Not sure what you want to write your next story about? Need some inspiration to add life to a current project? Ever thought about using writing prompts from Greek mythology?
Storytelling has been around since there have been people with language. Humans need to experience their world through stories and through connections to others. These are stories that have been around for thousands of years, which means there is something compelling about them. Getting your writing inspiration from Greek Mythology can be a fun way to revitalize your own storytelling methods. The Greeks had some pretty amazing stories. Even Shakespeare was influenced by Greek mythology. Romeo and Juliet is an adaptation (of an adaptation) of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Using a myth as a starting point helps to give you a basic outline so you can focus on adding details and developing characters. To make it interesting you can play with the original story by changing key elements. What happens if you change the gender of the main character? What if you zoom the story into the future? They myths are often vague enough you can give the characters more detailed motivations. Change the relationships or the outcome of the story. See what the myth makes you think of and run with it. Have fun!
Below is a list of 10 writing prompts from Greek mythology and some ways you could use them to make an all new story.
1) Pyramus and Thisbe
Pyramus and Thisbe were two young people whose parents hated each other. The two were never allowed to spend time together but came to fall in love by talking through a hole in the wall. They decided to meet in person one night and arranged to meet near an old tomb under a mulberry tree. Thisbe got there first and saw a lion, bloody with its last meal, and fled in terror, leaving behind her veil. Pyramus then arrived, saw the veil, and assumed the lion had eaten his beloved. He fell on his sword under the mulberry tree. When Thisbe returned she saw Pyramus and lamented his death bitterly. She then killed herself with the same sword. Their blood splashed on the mulberry tree and the gods changed the color to red permanently in honor of the two lovers.
This is a story that has been done many times. For a fresh take, try changing the genre. You could have star-crossed lovers on a generation ship headed to colonize a new planet. Then an alien parasite takes over and makes people see their worst nightmares, in this case making the lovers see the image of each other dead. You could keep the ending or perhaps they find a way to fight it.
King Sisyphus was overall a terrible man. He murdered his guests, a violation of the guest-host relationship Greeks prided themselves on, and generally ruled by force and cruelty. Furthermore he often claimed to be cleverer than Zeus, which was ultimately his downfall. On two different occasions he managed cheat death. The first time was when he betrayed a secret of Zeus so the god ordered Thanatos, Death, to chain Sisyphus in the Underworld. Sisyphus tricked Thanatos into getting chained himself and then escaped. As long as Death was chained, no one could die. No one could make sacrifices to the gods and no one could die in war. Ares eventually got angry that is wars were not as interesting with no death so he went and freed Thanatos and delivered Sisyphus.
Upon being delivered to the Underworld this time, the arrogant King tricked Persephone into letting him go. Finally Zeus stepped in and instead of letting Sisyphus spend his death in the Elysian Fields, forced him to push a rock up a hill. Zeus tricked Sisyphus by enchanting the rock to roll away from him and back down the hill making the task last for eternity.
Create a character who breaks a cherished tradition or challenges a respected authority. What creative punishments can you come up with? The story could be from the perspective of the rule-breaker, perhaps s/he is misunderstood or was tricked him/herself. Or make it from the perspective of the law enforcer tracking down the culprit after s/he escapes, for the first or second time.
3) Pygmalion and Galatea
Pygmalion was a sculptor on Cyprus. He had had a bad experience with some prostitutes and swore off women entirely, disdaining them all because of his experience. When he returned home be began working on a new project, an ivory carving of a woman he called Galatea. He poured everything into the sculpture and soon it was more beautiful than any woman alive. He cherished it and dressed it and brought it gifts. One day, he sacrificed a bull at the temple of Aphrodite. The goddess saw him and knew his desire. She granted his wish and gave him a sign, making the flames shoot up three times. When Pygmalion returned home he found his statue had come to life. Aphrodite blessed them with a happy, loving marriage and they even had a son.
Try this story with a gender swap. Or maybe imagine what a normal person would do when a statue came to life – freak out! You could also try from the statue’s point of view; is she conscious while she is ivory? How does she adjust to being alive?
Halcyon was the daughter of Aeolus the ruler of the winds. She was married to Ceyx, the king of Tachis. Their love was so strong even the gods knew about it. When Ceyx had to travel to consult the oracle at Delphi, Halcyon begged him not to go by boat because she was afraid of the sea. He went anyway and was lost in a storm. But before he drowned he asked Poseidon to bring his body back to the shore where Halcyon could find him.
Meanwhile, Haclyon asked Hera to keep him safe. Too late to save him, Hera sent Morpheus to tell her of Ceyx’s death. Halcyon was so distraught that she threw herself into the sea. The gods were so moved by her devotion that they transformed her and Ceyx into kingfisher birds so they could remain together on the shores. Aeolus calms the winds every January to allow the kingfishers to nest and raise their eggs. These are called the Halcyon days.
What if instead of dying in a storm Ceyx was deliberately attacked by one of the gods or even Halcyon’s father. Imagine if their deaths were faked and they were put into a sort of divine witness protection.
5) Bellerophontes and Pegasus
Bellerophontes, besides having one of the coolest names ever, was an adventurer. He loved looking for trouble and was an accomplished equestrian. His friend, Proteus a sea god, became jealous and sent Bellerophontes to his father in law in Lycia with a note that said the messenger should be killed. Bellerophontes didn’t know he shouldn’t trust Proteus so he delivered the note to the king. The king decided that instead of killing him outright, he would send Bellerophontes to kill the chimera who had been terrorizing region.
In order to succeed Bellerophontes was told he needed to tame Pegasus. He was advised to pray to Athena and sleep in her temple for a solution. He did so and Athena came to him in a dream. She told him where Pegasus went for water and gave him a golden bridle. Bellerophontes found Pegasus and waited, hiding, until the winged horse came and knelt for a drink. Then he jumped on the horse’s back and put the bridle on. Pegasus took to the sky and tried to get free but Bellerophontes kept a firm hold and eventually won the contest. Together the pair defeated the chimera, freeing the people of Lycia and winning the King’s daughter.
But Bellerophontes wanted more adventure. He wanted to fly Pegasus to Mt. Olympus. The gods were incredulous and Zeus decided to take action. He sent a gadfly to bite Pegasus, who then threw Bellerophontes. Athena saved the adventurer’s life but he was crippled. He spent the rest of his days searching for Pegasus but could not find him because Zeus kept the flying horse for himself.
This would be another fun one for a gender swap. Try making Bellerphontes a woman who wants to adventure despite social norms regarding women. Her friend might try to get her killed with the note to keep her from rocking the boat. Perhaps her fall from Pegasus comes when she tries to achieve too much for her sex. Or maybe she succeeds and shows them all.
6) Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, one of the muses, and had incredible skill with the lyre. He fell in love with Eurydice and they were happily married for a long time. But one day while out for a walk, Eurydice was harassed by a man who was beguiled by her beauty. She tried running away but was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus was so distraught he played a song on his lyre that moved all the people and things on the earth. The gods were so touched that they allowed Orpheus to go to Hades to see his wife.
Orpheus played for Hades and Persephone and earned his wife back. The condition was that he could not turn to look back at her until he was fully in the light of the earth again. Just shy of the light, Orpheus began to doubt Hades because he couldn’t hear Eurydice’s footsteps. He turned and saw her as she was whisked back down to the Underworld. Again grief tore through Orpheus and he played his lyre and begged for death to take him so he could join his beloved. A pack of beasts, or Zeus with a lightning bolt, granted his wish and killed him. (But the muses kept his head and enchanted it to keep singing.)
This time change the genre. What would happen if this story took place in a distant future where humans are perfecting the ability to revive the dead. Orpheus tries to bring his love back but somehow loses his faith and loses her again at the last minute.
Or, maybe humans have discovered a way to see into the afterlife and Orpheus treks into the unknown to bring her back but something goes wrong. You could always throw in some aliens for good measure.
Atalanta was an interesting figure and has several stories surrounding her. When she was born her father, King Shoeneus wanted a son so he abandoned her on a mountaintop to die or be saved by the gods. A bear adopted her and Atalanta became an impressive hunter. She took part in the hunt for the Calendonian Boar, making most of the men in the hunting party angry, but she was the first to draw blood from the beast.
Meleager, who eventually abandoned his wife for Atalanta, fell in lover with her and awarded her the boar’s skin. His uncles were furious that a woman was given the skin and Meleager killed them for their actions. Atalanta returned Meleager’s love but had sworn a vow of chastity to the goddess Artemis because of a prophesy that said losing her virginity would be disastrous for her. Distraught, Meleager joined the Argonauts to get away but Atalanta joined the crew to follow him upsetting Jason and many of the other crew members. But she took part in battles and was a benefit to the crew. She even won a wrestling match against Peleus.
Through the boar hunt, Atalanta’s father found out about her and wanted her back to marry her off. She did not want to, however, and forced him to agree that a suitor would have to beat her in a footrace, or be killed. He agreed and many men died in the attempt to win her hand. Finally, Hippomenes won by asking Aphrodite for help. She gave him three golden apples, which could not be resisted. When Atalanta pulled ahead of him in the race, he rolled out an apple and she had to go after it. He won the race and she married him.
They had a son, Parthenopaios, and lived happily for a while but met an unfortunate end. They ended up being punished either for making love in the temple of Zeus or for not giving Athena proper honor. The two were turned into lions, which were believed to only mate with leopards and not other lions, meaning they wouldn’t be able to be together anymore.
Atalanta provides many stories to work with. Pick one or put them all together into a longer work. The story of Atalanta and Meleager would make for a compelling romantic tragedy (typical Greeks). You could also change it some. Perhaps Atalanta is under a curse that the two must break in order to be together. (There, teach those Greeks it doesn’t always have to end in tragedy.)
8) Theseus and the Minotaur
After his son was assassinated, King Minos of Crete declared war on Athens. As the result of a war or of Athen’s surrender, every nine years seven Athenian boys and seven girls were sent to Crete as sacrifice. They were forced into the Labrynth to face the Minotaur. On the third shipment of youths, Theseus volunteered to go and slay the beast.
When he got there, King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, offered to help Theseus. He told her he would take her with when he escaped. She gave him a ball of thread to mark his path and told him how to get to the center. He made his way to the Minotaur and killed and decapitated it. Theseus escaped in the night with the Athenian youths, Ariadne and her sister. They stopped on the island of Naxos to rest and Athena woke Theseus early, telling him to abandon Ariadne there. Theseus left before she woke. Ariadne was distraught when she woke alone and the god Dionysus, whose island she was on, felt bad for her and married her.
Write this one from Ariadne’s point of view. It is usually taken for granted that Ariadne fell in love with brave Theseus and wanted him to take her away and marry her. Write it as though she used him to get out and arranged for him to leave her on Naxos so she could live out her own life.
The story of Cassandra is a tragedy through and through. Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy and a priestess of Apollo. She was given the gift of prophesy by Apollo in exchange for sleeping with him. When she refused he then cursed his original gift so that no one would believe her prophesies. This caused most people to believe she was mad and in some versions her father locked her up, causing her to truly become mad.
She tried many times to tell the Trojans about the impending war, the many loses, the Greek-filled horse, and the aftermath. Of course, no one believed her and she was forced to watch everything happen as she foresaw. During the sack of the city, Ajax the Lessor found her clinging to the statue of Athena in her temple. Despite rules about touching supplicants and sex in temples he raped her. Athena was so furious that she punished Ajax, his people, and the Greeks who didn’t punish him. This is what caused the storm that sent Odysseus off course.
In the end Cassandra ended up going home with Agamemnon with the spoils of war. She tried one more prophesy, telling him of their murders by his wife and brother. It naturally came true and they were both slain.
I would love to read a story about Space Cassandra. But it would also be fun to see a take where Cassandra finds a way to make people do what she wants them to do. She knows they won’t believe the truth but what if she could fashion lies that would lead them in the right direction. She could play up the madness and have all sorts of hijinx as well.
This last myth is one close to my heart. I used this one as inspiration for my own current writing project. I don’t have space to do the whole thing but I’ll give the highlights.
Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Hera was incredibly jealous and decided to ruin Hercules’ life. She made him go mad and kill his entire family. When he came to, he realized what he’d done and, even though he had been forgiven legally, sought some sort of penance. He ended up working for King Eurystheus doing a total of twelve labors.
The tasks included killing a lion whose skin could not be penetrated, cleaning the stables of immortal horses, capturing a deer sacred to Artemis, gathering a lost herd of cattle, and slaying a number of beasts. They were all designed to kill him and/or humiliate him. Hera was pulling the strings the whole time and trying to get rid of him.
Athena helped him along the way and he eventually completed all the tasks. Some traditions say that when he was done he joined Jason and the Argonauts on the quest for the golden fleece.
This time I’ll let you know how I adapted the myth.
First I did a gender swap. I changed Hercules to a young woman and decided to make her a student and instead of killing her family in a magic-induced fury, she kills people at the school. I also made it take place on a system of moons, giving the story a science-fiction feel. In my version she doesn’t know who made her go mad and the series revolves around discovering this and putting a stop to it.
I could find writing prompts from Greek mythology all day. Ancient myths are great sources of writing inspiration. I gave suggestions for each of the myths I listed but you could come up with dozens of ways to customize each one. Look for the fundamental story type of the myth and then have fun with the details.
Unfortunately I couldn’t include all of the myths. Let me know in the comments what Greek myths you’d like to use for writing inspiration.