Relive some of the greatest tales from Greek mythology… in the mind and then in the flesh.
Athena’s olive tree, Hera’s jealousy, Zeus’ rage, Theseus’ bravery, Achilles’ superhuman powers and the river that leads to the Underworld. Mythology is full of tales relating to places in Greece that continue to capture the imagination and inspire travel. From the Acropolis to Mt Olympus, prepare to journey into the magical world of the ancients.
1. Athens – The contest between Athena and Poseidon
Few cities are as closely tied to a divine figure as Athens is to Athena. The goddess of wisdom gave her name to Athens after competing with Poseidon to become patron of the city. Whoever’s gift was deemed more valuable would have the honour.
Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident, opening up a well from which spouted an inexhaustible supply of water. But being the sea god, his water source was salty and undrinkable.
Athena, on the other hand, produced a blooming olive tree, deemed far more valuable by the citizens of the city (although some sources say Cecrops, the first king of Athens, was the judge). And so the Greek capital is known as Athens and not Poseidonia.
2. Sounion – King Aegeus, the Aegean and the tragic return of Theseus
Athena may have won the battle to be protector of Athens, but Poseidon was well-compensated in defeat, with a magnificent temple built in his honour by the Athenians at Cape Sounion. It is said that King Aegeus made the journey daily to the beautiful outcrop, set high above the sea in eastern Attica, and looked longingly over the horizon for the return of his son, Theseus, who had travelled to Crete to do battle with the deadly Minotaur. He had asked his son to hoist white sails if he was successful.
And so, upon seeing the black-sailed vessel approaching, Aegeus leapt from the cliffs to his death – only for the Minotaur-slaying Theseus to have forgotten to change the sails. And from that point on, the sea that claimed the life of Athens’ king would be known as the Aegean.
3. Ithaca – The homecoming of Odysseus
it’s not so much about the destination as it is the journey
No tale can be more epic than that of Odysseus’ 10-year journey back to Ithaca after the decade-long Trojan War. That he succeeded owed everything to his courage and cunning, as well as the sacrifices of his men, as famously described in Homer’s Odyssey. Battling against the Cicones, breaking free from the Lotus-Eaters, blinding the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus (son of the enraged sea god Poseidon) … Odysseus overcame every challenge. On the island of Aeolus (keeper of winds), he was gifted a sack containing the winds and was on the verge of completing his quest when one of his men, overcome with curiosity, opened the sack. The resultant storm blew Odysseus onto another set of adventures… surviving the man-eating giant Laestrygonians, escaping the amorous clutches of the sorceress Circe, travelling to Hades’ Underworld and (amongst other trials) navigating the strait between the six-headed monster Scylla and the violent whirlpool Charybdis.
He eventually reached the green shores of Ithaca, only to be presented with a final challenge. To reclaim his crown, he had to kill the suitors competing for the hand of his faithful wife, Penelope. In so doing, Odysseus completed the journey symbolic of homecoming and fulfilling your deepest desire.
It’s also worth noting that there are some doubts as to whether today’s Ithaca was actually Homer’s Ithaca. According to ancient sources and archaeological finds, it’s just as likely to be the neighbouring Ionian Island of Kefalonia or Lefkada. But that hardly seems to matter because Odysseus’ story is the perfect reminder that in travel, it’s not so much about the destination as it is the journey.
4. Pelion – The mountain of the Centaurs
a chain of events that led to the start of the Trojan War
In the dense forests of Mt Pelion lived the ancient world’s Centaurs – human-bodied from the waist up but with the legs and hooves of a horse. They were famed not just for their superb physical strength but for their wisdom, with Chiron deemed the wisest and justest of them all. A Who’s who of heroes was sent to Pelion’s leafy slopes to learn from Chiron – Hercules, Theseus, Jason, Odysseus and Achilles and his father Peleus, after whom the region was named.
Indeed, it was Chiron who organised the glorious wedding of Peleus and Thetis, to which all the gods were invited – with the exception of Eris, the goddess of strife and discord. Furious, Eris slipped into the wedding and placed a golden apple with the words ‘to the fairest’ on it amongst the guests. The ensuing argument between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite set off a chain of events that led to the start of the Trojan War.
5. Knossos – Theseus and the Minotaur
Knossos, the site of the Minoan civilisation’s grandest palace in Crete, is indelibly linked to the legendary labyrinth created by King Minos to contain the bloodthirsty offspring of the love affair between his wife, Pasiphae, and a white bull. With the body of a human and the head of a bull, the Minotaur was contained in the maze after Minos’ consultation with the Oracle of Delphi and fed seven young men and seven maidens from Athens every nine years, as punishment for the Athenians’ ill-fated war against the Minoans.
That was until Athenian hero Theseus took it upon himself to be one of the seven men and vanquish the Minotaur. He was helped by Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter who fell in love with Theseus upon his arrival in Crete. After making him promise that he would take her with him to Athens and marry her, she gave him a ball of thread to mark his route within the maze. He duly found and killed the Minotaur and successfully retraced his steps to the entrance of the maze.
6. Naxos – Where Dionysus fell in love
It is said that Zeus grew up on Naxos. The island was originally called Dias (Greek for Zeus) and its tallest mountain is known as Zeus (or Zas to the locals). But the most famous myth associated with the Cycladic island has to do with Dionysus, the god of wine. On his return journey to Athens after slaying the Minotaur in Crete, Theseus made a brief stop in Naxos. He left Ariadne there, despite his promise to marry her.
Exhausted from the journey and the pain of separation, Ariadne fell asleep on a beach, where Dionysus chanced upon her and instantly fell in love. After marrying her, Dionysus led Ariadne to Mt Olympus in a solemn Bacchic procession, where Zeus made her immortal. According to one version of the legend, Theseus left Ariadne on the islet that today joins the edge of the port of Naxos, where the Portara (the monumental entrance of the unfinished Temple of Apollo) still stands.
7. Mt Olympus and Dion – the backyard of the gods
The sanctuary of Dion was founded upon the green foothills of Mt Olympus and, as its name suggests, was dedicated to Zeus. A huge altar was erected to make divine offerings to the gods, in the shadow of their mountain home. In time, Dion became the spiritual and religious centre of the Macedonians, hosting important theatrical, musical and sporting competitions in honour of the king of the gods and his daughters, the nine Muses. Indeed, this is where Alexander the Great’s legendary campaign to conquer the vast Persian Empire began, after the staging of one of Dion’s most memorable games and sacrifices to Zeus.
8. Elefsina – The Abduction of Persephone
the god of the Underworld fell in love with the young Persephone
Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina, in western Attica) was the site of one of the most important sanctuaries in ancient Greece. It is where the Eleusinian Mysteries were held each year, with an initiation ceremony for participants who were sworn to secrecy. What little we know of the ritual includes the myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades to the Underworld and her eventual return to her mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. According to the myth, the god of the Underworld fell in love with the young Persephone and appeared in his chariot through a gap in the earth and kidnapped her. Inconsolable, Demeter did not let the earth bear fruit until the return of her daughter.
After the intervention of Zeus, it was agreed that Persephone would split the year between Hades and her mother, with the result that nature fell ill and froze in autumn and winter and was reborn and turned green in spring and summer. The cycle symbolises the constant decay and rebirth of nature – and consequently life itself.
9. Acheron – The river to the Underworld
you cannot receive from him who does not have
Lake Acherousia and the Acheron River, in Epirus, are today amongst the most beautiful and serene natural landscapes in Greece. But in ancient times, it was believed that this is where the Gates to the Underworld were found. It was the task of the ferryman Charon to transport the souls of the newly deceased across the river and into the kingdom of Hades.
The cost of transportation was a coin (an obolus). It is said that only one soul, the penniless Menippus, convinced Charon to take him without payment, with the memorable argument that “you cannot receive from him who does not have”. Hades was strictly out of bounds for the living, of course, but there were some brave characters who made the crossing with Charon, amongst them Hercules, Theseus and Orpheus.
10. Delphi – Apollo and Python
the most important oracle of the ancient world
Before being given the name that has become an international landmark, Delphi was known as Pytho, after the fearsome dragon-serpent that lived there, called Python. In a fit of jealously against fellow goddess Leto, who had fallen pregnant to Zeus before her marriage to the king of the gods, Hera sent Python to chase Leto so that she would not give birth to twins Apollo and Artemis. When Apollo grew up, he killed Python with his poisoned arrows, despite murder being forbidden by divine law in the precinct in which the dragon lived. Apollo was banished by Zeus to the mythical Land of the Far North.
When he returned, he founded his own temple and oracle in Pytho and, in memory of the slain dragon, the sanctuary’s high priestess was called Pythia. Delphi’s Temple of Apollo became the most important oracle of the ancient world, offering prophecies nine times a year, during the months that Apollo was present.
11. Delos – Leto and the origin of the Cyclades
Banished by Zeus, Leto wandered the ancient world looking for a place to give birth, having been forbidden from touching land. She eventually found refuge on Delos, believed to be floating, on the promise that the little-known island be destined for greatness. There she gave birth to Artemis without trouble, but her labour with Apollo lasted nine painful days and nights. It is said that the ever-jealous Hera had kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, and that it was Artemis who assisted the delivery of her twin brother.
In the presence of the other goddesses (sent to witness the birth of a deity) Apollo was born under a palm tree, forever associating the island of Delos (then named Asterios) with the sun god and leader of the Muses.
Riches duly followed and the ancient Delians showed their appreciation to Apollo by creating a vast sanctuary in his honour. Such was the standing of Delos that the ancients saw it as the centrepiece of the surrounding islands, henceforth known as the Cyclades.
12. Nemea – Hercules and the Nemean Lion
The first and best-known of the Labours of Hercules was to kill a lion that was terrorising Nemea. Impenetrable to mortal weapons, the lion’s skin was golden and its claws could tear even the strongest armour. In Nemea, Hercules was welcomed to the hut of the shepherd Molorchos, who had lost his son to the lion. Recognising the supernatural powers of his guest, Molorchos was the first to pay homage to Hercules. After tracking the lion across the Nemean countryside, Hercules found its den, which he noted had two entrances. He blocked one with rocks and entered from the other, surprising the lion and beating it with a club. In the struggle, the lion cut off one of Hercules' fingers. Realising that no weapon could defeat the beast, he strangled it with his bare hands.
To prove his success and protect himself from attack, Hercules wore the lion’s golden hide. The king of Mycenae, Eurystheus, who had challenged Hercules to the labours, initially mistook him for the lion and hid. As for the lion, the gods raised what was left of it to the heavens, forming the constellation of Leo.