ClassicsGreek MythologyMythology

Common Misconceptions About Greek Mythology

Greek mythology has entwined itself into the modern world, influencing language, stories, and beliefs for centuries. But for all its influence, there’s still a lot that’s misunderstood. Time goes by, stories get retold, and people forget or try to sanitize them for mass appeal (see: pretty much any adaptation of Heracles). That’s fine. New stories and interpretations are valuable in their own right. But I don’t like that we risk losing sight of the originals, which are also valuable. So here are some common misconceptions about Greek mythology, and a brief explanation of them.

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There’s a canon/definitive version of events

We have a really hard time wrapping our heads around this one, and it’s easy to see why. From things like biblical canon to the “real” versions of comic book characters, we’ve basically been trained to latch on to the idea that there’s only one definitive version of something and everything else has to follow it or it’s basically fanfic. Unfortunately, Greek mythology doesn’t work like that at all. It’s a lot more nebulous. While things like the works of Hesiod and Homer were of major importance, people could and often did deviate from the versions of stories within them. There was no sacred canon as we understand it. The deities had clearly defined roles and identities and parentage could easily vary. For example, Typhon was born of Gaia in Hesiod’s works, but the Homeric Hymn to Apollo identifies him as being born of Hera alone.

Zeus is a creator

Zeus is a lot of things. Powerful. Wise. King of the gods. Etc. But one thing he wasn’t, was a creator deity. In Greek mythology, the earth itself, the goddess Gaia, was born of Chaos. Zeus was several generations removed from that. He also wasn’t responsible for creating humans. That was Prometheus and Hephaestus. Prometheus carved men out of clay(Apollodorus) and Hephaestus created the first woman, Pandora, who was then imbued with gifts by the other deities.

Hephaestus made the thunderbolts

It’s easy to see why this one is popular. Hephaestus made a lot of things. He’s the artificer of Olympus, responsible for stunning feats of technology that we still couldn’t replicate today. But he didn’t make the thunderbolts. That was actually the cyclopes, who were technically Zeus’ uncles.

Cyclopses(cyclopes) are monsters

This one is also easy to understand. Cyclopes have a fairly monstrous appearance and the portrayal in pop culture and, to a lesser extent, in the Odyssey, suggests that they’re monsters. They aren’t. People tend to misread this part. Yes, Polyphemus did eat people. But he was also a son of Poseidon and he and his kin were blessed by the gods. The first cyclopes actually played a defining role in the succession myth, being the ones to create Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Centaurs are wise

I blame pop culture(Harry Potter, etc.) for this one. The centaurs of the myths are dangerous and violent. Whereas modern fantasy likes to basically show them as Tolkienian elves with hooves, centaurs were warlike. The perception of wisdom also stems from Chiron, who technically wasn’t a centaur. He was just shaped like one. His lineage was completely different than the species of beings that descended from Ixion.

Titans are evil

We really like contrasts. We like the idea of battles between good vs. evil, with good emerging victorious. So we try to apply that to everything. I think this is why a lot of people consider the Titans as evil. Well, that and pop culture. The reality is that they were just older gods. They were part of the succession myth. The Titanomachy wasn’t about good vs. evil. It was about who would rule the cosmos.

The Kraken is…a thing

The blame for this one falls squarely on Clash of the Titans (release the Kraken!). Krakens are creatures of lore, but they arise much later and in a different area than Greek mythology. While Greek mythology had a giant sea monster, it was not the Kraken. Its name was Cetus. It was more like a big fish than an octopus. But the Kraken imagery is more appealing because octopi are more photogenic.

Hades (or any deity for that matter) is evil

We really latch onto this one because of the good vs. evil dominance in modern storytelling. But that just wasn’t the nature of the gods in Greek mythology.

The underworld was basically hell

No. Just…no. The underworld was exactly what it sounds like: a world underneath. It had topography, geography, etc. Some people were tortured there, but for the overwhelming majority, it was just a dismal reflection of the lives they led on earth.

Athena didn’t have a mother

The issue here is that we usually don’t tell the full story. Athena was born from the head of Zeus. That’s true. But how did she get in there in the first place? Well, funny story. There was this prophecy that the child of Metis, Zeus’ first wife, would be greater than the father. So Zeus tricked her into turning into a fly and then ate her. She didn’t go down easily, though. She decided that, while she was in there, she might as well make some armor for her child. And the clanging gave Zeus a…splitting headache.

Aphrodite is Zeus’ daughter

It makes sense that we think this sometimes. The other Olympians were all directly related to Zeus, either as offspring or as siblings. Aphrodite is the exception. She predates the other Olympians. When Cronus cut off Ouranos’ genitals and cast them into the sea, Aphrodite was born of that.

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