Mythology

It’s All Greek To Me: The Importance Of Greek Mythology In Film

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The ancient Greeks loved to tell tales of jealous gods and goddesses, wars that started over love, monsters, and more. They told these stories to explain what was going on around them. Gods were in control of everything from the weather to fertility and they took on human characteristics so their admirers could relate to them. In modern films, these ancient stories are still used. Cautionary tales or tales to explain phenomenons are timeless. They still serve their audience today just as much as they served the ancient Greeks. Here are three films that used Greek mythology to tell their stories.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

Steven Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon, kills one of his patients in negligence. He meets with the dead patient’s son, Martin, every so often to talk and give gifts. Once the gifts run out, Martin declares that Steven must kill one of his family members in order to pay for killing Martin’s father.

Poster for "The Killing of a Sacred Deer". Martin is upside down and images of Steven in his wife lay inside.
Credit to A24

In ancient times, gifts were given to gods to appease them and withhold their wrath. Steven’s gifts run out and it’s time that he pays for his misdoing. If he does not kill one of his family member’s they will all mysteriously fall ill and die. It is to be assumed Martin has power over death. A god-like ability.

The Greek Myth Of Goddess Artemis & King Agamemnon

The film never explains why Martin has such an ability. Most of the time with (Greek) director Lanthimos’ films the how is never as important as the why. Martin plays the role of the Greek goddess Artemis and Steven plays the role of king Agamemnon. In this Greek Mythology story, Agamemnon kills Artemis’ sacred deer on accident and must pay penance by killing his daughter Iphigenia.

Steven checks Martin's heart. Martin plays the role of goddess Artemis and Steven plays king Agamemnon in Greek mythology.
Credit to A24

The roles are fitting. Steven, as one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons, is a sort of king in his world. Martin is a young, unsuspecting boy with great power. Many of the gods in mythology took multiple forms. It’s a story about coming to terms with what you have done and paying for it accordingly (the Greek gods were big on comeuppance).

Steven claps excitedly as his daughter Kim finishes her singing solo.
Credit to A24

Lanthimos even coyly foreshadows who will survive when Steven hilariously visits his children’s school to see who the teacher believes to be a better student so he can decide who to sacrifice. Kim, Steven’s daughter, has written a “great essay” on Iphigenia, the Greek king’s daughter. Knowing the story of Artemis and Agamemnon could have been what appeased the angry god-like Martin and saved Kim’s life. It is up for interpretation.

The Lighthouse

In the late 19th century on an island off the New England coast, Ephraim Winslow worked as a wickie for the lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake. Winslow begins to see strange things on the island and loses his sanity as time goes on. The lighthouse is at the heart of the madness.

Robert Pattinson as Winslow (Prometheus) and Willem Dafoe as Wake (Proteus) stand in front of the foreboding lighthouse. Winslow is Prometheus and Wake is Proteus in Greek mythology.
Credit to A24

Wake seems to have a strange affection for the lighthouse and guards it against Winslow. In the midst of battling against the sea and fighting to keep their sanity (if either of them were ever sane, to begin with), is a tale about a sea god and the man that stole fire from the gods.

The Greek Myth Of Titan Prometheus & Sea-God Proteus

Greek figures Prometheus and Proteus have never met in ancient tales. Which makes this take on Greek mythology even more interesting. Wake symbolizes Proteus, the god of the sea. Winslow symbolizes Prometheus, the trickster titan. Proteus can tell the future to whoever captures him and change his physical form. This could explain why Winslow sees Wake change shape a few times. Winslow binds, buries, then slaughters Wake in order to gain access to The Lighthouse. This is where the two Greek mythoi meet. Proteus is captured, which leads to the telling of Winslow’s fate/future.

Ephraim Winslow looking terrified playing the role of Prometheus in Greek mythology.
Credit to A24

Prometheus steals fire from the gods. As punishment, Prometheus is tied to a rock and an eagle appears every day to pluck at his liver. Once Winslow sees what lies inside the foreboding lighthouse, he falls down the lighthouse stairs and seagulls pluck out his innards. Winslow is punished for stealing the lighthouse (the fire) from a god.

Oldboy

Oh Dae-su wakes to find himself imprisoned. He learns that his past actions led to a woman’s suicide and ultimately his punishment. A man from his past wants him to experience the same loss he had and hypnotize Oh Dae-su to fall in love with his own daughter.

The Greek Myth Of Oedipus

One of the most famous Greek myths is the story of Oedipus. King Laius sent his son Oedipus away to prevent a prophecy saying Oedipus would kill his father and marry his own mother.

Oh Dae-su and Mi-do playing the roles of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta in Greek mythology.
Credit to Show East

Oedipus, as a grown man, learns of the prophecy and tries to run from it. In doing so, he accidentally fulfills it. This is similar to Oh Dae-su whose past actions lead to exactly the same trouble he had started with. Both Oh Dae-su and Oedipus were punished for something they were unaware of, but there is a large difference in their lessons. In the Greek myth, Oedipus has this prophecy placed on him at no fault of his own. He is unable to escape his fate whereas Oh Dae-su brings his punishment upon himself by gossipping.

Lee Woo-jin acting as a personified prophecy in the Greek Myth Oedipus.
Credit to Show East

The two men self mutilate according to their fate. Oh Dae-su cuts out his tongue when he learns the truth about his daughter. He does it to show that he will never gossip again. Oedipus gouges out his eyes when he learns about his mother. He does it out of shame. Using Greek mythology in today’s films brings old age lessons into a new age world. Greek myths help filmmakers incorporate themes that have been around for centuries into their films in a familiar way. Audience members can connect to these otherworldly ideas which have allowed Greek myths to withstand the test of time.

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