The ancient Greeks believed that everything from the air to the earth to individual rivers was under the control of the gods. Due to their polytheistic worldview, most of their myths concerning the relationship between humans and nature involved the gods. Many of their myths depict nature as having both deadly and life-giving properties or stress the need for humans to treat nature with respect and humility.

A Reversal in Nature

Greeks believed that when humans were created, nature was devoid of hardship. The world became a hostile, difficult place only after their creator, the Titan Prometheus, deigned to steal fire from the gods and give it to humans. To punish humans for overstepping their boundaries, the gods created a beautiful woman named Pandora to be the wife of Prometheus's brother, Epimetheus. They gave Pandora a jar and told her not to open it. Eventually, she succumbed to curiosity and opened the jar, inadvertently releasing pain, disease, hunger and other ailments into the world and turning nature itself into an inhospitable force.

The Heat of the Sun

Although humans eventually learned to control and manipulate fire, even demigods like Phaeton, son of Phoebus Apollo, could not control the sun. When Phaeton first met Apollo he asked to drive Apollo's chariot, the sun. Though Apollo warned him of the danger involved in controlling the steeds that pulled the sun chariot, Phaeton insisted. As Apollo predicted, Phaeton did not know which course to take. He flew first so far from Earth that he risked burning the stars, then so close that he dried up the rivers. Zeus, unwilling to allow the foolish young boy to damage the earth further, hurled a lightning bolt at Phaeton. This myth illustrates not only the folly of humans, but that the Greeks viewed natural phenomena like droughts and heat waves as consequences of the gods' emotions and actions.

A Mother's Grief

Nature became even less manageable when Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone, daughter of the agriculture goddess Demeter. Grieving the loss of her daughter, Demeter plunged the world into a seemingly endless winter and refused to allow plants to grow. Famine became widespread, but Demeter allowed normal growth after she found Persephone. However, Persephone returned to the underworld for one third of each subsequent year. Demeter halted all crop growth during this time, though she was kind enough to help humans expand their agricultural knowledge so they would never suffer another famine.

Death Remains Eternal

Another of Apollo's sons, Asclepius, learned a hard lesson in humility. Like Phaeton, he wished to emulate his father, but rather than aspiring to control the sun, Asclepius wished only to be a healer. He excelled as a doctor, partly because serpents helped him to discover the healing properties of certain herbs. Unfortunately, Asclepius became so skilled that he was able to revive the dead. Angry that the son of Apollo had interfered with nature and human mortality, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at Asclepius, killing him. However, while they understood that interfering with natural death was wrong, humans continued to worship Asclepius as the founder of medicine.