Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

In the Days of Myths

There was one thing that must have been especially pleasant for the boys and girls who lived in Greece nearly three thousand years ago. It was that so many of their questions were answered by stories. For instance, if a boy asked the name of a mountain that rose far to the northward, his mother would reply, "That is Mount Olympus. On its summit is the most beautiful palace you can imagine. It is made of clouds, white and rosy and golden, and it is the home of Zeus, King of the Gods. He often calls the other gods to come to him; and then they journey from the earth, the water, and the underworld, and meet in the great hall of the palace. There they feast upon ambrosia and nectar, the Muses sing, and Apollo plays on his lyre. By and by, when the sun sets, they pass through the gates of cloud and return to their homes. The sun is a splendid golden chariot. Apollo drives it up the sky every morning and down again every afternoon. It is all ablaze with diamonds, and that is why it dazzles your eyes to look at it."



"I should like to drive it," perhaps the little Greek boy would say; and then his mother would tell him of the time when a boy once tried to drive it, and of what happened to him.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


"He was called the son of Apollo," the story went, "and his name was Phaėthon. One day a playmate was angry with him and cried out, 'You are nobody! You are not Apollo's son!' Phaėthon did not say a word in reply, but went straight to far-away India, and walked boldly into the palace of Apollo. The ceilings were of ivory and the doors of silver. At the farther end of the long room stood a throne, which glittered and gleamed and shone like sunbeams sparkling on the water. On this throne sat the Sun-God himself. He wore a crimson robe, and on his head was a crown made of long rays of golden light that flashed and blazed even more brilliantly than the sun at noonday. Phaėthon walked up the room and stood before the throne. Apollo looked kindly upon him and said, 'Tell me who you are and why you have sought me.' Then the boy told the god about his playmate's declaring that he was no child of Apollo. 'And I have come,' he said, 'to beg that if I really am your son, you will give me some proof.'

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


"Apollo was pleased with the boy's courage. He threw his arms around Phaėthon's neck and said, 'You are my own dear son and to prove it I will give you whatever you ask.' Now, what did the foolish boy ask but permission to drive the fiery chariot for one day. Apollo looked very grave. 'Even the other gods cannot do that,' he said. 'Zeus himself would not attempt it. I beg of you to choose some other gift.' But Phaėthon was bent upon this one thing; and as Apollo had given his word, he had to yield. The headstrong boy sprang into the chariot and seized the reins. The Dawn threw open the eastern gates, all purple and crimson and gold, and the horses galloped up the pathway of the sky.

"Any one can guess what happened. A tempest would have been just as easy for the boy to manage as those fiery steeds. He could not even keep them in the road, and they rushed wildly about in one direction and then in another. The light weight of the driver was nothing to them, and the chariot was tossed about like a ship in a storm. Phaėthon did not dare to look at the earth, it was so far below him. He did not dare to look at the sky, it was so full of monsters: the Great Bear, the Little Bear, the Serpent, and the Scorpion. He dropped the reins, and the horses dashed onward more furiously than ever. The fiery chariot swung near and nearer to the earth. The mountains began to smoke, the rivers tried to hide themselves in the sands, the ocean shrank to a lake, and cities burned to ashes. 'Oh, help me, Father Zeus!' cried the Earth. Then Zeus hurled his thunder bolt at Phaėthon, and he fell from the chariot down into the stream Eridanus. His sisters stood on the bank and wept for him, and by and by they were turned into poplar trees; and even to-day, if you listen to the poplars, you can hear them whispering softly and sadly together of the fate of their lost brother Phaėthon."

So it was that one story grew out of another, until one almost wonders that the story-tellers ever knew where to stop. If children asked who made the thick walls of monstrous stones that were old even in those times, the answer was "The Cyclops"; and then there were stories upon stories of those amazing one-eyed giants. "But where did we ourselves come from a child would sometimes ask; and there was a story about that too. "Once upon a time the people in the world were very wicked," it said, "and Zeus sent a great flood to destroy them. Now Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were good, and so Zeus promised that they should be saved. After the flood had gone and all the other folk had been drowned, Deucalion and Pyrrha were lonely. 'Let us pray the gods to send people upon the earth,' they said; and they made their way to a temple that was still standing. There was no priest, no fire on the altar, and the floor was deep with mud and stones and rubbish that had been washed in by the flood. Through all this Deucalion and Pyrrha pressed forward to the altar and prayed that the earth might once more be peopled. An answer came: 'Depart from the temple and cast behind you the bones of your mother.' 'Profane the remains of our parents!' Pyrrha cries in horror; 'Better be alone forever than do that!' Deucalion was silent, but at last he said thoughtfully, 'The earth is the mother of us all, and the stones might be called her bones. I believe the command means that we must pick up stones and cast them behind us. At any rate, let us try and see what will come of it.' They did this, and soon they were no longer alone, for every stone that Deucalion threw became a man, and every one that Pyrrha threw became a woman. One of the sons of the couple was named Hellen, and we Hellenes are all descended from him. Hellen had two sons and two grandsons. The names of the sons were Ęolus and Dorus, and those of the grandsons were Ion and Achęus. That is why there are four tribes of us,—Ęolians, Dorians, Ionians, and Achęan. Other people are barbarians; their talk is all 'ba-ba,' and no one can understand it."



There were almost as many stories of heroes as of gods. The heroes were men who had done some deed of great bravery. They were usually the sons of a god or goddess and a human being. Almost every little city of Greece had its hero. The favorite of Athens, for instance, was Theseus; and every Athenian child knew the story of his wonderful exploits, and could tell of the old days when every year Athens had to send seven brave youths and seven fair maidens to Crete (see map, p. 172) to be devoured by the Minotaur, a horrible creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. At last, Theseus, the king's son, insisted upon being one of the seven youths; and he left Athens in the ship with black sails that carried the terrified young people to their awful fate. Now Theseus had no idea of being eaten by the Minotaur or any other monster, if sturdy fighting could prevent. He was determined to kill the beast and save his friends or perish; so when the vessel reached Crete and the youths and maidens were brought before the king he stood out in front of them and said: "King Minos, I demand the privilege of meeting the Minotaur first. I am a prince, and it is my right to be the leader of my people." King Minos smiled disagreeably and said: "Go first if you will, and I will see to it that your people follow you; depend upon that."



Theseus was a brave young fighter, and certainly he would never have run away from the monster; but whether he would have been able to kill it without any help is another question. In some way, however, he and the king's beautiful daughter Ariadne had met, and they had fallen in love with each other. Luckily for him, Ariadne knew where to find a sword that in the hands of a valiant man would cut off the Minotaur's ugly head; but there was yet another danger to meet that was even more alarming than an encounter with a monster, and that was the labyrinth which was the home of the Minotaur. It had been made by a most skillful workman named Dędalus, and was so cunningly contrived, with its mazes and windings and turns and twists, that no one who was once within it could ever find his way out. Not even a magic weapon would be of service here; but Ariadne's own bright wits were better than any sword. "Do you hold fast one end of this silken cord," she said to Theseus, "and I will hold the ball as it unwinds. Then when you turn to come back, wind the little cord, and it will lead you straight to me." It all came about as she had said. Theseus killed the monster, then he followed the silken clue till it brought him again to Ariadne. He and the princess and the Athenian youths and maidens sailed away quickly for Athens; and never again did the Athenians pay such a terrible tribute.

Theseus and Minotaur


Minos himself, even though he kept so dreadful a creature as the Minotaur and took the lives of happy boys and girls for its food, was one of the heroes of the Greeks; and they had many legends of the wise laws that he made. They told stories, too, of the danger that sailors used to be in from the pirates, and of how completely King Minos had suppressed them. "He was a mighty king," they would say, "and so just that it is no wonder that after he died he was made one of the judges of the underworld."

King Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. There was a story that when Europa was a little girl she went one day to play in a meadow bright with flowers. A beautiful white bull appeared, and at first she was frightened; but he was so gentle and playful that she forgot her fear. She hung wreaths of flowers about his neck, and finally climbed upon his back. Suddenly he turned about, galloped down to the shore, and dashed into the water. He swam far away to the island of Crete. Then he took his own form, and little Europa found that she had been playing with King of the Gods, and that he had stolen her away and carried her to this island far over the sea because he loved her so much.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Another hero fully as famous as Theseus was named Œdipus. He lived in Thebes, and just outside of Thebes was a monster quite as horrible as the Minotaur. It was called the Sphinx. It had a woman's head and a lion's body. It lay on a high rock beside the road, and whenever it caught sight of a traveler, it did not come out for a fair fight, but gave him a riddle, and if he could not guess it, then the creature sprang down upon him and devoured him. The riddle was, "What animal is that which in the morning goes upon four feet, at noon upon two, and in the evening upon three?" No one had ever guessed it; but when Œdipus heard it, he answered quietly, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age walks with the aid of a staff." The Sphinx was so angry because the riddle had been guessed that it threw itself down from the rock and perished.

Perhaps the most famous of all the Grecian heroes was Heracles, who began to be a hero when he was only a baby of eight months. Two fierce serpents were sent by one of the goddesses to destroy him; but the baby stretched his little arms over the aides of his cradle, seized a snake in each hand, and so squeezed them to death. That was enough to make a legend of, but it was only the smallest of this hero's exploits. One day a command came to him from Zeus, "Go to King Eurystheus and for twelve years obey whatever orders he may give you." Now Eurystheus was an enemy of Heracles, and even so stout-hearted a hero might well have trembled at being in his power for twelve long years. Heracles, however, set out boldly for the kingdom of Eurystheus. He was well armed, for he was a favorite with the gods, and several of them had given him presents. Apollo had sent him a bow and Hermes a sword. Hephęstos, the lame god who could make all sorts of wonderful things of metal, had made him a golden breastplate. Poseidon, ruler of the ocean world, had given him a pair of horses; and Athene, goddess of wisdom and the most skillful weaver in the world, had woven him a robe. He soon reached Mycenę, and told King Eurystheus that he was ready to obey his will. Eurystheus knew that his kingdom belonged of right to Heracles, and he sent him on the most dangerous adventures he could hear of, hoping that on some one of them he would be slain. First of all he said: "Go out into the Nemean forest and kill the monstrous lion that is ravaging my country." Heracles set out for the forest, and soon returned with the skin of the lion on his shoulders. The king was so astonished to find that he had such strength, and so afraid Heracles would use it against him, that he had a little room dug underground for a refuge, and covered the walls with heavy plates of brass

He sent Heracles on other adventures, thinking each time that he had seen the last of him; and when the people began to cry, "The hero is coming, King Eurystheus! Heracles is almost here!" the frightened monarch would slip away to hide in his underground chamber. Twelve exploits, or labors, he demanded of Heracles; but at last they were completed. The hero had captured a stag with golden horns, a savage boar, and a furious wild bull, and dragged them to the gates of Mycenę. He had killed all sorts of monsters, one with six legs, and another with nine heads, every one of which had a way of growing out double if any one cut it off; and he had brought up from the under-world a three-headed dog with a dragon tail, to say nothing of such feats as killing a flock of savage birds that ate men and beasts, over-coming the Old Man of the Sea, and holding up the sky for a while that Atlas, whose business this was, might bring him some golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. Surely, he well earned the reward given him by Zeus, to be carried to the heavens and placed among the gods.



Eurystheus pursued the children of Heracles and drove them out of the kingdom. He even made war upon Athens because that city had received them. He was slain in this war; and then the kingdom belonged to Hyllus, eldest son of Heracles; that is, it would belong to him if he could take it. It seemed as if there would have to be a great deal of hard fighting before the matter was settled; but finally both sides agreed that Hyllus and the champion among his enemies should meet in single combat. If Hyllus won, he was to have the kingdom; but if the champion won, Hyllus and his friends must wait for a hundred years before trying again to seize the crown. All the men on both sides stood watching eagerly; but soon the sons of Heracles were sad enough, for Hyllus was slain. They kept their promise, and neither they nor their children nor their grandchildren made any attempt to seize the kingdom. At last, however, the hundred years had come to an end, and the three great-great-grandsons of Heracles, or the Heraclidę as they were called, set out with their friends to regain the lands that belonged to their family. This time they were successful, and their expedition is called the Return of the Heraclidę.


In early Greece many questions of children were answered by stories. Some of the stories were:—

  • The Home of the King of the Gods.
  • Phaėthon and the Chariot of the Sun-God.
  • The Cyclopean Walls.
  • Deucalion and Pyrrha.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur.
  • Europa and the White Bull.
  • Œdipus and the Sphinx.
  • Heracles and his Twelve Labors.

Suggestions For Written Work

One of the poplar trees by Eridanus tells a child the story Phaėthon.

Europa tells about her playing with the white bull.

Write a story of some one of Heracles's exploits.