The ancient Greeks worshipped a pantheon of twelve major gods and goddesses, each of whom represented a central aspect of human life. There were gods of music, wisdom, war, fire, and beauty, to name just a few.
Even though the Greek gods aren’t typically worshipped anymore, Greek mythology has never gone out of style and continues to offer an endless trove of stories, characters, and images. While Greek myths influence all aspects of culture—we name planets and corporations after the gods, for example—the influence is perhaps most prevalent in the arts. Let’s look at some of the poets, playwrights, and novelists through the ages who have found inspiration in the tales of the Greek gods.
1.) Sophocles (496–406 BCE)
Sophocles was the most revered playwright in Athens during the city’s golden age, winning 24 of Athens’s annual drama competitions. His best known play is Oedipus the King, often called Oedipus Rex, which tells the story of a farmer’s son who rises to become the king of Thebes, only to discover that he has fulfilled a terrible prophecy. While the play is full of references to the gods, Apollo—the god who presides over visions and prophecies—takes center stage. Consider this scene where Oedipus, angry at his fate, blames Apollo:
Apollo, friend, Apollo, he it was
That brought these ills to pass;
But the right hand that dealt the blow
Was mine, none other. How,
How, could I longer see when sight
Brought no delight?
Read the rest of the play to find out what Oedipus’s prophecy was and where he misstepped.
2.) Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet of the late Middle Ages. In his three-volume epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante incorporates figures from Italian politics and history, the Bible, and Greco-Roman mythology into his vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. In the following passage of The Inferno, Dante’s protagonist—also named Dante—finds himself in the realm of the falsifiers. Thus, Dante alludes to the myth of Zeus, Semele, and Hera (known as Juno in Roman mythology):
What time resentment burn’d in Juno’s breast
For Semele against the Theban blood,
As more than once in dire mischance was rued…
Zeus, who was Hera’s husband, was an adulterer, taking many different disguises to seduce lovers such as Semele. Learn more about Hera here and also read the tale of Zeus and Semele.
3.) William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
William Shakespeare remains one of the most beloved poets and playwrights of the English-speaking world. Like many of his Renaissance-era peers, Shakespeare often alluded to Greek and Roman mythology as a way of illuminating the events of his plays. Consider this scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream between the lovers Hermia and Lysander:
My good Lysander!
I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow,
By his best arrow, with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves…
Hermia swears by both Venus and her son, Cupid—known to the Greeks as Aphrodite and Eros—because they are the gods of love and lust, presiding over the affairs of lovers.
4.) Herman Melville (1819–1891)
Herman Melville grew up in New York, spent his youth on a whaling ship, and then wrote about his experiences in Moby-Dick, now a classic American novel. Melville poured into the novel his broad learning in science, philosophy, and mythology, seeking numerous angles from which to understand the central subject: the great white whale known as Moby-Dick. Throughout the novel, the narrator, Ishmael, compares Moby-Dick to Jove—also known as Jupiter or Zeus—the king of the gods:
In the higher mysteries of the most august religions [whiteness] has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; […] in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull…
If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birth-right, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; in the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.
To understand Ishmael’s comparison, learn more about Zeus, his kingship, and his adventures as a bull.
5.) Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)
Katherine Mansfield grew up in New Zealand and moved to England, where she became a prominent fiction writer of the modernist movement. In her short story “The Garden Party,” Mansfield weaves the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades into the modern story of a upper-class girl named Laura who descends to the working-class cottages to visit a young man who has died:
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful.
Mansfield displays how ancient myths can make for elegant modern literature. Read on for more about the story of Persephone and Hades.
Because the Greek myths are about the most essential human experiences, artists and writers will always turn to them for inspiration and insight. If you love literature as much as we do, you’ll also love reading about the Greek gods and discovering the many ways they have shaped some of the greatest poems, plays, novels and stories of all time.