Truths & Plots: 5 Crucial Fables of Greek Mythology

Set in a world of nymphs, gods, and monsters, the fables of Greek mythology have endured time as much for their fantastic plots as their implicit universal truths.

May 9, 2021By Michael Arnold, BA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology
greek mythology fables ancient greece
Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903, via Liverpool Museums; with Apollo and Daphne, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1622-24, via Galleria Borghese, Rome


Publius Ovidius Naso, better known as Ovid, was a Roman politician-turned-poet who lived during the early years of the empire. His name may not ring a bell, but he’s likely the reason that others, such as Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite, do. In 8 AD, under the patronage of Caesar Augustus, Ovid published a compilation of over 250 stories from Greek mythology that he called Metamorphoses. The title aptly means “transformations,” in keeping with the theme of change that’s pervasive throughout its fables.


It’s also in keeping with the spirit of the ancient Greek world that Socrates and Plato had inherited from Homer and Pythagoras. One in which the whole universe was alive, intelligent and beneficent, and the human soul was on an endless wheel of transformation — from birth to death to rebirth — inhabiting a different form in each of its iterations.


As Ovid writes in the person of Pythagoras, the 6th century BC philosopher, “all is subject to change and nothing to death.”


Greek Mythology And Ancient Greece

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The Acropolis of Athens in ancient Greece, Jean-Claude Golvin, via Jean-Claude Golvin


Metamorphoses begins with a creation myth like so many others: a great flood story. It progresses into an epic, introducing a host of gods, goddesses, nymphs, monsters, and fickle human beings often falling prey to any or all of the aforementioned.


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Greek mythology was meant to instruct and caution. It also sought to explain natural phenomena like the change of seasons or the fixed positions of constellations.


But whether or not their deeper meanings are elicited, the ethereal world in which these fables take place has enchanted listeners and readers for millennia. Here are 5 essential fables from ancient Greece:


1. Python


“When heat and moisture are blended, we know that they lead to conception; everything owes its first beginning to these two elements.” Ovid, Python: Book I


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Ruins at the Temple of the Pythian Oracle, Delphi, via


After the flood, living beings in a myriad of forms emerged from the heat and moisture of the earth. Among them was a great serpent called python. The snake terrorized the people of Parnassus, the mountainous region around Delphi in ancient Greece’s interior. Unable to defend themselves against it, Apollo, god of sunlight, decided to intervene. He assailed the monstrous beast with 1,000 arrows, penetrating its armored skin. Hissing and writhing, it collapsed and died in a pool of its own black venom.


To commemorate the occasion, Apollo established the tradition of the Pythian Games. They became the second most important of the Panhellenic games, only after the Olympics, and took place biennially until the 4th century AD.


According to Greek Mythology, the dead python was placed under the Temple of Delphi, the heart of ancient Greece. Its rotting corpse was the source of fumes and smoke that would rise from floor grates in the oracle’s chamber.


2. Daphne


“Her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches.” Ovid, Daphne: Book I


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Apollo and Daphne, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1622-24, via Galleria Borghese, Rome


Eros, better known by his Roman name, Cupid, appeared in the vicinity of Parnassus shortly after Apollo’s victory over the python. The child god, son of Ares and Aphrodite, harnessed his infamous bow with an arrow made of gold and embedded it in the sun god’s chest. 


Then he spotted a beautiful water nymph called Daphne, daughter of the River Peneus. He took aim and implanted an arrow of lead into her breasts. The golden arrow overwhelmed Apollo with a sudden amorousness. He spotted Daphne and became smitten.


But Daphne’s lead one had the opposite effect. She was repulsed by Apollo and fled in an attempt to evade him. Running as fast as she could with Apollo trailing behind her, she called out to her father, the river potamos, and asked him to change her form into something less desirable.


Her wish was granted, and Daphne’s skin was turned to bark. Her arms morphed into branches, and her luscious hair became a bushel of leaves. Suddenly rooted in place, the lovely Daphne was now a laurel tree.


But her dramatic transformation was for nothing because it didn’t stop Apollo from loving her. He caressed her bark and crowned himself with a string of laurels from her branches. He promised that all the future emperors of Rome would do the same.


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Mosaic of Apollo and Daphne from a villa in ancient Antioch, Late 3rd century CE, via Princeton University Art Museum


Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s diadochi, claimed that the events of this fable of Greek mythology actually occurred near Antioch and not Parnassus. Right outside of his capital city, he built a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo and called it Daphne. Its groves of fragrant blossoms and sensuous pleasures became famous as a refuge for lovers. “If Antioch has been compared to Paris, Daphne may be called its Versailles,” wrote one English classicist, William Smith.


In the Common Era, Emperor Julian would visit the gardens to make sacrifices to Helios. He would remark in his letters about the naiad’s tree still standing amongst the luxuriant groves.


3. Phaëthon


“Picture the Sun’s royal seat, an imposing building with towering columns, resplendent in glittering gold and blazing bronze.” Ovid, Phatheon: Book II


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Helios, Széchenyi Thermal Bath, Budapest, via Wikimedia Commons


In Greek Mythology, Phaëthon is told by his mother, Clymene, an Oceanid, that his father is the sun god Helios. But still having doubts, the boy decides to visit the sun’s palace and ask for confirmation.


Helios warmly welcomes Phaëthon and confirms that he is, in fact, the boy’s father. But this wasn’t enough for him: Phaëthon requested that he be allowed to test ride his father’s chariot as a gift — the same chariot that Helios would ride into the sky every morning at dawn to fill the world with light for the day.


Helios acquiesced to his son’s demands, but immediately regretted doing so. He remembered how difficult it was to maneuver the chariot and begged Phaëthon to reconsider.


But the boy was headstrong, and Helios had sworn by the Stygian marsh to never break an oath. For if an oath made by the sacred convergence of the River Styx were broken, the oath breaker would face something worse than death.


So Phaëthon mounted his father’s chariot forged of gold and silver by Vulcan, the god of fire. And at the hour of dawn, he cracked the reins of its four horses.


Sadly, it was over before it began. The horses were ungovernable: Fiery, Dawnsteed, Scorcher, and Blaze took off in different directions, dragging Phaëthon and the sun on a rollercoaster ride across the sky.


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The Fall of Phaëthon on a sarcophagus, 2nd Century AD, via The Hermitage Museum


The world below was set ablaze in an epic conflagration. And it became so intense that Gaia, the earth mother, called on Zeus to intervene. The king of the gods wielded a thunderbolt and hurled it into Phaëthon, striking him down from the chariot. The boy fell from the sky and landed in the Eridanos River, thought to be somewhere in Central Europe in ancient times.


Mourning his son’s death, Helios went into an eclipse; the whole world was cast in darkness. Phaëthon’s sisters wept for months until one day, in their sorrow, they transformed into trees and their tears turned to sap.


Helios was livid with Zeus and announced that he’d no longer drive the chariot of the sun. But at a council of the gods, he was coerced into reconsidering. And so the sun finally came out of the eclipse, and it continues to rise each morning.


While there can be many different interpretations of fables in Greek mythology, Plato conjectured that Phaëthon represents major celestial disturbances that inevitably impact the earth “after long intervals.” He also noted that Phaëthon’s mother, a water nymph, and his father, a fire god, are symbolic of the two elements that most often lead to human destruction.


4. Callisto


“But though her body was now a bear’s, her emotions were human.” Ovid, Callisto: Book II


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The Course of Empire: The Arcadian State, Thomas Cole, 1858, via The New-York Historical Society Museum & Library


According to another fable from Greek Mythology, there was once a beautiful Arcadian virgin named Callisto. She was the favorite disciple of Artemis, the chaste goddess of the moon, and together with other virginal maidens, they formed a contingent of huntresses.


Zeus happened to spot her alone in the woods while he was in one of his philandering moods. So he descended into Arcadia in ancient Greece disguised in the form of Artemis. In this way, he tricked the unsuspecting Callisto into kissing him and then proceeded to rape her.


When the real Artemis and her virgin huntresses discovered that Callisto had become pregnant, they disowned her from their community. To add insult to injury, Zeus’s wife Hera decided to take revenge on her for Zeus’s actions.


After Callisto gave birth to her son, Arcas, Hera turned her into a bear and cursed her to roam the forests of Arcadia in that form while retaining her human thoughts and emotions.


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Digitally enhanced photograph of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, via NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium


Fifteen years passed, and Arcas, now an adolescent, was hunting in the woods when he came upon a bear. Callisto could recognize her son, even though she hadn’t seen him since his birth. But, of course, he couldn’t recognize his mother.


Moments from piercing her with the sharp of his javelin, Zeus decided to intervene. Feeling some remorse for his actions, he couldn’t let his son kill the mother of his child.


So in a flash, he turned Arcas into a bear, and transported both him and Callisto into the heavens. He installed them as constellations in the night sky, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, where they would be admired by humans for all time.


5. Narcissus & Echo


“His being was suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of beauty. He gazed at himself in amazement.” Ovid, Narcissus & Echo: Book III


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Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903, via Liverpool Museum; with Statue of so-called “Narcissus,” 2nd century AD, via The Getty Museum


This last fable is one of the most well-known in Greek mythology. It takes us to Boeotia, an inland region of ancient Greece that lies just northwest of Attica.


Narcissus, an extremely attractive adolescent, is the son of Cephisus, a river god, and Liriope, a water nymph. When he was a baby, an oracle advised Liriope that he would live to a ripe old age “so long as he never knows himself.” 


So for sixteen years, blissfully ignorant of his beauty, he evaded the desires of his admirers. Then he was discovered by Echo, a nymph who was cursed to only repeat the last few words of others and never speak for herself.


She lusted after the boy and covertly followed him on one of his hunts in the forest. But he could feel her presence and called out, “is anyone there?”


“One there?” She replied. Narcissus was startled. “We must come together!” he called out to his hidden companion.

So Echo jumped at him from her hiding place and frightened him into a rage. Narcissus cursed the wretched nymph, and she fled in embarrassment. She went to hide in gloomy caves where she still resides in her shame.


Her skin melted away and she was left with just bones and voice. Then her bones disintegrated and she became only voice and stone.


narcissus echo artists interpretation
Narcissus and Echo, Richard Baxter, via Richard Baxter


Narcissus went on like this, mocking those who tried to love him. Until one day a nymph invoked the gods to curse the boy for his mean-spiritedness. That day he came upon a silvery pool and fell in love with what reflected back at him.


“Stretched on the grass, he saw twin stars, his own two eyes, rippling curls like the locks of a god, Apollo or Bacchus, cheeks as smooth as silk, an ivory neck and a glorious face with a mixture of blushing red and creamy whiteness.”


He tried to kiss his reflection, but the water would ripple and distort the figure on the other side. He called out to the trees and the gods, screaming in agony about his heartache. The tears rolling off his face obscured the boy on the other side.


Narcissus’s pain became too unbearable. He rested his head on the grass nearby the pool and died. His corpse was burned in Hades, the Underworld of Greek Mythology,  and from its ashes sprang a singular flower with a golden trumpet and pale white petals.


While Greek mythology isn’t always straightforward, the message is quite clear in this case: don’t be a narcissist.

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By Michael ArnoldBA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean ArchaeologyMichael is a contributing writer and former world traveler whose hometown is New York City. He spent the majority of 2019 exploring Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And currently, he’s studying for a masters degree in Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pavia in Italy. In his spare time, Michael enjoys researching and writing about art, history, and archaeology with a focus on the ancient world.