One day, the Oracle at Delphi tellsKing Acrisius of Argos that the futureson of his daughter, Danaë, will killhim. Though Acrisius imprisonsDanaë to prevent her from ever gettingpregnant, Zeus magically enters theprison. Danaë gives birth to a son,Perseus.
Acrisius locks Danaë and Perseusin a chest and casts it to sea. Danaëand her son eventually wash up at thehome of Dictys, a kind fishermanwhose brother, Polydectes, is the cruelruler of the area.
Polydectes soon wants to get rid ofPerseus and marry Danaë, so he comesup with a plan to kill the young man: heconvinces Perseus to go kill Medusa, thehorrible Gorgon—an impossible feat for amortal.
The gods favor Perseus, however: he receives a mirrored shield from Athena, a magic sword from Hermes, and information on the location of the nymphs of the North who know how to kill the Gorgon—from the Graiae, three supernatural gray sisters with only one eye among them.
Perseus craftily steals the eye the Graiaeshare and refuses to return it until they helphim. He eventually reaches the mystical landof the Hyperborean nymphs, who give himwinged sandals that allow him to fly, a walletthat expands to hold anything, and a cap thatmakes its wearer invisible.
With these, Hermes’ sword, and Athena’smirrored shield—which enables him to avoid lookingdirectly at the Gorgons, which would turns him tostone—he creeps into the Gorgons’ cave while theyare sleeping. The two gods point out Medusa, theonly mortal one. While looking at her in the mirror,Perseus chops off her head and puts it in the magicwallet, then begins to fly home.
Along the way, he comes uponAndromeda, a princess who has been chainedto a rock because her mother, Cassiopeia, hasoffended the gods. A sea serpent is about toeat Andromeda, but Perseus cuts off its headand takes Andromeda as his wife.
He returns home to find that Polydecteshas driven his mother and Dictys intohiding. Perseus goes to Polydectes’ palacewhere all the evil men of the kingdom aregathered. He marches into the meeting andreveals Medusa’s head, turning all the mento stone.
He lives happily ever after but onlyafter unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy ofthe Oracle: while participating in a discus-throwing contest, Perseus accidentallyhits and kills a spectator, who is,unbeknownst to him, his grandfatherAcrisius.
Theseus is the son of the Athenianking, Aegeus, but he grows up with hismother in the south. Aegeus has left asword and pair of shoes under a giantrock and says that when Theseus getsstrong enough to move the rock, he isto be sent to Athens.
Theseus reaches maturity, rolls the rockaside, takes the sword and shoes, and sets outon the journey. The dangerous road to Athensis full of bandits, notably Sciron, Sinis, andProcrustes, who delight in torturing passersby.Theseus kills the bandits in the same methodsthey have used to kill their own victims.
When Theseus arrives in Athens, theevil Medea senselessly convincesAegeus, who does not realize thestranger is his son, to kill him. At the lastminute, Aegeus sees the sword andrecognizes the boy. Medea escapes toAsia.
Theseus then saves Athens from its obligation to KingMinos of Crete. After a son of Minos was killed while aguest in Aegeus’s household, Minos beat the Athenians ina war, and now, as punishment, every nine years theAthenians had to send seven girls and seven boys to meettheir doom in the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Theseus offershimself as a victim, promising his father that if he survives,he will replace his ship’s black sail with a white one for thereturn journey so that Aegeus will be able to tell whetherhis son is alive.
Like Jason, Theseus wins the heart ofthe enemy king’s daughter, Ariadne, whodefies Minos and helps Theseus escape theLabyrinth with a ball of golden thread that heunwinds as he walks so that he can find hisway back. Theseus finds the Minotaurasleep, beats it to death, and flees to theship to sail home.
Ariadne flees with him, and on theway home, he abandons her when shegoes ashore and a fierce wind blowshim out to sea. Ariadne dies, which isperhaps what makes Theseus forget tolower the black sail and raise the whiteone.
When Aegeus sees the blacksail approaching, he commitssuicide by jumping into the seathen named after him—theAegean.
Theseus becomes king and makesAthens a democracy. He has several minoradventures while king: he helps the Argivesafter the War of the Seven against Thebes,when the Thebans refuse to allow thedefeated to bury their dead; he helpsOedipus and his daughters; and preventsHercules from killing himself after his insanity.
Theseus fights the Amazons twice—onceattacking them, once defending their attack onAthens—and marries their queen, Hippolyta (alsocalled Antiope), who bears him his son Hippolytus.He is one of the Argonauts and a participant in theCalydonian Hunt. He defeats the Centaurs, vicioushalf-men half-horse beasts, after they kill the brideof his best friend, Pirithoüs.
Theseus helps his friend again, whenPirithoüs foolishly decides to pursuePersephone as his next wife. Hades outwitsthem, tricking them into his Chair ofForgetfulness, which makes their mindsblank and paralyzes them. Hercules rescuesTheseus, repaying his debt, but Pirithoüsremains there forever.
Theseus’s story becomes tragic.He marries Ariadne’s sister,Phaedra, who subsequently falls inlove with his son, Hippolytus.Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, who killsherself and leaves a suicide noteaccusing Hippolytus of rape.
Theseus curses and exilesHippolytus, who soon dies. Artemisreveals the truth to Theseus. Hethen goes to visit his friend, KingLycomedes, who mysteriously killshim.
Hercules, born in Thebes, is the son of Zeusand Alcmena, a mortal whom Zeus deceives bydisguising himself as her husband. Hercules’ demi-god status allows him many liberties. He canchallenge the gods and often win, as when heoffends the Oracle at Delphi and quarrels withApollo. He also helps the gods defeat the giantswith his superhuman strength; above all else, he isremembered as the strongest man who ever lived.
Only magic can harm him, as he overpowersall else. His unequalled strength makes up fordeficiencies in intelligence and patience—he canbe impetuous, emotional, and careless, and oncethreatens to shoot an arrow at the sun because itis too hot. Nonetheless, he has boundlesscourage and a noble sense of right and wrong.
Hercules’ strength is evident fromhis infancy. One night, two giantsnakes attack him and his half-brother, Iphicles, in their nursery, butHercules strangles them both atonce.
While still a youth he kills the legendaryThespian lion of the Cithaeron woods, taking its skinas a cloak he always wears thereafter. In his youthhe also demonstrates a tragic weakness that hauntshim his entire life—he rashly and unthinkingly killsone of his teachers, not knowing his own strength.After conquering the warlike Minyans, he marriesthe princess Megara.
He has three children with her, but then Hera,jealous of Zeus’s infidelity with Hercules’ mother,uses magic to make Hercules go insane and kill hiswife and children. Recovering his sanity and seeingwhat he has done, he rushes to kill himself, butTheseus convinces him to live. Knowing he mustpurify himself, Hercules goes to the Oracle atDelphi for advice. She tells him to visit his cousin,Eurystheus of Mycenae, who will devise a penance.
Spurred on by Hera, Eurystheusdevises a series of twelve impossiblydifficult tasks. The first of theseLabors of Hercules is to kill the lion ofNemea, a beast that cannot beharmed by weapons; Herculeschokes it to death.
Next, he must kill the Hydra, amonster with nine heads, one of whichis immortal. A new head growswhenever one of the other heads ischopped off—a problem Hercules solvesby burning the neck-stumps and buryingthe immortal head.
In the third task,Hercules captures thesacred golden-horned stag of Artemis and brings it back alive.
The fifth, cleaning the stables of King Augeas in aday. The king has thousands of cattle whosemanure has not been cleaned in years, so Herculesredirects two rivers to flow through the stable.
Athena helps Hercules with his sixth task,which is to rid the people of Stymphalus of a flock ofwild birds that terrorize them.
All the other tasks involvethe capture of things extremelyresistant to captivity: a beautifulwild bull of Minos; the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes;
the girdle of Hippolyta, queen ofthe Amazons; the cattle of Geryon; a three-bodied monster (it is on the way to fulfill this labor that Hercules balances two giant rocks at Gibraltar and Ceuta, on eitherside of the strait between Spain and Morocco).
The eleventh task is to steal the Golden Apples of theHesperides, the mysterious daughters of Atlas. Journeying tofind Atlas, the only one who knows the Hesperides’ location,Hercules stops to free Prometheus from his chains. Atlasoffers to tell Hercules only if he holds up the world—normallyAtlas’s job—while Atlas fetches the Apples for him. Atlas getsthe fruit but decides he prefers walking around without theweight of the world on his shoulders. Hercules tricks him intotaking the earth back, saying he needs to be relieved for amoment to place a pad on his shoulders.
Finally, for the twelfth labor, Herculeshas to bring Cerberus, the three-headeddog, up from the underworld. Beforeleaving Hades, Hercules frees his friendTheseus from the Chair ofForgetfulness.
Hercules undergoes other various adventuresafter his labors, defeating Antaeus—a wrestler who isinvincible as long as he touches the ground—andrescuing King Laomedon’s daughter, who is beingsacrificed to a sea serpent. Hercules also carelesslykills several others along the way: a boy whoaccidentally spills water on him and a friend whosefather, King Eurytus, insults him.
As punishment for this last murder, Zeus sends Hercules to be aslave to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who forces him to dress and workas a woman for a year (though some say three years). Despite hiserrors, Hercules almost always has a clear sense of right and wrongas well as the need to make things right. On the way to kill the wickedDiomedes (owner of the flesh-eating horses), Hercules gets drunk atthe house of his friend, Admetus, not knowing that Admetus’ wife hasjust died. When Hercules learns of his friend’s loss, he feels so badabout his inadvertent disrespect that he fights and defeats Pluto(Hades) to bring Admetus’s wife back from Hades.
One time, however, Hercules refuses to see the error of hisways, and this leads to his death. Angered that Zeus hadpunished him for inadvertently killing King Eurytus’s son,Hercules kills Eurytus and razes his city. One of his captives is abeautiful girl, Iole. Deianira, Hercules’ wife, feels threatened,and recalls some magic she earlier acquired, when Herculesshot a centaur named Nessus who insulted Deianira. As Nessusdied, he told Deianira to take some of his blood as a potion touse if her husband ever loved anyone more than her.
Deianira secretly rubs some of the potion onHercules’ robe. When he puts the robe on, painsurges through his body. He does not die andmust end the agony by killing himself, building agiant funeral pyre where he burns himself todeath. Ascending to Olympus, Herculesreconciles with Hera and marries her daughter,Hebe.
Atalanta is the greatest female hero, mostly forher role in the Calydonian Hunt—a great hunt for avicious wild boar Artemis has sent to terrorize thekingdom of a king who forgot to pay her tribute. Alarge group of heroes hunts the boar, but it is Atalantawho finally causes its death. She first wounds it, anda warrior named Meleager, who is hopelessly in lovewith her, delivers the mortal blow.
Meleager’s love for her, however,results in his death. Meleager’s two unclesinsult Atalanta, so he kills them. In turn,Meleager’s mother destroys him byburning the magical log that determinesthe length of his life.
Atalanta has other adventures,most notably beating Peleus,Achilles’s father, in a wrestling match.Some say she is one of the heroeswho search for the Golden Fleece,but that is unlikely.
In another story she has vowed never to marrybut has many suitors. To appease them, she agreesto marry anyone who beats her in a race, as sheknows she is unbeatable. However, a young mannamed Melanion (or Milanion or Hippomenes)defeats her with his wits and with the help ofAphrodite. He carries several golden apples in therace and drops them along the way. Distracted bytheir beauty, Atalanta loses and marries him.
At some point theyboth offend Zeusand are turned intolions.