Heroes, Giants, and Monsters: Greek Mythology in Portuguese Museums

Frieze of sarcophagus lid showing philosophers and Muses Frieze of sarcophagus lid showing philosophers and Muses (200/290)National Museum of Archaeology

Anyone with any pretensions to culture knew Greek myths in the same way that medieval Christians knew Bible stories. […] A comprehensive knowledge of Greek myth was essential for anyone who wanted to hold his head up in polite society, throughout the length and breadth of the Roman world.

Cameron (2004) 222

Mosaic panel depicting muses "Hercules Furens". Mosaic of the Muses. Panel IX (4th century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

The luckless man! With the arrows given him by Apollo—hideous weapons of some doom or Fury—rushing in madness through his own house he slaughtered his children and robbed them of life, and the place was drenched in gore. It was my terrible lot to see with my own eyes our children being shot by their father, a thing no one else has even dreamed of, and I could not help them as they kept calling for their mother, for the evil was so close and irresistible.
Pseudo-Moschus, Megara 13-20 (trans. Hopkinson)

Mosaic panel depicting muses Theseus and the Minotaur. Mosaic of the Muses. Panel XI (4th century AD) (4th century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

When he reached Crete on his voyage, most historians and poets tell us that he got from Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him, the famous thread, and that having been instructed by her how to make his way through the intricacies of the Labyrinth, he slew the Minotaur and sailed off with Ariadne and the youths.
Plutarch, Theseus 19.1 (trans. Perrin)

Low relief of Hercules fighting the HydraNational Museum of Archaeology

You are cutting down the Hydra: the saying applies to impossible tasks. [It came about] because of the heads of the Hydra, which Heracles kept cutting down but was unable to subdue the Hydra itself, because every time a head was cut another would spring up in its place. The Hydra was an enormous monster which lived close to Lerna and had eight heads, of which the middle one was immortal. Under the orders of Eurystheus Heracles killed it.

Zenobius paroemiographus, Epitome collectionum Lucilli Tarrhaei et Didymi 6.26 (trans. F. Hadjittofi)

Sarcophagus lid showing the labours of Hercules Sarcophagus lid showing the labours of Hercules – Capture of the Cerynitian hindNational Museum of Archaeology

As a third labour he ordered him to bring the Cerynitian hind alive to Mycenae. Now the hind was at Oenoe; it had golden horns and was sacred to Artemis; so wishing neither to kill nor wound it, Hercules hunted it a whole year. But when, weary with the chase, the beast took refuge on the mountain called Artemisius, and thence passed to the river Ladon, Hercules shot it just as it was about to cross the stream, and catching it put it on his shoulders and hastened through Arcadia.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.81-2 (trans. Frazer)

Aureus coin of Hadrian showing Hercules (119 - 128 AD)National Museum of Archaeology

And so wherever Heracles discovered a tyranny and a tyrant, he chastised and destroyed them, among Greeks and barbarians alike; but wherever he found a kingdom and a king, he would give honour and protection. […] And even to this day Heracles continues this work and you have in him a helper and protector of your government as long as it is vouchsafed you to reign.
Dio Chrysostom 1.84 (trans. Cohoon)

Black-figure lekythos showing the rape of Thetis by Peleus Black-figure lekythos showing the rape of Thetis by Peleus (-470/-460)National Museum of Archaeology

Chiron, therefore, having advised Peleus to seize her and hold her fast in spite of her shape-shifting, he watched his chance and carried her off, and though she turned, now into fire, now into water, and now into a beast, he did not let her go till he saw that she had resumed her former shape. And he married her on Pelion, and there the gods celebrated the marriage with feast and song.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.169-170 (trans. Frazer)

Coin of Gallienus Coin of Gallienus (3rd cent.)National Museum of Archaeology

I remember when Sperchios was flowing his fastest, fed on continual rains and melted snow, carrying live trees and rocks; Chiron would tell me to get in where the torrent’s current was fiercest and stand against it, repelling the swollen waves that he himself would hardly have withstood with so many feet. I stood, but the angry river and the mist of his broad rush took me back. He bore down on me with savage threats and scolded to shame me. I did not leave till ordered, so high glory urged me, and before so mighty a witness labours were light. For to hide Oebalian quoits far up in the sky and knot holds in the slippery wrestling match and scatter boxing gloves were my play and relaxation, and toil therein no greater than when I plucked the sounding strings with Apollo’s quill and marvelled at the glories of the men of old. He even taught me of juices and grasses to aid in sickness, of medicine to stanch fast-flowing blood, what brings sleep, what closes gaping wounds, what plague should be checked by steel, what yields to herbs; and he fixed in my mind the precepts of sacred justice, whereby he used to give laws for Pelion’s tribes to reverence and pacify his own twiforms.
Statius, Achilleid 2.143-165 (trans. Sh. Bailey)

Gemstone showing Achilles (2nd cent.)National Museum of Archaeology

For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, tells me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I remain here and fight about the city of the Trojans, then lost is my return home, but my renown will be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet will my life long endure, and the doom of death will not come soon on me.
Homer, Iliad 9.410-416 (trans. Murray)

Medallion showing Alexander the Great receiving a new armour from a winged Nike. The shield bears a representation of Achilles killing the Amazon Penthesileia. (3rd cent.)Original Source: https://gulbenkian.pt/museu/

It is said that Alexander, while still a lad, was once conversing with Philip his father about Homer in a very manly and lofty strain, their conversation being in effect a discussion of kingship as well. […] Philip in the course of their conversation put this question to Alexander: “Why, my son, have you become so infatuated with Homer that you devote yourself to him alone of all the poets? You really ought not to neglect the others, for the men are wise.” And Alexander replied: “My reason, father, is that not all poetry, any more than every style of dress, is appropriate to a king, as it seems to me. […] The poetry of Homer, however, I look upon as alone truly noble and lofty and suited to a king, worthy of the attention of a real man, particularly if he expects to rule over all the peoples of the earth.
Dio Chrysostom 2.1-6 (trans. Cohoon)

Etruscan mirror (-99/99)National Museum of Archaeology

"Accept me and forget wars: take my beauty and leave the sceptre and the land of Asia. I know not the works of battle. What has Aphrodite to do with shields? By beauty much more do women excel. In place of manly prowess I will give thee a lovely bride, and, instead of kingship, enter thou the bed of Helen. Lacedaemon, after Troy, shall see thee a bridegroom.”
Colluthus, Raptio Helenae / The Abduction of Helen 160-169 [Aphrodite's speech] (trans. Mair)

Etruscan mirror (-99/99)National Museum of Archaeology

Etruscan mirror, possibly showing Helen

National Museum of Archaeology


1st cent. BCE – 1st cent. CE – Roman period


Inv.: 991.21.6

Mosaic showing Odysseus and the Sirens Mosaic showing Odysseus and the Sirens (268/330)National Museum of Archaeology

First you will come to the Sirens, who beguile all men who come to them. Whoever in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens’ voice, his wife and little children never stand beside him and rejoice at his homecoming; instead, the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of moldering men, and round the bones the skin is shriveling. But row past them, and anoint the ears of your comrades with sweet wax, which you have kneaded, for fear any of the rest may hear. But if you yourself have a will to listen, let them bind you in the swift ship hand and foot upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself, that with delight you may listen to the voice of the two Sirens.
Homer, Odyssey 12.39-52 (trans. Murray)

Mosaic showing Odysseus and the Sirens Mosaic showing Odysseus and the Sirens (268/330)National Museum of Archaeology

The myth is that the Sirens were of double form – with the legs of birds but for the rest the bodies of women – and that they destroyed those who sailed past them. But the Sirens were prostitutes, remarkable for their playing of musical instruments and for their sweet voices. They were also most beautiful, and any man who visited them soon found his wealth eaten away. They were said to have the legs of birds because they departed speedily from those who thus cast away their own property.
Heraclitus, On Unbelievable Tales 14 (trans. Stern)

Lamp showing hunter and dog – possibly to be identified with Odysseus and Argus Lamp showing hunter and dog – possibly to be identified with Odysseus and ArgusNational Museum of Archaeology

And a dog that lay there raised his head and pricked up his ears, Argus, steadfast Odysseus’ dog, whom of old he had himself bred, but had no joy of him, for before that he went to sacred Ilium. In days past the young men were accustomed to take the dog to hunt the wild goats, and deer, and hares; but now he lay neglected, his master gone, in the deep dung of mules and cattle, which lay in heaps before the doors, till the slaves of Odysseus should take it away to manure his wide lands. There lay the dog Argus, full of dog ticks. But now, when he became aware that Odysseus was near, he wagged his tail and dropped both ears, but nearer to his master he had no longer strength to move. Then Odysseus looked aside and wiped away a tear, easily hiding from Eumaeus what he did.
Homer, Odyssey 17.291-305 (trans. Murray)

Roman patera depicting the myth of Perseus (1st - 2d Centuries AD)National Museum of Archaeology

Upon it [the shield of Heracles] was fine-haired Danae’s son, the horseman Perseus, neither touching the shield with his feet nor far from it—a great wonder to observe, since nowhere was he attached to it. For that was how with his skilled hands the renowned Lame One [Hephaestus] had wrought him, made of gold. Around his feet he wore winged sandals; around his shoulders hung a black-bound sword from a bronze baldric. He flew like a thought. The head of a terrible monster, the Gorgon, covered his whole back; a pouch ran around it, a wonder to see, made of silver; shining tassels hung down from it, made of gold. The terrible helmet of Hades was set around the king’s temples and held the dread darkness of night. Perseus himself, Danae’s son, was outstretched, and he looked as though he were hastening and shuddering. The Gorgons, dreadful and unspeakable, were rushing after him, eager to catch him; as they ran on the pallid adamant, the shield resounded sharply and piercingly with a loud noise. At their girdles, two serpents hung down, their heads arching forward; both of them were licking with their tongues, and they ground their teeth with strength, glaring savagely. Upon the terrible heads of the Gorgons rioted great Fear.
Hesiod, Shield 216-237 (trans. Most)

Medallion showing Perseus and Andromeda (3rd cent.)Original Source: https://gulbenkian.pt/museu/

Cassiope and Cepheus rejoice and salute the hero as son-in-law, calling him prop and saviour of their house. The maiden also now comes forward, freed from chains, she, the prize as well as cause of his feat.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.736-739 (trans. Miller)

Gemstone showing Pegasus and BellerophonNational Museum of Archaeology

And here [Peirene, a spring of Corinth], they say, Pegasus, a winged horse which sprang from the neck of the Gorgon Medusa when her head was cut off, was caught while drinking by Bellerophon. And the same horse, it is said, caused Hippu-crenê to spring up on Helicon when he struck with his hoof the rock that lay below that mountain.
Strabo, Geography (trans. Jones)

Gemstone showing Prometheus as sculptor (1st century BC - 1st century AD) (I a.C. - I d.C.)National Museum of Archaeology

At Panopeus there is by the roadside a small building of unburnt brick, in which is an image of Pentelic marble, said by some to be Asclepius, by others Prometheus. The latter produce evidence of their contention. At the ravine there lie two stones, each of which is big enough to fill a cart. They have the colour of clay, not earthy clay, but such as would be found in a ravine or sandy torrent, and they smell very like the skin of a man. They say that these are remains of the clay out of which the whole race of mankind was fashioned by Prometheus.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.4 (trans. Jones)

Metope frieze showing scene of Gigantomachy (200/399)National Museum of Archaeology

And, that high heaven might be no safer than the earth, they say that the Giants essayed the very throne of heaven, piling huge mountains, one on another, clear up to the stars. Then the Almighty Father hurled his thunderbolts, shattered Olympus, and dashed Pelion down from underlying Ossa. When those dread bodies lay o’erwhelmed by their own bulk, they say that Mother Earth, drenched with their streaming blood, informed that warm gore anew with life, and, that some trace of her former offspring might remain, she gave it human form. But this new stock, too, proved contemptuous of the gods, very greedy for slaughter, and passionate. You might know that they were sons of blood.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.151-162 (trans. Miller)

Plated denarius of Julius Caesar showing Aeneas carrying his father Anchises (-47/-46)National Museum of Archaeology

Come then, dear father, mount upon my neck; on my own shoulders I will support you, and this task will not weigh me down. However things may fall, we two will have one common peril, one salvation. Let little Iulus come with me, and let my wife follow our steps at a distance. [...] Father, take in your arms the sacred emblems of our country’s household gods; for me, fresh from fierce battle and recent slaughter, it would be sinful to handle them until I have washed myself clean in running water.
Virgil, Aeneid 2.707-711, 717-720 (trans. Fairclough)

Credits: Story


Centre for Classical Studies, School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon
(Project Late Achilles in Classroom and Court, funded by FCT)
Selection of texts: Fotini Hadjittofi and Ana Lóio

National Museum of Archaeology:
Filomena Barata (technical support)

José Paulo Ruas; José Pessoa DDF, DGPC
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Ammaia Foundation

Digital production:
Filomena Barata
Thiago Carrapatoso

Cameron, A. (2004), Greek Mythography in the Roman World. Oxford.
Cohoon, J. W. trans. (1932). Dio Chrysostom. Discourses 1-11. Loeb Classical Library 257. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fairclough, H. R. trans. (1916). Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 63. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Frazer, J. G. trans. (1921). Apollodorus. The Library, Volume I: Books 1-3.9. Loeb Classical Library 121. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Frazer, J. G. trans. (1921). Apollodorus. The Library, Volume I: Books 1-3.9. Loeb Classical Library 121. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hopkinson, N. ed. and trans. (2015). Theocritus, Moschus, Bion. Loeb Classical Library 28. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jones, W. H. S. trans. (1935). Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume IV: Books 8.22-10 (Arcadia, Boeotia, Phocis and Ozolian Locri). Loeb Classical Library 297. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mair, A. W. trans. (1928). Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus. Loeb Classical Library 219. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, F. J. trans. (1916). Ovid. Metamorphoses, Volume I: Books 1-8. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Most, G. W. ed. and trans. (2018). Hesiod. The Shield. Catalogue of Women. Other Fragments. Loeb Classical Library 503. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Murray, A. T. trans. (1919). Homer. Odyssey, Volume I: Books 1-12; Volume II: Books 13-24. Revised by George E. Dimock. Loeb Classical Library 104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Murray, A. T. trans. (1924). Homer. Iliad, Volume I: Books 1-12. Revised by William F. Wyatt. Loeb Classical Library 170. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Perrin, B. trans. (1914). Plutarch. Lives, Volume I: Theseus and Romulus. Lycurgus and Numa. Solon and Publicola. Loeb Classical Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shackleton Bailey, D. R. ed. and trans. (2004). Statius. Thebaid, Volume II: Thebaid: Books 8-12. Achilleid. Loeb Classical Library 498. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stern, J. (2003). “Heraclitus the Paradoxographer: Περὶ Ἀπίστων, On Unbelievable Tales”. Transactions of the American Philological Association 133: 51-97.

Credits: All media
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