False Things About Greek Mythology You've Been Believing

Television drama is full of heroes, villains, betrayals, abductions, murders, and other fun stuff that we love to see happen to other people. Before television, there was Greek mythology, which was also full of all that same fun stuff we love to see happen to other people. So really, human beings haven't changed a whole lot in the last several thousand years, except today we get to watch it all happen with a bowl of popcorn.

Greek mythology has been told and retold so many times and for so many centuries that our modern understanding of it is sometimes a little bit off. Percy Jackson taught us that demigods were like ancient superheroes, and SpongeBob SquarePants taught us that Poseidon was mint green with a mermaid tail and that he was really self-conscious about his male-pattern baldness. That mix of pop culture and actual mythology has left us with a sort of twisted idea about the Greek myths, which is probably mostly harmless but does deserve to be clarified, if only for the sake of poor, misunderstood Poseidon.

'Ancient Greece' was a thing

You will often hear people say things like, "In ancient Greece, soldiers wore stupid-looking helmets with brooms on them so they could fight battles in the morning and keep the barracks tidy in the afternoon." What part of that statement is false? Answer: There really wasn't ever any "ancient Greece."

According to The Guardian, the Greek empire was divided up into "poleis," or city-states. There were over 1,000 poleis from Turkey to Marseille, France. Remember there was no globalization in those days, so even though the poleis existed under the umbrella of the Greek empire, they had very different traditions. That means the Greek myths we're all familiar with were not consistent from one part of the Greek empire to another, and the gods and goddesses considered important also varied by region.

It is definitely true, though, that Greek soldiers wore stupid-looking helmets with brooms on them. As yet there has been no physical or pictorial evidence that they used them to tidy up the barracks between conquests, but you know they must have.

Greek and Roman mythology are interchangeable

Greek and Roman mythology had a lot of similarities but they were not always interchangeable. According to ThoughtCo, Greek deities were sometimes more or less equivalent to the Roman versions of the same gods, and the Romans did adopt some Greek myths. But Roman religion was much more practical — humans had to follow a set of divine rules, and if they stuck to those rules then the gods would help them master the forces of nature. If the gods didn't deliver, the Romans were free to find themselves some new gods. The Greeks were a little more theatrical — their gods and goddesses could take on human form and each one of them had mythology that helped explain their actions or some fundamental truth of the world. 

The Romans really had very little mythology for their own gods until they adopted the myths of the Greeks. There was also no "creed" in the Roman religion. As long as you followed all those divine rules, you could pretty much think whatever you wanted to think about who the gods were and what they looked like. Think the god of thunder is some guy in the clouds with a pair of symbols and a drum set? Whatever. Just put your denarius in the cup, please. It is interesting to see the Roman equivalent of each Greek god, but that's in no way an indication that the two religions were interchangeable.

Demigods had superpowers

Everyone wants to be a demigod because demigods have magical powers and they're super sexy. If you've ever read the Percy Jackson series, you understand the truth of this statement like you understand that Greek soldiers wear stupid-looking helmets with brooms on them. Except that no, only half of that statement is true. Demigods didn't usually get to have superpowers unless those powers were conferred upon them later in life. It is true that they were super sexy, though.

According to Mythology.net, "demigods" were sometimes minor deities, and sometimes just particularly heroic human beings. But most people think of demigods as being half human and half god — Heracles and Achilles are examples of this type. Heracles was the son of Zeus, and Achilles was the son of the sea-goddess Thetis. Both were stronger than the average mortal, but they couldn't shoot lightning bolts from their eyeballs or whip up a hurricane or anything. And both of them were mortal, which is really the defining feature of a demigod. Sure, they've got the whole super-strength thing, but that doesn't mean they can't be killed.

Now, Achilles was nearly impervious to harm because his mother dipped him in the River Styx when he was an infant, but he wasn't born with that power — it was given to him. So really being a demigod isn't as awesome as it sounds, although you do get to be super sexy. Maybe that alone makes it worthwhile.

Pandora's box wasn't a box

In what is perhaps the most shocking revelation you'll read today, the box that Pandora famously opened, which set forth all the world's evils, was not actually a box. It was a jar. Please, pick up all the pieces of your exploded head so we can continue.

According to the Theoi Project, Pandora was the first human created by the gods. They made her out of clay and then pretty much immediately married her off to some random god or another. As a wedding present, Zeus gave her a jar. Maybe she thought it had homemade jam in it or something because she opened it, which tends to be what people do when they're given jars of stuff as wedding presents. Instead of delicious strawberry preserves, though, the jar was full of evil spirits, which was a total butt move on Zeus' part. The spirits flew away to plague mankind forever, and then one of them clearly started the rumor that Pandora actually opened a box and not a jar so all our heads would simultaneously explode when we found out the truth.

Ares was badass

Ares was the god of war, so that means he was a total badass. If Olympus was still a thing, Ares would ride missiles and surf on nuclear submarines, and instead of being known for olives and feta cheese, Greece would rule the world. Except this is a list of false things about Greek mythology, so you know what's coming next: Ares was not, in fact, a total badass. At best, he was sort of annoying. At worst, he was a coward.

According to Greek Mythology Link, Ares represented all the worst parts of war (not that there are really any good parts). He was a "blood-stained homicide god" who mainly just wanted to entice people to kill each other. Ares represented violence and brutality, while the goddess Athena represented military strategy, or the more rational side of war.

No one liked Ares, including his own parents. He was the god of war, but he got defeated all the time and was prone to throwing adolescent temper tantrums when things weren't going his way. There were a few temples dedicated to him — armies might stop there to make sacrifices on their way to the battlefield, but it was probably more of a "Let's make this crazy person happy, just in case" sort of thing, rather than the less likely scenario of an army that thought Ares was going to play a significant role in the outcome of a battle. At least the Greeks were practical, right?

There are 12 Olympians

The Olympians were "The Big 12," sort of like a divine board of directors. They lived on Mount Olympus (which is a real place), and they had regular meetings to discuss what mortals were up to, who Ares pissed off last week, and whether they should finally declare those stupid helmets with the brooms on them out of fashion.

The concept of the Twelve Olympians is pretty standard Greek mythology stuff, but the names of the 12 weren't really consistent. According to Greek Gods and Goddesses, the turnover at the Olympian board of directors was about what you would expect for a typical government agency, with some gods resigning because they were fed up with all the stupid cat fighting about whose fault the problems were (oh, wait, that's Congress), and with some gods taking over for the gods who resigned, until eventually no one on Earth knew what the heck was going on up there. Hestia, for example, left the council and was replaced by Dionysus. Back on Earth there was a statue of Hephaestus included among the Twelve Olympians, even though he wasn't one of them, and Hades is conspicuously absent, even though he was. So if you consider all the different Greek myths and the varying ways the stories are told, there are actually 14 Twelve Olympians. Don't feel bad if that's confusing, though. It makes more sense than about nine-tenths of what happens in Congress.

The Trojan War was based on history

The image of the wooden horse full of malevolent Greek soldiers is such a part of world consciousness that most people never question whether it actually happened.

According to National Geographic, the Trojan War story appears in Homer's poem The Iliad, which was written in the eighth or ninth century B.C. So far, historians haven't been able to find evidence that the characters in the story actually existed — Helen, who was supposedly the whole reason for the war, is probably total fiction.

Homer may have based his story on a real city, however. In 1870, a German "adventurer" named Heinrich Schliemann excavated a nine-layer city in Turkey, mostly by blowing it up, and found what he believed to be Helen's jewels. He was wrong — the jewels predated fictional Helen by a thousand years — but he did reveal a city that resembled fictional Troy. Most modern archaeologists think Homer based his story on the Troy that existed in the sixth or seventh layers. Here's where it starts to sound a little questionable, though. The actual city appears to have perished in an earthquake, so archaeologists came up with a rather tenuously connected theory — maybe, just maybe, the Trojan horse was symbolic of Poseidon, who was the god of horses and of earthquakes. So the Trojan horse represented Poseidon who represented earthquakes and there wasn't really a war, but doesn't that make a much better story anyway? Or something. You be the judge.

Hades was basically the Greek version of Satan

In the Christian tradition, the underworld is ruled by a super-sized baddy. Satan is all about tempting innocent humans to the dark side and then throwing them into a pit of hellfire for all eternity, and there's something about playing a fiddle in there somewhere, too. Anyway, most people who grew up with some concept of the underworld think of Hell and Satan and all the fire and brimstone, so we sort of project those ideas on to lords of the underworld from other traditions.

But that concept of pure evil doesn't really exist in the Greek tradition. There's Ares, who was sort of evil but mostly just really annoying, and there's Hades, who was indeed god of the dead but was not the bright red, horned, cloven-hoofed monster we like to imagine sits on a throne in the underworld.

According to the Theoi Project, Hades not only ruled the kingdom of the dead and presided at funerals, (which actually does sound kind of creepy) he was also "god of the hidden wealth of the earth," which meant that fertile soil and mines were under his domain as well. He did abduct Persephone, which is one very large strike against him, but in all fairness that's pretty much what the Greek gods and goddesses liked to do as a hobby, so it's not like the abduction particularly set him apart from the rest of his brethren.

Every Greek god was god of something

We like to define the Greek gods and goddesses the same way we define ourselves: according to the one specific job we do. For example, you might be Fred the Nurse or Agnes the Firefighter. Likewise, Greek deities must have been Fred the God of Cookies, or Agnes the Goddess of Having Your Nose in a Smartphone All the Time. But it was actually not that simple.

According to Springhole.net, most Greek deities played multiple roles. We already know that Poseidon had something to do with earthquakes and horses but was also the god of the sea, and apparently we also get to blame him for the fact that it hardly ever rains in California anymore. And there was also Hermes, who not only had to run around with the gods' stupid notes (because Agnes the Goddess of Having Your Nose in a Smartphone All the Time hadn't joined the Olympians yet) but was also the god of commerce, athletes, travelers, cattle, writing, giving speeches, telling stupid jokes, being nice to visitors, stealing stuff, oh and astrology. Also, he had to ferry departed souls to the underworld. He did have those shoes with the wings on them, so that was a perk.

So you can't really definitively say that all gods were gods of one thing or another, but you can say that they were pretty seriously overworked, which explains why they were so ill-tempered all the time.

The Titans were all villains

Before the Olympians there were the Titans, who were sort of like the aging parents who get sent to an elder care home so the kids can squabble over the proceeds of the house.

The Titans were the first gods, personifications of the big, important stuff, like the heavens and the earth. The Theoi Project gives the Titans credit for putting together time and the universe.

Even though the Titans made it possible for everything that came afterward, they're usually portrayed as villains. Cronos, for example, swallowed his kids to preemptively stop them from rebelling (which only worked until Zeus made him barf them all up again). Now granted, swallowing your own children is a 10 on the Richter scale of evil, but not every Titan was as messed up as Cronos. The female Titans were neutral during the 10-year war between Titans and Olympians, and some of them stuck around afterward. Those Titans who did resist going to the elder care home were defeated and then flung into the Tartarus, which was a chasm in the underworld so deep that even Hades was all, "I am so not going down there."

But besides being huge and scary and castrating their dad with a sickle, the Titans weren't all bad. Like the Olympians, they did some dark stuff and some not-so-dark stuff, so in a lot of ways they were more realistic than Hollywood characters. That, of course, isn't saying much.

Greek mythology is a collection of stories like the Bible

Greek mythology began as an oral tradition during the Bronze Age, which was somewhere between 3300 and 1200 B.C. So the Greeks didn't really have a book they could pass out at airports or leave in hotel rooms because the stories evolved over thousands of years, and people didn't think to start writing them all down until they'd already been circulating for centuries.

According to History, Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey in the eighth century B.C., and in the seventh century B.C. a poet called Hesiod wrote down the origin story. The written tradition really started to take off in the fifth century, when playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles began developing the gods and other mythological figures for the stage. Then in the first century B.C. a Roman historian named Gaius Julius Hyginus finally wrote the major myths down in a compilation meant to be read by average people. Remember that this was more than a thousand years after the first myths started circulating verbally, so they were likely pretty evolved by then and probably bore little resemblance to the originals.

Cupid was a chubby baby who helped people fall in love

Valentine's Day is associated with Cupid, even though Valentine was a Christian saint, said to have performed secret marriages after Emperor Claudius II outlawed the practice for young men (evidently, the Emperor thought unmarried men made better soldiers). So how did Cupid get mixed up in all this? He was the Roman version of Eros, the Greek god of love. (And also probably the god of other random stuff because the gods were multi-taskers, remember?)

On Valentine's Day, Eros/Cupid is usually depicted as a chubby baby with wings, but in the Greek stories he was kind of sinister, and also not a cute, chubby baby but a blindfolded adult male. According to History, instead of helping young lovers connect, Eros preferred to mess with people's heads, which really is a much more realistic interpretation of how love usually unfolds. Eros had two quivers — one with golden arrows, which made the recipient fall in love, and the other with lead arrows, which made the recipient roll his or her eyes in disgust and unfriend the person who was on the receiving end of the golden arrow. So maybe his transformation from adult male giver-of-misery to cute, chubby baby with wings makes a certain amount of sense. We've already got sadistic gods of war, children-eating Titans, and jam-covered evil spirits to be afraid of. We don't need to be tormented by the god of love, too.