Greek & Roman Mythology in Art: Scenes That Inspired Artists (Part I)

Greek & Roman Mythology in Art: Scenes That Inspired Artists (Part I)

If you're a fan of Greek mythology, you'll know that the stories are full of powerful scenes that have inspired artists for centuries. From tales of love and tragedy to epic battles between gods and mortals, these stories have captured the imaginations of artists from all over the world. In this blog post, we're going to take a look at some of the most iconic scenes from Greek mythology and see how they've been reimagined in art.
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If you're a fan of Greek mythology, you'll know that the stories are full of powerful scenes that have inspired artists for centuries. From tales of love and tragedy to epic battles between gods and mortals, these stories have captured the imaginations of artists from all over the world. In this blog post, we're going to take a look at some of the most iconic scenes from Greek mythology and see how they've been reimagined in art.

Who Predicted The Trojan War? 

Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. She was a priestess of Apollo who was blessed by him and given the gift of prophecy. However, he also cursed her so that people would never believe her accurate visions. She foretold Troy's downfall, which began with her brother, Prince Paris, bringing Helen (then the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta) to Troy as his queen. This action sparked the ten-year-long Trojan War, which saw Troy besieged by the Greek army.

Cassandra repeatedly warned her fellow Trojans of the impending danger, but they refused to believe her. She even begged them not to let Helen inside the city walls, but they did not listen again. She tried to destroy the wooden horse containing the Greek army, but the Trojans stopped her. Eventually, the Greeks were victorious in their mission and Troy was sacked and burned. Cassandra was among the few survivors - she was taken prisoner by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and brought back to Greece as his concubine. Later, Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed Cassandra and Agamemnon. 
This painting, Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898), shows Cassandra standing on blood-red flowers in front of the burning city of Troy. You can see the infamous wooden horse in the background, and she is pulling her hair in frustration and desperation as what she has foretold has come true. 

Why and How Was Tantalus Punished?

Tantalus was a figure from Greek mythology that the gods punished uniquely. He was the son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto, and he firstly offended the gods by stealing their sacred food and drink, known as ambrosia and nectar and giving it to mortals. He then decided to try and test the omnipotent power of the gods. He killed his son, Pelops, made a meal from his body, and served it to the gods during a feast. The gods knew what the food contained, and most didn't eat it. The only deity who did was Demeter, distracted by the kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, and absent-mindedly ate part of Pelops's shoulder.) Zeus commanded the resurrection of Pelops and the punishment of Tantalus. 

Tantalus was condemned to stand in a pool of water with fruit hanging overhead, but whenever he reached for the fruit, it would move out of his reach. Similarly, the water would recede when he tried to drink it. The painting Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto (circa the 1640s) shows Tantalus futilely trying to eat the fruit in the tree above him.

What Were The Labours of Hercules?

The labours of Hercules were a series of 12 quests set by King Eurystheus designed to test Hercules's strength and courage. Many involved defeating mythological creatures or completing demanding tasks. 
  • The first labour of Hercules was to kill the Nemean Lion. This lion had a hide impenetrable by weapons, so Hercules had to strangle it with his bare hands. His defeat of the lion is so iconic that Hercules is often depicted in art wearing the skin of a lion. 
  • The second labour was to defeat the Hydra, a nine-headed serpentine creature with magical powers. If an assailant cut off one of its heads, another two would regrow in its place. Hercules killed the beast with the help of his nephew, Iolaus, who cauterised each of the Hydra's heads as they were decapitated.
  • The third labour of Hercules was to capture the Ceryneian Hind. It was a red deer sacred to Diana, goddess of the hunt, with golden horns and bronze hoofs. It took Hercules a year, but he captured the hind alive and brought it to the king. 
  • The fourth labour was to capture the Erymanthian Boar alive. It was a fearsome beast that Hercules had to chase up a mountain and into a snowbank, where it finally succumbed to exhaustion and allowed Hercules to take it to King Eurystheus, who was so frightened he hid it in a big pot.
  • The fifth labour of Hercules was to clean the Augean stables in one day, which was a considerable task because nobody had ever cleaned it. Hercules diverted a river into the stables, washing away all of the filth.
  • The sixth labour was to defeat the Stymphalian Birds, who were man-eating birds that lived in a swamp. Athena assisted Hercules and gave him a tool to scare the birds into flight. He then used his skill with archery to shoot them down.
  • The seventh labour of Hercules was to capture the Cretan Bull. This bull had been terrorising the people of Crete and was the father of the famous Minotaur. Hercules wrestled it and brought it back to Greece, where Theseus eventually slew it. 
  • The eighth labour was to retrieve the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. These horses were wild and ferocious, but Hercules was able to calm them and bring them back safely to the court of King Eurystheus. 
  • The ninth labour of Hercules was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. He asked Hippolyta for the belt, and she agreed - unfortunately, the goddess Hera who was determined to foil Hercules spread dissent among the Amazon warriors by saying Hercules was going to abduct Hippolyta. The Amazonians advanced toward Hercules and his army, so he killed Hippolyta and stole her belt. He defeated the Amazonians and sailed away. 
  • The tenth labour was to steal the cattle of Geryon. Geryon was a three-headed giant with three sets of legs who lived on an island at the edge of the world. Hercules defeated this creature and stole his cattle, herding them back to Greece.
    • The eleventh labour was to retrieve the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides. Hercules completed this task with the help of Atlas, the father of the Hesperides. While Atlas was away picking the apples, Hercules took his place, holding up the sky. In the above image, Hercules and Atlas, Heinrich Aldegrever, after anonymous, 1550Hercules is carrying the celestial sphere on his shoulders. Next to him is Atlas, pointing with a pointer at the vault of heaven.
    • The final labour was to capture and bring back Hades's three-headed dog, Cerberus, as shown below in the image; Hercules and Cerberus by Aegidius Sadeler IIHercules also succeeded in this task, wrestling and subduing Cerberus into submission before bringing him to the surface and completing his 12 labours. These labours made Hercules a legendary figure in Greek mythology, and his story continues to be told centuries later.

Why Did Achilles Live As A Girl?

The story of Achilles is one of the most famous in Greek mythology, but many people don't know that a young Achilles was hidden by his mother, Thetis, at King Lycomedes' court.
It was prophesied that Achilles would either have a long but uninteresting life or a glorious but short one. Thetis wanted to prevent her son from dying early and asked King Lycomedes, who ruled the island of Skyros, to admit her 'daughter' to his court. Achilles dressed and lived as a girl on Skyros until he was found by Odysseus, one of the Greek generals. A prophet told Odysseus that Achilles was essential to the Greek victory at Troy, so he devised a plan to find him.
Odysseus went to King Lycomedes' court disguised as a peddler. He brought jewellery, trinkets and a shield and spear. The ladies of the court admired the jewels, but Achilles immediately grabbed the weapons and was discovered. In some accounts, Odysseus feigns a battle cry from outside; the women panic and run while Achilles prepares to defend the palace and reveals himself. Below is Achilles discovered among the Daughters of Lycomedes by Peter Paul Reubens imagining this scene.

 Achilles discovered among the Daughters of Lycomedes by Rubens, Peter Paul and Workshop.

Interested in Learning More?

Bring the tales of Greek and Roman mythology to life with Greek & Roman Mythology, an image archive from Vault Editions. Available as a eBook or a physical volume. This volume contains 135 downloadable images of your favourite gods, goddesses and heroes including, Hercules battling vicious monsters, Theseus slaying the minotaur, the torture of Prometheus, Medusa's downfall at the hands of Perseus, Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and Zeus hurling lightning bolts from his fists. It also features beautiful renderings of Mercury, Poseidon, Apollo, Hera, Athena, Achilles, Artemis and many more.


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