Obscure Greek myths.
Greek mythology is perhaps one of the most popular collections of stories ever studied. From Odysseus’ adventures and the Argonautica to Athena’s and Poseidon’s contest and the Titanomachy, Greek myths have been retold countless times over the span of several centuries. There are however some fascinating stories that even mythology buffs are unaware of. For example, are you aware of Helen’s bizarre family secret? Did you know that the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is just the peak of the iceberg?
5 Obscure Greek Myths
- Prophet Orpheus
- The Mermaid Sister of Alexander the Great
- Helen of Troy’s secret
- The Haunting of Athenodorus
- The Curse of Erysichthon of Thessaly
The Curse of Erysichthon of Thessaly
One of the most obscure ancient Greek myths is the one of Erysichthon, king of Thessaly. According to poet Callimachus, the noble man ended up dying as a beggar, after destructing nature for his own needs. It all started when he visited the sacred grove of Demeter and started cutting down a tree that belonged to the nymphs.
Once the goddess of agriculture saw him, she transformed herself into a mortal woman and rushed to the grove to warn him against cutting trees. King Erysichthon, however, threatened to kill the woman with his axe. As he said, he required the wood to build an extension of his house to host more dinner parties. What he did not know was that he had just committed hybris.
Demeter cursed the king of Thessaly with the punishment of Limos – a type of hunger that cannot be satiated. He spent all his money to satisfy his hunger and ended up begging on the streets for breadcrumbs. Interestingly, the Roman poet Ovid shared his own version of the myth, giving Erysichthon an even more tragic end: the king ends up eating his own flesh and dying in the process.
The Haunting of Athenodorus
Another lesser-known ancient Greek story is the one of Athenodorus. We have seen this myth in the article and video titled “Ancient Greek Ghost Stories”. Athenodorus was a Greek philosopher who moved to Athens in the 1st century AD to study. According to a story that many claim is 100% true, the philosopher ended up renting the first house to be documented as haunted.
The huge mansion was in the outskirts of Athens and was offered at a suspiciously low price. Athenodorus had considered himself lucky to find such a good deal and moved in immediately. Some locals tried to warn him of the paranormal phenomena that happened there after sunset; the philosopher, however, did not believe in ghosts and found these warnings amusing.
It didn’t take long for Athenodorus to convert from a skeptic to a believer. It was nighttime and the student studied philosophy in his office room when he heard heavy footsteps coming from the ground floor. The steps were becoming louder and louder, coming closer and closer to his study room. They were accompanied by the rattling noise of chains being dragged on the floor and a general sense of doom. Athenodorus kept focusing on his papers, trying to avoid looking back at the door. He could feel someone or something staring at him. Unable to manage his urge to stare at the source of his dread, the student looked back only to see the ghostly figure of a man in chains.
Surprisingly, the phantom tried to catch his attention as if he wanted to communicate something important to him. Once he was able to shake his fear, Athenodorus stood up and approached the ghost. The latter then started moving towards another part of the house, as if he wanted the student to follow him. The ghost made Athenodorus go down the stairs and exit towards the courtyard. He then disappeared.
The philosopher grew suspicious. Was someone murdered and buried there? The next morning, Athenodorus visited the city officials and asked them to excavate his courtyard. What they discovered was a chained skeleton that seemed to have been buried there years ago. The bones were removed and buried according to the funeral traditions of that time. As the philosopher used to tell to his friends, the ghost found peace and never visited the world of the living since then.
Helen of Troy’s secret
One strange, lesser-known ancient Greek myth involves Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. The most beautiful woman of ancient Greece who inspired the Trojan War, had a very bizarre occurrence happening to her family.
As we have seen in the “Top 10 Weirdest Births in Ancient Greek Mythology”, Helen’s mother was the Spartan queen Leda. She was married to king Tyndareus and had many children together. These did not include Helen, since she was the result of an extra-marital affair.
Leda was the mistress of god Zeus who is known for seeking the company of mortal women. In order to seduce the queen, Zeus transformed himself into a swan and approached Leda while she was bathing in a lake. Few months later, Leda gave birth to an egg. The egg hatched and young Helen was born. Although many people know her role in the Trojan War, few are aware of this weird family secret.
The Mermaid Sister of Alexander the Great
A modern Greek legend that roots back to the Hellenistic years is the one of Mermaid Thessaloniki. In the folklore episode “Mermaids of Greece”, we saw the story of princess Thessaloniki, whose name was given to the second biggest city in Greece.
Thessaloniki is a historical, rather than a mythological person. She was the daughter of King Philip II of Macedon and sister of Alexander the Great. However, there is a legend about her that non-Greeks rarely know.
According to this story, Thessaloniki was offered a flask filled with water from the “Fountain of Youth” by her brother Alexander. After washing her hair with it, she became immortal. However, the princess soon attempted to end her life by falling into the waters of the northern Aegean Sea. She had just learned that her beloved brother had died and wanted to meet him in the afterlife.
Since she had just washed her hair with the miraculous water, her body did not shut down. It adapted to the marine environment and Thessaloniki grew a tail and was able to breathe under the sea. She was basically a mermaid, known as yoryona/gorgona in Greek. The explorers of the seas used to fear her, since, rumor had it, that she would attack anyone who would tell her that Alexander is no longer alive.
Another obscure myth revolves around a legendary musician named Orpheus. He is mostly known from Virgil’s love story “Orpheus and Eurydice” which narrates the attempt of the musician to bring his deceased wife back to life.
It all started when Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake, which led to her death. Orpheus was heartbroken and decided to travel to the underworld and reclaim his wife. Moved by Orpheus’s grief and his music, Hades and Persephone agreed to let Eurydice go, but on one condition: Orpheus must lead her out of the underworld without looking back at her shadow. As soon as they would exit Hades, Eurydice would regain her flesh.
Orpheus was overjoyed and started leading Eurydice out of there, but as they neared the exit, he could not resist the urge to look back and see if she was still following him. As he turned around, Eurydice was immediately pulled back into the darkness of the underworld. His entry to Hades was forbidden and he wasn’t able to meet his wife again.
However, Orpheus has an entire mythology surrounding him, as he was considered the Prophet of an obscure ancient Greek cult. Orphism, as it was called, was an early Dionysian religion that focused on life after death. Its members believed that Orpheus had revealed the secrets of the underworld and, if they followed his rules, they would be rewarded in the afterlife.
An important symbol of this belief system was the so-called “Orphic Egg”, a cosmic egg that hatched a primordial deity known as Phanes – the bringer of light. The egg was protected by a gigantic serpent and, if you pay close attention, you will notice it being used by many secret societies around the world. As you can imagine, many people see a connection between Phanes and the biblical Fallen Angel (Eosphorus). Who would have thought that the character of an ancient love story would be involved in some of the darkest myths of ancient Greek mythology?
Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.
Feel free to leave questions/remarks…