Last week in the divine tabloids, we saw the stars and starlets of Mount Olympus get frisky. For this week’s issue, we’ll watch them get deadly. Celebrity firefights on Twitter are minor tantrums compared to the way the Greek gods could throw down — if you were stupid enough to get in their way, you were in for a world of hurt. From goofy to gruesome, starting with minor mayhem and ramping up to all-out war, here are ten gods who could make you wish you’d never been born.
1. Artemis: no boys allowed
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt: she’d gore you with an arrow as soon as look at you. She’d also sworn off men. This was bad news for Actaeon, a hapless little doofus who went hunting and wandered randomly into a grove where Artemis was taking a bath. There she was, full frontal, and Actaeon accidentally got a glorious, extremely forbidden peek. Artemis turned him into a stag, and “his own hunting dogs feasted on their former master,” ripping Actaeon apart and devouring him alive. When it came to the whole “vow of chastity” thing, Artemis didn’t kid around.
(Callimachus, Athena’s Bath 114-5)
2. Poseidon: don’t mess with my kid
Remember that poor loser Odysseus, who wandered the world for ten years before he could just get home to bed? He could have cut his travel time way down if he hadn’t cheesed off the god of the ocean. Odysseus gouged out the eye of a monstrous cyclops, Polyphemos, and he made sure Polyphemos knew who schooled him. Bad move: Polyphemos was Poseidon’s baby boy. When the cyclops ran and told daddy, the sea-king waited until dry land was in tantalizing sight, then shattered his mighty warships like plywood sailboats. Next time don’t cross the Poseidon family.
(Homer, Odyssey 5.282-387; 9.502 ff.)
3. Hera: maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats
Zeus, king of the gods, was the mac-daddy of getting some on the side. So his wife, Hera, had an endless supply of ways to bring the pain on the skirts Zeus chased. From turning one chick to stone (Iynx) to tormenting another relentlessly so she couldn’t give birth (Leto), Hera tried it all. Her crowning achievement: when Zeus fooled around with Princess Kallisto, he turned her into a bear so Hera wouldn’t notice. So Hera got Artemis, goddess of the hunt, to shoot Kallisto down “like a savage beast.” Hey, sometimes a girl’s gotta get creative.
(Suida s.v. Iynx; Callimachus, Hymn to Delos; Apollodorus, Library 3.8.2).
4. Apollo: death from above
As god of music, Apollo annihilated anyone who tried to out-perform him (artists, right?). But his deadliest rampage wasn’t motivated by professional envy. During the Trojan War, when the Greeks enslaved his priest’s daughter, Chryseis, the archer-god went full metal jacket on those dipsticks. You didn’t want to be there when he showed up: “the arrows clanked on his shoulders as he advanced, enraged: he moved like the night.” Apollo hurled down plague-infested arrows, “and the thick pyres of corpses burned without stopping.” The Greeks festered and died for nine days straight. You don’t mess with Apollo.
(Homer, Iliad 1.43-53)
5. Athena: bath time is no laughing matter
Athena: goddess of war, wisdom, and (apparently) wild overreactions. One day she was splashing around naked in a woodland fountain with her best gal-pal, the nymph Chariclo (as one does). Chariclo’s son, Teiresias, came looking for a drink — the poor kid was “unspeakably thirsty.” But it didn’t matter: for seeing her in the buff, Athena struck her best friend’s son blind for life. Her excuse to Chariclo was, “Hey, at least I didn’t kill him. Plus now he gets to be a famous blind prophet!” To which Chariclo must have responded, “Yeah thanks a zillion. Besties for freaking life.”
(Callimachus, Athena’s Bath 77)
6. Amphitrite: back off my man
Some Greek myths read like bad episodes of The Jerry Springer Show (today’s installment: “I know you’ve been cheating so I’m turning you into a horrific monster”). Scylla was a sea-nymph so sexy she seduced Poseidon, god of the ocean. But Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife, was not about to let that kind of man-stealing slide. She poisoned Scylla’s bathwater, transforming her from a hot nymph into a writhing mutant with dogs for legs and row upon row of blood-dripping fangs. Scylla consoled herself by hanging out on a rock, eating unsuspecting sailors (including Odysseus’ crew). Delicious.
(Tzetzes, On Lycophron 650; Servius, Commentary on Virgil 3.420)
7. Demeter: hands off mother earth, man
Demeter, goddess of grain, was a tree-hugger, but she was no hippie pushover. King Erysichthon was dumb enough to cut down a tree in her sacred grove to build a sick clubhouse for his bros (not a literal translation, but that’s the idea). Demeter cursed him with aching, ravenous hunger — he ate everything in sight, including the family cat. Nothing satisfied him. In the end the mighty king ended up grotesquely emaciated, lying by the side of the road, “begging for scraps and the dirty dishwater thrown out from dinner parties.” Demeter: 1. Erysichton: 0. Actually, Erysicthon: dead.
(Callimachus, Hymn to Demeter 31-115).
8. Zeus and Hermes: regrets only
Here’s a hot tip you probably don’t need: when the omnipotent ruler of creation asks you over to his digs for a killer party he’s throwing, don’t blow him off. King Zeus sent his divine messenger boy, Hermes, to deliver the invites to his wedding. Everyone on the guest list showed except Khelone, the mountain-nymph, who decided she was cool just having a chill night at home, maybe watching some Netflix. So Hermes hurled her precious house into the river and turned her into a tortoise so she’d always be at home, just like she wanted.
(Servius, Commentary on Virgil 1.505)
9. Aphrodite: murder is for n00bs
Sure, if your worshippers give you lip, you can put them in their place by slaughtering them in cold blood. But that’s so unimaginative, and besides, when they’re dead they can’t suffer gruesomely and curse the day they disobeyed you. Aphrodite, queen of love, was better than that. When Hippolytus swore off sex — essentially flipping Aphrodite off — she drove his step-mother, Phaedra, insane with lust for him. So he had to fend her off until she hanged herself. But not before she accused Hippolytus of rape to his father, who promptly exiled him. That’s how you exact divine revenge.
10. Pan: hello, Clarice
Pan, the half-goat god of skeaze, was always a grade-A creepazoid. But when he fell in love with Echo, a nymph’s daughter, Pan crossed over into horror-movie-serial-killer territory. Longus, the romance novelist (seriously), writes that when Echo turned Pan down he drove a mob of his followers insane so that “they tore her to shreds like dogs and wolves.” But echo loved singing, and you can still hear her voice warbling your words back to you when you’re wandering idyllically through the forest making sweet music. Just don’t stay out too late — Pan is waiting…
(Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 3.23)
Nuts as it is, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. The forests and oceans of ancient Greece were all but overflowing with miserable creatures that used to be happy-go-lucky goofballs until they got on the wrong side of heaven. What about Arachne, turned into a spider for weaving better than Athena? Or the sons of Halia, whom Aphrodite tormented into raping their mother? It’s a big, twisted world out there — come join in! Shout out your favorite holy hell-raiser in the comments, or tell me why someone else should have taken the top spot. Tune in next week for more in the Hot Gossip from Heaven series, and a list of sexy celebrity look-alikes from the ancient pantheon.