Ancient Greece—Heroes and Monsters

Exploits of Perseus to Death of Hercules

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Heroes and Monsters

Greek folklore only begins with the stories of the Greek Gods. The second category of Greek mythology involves human, or semi-human heroes, and a spectacular array of monsters and villains. These hero legends are often associated a specific town or region and may have been loosely based on historical characters, since the aristocratic classes in many Greek cities claimed descent from them. The four most important Greek heroes are Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, and Hercules.

There are elaborate stories detailing the exploits of the four heroes mentioned above, most of which involve fending off some of the most creatively horrible monsters ever imagined. Perseus, for example, needed to capture the head of Medusa, a snake-haired gorgon whose horribly ugly visage turned men instantly into stone. Theseus, a prince of Athens, is most famous for killing the Minotaur, a man-eating half-man, half-bull, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young Athenian.

Jason and the Argonauts met with dozens of adventures on their voyage, including run-ins with fire-breathing bulls, bronze giants wielding gigantic boulders, flying witches who stole food from sailors' mouths, bewitching maidens who lured soldiers to their death, a sorceress who turned men into animals, and a sea-monster who sucked ships into a giant whirlpool.

And all of the monsters so far discussed are just a prelude to the amazing creatures that contended with Hercules, the greatest of the Greek heroes. Lions with impenetrable fur, man-eating horses, a three-headed guard-dog of Hades, birds with metal beaks, serpent-shaped dragons, a multi-headed water monster, and a gigantic rampaging boar, were just a few of the monsters that Hercules was tasked with killing. And beyond these famous champions, are dozens of lesser known heroes such as Bellerophon, the tamer of Pegasus, Atalanta, the huntress, Daedalus, the ingenious craftsman, and Castor and Pollux twin heroes gifted at the arts of Boxing and Wrestling.

Yet even the well-known hero/monster tales so popular with young people of all ages are only one part of the great panoply of Greek folklore. The stories of Greek mythology are rich, complicated, and varied, and they provided the basis for a great deal of the Greek literature of the classical age. Many of the plays of the great Greek tragedians were based on Greek mythological characters and heroes. The story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes who unintentionally killed his father, is the basis for the famous trilogy by Sophocles. The story of the homecoming of Agamemmnon is the subject of the Oresteia tragedy by Aeschylus. The death of Hercules, the murderous jealousy of Jason's wife, the debauchery of Dionysius, and the punishment of Prometheus are just a few other mythological stories that became the subjects of famous Greek playwrights.

A great deal of what we know about Greek mythology comes from the poems, plays, dialogues, and other literary masterpieces of classical Greece. The Gods, heroes, and sorcerers of Greek mythology personified important ideas, virtues, and vices and are still used to symbolize abstract concepts. The story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection gave his name to our word for self-love. The story of Icarus, who flew with waxen feathers too near the sun is a parable of the dangers of hubris. The myth of Echo tells of a talkative nymph who was cursed by Hera to only repeat the words of others.

These and hundreds of other familiar stories are so intertwined with common words and ideas that it is impossible to understand the roots of Western Culture without a good introduction to Greek mythology. The world of Greek folklore, and the extraordinary sophistication and intelligence of the ancient Greeks is an a subject of enormous fascination. From Aesop's Fables, which have delighted children for over 2500 years, to the works of the great Greek Tragedians, which are still studied today, Greek mythology and folklore are as foundational to the study of Western Civilization, as Greek history itself.

Characters—Heroes and Monsters


Demigods—Sons of one god and one Mortal

Hercules (Son of Zeus) Greatest of Greek demigod heroes. Succeeded in twelve labors.
Perseus (Son of Zeus) Legendary hero who killed Medusa, a monster so ugly it turned people to stone.
Theseus (Son of Poseidon) Legendary hero, who killed the Minataur. Ancient King of Athens.
Pollux (Son of Zeus) Prince of Sparta, renowned horseman, boxer, and Argonaut. Twin of Castor (a mortal) and brother of Helen.
Aeneas (Son of Aphrodite) Trojan hero who escapes from the Destroyed city and founds Rome.
Minos (Son of Zeus) King of Crete, patron of Daedalus, and keeper of the Minotaur.

Mortal Heroes

Jason Led a voyage of 'Argonauts' on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece.
Oedipus Solved the mystery of the Sphinx, and became the King of Thebes. Then struck with tragedy.
Bellerophon Hero associated with Corinth, who killed the Chimera and rode the winged horse Pegasus.
Castor Mortal twin of Pollux, prince of Sparta and brother of Helen. Traveled with the Argonauts.
Daedalus renowed craftsman, credited with inventing many ingenious devices, and designing the Labyrinth.
Icarus Son of Daedalus who perished when he flew too near the son with waxen wings crafted by his father.
Meleager Hero who hosted the Calydonian Boar hunt, and was a suitor for Atalanta.
Orpheus renowed musician, famed for leading the Argonauts past the Sirens and rescuing his wife from the Underworld.
Midas Phrygian king who was granted the "Golden Touch", but repented when he turned his daughter to gold.
Eurystheus King of Tiryns, loyal to Hera, who imposes twelve labors on Hercules.

Mortal Heroines

Andromeda Ethiopian princess who is doomed to be sacrificed to a sea-monster, but rescued by Perseus.
Eurydice Wife of Orpheus, the only mortal ever rescued from the underworld.
Antigone Daughter of Oedipus, king of Thebes. Cares for him when he is exiled.
Atalanta Famed huntress who hunted the Calydonian Boar and was involved with Meleager.
Deianeira Third wife of Hercules who accidently kills her husband with the Tunic of Nessus.
Medea Sorceress wife of Jason, who helps him gain the Golden Fleece.
Circe Sorceress daughter of Helios, who enticed sailors with her hospitality and then turned them into animals.
Hippolyta Daughter of Ares and Queen of the Amazons. Possessed a magical girdle.

Partially Human Creatures

Centaurs Half-Man, half horse creatures that are usually prone to rowdy behavior. Chiron, the famous centaur tutor of Achilles, Jason, and Perseus, was exceptionally noble and wise. Nessus was another famous Centaur, known for killing Hercules.
Satyr Half-man, half goat creatures associated with Dionysus and drunkenness. Pan god of shepherds and flocks is the most famous satyr. Silenus, leader of the Satyrs, had the gift of prophesy when drunk.

Recommended Reading—Heroes and Monsters

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the Greeks   Daedalus and Icarus to The Taking of Thebes (8)
Macgregor - The Story of Greece   Danae and Her Little Son to Acrisius Killed by Perseus (4)

Supplemental Recommendations

Lang - The Book of Myths   The Calydonian Hunt to Midas of the Golden Touch (9)
Harding - Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men   The Labors of Heracles to Quest for the Golden Fleece (4)
Morris - Historical Tales: Greek   Voyage of the Argonauts to even Against Thebes (3)
Church - Stories from the Greek Tragedians   The Love of Alcestis to Antigone (5)
Hawthorne - Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys   The Minotaur to The Golden Fleece (2)
Hawthorne - A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys    entire book
Colum - The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Before Achilles    entire book
Kingsley - The Greek Heroes    entire book
Hutchinson - The Golden Porch    entire book

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Greece   Perseus to Theseus (4)
Shaw - Stories of the Ancient Greeks   The Race of Atalanta to How Death Was Conquered (13)
Baldwin - Old Greek Stories   The Quest of Medusa's Head to The Cruel Tribute (6)
Peabody - Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew   Orpheus and Eurydice to Oedipus (6)
Francillon - Gods and Heroes   Orpheus and Eurydice to The Apple of Discord (18)