Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths

Khalid Elhassan - July 21, 2022

Ancient Greek mythology as depicted by Hollywood often departs from the original source material. That is understandable since studios want to make as much money as possible from their movies. Many original mythology tales are anything but viewer-friendly to modern movie going audiences. The gods and heroes who populate ancient Greek mythology were not exactly nice people. Instead, they were prone to all the dark passions experienced by humans, and since they had divine or super powers, they often indulged their darkest whims in ways far beyond the abilities of mere mortals. So studios often adapt ancient mythology to package it into viewer-friendly – and many of those viewers are kids – films. Below are thirty things about that and other aspects of ancient Greek mythology that often don’t make it into Hollywood and modern pop culture.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Wonder Woman and the Amazons were driven by undying enmity towards Ares. Prime Video

30. How Faithful Were the Amazons in 2017’s Wonder Woman to Greek Mythology?

In the 2017 hit movie Wonder Woman, the Amazons are female warriors created by the Olympian gods to protect mortals. In that film’s narrative, the god of war, Ares, grew jealous of humans, and set in motion a plan to destroy mankind. When the other gods tried to thwart him, Ares ended them all, except for Zeus, whom he mortally wounded. With the last ounce of his power, the chief Olympian wounded Ares, who was forced to retreat. The god of war did not abandon his plans to destroy humans, however.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Ares in the Wonder Woman movie. YouTube

Fast forward to the twentieth century, and as Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons tells her daughter Diana, just before he died, Zeus gave mankind a final boon. He handed the Amazons the god-killer, a weapon to use against Ares when he came back. Diana eventually leaves the Amazons’ secluded island paradise, and gets involved in World War I, convinced that the global conflict is part of Ares’ plot to destroy humans. It is a great movie, but far as fidelity to source mythology goes, its depiction of the Amazons and their relationship with Ares contradicts the original Greek mythology version in some major ways.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
An Amazon as depicted in an ancient Greek vase, circa 500 BC. State Collection of Antiquities, Berlin

29. In Ancient Greek Mythology, the Amazons Were Far From Ares’ Mortal Enemies

According to ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons were a mythical nation of warrior women who came into existence before the Trojan War. They were supposed to have lived at the outer edge of the ancient Greek world, north and east of the Black Sea. A female-only society, they only welcomed men on occasion for breeding purposes. Of the resultant babies, only the females were kept: male babies were eliminated. The Amazons were known for their horsemanship, courage, and pride. Homer described them as “the equal of men“, and they went toe to toe against many famous Greek heroes, whose numbers include Heracles, Theseus, and Bellerophon.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Statue of a wounded Amazon. Capitoline Museum, Rome

A key driver of the plot of 2017’s Wonder Woman is the unceasing enmity between the Amazons and the ancient Greek god of war, Ares. However, according to ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons were anything but Ares’ undying foes: they were his daughters and descendants. In the original source mythology, the queen and founding mother of the Amazon nation was Otrera, a consort of Ares. She bore the god of war two daughters, one of whom was Hippolyta, mother of Princess Diana, or Wonder Woman. Thus, Wonder Woman would actually be Ares’ granddaughter if the movie had stayed true to the source mythology.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Theatrical release poster of Disney’s Hercules. Amazon

28. Hercules from Ancient Greek Mythology Was Quite Different From Disney’s Hercules

In Disney’s 1997 animated movie, Hercules, the hero is the beloved son of the chief Olympian god Zeus, and his wife the goddess Hera. In the animated musical fantasy comedy, Zeus’ evil brother Hades, god of the dead and king of the underworld, hatches a plot to overthrow Zeus and become the chief god of Mount Olympus. However, the fell plan depends on Hercules’ noninterference, so Hades sends his minions to kidnap and slay him while he was still a baby.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Ancient Roman gilded bronze Hercules. Wikimedia

Hercules is kidnapped, but he survives the attempt on his life, and the rest of the movie revolves around his growing up to eventually thwart Hades. According to ancient Greek mythology, however, Hercules – or Heracles as the Greeks called him – was anything but Zeus’ and Hera’s beloved son. Hera, as a matter of fact, hated Hercules with a passion: Zeus cheated on her constantly, and Hercules was Zeus’ son with a mortal woman named Alcmene. As seen below, rather than dote upon baby Hercules, Zeus’ wife went out of her way to mess him up whenever she could. And since she was a goddess, with divine powers, she often messed him up good.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
An ancient Roman statue of baby Hercules strangling a snake sent by the goddess Hera to slay him. Capitoline Museum, Rome

27. Hera was a Nemesis That Tried to End Hercules Every Chance She Got

Unlike the Hera of Disney’s Hercules, who doted upon her son the famous Greek hero, the Hera of ancient Greek mythology could not stand Hercules. She tried to do him in before he was even born. According to Greek mythology, when she learned that Zeus had impregnated Alcmene, the chief Olympian’s wife forced Ilithya, the goddess of childbirth, to keep Hercules trapped in his mother’s womb. That plan was eventually foiled when a servant surprised Ilithya, and got her to lose her concentration long enough for Hercules to get born. Hera did not give up, however. A few months later, when Hercules was still a baby, she sent giant snakes to take him out. However, the supernaturally strong Hercules grabbed one in each hand and strangled them.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Hercules firing arrows at his wife and children, by Bassano del Grappa. Research Gate

Throughout Hercules’ life, Hera continued to do all she could to do for him. At some point, she inflicted upon him a divine fit of madness, and in the grip of insanity, a raving Hercules grabbed a bow and slew his wife and children. When he regained his sanity and realized what he had done, Hercules fled to the Oracle of Delphi, to find out what he could do to wash away his sin. Unfortunately, Hera controlled the Oracle. She got it to saddle Hercules with a series of seemingly impossible tasks as a condition for cleansing him – what became the Twelve Labors of Hercules. In short, if Disney’s Hercules had adhered to ancient Greek mythology, Hera would not be a loving and caring mother, but the villain of the story.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Olympic Zeus. Wikimedia

26. The Original Mythology of Zeus Has Him as a Super Vindictive Deity

In ancient Greek mythology, Tantalus was a king of Sypilus in Lydia, in western Anatolia. He was the father of Pelops, after whom the Peloponnesus is named. Tantalus was also the great grandfather of Menelaus, the Spartan king and cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy, and his brother Agamemnon, who commanded the Greeks in the Trojan War. Tantalus was a son of Zeus and a nymph – minor female nature deities, typically depicted as uninhibited nubile maidens who love to sing and dance. As a son of Zeus, Tantalus was on intimate terms with the gods and was often invited to dine with them at their table in the heavens.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Tantalus. ThoughtCo

However, Tantalus was not a nice guest. He abused that divine hospitality, committed a variety of offenses that angered the Olympians, and brought divine punishment upon himself. One of Tantalus’ sins was his theft of ambrosia and nectar, the food of the gods, which he gave to mortals. He also liked to blab, and revealed to mortals secrets that he had learned at the table of the gods in heaven. However, what offended the divine pantheon the most was when Tantalus ended his own son, Pelops, and served him to the gods at a banquet because he wanted to test their powers of observation.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Tantalus. World of Mythology

25. The Gods Did a Number on Tantalus

When Tantalus served up his cooked son to the gods, the only deity who partook was the goddess Demeter. She was distracted by the demise of her daughter, Persephone, and absent-mindedly ate part of Pelops’ shoulder. Zeus gathered the rest of the boy’s body parts, got the god Hephaestus to make him a bronze shoulder, put them all together and restored the kid to life. Zeus then turned on Tantalus, and subjected him to the wrath of the gods. Zeus destroyed Tantalus, then personally took his soul to Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology. There, the chief god devised a punishment that became a proverbial term for temptation. Tantalus was placed in a pool of water, beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the wind wafted the branches away, and whenever he reached for water to take a drink it flowed away from him.

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Lake Tantalus in Turkey. Wikimedia

Thus he was tormented by constant hunger and thirst, despite the fact that there was plenty of food and water nearby. It is from the mythology of Tantalus’ punishment, of somebody who desperately wants something that seems so close, but that is just beyond reach, that we get the English word “tantalize”. While Tantalus’ divine punishment and other supernatural aspects of his story are mythical, there might have been a historical king Tantalus in real life, who ruled an Anatolian city named Tantalis. The geographer Strabo cited earlier sources that described the wealth of Tantalus, which derived from mines in Mount Sypilus. In the second century, AD, the geographer Pausanias wrote that he saw a sepulcher of Tantalus, and visited a port that bore his name. Archaeological evidence also attests to the existence of a king Tantalus in ancient times.

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An ancient statue of Niobe. Pinterest

24. Greek Deities Didn’t Like It When Mortals Talked Smack About Them

Niobe, in Greek mythology, was a daughter of Tantalus, who got his own dose of terrible divine punishment from the gods – see previous entry. She was a queen of Thebes, and was blessed with great fortune. However, she committed the sin of hubris – a mixture of extreme pride, dangerous overconfidence, and overweening arrogance. For that, the gods subjected her to a terrible punishment. It was a great fall for a blessed mortal who in addition to her noble birth and descent from a king, was also a stunning beauty. She took great pride in both her good birth and her good looks.

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Queen Niobe. Greek Legends and Myths.

What Niobe took the greatest pride in was her large brood of fourteen children – seven sons, and seven daughters. One day, the people of Thebes went out to celebrate the feast of Latona – a religious festival in honor of Leto, the mother of the gods Apollo and Artemis. Unfortunately, Niobe uttered something impious: she mocked Leto. That impiety shocked the Thebans, and they returned to their daily pursuits in awestruck silence and trepidation. As seen below, they had good reason for trepidation, because as Niobe found out, taunting Leto turned out to be a very bad idea.

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Leto, with the infants Apollo and Artemis, by Francesco Pozzi. Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England

23. In Greek Mythology, Pride Often Came Before a Fall

As Niobe’s impiety was described in Bulfinch’s Mythology: “It was on occasion of the annual celebration in honor of Latona and her offspring, Apollo and Diana [i.e Artemis] when the people of Thebes were assembled, their brows crowned with laurel, bearing frankincense to the altars and paying their vows, that Niobe appeared among the crowd. Her attire was splendid with gold and gems, and her face as beautiful as the face of an angry woman can be. She stood and surveyed the people with haughty looks. “What folly,” said she, “is this! to prefer beings whom you never saw to those who stand before your eyes! Why should Latona be honored with worship rather than I?

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Ancient Thebes. Classical Wisdom Weekly.

As Bullfinch continued, Niobe stated that: “My father was Tantalus, who was received as a guest at the table of the gods; my mother was a goddess. My husband built and rules this city, Thebes; and Phrygia is my paternal inheritance. Wherever I turn my eyes I survey the elements of my power; nor is my form and presence unworthy of a goddess. To all this let me add, I have seven sons and seven daughters, and look for sons-in-law and daughters-in-law of pretensions worthy of my alliance. Have I not cause for pride? Will you prefer to me this Latona, the Titan’s daughter, with her two children? I have seven times as many. Fortunate indeed am I, and fortunate I shall remain! Will any one deny this?

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Apollo and Artemis. Pinterest

22. The Gods Could be Cruelly Vindictive

Ancient Greek mythology is full of tales in which hubris is punished by the gods. In Niobe’s case, her hubris provoked Leto’s children, the gods Apollo and Artemis, to seek vengeance for the insult to their mom. They were highly protective of her, because she had suffered greatly on their behalf – see entry about Leto, below. In a flash, Apollo and Artemis, whose nicknames included “The Immortal Archers”, showed up at the citadel of Thebes. From its towers, they watched the Theban youths engaged in sports below, while the Latona festival in honor of their mother was ignored. So Apollo strung his golden bow, and shot down all seven of Niobe’s sons, one after the other. Not to be outdone, Artemis strung her bow, and slew all seven of Niobe’s daughters.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Niobe’s punishment, by Pierre Charles Jombert, 1772. Wikimedia

Niobe was left transfixed with grief and surrounded by the corpses of her offspring. Her children lay unburied for nine days, because the gods turned the Thebans into stone, until the tenth day, when they allowed the burials to proceed. Even then, the gods were still not done with Niobe. As if her punishment was not already horrible enough, Zeus piled on. He capped off the grieving mother’s misery by turning her into a pillar of stone, in which state she was left to continue to weep throughout eternity for her loss.

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The Olympian gods. Pinterest

21. From the Outset, Revenge Was Big on the Greek Gods’ Agenda

In ancient Greek mythology, the gods were seen in anthropomorphic terms, and depicted as similar to humans in many aspects. Greek gods had human appetites and desires, and human emotions such as joy, sadness, lust, anger, jealousy, and wrath. Those human emotions often led to divine vengeance visited upon those who displeased the gods. Since they were gods and all, they were terrors to behold whenever they got mad. Both because of their godly powers, and because they were often unrestrained by morality and the social norms that apply to humans.

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The Olympians. Greeking.

Unlike the divine powers in many or most modern religions, the ancient Greeks did not see their gods as infallible and always out to do good. Instead, the deities were viewed as flawed super beings who were quite fallible. All that humans could do was to endure their divine decisions, whether just or unjust – and Greek gods often acted unjustly. Greek deities were often depicted as sadistic bullies eager for an excuse to inflict punishment. Olympian gods – so named because they were believed to live atop Mount Olympus – might fly into a divine wrath at the slightest provocation and wreck some unfortunate. Their vengeance often took extreme forms, in order to let everybody know just who is boss.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Cronus and his child, by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. Warsaw National Museum

20. In Greek Mythology, the Gods Had Super Dysfunctional Families

The ancient Greek gods’ mean streak and taste for vengeance is not so surprising if we factor in their origins. If they had been mortals, we would describe them as the products of traumatic childhoods and dysfunctional families where horrific abuse was rife. The chain of dysfunction and cycle of vengeance began with their father Cronus, leader of the Titans who preceded the Olympian gods as masters of the world. In Greek mythology, Cronus envied the power of his father Uranus, Father Sky, the primal Greek god who ruled the universe. So he plotted with his mother, Gaia, Mother Earth, who was angry at her hubby for some slight.

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Cronus. Greek Myth Wiki.

Cronus’ mother gave him a sickle or scythe, with which he castrated his father Uranus, and then threw away the testicles. An understandably upset Uranus vowed vengeance upon his son, and cursed him – probably in high soprano. He prophesied that just like he had overthrown his own father, Cronus would someday be overthrown by his own children. As seen below, Cronus went to extraordinary lengths of divine child abuse to ensure that his kids did not do to him what he had done to his own Dear Papa.

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Cronus devouring his son. Greek Boston

19. The God Who Ate His Children

Cronus married his sister, the Titaness Rhea, and the couple had multiple children, whose numbers included the gods and goddesses Poseidon, Hera, Hesta, Hades, and Demeter. To prevent the realization of the prophecy of his father Uranus that he would be overthrown by his own children, Cronus ate his kids as soon as they were born. Rhea was not happy with that, and when their sixth child Zeus was born, she tricked her hubby and gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes. Cronus assumed it was his latest newborn, and swallowed it whole.

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Rhea and Cronus. Wikipedia.

Rhea hid Zeus, who grew up with understandably hostile feelings towards a father who wanted him dead. When he came of age, Zeus forced his dad to vomit out the kids he had already swallowed, and then led his siblings in a war against Cronus. Together, and with the help of other supernatural allies, they overthrew their father and the other Titans, and took over the world. By way of vengeance, they imprisoned Cronus and other Titans in Tartarus, a deep abyss where the wicked are tortured.

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Hera. Louvre Museum

18. Zeus Was a Cheating Dog but His Wife Punished His Mistresses Instead of Him

Hera, titled the Queen of Heaven, reigned from the gods’ home atop Mount Olympus as the wife and sister of Zeus, the chief god of the ancient Greek pantheon. Her husband/ sibling was an insatiable and predatory nymphomaniac whose eye constantly roved, was always on the prowl, and constantly cheated on Hera. Unsurprisingly, Hera was none too happy about her husband’s serial infidelities, which left her feeling slighted. However, she did not address that by taking it up with Zeus.

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Hera discovering Zeus with his lover, Io. Wikimedia

Rather than direct her wrath at her hubby for breaking whatever passed for marital vows and obligations of monogamy atop Mount Olympus, Hera would often fly into jealous rages. She took out her anger instead on those seduced or tricked – or sometimes flat out assaulted – by Zeus in order to satisfy his lusts. Io was one of those unfortunate victims of Hera’s fits of jealousy. According to Greek mythology, Io was a priestess whose beauty caught Zeus’ eye, and caused him to fall head over heels in love with her. So he went after her in ways that only a god can.

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Zeus, Hera, and Io, by Gerbrand van den Eekhout. Wikimedia

17. This Goddess Cornered Her Husband Into Giving Her His Lover as a Present

In his mad lust after Io, the chief god pursued the beautiful priestess. However, she resisted his advances at first, until her father kicked her out on the advice of some oracles. Homeless, she finally gave in to Zeus. He turned her into a white heifer in order to conceal her from his jealous wife, and shield her from Hera’s wrath. It did not work. Hera, who knew her husband all too well, grew suspicious when she noticed how much time he was spending at a pasture, in which a magnificent white cow grazed.


So she begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present. Unable to come up with an excuse to refuse, the chief Olympian god grudgingly gave his lover as a gift to his wife. Hera then assigned Argus Panoptes, a giant with a hundred eyes, to tether the white cow to an olive tree, and keep a constant watch on her. Zeus, driven to distraction by his lust for Io, was unable to bear the separation. So he sent the messenger god Hermes, disguised as a shepherd, to lull Argus to sleep.

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Hermes, Argus, and Io, by Rubens. Greek Legends and Myths

16. Hera Tormented Her Hubby’s Mistress Nonstop

In order to lull Argus to sleep, Hermes resorted to a simple but effective approach. He shot the breeze with the many-eyed giant, played the flute for him, and told him stories. In that way, he got Argus to shut his eyes one by one. When Argus was finally zonked out, Hermes grabbed a stone, smashed his head in, and freed Io from her tether so Zeus could get some loving time with his bovine mistress. In response, the livid Hera sent a gadfly to torment the white heifer, and sting her nonstop.

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Io tormented by a gadfly, by Olivia Musgrave. Artsy

The incessant gadfly drove Io mad with pain, and forced her to wander the earth in an attempt to escape the irritant. Io swam the straits between Europe and Asia, which were known thereafter as the Bosporus (Greek for “ford of the cow”). She crossed the sea southwest of Greece, which became known as the Ionian Sea. Io eventually swam to Egypt, where Zeus finally restored her to human form. There, she bore Zeus a son and daughter, who gave rise to a line of legendary descendants, whose numbers include Hercules.

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Prometheus with the body of a man whom he had just molded from clay, by Otto Greiner. National Gallery of Canada

15. Prometheus in Mythology and His Gruesome Punishment

In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan, a member of the race of divine beings who preceded the Olympian gods. His name, which means “foresight”, emphasizes his intellect, for he was known as a clever trickster. He created humans from clay, and was a champion of mankind in the halls of heavens. That championing of mankind got him in trouble with the gods, who devised a horrific punishment for him in consequence. It was a great fall for Prometheus. He had been one of the leaders of the Titans as they waged war for mastery of the heavens against the Olympian gods, when the latter rose up to replace the Titans.

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Prometheus watches the goddess Athena endow his creation with wisdom, by Christian Griepenkerl, 1877. Wikimedia

However, when his fellow Titans refused to heed his advice and resort to trickery, Prometheus switched sides and joined the Olympians. That ensured the gods’ victory, and doomed the Titans to defeat. Although he had helped the gods secure their victory, Prometheus eroded his store of goodwill with them because he often sided with humanity against the Olympians. He got on Zeus’ wrong side when he tricked him to accept the bones and fat of sacrificial animals, instead of their meat. That set a precedent that allowed humans henceforth to sacrifice animals to the god by burning their bones and fat, and keep the meat for themselves.

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Prometheus brings fire, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger. Wikimedia

14. Zeus Was Super Angry at this Champion of Humanity

Zeus eventually realized that he had been tricked by Prometheus to accept the bones and fat of animal sacrifices, instead of the more desirable meat. Peeved, his response was to take fire away from mankind, and wipe its secret from human minds. That way, humans would have to eat meat row, and shiver from the cold in the dark of night. To make his pettiness stick, the chief god prohibited anybody from letting humanity in on the secret of fire. Prometheus however defied Zeus. He stole fire from Mount Olympus, and smuggled it down to earth to share with mankind and help them survive life’s struggles. When Zeus looked down from the heavens and saw the dark of night dispelled by the flicker of fires, he grew livid.

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The divine punishment of Prometheus. Hellenism

To vent his anger at mankind, Zeus sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of woes. When its lid was eventually removed, it unleashed upon the world all the evils that plague humanity. They included diseases, plagues, war, death, and the constant need for backbreaking labor to eke sustenance out of the earth. Only hope was left inside the box, to keep life bearable despite its sufferings. As for Prometheus, Zeus punished him by having him taken to the Caucasus Mountains, where he was chained to a rock. There, a giant eagle flew in every day to rip open his guts and feast upon his liver. The liver re-grew each night, and the eagle returned each day to repeat the process, as Prometheus was subjected to a perpetuity of torment by day, and nights full of dread of what the morrow would bring.

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The Danaides end their husbands, by Robinet Testard. Gallica

13. The Mythology of the Unfortunate Danaides

In Greek mythology, the Danaides were the fifty daughters of Danaus, king of Libya, and a main figure in the founding myth of the city state of Argos, in the Peloponnese. Danaus was the twin brother of the mythical King Aegyptus of Egypt, and the twins had some serious sibling rivalry going on. Aegyptus had fifty sons, and when he commanded that his twin’s fifty daughters be married to his sons, Danaus declined. Instead, he loaded them in a boat, and oared by his daughters, fled across the sea to Argos. The Argives were impressed by the arrival of fifty beauties rowing a boat, and even more so by their father, whom they made their king.

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Danaus and his unfortunate daughters. Greek Legends and Myths.

Danaus’ brother Aegyptus did not give up, however, and sent his fifty sons to Argos to claim their brides. To spare the local Argives from the ravages of war, Danaus reluctantly consented to marry his daughters to his twin’s sons. Wedding plans were made, and Danaus arranged a feast for the event. However, before the wedding, Danaus gathered his daughters around him, and passed a dagger to each, with instructions to end their husbands’ lives as soon as they were alone with them.

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The Danaides’ ceaseless chore, by John Singer Sargent. Boston Museum of Fine Arts

12. The Red Wedding Has Nothing on This Wedding From Ancient Greek Mythology

To disobey one’s parents was a great sin in ancient Greece. So all of Danaus’ daughters, except one who took pity on her new husband after he respected her desire to remain a virgin, took their spouses’ lives on their wedding night. They then cut off their heads and buried them near a lake south of Argos. Danaus hauled the daughter who had had disobeyed him before a court, but her husband intervened and ended Danaus in the name of vengeance for his 49 brothers. He and his wife then ruled Argos, and inaugurated a dynasty that ran that city for centuries.

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The Danaides by John William Waterhouse. Wikipedia.

As to the 49 daughters who had obeyed and ended their husbands, they remarried, and chose new mates from the winners of a footrace. The gods however punished them by sending them to Tartarus, the ancient Greek mythology version of hell – an abyss where the wicked are subjected to suffering and torment. There, the 49 daughters were condemned to spend an eternity of ceaseless and hopeless labor, reminiscent of Sisyphus – see, below. They were to carry jugs of water to fill a bathtub to wash away their sins, but the bathtub could never be filled because it had a hole in the bottom.

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Zeus. Wikimedia

11. Unending Labor for This Jokester

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king of Corinth, and the founder of the Isthmian Games – one of the ancient Greeks’ four major games, which included the Olympics. Sisyphus was the wisest of all men, and a clever trickster who fathered the hero Odysseus, of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately, Sisyphus’ cunning was combined with questionable ethics. That got him in trouble with the gods, especially with Zeus. Sisyphus violated Xenia, the ancient Greeks’ sacred laws of hospitality which protected travelers and guests. He executed some of his guests to demonstrate his ruthlessness. That angered Zeus, whose divine responsibilities included the promotion of Xenia.

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Prisoners of Tartarus. Greek Legends and Myths.

On another occasion, Zeus kidnapped Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. When her father went looking of her, Sisyphus told him where to find his daughter. In exchange, he got Asopus to create a spring to flow into Sisyphus’ city of Corinth. That snitching made Zeus angrier still. So he sent the god of death, Thanatos, to take Sisyphus and chain him in the underworld. Sisyphus however tricked Thanatos; he asked him how the chains worked, then chained that deity. With Death chained, the mortally ill could no longer find release from their earthly sufferings, and no sacrifices could be made. The gods threatened Sisyphus with dire punishment if he did not free Thanatos, so he reluctantly did.

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Sisyphus’ punishment, by Titian. Prado Museum

10. In Greek Mythology, Sisyphus Was Too Clever for His Own Good

The mythology of Sisyphus had him pull off one more trick to cheat Death. He instructed his wife not to bury him or perform any of the sacred death rituals when he passed away, and to just throw his corpse out. She obeyed, and when Sisyphus arrived at the underworld, he begged Thanatos to allow him to return to earth to punish his wife for her “impiety”. Death agreed, but once Sisyphus was back on earth, he jumped bail and went on the lam. He continued to live to a ripe old age, before he died a second time. That was when Sisyphus discovered he had been too clever by half, and too smart for his own good.

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Depictions of Sisyphus. The Collector.

The gods were not happy that Sisyphus had showed them up and made them look like fools. They also took offense at his self-aggrandizing deceitfulness, and the hubris that made him think he was more cunning than Zeus. So they set out to make an example of him. The gods thought, with some reason, that few punishments are more terrible than an eternity of futile and hopeless labor. So they condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill. Soon as Sisyphus got his boulder to the top of the hill, it rolled down the other side, and he had to go back down and collect his boulder to roll it up the hill once again.

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Ixion. Maicar

9. Violations of the Laws of Hospitality Was Seriously Frowned Upon in Ancient Greece

Ixion, in Greek mythology, was a son of the war god Ares and a mortal woman, who became a king of the Lapiths tribe in Thessaly, in northern Greece. From early on, Ixion built up an infamous reputation as somebody who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Because of his misdeeds on earth – and up in the heavens as well – the gods condemned him to eternal torment. Ixion’s first major trespass that offended the gods was against his father in law. He had promised his wife’s sire a valuable present as a bride price – wealth paid by the groom to the parents of his bride. However, he reneged and failed to pay up after the marriage.

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Ares, father of Ixion. Wikimedia.

So the father-in-law seized some of Ixion’s valuable horses as security for the promised bride price. Ixion pretended to shrug it off. Sometime later, he invited his father-in-law to a feast, and there, orchestrated his demise by shoving him into a bed of burning coals. That crime was particularly odious in Greek eyes because it violated Xenia – the laws of hospitality that governed the relationship between guests and hosts. The breach of Xenia left Ixion defiled, shunned by fellow Greeks and unfit to live amidst men. Nobody was willing to perform the necessary religious rituals that would cleanse him of his guilt and restore him to good standing. So Ixion was forced to live in the wilderness as an outlaw. As you’ll find out, things were about to get way worse for him.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Ixion attempt to seduce Hera, by Rubens. Louvre Museum

8. Greek Mythology Shows That Hitting on a God’s Wife Was Seriously Uncool

Zeus took pity on Ixion. Although promotion of Xenia was part of the chief Olympian god’s portfolio, he cleansed him of the defilement, and invited him to Mount Olympus, to dine at the table of the gods. However, when Ixion was introduced to Zeus’ wife, Hera, he fell passionately in love and lusted after her. Behind Zeus’ back, he started to hit on and pursue Hera. That was another big breach of Xenia: to lust after and pursue your host’s wife was a major violation of a guest’s obligations to his host. Indeed, that was how the Trojan War started, when Paris seduced Helen while he a guest of her husband.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
The punishment of Ixion, by Jules-Elie Delaunay. Wikimedia

When Zeus heard, he couldn’t believe that Ixion, whom he had rescued and cleansed of his guilt, then honored by hosting him in heaven, could be so ungrateful and brazen. So he made a cloud in the shape of Hera, and sent her Ixion’s way to see what his guest would do. Sure enough, Ixion ravished the fake Hera – a union that ultimately produced the centaurs. According to Greek mythology, the astonished and livid Zeus expelled the ingrate from Olympus, and blasted his former guest with a thunderbolt. He then ordered the messenger god, Hermes, to seize Ixion and bind him to a wheel of fire, condemned to spin forever across the heavens.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Statue of Leto in the Yelagin Palace, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia

7. Labor Without End for Zeus’ Former Mistress

To be Zeus’ mistress was a tough row to hoe. The chief Olympian god’s relentless pursuit, persistence, rough wooing, and refusal to take “no” for an answer, was bad enough. Worse for those who gave in to Zeus, or were forcibly taken by him, was that they then had to deal with his insanely jealous wife, Hera, and her crazy punishments. Punishments not of her philandering husband, but of his victims. Leto was Zeus’ first mistress, and became the first to fall victim both to the chief god, who slaked his lust and abandoned her when she got pregnant, and then to the bonkers wrath of his wife.

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Leto and her two babes. Wikipedia.

To exacerbate the unfairness of it all, Leto had been Zeus’ mistress before he married Hera. As such, the chief god had not even been cheating on his wife at the time. In Greek mythology, Leto was a Titan goddess whose beauty captivated Zeus, and she became his first and favorite lover. However, after Zeus impregnated Leto with twins, he abandoned her in order to marry his sister, Hera. That was not even close to the worse that happened to poor Leto.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Hera and Zeus, by Antoine Coypel. Flickr

6. In Greek Mythology, A Heavily Pregnant Leto Was Forced to Ceaselessly Wander the World

Although the chief Olympian god’s affair with Leto and her resultant pregnancy had occurred before Hera’s marriage to Zeus, the Queen of Heaven was still jealous of Leto. So Zeus’ wife set out to turn the life of her hubby’s ex into a living hell. First, Hera kicked the pregnant Leto out of Mount Olympus, so she was forced to wander the world amongst mortals. Then, when it was time to give birth, the Queen of Heaven saw to it that the childbirth was as miserable as could be, by prolonging Leto’s labor.

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Leto. Greek Legends and Myths.

Hera decreed that Leto could not give birth on “terra firma” – the mainland or any island under the sun. She then sent emissaries to all cities and settlements, to forbid them to offer Leto shelter, food, or water. Leto was thus forced to continuously wander the earth, without a chance to settle down anywhere to give birth. Zeus’ heavily pregnant ex crisscrossed the world for years while in labor, unable to find a resting place. She eventually came across a barren island not connected to the ocean floor, which did not count as an “island” by Hera’s definition.

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Leto and the Lycian peasants, by Le Jeune, 1806, depicts peasants denying water to Leto and her newborn twins. Maicar

5. Even for a Deity, Hera Might Have Gone Over the Top in Her Vindictiveness Towards Leto

The barrenness of the island discovered by Leto also meant it had nothing to lose, and thus had nothing to fear from Hera if it defied her will. There, Leto finally gave birth to the gods Artemis and Apollo. Hera, now even more jealous of Leto after she gave birth to Zeus’ children, sent a dragon to chase her and her newborns around. In their flight, they sought refuge in Lycia, whose peasants, on Hera’s instructions, sought to prevent Leto and her infants from drinking water.

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Hulsman, Johann; Latona Transforming the Peasants into Frogs; The Fitzwilliam Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/latona-transforming-the-peasants-into-frogs-4457

So Leto turned them into frogs, before the infant Apollo eventually slew the dragon. Hera also sent the gigantic Titan Tityos to assault Leto. She was once again saved by her children, Apollo and Artemis, who ended their mother’s would-be assailant. Hera eventually came to terms with the situation, accepted things as they were, and let Leto and her children be. Leto then went on to become a goddess of motherhood, with a divine portfolio that also included protection of the young.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
A sixth century BC depiction of Dionysus extending a wine cup. Wikimedia

4. The King Who Beefed With the God of Wine

Lycurgus of Thrace was a mythical king of the Edoni people in southern Thrace, and he had a beef with Dionysus, the Greek god of grapes and wine. According to Greek mythology, Lycurgus got drunk on wine and tried to forcibly slake his lust upon his own mother. When he sobered up and realized what he had almost done, he swore off the drink, became a teetotaler. He also enacted a version of Prohibition in his kingdom: he banned wine, and ordered the destruction of all grape vines throughout the realm. Lycurgus also banned the religious cult of Dionysus, whom he refused to acknowledge as divine, and prohibited the worship of the grape god in his kingdom.

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Dionysus. Jewish Expert.

Dionysus was a god, and was thus not inclined to heed the dictates of a mortal, not even a mortal king. So when his disciples, the Maenads, threw a festival in honor of the wine god atop the sacred mountain of Nyseion in Lycurgus’ kingdom, Dionysus took on human form and attended as the guest of honor. When Lycurgus heard that his command had been defied and that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he flew into a rage and rushed to Mount Nyseion to break up the party. There, he slew with an ax a Maenad who had nursed Dionysius as a child, and chased the festival attendants out with an ox goad.

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The madness of Lycurgus of Thrace, as depicted in a fourth century BC vase. Theoi

3. In Greek Mythology, the God of Wine Was Not All Fun and Games

To save himself from the livid Lycurgus, Dionysus in human form was forced to flee, and to escape the wrath of the angry king, leapt into the sea. There, Dionysus was rescued by the sea nymph Thetis, who kindly received the wine god and sheltered him in an undersea cave. In the meantime, Lycurgus conducted an anti-Dionysian purge throughout his kingdom. He carried out a persecution in which the Maenads and other followers of Dionysus were rounded up, arrested, and imprisoned. Understandably, Dionysus was greatly angered by Lycurgus disrespect and impiety. His divine punishment was take away the Thracian king’s sanity, and reduce him to a raving loon.

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Dionysus, Greek god of revelry and wine. Encyclopedia Britannica.

In Greek mythology, a crazed Lycurgus slew his wife and family. He had ordered all grape vines cut down, and in a fit of insanity, the deranged monarch mistook his own son for a vine. He chopped him up with a sword, and pruned away his ears, nose, fingers and toes. Dionysus was still not done with him, however. The wine god laid a curse upon Lycurgus’ kingdom, which rendered its soil barren and unable to produce fruit. The desperate Edonians sought advice from an oracle, who informed them that fertility would not return to their land while Lycurgus was alive. So the Edonians seized their king, tied him up, and flung him to a man-eating horse, which tore Lycurgus to pieces.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Diana and Actaeon, by Titian, 1559. Wikimedia

2. The Hunter Taught His Skills by a Centaur

The Ancient Greeks’ worldview and mythology differed greatly from the orderly worldview of the major monotheistic religions, which worship an omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible God. The Ancient Greeks often saw their gods as arbitrary and capricious, and few myths depict that conception of the Olympians’ arbitrariness and capriciousness as does the myth of Actaeon. His fate differs from that of those described in most entries in this article, mortal or immortal beings who did something to invite the wrath of the gods.

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Centaur. Cultural Bestiary.

If those unfortunates did not actively invite the wrath of the gods, then they at least found themselves in a situation in which the wrath of a good was understandable, even if unjustified. Actaeon on the other hand, endured a divine punishment despite the fact that he had not done anything of his own volition that could have justified his fate. In Greek mythology, Actaeon was a famous Theban hero, who loved to hunt in the outback of his native region of Boeotia. Like the hero Achilles, of Iliad fame, Actaeon had been taught to hunt by the centaur Chiron.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
The demise of Actaeon, as depicted in an ancient Greek vase. Theoi

1. Accidentally Seeing a Naked Goddess Was Bad News for This Mortal

Chiron was a mythical creature with the lower body of a horse, and the torso and upper body of a human. He was notable in Greek mythology and legend for his youth-nurturing nature. He instilled in Actaeon a passion for the hunt that proved the Theban hero’s undoing. One day, Actaeon was out hunting with his dogs in Boeotia. He unwittingly stumbled upon the chaste goddess Artemis – Diana to the Romans – while she was naked, bathing in a spring with some wood nymphs.

Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
Actaeon stumbling upon Artemis. Deviant Art.

Although the extent of Actaeon’s sin, if it could even be called that, was to simply have had the misfortune of bumping into a naked goddess, Artemis was livid that a mortal saw her naked. So in her wrath, she turned him into a stag. The terrified Actaeon bounded into the woods, but his own dogs detected the scent of a stag. They failed to recognize their master in his new body, chased him down, and tore him to pieces.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bulfinch, Thomas – Bulfinch’s Mythology (1998)

Cracked – Movies vs Ancient Mythology

Dalby, Andrew – The Story of Bacchus (2005)

Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Classical Mythology – Ixion

Encyclopedia Britannica – Cronus

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ixion

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tantalus

Encyclopedia Mythica – Actaeon

Encyclopedia Mythica – Lycurgus of Thrace

Evslin, Bernard – Gods, Demigods and Demons: A Handbook of Greek Mythology (2006)

Fry, Stephen – Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined (2018)

Fry, Stephen – Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece (2019)

Gantz, Timothy – Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (1993)

Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology – Actaeon

Graves, Robert – The Greek Myths (1992)

Gray, Louis Herbert, ed.The Mythology of All Races, Volume 1: Greek and Roman (1916)

Greek Mythology – Hercules: The Life of the Greek Hero

Greek Mythology – Io

Greeka – Io and Zeus

Greeka – The Danaides

Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 13 (1902) – A Study of the Danaid Myth

History Collection – Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for These Celebrities

Keefer, Professor Julia, New York University – The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

Mayor, Adrienne – The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World (2014)

Mythopedia – Leto

Peabody, Josephine Preston, Tales Beyond Belief – The Myth of Niobe

Screen Rant – Disney’s Hercules: 10 Things That Would be Different if the Movie Was Mythologically Accurate

Theoi – Artemis Wrath

Theoi – Kronos

Theoi – The Titaness Leto

World History Encyclopedia – Amazon Women

World History Encyclopedia – Prometheus