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Fantasy Influences: Ancient Greek Mythology – Part One

When we think of typical fantasy, we tend to imagine a setting influenced by western medieval ideas, complete with knights, horses, longswords and dragons. However, there are much deeper, older roots to the magic, monsters, tropes and archetypes that dominate the fantasy genre. Classical, Celtic, and Norse mythology, among others, have all had a huge impact on the stories and worlds that we are familiar with. In this article series, I’ll be exploring the influence of Ancient Greek mythology in particular.

The Hero and His Quest

Jason And The Argonauts by gordototeA hero is called, perhaps by a higher power, perhaps by chance, or due to their ancestry or position in life. They fight their way through many tasks and trials on the route to victory, sometimes picking up or losing companions along the way. Eventually they succeed, and are rewarded with fame, sex, or riches, hopefully all three. Sound familiar?

The quest story is as old as civilisation (if you aren’t already sick of hearing about it, see: the monomyth), but it is the Greek heroes who seem to have had the biggest impact on what we in the west think of as a hero. There’s Jason, of Argonauts fame. There’s Odysseus, the wily, resourceful hero. There’s Perseus, the guy who killed Medusa, then fought a sea monster and saved a princess on the way home. Perseus is the inspiration behind the modern twist on Greek mythology found in the Percy Jackson series.

Theseus: The Just Hero (and General Do Gooder)

Theseus and the Minotaur by kolokasThen there’s Theseus, the hero who killed the Minotaur that lurked at the centre of King Minos’ labyrinth. Theseus found his way out of the maze thanks to the priestess (and princess) Ariadne and her ball of thread. In Ursula le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea series), the wizard Ged enters the labyrinth of tombs and becomes lost inside. It is only with the priestess Arha’s help that he escapes. In this story, too, there is something extremely sinister at the heart of the maze. All labyrinths in stories owe a debt to the Theseus myth, as does the word ‘labyrinth’ (to mean maze) itself.

Theseus is also famous for being a just hero who couldn’t stand to see his people suffer. When King Minos’ men drew lots to see which of the Athenian youths would be taken as tribute, Theseus deliberately put himself forward in place of another. The youths were then taken to Knossos to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. In Mary Renault’s re-telling of this, The King Must Die, the youths are forced to perform in the bull-leaping arena for the amusement of King Minos and the Cretan elite. This is likely to be the real inspiration behind the myth.

In fantasy, too, heroes will often give themselves up to face danger in place of those who are weaker. A good example that seems to be drawn straight from the Theseus myth is The Hunger Games, in which Katniss puts herself forward in place of her sister. In this, the youths are also forced to perform in deadly-dangerous games for the amusement of the rulers.

Heracles: The Tortured Hero

Hercules vs Hydra by ~KENBARTHELMEYHeracles is probably the best known Greek hero. He completed twelve seemingly impossible tasks before being admitted to Olympus as a god. He is also a surprisingly dark hero. He was tricked by Hera into murdering his children. Wrestling with the enormous weight of this guilt, it was to absolve himself that he took on his famous twelve tasks. This tortured hero archetype, the man or woman spurred to action through the loss of loved ones, has been common in fantasy over the years.

The Chosen One

Prophecy is a common theme in fantasy. A hero is often raised above all others by the designs of fate. A prophecy tends to be introduced in one of the early books in a series, leaving fans to speculate and theorise about what it might imply. This is because prophecies are usually cryptic, and will rarely turn out to mean quite what we expected. The prophecy in the Harry Potter series could have referred to Neville Longbottom as much as to Harry, but in choosing to kill Harry, and marking him in the process, Voldemort unknowingly created his own nemesis. In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, a cryptic prophecy concerning the reincarnation of the hero Azor Ahai has had fans guessing and second-guessing for years. Prophecies are never simple.

This idea comes straight from ancient mythology. Greek heroes would almost always have a prophecy attached to them. Zeus knew that Thetis’ son would be a mighty hero, so he married her to a mortal, Peleus, in order to limit the boy’s power. The result was Achilles. Achilles knew he would die at Troy, but that he would achieve everlasting fame. When Jason arrived at Pelias’ palace with one sandal missing, Pelias knew this was the man who would overthrow him.

Priestess of Delphi by John CollierIn fact, prophecy was something of a badge of hero-ship; all good heroes had one, and all aspiring leaders wanted one. Greek tyrants would sometimes attach prophecies to their name in an attempt to legitimise their reign.

Prophecies are also problematic in Greek myth. A prophecy tends to be cryptic or to hold a double meaning, and they can be self-fulfilling. Sometimes in trying to stave off the prophesied outcome, the person only brings it closer. Oedipus’ parents learned this when they abandoned their baby, knowing he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. However, Oedipus was found and given to the childless rulers of another city. When he grew up, he travelled to Thebes and did indeed murder his father and marry his mother.

There is a famous story involving King Croesus, who consulted Delphi to determine whether he should invade Persia. The reply was that if he crossed the river a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus attacked, but the opposing side was victorious and it was his own empire that was destroyed. Oops!

According to Herodotus, the Delphic Oracle advised the people of Athens to trust in their wooden walls to protect them from a Persian attack. To some, the meaning seemed obvious; hide inside the city and trust its defences. Themistocles claimed that ‘wooden walls’ must mean ships. The city fought a naval battle at Salamis and won. The lesson: prophecies can be twisted to mean just about anything.

So that’s the hero and the quest taken care of. But what kind of trials can he or she expect to face on the quest, and will they receive any help along the way?

Monsters and Beasts

Pegasus by RHADSMost importantly, there will be monsters. For the Greeks it was mythical beasts: cyclopes, sea monsters and gorgons; for fantasy heroes it’s orcs, goblins, trolls, giants, giant spiders, giant snakes, giant scorpions, and… giant anything. From Shelob to Gwythaints, monsters are everywhere.

Many creatures from Greek mythology have become common staples of fantasy today. Usually these begin as a single, unique being in the myths, but are transformed into whole new species by fantasy authors and game-designers. Pegasus, a flying horse who was born from Medusa’s head and ridden by the hero Bellerophon, has become a species of flying horse called pegasi. The Chimaera, – part-goat, part-lion, part-snake – the monster Bellerophon slew, has given its name to all manner of strange amalgamations of beasts. The Minotaur was a one-off creature formed by the union of a bull and a woman (using a fake-cow contraption, designed by Daedalus to lure the unsuspecting horny beast), which, largely because of Dungeons and Dragons, has become a fairly common monster type.

The Riddling Sphinx

Serra Sphinx by Daren BaderThe Sphinx made its way to Greek myth via Egypt. The Greek Sphinx was a lion with a woman’s head and chest, and an eagle’s wings, which, in the myth of Oedipus, asked riddles of passersby. If they answered wrongly, they were eaten. Oedipus solved the riddle, defeating the creature and freeing the city of Thebes from its reign of terror.

Sphinxes have found their way into many stories, and riddles as a means of gaining entry or obtaining information (usually with the threat of death if answered incorrectly) are a very common element of both fantasy and fairytales. Perhaps the most well known example comes from The Hobbit, in which Gollum poses a set of riddles to Bilbo, hoping to eat him when he fails. The Sphinx’s specific riddle – what walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening? – also makes regular appearances in fantasy. It can be found in a range of stories as diverse as the Discworld series (Pyramids), Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, and Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask. In Michael Ende’s original novel The Neverending Story, the first gate to the Southern Oracle is guarded by two sphinxes that pour forth all the riddles of the world from their eyes. This paralyses those who pass, forcing them into the impossible task of solving all the riddles and so leading to their death.

Centaurs

Centaur by CG-WarriorA discussion on Greek mythological beasts could not be complete without mentioning centaurs. Centaurs are often rather noble creatures in fantasy (Narnia and Harry Potter in particular), but in the myths they were animalistic, barbaric, rowdy, and a general embarrassment. They were the kind of wedding guest who drank too much wine, smashed all the plates, and made off with the bride at the end of the night. The Percy Jackson series has reclaimed a little of the original centaur spirit with its ‘Party Ponies.’

Greek mythology can boast an intimidating number of monsters and weird creatures, most of which have been picked up by Dungeons and Dragons or other early fantasy trend-setters. Re-animated skeletons, one-eyed giants, living statues, maenads, gorgons, three-headed dogs, nymphs and dryads, satyrs (fauns), harpies, furies, hydras, Titans, tritons, and even werewolves, have all graced fantasy’s pages and screens.

The Evil Sorceress

Greek heroes, like fantasy heroes, also commonly faced evil sorcerers, who were almost always women. In the Ancient Greek Odyssey, the sorceress Circe transformed Odysseus’ men into pigs. In the 1988 film Willow, the evil sorceress Bavmorda also gets pig-happy.

Jealous Circe by John WaterhouseJason (of the Argonauts) was aided in his quest by Medea, a powerful sorceress who turned against her own family out of love for him. When Jason broke his promises to her, she sought revenge by murdering their children. She has great power, but she is frightening, irrational and emotional, and so is ultimately a liability to the hero. Other sorceresses fair no better in Greek myth. Circe was unpredictable and cruel until ‘tamed’ by Odysseus. Calypso kept Odysseus on her island against his will, putting her emotions above his quest until the gods forced her to let him go. In Greek mythology, magic is often dangerous, unpredictable and evil, and is almost always wielded by women, reflecting a strongly patriarchal society’s fear of powerful women. Even the Greek deity associated with magic, Hecate, is a woman.

This tendency to write powerful, magical sorceresses as evil at worst and petty or inscrutable at best is a common theme that has run through mythology, fairytales and fantasy. In contrast, when separated by gender, male magic is often bookish, procedural and more controlled. This cliché is deliberately highlighted in the Discworld series and the Earthsea series, in which the male wizards consider women’s magic to be irrational and worrisome. Although society and ideology has changed since the days of the Ancient Greeks, the influence of Circe and Medea can still be seen in the powerful sorceresses of many fictional worlds: Serret (A Wizard of Earthsea), Queen Achren (The Book of Three), Morgan(na) le Fay (any story based on the Arthur/Merlin myth), The Witch Queen (Stardust), Queen Jadis/The White Witch (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) Melisandre (A Song of Ice and Fire series), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), and the witches from The Black Jewels series, to name just a few.

Next time: what help does the hero have on his journey? Greek mythology’s influence on magical items, rings of power, gods, the hero’s aristeia, the fatal flaw, and more.

This article was originally posted on August 25, 2012.

Title image by GENZOMAN.

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21 Comments

  1. Avatar Kate says:

    A great and inspiring post. It just goes to show how such deeply rooted themes and motifs can be used time and time again, and still come out as something new and fascinating.

    I bet I’m not the only reader/writer/fan geek whose love of fantasy started with a fascination with myths and legends.

  2. Avatar In Space Music says:

    I always spent my half an hοuг tο
    reaԁ this ωeb ѕite’s posts all the time along with a cup of coffee.

  3. Avatar Steven Poore says:

    Excellent – all the Classical tropes well described (except perhaps Achilles, though I expect he’ll be along in the next article…).

    For anybody interested in some of the post-Trojan Greek history (rather than mythology), go look at Tom Holland’s wonderful Persian Fire. And for an example of how history and myth alike can be combined into fresh fantasy, go see Paul Kearney’s recent trilogy that begins with The Ten Thousand.

  4. Avatar wolfking says:

    Loved it. Fantastic.

  5. Avatar Dan H says:

    Absolutely love this. Can’t wait for the next one. ;o)

  6. Avatar Linda says:

    Fascinating insight into greek mytholgy and how it has influenced fantasy over the centuries. Excellent read. Look forward to more.

  7. “The Sphinx made its way to Greek myth via Egypt”

    This is the only error in the article. The icon with a human head and a lion’s body was found all over the eastern Mediterranean in the bronze age, and “sphinx” is actually the Greek word, related to the Oedipus legend. When Greek tourists first saw the Giza statue, they noticed the similarity and called it the Sphinx, a name that wasn’t used by the Egyptians.

    Otherwise, an excellent article. As a classics graduate, I love Greek mythology, although I’ve mostly only used it directly in my writing in a light-hearted way.

  8. Avatar Sya says:

    Nice article. I haven’t been reading any fantasy novels in the past few months due to time constraint. Reading this article reminds me again why I love those wide ranges of mythologies. They’re simply fascinating, period.

  9. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Really excellent!

  10. Avatar AMos says:

    Seems a little too reductionist. We can claim, as you do, that Greek mythology inspired Roman, and through the latter both inspired certain Western traditions, but I’m not even sure we can trace hero types back to Greek mythology, as you do, without also acknowledging that the Greeks did not invent those types.

    There are many traditions who have a Heraclean figure, for example; or a Thesean figure; or a prophesy that is as tragic as it is ineluctable; and so on for magical female antagonists, mythical monsters, etc. Many of these traditions existed before the Greek mythos was codified; some existed simultaneously, or came after, without any contact with Greek or Roman stories.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that the Greeks gave life to certain archetypes that we see again and again, and that, as the Western world is the inheritor of so many things Greek, these were passed down to us. But they didn’t invent them.

  11. Avatar B says:

    Thank you for not calling Heracles “Hercules” (his Roman name, and yet show after show set in Greece calls him by it).

  12. Avatar B says:

    The noble depiction of centaurs comes from the Greek centaur Cheiron, who was uniquely wise and a mentor to heroes, skilled in medicine and astrology. As a son of Cronus and Philyra, he had a different origin from the other centaurs, who were sons of Ixion and Nephele.

    Fun fact: Medea’s murder of her children by Jason is an invention of the 5th century BC poet Euripides, continued by later writers. According to Eumelus, she killed her children accidentally and according to Creophylus, they were killed by the people of Corinth (Eumelus and Creophylus are both 8th century BC poets).

  13. Avatar Avish Sharma says:

    For those of you who are interested in mythology that reads like modern Fantasy, check out the ancient Indian Epic, the Mahabharata. Ramesh Menon’s Mahabhrata: A Modern Rendering is the best adaptation.

    You’d think it has had an influence on the Fantasy of today except for the fact that most Western writers have never even heard of it!

  14. Avatar Joel Adamson says:

    Thanks for bringing the mythological basis of fantasy to your readers. I think the idea that female sorcery reflects fear of women is simplistic. Circe turning men into pigs is certainly disadvantageous for Odysseus’s quest to return home, bit it’s not necessarily evil. I think rather it’s an expression of feminine power and mystery: Circe’s power is to show men’s true nature by transforming them. She also turns into a powerful and wise ally. Medea is another example of a multifaceted character. As you recommend, see Joseph Campbell to get past the current superficial analyses of mythological characters with respect to gender.

  15. Avatar mike says:

    I would love to find more Roman-Fantasy or Greek-Fantasy novels. If anyone can recommend some it would be most appreciated

  16. Avatar Alexandre says:

    Fantastic work!

    Have you already written part 2 or more?

  17. Avatar Alexandre says:

    Thanks a lot!!

    I’m so eager to read it.

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