Hello fellow nerds! Welcome to the 5th addition to my “Mythology is my Achilles’ Heel” series. In commemoration of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you some of my favourite love stories from ancient Greece.
Naturally, love was one hot topic amongst the Greeks. The sheer amount of romantic tales- most with tragic endings- is astounding. I have received a lot of requests for love stories, so I decided to blog about a few of my favourites. However, I consider myself one of the most stoic, anti-“love” humans on this planet, so most of the ones I like and listed have sad endings. I hope you guys enjoy them as much as I did : )
1. Phaedra and Hippolytus
This is one of the stories where the primary cause of misfortune cannot be pinpointed. Hippolytus was the bastard son of Theseus, king of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of Amazons. Phaedra was Theseus’s wife, queen of Athens.
There are different versions of this story but the main premise is that Hippolytus vowed eternal virginity as he was an ardent worshipper of Artemis, goddess of hunting (in this case, because of her chastity) and refused to honour Aphrodite, goddess of love. Now, dishonouring Aphrodite, as we’ve learned from a lot of Greek myths, is something you do not want to do if you value your well-being. She was so enraged that she casted a spell on Phaedra that made her fall in love with her step-son. Obviously, Hippolytus shunned her advances but that made Phaedra take her own life.
Before dying, she wrote a letter to her husband, telling him that Hippolytus tried to seduce her (I’m assuming to clear her name). Theseus would not hear any explanation from his son and decided to use one of three curses that Poseidon, god of the sea, had given to him. This sent a sea-monster to terrorise Hippolytus’ horses, who become uncontrollable and drag him to his death. Artemis later told Theseus the truth and he grieved over the deaths of his wife and son.
Moral of the story: Never tell Aphrodite that you don’t like her.
2. Orpheus and Eurydice
The ultimate tragic love story! This might as well be one of the most famous Greek myths and I hold it very close to my heart.
Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope (one of the Nine Muses) as well as a legendary musician and poet. It is said that no god or mortal could resist his music and that “even the rocks and trees would move themselves to be near him”. His voice garnered audiences from all over the region and during one such “performance”, his eyes fell on the mesmerising wood nymph Eurydice. They fell in love with each other and eventually got married.
There was a shepherd named Aristaeus who wanted the beautiful nymph for himself. When the couple were passing through a forest, he hid behind a bush intending to jump out and kill Orpheus. As he made his move, Orpheus grabbed Eurydice’s hand and they ran through the forest. Eurydice accidentally stepped on a snake’s nest and was bit by deadly viper.
After the death of his wife, Orpheus was no longer the same. Grief-stricken, he decided to go to the Underworld and try to get his wife back. While there, he played his lyre and sang so mournfully that it moved King Hades and Queen Persephone to tears. Hades promised the desperate man that Eurydice would follow him back to the world of the living. However, under any circumstances, he must not look back while his wife was still in the dark.
Although it was difficult, Orpheus managed to control his desire to see Eurydice. The moment he stepped into the light, he turned back to hug her. However, Eurydice was still in the dark and the moment he turned, she was pulled back into the Underworld.
3. Hyacinthus and Apollo
Homosexuality did not face any condemnation in ancient Greece as it did in the contemporary world. This story is a prime example of the fact.
Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan prince, son of a mortal, King Amyclus and the Muse of history, Clio. Among his numerous admirers were Apollo (god of light and a few other things, including healing) and Zephyrus (god of west wind). However, Hyacinthus chose Apollo. One day, they were playing and took turns throwing the discus (I like to call it ancient frisbee). A jealous Zephyrus decided to blow Apollo’s discus off-course to kill the lover he could not have. The discus hit Hyacinthus’ head and proved to be fatal. No matter how hard he tried, Apollo could not save his lover’s life. Distraught, he prevented Hades from claiming the boy and created a fragrant, red flower from Hyacinthus’ spilled blood, the hyacinth. The petals of the flowers were marked with “Al”, symbolising Apollo’s tears.
4. Ceyx and Alcyone
This story depicts both the wrath and the mercy of Olympian Gods.
Alcyone was the daughter of the god of wind, Aeolus and the wife of the king of Thessaly, Ceyx. The couple were admired by gods and mortals alike, for their physical beauty as well as the profound love they had for each other. Their only error was that they dared to playfully call each other Zeus and Hera at times. Enraged, Zeus waited for an opportunity to punish them for their perceived arrogance.
Ceyx was mourning over the death of his brother and observed ominous signs around him. He decided to consult the oracle of Delphi. Alcyone tried to dissuade him from embarking on the journey, being aware of the ruthlessness of winter winds. She failed to convince her husband to stay but prayed to Goddess Hera for his safe return. Her fears proved well-founded when Ceyx’s ship got stuck in a storm and resulted in his death. Unaware of the tragedy, Alcyone continued to pray. As the goddess of married women, Hera was sensitive to the woman’s plight and urged Hypnos, god of sleep, to gently inform Alcyone about the death of her husband. This task was then entrusted to Hypnos’s son Morpheus who was an expert in forming apparitions.
That night, Morpheus took the form of Ceyx and appeared in Alcyone’s dream to reveal the fate of her husband. Devastated, she wished to die and threw herself into the sea. Zeus, dare I say, felt a bit of remorse and realised that they did not deserve such severe punishment. They were turned into halcyon birds (also known as kingfishers) and the lovers were finally reunited.
5. Pyramus and Thisbe
Ah! The Babylonian Romeo and Juliet.
Pyramus was a handsome man and the childhood friend of Thisbe. The two grew up together in neighbouring houses and eventually fell in love. Due to their parents’ rivalry, their union was forbidden. They would converse through a hole in the wall between their houses. Fed up, the two decide to elope and meet the next night under a mulberry tree, near the tomb of Ninus.
Thisbe was the first to reach the rendezvous point. While waiting, she saw a lioness coming to the spring nearby, its jaws bloody from a recent kill. She fled the scene, leaving her cloak behind. Hearing the shriek, the lioness came near the tree and tattered the cloak with its blood-stained mouth. Soon after, Pyramus arrived and found his beloved’s cloak bloodied and torn to pieces. Assuming the worst, he blamed himself for not reaching there sooner and for Thisbe’s death. He killed himself by falling on his sword (typical Babylonian way of committing suicide). When Thisbe returned, she found her love dead, by the blood-covered mulberry bush. She took her own life by Pyramus’ side, impaling her own chest with his sword. The two won in death what was denied to them in life. The lovers were united and the mulberry tree, originally white, turned red in commemoration of their sacrifice.
6. Perseus and Andromeda
Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia. Perseus was the slayer of Medusa and said to have founded the kingdom of Mycenae. A classic damsel in distress saved by her knight in shining armour.
Cassiopeia was known for more than just her beauty; she was also known for her vanity. She often boasted of her beauty as well as that of her daughter. She claimed that Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids, sea nymphs. This particularly angered Poseidon. After all, his wife Amphrite was the eldest of the 50 Nereids. To seek vengeance, he enlisted the help of the sea monster Cetus. Cetus was instructed to pursue Andromeda and wreak havoc in the city where she lived. He told the people of the city that the only way to stop the destruction was to give up Andromeda. Cepheus complied and so his daughter was chained as a sacrifice. Already licking his lips, Cetus was ready to have a delicious meal when he was rudely slain by Perseus. Our hero was on his journey home after killing Medusa. Perseus saved the maiden, having fallen in love with her and asked her father for his blessing to marry her. This infuriated Andromeda’s uncle Phineus, to whom her hand was already promised. During the quarrel, Perseus turned Phineus into stone by showing him the gorgon’s head.
The couple then got married, had seven sons and seven daughters, and lived happily ever after.
7. Narcissus and Echo
Admittedly, this is one of the sadder stories on the list.
Echo was a mountain nymph from Mount Cithaeron. Known to be very beautiful, she was chased by Apollo and Pan but chose to shun their advances. Although Zeus did not pursue her, he made use of the nymph for his other affairs. She would sit and talk for hours with Hera to distract her while Zeus had his way with other nymphs and mortals. When Hera learned of her part in her husband’s indiscretions, she cursed Echo so that she no longer had a voice of her own and could only repeat the words of others.
Narcissus was the son of a nymph and a river god. As a child, the blind seer Tiresias made a prophecy that he would live a long life as long as he did not “know himself” (maybe meant that as long as he doesn’t see himself?). Narcissus grew up to be a deer hunter and the most beautiful of all mortals, pursued by both men and women, mortals and immortals.
Echo set sights on him while he was hunting. Due to her curse, however, she could not call out to him. When Narcissus sensed that he was being watched he asked, “who’s there?”, only to hear his own words repeated. Echo eventually decided to come out of hiding but was cruelly rejected by Narcissus. She retreated to the mountains, heartbroken.
It is said that Echo was a witness to Narcissus’ demise. After rejecting suitors for years, he was cursed by Nemesis, goddess of retribution. He eventually fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus died of sorrow by the pool because he couldn’t have the object of his affection. Echo withered away in grief until only her voice remained.
8. Eros and Psyche
This story bears some resemblance to Snow White. Psyche was a beautiful princess whose beauty was said to have rivalled that of the Goddess of Beauty herself. As I have already established, it is never a good idea to make Aphrodite mad. She sent forth her son Eros, god of love (also known as Cupid) to strike the maiden with his arrow making her fall in love with the most hideous, vile creature known to man. But, as most fairy tales go, Eros himself fell in love with her and could not find it in him to go through with Aphrodite’s plan.
Concurrently, Psyche’s two older sisters got married but she could not find a man to fall in love with. The King sought the advice of the oracle of Delphi whose prophecy stated that Psyche, dressed in black attire, should be brought to the summit of a mountain and stay there alone for her husband to come up and fetch her. Her husband was said to be a winged beast, terrible and more powerful than the gods themselves. The whole kingdom mourned but also complied with the details of the prophecy. Psyche was left on the summit, awaiting her fate. She was slowly lifted by the wind Zephyr and brought to a meadow with a small estate for her to inhabit. Eros visited her every night but commanded Psyche to never set her eyes on him.
A few days went by and Psyche wished to see her sisters and assure her family that she is alive. Eros reluctantly allowed her to invite her sisters but also warned her to not let them influence her. When they saw how majestically Psyche lived, her sisters were envious and convinced her that the reason her husband doesn’t let her see him is because he is a despicable creature.
The night after their departure, Psyche decided to sneak a look at her husband while he slept. Under the candle light, she recognised him as the God of Love and praised his beauty. A drop of wax fell on Eros’ back, awakening him. He immediately left without uttering a single word to her. All she heard was a voice saying “love cannot live without trust”.
Remorseful Psyche could not find Eros anywhere so she desperately sought the help of Aphrodite. Still not over her jealousy, Aphrodite made her complete 3 very difficult tasks. Even after completion, she refused to stop torturing Psyche. The gods felt sorry for her and sent Hermes to relay everything that has happened to Eros. Touched by his wife’s display of repentance, Eros forgives her and they reunite. As a gift, Zeus lets Psyche have a sip of the drink of gods, ambrosia, making her immortal. This was a win for Aphrodite too, as now people would forget about Psyche and worship the goddess again.
9. Apple of Discord
This love story, albeit a little funny, led to what was one of the most important events in Greek mythology.
To set the scene, Thetis, a sea-nymph was getting married to a mortal and there was a feast in heaven as a celebration. Although Zeus was in love with her, he let this marriage take place because he was told that the son of Thetis and a god would overthrow the king of Olympus. Everybody was invited to the feast except Eris, goddess of discord. Angry, she showed up at the feast only to leave a golden apple behind that had the inscription “to the fairest”. This lead to an argument between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite about who among them is the fairest. Zeus was smart enough to not intervene and instead suggested that the goddesses ask the shepherd Paris at Mount Ida for his opinion. As a bribe, Hera offered a kingdom, Athena offered eternal wisdom and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world as wife. Unsurprisingly, the man gave the apple to Aphrodite.
Some time later, Paris turned out to be the prince of Troy and went on to marry Helen, wife of Spartan king Menelaus (she later came to be known as “the face that launched a thousand ships”). This union led to the infamous Trojan War that lasted 10 years.
10. Philemon and Baucis
This story is quite the opposite of tragic and one of the few that really warm my heart. It is about the love and kindness of an old couple that pleased the Gods.
Zeus often took the form of a human and visited the Earth to check on its people and their conduct. On one such round, his son Hermes, the messenger of Gods, accompanied him to the region of Phrygia in the form of peasants. The divine duo went house to house asking for kindness and hospitality, only to be rejected by all the homes they visited.
Eventually, they found themselves at the doorstep of an old couple, Philemon and Baucis. They lived in a meagre paltry cottage but worshipped the gods with deep devotion. Zeus and Hermes were welcomed with a lot of warmth and the couple did their best to satisfy their visitors. Moments pass and the couple notice that their wine glasses are being replenished automatically. Suspecting that the visitors are not mere mortals, the old couple decided to provide the closest they could come to a meal that was fit for a god. They decided slaughter their only goose in their guests’ honour. When the goose took refuge at the visitors’ feet, they revealed themselves to be Zeus and Hermes.
Zeus decided to punish the region for its unkindness and spared only the lives of Philemon and Baucis. The entire region was engulfed by a flood but one cottage remained unscathed. The couple’s home had been transformed into a majestic temple. After this, Zeus granted them to make a wish and the couple asked to become the temple priests and die together. When their time came, they found themselves slowly being covered by foliage. Philemon turned into an oak tree and Baucis into a small-leaved lime tree.
Which one of these stories was your favourite? Let me know!
Send in your suggestions and requests for the next post. Until then, toodles!