered the cold seat. Zeus used it for magical rainmaking in times of drought. He was a strong, brave, stupid, noisy, violent, conceited god, and always on the watch lest his family should try to get rid of him; having once himself got rid of his wicked, idle, cannibalistic father Cronus, King of the Titans and Titanesses. The Olympians could not die, but Zeus, with the help of his two elder brothers, Hades and Poseidon, had banished Cronus to a distant island in the Atlantic—perhaps the Azores, perhaps Torrey Island, off the coast of Ireland. Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon then drew lots for the three parts of Cronus’s kingdom. Zeus won the sky; Poseidon, the sea; Hades, the Underworld; they shared the earth between them. One of Zeus’s emblems was the eagle, another was the woodpecker.

Cronus managed at last to escape from the island in a small boat and, changing his name to Saturn, settled quietly among the Italians, and behaved very well. In fact, until Zeus discovered his escape and banished him again, Saturn’s reign was known as the Golden Age. Mortals in Italy lived without work or trouble, eating only acorns, wild fruit, honey, and pig-nuts, and drinking only milk or water. They never fought wars, and spent their days dancing and singing.

Queen Hera had an ivory throne, with three crystal steps leading up to it. Golden cuckoos and willow leaves decorated the back, and a full moon hung above it. Hera sat on a white cowskin, which she sometimes used for rainmaking magic if Zeus could not be bothered to stop a drought. She disliked being Zeus’s wife, because he was frequently marrying mortal women and saying, with a sneer, that these marriages did not count—his brides would soon grow ugly and die; but she was his Queen, and perpetually young and beautiful.

When first asked to marry him, Hera had refused; and had gone on refusing every year for three hundred years. But one springtime Zeus disguised himself as a poor cuckoo caught in a thunderstorm, and tapped at her window. Hera, not seeing through his disguise, let the cuckoo in, stroked his wet feathers, and whispered: ‘Poor bird, I love you.’ At once, Zeus changed back again into his true shape, and said: ‘Now you must marry me!’ After this, however badly Zeus behaved, Hera felt obliged to set a good example to gods and goddesses and mortals, as the Mother of Heaven. Her emblem was the cow, the most motherly of animals; but, not wishing to be thought as plain-looking and placid as a cow, she also used the peacock and the lion.

These two thrones faced down the Council Hall towards the door leading into the open courtyard. Along the sides of the hall stood ten other thrones—for five goddesses on Hera’s side, for five gods on Zeus’s.

Poseidon, god of the seas and rivers, had the second-largest throne. It was of grey-green white-streaked marble, ornamented with coral, gold, and mother-of-pearl. The arms were carved in the shape of sea-beasts, and Poseidon sat on sealskin. For his help in banishing Cronus and the Titans, Zeus had married him to Amphitrite, the former Sea-goddess, and allowed him to take over all her titles. Though Poseidon hated to be less important than his younger brother, and always went about scowling, he feared Zeus’s thunderbolt. His only weapon was a trident, with which he could stir up the sea and so wreck ships; but Zeus never travelled by ship. When Poseidon felt even crosser than usual, he would drive away in his chariot to a palace under the waves, near the island of Euboea, and there let his rage cool. As his emblem Poseidon chose the horse, an animal which he pretended to have created. Large waves are still called ‘white horses’ because of this.

Opposite Poseidon sat his sister Demeter, goddess of all useful fruits, grasses, and grains. Her throne of bright green malachite was ornamented with ears of barley in gold, and little golden pigs for luck. Demeter seldom smiled, except when her daughter Persephone—unhappily married to the hateful Hades, God of the Dead—came to visit her once a year. Demeter had been rather wild as a girl, and nobody could remember the name of Persephone’s father: probably some country god married for a drunken joke at a harvest festival. Demeter’s emblem was the poppy, which grows red as blood among the barley.

Next to Poseidon sat Hephaestus, a son of Zeus and Hera. Being the god of goldsmiths, jewellers, blacksmiths, masons, and carpenters, he had built all these thrones himself, and made his own a masterpiece of every different metal and precious stone to be found. The seat could swivel about, the arms could move up and down, and the whole throne rolled along automatically wherever he wished, like the three-legged golden tables in his workshop. Hephaestus had hobbled ever since birth, when Zeus roared at Hera: ‘A brat as weak as this is unworthy of me!’—and threw him far out over the walls of Olympus. In his fall Hephaestus broke a leg so badly that he had to wear a golden leg-iron. He kept a country house on Lemnos, the island where he had struck earth; and his emblem was the quail, a bird that does a hobbling dance in springtime.

Opposite Hephaestus sat Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, who first taught him how to handle tools, and knew more than anyone else about pottery, weaving, and all useful arts. Her silver throne had golden basketwork at the back and sides, and a crown of violets, made from blue lapis lazuli, set above it. Its arms ended in grinning Gorgons’ heads. Athene, wise though she was, did not know the names of her parents. Poseidon claimed her as his daughter by a marriage with an African goddess called Libya. It is true that, as a child, she had been found wandering in a goatskin by the shores of a Libyan lake; but rather than admit herself the daughter of Poseidon, whom she thought very stupid, she allowed Zeus to pretend she was his. Zeus announced that one day, overcome by a fearful headache, he had howled aloud like a thousand wolves hunting in a pack. Hephaestus, he said, then ran up with an axe and kindly split open his skull, and out sprang Athene, dressed in full armour. Athene was also a Battle-goddess, yet never went to war unless forced—being too sensible to pick quarrels—and when she fought, always won. She chose the wise owl as her emblem; and had a town house at Athens.

Next to Athene sat Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. Nobody knew who her parents were, either. The South Wind said that he had once seen her floating in a scallop shell off the island of Cythera, and steered her gently ashore. She may have been a daughter of Amphitrite by a smaller god named Triton, who used to blow roaring blasts on a conch, or perhaps by old Cronus. Amphitrite refused to say a word on the subject. Aphrodite’s throne was silver, inlaid with beryls and aquamarines, the back shaped like a scallop shell, the seat made of swan’s down, and under her feet lay a golden mat—an embroidery of golden bees, apples, and sparrows. Aphrodite had a magic girdle, which she would wear whenever she wanted to make anyone love her madly. To keep Aphrodite out of mischief, Zeus decided that she needed a hard-working, decent husband; and naturally chose his son Hephaestus. Hephaestus exclaimed: ‘Now I am the happiest god alive!’ But she thought it disgraceful to be the wife of a sooty-faced, horny-handed, crippled smith and insisted on having a bedroom of her own. Aphrodite’s emblem was the dove, and she would visit Paphos, in Cyprus, once a year to swim in the sea, for good luck.

Opposite Aphrodite sat Ares, Hephaestus’s tall, handsome, boastful, cruel brother, who loved fighting for its own sake. Ares and Aphrodite were continually holding hands and giggling in corners, which made Hephaestus jealous. Yet if he ever complained to the Council, Zeus would laugh at him, saying: ‘Fool, why did you give your wife that magic girdle? Can you blame your brother if he falls in love with her when she wears it?’ Ares’s throne was built of brass, strong and ugly—those huge brass knobs in the shape of skulls, and that cushion-cover of human skin! Ares had no manners, no learning, and the worst of taste; yet Aphrodite thought him wonderful. His emblems were a wild boar and a bloodstained spear. He kept a country house among the rough woods of Thrace.

Next to Ares sat Apollo, the god of music, poetry, medicine, archery, and young unmarried men—Zeus’s son by Leto, one of the smaller goddesses, whom he married to annoy Hera. Apollo rebelled against his father once or twice, but got well punished each time, and learned to behave more sensibly. His highly polished golden throne had magical inscriptions carved all over it, a back shaped like a lyre, and a python skin to sit on. Above hung a golden sundisk with twenty-one rays shaped like arrows, because he pretended to manage the sun. Apollo’s emblem was a mouse; mice were supposed to know the secrets of earth, and tell them to him. (He preferred white mice to ordinary ones; most boys still do.) Apollo owned a splendid house at Delphi on the top of Mount Parnassus, built around the famous oracle which he stole from Mother Earth, Zeus’s grandmother.