6 Greek Myths With Surprising Explanations

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Greek mythology is well-known across the world as fantastic tales and epic poems that passed down through generations. But have you ever wondered what might have inspired these stories? Many may have been born from real events or places. Read more to find some surprising explanations for Greek myths.

Oracle of Delphi

Heinrich Leutemann's The Oracle of Delphi Entranced.
The Oracle of Delphi Entranced by Heinrich Leutemann
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Oracle of Delphi or Pythia is the most well-known mythological oracle and features in many Greek myths. Delphi was considered the center of the world, and it was there that Apollo slew the Python. People would visit the Temple of Apollo to consult the Oracle of Delphi for advice on what to do. Often, these were questions on whether to go to war, such as the Spartans’ delegation ahead of the Peloponnesian War. Apollo would possess the Pythia and give his answer through her after a brief ritual, including the inhalation of fumes.

It is popularly believed that the Temple of Apollo had some kind of chasm or opening that the Pythia would sit over. Fumes and vapors would rise from the opening, and it is these that are suspected to cause the Pythia’s divine possession. The vapors could have had some hallucinogenic quality or be a chemical such as ethylene oxide, which can cause numbness, weakness, respiratory distress, and more. A combination of this could explain the Oracle of Delphi’s trance. Alternatively, it may have been the result of ingesting or inhaling a hallucinogenic plant or fungus.

Golden Apples

Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens
Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most well-known Greek myths is the golden apple thrown by Eris, the goddess of discord, meant for the most beautiful. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each laid claim to the apple, and Zeus had Paris of Troy decide who to give the apple. Each goddess bribed Paris so that they would be awarded the apple, and Paris chose Aphrodite, who promised him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Sparta, the wife of King Menelaus. And so the Trojan War began.

The golden apples could have referred to multiple fruits, but the most likely fruit is the humble orange. Though we do not know when they began trading with Asia, they might have traded oranges through other trade routes. The Greek for ‘orange’ is ‘golden apple’, and they may have been seen as magical due to the trees flowering and bearing fruit at the same time.

Scylla and Charybdis

An 1840 steel engraving of the Strait of Messina by A. H. Payne
Strait of Messina steel engraving by A. H. Payne
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In The Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus is confronted by two monsters on his way home, known as Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla, a six-headed tentacle monster, and Charybdis, a monster that swallows water in great whirlpools, birthed an idiom: “between Scylla and Charybdis” is to be between two dangerous places or else to choose between the lesser of two evils. They were thought to be found on the Strait of Messina.

There is a natural whirlpool in the north of the Strait of Messina, which was even marked on maps in the 19th century. While easier to navigate in later centuries, at the time of Ancient Greece a whirlpool would have been a great danger to sailors. Scylla is far less easily explained, though many have theorized a Kraken or giant squid might be the basis for her in myth. However, given that she is said to have lived in a cave in the rocks, it’s more likely that she was likened to some creature with polycephaly, which is characterized by multiple heads.

Cyclops

Odysseus and Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin
Odysseus and Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Cyclopes also feature in The Odyssey, as well as in Hesiod’s Theogony and several other stories. Polyphemus is perhaps the most famous and well-known cyclops. Giants with just a single eye, the cyclops were known as master builders and shepherds, with many living on a faraway island like Polyphemus, son of Poseidon.

Fossils of Deinotherium giganteum found in Crete have given rise to the theory that the Greeks may have found similar fossils. D. giganteum is an ancestor of elephants, and their large nasal opening for the trunk could quite easily be mistaken for an eye socket. Given their massive size and the likelihood of only fragments being found at a time, fossils such as these would no doubt have inspired stories and mythical creatures for ancient civilizations. Fossils are also thought to have inspired myths of dragons across the continents.

Minotaur

Athenians being Delivered to the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth
Athenians being Delivered to the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth by Gustave Moreau.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The minotaur of Crete, held in the labyrinth built by Daedalus for King Minos, was a terrifying beast. With the body of a man and the head of a bull, the minotaur also had a taste for flesh. It was through the Oracle of Delphi’s advice that King Minos had the labyrinth built, to contain the minotaur’s carnivorous diet to only those who were sent in. After the murder of his son, King Minos waged war on the Athenians, and after winning declared they should send him fourteen Athenians, which were then sent to the labyrinth to be hunted by the minotaur.

Given that the minotaur was on Crete, it’s possible the fossils of Deinotherium giganteum or others inspired the part-man part-bull minotaur. Others theorize that the minotaur’s bellowing came from tectonic activity beneath Crete, which the Minoans explained away as the minotaur roaring beneath them.

Golden Fleece

The Capture of the Golden Fleece
The Capture of the Golden Fleece by Jean-Francois de Troy.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The golden fleece is made from the golden, winged ram Chrysomallos, taken by Jason and the Argonauts with the help of Hera and Medea. King Pelias set the task of acquiring the golden fleece from King Aeetes of Colchis to prove that Jason was worthy of being king. King Aeetes then set Jason three tasks to earn the golden fleece: to plow a field with the fire-breathing bull Khalkotauroi, plant dragon’s teeth in the plowed field, and defeat the stone warriors the teeth sprouted. Jason completed the tasks and defeated the dragon to take the golden fleece.

Some believe the most likely explanation for the golden fleece existing involves washing gold from streams, by submerging sheep fleece in a stream and waiting for gold to be washed into the fleece. The fleece would then be dried by hanging it from a tree (much like the tree the golden fleece was found in by Jason) and then the gold could be shaken or combed out. Alternatively, the fleece might have originally been dyed purple, as purple is symbolically wealthy and related to royalty, much like gold is.

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