Why Are Greek Gods So Cruel?


Greek mythology is full of stories in which the gods do horrific things. From Cronus devouring his children to Hera turning Lamia into a tortured monster, the Greek gods commit atrocities against themselves and humans. To a modern reader, these myths can seem confusing, amoral, and filled with cruelty. 

The Greek gods were cruel because the Greeks told myths that reflected the world around them. The Greeks used mythology to make sense of their chaotic world. They could attribute tragedy and misfortune to the cruelty of the gods.

The ancient Greeks did not look to their gods for examples of moral goodness. The gods were proud and otherworldly, held to a different standard. This article will examine the morality of the Greek gods and some of their cruelest acts by human standards.

Also see Why Are Greek Gods So Muscular? to learn more.

Greek goddess Hera
Who was the cruelest Greek god? See below (Image: Hera)

Are Greek Gods Evil?

Most Greek gods commit evil acts, including murder, torture, sexual assault, and kidnapping. But even though their gods do evil things, the Greeks did not consider them “evil.”

The Greek gods are neither evil nor good. They exist beyond human morality. Some actions that would be evil for a human to commit are completely justifiable when performed by the gods. 

Many of the Greek gods were living embodiments of natural phenomena and experiences. [1] For instance, Ares was the god of war, who could fill men with bloodlust and drive them to kill one another. Eros, the god of sexual desire, could influence people with feelings of lust. Even rivers, seas, and mountains had names and associated gods.

When the Greeks saw a natural disaster or human injustice, they could attribute it to the gods. If the Greek gods seem evil to a modern reader, it’s because the gods reflected the world in which the Greeks lived.

The Greek gods have one major character flaw that motivates many of their “evil” acts. The gods are proud, and they punish any humans who dare to think themselves above the gods. Many of the gods’ worst actions are motivated by pride and punishing human hubris.

Also see Why Are Greek Gods No Longer Worshipped? to learn more.

Prometheus Greek god
What are some examples of cruelty by Greek gods? See below (Image: Prometheus)

Who Was the Cruelest Greek God?

While nearly all of the Greek gods do bad things, some are worse than others. One goddess stands out from her peers as particularly vengeful, mean-spirited, and cruel.

The cruelest Greek god is Hera. She maimed and killed many of Zeus’s lovers and their children out of jealous rage. While all the Greek gods are capable of cruelty, Hera has the most victims.

Hera, the goddess of marriage, gets fiercely jealous when her husband, Zeus, has affairs. She hates Zeus’s mistresses. She’s equally cruel to the children of Zeus’s love affairs. 

Hera’s jealousy extends to mortals and gods alike. Some of her victims include:

  • Heracles
  • Leto
  • Lamia
  • Semele
  • Gerana

When Zeus had an affair with the human woman Alcmene, Hera responded by trying to prevent her from giving birth. She failed, and Alcmene delivered Heracles, more commonly known by his Roman name, Hercules. Hera made several more attempts on Heracles’s life, including sending serpents into his crib when he was an infant. 

Zeus impregnated the minor goddess Leto with twins Artemis and Apollo. Hera tried to prevent their births by kidnapping the goddess of childbirth. In another myth, Hera got vengeance on Leto by sending a giant to rape her. 

In most of these stories, Hera ultimately fails at exacting revenge on Zeus’s lovers and children. Zeus saves his lovers, and most of his children survive. But despite her failures, Hera remains the cruelest of the Olympian gods.

Also see Why Are Greek Gods Flawed? to learn more.

Greek temple worship
Temple of Athena

What Are Some Examples of Cruelty by Greek Gods?

Greek mythology contains countless stories featuring cruelty by the gods, not just Hera. 

The following stories are all examples of the cruelest acts in Greek mythology, motivated by the gods’ pride, jealousy, and rage:

  • The slaughter of Niobe’s children
  • The kidnapping of Lamia’s children
  • Eris’s trickery with the golden apple
  • Prometheus’s unending torment

Niobe and Her Children

Niobe had twelve children, six daughters, and six sons. She bragged to the goddess Leto that she and her children were superior, as Leto only had the twins Artemis and Apollo. 

The Greek gods didn’t tolerate humans pridefully considering themselves better than the divine. Artemis and Apollo punished Niobe for her hubris by slaughtering her twelve children. Niobe was turned into stone. 

Lamia and Hera

Lamia was the Queen of Libya and one of Zeus’s lovers. Hera grew jealous of Lamia and responded by stealing her children. Their fate is unknown, but Lamia’s grief was so intense that she went mad and tore out her eyes. [2]

Lamia, grief-stricken and insane, began stealing and eating other women’s children. Her monstrous actions caused her to turn into a literal monster. The Greeks thought of her as a kind of boogeyman who killed children. The story of Lamia is one of the few in which Hera seems to achieve her goals.

Eris’s Golden Apple

Eris, the goddess of discord, was responsible for the bloody Trojan War because of her spite. Most of the other gods didn’t care for Eris’s company, so she wasn’t invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Eris threw a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest” to the wedding guests to punish the gods for snubbing her. 

Eris knew that the goddesses would fight for the honor of being the most beautiful. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite fought over the apple until Zeus asked the human Paris to decide. Paris chose Aphrodite, who rewarded the man with the woman of his choosing. He selected Helen of Troy, who was married to the Greek Menelaus. Paris stealing Helen sparked the Trojan War. 

The events of The Iliad might have been avoided if Eris hadn’t cruelly chosen to start a fight among the gods. 

Prometheus’s Punishment

Prometheus was a Titan who went behind Zeus’s back to give humanity the gift of fire. Zeus, enraged, responded by nailing Prometheus to a mountain and sending a bird to eat his liver.

Being immortal, Prometheus couldn’t die, and his liver grew back each day. The bird returned daily, eating the newly-grown liver. Prometheus’s painful punishment lasted for eternity. 

Conclusion

The cruelty of the Greek gods was both a reflection of a chaotic, tragic world and a reminder for humans to stay humble and pious. 

Also see Why Did Greek Gods Marry Their Siblings? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source

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