Crime and Punishment: Eternal Damnations as handed down by the Ancient Greek Gods
Nothing sends a clearer message than an angry punishment handed down from the gods. In belief systems of cultures around the world deities have been disciplining their flocks since time immemorial, perhaps none more innovatively and famously than the gods of Greek mythology. The ultimate form of pain and misery was eternal punishment.
These over-the-top eternal punishments imposed by gods on fellow deities, demi-gods and common mortals were not just punitive measures against a sinner, they served as a warning to others not to repeat dangerous behaviors, such as hubris, greed, disobedience; basically anything that might challenge the gods or go against morality of the time. Here is a few of the more notable legends of eternal damnation in Greek myth:
Prometheus, an immortal Titan, was believed to be the creator of mankind. In the oldest legends the Titan and the Olympian god Zeus engaged in many epic struggles, and ancient texts describe Prometheus as intelligent, a champion of mankind, and sometimes a trickster figure.
Prometheus was said to have given man the gift of fire, after he removed (or stole) it from Mount Olympus, and by extension, Zeus. In various incarnations of the myth, fire symbolized the source of heat and light which allowed humans to thrive, but in the Middle Ages it also represented divine wisdom or knowledge. In the Post-Renaissance understanding, Prometheus was a challenger of institutional tyranny.
‘Prometheus Brings Fire’ by Heinrich Friedrich Füger. Prometheus brings fire to mankind as told by Greek poet Hesiod. Public Domain
For this outrageous act of theft and disobedience against the will of the more-powerful Zeus, Prometheus was condemned to eternal punishment. He was chained to a rock, and every day an eagle (which represented Zeus) would come to tear open his flesh and eat Prometheus’ liver. Every night the liver would regrow, only to be devoured again the next day. In this way his torture was never-ending.
Eagle tears out Prometheus’ liver out every day for all time. Laconic bowl (~550 BC) (Karl Ludwig Poggemann, Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
This act against the gods has survived the test of time in legend, and it is referenced frequently in modern popular culture.
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Once a king of Ephyra (or Corinth), Sisyphus was said to be murderous, selfish, and deceitful. He would trap and kill travelers, and take pleasure in their deaths. His iron-fisted rule and cruel manipulations went unchallenged until Sisyphus betrayed Zeus by leaking the secret location of a hidden water nymph.
For his transgressions, Sisyphus was chained to the bottom of a mountain in Tartarus, the deep abyss and dungeon of suffering and torment.
Zeus gave King Sisyphus the most maddening eternal punishment. He was forced to endlessly push a giant boulder up the steep mountain. The boulder was cursed to fall down the mountain each time Sisyphus got tantalizingly near the top. The result was an eternity of useless effort and continuous frustration.
Even today, fruitless, interminable activities are described as Sisyphean.
Sisyphus’ actions led to his maddening eternal damnation. Public Domain
Arachne, in Greco-Roman legend, was a human woman whose talents at weaving were spectacular. So good were her skills, that not only did she become the best on earth, she bragged she was probably better even than Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, and also of weaving. This definitely caught the attention of the gods who would not allow such arrogance to go unaddressed, especially coming from a mortal. Athena went to earth disguised as a crone, and the two weavers had a competition. In one version of the legend, Arachne bested Athena, weaving a masterpiece. However, the tapestry she created was disrespectful, showing the gods acting foolishly and immorally. Athena realized she had not only lost, but had been insulted, and flew into a rage. She touched Arachne’s forehead, forcing Arachne to feel guilt and humility. Arachne promptly hung herself, and Athena brought the weaver back to life as a spider, so that she might weave eternally.
The word arachnid, for spider, comes from this myth.
In an illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio 12, by Gustave Doré, Arachne’s twisted, spiderlike body can be seen. Public Domain
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According to legend, there was a great series of battles lasting 10 years between the Titans and the Olympian gods, dubbed the Titanomachy. These were to determine who would rule over the Universe, and they ended with the Olympians as the victors.
The Titan Atlas and his brother had sided with the other Titans. It is said when they were all defeated, many of the Titans were condemned to Tartarus, while Atlas himself was punished to stand at the western edge of the world and eternally carry the heavens on his shoulders, in order to prevent the celestial plane and the earth from ever touching.
In one myth, Atlas tricked divine hero Hercules into supporting the heavens (said to be the only other being to do so), but Hercules tricked the Titan into taking the load back.
Modern interpretations often show Atlas carrying the earth, but in ancient understanding it was the heavens he held aloft, carrying the burden for eternity. (Cominik Bartsch, Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Lesson learned: Defy the ancient gods at your own peril.
Lesser known among the eternal punishments is the legend of Tantalus.
In myth, this man was the son of Zeus and an Oceanid, or sea nymph. He became King of Sipylus, a mountainous region in what is now Anatolia. Tantalus was favored not only by Zeus, but by many of the other gods. He often dined with them on Mount Olympus, and was given great honors. He was fatally flawed, however, and committed several great crimes against the gods. He was said to have stolen ambrosia and nectar (food and drink of the gods), which he then took back to his mortal friends to impress them. He also stole one of Zeus’ favorite pets, a golden dog, and spilled divine secrets that Zeus had shared with him.
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Nothing could top his last offense: Tantalus killed his own son, roasted him, and served the heinous dish to the gods at a dinner party. Omniscient, none of the gods fell for his foul ruse except Demeter, who ate a part of the dead son’s shoulder.
So repulsed and enraged were the gods that Zeus himself crushed Tantalus to death under a piece of Mount Sipylus, and then ruined Tantalus’ kingdom for good measure.
Zeus then punished Tantalus to an eternity of lack and desperation in Tartarus. The fallen king was made to stand in a pool of clean, cool water, with a fruit tree nearby, the branches always heavy with delicious fruit. The story goes that Tantalus had great thirst, but if he went to take a drink of the water, it would recede, leaving him nothing. He had ravenous hunger, but the fruit would always be just out of his grasp, infuriatingly close.
Even now we use the word ‘tantalizing’ to describe something that is desired but remains out of reach.
Behaving in such a hideous manner—disrespecting and betraying the gods, murder and theft—would secure you an eternity of tortures, it was established.
Tantalus’ torture is never-ending. Oil painting, 1630s-1640s. Public Domain
While the names of the gods or their stature in our lives have perhaps changed, human nature has not. These early warning tales still resonate with us today, and the reminders are still used in our everyday language, conceivably influencing our behaviors and decisions.
Featured image: The punishment of Ixion. Ixion is bound to a burning solar wheel for all eternity for murdering his father-in-law. In legend this made him the first man guilty of kin-slaying in Greek mythology. Public Domain
By Liz Leafloor
Tompola, 2015. “Eternal Punishment in Greek Mythology” eRepublik [Online] Available here.
Osborne, Kevin. Burgess, Dana L., 2004. “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology” (Excerpt) InfoPlease [Online] Available here.
Camus, Albert . “The Myth of Sisyphus” New York University, 2015 [Online] Available at: https://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/hell/camus.html
“Worst Punishment in Greek Mythology” Rankopedia, 2012 [Online] Available here.