Why has Greek mythology resonated with audiences for thousands of years? Beyond the fantastical appeal of mighty gods and mythical beasts, these stories, as exaggerated as they may seem, capture the essence of what it is to be human.
Of course, the ancient Greeks were all too aware that love and lust are fundamental elements of the human experience and this recognition is abundantly apparent in their myths and religion.
The ancient Greeks passed down many tales of tragically doomed couples, jealous gods, and forbidden lovers that have in turn gone on to inspire future generations of poets, playwrights, painters, and sculptors.
Orpheus and Eurydice
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most tragic tales in Greek mythology. Orpheus of Thrace was the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was renowned for his musical talents with a lyre and fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice.
One day, Eurydice was wandering in the forest with nymphs when the shepherd Aristaeus spotted her. When Eurydice rejected the shepherd’s advances he pursued her and during her efforts to escape she was bitten by a poisonous snake and killed.
Utterly broken by his wife’s death, Orpheus turned to music and moved the gods with his mournful tunes. With the protection of the gods, Orpheus descended into the underworld in search of his wife, managing to bypass both the souls of the dead and the mighty three-headed dog Cerberus, who took a liking to his music.
Orpheus presented himself before Hades – the god of the dead in Greek mythology – and his wife Persephone and greatly moved them with a sorrowful tune. Hades permitted Orpheus to retrieve his wife from the underworld on the condition that he lead her out without turning to look at her.
However, as they ascended from the underworld, Orpheus could not hear Eurydice stepping behind him and grew anxious that the gods had fooled him. He lost his faith and looked behind him. Consequently, Eurydice was returned to the underworld and Orpheus was forced to return without her.
Orpheus could not bear to live without his wife and called for his own death in song. His wish was granted, either by wild beasts who tore him apart, or the Maenads (female followers of Dionysus). In another version, Zeus struck him dead with a lightning bolt.
Pygmalion and Galatea
In one version of the Greek myth, Pygmalion, son of Belus, fell in love with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, lust, pleasure, and procreation. However, Aphrodite refused to sleep with him.
After being rejected, Pygmalion made an ivory image of Aphrodite and laid it on his bed. He prayed to the goddess for pity. Aphrodite answered his prayer and entered the ivory statue breathing life into the statue-turned-woman who would be known as Galatea.
Aphrodite and Adonis
The story of Aphrodite and Adonis is another of Greek mythology’s tragic tales. It begins with the grandmother of Adonis, Cenchreis, who boasted that she was more beautiful than Aphrodite. Infuriated, Aphrodite cursed Cenchreis so that her daughter, Myrrah fell in love with her husband King Theias.
For many nights Myrrah snuck in the dark into the room of Theias where the two made love. Not knowing it was his daughter, Theias lit a lamp one night to discover the identity of his secret lover. Horrified at the sight of Theias, he immediately tried to kill her but she escaped.
Theias fled and discovered she was pregnant. She neither wished to live nor die and so she prayed to the gods to end her suffering. They answered by transforming her into a myrrh tree. A boar happened upon this tree and struck it with his tusks. From the tear in the tree came forth the infant Adonis.
Aphrodite happened to be walking past the tree as Adonis sprung out and gave the baby to Persephone to care for. When Adonis grew to manhood, he was the most handsome man among mortals and gods alike, and both goddesses grew infatuated with him.
Aphrodite and Persephone, who were now embittered over possessing Adonis, took their dispute to Zeus who referred them to the muse Calliope. Zeus, heeding the word of Calliope decreed that Adonis spend four months with Aphrodite and four months with Persephone. The remaining four months of the year could be spent as he wished.
Adonis, who favored Aphrodite spent the additional four months free to him with the goddess of love. In the four months, he spent each year in the underworld with Persephone, plants died and winter blanketed the earth.
Adonis was a keen hunter, which would ultimately prove to be his undoing. He came across a wild boar and despite striking it with his spear, the boar impaled him with its tusks. Aphrodite rushed to rescue him, pricking her toe on a white rose in the process. She was too late and Adonis died. The white rose, stained with the blood of the goddess turned red and is said in Greek mythology to have been the first red rose.
Helen and Paris
Helen and Paris are perhaps the most famous pair of lovers in Greek mythology, although they are far from being the perfect couple. As a reward for favoring Aphrodite in a dispute with her fellow goddesses Hera and Athena, Paris, who is also called Alexander, is granted the most beautiful woman in the world by the goddess.
There is just one problem, Helen was already married to the Spartan king Menelaus. This did not deter Paris, who seduced Helen and whisked her away to Troy where his father Priam ruled as king.
This rash decision brought war upon Troy. Led by Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, the Greeks sailed out to Ilium (Troy) to besiege the city and retrieve Helen.
In Homer’s Iliad, Paris is largely portrayed as a coward. In a duel with Menelaus, he is defeated but saved by Aphrodite. By this time, even Helen despised him but was forced to his bed by Aprhodite. He was constantly scolded by his brother Hector and the other Trojans for failing to show sufficient courage in battle.
Eventually, Paris was killed and in the aftermath of the Trojan War, Helen is returned to her original husband Menelaus.
Odysseus and Penelope
Whereas Helen and Paris offer a rather cynical look at love, the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope was far more admirable and is perhaps one of the happier marriages depicted in Greek mythology.
Odysseus was the king of Ithaca and a hero of the Trojan War. He spent two decades away from his wife Penelope and son Telemachus who remain back home in Ithaca whilst he spends ten years fighting the Trojans and a further ten years struggling to return home.
Whilst Odysseus faced virtually every trial imaginable away from home, Penelope had her own struggles to deal with. As the years pass on, it was assumed that Odysseus is dead and suitors for Penelope’s hand in marriage began to gather in increasing numbers.
Penelope, who remains always loyal to her husband and just as cunning, devised ways to keep the suitors at bay. Her first ruse was to weave a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Weaving by day, she would keep the suitors at bay, but would then unravel her progress at night. By doing this, she was able to delay the suitors by three years.
Odysseus eventually returned home to Ithaca where he entered the palace disguised as a beggar. Penelope suspected that this man was indeed her husband but asked him to answer questions only he would know the answer to. After successfully answering, he kills the suitors and rules beside his wife once more in Ithaca.