"Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the death of kings--stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility."
~ Tom Hiddleston
As an undergraduate, I studied Classics. Most people assume this means classical music, but I studied ancient Greek and Roman history and Latin. I should have probably gone ahead and done Greek too. I just might. I really enjoyed my studies, which is esoteric to some and especially loved the areas on classical mythology and literature, particularly tragedies.
A major theme seen in many tragedies is pride. Most people today, would not be worried about pride. They would certainly differ on the belief of it deserving death as punishment as it had been done in Ancient Greece and Rome. The attitude of pride is gravely admonished, as can be seen in many classical myths. There are several myths and rhetoric from ancient Greece and Rome that focus on the concept of Hubris. Hubris, extreme pride and arrogance, was a common “Hamartia”, or tragic flaw, for many tragic heroes and main characters of myth, whose downfalls relayed a moral lesson. These moral lessons, though, came with dire consequences that warned its audience to never be prideful.
Niobe and Her Children
The myth of Niobe and her children comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6. 148-315). Leto, and her children, Artemis and Apollo, were greatly honored in Thebes. However, Niobe, the Queen of Thebes, had the audacity to claim that she deserved more honor than Leto because she bore seven sons and seven daughters, while Leto only bore one son and one daughter. She believed herself to be more abundantly blessed than the goddess herself. So, Leto complained to her children who were then enraged. How could she compare her mortal children to two of the great Olympian gods?
Determined to avenge their mother’s honor, Apollo and Artemis, team up and strike down all fourteen of Niobe’s children with their deadly arrows. While her children were being struck down, Niobe was praying. Praying that her youngest daughter be spared, Niobe was transformed into stone and transported to Phrygia, her homeland. Moral of the lesson: do not compare your children to gods.
Salmoneous can be found in Vergil’s Aeneid. In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Vergil identifies various criminals who were hurled to the very bottom of Tartarus by Jupiter’s thunderbolts, one being Salmoneous. Since he is at the bottom of Tartarus, along with great criminals like the Titans, you can be sure he committed the greatest criminal degree of hubris. Salmoneous was a son of Aeolus, who departed from Thessaly and founded Salmone in Elis. Jupiter, himself, punished Salmoneous for daring to imitate him, king of the gods.
Salmoneous took it a step further by driving through the Greek states and city in the middle of Elis demanding to be honored like a god. Jupiter was apoplectic seeing the mortal trying to imitate his storm clouds and lightning. The action was in vain since nothing man-made could duplicate what the god created. Jupiter struck him down, straight into Tartarus with a great hurl of his thunderbolt. Moral of the lesson: Man cannot be god, so do not dare attempt.
Many different faiths share the basic theme of the wickedness of men and the decision of a god to punish them. Likewise, in classical mythology we see Jupiter or Zeus punishing the wickedness of men after testing the rumor of their evil during the Iron Age. The myth can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1. 211-252). Jupiter descends from his heavenly abode to reside among the mortals for a short time. If he were to compile all the evils he discovered, the list would be expansive.
Nothing compares to the arrogance of Lycaon though. Jupiter enters the home of the tyrant in the appearance of a man and gives sign that a god was in their presence. While everyone prays in reverence, Lycaon mocks their piety. He devises a horrible plot to test whether the disguised man, Jupiter, is really a god, planning to kill him in his sleep; but the plot does not end there. Lycaon kills a hostage and placed the body as dinner before Jupiter. Jupiter immediately brings his house down in vengeance. Lycaon flees, but in vain. He is transformed into a wolf to mirror his ferocious nature. Jupiter later issues a flood onto mankind. Moral of the lesson: do not be impious and do not try to make Jupiter into a cannibal.
Apollo and Marsyas
Also found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6. 385- 400) is the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. Apollo is seen as the most human of the gods in regards to his nature. He revels in the mundane with extreme emotions and dualities. Apollo’s skill as a musician is attested to in various myths. Disaster comes when the realm of his power is challenged, especially by those who are not divine, as seen in this myth. The consequence of this crime of hubris may perhaps be viewed as the most tortuous.
Marsyas, the satyr, becomes proficient in the flute, an instrument made and discarded by the goddess Athena. He grows so prideful in his talent that he dares to challenge Apollo to a musical contest, where the winner gets to do anything he wants with the loser. Ultimately, Marsyas loses and Apollo chooses to skin him alive, the details of which are clearly descriptive in the myth recalled by Ovid. The tears of those who cared for Marsyas form a river, giving the etymology for the River Marsyas. Moral of the story: do not challenge a god, you will lose.
Athena and Arachne
This myth recalled in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6. 5- 145) bears testimony the significance of Athena as the patron goddess of household arts for women, although that the cost of a woman. Arachne, a young woman in Hypaepa, was distinguished by her skill in the art of spinning and weaving, yet was of low status. Still, she was so skilled that the nymphs of Tmolus and Pactolus frequently took pleasure in watching her work. It was believed Athena herself taught Arachne, but she would not admit that. The poet goes on to say it was jealousy that that drove Arachne in her pride to challenge Athena.
Of course, the goddess accepted this challenge, but in disguise. Athena even gave Arachne the opportunity to receive forgiveness, but Arachne was incited to violence at the thought. She was not even in awe when the goddess revealed her true nature.
The competition ensues and both women weave a tapestry with excellent skill. When finished, Athena finds no fault in Arachne’s tapestry. Out of anger, the goddess rips it up and beats Arachne’s face. In distress, Arachne hangs herself. Feeling pity at her end, Athena transform Arachne into a spider, to always be weaving (Although, this was also a form of punishment as well). Moral of the lesson: do not outshine a god, even if you are equally good or better.
Penthueus’ tragic tale can be found in Euripedes’, Bacchae. The play serves as the best source for the nature and worship of the god Dionysus. It relays the terror in denying this mystery religion with Dionysus at its head. The outcome of this spiritual denial is horrifically told in this play.
Dionysus’s mother integrity is doubted by her own family, who does not believe that she became pregnant by Zeus, thus ignoring Dionysus divine status. As a result, Dionysus enters Thebes in anger. Again, we see another god, avenging the dishonor of his mother. He drives his mother’s sisters mad with Bacchic rites after entering the city. Everyone is accepting of the new religion after Dionysus reveals himself, except Pentheus, the current king of Thebes. He blatantly denies Dionysus’ godhead, thinking
Dionysus is an impostor, and vows to destroy the new religion that has entered his city.
Despite his attempt, he is ultimately tricked and enticed into the new religion by Dionysus himself. His plans to destroy the “evil Bacchism” crumbles as he spies on the Bacchic rites. The desire for destruction is finally turned on him as he is destroyed by the very thing he sought to end. In a Bacchic frenzy, he is killed and beheaded by his own mother. Moral of the lesson: do not deny the godhead of a divinity or blaspheme his religion; it would mean your own destruction.
The myth involving Tereus can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6. 572-674). This tale concerns hubris between men. When Pandion, king of Erichthonius, needed help in a war against Thebes, the Thracian king, Tereus, came to his aid. Tereus’ help was rewarded by Pandion with the hand of his daughter Procne. Unfortunately, Tereus would bring down greater tragedy on Pandion’s family. Procne and Tereus have a son Itys. When Philomela, Procne’s sister, comes to visits, Tereus rapes her, and cuts out her tongue and locks her up in a remote tower in order to hide his crime.
Despite his attempt to cover up his crime, Procne discovers what Tereus has done to her sister. Philomela reveals Tereus’ crime by embroidering it into a tapestry that is sent to Procne. Knowing what her husband has done, Procne hatches a plan of revenge. She decides to murder their son Itys and feeds him to Tereus, who realizes to late what he has eaten. When Tereus retaliates, both sisters escaped, transformed into birds. Moral of the Lesson: hubris is not acceptable against men either; do not become so full of yourself that you think you can indulge in any immoral pleasure without consequence.
The tragedy of Croesus can be found in Book One of Herodotus’ History of the Persian Wars (30. 1- 45. 3). The story serves as a good portrayal of Greek humanism through literary art. In the book, we find Solon meeting Croesus who asks who is the happiest. When Solon answers, it is not Croesus as he would have thought and he is upset. Croesus had everything and could not believe he could not be the happiest man on earth. Solon, however, asserts that it cannot be Croesus because he is still alive. You can only measure the happiness of someone’s life after he has passed.
Disappointed, Croesus dismisses Solon. Croesus experiences misfortune soon afterwards. His son is killed (which was prophesied) and he is defeated in war by Cyrus, the Great. These misfortunes confirm Solon’s wisdom. In his suffering, Croesus blamed the gods, but when he was about to be killed by Cyrus he became enlightened by Solon’s wisdom. In an interesting turn of events with an act of hubris, Croesus is saved by a god because of his change of heart, realizing that he cannot blame the gods for fate and his own faults. Moral of the lesson: do not think too much of where you are now because you do not know your whole fate; learn from your crime and you could be saved later.
We find Cassiepea in the Greek saga of Perseus and the "Legends of Argos," recalled in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4. 674- 692). Cassiepea was a Queen of a kingdom situated in the Levant area, the wife of King Cepheus and mother of Andromeda. Cassiepea boasted that her beauty out shone the Nereids. A grave mistake. Once again, we find another queen claiming to be more blessed than the gods, specifically more beautiful than children of a god.
Hearing this, Poseidon issues out her punishment. He floods the kingdom of Cepheus and sends a sea monster to ravage the land. After consulting the oracle of Zeus Ammon, King Cepheus learns that the only way to save the kingdom is to sacrifice his daughter Andomeda. For the sea monster will only be appeased if she is offered, chained to a rock. King Cepheus succumbs to this horrendous term. Luckily, the kingdom is saved by Perseus, who agrees to kill the sea monster—only if he could marry Andromeda. Moral of the lesson: do not compare your beauty to the divine.
The well-known story of Phaethon is accounted for in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.747-779; 2. 1-366). While the story does not show extreme hubris like those previously mentioned, it does show how even a small amount of hubris can cause one to take actions that will incur a disastrous end. Phaethon seeks out his father Helius because he had been challenged about his paternity. He goes to the palace of the sun god to confirm what he had known to be true. Receiving confirmation from Helius himself concerning his parentage, Helius offers to grant him any gift he would like.
Phaethon asks to drive Helius chariot for a day. This chariot pulled the sun’s course over the sky. Helius attempts to dissuade Phaethon from his request to no avail. Phaethon has set himself up for disaster. He is unable to control the four-winged horses that carry the chariot and scorches the earth. Earth herself prays to Jupiter, unable to bear that heat that scars her. In an answer to her prayers, Jupiter hurls his thunder bolts at the out-of-control chariot, and dashes Phaethon to his death. Moral of the lesson: even if it is a great deed, do not dare to attempt to accomplish the tasks of the gods; you will fail and die.