7 Divine Punishments in Greek Mythology

Punishments in Greek Mythology were vicious and creative. The idea behind the punishments often seems to be due to excessive pride, hubris. One of the essential parts of the ancient Greek worldview was ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’ (gnothi seuton), literally “know yourself,” the idea being to know your limits and to not go against the gods.

1. Arachne

Women, mortal or divine, often endured more sustained punishment than men; men were typically just killed in creative ways. Arachne is an excellent example of this. She’s also an excellent example of hubris, one of the recurring tropes in Greek mythology.

A skilled weaver, she challenged Athena to a contest. While Athena, naturally, created a wonderful tapestry that showed the glory of the gods above mortals. Arachne, in contrast, created a tapestry depicting the abuses and sins of the gods against mortals. Enraged, Athena beat Arachne. Literally. Arachne then hung herself in shame, but Athena refused to let her die and turned her into a spider, condemning her and her offspring to “hang forever.”

2. Pentheus

This is another one we can put in the ‘hubris’ category. Even mortal relatives of gods weren’t immune to their vindictive punishments. Pentheus was a Theban prince and Dionysus’ cousin on his mother’s side. When Dionysus arrived in Thebes with his entourage/cult, Pentheus denied his divinity and locked him up. Dionysus responded by driving Pentheus’ mother and aunt into an insane frenzy where they tore him apart, thinking Pentheus was a lion. A detailed version of the story is recounted in Euripedes’ “The Bacchae.”

3. Scylla

It wasn’t just mortals in Greek mythology that were at risk of divine punishment. Scylla, first attested in Homer’s Odyssey as a multi-headed monster that devoured men, started as a beautiful nymph. The exact agents of her transformation differ. In one story, Circe poisoned the spring where she bathed with a potion that mutated her after Circe was unable to seduce Glaucus, who was interested in Scylla. In another, Poseidon fell for Scylla, and his wife Amphitrite turned her into a monster by, again, cursing the spring in which she bathed.

4. Midas

Not all punishments ended in death or tragedy, and Midas is an excellent example. This isn’t about the becareful-what-you-wish-for, golden-touch story. This is about what happened after. After being saved from the whole golden-touch issue, Midas renounced wealth, moved to the mountains, and became a follower of the god Pan, which he may have later regretted.

Chosen to judge a music competition between Pan and Apollo one day, Midas judged Pan as the winner. Apollo was…displeased, though he got off luckier than Marsyas (see: next). Apollo said that Midas must “have the ears of a donkey” to judge Pan the winner, and so Midas was cursed to grow donkey ears.

5. Marsyas

Challenging Apollo is never a good idea, something the satyr Marsyas learned the hard way, before he was brutally killed, in another punishment that falls into ‘hubris’. .

Apollo created the aulos, a reed instrument, but tossed it aside because he didn’t like how it made him look. Finding it, Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music competition, where the winner could do whatever they wanted.

Apollo won. And tied Marsyas to a tree. Before flaying him alive.

6. Actaeon

Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was one of the divine virgins in Greek mythology and reacted violently if a man ever saw her naked. The hunter Actaeon found this out. And perished.

Stories differ, and no definitive version says what he did (all we have are fragments). Whether he accidentally stumbled onto her while she was bathing, whether he tried to spy on her, or whether he attacked her, the result was the same: Artemis turned him into a deer, and his own hunting dogs devoured him.

7. Erysichthon

Erysichthon was a king who ordered the trees of a sacred grove to be cut down. The workers refused, so he did it himself, cutting down a tree known to be sacred to Demeter, which killed the dryad living inside of it. As she died, the dryad cursed him.

Demeter responded to the curse by sending Limos, who, breathing into him, infected him with ravenous, insatiable hunger. It got to the point where he lost his fortune and sold his daughter (multiple times…she was a shapeshifter and escaped every time) to buy food. It was never enough. Eventually, the hunger overcame him, and he devoured himself.


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