You don’t need to be a Classics major or an expert in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures to appreciate Classical Myth. When I say Classical Myth, I don’t mean just Greek Myth – although it did make the biggest contribution. Classical Myth however, is Greek, Roman, Sumerian, and even Egyptian Myth, all of which shared Indo-European origins. These Ancient cultures and their myths have set the stepping stones for modern literature and storytelling as we know it today. Almost every trope, every story, every plot twist know to humanity has somehow – consciously or unconsciously – been inspired by Classical Myth. There is no such thing as a “new” idea; every story in fiction today is, in a way, an extension or a retelling of an older one. Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air, they’re slowly formed and executed.
And today, I’ve compiled a list of nine Classical Mythology Tropes that are still used in the book and movie industries! Some of these you might already know, but do you know their origins?
1. divine birth/The chosen one
Divine/semi-divine births were quite common in Classical Myth. Most Greek and/or Roman heroes were born to divine parents but don’t know about it until they come of age. Heracles, Perseus, and even the God of Wine and Debauchery, Dionysus, were all born to mortal mothers who had been raped by Zeus. As for the alleged founders of Rome, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, they were also believed to have been the sons of Mars and Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin raped by the God of War. See a pattern there? As you should, divine conceptions – much like any other sexual relationship in Classical Myth – were almost never consensual for the women. Nevertheless, this trope is one of the most popular ones, and many variants of it are still used in storytelling today, where it often translates to the “Chosen One.” Think Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, or even the Disney movie Hercules (why they used the Roman name for Heracles, I will never understand).
2. Hero in Disguise
The “Hero in Disguise” trope was popularized with Odysseus posing as a beggar upon his return to Ithaca to win the contest for his wife’s hand. Although some people will argue that this is an over-used trope, I think that having the main character pose as someone else until the big reveal will never get old. Besides, there are many ways to alter it while staying true to the main concept! Famous examples are the “A Friend of Mine,” the “You Have No Idea Who You’re Dealing With,” the “King Incognito,” and the “I AM Him.” Modern versions of this trope include Superman/Clark Kent, Batman/Bruce Wayne, Spider Man/Peter Parker etc.
3. girls want bad boys
We all went through our “bad boy” phase at some point in life. If you think you never have, you’re either going through it now, or you probably don’t think Anakin Skywalker, The Darkling, and The Winter Soldier are hot. But I don’t think that’s a possibility ;) Either way, the “Girls Want Bad Boys” trope has been around for quite some time. Like, a lot of time. I’m talking at least 8th century BCE. Our Bad B**ch Aphrodite cheated on her husband Hephaestus with the tall, dark, and handsome, God of War, Ares. They were caught in bed – literally chained to a bed Hephaestus had made – in Hesiod’s Theogony. Variants of this trope include “Evil is Cool, Good is Dumb,” “Evil is Sexy,” “Loveable Rogue,” “Reformed Rake,” What Does She See in Him?,” and “Troubled but Cute,” that can be found in Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, After, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and so many more I’m forgetting. This trope could have its own article.
4. artifact of doom
I think this one is self explanatory. This trope started with myths like the Hand of Midas, and Pandora’s Box, morphed into tales like Excalibur in the eponymous Arthurian Legend, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, or Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, and grew to encompass objects like The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, The Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter, The Infinity Stones in the MCU, The Dragon Balls, etc,. An Artifact of Doom is usually an inanimate object that wields indomitable power, capable of bringing chaos and destruction upon the world if it falls between the wrong hands. Which ends up happening 9/10 times since “Evil Feels Good.”
5. Evil feels good
This trope is the very essence of every great villain origins story. When the bad guy, who has been wronged in the past, turns to evil for vengeance, and finds purpose in it. This trope goes back centuries. In Classical Myth, every single God and Goddess is evil – except maybe for Hestia who got tired of her messed up family and left Mount Olympus – and if they aren’t corrupt all the way to their core like good old Zeus, they have a seriously unreliable moral compass at best. The “Evil Feels Good” trope has been told and retold in countless ways, some of the most iconic being Anakin and Kylo-Ren turning to the Dark Side in Star Wars, and Dorian losing himself in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
6. back from the dead
Let’s be honest here, we’re all grateful for this trope. When it started however, you didn’t necessarily have to die to visit the land of the dead. In Classical Myth, going to the Underworld is almost a rite of passage for heroes, and is often symbolic of rebirth. Odysseus saw his mother in the Underworld, just like Aeneas saw his father. Heracles went to Hades’ Kingdom for one of his Twelve Labors, and Orpheus did it to bring back his love. This trope was picked up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and a multitude of other storytellers.
7. arranged marriage/kidnapping
Dear Hades/Persephone fan-fiction readers, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but the God of the Underworld is NOT unproblematic. For one, Persephone was promised to him by his brother Zeus (ancient sources all agree on this, but none of them says WHY), and for two, well, not that incest was ever an issue for the Olympians, but, Persephone is Hades’ niece, and I’m pretty sure she was underage…so, no, they are not the iconic couple contemporary literature paints them to be. Almost every Jane Austen book references the arranged/forced marriage trope, as well as Shakespeare, and The Princess Bride. Historical and Contemporary romance books are also big on this trope that they tend to fuse with an Enemies-to-Lovers twist.
8. hereditary curse
According to Classical Myth, there are three taboos in Greek society: cannibalism, incest, and kin-slaying. If broken, the consequences could be deadly. Once Upon A Time, there lived the Royal House of Atreus. A feud between two brothers led to one of them seeking vengeance by killing his nephew and feeding them to the other. Thus began the curse of the House of Atreus that lasted for eleven generations. Several fairy tales, anime, and fantasy books today revolve around curses and the Chosen One’s journey to break them.
Apollo and Artemis, Romulu and Remus, Antigone and Ismene, Helen and Clytemnestra, Heracles and Iphicles, Prometheus and Epimetheus…you get it. Classical Myth is filled with siblings who usually represent two sides of the same coin and stand at odds with each other. One of them often ends up dead. This trope is used everywhere in modern storytelling. Famous examples are Luke and Leia Skywalker, Hansel and Gretel, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, Sam and Dean Winchester, Thor and Loki, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff…
If you’re interest in more tropes that I couldn’t fit into this article, you can always check out All The Tropes Wiki.
featured image via amos37