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  Columnist: Victoria Grossack

Image credit: CC 2.0 Stewart Butterfield

Love stories from Ancient Greece

Posted on Tuesday, 14 February, 2012 | 0 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack

[!gad]Why turn to ancient Greek myths for inspiration on Valentine’s Day? At first glance, it seems inappropriate. Saint Valentine was a Christian martyr, and had nothing to do with ancient Greece. But no one sends pictures of Saint Valentine to each other (we don’t even know what he looked like). Instead we send flowers and candy, presents and cards. Many cards feature Cupid, usually shown as a cherub holding a bow and arrow. If one of his arrows strikes you, you fall in love.

Cupid may be the Roman name of the deity, but in the Greek pantheon he’s known as Eros, and portrayed as a winged youth instead of an infant. His name is the source of our word erotic. Eros is usually known as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, by her favorite lover, Ares, the god of war. A different version of the myths – offered by Hesiod, one of Greece’s earliest writers – makes Eros is one of the oldest gods as the god of desire was a prime mover in the creation of earth and humanity. With that rather roundabout reason for uniting Greek mythology with Valentine’s Day, here are some of the best-known love stories that have come down to us through the millennia.

Self-love. Narcissus was an extremely handsome youth. When he saw his own reflection in a pool of water, he was so enchanted that he stared at himself until he died. According to one version of the story he expired from lack of nourishment; according to another he killed himself with his own dagger when he realized he had fallen in love with his own reflection.

The Greeks had little patience with vanity, and the young man’s name became the source of the word “narcissist” – someone who is completely self-absorbed. The narcissus is also a flower, a type of daffodil, which the gods made grow beside the spring where the handsome youth died.

Unrequited love. Echo’s story usually follows the story of Narcissus, just as the nymph pursued the handsome youth. Echo originally talked so much that the goddess Hera punished her by letting her only repeat the words of the last speaker. When Echo saw Narcissus she fell in love with him, and was nearby when he discovered his handsome reflection in a pool. As the youth gazed at himself he said, “I love you,” giving the cursed nymph the chance to echo, “I love you,” back. These words may have unfortunately caused Narcissus to believe that his reflection was returning his affection and caused him to remain longer. The name of Echo became our word for repeated sound, echo.

Forbidden love: affairs. The best known love affair in Greek mythology involves Helen of Troy. Here’s a brief summary: she was married to Menelaus and they were king and queen of Sparta. Then she met Paris Alexander, and departed with him for an affair in Troy – until her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon conquered that city in the ten-year-long Trojan War. As her lover Paris was dead she returned with Menelaus to Sparta.

Thousands of pages of ink have been spilled on this story, from Homer to Herodotus, down to Margaret George and Colleen McCullough and even Laura Gill. No one knows exactly what happened. Was she forcibly abducted by Paris or did she leave of her own free will? Why did Menelaus take her back? Did they really reconcile? Although most now believe that the war was fought for other reasons – Troy was extremely wealthy and its position strategic – questions remain about the enigmatic Helen, allegedly the most beautiful woman of her time. Most agree that she must have been extremely desirable. Certainly Eros played a role!

Really forbidden love: incest. Greek mythology contains many examples of incest. Among the gods, brothers and sisters married, as did uncles and nieces. One taboo that was taken seriously was parents sleeping with their offspring; nevertheless it sometimes happened. There are several instances of fathers taking advantage of their daughters. Oinomaios, a brutal man in other stories, lay with his daughter Hippodamia, and to continue the family tradition, Hippodamia’s son Thyestes raped his daughter, Pelopia. These myths hint at neither affection nor love; they seem to be straightforward cases of fathers abusing their daughters. However, there is one famous myth where both partners were willing: the story of Jocasta and Oedipus.

The first way the story of Oedipus and Jocasta differs from the others is by being a mother-son pairing as opposed to father-daughter. Second, there was no question of force or rape. After Oedipus solved a riddle contest in which the prize was the widowed queen of Thebes, the two married. They apparently were unaware of their relationship and had four children together. By all accounts – from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Grossack and Underwood’s Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus – the marriage was happy, despite an obvious age difference. Until, of course, they discovered that they were mother and son, at which point Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile. Perhaps these extreme actions were the only way to combat the desire, the Eros, that they still felt for each other.

Homosexual love. For much of their history the Greeks tolerated or even encouraged homosexual relationships, especially those between men and youths. There are examples of male gods taking handsome youths as lovers – Zeus had his Ganymede and Poseidon his Pelops – but there are also myths where there is love, of a sort, between two mortal males. Perhaps the best known case was between Laius and Chrysippus. Laius (future father of Oedipus) was very attracted to Chrysippus (natural son of Pelops), and persuaded the youth to spend the night with him. Unfortunately it ended badly, as so many love stories from the myths do. Hippodamia, the wife of Pelops and stepmother to Chrysippus, was afraid that her husband’s bastard would be preferred to her own sons. When she discovered the wine-drunk Laius and Chrysippus asleep in each other’s arms she took Laius’ own knife and stabbed Chrysippus with it, hoping to kill her stepson and have Laius take the blame. Although she succeeded in killing Chrysippus, he lived long enough to tell his father that his stepmother had wielded the blade – thus saving the life of his lover Laius with his very last breath.

Love beyond – or rather into, the grave. Orpheus, an extremely talented musician, was in love with Eurydike. Alas, the young lady was bitten by a snake on their wedding day and subsequently died. Orpheus’ music was so sad that even stones wept, and the gods allowed him to go to the Underworld to fetch his beloved. He was even allowed to take her back with him – as long as he did not look at her until they reached the land of living. Unfortunately, he turned and she was taken into Hades forever.

Happy Endings. After all the other stories, you may wonder if there were there any happy endings? Well, yes, there were plenty of successful relationships. The couples Niobe and Amphion, Atalanta and Meleager, Kadmos and Harmonia, Perseus and Andromeda were all happy with each other even if they encountered difficulties. Perhaps the best known couple consisted of the long-suffering Penelope and Odysseus.

Because of an oath, Odysseus was forced to fight in the Trojan War, and was gone for ten years on its account. Then, because he offended the sea god Poseidon, he had trouble getting home, and so was gone for another ten years, spending much of his time as a toy boy of the nymph Calypso. In the meantime Penelope was raising their son as a single mother and fending off lecherous suitors.

Eventually Odysseus managed to come home, but it had been so long that they were not even sure that they recognized each other. Penelope – who because of the perpetual double-standard was much more cautious – tested Odysseus before accepting him. But he passed the test, and the couple supposedly lived happily ever after.

Greek mythology has a love story for nearly everyone and every situation. It may not be the one you want for yourself, but it may be well be the one you have. Whether you have a Valentine or not, it’s good to acknowledge the mysterious power of Eros, who has been influencing the world for millennia.

Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.

Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.

  Other articles by Victoria Grossack

The mystery of the Delphic Oracle
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