Wrath of Olympus: 10 Bizarre and Horrific Punishments of the Ancient Greek Gods

The divine punishment of Prometheus. Hellenism

Examining a culture’s religion, mythology, and folklore, is a great tool for shedding light on its collective worldview, and how its members see their place in creation. The Ancient Greeks’ mythology and religion envisioned their main gods in anthropomorphic terms, resembling humans in many aspects. Thus the deities in the heavens had  human appetites and desires, and human emotions such as happiness, sadness, love, anger, jealousy, and wrath. However, the gods possessed superhuman powers that made their human-like follies a terror to behold, and were often unrestrained by morality and the social norms applicable to humans.

Unlike the main monotheistic religions, the Ancient Greeks did not have an infallible God who is always out to do good – even if human minds are sometimes incapable of comprehending that good sometimes. The Greek gods were quite fallible, and humans usually just had to endure their divine decisions, whether just or unjust – and the Ancient Greeks frequently portrayed their gods acting unjustly.

The Greek deities were often depicted as sadist bullies, itching for an excuse to inflict suffering upon the less powerful, and getting a kick out of doing so. At the slightest provocation, the Olympian gods might fly into a divine wrath, that could only be assuaged by putting some unfortunate being in his or her place, via bizarre and exemplary punishments that let everybody know just who is boss.

‘Ixion’, by Jules-Elie Delaunay, depicting his divine punishment. Wikimedia

Following are ten of the weirdest divine punishments from Ancient Greek religion and mythology.

Hera discovering Zeus with his lover, Io, by Pieter Lastman. Wikimedia

Zeus’ Wife Punished His Mistress by Driving Her Mad, Forced to Wander the Earth in Torment

Hera, titled the Queen of Heaven, reigned from the gods’ home atop Mount Olympus as the wife and sister and wife of Zeus, chief god of the Greek pantheon. Her husband/ sibling was an insatiable and predatory nymphomaniac with a roving eye, always on the prowl, and constantly cheating on Hera. Understandably, Hera was none too happy about her husband’s serial infidelities, which left her feeling slighted.

However, she did not address that by taking it up with Zeus and directing her wrath at him for breaking whatever passed for marital vows and obligations of monogamy atop Mount Olympus. Instead, Hera would often fly into jealous rages, and take it out on the unfortunates seduced or tricked – or sometimes flat out raped – by Zeus in order to satisfy his lusts.

Io was one of those unfortunate victims of Hera’s fits of jealousy. According to Greek mythology, Io was a priestess whose beauty caught Zeus’ eye, and caused him to fall head over heels in love with her. Lusting after her, the chief god pursued Io, but she resisted his advances at first, until her father kicked her out on the advice of some oracles. Homeless, she finally gave in to Zeus, who turned her into a white heifer in order to conceal her from his jealous wife, and shield her from Hera’s wrath.

It did not work. Hera, knowing her husband, grew suspicious when she noticed how much time he was spending at a pasture, in which a magnificent white cow grazed. So she begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present, and unable to come up with an excuse to refuse, he grudgingly gave his lover as a gift to his wife. Hera then assigned Argus Panoptes, a giant with a hundred eyes, to tether the white cow to an olive tree, and keep a constant watch on her.

Zeus, driven to distraction by his lust for Io, was unable to bear the separation. So he sent the messenger god Hermes, disguised as a shepherd, to lull Argus to sleep. Hermes did that by shooting the breeze with the many-eyed giant, getting him to shut his eyes one by one by playing the flute and telling stories. When Argus was finally out, Hermes grabbed a stone and smashed his head in, and freed Io from her tether so Zeus could get some loving time with his bovine mistress.

The livid Hera responded by sending a gadfly to torment the white heifer, stinging her nonstop, driving her mad with pain, and forcing Io to wander the earth in an attempt to escape the irritant. Io swam the straits between Europe and Asia, which were known thereafter as the Bosporus (Greek for “ford of the cow”), and the sea southwest of Greece, which became known as the Ionian Sea. She eventually swam to Egypt, where Zeus finally restored her to human form. There, she bore Zeus a son and daughter, who gave rise to a line of legendary descendants, including Hercules.