Hollywood Has Nothing on the Insanity of the Real Greek Myths
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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