People love to tell stories. We love to hear about the adventures others have faced, as well as their successes and misfortunes. We enjoy delving into a world that’s similar to but also different from our own to hear how great characters, and even not-so-great characters, face challenges that are sometimes very familiar, sometimes entirely fantastical. The Ancient Greeks loved their myths. Adults and children alike enjoyed hearing about the exploits of heroes such as Heracles and Theseus, and of monsters such as Medusa and the Minotaur. Besides being part of their religious culture, these myths were a constant presence in their daily lives: on vases, on temples, in the theatre, and on the street.
Fairy tales have likewise featured heavily in our own lives for the past few centuries. Although traditionally told to children, adults engage with them too as the storytellers. These tales often feature princes and princesses but also ordinary, poor children who face various challenges and trials. They too often have fantastical elements, like witches or talking wolves. Although not as prevalent in daily life as myths were in Ancient Greece, they are still a bedrock of a child’s upbringing.
So how similar are these two genres of stories? Do their communalities and differences reveal something about the people who told them? Let’s see.
There are many children in fairy tales, often even taking the leading role as the protagonists: Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and his beanstalk appear as the dominant figures in their tales, where they are depicted as children rather than adults. They face and overcome some pretty horrendous challenges: a witch who tries to eat them, a wolf who eats their grandmother – and in some versions them too, and a giant who grinds men’s bones to make bread! It is interesting that this genre, which is focused on creating stories for children, made sure to feature children heavily and yet did not shy away from some of the worst brutalities and greatest fears.
On the other hand, Greek myths do not really include children beyond those born as a result of a marriage or an affair. One could argue that many of the women in these stories were technically minors, but given the younger age at which girls in Ancient Greece got married and their different social norms, the women of these stories are depicted as though they were young adults rather than children.
Myths were doubtless told among children in Greece, although we have no direct evidence to confirm this, but they were primarily shared among adults. This mature audience was both entertained and instructed about bravery, relationships and the importance of honouring the gods. Perhaps this explains the very different nature of the protagonists: fairy tales were written to teach children to be careful, not to talk to strangers or stray from the path, while myths were told to educate adults about life and its challenges. It is no surprise, therefore, that the protagonists mirror the target audience.
Children Who Get Eaten
It’s surprising how many traditions and cultures around the world have stories for children that are centred around characters who eat children. Hansel and Gretel are famously lured into a gingerbread house by a witch who plans to fatten them up and eat them. Baba Yaga is a similar figure from Russian folklore, who chases children on her broomstick and eats them with her iron teeth. Likewise, the Hagondes is a trickster, cannibal clown who frightens children of the Seneca People, Native Americans. Children love to get a little frightened in their stories – and many parents have used these figures to scare their children into eating their vegetables or going to bed on time!
Greek mythology has a similar tradition. The Minotaur feasts on seven boys and seven girls either every year (Apollodorus Library 3.15.8; Pausanias Description of Greece 1.27) or every nine years (Ovid Metamorphoses 8.172–82). Lamia also eats children after Hera deprived her of her own (Duris of Samos, Libyica 2; Diodorus Siculus Library of History 20.41). The Cyclops Polyphemus does not limit himself to children, though: he eats adults too, including some of Odysseus’ crew (Homer Odyssey 9.105–566).
The idea and fear of children (and adults) being eaten is clearly a mainstream one attested widely across folklore, probably because it comes close to the line of what is real and what could happen.
The Hero in Shining Armour
Myths and fairy tales often have a hero, who comes to save the day. In myth this could be Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea-monster (Ovid Metamorphoses 4.663–792), or Heracles who rids the world of numerous barbaric beasts, such as the Hydra (Pausanias 2.37.4) or the birds of the Stymphalian marshes (Pausanias 8.22.5).
This is somewhat like the Prince Charming figure from fairy tales. Cesari’s painting makes this clear as Perseus rides in, from the sky, on a horse. He is clearly re-telling this myth in a ‘fairy tale’ manner, as in the original version Perseus flies in using the sandals given to him by Hermes after slaying Medusa. But the story-pattern of Perseus and Andromeda is not that common in myths. Much more common is the hero who overcomes numerous challenges to secure something for himself: we readily think of Hercules, Odysseus, Jason, Theseus, and the like. A female figure is often involved in some way or another, but they are not the end goal of the hero’s quest.
Fairy tales often have a hero who rescues the damsel, such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, by killing the evil queen or witch and kissing the maiden while she’s asleep. While there is often some enemy-slaying in fairy tales, it seems that equal weight and attention is given to the romantic kiss at the end, whereas Greek myths relish most in the challenges and trials that heroes must overcome. The courage, strength and intelligence needed to face these monsters is exciting and admirable for both an ancient audience and a modern one. A good kiss is important, but perhaps less invigorating to a reader. Certainly, in the twenty-first century I doubt many would take kindly to a stranger kissing them while they are asleep! And we have certainly come a long way from the original telling of the Sleeping Beauty story, the fourteenth-century Perceforest, where Venus encourages the prince charming figure Troylus to rape the sleeping Zellandine.
So why is it that myths feature heroes who must often face challenges to get the throne (or whatever prize they seek), but fairy tales feature princes who face challenges to get the girl? I will return to this question at the end of this piece, but for now, let’s not kid ourselves: the girl was often a princess in fairy tales, so she often did indeed secure the throne for Prince Charming. Or am I being too cynical?
Women in Myths and Fairy Tales
If the heroes of these stories share something in common, the women share even less. While fairy tales love a damsel in distress, myths do not. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are each rescued from their various trials – an evil stepmother, a terrible illness and curse, and another evil stepmother and povert – by a ‘Prince Charming’. As we have seen above, there are some myths that share this story: Andromeda is rescued by Perseus from the sea-monster, and one could argue that Penelope is eventually rescued by Odysseus from the suitors.
Sometimes, however, women in Greek myth play the glamorous assistant role, helping the hero overcome his challenge. Ariadne gives Theseus the ball of string with which he can make his way out of the labyrinth, and a sword with which to kill the Minotaur (Plutarch Life of Theseus 19). Likewise, Medea helped Jason get the Golden Fleece by using her magical potions and sorcery (Apollodorus Argonautika Books 3 and 4).
Unfortunately for both women, Theseus and Jason are pretty ungrateful for the help they received. Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos while she is asleep and Jason leaves Medea to marry Glauce, another princess.
Which of these two types of tale appeals more in the modern world? The myth where the women are valued and then discarded, or the fairy tale where they are rescued by a stranger and ‘live happily ever after’? I would argue that, in the modern day, neither appeals to our values and ideas of social justice and rights for women. It is not surprising, then, that both have been revisited and retold.
There is currently huge interest in retelling myths from the perspective of the women involved. Books like Emily Hauser’s trilogy (For the Most Beautiful, For the Winner, For the Immortal), Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar, Madeleine Miller’s Circe, Hannah Lynn’s Athena’s Child, and Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne are all casting new light on these figures. In a similar vein, the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsmen recasts the title figure as a heroine who leads armies and fights the evil Ravenna herself. Even the more light-hearted film Mirror Mirror, also of 2012, has the pointed reversal of Snow White kissing Prince Alcott to undo a spell before facing the Beast.
Mythical figures, however, rather than fairy tale heroines, are also being used to make public statements about social justice.
One particularly interesting modern version of women in ancient myth comes in the form of a seven-foot statue of Medusa, sculpted by Luciano Garbati, outside the courthouses in New York where several men have been convicted of sexual assault. Unlike traditional depictions of this myth, it is Medusa who is standing with a sword in hand, carrying Perseus’ head, rather than the other way around. The reversal serves as a symbol of female empowerment. Many have questioned why it is Perseus who has been beheaded and not Poseidon, since it was the sea god who raped her. But perhaps that would misunderstand the nature of gods: just as Athena cannot punish Poseidon and instead takes her vengeance upon the mortal, so too Medusa makes a man pay for Poseidon’s sin. In any case, the statue itself removes the gods completely from the narrative, to show instead a woman who has taken control of her own story.
Gods and the Supernatural
One final and important point of comparison between myths and fairy tales is the role of gods and the supernatural. While Greek myths feature the gods heavily, there is no such presence in fairy tales, although some do have witches and elements of the supernatural. The spell cast on Sleeping Beauty and her family, the magic beans that turn into an enormous beanstalk, the character of Rumpelstiltskin – these are all supernatural elements that make fairy tales exciting and attractive. In each tale, however, the ‘fantasy’ part is unique.
Myths, on the other hand, were created in part to connect the contemporary Greeks with those of their heroic past. As such, they shared the same gods and religious traditions and served to remind everyday individuals of the value of honouring the gods correctly. The myth of Pentheus aptly illustrates what happens if you fail to worship Dionysus: he was torn to pieces, limb by limb, by his unwitting mother and her fellow female worshippers (Euripides Bacchae; Ovid Metamorphoses 3.528–733).
Similarly, Arachne learned not to challenge Athena to a weaving contest: she was turned into a spider (Ovid Metamorphoses 6.129–145). Conversely, piety gets you divine support, such as Odysseus received from Athena because she favoured him.
Greek myths also feature supernatural beings and magic, which further contributes to their allure. Monsters such as Medusa, the Minotaur or Cerberus have great appeal because they are at once recognisable (snake hair, bull head, three dog heads) but also completely fabulous and fictitious. This balance between the familiar and fantastic is inevitably exciting. Children, both in Ancient Greece and today, can envisage the monster so clearly… it could be real.
But since these monsters were likely to have been invented to scare children, unlike many of the baddies from fairy tales, let’s think about their role a little further. Medusa was turned into a monster as a punishment by Athena for surrendering her chastity to Poseidon; or, as a modern audience may rather see it, for being raped. There was a clear religious lesson here, as with Pentheus and Arachne: honour the gods as they desire and demand.
The Minotaur was likewise created as a punishment against King Minos by Poseidon. Minos did not sacrifice a beautiful white bull as he was ordered to, so his wife Pasiphae was made to fall in love with the bull, resulting in the birth of the Minotaur. Considering that these monsters were created to punish mortals for their impiety, it is no surprise that they are both extreme and other-worldly, but also familiar and somehow almost possible. The myths entertained but also taught honour and respect to the gods; having a monster that is therefore human as well as beastly serves as a good warning.
Other monsters, however, have a quite different role and nature. Cerberus, for example, was a monster who guarded the Underworld. According to Apollodorus, he had three heads of wild dogs, a dragon or serpent for a tail, and heads of snakes all over his back. Hesiod, however, describes him with fifty heads! Likewise, the Chimaera was a monster with the body and head of a lion, the head of a goat on its back and a tail that ended with a snake head (first mentioned by Homer at Iliad 6.180). These were not originally mortals who were transformed as punishment; they were monsters that had to be overcome as part of a hero’s journey.
Heracles’ twelfth and final labour was to capture Cerberus for King Eurystheus, while Bellerophon was sent to slay the Chimaera by the King of Lycia. It seems that here the Greeks invented their monsters out of the most terrifying animals they knew, creating hybrid beasts that only true heroes can face. It is a sign of bravery and heroism that they are overcome. This seems not dissimilar to fairy tales, where monsters who have to be defeated by the heroes are also bigger and scarier versions of real-life animals, such as dragons or wolves.
Let’s return to the differences I have noticed between myths and fairy tales. The most obvious one was the role of love. As noted above, often in fairy tales the plot is strikingly simple: there is a damsel in distress who is saved by a knight in shining armour, they fall in love and live happily ever after. This does not feature in Greek myths. Why? Was there no love in Ancient Greece? Highly unlikely! Were they not a romantic people? Again, highly unlikely.
Perhaps the answer lies in the role myths played in Ancient Greek society, as opposed to that of fairy tales. It seems that, while both genres wanted to entertain and to teach, fairy tales were largely used for escapism too, as a fantasy for a better life and outcome. Perhaps Greek society, with its anthropomorphised gods who did not promise a blessed afterlife and redemption (outside the Eleusinian Mysteries), unlike the Christian religion, did not feel a need for their stories to explore such emotions.
I do not have the answer to this pointed difference, so I leave the question with you: why is love not as prevalent in Ancient Greek mythology as it is in fairy tales? Or is it there, just not identified in the way we modern readers expect?
Athina Mitropoulos is Head of Classics at Queen’s Gate School, London. Once Upon a Myth, her own retelling of Ancient Greek myths and fairy tale, is available via Olympia Publishing, Amazon and elsewhere. You can follow the book on Instagram here. Athina also runs workshops for Years 4-7 on creative writing and mythology; if you or your school is interested, please contact her here.