Greek myths have laid the foundations of stories for centuries; they imply themes, act as an inspiration to authors, and serve as a blueprint for complex and intricate narratives. They exist relentlessly in our culture, and here are some explanations of Greek myth influences in bits of media that you’ve most definitely heard of:
Game of Thrones (Season 5, 2015)
In the show of disturbing events’ most disturbing scene, Stannis Baratheon, with nowhere to go but towards starting a siege without resources and with starving men, burns his daughter Shireen alive at the stake as a sacrifice. Her story is almost identical to that of Iphigenia, the Ancient Greek daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In the myth, Agamemnon’s troops are starving and stuck with nowhere to retreat, and he must sacrifice his daughter to guide their way. Both Iphigenia and Shireen tell their fathers they would do anything they can to help, and just like Shireen’s mother, Iphigenia’s mother begs for it to stop.
The Hobbit (1937)
If you could avoid all consequence to your reputation for your actions, would you continue to act justly? In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus are discussing justice, and up comes the myth of the Ring of Gyges. Plato’s brother Glaucon says that it begins with a shepherd ancestor of King Gyges, who is currently living in Lydia under its current ruler. One day, when tending to his flock of sheep, the shepherd found that an earthquake had opened a cave in a mountain. Inside was a corpse with a golden ring, which he took, and found that it granted the wearer the power of invisibility. With this newfound power, he arranged to be one of the king’s shepherd messengers to gain access to the palace, and once he did, he used his power of invisibility to seduce the queen and persuade her to help him kill the king. The shepherd became the king himself.
The concept of the Ring in the Hobbit is one of morality; when Bilbo steals it from Gollum, he tricks him into believing he had run away, so he follows Gollum to the exit while invisible in order to find the way out. When he returns to his friends, he doesn’t tell them what he took, possibly out of the feeling of praise and power it gave him, or the selfishness of wanting to keep such a power to himself – “Bilbo was so pleased with their praise that he just chuckled inside and said nothing whatever about the ring.” The ring also slowly corrupts its wearer and drives them towards greed regardless of whether their intentions are good or not: “And still sometimes he put it on when he could not bear to be parted from it any longer.”
Ellen Page plays the bright, young architect Ariadne in the 2010 thriller Inception. The dream worlds are like mazes, and she helps Cobb as the architect while he progresses through it, so he can understand where he has been and how to get back. She is central to both the progression of the plot and the survival of its characters. The original Greek Ariadne from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur played an extremely similar role, falling in love with Theseus, taking pity on him, and giving him a ball of string to unravel through the maze so he can keep his bearings. Both characters share the name, making it certain that the connection is intentional.
This connection forges yet another; if Inception’s Ariadne plays the same role as Greek Ariadne, this would make Cobb a Theseus figure. In the story, Theseus, plotting to help his friend seduce Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, into marrying him, journeys into the underworld. Hades, furious that they have crossed from their respective world into one that they should not be in, kept them both prisoner there for endless years before he is eventually rescued. Cobb and his team breach from the mortal world into the real world, only to be punished for such an endeavour by being forced to remain there, tortured by his own unconscious. Like Theseus, he descends into forbidden territory at his own peril from which he will eventually return as the totem falls. But the film has a much more ambiguous line between reality and the ‘second world,’ and as Theseus ultimately dies and is tortured for eternity, do Cobb and Theseus ever really return?
It is commonly known that Mary Shelley’s famous book Frankenstein has a lengthier title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The connection to Greek myth is established from the starting point, yet it isn’t necessary to know the story of Prometheus. The story nevertheless has its claws lodged in the novel, as Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus, bringing knowledge to humanity with him, infuriating the selfish Gods who then sentenced him to be tied to a rock, where his liver would be eaten by an eagle every single day.
Prometheus could be Frankenstein. The protagonist shares Prometheus’ relentless pursuit of forbidden knowledge that has real implications beyond himself; Prometheus aimed to enlighten humanity with godly power, but Frankenstein had very real worries of the repercussions of inhuman pursuit, thinking himself a pest “whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.” Frankenstein’s torture even echoes Prometheus’ in its horribly visceral method – Prometheus has his liver eaten out, and Frankenstein must bear his family killed in a bloodily violent way. Both tortures are cyclical, as Prometheus is eternally bound, and Frankenstein laments of his death at the beginning of the book, and lives said events at the end.
The figure of Prometheus could also be (perhaps simultaneously) the creature. He pursues a greater knowledge – the feeling of companionship and belonging within humanity – from human ‘higher beings’ like the Greek gods who seek to keep it from the creature. He seeks such knowledge through Paradise Lost, which is yet another classical narrative that is drawn on in the story. Like Prometheus and Frankenstein, the creature is caught in an eternal loop in which he dies how he began: alone, unloved, and wholly singular.