You Gotta Know These Mortal Women in Greek Myth
- Pandora (meaning “gifted” or “all gifts”) was the first human woman in Greek mythology. Hephaestus sculpted her from clay as a punishment for humanity after Prometheus stole fire from the gods. The primary myth of Pandora relates how she released all the evils of the world by opening a jar (“Pandora’s Box”), and when she closed the lid only hope remained within. Pandora married the Titan Epimetheus, and their daughter Pyrrha survived the Greek flood with her husband Deucalion.
- Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful mortal woman during the Age of Heroes. Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and her siblings were Castor, Polydeuces (or Pollux), and Clytemnestra. When Helen married Menelaus, the king of Sparta, Helen’s father Tyndareus forced the Greek kings to swear an oath to fight for her if she were kidnapped. When she was abducted by (or eloped with) Paris, a prince of Troy, the whole Greek world plunged into the Trojan War. For this reason, Christopher Marlowe had Doctor Faustus refer to Helen as “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
- Medea was a sorceress from the island of Colchis; her father was King Aeëtes, and her aunt was the witch Circe. Medea encountered the hero Jason when he and the Argonauts came to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, and she helped him yoke fire-breathing oxen and sow dragon’s teeth. Medea left Colchis with Jason, and on the voyage home she killed both her brother Absyrtus and the giant bronze automaton Talos. She and Jason had several children together, but Jason ultimately left Medea for the princess Glauce; in vengeance, she killed two of her children and fled on a golden chariot.
- Penelope was the ever-faithful wife of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca whose long journey home is the subject of The Odyssey. While Odysseus was away, Penelope was courted by dozens of suitors led by Antinous, but she held them off with cunning: she told them she’d wed one when she finished weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes, but she unwove her progress each night. When Odysseus returned, she tested his identity by asking the maid to move their bed, which cannot be done since the bed—crafted by Odysseus—is had one post that was a living olive tree. Her only child is a son, Telemachus.
- Arachne was a talented Lydian weaver who constantly boasted that her skills were better than that of any of the gods. Arachne challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving competition, during which Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the gods’ transgressions against mankind and Athena depicted four contests between mortals and the gods. The result of the competition depends on the sources: some say that Arachne won but Athena was insulted by her images and destroyed Arachne’s work, and others say that Athena’s weaving was superior. In all versions, though, Athena turns Arachne into a spider.
- Clytemnestra was the wife of King Agamemnon and the sister of Castor, Polydeuces, and Helen. When Agamemnon’s troops were stuck at Aulis en route to Troy, he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, which made Clytemnestra very angry. She later began an affair with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin; when Agamemnon returned to Mycenae after the Trojan War, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him and his concubine Cassandra. In response, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s son Orestes killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, continuing the curse of the House of Atreus.
- Hecuba (or Hekabe) was the wife of King Priam, and therefore the Queen of Troy, during the Trojan War. Her children included Paris—who kidnapped Helen—and Hector, the great Trojan warrior who was slain by Achilles. In Book VI of the Iliad, she leads the Trojan woman in prayer to Zeus on behalf of the Trojan warriors. After the war, Hecuba was grief-stricken upon learning of the death of her youngest daughter Polyxena, and she was given to Odysseus as a slave.
- Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë, making her a princess of Crete. Minos’s palace in Knossos is sometimes referred to as the “dancing ground of Ariadne.” When Theseus came to Crete to kill the Minotaur, Ariadne fell in love with him and gave him a ball of twine to help him navigate the Labyrinth. Ariadne and Theseus left Crete together, but he later abandoned her on the island of Naxos where she was saved by Dionysus, whom she married. Her wedding diadem was placed in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis.
- Atalanta was a fierce warrior who drew first blood in the Calydonian Boar hunt led by Meleager, who gifted her the Boar’s hide when it was finally killed. Atalanta’s father left her to die on a mountaintop because he wanted a son, but she was saved by a she-bear and later became a hunter of Artemis. According to some sources, Atalanta was also the only female Argonaut. She married Hippomenes after he beat her in a footrace by slowing her down with golden apples given to him by Aphrodite; their son, Parthenopaios, was one of the Seven Against Thebes.
- Cassandra was a princess of Troy, one of the children of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. She and her twin brother Helenus were both priests of Apollo and thus blessed with the gift of prophecy; however, after Cassandra spurned the advances of Apollo, he cursed her to never have her prophecies believed. During the Trojan War, Cassandra was raped in the Temple of Athena by Ajax the Lesser, which led Athena to wreck his ship on his journey home. After the war, Cassandra was made the concubine of Agamemnon, and the two were killed by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus when they returned to Mycenae.
- Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. The king consulted an oracle to ask if he would ever have a son, and the oracle replied that he wouldn’t, but his daughter would, and that grandson would overthrow him. In response, he shut Danaë up in a chamber in his palace, but Zeus appeared in the form of a shower of gold and impregnated her; shortly thereafter, her son Perseus was born. Acrisius then cast Danaë and Perseus out to sea in a chest, but with the assistance of Poseidon they were rescued by the fisherman Dictys. Danaë had no interest in marrying Dictys’s brother King Seriphos, who agreed not to pursue her if Perseus could kill the Gorgon Medusa.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Justin Millman.