Morality Myths

An overview of Greek myths that were used to pass on morals and values.


Mythology as a map for how to act

Mythology provided the ancient Greeks with a cosmogony or origin for the universe as well as a detailed series of explanations for natural events and cycles that their pre-scientific world couldn’t explain.

The Greeks believed that gods and goddesses were behind natural phenomena and even controlled the fate of each individual. In addition to the major Olympian gods were hundreds of other gods, representing everything from bee-keeping (Aristeus) to beans (Cyamites).

Because of this belief in divine forces pulling the strings of the universe, mythology and ritual practices of worship became an integral aspect of daily life. From sea travel to a successful harvest to good health or a happy marriage, the Ancient Greeks believed that deities were behind everything.

The myth of Narcissus

One of the most recognizable myths that share the morals of Ancient Greek mythology is the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus is the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope.

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus was renowned for his beauty. In a prophecy, Narcissus’ mother was warned that the beautiful man would have a long, healthy life only if he did not come to recognize himself. His own beauty would be his destruction.

But Narcissus did come to recognize the power his beauty held over people. One day a nymph known as Echo saw him and fell in love with him. True to her namesake, Echo could only repeat his words when Narcissus called out to her, leading him to foster a deeper love for himself.

Eventually, Echo revealed herself and could speak her own words. Narcissus rejected the nymph, more in love with himself.

This angered Nemesis, the goddess of revenge who cared for Echo. Nemesis lead Narcissus with an attractive flower to a pool that bore his reflection. Enthralled by the vision of beauty, Narcissus fell in love with his reflection and when he went to embrace it, he fell into the water and drowned.

The moral of Narcissus

The myth of Narcissus, and his demise, aims to pass along the dangers of vanity and pride. According to the blind seer, Narcissus could have avoided his fate and lived a long, healthy life if only he had not come to recognize his own beauty.

Extreme love of self, specifically the love of one’s own appearance, is seen in this myth as a character flaw that will not only lead to the manipulation and suffering of others, as seen in the nymph Echo’s heartbreak, but it will also lead to one’s own demise.

Pride and self-love have their place in a balanced psyche. It is okay to take pride in one’s own work or appearance, but not to the point where it overwhelms or leads the individual astray.

It is from the myth of Narcissus that Sigmund Freud coined the term ‘narcissist’ denoting someone who shows an extreme degree of self-involvement or obsession. Even before modern science or psychology, the Ancient Greeks saw this psychological imbalance and the dangers it could lead to, and used their mythological stories to share that truth.

The myth of Sisyphus

According to Homer’s Iliad, Sisyphus was a cunning and tricky king who founded and ruled over the city of Ephyra. As a king, he was known to be ruthless and manipulative, enjoying tricking visitors and guests with often cruel pranks. These pranks were a violation of Xenia, the laws of good hospitality set up by the king of the gods, Zeus.

One day, annoyed by Sisyphus’ pride and hubris, Hades, the god of the underworld, with Zeus’ permission sent Thanatos to visit Sisyphus. Thanatos was known to be Death incarnate and carried chains to capture and bind Sisyphus in the underworld.


At Thanatos’ arrival, Sisyphus grew intrigued by the chains and asked Thanatos for a demonstration of how they worked. Tricking Thanatos into chaining himself, Sisyphus bound him in the underworld. With Death in chains, no mortals could die which enraged not only Hades but all the gods.

In punishment for his hubris and tricks, Zeus forced Sisyphus to push a large, heavy boulder up a hill. Once at the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down, forcing Sisyphus to start the grueling journey all over again.

Learning from Sisyphus

In the myth of Sisyphus and his eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, we see the punishment for pride and hubris. Sisyphus was not only not kind to visitors and guests, earning himself a reputation as a trickster and even a cruel king, but he also saw himself as more clever than the gods.

While Narcissus’ pride was in his own beauty and vanity, the hubris and pride of Sisyphus lay in his cunning. He took pride in his intellect and ability to make fools of other people, traits that are ultimately empty and futile. His punishment is similarly futile. He couldn’t trick his way out of this punishment

This myth teaches the danger of manipulation and hubris. It also shows that no man can stand up against the gods and fool them without punishment. Even as a king, or for anyone in a position of power or with great intellect, there are expectations for behavior that must be upheld and the tricking and manipulation of others will be punished.

The myth of Oedipus

According to Greek Mythology, an oracle told King Laius of Thebes, that his son would kill him and marry his wife. To avoid this fate, Laius had his infant son Oedipus brought to a mountaintop to die, however, the servant carrying him brought him instead to a shepherd.

The shepherd brought Oedipus to Polybus, King of Corinth and he was adopted by the royal family, who raised him as their own son.

When Oedipus was a young man, he went to see an oracle. This oracle warned him that he would one day kill his father (who he believed to be Polybus), and marry his mother.

Oedipus decided to leave Corinth for Thebes to avoid this fate. On the way, he crossed paths with King Laius – his real father – and killed him in a fight.

Eventually, Oedipus arrived in Thebes and was challenged with an unsolvable riddle by the Sphinx. Oedipus solved the riddle, meaning he was crowned the new King of Thebes and married Queen Jocasta, his real mother.

Eventually, through investigating his past, Oedipus realized that the prophecy had in fact already come true.

After learning this, Queen Jocasta hung herself, and Oedipus gouged his eyes out with the pins from her dress.

Oedipus’ lesson

The brutal tragedy of Oedipus is perhaps one of the most recognizable and pervasive Greek myths today. From psychology to the theater and the arts, the myth of Oedipus has captivated audiences of all types.

While its popularity today may be for its psychological interpretation or theatrical and literary legacy, the Ancient Greeks held this myth in high esteem for its more practical lessons.

The ancient Greeks believed in fate. They believed that at a person’s birth, the three Muses, or Moirai, would weave a path for that individual’s life. It is the responsibility of each person, from the king of the gods Zeus, to the poorest beggar, to follow this fate and accept their lot in life.

The lesson of Oedipus, and by extension King Laius’ myth, is that both men attempted to thwart and defy fate. They believed they had the power within themselves to run from the fate that was destined for them. However, no man or god has that power. They met their fates just as they were destined to and it was even more painful for all involved because of their attempt to run away from them.

The myth of Icarus


According to Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a master craftsman. Daedalus’s most infamous work was constructing a vast labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. After completing the labyrinth, King Minos decided to lock Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in a tower so that Daedalus could not reveal the pattern of the labyrinth to anyone.

While locked in the tower, Daedalus began to collect feathers that fell out of birds and wax in order to construct wings for both him and his son. After fashioning wings, Daedalus taught his son Icarus to fly and the two planned their escape.

On the day of their escape, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as the sun would heat the wax and cause the wings to melt.

Upon escaping the tower and beginning their flight, Icarus soon forgot his father’s warning and grew entranced by the sun. He began to fly close to the sun, and the heat of it began to melt his wings. Icarus fell into the water as his wings dissolved, and drowned.

Learning from Icarus’ flight

Like many other Greek morality myths, the myth of Icarus and his flight demonstrates the dangers of pride. Although he was warned against it, Icarus grew enthralled by the sun and defied his father’s strict orders not to fly too close to it. Icarus believed he could weather the heat and flew close to the sun anyway.

The moral of the myth of Icarus can also be seen as the danger of recklessness and immaturity. Icarus believed he could bear the heat of the sun despite the warning from his father. Icarus believed he knew better than his father and he paid the price for this recklessness and arrogance.

Icarus could have been free from the tower and could have started a new life in a new land. His blatant disregard for his father’s warning and his pride in believing that he not only knew better than his father but that he could weather the brilliance and heat of the sun is a warning not to give into foolish pride or reckless overreaching.

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