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THE TEACHING PURPOSE OF THE GODS' PUNISHMENTS ON MANKIND: 5 HORRIFIC PUNISHMENTS OF THE ANCIENT GREEK GODS

Since ancient times, Greek civilization has produced a wealth of myths and legends. The first myths for which we have direct evidence are found in texts of the poets Homer and Hesiod, which are dated to the 8th/7th century BC. However, the mythological traditions in Greece date back much earlier. Due to the stylistic features of these texts, it is assumed that there is a long tradition of oral lyrical composition but due to this oral tradition also, it is very difficult to determine an exact date when these myths could be dated.

Most of the time, myths were short stories that mothers or foster parents told their children in order to adopt role models and be taught. In other words, it was a form of social teaching: the myths with punitive content were aimed at the children's indulgence, while the myths that referred to the achievements of gods and heroes intended to strengthen their self-confidence. The questions that arise are many and varied.

What were the most common reasons in myths that led to the imposition of penalties? Who were the recipients of these punishments and who were the gods on Mount Olympus who had taken over the task of punishment?

The conflicts between the gods of Olympus mainly intended to show the supremacy of each one. Zeus may have been the "father of gods and mortals", and therefore his power was incomparable, but the members of this divine family often questioned even his own authority. There were frequent conflicts between the gods, but there were also numerous conflicts between the gods and mortals.

Tantalus

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The legend of Tantalus has three versions. According to the first one, Tantalus, King of Phrygia and son of Zeus, abused his privileged position on Olympus by listing to the gods cooked meat of his murdered son Pelops. Only the goddess Demeter, who was in mourning for the loss of her daughter Persephone, ate a piece. The other gods recognized the crime of the murderer Tantalos, resurrected Pelops and imposed a life sentence on his father.

 

The second version claims that Tantalus revealed the secrets of the gods, who were entrusted to him because of his intimacy with them, while the third gives him the characterization of a thief, after taking advantage of his presence on Mount Olympus to steal ambrosia and nectar and give them to mortals. The punishment that Zeus had devised was eternal: in Underworld, Tantalus was put into a tank that emptied every time he tried to drink water and the fruit that hung over his head was lifted by the wind every time he tried to eat.

Sisyphus and Ixion

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Tantalus was not the only one who suffered in the underworld. The myth of Sisyphus and Ixion refers to 2 mortals who found eternal and martyr punishment in Hades.

The myth of Sisyphus, the mythical founder of Corinth, tells us that he was doomed to spend his afterlife rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it fall down again as he approached the top. His mistake was that he questioned the fundamental difference between gods and mortals: mortals die, gods do not. He tried to eliminate this difference by inventing two tricks. Firstly, he tied up Thanatos(death) and locked him up so that the growing population did not fit on Earth, and secondly, he instructed his wife to not give him the burial values he needed when he would die because he intended to ask Persephone to allow him to return to Earth for 3 days and solve the problem. Persephone accepted, but Sisyphus did not return until the intervention of Hermes.

 

The example of Ixion, the king of Thessaly, is representative to fully understand what caused the wrath of the gods through the behavior of mortals. Ixion committed the first murder of a relative and Zeus not only did not punish him but also purified him of his crime. The act that led him to his condemnation was his attempt to rape Hera. He only succeeded in fertilizing a cloud  that Zeus had created and had the face of the goddess Hera on it. The result of this action was the first Centaur being born. As for Ixion, life after death gave him no joy, since he was bound to a wheel that rotated forever in the air.

Erysichthon of Thessaly

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The Erysichthon myth was known for the disrespect for the gods, as it was mentioned by Callimachus in one of his hymns that was later published by Ovidius. It is said that one day Erysichthon and some of his slaves went to a grove dedicated to the goddess Demeter to cut down all trees for the construction of a palace. Despite the persuasion of the goddess herself, the mortal did not agree and caused her wrath. His punishment was unbearable hunger, which was only satisfied when he devoured his own body.

Marsyas

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Another myth with punishing content is that of Marsyas. Satyros Marsyas one day found the flute that goddess Athena had thrown because she looked ugly when she used it. Satyr challenged the god Apollo to a musical duel, a flute against a lyre. As expected, Apollo defeated the mortal and took advantage of the terms of the wager, which was that the winner would treat the loser as he wished, by imposing a barbaric punishment on him. He hung him from a pine tree and beat him alive. This horrible event is very often visualized in post-classical art.

Medusa

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The punishments were not limited to men. The most famous example of punishment for women is the myth of one of the three mermaids, Medusa. She was a beautiful priestess of goddess Athena and according to the legend, she was raped in the sanctuary of the goddess by god Poseidon who had been transformed into a horse. Since the goddess could not fight with Poseidon, she broke out on Medusa. She transformed the beautiful priestess into a disgusting monster with snakes growing on its head instead of hair. Whoever looked her in the eyes would be turned into stone. Her death came from Perseus, with Athena's help. The goddess held the head of her former priestess, known as "Gorgoneio", and attached it to her shield so that the shield retained the ability to turn into stone anyone who looked at Medusa’s eyes.

The gods of Olympus were omnipresent, and their role in the daily life of the ancient Greeks was crucial and irreplaceable. They were protectors and punishers. They directed events in their own interest and did not hesitate to come into conflict if anyone questioned their honor and power. To show their gratitude and faith, mortals built temples and statues for them, organized feasts and made sacrifices.

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