Greek MythologyMythology

5 Dark and Twisted Moments in Greek Mythology

Greek mythology isn’t exactly known for being all happy sunshine and rainbows. From people being killed for minor infractions to incredibly creative punishments, Greek mythology could get pretty dark. That’s not to say it was some sort of grimdark, amoral dystopia. But these dark moments could get pretty dark. Here are 5.

Table of Contents

1. Why Cicadas Exist

E and T

On the surface, this sounds like a typical origin story; an etiological tale of why something exists. And it is. But the implications are horrific. It’s also an example of romances between mortals and deities not going well. Let’s start at the beginning.

So, Eos was the rosy-armed goddess of dawn (sometimes also considered a second-generation titan). According to one story, she was cursed by Aphrodite to constantly fall in love and would occasionally abduct men. One of those men was Tithonus, a mortal prince. As a mortal, his lifespan was limited. Hers wasn’t. So Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. And he did. There was no issue with this. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So he still aged, but he couldn’t die. Sounds bad? Gets worse.

They were happy together for a while. But eventually he aged to the point where he couldn’t move. So she placed him in a room where he just babbled and aged forever. In some stories he either becomes or she turns him into a cicada.

2. Niobe’s Pride

Niobe JacquesLouisDavid 1772 Dallas Museum of Art

Niobe was very proud of her children. Unfortunately she was a bit too proud. She had 7 sons and 7 daughters, and once compared herself to the goddess Leto, implying she was better because she had seven times as many kids. This…was a mistake. Leto had two children: Apollo and Artemis. One was the god of the sun. The other was the goddess of the hunt. Both were very good shots. You know where this is going. They weren’t exactly thrilled with the comparison. So they killed all (in some stories, one is spared) of Niobe’s children with arrows. 

Niobe was inconsolable, of course. She mourned, and mourned, and mourned. Eventually, she turned to stone. But she still wept unceasingly. Forever.

3. Tantalus Tests the Gods

Tantalus Gioacchino Assereto circa1640s

This whole story is twisted.

Tantalus was a king who didn’t believe the gods were all-knowing. So he decided to test them. By killing his son Pelops (Not Poseidon’s son in the Odyssey. This one was mortal. Well, originally). And inviting the gods to a feast. Where he served his son. To them. As a meal. 

The gods all knew, of course, and no one took a bite, except Demeter, who was understandably distraught over Persephone being missing and was distracted. She at a bit of what was his shoulder.

Tantalus didn’t get away with it. Zeus resurrected his son. Minus part of the shoulder, which was replaced with ivory, and Tantalus was sentenced to Tartarus, where he was condemned to thirst and hunger forever, with food and water always just out of reach.

4. Pentheus

Agave with head of Pentheus

Dionysus’ background was pretty different from other gods, but he was still very definitely a god, as his cousin Pentheus perhaps learned. Before his head was ripped off. 

…Let’s back up.

So Dionysus’ mother was Semele, who died when she saw Zeus’ true form. Her sisters didn’t believe this, so Dionysus responded by driving the women of Thebes mad and leading them to the mountains, essentially making them part of his retinue of maenads.

Pentheus, his cousin and ruler of Thebes, has him detained for introducing foreign worship. Long story short, Dionysus drives Pentheus mad and convinces him to dress up like a maenad and observe the rites in the mountains. 

They tear him apart., specifically his aunt and mother, thinking that he’s a lion, and his mother returns to Thebes holding his severed head, only later realizing what she’d done.

5. Herakles Murders his Family

HeraclesLocoObraTeatral

Hera really didn’t like Herakles. She tried to kill him on multiple occasions over the course of his life. This was debatably worse. 

So Herakles’ first wife was a woman named Megara, a Theban princess. They had several children. Anywhere from 2-4. Stories differ on whether Megara survived or not, but their children didn’t. Driven mad by Hera, Herakles either tossed them into a fire or shot them/ Eventually the madness wore off and he realized what he’d done. This is the start of that 12 Labors adventure.

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