You would think that Niobe would have learned from what had happened to her own father, and thus avoided getting on the gods’ bad side. In Greek legend, Tantalus was king of Sypilus in Lydia, in western Anatolia. In addition to being Niobe’s dad, 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, the chief god of the Ancient Greeks, and a nymph – minor female nature deities, typically depicted as uninhibited nubile maidens who love to sing and dance. As Zeus’ son, Tantalus was on intimate terms with the gods and was often invited to dine with them at their table atop Mount Olympus. However, he abused that divine favor and committed a variety of offenses that angered the Olympians, and brought vengeance upon his head.
23. A Spoiled Brat Who Abused the Gods’ Hospitality and Goodwill
Tantalus comes across as a spoiled brat who often got away with stuff because of who his father was, until he eventually went too far. Among the sins that ticked off the gods, he stole ambrosia and nectar, the food of the gods, and gave it to mortals. He also liked to blab and revealed to mortals secrets he had learned at the table of the gods. However, what offended the divine pantheon the most was when Tantalus killed his own son, Pelops, and served him to the gods at a banquet in order to test their powers of observation.
The gods realized what Tantalus had offered them and refused to touch it, with the exception of the goddess Demeter. She was distracted by the death 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 Tantalus’ son to life. Zeus then turned on Tantalus, and as seen below, subjected him to the vengeance of the gods.
22. A Vengeance That Gave Rise to the Word “Tantalize”
For his effrontery, Zeus first destroyed Tantalus, then personally took his soul to Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology. There, the chief god visited epic vengeance upon the wretch. 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. Tantalus was thus tormented by everlasting hunger and thirst, despite food and water being so near at hand. It is from this punishment, of desperately wanting something that seems so close but that is just beyond reach, that we get the English word “tantalize”.
The divine vengeance visited upon Tantalus and other supernatural aspects of his story are, of course, mythical. However, there might have been a real-life historical king named Tantalus, who ruled an Anatolian city named Tantalis. The geographer Strabo, who cited earlier sources, described the mines of Mount Sypilus as the base of Tantalus’ wealth. The geographer Pausanias reported in the second century AD that he had seen 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.
In Greek mythology, it was not always a good thing to attract the attention of the gods. Even more so if that attention took the form of a divine attraction, and if the god attracted to you was Zeus. To be a mistress of the Ancient Greeks’ chief god was no bed of roses. His relentless pursuit, persistence, rough wooing, and refusal to take “no” for an answer was bad enough. What made it worse for those who gave in to Zeus or were forcibly taken by him, was to then have to deal with his insanely jealous wife – who also happened to be his sister – Hera.
Hera was prone to fly into a rage and shower vengeance – not on her philandering husband, but on his victims, as Leto could attest. Zeus’ first mistress, Leto 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. To exacerbate the unfairness of it all, Leto had been Zeus’ mistress beforehe had married Hera, so the chief god had not even cheated on his wife at the time. That did not stop Hera from visiting epic punishments upon the unfortunate Leto.
20. Hera’s Vengeance Upon Her Husband’s Former Lover Was Epic
Greek mythology depicts Leto as a Titan goddess whose beauty captivated Zeus, and who became his first and favorite lover. However, after Zeus impregnated Leto with twins, he abandoned her in order to marry his sister, Hera. Although the affair and pregnancy had occurred before Hera’s marriage to Zeus, the Queen of Heaven was still jealous of Leto, so she set out to turn her life into a living hell. First, Hera kicked the pregnant Leto out of Mount Olympus, and forced her to wander the world amongst mortals.
Then, when it was time to give birth, Hera prolonged Leto’s labor in order to make her as miserable as possible. Hera decreed that her husband’s former lover would not be allowed to give birth on “terra firma” – the mainland or any island under the sun. She then sent emissaries to all cities and settlements, to warn them that if they offered Leto shelter, food, or water, Hera would visit her vengeance upon them. As a result, Leto was forced to wander the world nonstop, without a chance to settle down anywhere to give birth.
19. The Queen of Heaven Also Tried to Slay Her Husband’s Children With a Mistress
The heavily pregnant Leto was forced to roam for years while in labor, unable to find a place to rest and give birth. She finally came across a barren island that was not connected to the ocean floor, so it did not count as a real “island” by Hera’s definition. The island’s barrenness also meant it had nothing to lose, and thus nothing to fear from Hera’s vengeance if it defied the Queen of Heaven’s will. There, Leto finally gave birth to Zeus’ children, the gods Artemis and Apollo. That just made Hera even more jealous of Leto, so she 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. So Leto turned them into frogs, before the infant Apollo eventually slew Hera’s dragon. Hera also sent the gigantic Titan Tityos to assault Leto, but she was once again saved by her children, Apollo and Artemis, who killed their mother’s would-be attacker. 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, whose portfolio included protection of the young.
18. Hera’s Jealous Vengeance Also Fell Upon Zeus’ Other Mistress, Io
As seen above, Hera’s husband and sibling Zeus was an insatiable and predatory nymphomaniac whose eye roved nonstop. He constantly cheated on the Queen of Heaven – and not just with goddesses and supernatural females, but with mortal women as well. Understandably, Hera was none too happy about her husband’s serial infidelities, which left her feeling slighted. She did not take that up directly with Zeus, however, and direct her wrath at him for his serial violation of whatever passed for marital vows and obligations of monogamy atop Mount Olympus.
Instead, Hera flew into jealous rages and took it out on the unfortunates seduced, tricked, or sometimes flat-out assaulted by Zeus in order to satisfy his lusts. Io was one of those unfortunate victims of Hera’s jealous vengeance. 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. The chief god lusted after and pursued Io, but she resisted his advances at first until her father kicked her out on the advice of some oracles.
17. Zeus Turned His Mistress Into a Cow to Hide Her From His Wife
A homeless Io finally gave in to Zeus. To conceal her from his jealous wife and shield her from Hera’s vengeance, the chief god turned Io into a white heifer. It did not work. Hera knew her husband and brother all too well. She began to get suspicious when she noticed just how much time he was spending at a pasture, in which a magnificent white cow grazed. So she asked Zeus to give her the heifer as a present.
Zeus could not think up a good excuse to refuse Hera’s request, so he grudgingly gave his love to his wife as a gift. 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.
16. Zeus’s Wife Visited Her Vengeance Upon His Mistress With a Gadfly
To lull Argus Panoptes to sleep, Hermes set out to shoot the breeze with the many-eyed giant. He played the flute and told stories to get him to relax, and Argus began to shut his hundred eyes, one by one. When the giant was finally zonked out, Hermes grabbed a stone and smashed his head in. He then freed Io from her tether so Zeus could get some loving time with his cow mistress. A lived Hera found out what had happened, and sent a gadfly to torment the heifer and sting her nonstop.
A gadfly might not seem like much vengeance, but Zeus’ wife knew what she was doing. The constant buzzing and biting drove the bovine Io mad with pain, and forced her to wander the earth in an attempt to escape the irritant. She swam the straits between Europe and Asia, which became known as the Bosporus (Greek for “ford of the cow”), and the sea southwest of Greece, which became known as the Ionian Sea. She eventually swam to Egypt, where Zeus finally restored her to human form. There, Io bore Zeus a son and daughter, who gave rise to a line of legendary descendants whose numbers include Hercules.
15. The Ancient Greek Gods Could be Arbitrary and Capricious
Of all the victims of divine vengeance, few were more innocent and undeserving of such a fate than Actaeon. The Ancient Greeks’ worldview differed greatly from the orderly worldview of the major monotheistic religions, in which the universe is ruled by an omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible God. Such a God is always just – even if mortals are sometimes incapable of grasping the justice behind some of His actions. By contrast, the gods of Ancient Greece were often seen as arbitrary and capricious.
Few myths depict that conception of the Olympians’ arbitrariness and capriciousness as does that of Actaeon. Most entries in this article are about mortal or immortal beings who did something to invite the vengeance of the gods, or at least found themselves in a situation in which the wrath of a good was understandable, even if unjustified. The unfortunate Actaeon on the other hand endured a divine punishment despite not having done anything of his own volition that could have justified his fate.
14. Divine Vengeance Visited Upon an Innocent Who Had Done Nothing to Deserve It
Actaeon was a Theban hero who loved to hunt in the outback of his native region of Boeotia. Like the hero Achilles, of Iliad fame, Actaeon was taught how to hunt by the centaur Chiron. Chiron – a mythical creature with the lower body of a horse, and the torso and upper body of a human – was notable in Greek legends because he liked to nurture the young. He instilled in Actaeon a passion for the hunt that proved the Theban’s undoing. It happened when Actaeon was on a hunt with his dogs in Boeotia, and accidentally stumbled upon the chaste goddess Artemis.
Artemis, or Diana to the Romans, was naked and bathing in spring with some wood nymphs. Although the extent of Actaeon’s sin, if it could even be called that, was that he had simply bumped into a naked goddess, Artemis was livid that a mortal saw her in the nude. So she turned him into a stag. The terrified Actaeon bounded into the woods, but his own dogs detected the scent of a stag, failed to recognize their master in his new body, chased him down, and tore him to pieces.
Sisyphus in Greek mythology 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 cunning trickster who fathered the hero Odysseus, of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately, Sisyphus’ cunning was combined with questionable ethics: among other things, he was greedy, deceitful, and liked to rob people. That got him in trouble with the gods, especially Zeus.
The greatest of Sisyphus’ sins was his violation of Xenia, the sacred laws of hospitality that protected travelers and guests, when he murdered some of his guests to demonstrate his ruthlessness. That angered Zeus, whose portfolio included the promotion of Xenia. On another occasion, Zeus kidnapped Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. When her distraught father tried to find her, Sisyphus told him where she was, and in exchange got Asopus to create a spring and send it to flow into the city of Corinth.
Zeus was already upset with Sisyphus for his violation of the sacred laws of hospitality. He grew livid when Corinthian king snitched to Asopus about where the chief Olympian god had hid the river god’s kidnapped daughter. So he sent Thanatos, the god of death, to seize Sisyphus and chain him in the underworld. Sisyphus however tricked Thanatos and got him to explain how the chains worked. He then used that knowledge to chain the death god. With Thanatos chained, the mortally ill could no longer find release from earthly suffering, and no sacrifices could be made.
The gods threatened Sisyphus with dire vengeance if he did not free the god of death, so he reluctantly did. However, Sisyphus had one more trick up his sleeve to cheat Thanatos. 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.
After he tricked death to let him return to the world of the living, King Sisyphus went on to live to a ripe old age, before he died for a second time. That was when Sisyphus discovered he had been too clever by half, and too smart for his own good. The gods were ticked off at him because he had shown them up and made them look like fools. They also took offense at his self-aggrandizement, deceitfulness, and the hubris that led him to believe that he was smarter than Zeus.
So the Olympians visited terrible vengeance upon Sisyphus so as 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 pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill. Soon as Sisyphus got his boulder to the top of the hill, it would roll down the other side, and he would have to go back down and collect his boulder to push it up the hill again.
10. Kings Danaus and Aegyptus Took Sibling Rivalry to Extremes
The Danaides were the fifty daughters of King Danaus of Libya, a key figure in the founding myth of Argos, a city-state in the Peloponnesus. Danaus was the twin brother of the mythical King Aegyptus of Egypt, and there was some serious sibling rivalry between the two. Aegyptus had fifty sons, and when he commanded that his twin’s fifty daughters marry 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.
However, Aegyptus did not give up and sent his fifty sons to Argos to claim their brides. To spare the local Argives from the ravages of war, Danaus reluctantly gave his consent for his daughters to wed his twin’s sons. Wedding plans were made, and Danaus arranged a feast for the event. Just before the wedding, Danaus gathered his daughters around him, and passed a dagger to each, with instructions to murder their husbands as soon as they were alone with them.
To the Ancient Greeks, to disobey one’s parents was to commit a great sin. So all of King Danaus’ daughters, except one who took pity on her new husband after he respected her desire to remain a virgin, obeyed their father’s orders and murdered their spouses on the wedding night. They then cut off their heads and buried them near a lake south of Argos. Danaus hauled the daughter who had disobeyed him before a court, but her husband intervened and murdered Danaus to avenge his 49 brothers. He and his wife then ruled Argos, and began a dynasty that ran that city for centuries.
As to the 49 daughters who had murdered their husbands, they remarried, and chose their new mates from the winners of a footrace. The gods however were peeved at what they had done to their first husbands. By way of divine vengeance, they sent them to Tartarus, the Ancient Greek hell. There, the deadly Danaides were condemned to spend an eternity of ceaseless and hopeless labor, reminiscent of Sisyphus. They had 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.
King Lycurgus was a mythical monarch who ruled over the Edoni people in southern Thrace. In Ancient Greek mythology, he had a beef with the god Dionysus, the deity in charge of grapes and wine. According to legend, Lycurgus got drunk on wine one time, and tried to rape his own mother. When he sobered up and realized what he had almost done, he swore off the drink, became a teetotaler, and enacted a Bronze Age version of Prohibition in his kingdom.
Lycurgus banned wine and ordered the destruction of all grape vines throughout the realm. He 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. Dionysus, being a god, was not about to heed the dictates of a mortal, not even a mortal king. In hindsight, considering what happened to him and the kind of vengeance that fell upon his head, Lycurgus might have regretted his decision to take on a god.
When the Maenads, the wine god’s disciples, threw a festival in his honor 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. He rushed to Mount Nyseion to break up the festival. Lycurgus used an ax to slay a Maenad who had nursed Dionysus as a child, and chased everybody out with an ox goad.
Dionysus was forced to flee to save himself from the livid Lycurgus and had to leap into the sea to escape the wrath of the angry king. 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 set out to purge his realm of Dionysus’ followers and Dionysian rites. He carried out persecution in which the Maenads and others who worshiped the god of wine were arrested and imprisoned.
6. Dionysus Made Lycurgus Slay His Own Family, Then Got His Subjects to Slay Him
Unsurprisingly, Dionysus was not too happy with Lycurgus and his disrespectful and impious attitude. So he set out to visit divine vengeance upon the Thracian king, took away his sanity, and reduced him to a raving nut. In his madness, Lycurgus slew his wife and family. In a tragic divinely ordained twist, Dionysus made the king who ordered all grape vines cut down imagine that his own son was a vine. So the crazy king chopped him to death with a sword, and pruned away his ears, nose, fingers and toes.
That was not enough vengeance for Dionysus, however, who was not done yet with the Thracian ruler. The wine god laid a curse upon Lycurgus’ kingdom, and rendered its soil barren and incapable of producing fruit. The desperate Edonians sought advice from an oracle, who told them that fertility would not return to their land until Lycurgus was killed. So the Edonians seized their ruler, tied him up, and flung him to a man-eating horse that tore Lycurgus to pieces.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Ixion was a son of the war god Ares and a mortal woman. He became king of the Lapiths tribe in Thessaly, in northern Greece, and from early on, he built up an infamous reputation as somebody who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. His misdeeds on earth – and up in the heavens as well – led the gods to visit a terrible vengeance upon him. He first offended the Olympians when he promised his father-in-law a valuable present as a bride price – wealth paid by a groom to the bride’s parents. He reneged, however, and did not pay up after the marriage.
The father-in-law seized some of Ixion’s valuable horses as security for the promised bride price. Ixion pretended to shrug it off, invited his father-in-law to a feast, and there, shoved him into a bed of burning coals. That murder was particularly odious in Greek eyes because it violated Xenia – the laws of hospitality governing 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. That was bad, but as seen below, it got way worse for him soon thereafter.
4. Ixion Discovered That it Was Unwise To Hit on the Chief God’s Wife
Although promotion of Xenia was part of the chief Olympian god’s portfolio, Zeus took pity on Ixion. 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 hit on and pursued her. 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. The Trojan War started when Paris seduced Helen while he was a guest of her husband.
When Zeus heard, he could not 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. 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, and by way of eternal vengeance, condemned him to spin forever across the heavens.
3. Prometheus Created Mankind, and Angered the Gods by His Staunch Support of Humans
Prometheus was a Titan – the race of divine beings who had dominated the world before the arrival of the Olympian gods. Prometheus’ name, which means “foresight”, emphasizes his intellect, for he was known as a clever trickster. Ancient Greek mythology credited him with having created humans from clay, and then advocated for and championed mankind in the halls of heavens. That fondness for humans got the Titan in serious trouble with the gods, who visited horrific vengeance upon him as a result.
The Titans, twelve children of the primordial parents Uranus (“Sky”) and his mother Gaia (“Earth”) had preceded the Olympians as gods. When the Olympians led by Zeus rose up to challenge for mastery of the world, Prometheus was one of the Titans’ leaders. 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. That did not stop the Olympians from turning on Prometheus when he got on their wrong side.
2. Helping Humanity Got Prometheus in Hot Water With Zeus
Although he had helped the Olympian gods secure victory against the Titans, Prometheus eroded his store of goodwill with them when he took the side of humanity against that of the new deities. He ticked off Zeus and got on his 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 to sacrifice animals to the gods by burning their bones and fat but got to keep the meat for themselves.
In response, a peeved Zeus took fire away from mankind and wiped its secret from human minds, so they would have to eat meat raw 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 and stole fire from Mount Olympus, then smuggled it down to earth to share with mankind and help them survive life’s struggles. That was the final straw for the chief Olympian.
1. Zeus Sentenced Prometheus to an Eternity of Dreadful Torment
Zeus was livid when he looked down from the heavens and saw the dark of night dispelled by the flicker of fires. To vent his anger at mankind, the chief god sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of calamities. When the lid of Pandora’s box was eventually removed, all the evils that plague humanity were unleashed upon the world. From then on, mankind was afflicted with 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 all its miseries.
As to Prometheus, Zeus devised a horrific punishment for him. He had the Titan taken to the Caucasus Mountains, where he was chained to a rock. There, Zeus’ vengeance took the form of a giant eagle that flew in every day to rip open Prometheus’ guts and feast upon his liver. The liver re-grew each night, and the eagle returned each day to repeat the process. That way, Prometheus was subjected to an eternity of torment by day, and nights full of dread of what the morrow would bring.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading