Love, lust and passion are some of the most common themes in Greek mythology and this is not at all surprising, given the fact that the ancient Greeks worshiped not one, but two deities linked with this powerful feeling: Eros (Cupid) and his sensual mother Aphrodite.
Countless love stories are found in ancient Greek myths, often with tragic endings. Of those, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, we have selected three that can turn even the most cynical modern-day people into hopeless romantics. Enjoy!
1. Psyche and Eros
The story of Eros and Psyche has a long-standing tradition as a folktale of the ancient Greco-Roman world. The story tells of the struggle for love and trust between Eros and Psyche (in Greek mythology, Psyche was the deification of the human soul). Aphrodite was jealous of the beauty of princess Psyche, as men had abandoned her altars to worship a mere human woman instead, and so she commanded her son Eros, the god of love, to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest monster on earth. But instead, Eros falls in love with Psyche himself and spirits her away to his home. Their fragile peace is ruined by a visit from Psyche’s jealous sisters, who cause Psyche to betray the trust of her husband. Wounded, Eros leaves his wife, and Psyche wanders the Earth, looking for her lost love. Eventually she approaches Aphrodite to ask for her help. Aphrodite imposes a series of difficult tasks on Psyche, which she consequently achieves by means of supernatural assistance.
After successfully completing these tasks, Aphrodite relents and Psyche becomes immortal to live alongside her husband Eros.
Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, one of the nine Muses. A talented musician, he played the lyre to such perfection that even Apollo was amazed. Nothing could resist his music, neither mortals nor Gods.
The young man fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of unique beauty, with whom he married and lived happily for a short time. However, one day, when Eurydice was wandering in the forest, a shepherd saw her and was beguiled by her beauty. He made advances towards her and began to chase her when she attempted to flee. As Eurydice ran through the forest, she was tragically bitten by a snake and died instantly.
Orpheus expressed his grief with his lyre and the Gods were deeply touched. Apollo advised his son to descend to Hades, the underworld realm of the dead, and seek his wife. Any other mortal would have died attempting this journey, but Orpheus was protected by the Gods. After many adventures, Orpheus presented himself in front of the God of the Underworld, Hades or Pluto, and his wife Persephone, and started playing the lyre to appease them.
Even Hades’ cold heart started melting when he heard the divine music. He eventually told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice with him under one condition: the woman would follow him out of the caves of the Underworld, but he should not turn to look at her before reaching the light, because if he did, he would lose her forever.
Orpheus was thrilled. He thanked Hades and started to make his way back to the world of the living. However, not hearing Eurydice’s steps, he started to lose faith. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus turned around to look at her. Eurydice was behind him, but her shadow was whisked back among the dead and she was gone forever.
3. Hero and Leander
This is the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower of Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the narrow strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.
Succumbing to Leander’s soft words and to his argument that Venus (Aphrodite), as the goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero allowed him to make love to her. These trysts lasted through the warm summer. However, one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the wind blew out Hero’s light. The young man lost his way and was drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.