Today’s media is rife with violent images and stories of people who’ve done some pretty insane things. In the ancient world, they may not have used newspapers, but their method of communication was principally through myth and storytelling. Interestingly, many of these myths seem to reflect the modern interest in and horror around violence, although they also appear to have some sort of lesson or teaching for society as a whole. What’s perhaps more shocking as well is that sometimes these stories, particularly in the polytheistic environments such as ancient Greece, discuss gods and goddesses doing some very brutal things that might leave many puzzled about why writers of these myths did this. Weren’t the gods supposed to be some sort example for humanity, some sort of cosmic parent that didn’t do as much wrong as their underlings on earth? The answer in fact might lie in the eastern doctrine of karma, which means that every action resounds back to one’s self. Or these stories might also reflect how humans are frustrated with the current state of things and how reality is sometimes crueler than it should be. Some of the ancient writers, as pious as they might have been to the old gods and goddesses of Olympus, also might have seen the gods as making some pretty bad decisions at times. Here’s a look at a few of these not so godly decisions.
15. The Aesir – Brotherly Dismemberment
In the stories of the ancient Norse, which are primarily told in the Elder Edda, the Aesir are the gods of Asgard, who oversee and dominate over human events. It’s interesting to note that sometimes with their enemies, the Aesir aren’t too lenient, and sometimes they can be downright disturbing in their retribution for past actions. In one chapter of the Gylfaginning, the Aesir are so deeply upset with Loki and his crime for killing the god Balder that they turn Vali, one of Loki’s sons, into a wolf. Vali in turn dismembers his own brother Narfi, Loki’s other son, in a fit of animalistic rage. While we might understand why the Aesir might commit capital punishment for murderous villains such as Loki, we might wonder why they went to such extremes in making an example of this situation— by making one of Loki’s own sons kill the other son. In its totality, this is a very disturbing tale.
14. Poseidon – Not Above Rape
An aspect of the Greek and Roman god system is that most of the major gods were not monks or clerics. For that matter, they weren’t very monogamous either. If you examine the Greek myths, you may notice that Zeus was the father of just about every earth-born hero of ancient Greece, all of whom were sired with a different mortal woman. In rare cases, maybe because they were gods, did they find the compulsion to rape a woman, but occasionally this sort of behavior did occur. Such happened in the case with Poseidon, god of the ocean, and his rape of Caenus. Caenus may have actually been a lesbian in this case, because Poseidon in the end turned her into a male warrior at her request. This was maybe done to alleviate his own stress from raping her initially.
13. Kali – Necklace of Skulls
The goddess Kali, a widely revered goddess even today in India, is the subject of some controversy among foreigners due to her dark look and scary appearance. She is often depicted with a necklace of human skulls around her neck, which when examined further, are the heads of her demon victims she has slain during battle. Usually, this proves a bit scary to some, and it even led Steven Spielberg to demonize one of her counterparts, Kali Maa, in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. However, some Hindus regard Kali as a destroyer of the worst sort of demons that sometimes haunt other worlds. This is considered an act of karmic retribution for violence these beings have committed. Some Hindus also believe images of Kali with skulls around her neck scare away demons from their household.
12. Hercules – Killed His Family
While Hercules, or Heracles, is often considered a hero for his strength and bravery, he’s also got a disturbed family background, even as the son of Zeus, which might make him more of a villain in some ways for many. When he was young, Hercules killed his music tutor, Linus, with a lyre. Later on in life, he married the daughter of King Creon, Megara, who had some children by him, but Heracles, in a fit of rage apparently, decided to kill them. For committing this worst and most heinous of all acts, Heracles had to perform his now famous ten labors to undo the crime that he had committed, a mission placed on him by Hera. These labors involved slaying the Nemean Lion, capturing the Erymanthian Boar, and killing the nine-headed Hydra monster.
11. Zeus and Hera – Act of War
In The Iliad, there is a very interesting passage about halfway into the tale of the Trojan War, which talks about how Zeus, persuaded by Hera, decides to break a temporary truce between Troy and Greece. By all accounts, it seems like the armies finally made a wise choice in not choosing to fight an entire war over a woman. Instead, they decided that, if Menelaus wanted his wife Helen back, he could fight it out, man to man, with Paris in a duel, with the winner taking Helen back. The idea didn’t sit well with Hera because she detested Troy and wanted the city destroyed. Under pressure from Hera, Zeus tricked a Greek soldier, Pandaros, into shooting an arrow at Menelaus— an act which got the whole war blazing again.
10. Eris – The Trouble Maker
Known as the goddess of discord, Eris is credited not so much with direct violence but with being an instigator of it, which is probably worse. A fit of passion is not so bad as a premeditated effort to start violence, but this last one is supposedly what Eris is blamed for in Greek myth. Among her many crimes is throwing the Apple of Discord into the mix with Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The apple had a note on it which said, “For the most beautiful,” and the goddesses weren’t certain which one Eris meant. They selected Paris to decide, and Paris chose Aphrodite. This incurred the wrath of Hera and Athena, and so the seed of the Trojan War was born. Eris is considered a prime instigator of the war for this reason.
9. Achilles – Parading Victim’s Dead Body
While not technically a god, Achilles was at least part god. Known as a demi-god, half human and half god, the complicated anti-hero of The Iliad is a raging and reckless soldier, who selfishly sits out of the fight in Troy because Agamemnon took his concubine, Briseis. That is until the end of the story when Patroclus, his friend, is murdered at the hand of Hector of Troy. Enraged by the event, Achilles dons his armor and launches an assault against Troy and, particularly, Hector, who eventually goes out to challenge Achilles but winds up running away in fear. Athena ultimately tricks Hector into standing his ground, and Achilles, after killing him, drags his lifeless body around the gates of Troy. Upset by Achilles’ ongoing abuse of the lifeless body of Hector, Zeus intervenes and gets Achilles to give up Hector to his father Priam.
8. Thor – Rip Your Head Off
More commonly known for his comic book heroics, Thor in ancient Norse legend is often portrayed as a hot-headed but noble warrior god who sometimes loses his temper. While not exactly cruel or inhumane in his approach, his character is often violent in the myths but seldom more than what we might expect from a wronged person. His heroic style of being a god is still human, however, in some ways, and some stories in the old books report him drinking mead heavily and hurling bar-like insults at Loki and his like. One tale tells of how Thor once lost Molnir, his mountain-crushing hammer, and how he had to regain it by dressing up as a bride for a wedding and sneaking into the mead halls of the jotnar, or giants. When he recovered the hammer, Thor went on a reckless and gruesome rampage on the jotnar. Thor is also reported to have ripped an oxen’s head off with his bare hands.
6. Rama and Lakshamana – Bloody Forest Venture
In the ancient writings of the Ramayana, the story of Rama and his fight against the demon Ravana, Rama is known for being a god in human form, similar to Jesus. His words are always wise and truthful, and he does not think twice about leaving the luxury of his kingdom when the need calls for it. But when in the forest with his wife Sita, Rama becomes extremely violent when the demons enter his sanctuary in the forest in ancient India. First, he slays Ravana’s brother in a gruesome act, and then he gives the order to Lakshamana to cut off the ears and nose of Ravana’s sister, Soorpanakha, after due to some enchantment perhaps, she fell in love with Rama. When all of this was done, Rama and his friends laugh at the maimed woman. Soorpanakha had indicated before this that she wanted to eat Sita, which created both gods’ fury.
7. Artemis – How Many Ways Can I Kill Thee?
A virgin by some accounts, Artemis is the goddess of hunting and the sister of Apollo. Like Apollo, her ire can be raised at times to brutal levels when her reputation is in question. In some versions of a Greek myth about her, she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis, a vegetation god, after he bragged that he was a better hunter than she. In other versions of the tale, she killed Adonis to take revenge for Adonis killing Hippolytus, which would seem like a more plausible reason for taking this sort of action. By some accounts, Artemis was also responsible for killing Orion, her hunting companion whom she may have also fallen in love with. By another account, Apollo tricked Artemis into killing Orion because he wanted to preserve her virginity.
5. Pallas Athena – Fit of Rage
In Greek mythology, Pallas Athena is the goddess of wisdom, culture, law, and war strategy. One of the disturbing aspects about her entry into being a well-known and venerated deity in the Greco-Roman traditions was how she derived her first name, Pallas. It is written in Greek myth that she allegedly attained the name Pallas from another goddess, named Pallas, daughter of the sea god Triton. There are two versions of how this story happened. One version states that Athena accidentally killed Pallas one day while they were practicing weaponry together. So distraught about her act, she took on the name to make herself feel better. Another version of the story, the darker version, is that Athena became so mad with Pallas that she murdered Pallas in a fit of rage.
4. Dionysus – Tear You To Shreds
In the Bacchae, a play written by Euripedes, Dionysus, the god of wine and drink, is enraged that the people of Thebes do not recognize his divinity and that of his mother, Semele. This insult is doubly bad to the god because Thebes is considered Dionysus’ birthplace. In revenge for the insult, Dionysus puts some of the women of Thebes who worship him into an intoxicating trance. While in the trance, the women find Pentheus, the king of Thebes who has been anti-Dionysus the whole time, and mistake him for some sort of animal due to some sort of hallucination brought on by Dionysus. As a result, the women, including Pentheus’ own mother Agave, all tear Pentheus to shreds. The women of Thebes who did this are eventually banished forever from Thebes for this crime.
3. Mixcoatyl – Chopping Down The Family Tree
In Aztec myths, Mixcoatyl was one of four children of Tonacatecuhtli, which means “Lord of Sustenance”, and he is one of the red or war gods associated with hunting and fire. However strong his title was, Mixcoatyl’s existence was troubled by much suffering, as his 400 sons eventually met their demise at the hand of Huitzilopochtli, another god associated with war and human sacrifice. Mixcoatyl also had to fight in battle his own kin, which raises a lot of moral problems in itself, but which, like the Greek myths, seems to indicate some real problems with the gods in the higher realms, which might cause suffering on earth. Mixcoatyl, along with some of his siblings, is said by the Mayans to have killed 400 gods who were his relatives in an ambush. While many people think these tales may be some sort of deeper allegory, it’s another troubling idea in myth.
2. Menhit – She Who Massacres
Most often considered a lioness war goddess, Menhit is an Egyptian goddess whose name means “she who massacres,” a name which indicates an inherent terror and violence by its very nature. It is said in Egyptian myth that Menhit would often advance ahead in battle for Egyptians and defeat enemies with a host of fire arrows. Whether these arrows were considered literal or figurative remains to be seen, but it’s interesting that many ancient cultures spent a vast amount of time propitiating specific gods to obtain a specific desire or some sort of protection. In this case, pharaohs often propitiated Menhit during many wars during Egypt’s history. The implication of her name’s meaning is that her wrath, when aroused by some attack on her adherents, was gruesome in nature.
1. Apollo – Spreading The Plague
At first glance, Apollo, the god of the sun, seems like a pretty holistic sort of deity. For one, he governs over issues such as healing and health, and the Greeks were constantly praying to him for help in health and medical matters. But in The Iliad, Apollo is a bit of brutal figure on the stage of the Trojan War, although he doesn’t appear often. It’s maybe less known that Apollo also lords over disease and that he can also cause disease when he thinks it’s needed. During the war, an enraged Apollo shot plague-infected arrows into the Greek encampment. This action was done because Apollo was angered that Agamemnon insulted Chryses, a priest of Apollo. We might think this action is a little too tough on mortals for just an insult, and we might be right. Or perhaps this band of Greeks was a pretty evil bunch.