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Favorite Greek Myths
By Bob Blaisdell, THOMAS CROFTS, John Green
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1995 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Gods and Titans
GAIA IS sometimes known as Mother Earth. She is the oldest of all the gods and gives food to every living being. She was created out of Chaos, the swirling formless beginning of all things. By herself Gaia gave birth to Ouranos (the Sky), Ourea (the Mountains) and Oceanus (the Sea).
With her husband Ouranos, she had tremendous children, known as Titans, the Cyclopes and the hundred-handed brutes named Briareus, Gyges and Cottus. Ouranos felt disgust at these monsters and so buried them deep within the earth, in fathomless Tartaros, a gloomy pit as far below the underworld Hades as dark Hades is below the shining heavens.
Gaia grew angry at Ouranos' treatment of their children, and she plotted revenge.
She went to Tartaros and asked, offering a long-bladed sickle, "Which of you, my children, will avenge me on heartless Ouranos?" Only her youngest son, Kronos, accepted the task. The others were frightened.
Handing Kronos the sickle, she warned him, "You must wait until your father is asleep." That night, Kronos sneaked up on Ouranos and cut him with the sickle, dreadfully wounding him. Kronos then forced his bleeding father into fathomless Tartaros. As Ouranos was transported through the air, some of his blood mingled with the ocean foam; from this immortal mixture of Ouranos and ocean, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born.
Now Kronos was master of the Titans, and he married the Titaness Rhea. Gaia warned her son, "Just as you were greater than your father, beware or one of your sons shall be greater than you." To prevent this, Kronos imprisoned the immortal babies Rhea had borne him by swallowing them up. The last of these children was shining Zeus. Rhea, instead of allowing Kronos to have baby Zeus as well, fed her husband a stone wrapped in a blanket. Brutal Kronos did not notice the difference but patted his stomach and smiled.
After Zeus had safely grown up in a distant cave, far out of sight of his father, he asked the wise, ever-changing sea nymph Metis to concoct a potion. "This potion," said Zeus to Metis, "must cause my wicked father to cough up my brothers and sisters. I need my siblings to help me, and they cannot do that inside Kronos' belly."
Metis brewed a stomach-turning drink for Kronos and brought it to the terrible Titan.
Kronos sipped and liked the taste. He gulped down the rest, and a moment later out of his big mouth erupted his children—Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera and Hestia.
"I've been tricked!" cried Kronos. "Now my children are loose!"
Indeed they were, delighted to be once again in the fresh air. They thanked Zeus for their rescue and he quickly organized them against their father.
"To arms!" Zeus declared. "Now that we're free, we must defeat him." The gods uprooted mountains and flung them at their father.
Hard-hearted Kronos and many mighty Titans hurled mountains in return; the warfare sounded like thunder on top of thunder. Zeus used the aegis, his tremendous shield, to defend himself from his father's attacks and blasted Kronos and the Titans with terrible lightning bolts that the hard-working Cyclopes forged for him. With Kronos and the Titans dizzy and flat on their backs, Zeus and his siblings imprisoned their foes under mountain ranges or in the pits of Tartaros. The crushed and defeated Titans kicked and stormed, hot with anger, exploding the tops off the mountains that pressed them down. We see even today the fiery volcanos that spew the Titans' fury. Their strong legs still push against the earth's crust, causing earthquakes, but they cannot get out again. With the war's end, Zeus and his brothers divided up their new possessions. This was how Zeus became the god of heaven and ruler of all the gods, and how Poseidon became god of the sea and Hades the god of the underworld.
It was during the peace following the clash of the gods and Titans that wise Metis became pregnant by Zeus. However, Gaia, Mother Earth, warned Zeus that if Metis had a son, he would be greater than Zeus himself. Taking an example from the defeat of cruel Kronos, Zeus swallowed up Metis. Many months later, he had a terrible headache. He went among his friends and begged them to split his head open and allow the pain to get out. None of the gods or Titans dared do such a thing—none but Prometheus, the far-thinking Titan. So far-thinking was he that he had sided with Zeus in the recent war with Kronos, and was thus rewarded with a place among the gods.
"The pain will be sharp," said Prometheus, "but then you'll feel better.—Now put your hands over your eyes." Zeus did so. Down came Prometheus' axe, and crack went Zeus's skull!
Out of his forehead leapt Zeus's brilliant new daughter, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, dressed in a warrior's glimmering armor.
Prometheus quickly patched up with clay the split in Zeus's head, while Zeus roared with laughter. What an entrance for a child! Full-grown and only seconds old.
"Father, dear," she said, "I have many things in mind."
"Indeed you have, as I shared all my thoughts with you before you were born," said Zeus.
Soon after this, Zeus married Hera, his sister. He loved many other immortal and mortal women as well, and had many important children by them. These offspring included the Muses, the Seasons, the Fates, the Graces, the maiden Persephone, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hermes and, of course, the great and mighty Hercules.
The Story of Prometheus
Though the gods Zeus, Hades and Poseidon shared power on earth, they were not interested in the clay-like creatures known as mankind. Men did not know how to plow the ground to grow their food; they did not know about weapons, with which they would have been able to hunt animals; they did not know how to speak.
It was Prometheus who first took an interest in mankind; he taught them many skills. The greatest skill, perhaps, was speech. Whatever one man knew, he now could teach another. And soon every man knew how to speak, how to farm, how to hunt and how to use as clothing the skins of the animals they killed. One thing Prometheus was not allowed to teach them was how to cook their food, heat their dwellings or fashion metal weapons. Zeus had ruled that men were not to have the use of godly fire.
Prometheus, not letting himself foresee the punishment Zeus would soon give him, decided to steal fire for mankind. On the slopes of Mount Olympos, Prometheus found a long, flute-stemmed plant, a fennel, and he took it and went to the ever-burning Olympian flame. He reached down and picked up from its base an ash-colored coal and shoved it down into the core of the fennel. With the coal hidden yet burning hot, he casually passed through the court of Mount Olympos, and waved hello to Zeus. The lord of gods, seeing his friend Prometheus, nodded, smiling, and suspected nothing.
It was later that evening, however, that Zeus, seated upon his glorious throne, was gazing at the first star of the evening. He breathed deeply and his thoughts were filled with pleasure. His mind ranged from the beauties of the colossal universe to the beauties of his wife and daughters. And then, sniffing deeply, he realized that he was smelling smoke—apparently roasted meat—drifting up to the heavens from earth.
Angrily Zeus leaped off his throne and flew down to earth like an arrow. There he saw several men, sitting in a circle around a glowing fire, roasting a fine side of cattle. Zeus thundered, he tossed lightning bolts across the sky, he emptied the heavens of water. The men, however, much to his surprise, covered themselves and their fire with a huge tent of dried animal skins. Zeus was amazed and impressed. These puny men were, after all, rather clever. But who had taught them such skills? Who had given them the immortal gift of fire?
Zeus found Prometheus on the far side of the world. The Titan was talking with his brother, Epimetheus, whose name means "afterthought." Epimetheus thought just as hard and long as Prometheus, only he thought about what he had done rather than what he next meant to do. As a result, he often made mistakes.
Zeus overheard some of their conversation.
"Should the gods offer you a gift, Epimetheus, do not accept it," Prometheus was saying. "You cannot trust them."
"I trust everyone," said Epimetheus.
"You must not," said his brother, who practiced thinking ahead. "I have a feeling I will not always be around to give you counsel. Please take care."
"If you say so," said Epimetheus.
And now Zeus made himself apparent to the Titans.
"You'll violate the immortal laws, will you?" thundered Zeus, seizing Prometheus. He hurled mankind's first friend through the sky, and Prometheus fell tumbling to earth in the Caucasus mountains. Zeus then ordered the fire god Hephaestus to have Prometheus bound with bronze chains to a cliffside.
Zeus came and saw this deed fulfilled. He declared to Prometheus, "You will be sorry for what you have done."
"I am proud," declared Prometheus. "With fire men can change their world. In the ages before I helped them, they were ignorant; now they are a community of artists and workers."
"With your pride," said Zeus, frowning, "will come suffering!"
Out of the sky came screeching a frightening eagle. It came and grasped poor Prometheus with its claws and then tore its beak through his side. Prometheus screamed.
"Every day," pronounced Zeus, "this eagle will eat away your liver. And every night your liver shall grow back for the eagle's next meal. You will suffer everlasting torment."
Zeus then went and offered to Epimetheus a beautifully crafted creature, who spoke lightly and sweetly, and who walked prettily. By Zeus's order, the immortal craftsman Hephaestus had fashioned the first woman. Her name was Pandora, a Greek word meaning "all gifts." She was Zeus's gift to men. Epimetheus, not paying any mind to the advice of his brother that he not take a god's gift, gladly accepted beautiful Pandora. With Pandora's wardrobe came a sealed wooden box, a box about which Zeus had told the new bride and groom, "This gift is not to be opened."
Pandora was naturally curious. She and Epimetheus were happy, never thinking of tomorrow, delighting in each day. But she couldn't stop wondering about the gift she could not open. "I'll just take a peek," she said to herself one day. "Just a peek, and then I'll close it up again."
Pandora lifted the box and shook it. She heard nothing rattle, and she was puzzled, wondering about the contents. She slipped her finger under the lid of the box and tried to feel around within the box. There were many things! But what, she couldn't tell.
Now she absolutely had to look. She opened the box, and out, like a swarm of insects, flew all the troubles of mankind: Disease, Hunger, Pain. She slammed shut the lid, and one tiny little insect-like creature fell back into the box: Hope! Mankind, which before had known nothing of its own misery, now had full knowledge of it. With Hope, however, mankind can continue to think that better times will come, that suffering will end.
Some say that Zeus's spiteful plan to afflict mankind, in giving it women and knowledge of its suffering, was a generous gift.
The Story of Persephone
Meanwhile, living in the underworld, was Zeus's gloomy brother Hades. Hades was different from his brothers and preferred the company of spirits to the company of the gods on Mount Olympos. He rarely went anywhere.
But one day, wanting to take a look at a summer day, he passed over the earth and saw lovely Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of fertility Demeter and Hades' own brother Zeus. If there was anything lacking in his underworld, it was the presence of a bright, shining bride. Neither god nor man escapes Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and she clouded Hades' mind with desire. Stern, heavy-browed Hades could not think of anything but Persephone. Though immortal, he thought he would die if he did not wed her.
"Brother Zeus," said Hades, having made a trip to Mount Olympos for just this purpose, "I want to marry Persephone, your daughter."
Zeus scratched his forehead, nodding. "I worry that Demeter, the girl's mother, might object. But, after all, you are my brother, and it is high time you took a bride."
The next day, while Persephone was gathering fresh, glorious flowers, Hades appeared out of a hole in the earth and stole her away, carrying her back down to his shadowy kingdom in a winged chariot.
Demeter searched and searched for her daughter, but it was many days before she was able to discover what had happened to Persephone. When she did find out, she ran away from Olympos and refused to speak to the other gods, who had countenanced this outrage. Demeter was deeply saddened by her daughter's marriage and lost her interest in helping the food grow on earth. The grain withered and died, and so did the fruit and vegetables. The mortals prayed to the gods for a return of their crops.
Zeus listened to these prayers, but there was nothing he could do about them without Demeter's consent.
"Please, my darling," said Zeus to Demeter, "return to Olympos and oversee again the earthly harvests for mankind."
"Never," said Demeter. "Not until I see my daughter."
Zeus had no choice but to send for Persephone. Hades, receiving his brother's message from Hermes, said he would allow his bride to visit Mount Olympos. "But before you go," said Hades to Persephone, who was eager to leave, "have something to eat to tide you over: it's a long trip." And she took from him a few seeds of sweet pomegranate and then flew away with Hermes to Olympos.
Seeing her mother, Persephone rushed into her arms and wept. Zeus nodded and smiled.
"My daughter," Demeter asked Persephone, "are you unhappy in Hades?"
"It is dark," she answered. "And it is lonely."
"Would you rather return to the grain-covered earth?" asked Demeter. "And to me, your mother?"
"Indeed I would," said pale Persephone.
"But tell me this," said Zeus, "have you eaten anything while you were down there?"
"No," said Persephone. "Well, almost nothing! Just three pomegranate seeds!"
Zeus and Demeter shook their heads. Anyone who eats while in the underworld can never again return full-time to the earth or Mount Olympos. Persephone had not known this, and so now she wept again.
"But for two-thirds of the year," said father Zeus, "you may live with your mother on earth."
Demeter and Persephone realized that this compromise was the best they could now hope for and accepted Zeus's ruling.
Even Hades thought this arrangement would be for the best. Living in the underworld is not easy for anybody. That it happened to suit Hades was his good fortune. He understood that Persephone would probably be happier while with him if she knew she would shortly be returning for her seasons with Demeter.CHAPTER 2
HERCULES, THE son of almighty Zeus and beautiful mortal Alcmene, was the strongest man who ever lived. Now when Hercules was eight months old, he woke one night to find a monstrous snake had coiled itself around him. Instead of crying out, baby Hercules wrapped his tiny powerful hands around the meaty throat of the snake and choked it to death.
As a boy he had many wise teachers, including the centaur Cheiron, and he was soon a master of wrestling and archery. He was handsome and had blazing eyes. There was nothing Hercules feared.
When he was eighteen years old, he went out to kill a raging lion that had been destroying the farmers' cattle. He smashed its head with his club, killing it, and took off its skin. He wore its fur over his shoulders, with the lion's head as his cap.
Hercules was so bold and so great that the gods, especially his father Zeus, wanted him to be one of themselves—an immortal.
The only immortal against this was Hera, Zeus's wife.
"A god!" she said with outrage. "He? The son of a ridiculous woman! If you insist on his becoming a god, he must do a god's work!"
And so began a nearly impossible series of ten chores, the Labors of Hercules.
"If, and only if, you complete the labors King Eurystheus gives you," said Hera, "then you may live among us on Mount Olympos."
Eurystheus of Tiryns did not like this strong young man, and for the first task gave Hercules one he thought would be fatal. "Kill the Nemean lion," he ordered.
This lion was much more terrible than the previous beast Hercules had killed. Hercules shot arrow after arrow at it, which only made the Nemean lion yawn, for the arrows could not pierce its skin. Hercules then went after it with his bare hands. The savage Nemean lion roared, and it slashed at Hercules with its claws. Hercules wrestled it, threw it on the ground and then choked it by its shaggy neck until it died.
When Hercules returned to Tiryns, the king was so frightened by Hercules' success that he did not allow the man to come into his palace. Eurystheus called to him from a high window and assigned him his second labor, another task he was sure would kill mighty Hercules: "Go and destroy the Hydra in Lerna."
Excerpted from Favorite Greek Myths by Bob Blaisdell, THOMAS CROFTS, John Green. Copyright © 1995 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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