Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Aphrodite, Athena… what do all of these Greek gods and goddesses have in common? No, the answer is not they are all featured in Disney’s 1997 fantasy film “Hercules.” If you analyze closer, it becomes apparent that they are all flawed in some sort or another. Now, I understand why you may be confused, after all the ancient Greeks worshipped these immortal beings that perched on Mount Olympus, and the myths surrounding them explained the most important aspects of everyday life. Through these gods and goddesses, everything from religious rituals to the weather had a meaning and purpose was given to the world people saw around them.
The ancient Greeks honored the gods for many reasons, even creating festivals like the Olympics, purely to please them. People prayed to the various gods and goddesses saw them as figures of guidance as it was not uncommon to seek help and advice from these beloved beings. It is clear just how impactful the gods and goddesses of mythology were for ancient Greeks and it is a shame that their divinity blinded commoners from the truth. The behavior of most of these gods ranged from pettiness and self-centeredness to acts of cruelty and immorality thus making them poor role models and not as perfect as the ancient Greeks described them!
It is a mystery to me why Zeus is described as the protector of people considering the punishment he imposed on Prometheus. What I’m referring to specifically is when Prometheus gave the gift of fire to mortals. In the book Greek Mythology: A Captivating Introduction to Greek Myths of Greek Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters by best- selling Author Matt Clayton, it describes Prometheus giving fire which previously belonged to the gods alone, to mortals. Additionally, he Zeus into letting humans eat delectable meat whilst the gods ate the fat and bones of sacrifices (Clayton 13.) Despite Zeus being pleased when Prometheus pitied him and his siblings, the fact that Prometheus commiserated the mortals infuriated Zeus. As punishment “Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak where an eagle tore at his liver every day- it magically regrew every night, so that there was no end to his life or his pain (Clayton 13.)
This story serves as a great example of the gods revealing their true sides of greed and selfishness. Although it is understandable why Zeus would have been upset upon being fooled, his reaction to Prometheus was morally wrong and self-centered. If Zeus was supposedly protector of poor people and upholder of justice, then why was he so furious when Prometheus was doing just that? The punishment that he inflicted as a reaction to a morally equitable scenario shows significant signs of insecurity – something that a “god” should not have to worry about.
Not only were these gods simply self- centered and petty, the behavior of one god in particular, Hades, broke many cultural taboos. (Peter Paul Rubens – The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638) (Persephone and Hades Kylix, ca. 430 BC, Attributed to the Codrus Painter, The British Museum, London) These pictures tell the disturbing story of Hades and Persephone. In the top picture Hades is shown abducting Persephone in a violent manner, clearly against the will of Persephone and Athena, the woman attempting to save her. Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was in so much grief that she caused the first winter, holding the world hostage until Zeus forced Hades to surrender the poor girl. This leads to the second picture, where Hades is tricking her into eating the fateful pomegranate seeds. The poet Louse Gluck describes it in her poem “Persephone the Wanderer”; “Persephone, returns home, stained with red juice like, a character in Hawthorne …” (Gluck 1). Although Persephone was freed, because she ate the food of the dead she was condemned to return and spend a season each year with Hades.
Clearly the actions of Hades are heinous and unthinkable…well, think again. Madeline Miller who has a master’s degree in Ancient Greek from Brown University points out that though Hades is now seen as a frightening god, the ancients contrarily saw him as honorable and had utmost respect for him (Miller). So, in snatching Persephone, Hades was less villainous than any other ancient abductors like Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and others. Essentially in the eyes of the gods, abduction and forced companionship was in no way culturally or morally wrong! In modern retellings of Greek myths, it’s become common to portray Hades as evil, or demonic because well, he along with most of the other gods were corrupt. Not to mention, the whole reason Persephone was snatched and forced to serve to Hades was all because he was greedy and wanted a bride… so Zeus gave him permission to do what needed to be done (Miller). The selfish and harsh nature of so many of the most powerful gods and goddesses is exactly why they are not as perfect as people thought they were, in fact they were nefarious.
Even the wisest and kindest could be callous sometimes. Athena was generally the most levelheaded of all the gods, but even she had a temper. Take the myth of Athena and the moral, Arachne. According to Roy George author of the Encyclopedia of Athena, when Arachne who was a gifted weaver, proved herself to be more talented than the goddess, Athena reacted harshly (George). Athena could not admire Arachne’s work and made her feel so guilty she hung herself. Athena then turned her into a spider proclaiming, ‘Live guilty woman! And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times (George).” Athena could not compete with Arachne so in order to cure her own jealousy she turned an innocent mortal into a worthless spider forced to live with her own guilt.
What part of this sounds “divine” or “godly” to you? If anything, Athena’s actions were an abuse of power further proving why the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are less than divine and have many petty flaws.
These gods were clearly not amused when their subordinates did anything to interfere with their glory. The characteristics of jealousy, greed, pettiness among other flaws were expressed by all of the gods and goddesses in some way or another and is exactly why people should not have revered them as much as they did. Perhaps these gods are less than divine as they express the same flaws that they condemn morals and even other gods for, thus serving as poor role models to those that spent their lives honoring them. Although these myths are not real events, this system of beliefs is what explained and controlled just about everything in ancient Greek life. Now, it is possible that the ancient Greeks recognized that the gods and goddesses were corrupt among many other problems and used this as an excuse to justify their own societal problems. However, I think the Gods of Greek Mythology were less than divine; to err is human…maybe the gods were just that.