My A.P. Literature class had just finished reading Oedipus the King, and I wanted to know if my students thought it was fair that poor Oedipus, after he has just blinded himself, is not only kicked out of his kingdom but is condemned forevermore as the guy who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. (Cue Daniel Powter: “So you had a bad day…”)
That was my intention, at least; as is often the case, though, my students took the discussion into areas I hadn’t expected.
The issue, it seemed, involved these pesky terms “punishment” and “crime.” I had thought the punishment for Oedipus was his one-two punch of exiled-then-reviled. And his crime? Believing he could somehow defy the gods by outrunning his fate. (The Greeks called it hubris—overweening pride—and it’s the ruin of several Greek characters. And by “several,” I mean all of them!)
The students, though, had different ways of interpreting my “punishment fitting the crime” question. Some thought Oedipus’s “crime” was the fact that he killed his father and married his mother. But then others wondered if those actions could really be classified as “criminal” considering he didn’t have a choice; he was fated to do those unspeakable things. He couldn’t do anything to avoid these acts—and, in fact, his very attempts to avoid his fate only caused him to fulfill it.
So maybe, these students reasoned, the whole “father-killing/ mother-marrying” thing was not the crime but the punishment. But if so, still others asked, what was Oedipus being punished for? After all, he was fated to commit those acts before he was even born. What did he do to deserve such a punishment?
And who says being an English teacher isn’t cool?
Anyway… as part of this discussion, I shared with some other examples of “crimes” and “punishments” in Greek mythology, listed below. Since these can be pretty scary stories—complete with spiders and wild dogs and folks getting flayed alive—they seemed appropriate for a Halloween post. So read on, and then decide whether these criminals got what they deserved:
Characters Who Are Punished for Their Pride:
- Vital Stats: Young lady who is quite the talented weaver
- Crime: Hey, Arachne, did you just announce you’re a better weaver than even Athena herself? Oh, no, you didn’t! Because now Athena is going to challenge you to a “weave-off”! The thing is, Arachne could have won the contest, because she creates a beautiful tapestry; unfortunately, on this tapestry, she depicts all sorts of rotten things that gods and goddesses have done to mortals. See, some people just can’t weave well enough alone. (Uh, I mean “leave.”)
- Punishment: Athena hits Arachne on the head repeatedly and then turns her into a spider.
- Aftermath: Arachne lends her name to arachnophobia, the fear of spiders— as well as a pretty swell horror flick from 1990 (starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman).
- Vital Stats: Satyr (half-man/ half-goat)
- Crime: One day, Marsyas happens upon a double-headed flute (known as an aulos) and starts playing it. He creates such beautiful music that he eventually attracts the attention of the god of music himself, Apollo—whom he then challenges to a contest. (Apparently, he didn’t get the memo about Arachne…) Apollo agrees and gets his friends the Muses to act as judges; the Muses declare Apollo the winner. (Gee, didn’t see that coming!)
- Punishment: Apollo flays Marsyas alive and nails his sliced-off skin to a tree. (Ewwwww…)
- Aftermath: The blood that flowed from his skinless body formed the waterway that bears his name, the Marsyas River.
- Vital Stats: Teenage son of Helios, the sun-god—although he never knew this while he was growing up. When his mother Clymene finally reveals his father’s identity to him, Phaethon seeks an audience with Helios, who confirms the story; moreover, Helios promises to give his son anything he asks for, as proof that he is indeed his father. And that leads us to the…
- Crime: Phaethon asks to drive the chariot of the sun for a day. Helios tries to talk him out of it, saying not even Zeus could control the fire-breathing horses, but Phaethon insists. Ultimately, Phaethon takes the reigns of the chariot, but can’t control it. (Cut him some slack: this is the SUN, after all. It’s not like he asked if he could take out dad’s Honda Accord…)
- Punishment: As he watches the sun dip and soar wildly across the skies, Zeus shoots Phaethon down with a thunderbolt, killing him.
- Aftermath: According to the myth, the deserts of Africa resulted from Phaethon flying too close to the ground, thus scorching the earth.
Characters Who Are Punished for Someone Else’s Pride:
CHILDREN OF NIOBE
- Vital Stats: fourteen children (seven boys, seven girls) of a really, REALLY proud mom
- Crime: The kingdom of Thebes has a ceremony to honor a woman named Leto. A miffed Niobe says she didn’t understand the purpose of the ceremony and brags she’s superior to this Leto person; after all, Niobe reasons, she has fourteen children, and Leto only has two. Niobe, however, seemingly forgets one small detail: that Leto’s two children are the god Apollo and and his twin sister Artemis.
- Punishment: Artemis, armed with her trusty arrows, kills all of Niobe’s daughters; Apollo likewise kills all of her sons. To top it all off, her grief-stricken husband Amphion then kills himself. (“So you had a bad day…”)
- Aftermath: A devastated Niobe flees from Thebes to Mt. Sipylus. She can’t stop crying, so Zeus turns her into a stone. But even then, she won’t stop shedding tears—a convenient explanation for a rock formation in Turkey known as the “Weeping Rock,” due to the fact that rainwater seems to pour out of it. (Man, those Greeks have a story for everything, don’t they?)
- Vital Stats: the nine daughters of King Pierus of Macedonia
- Crime: King Pierus—who apparently was absent the day they taught Greek mythology in middle school—sees nothing wrong with boasting that his nine daughters are equal in beauty and talent to the nine Muses. Naturally, dear ol’ dad challenges the Muses to a contest which would allow his daughters to show off their artistic abilities.
- Punishment: Same old story: daughters lose and get turned into magpies.
Character Who Is Punished Because He Happens Upon a Goddess Taking a Bath in the Middle of the Woods:
- Vital Stats: Mild-mannered hunter
- Crime: One day, while out hunting with his dogs, Actaeon stumbles upon the goddess Artemis, bathing in a pool. He pauses for a moment, but a moment too long.
- Punishment: Realizing this mortal saw her naked, Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag. At once, Actaeon’s own hunting dogs, seeing this animal before them, attack. The hounds tear their former master apart.
Looking at this motley assortment, I’d have to say Actaeon had it the worst. Hands down. First of all, his punishment is just vicious… and what did he really do wrong? He was just moseying through the woods, and he just so happened to find a naked lady. He wasn’t up in a tree with a pair of binoculars, spying on her; it was an accident. Hey, Artemis, here’s a thought: if you don’t want men to see you nude, don’t go bathing in public places!
Plus, poor Actaeon doesn’t even get a consolation prize. You’d half-expect the story to end with something like, “But Hera, feeling pity on Actaeon, turned him into a patch low-growing moss.” I mean, the guy got ripped to shreds by his own hounds; at least make him into a constellation or something.
How about the rest of you? What are your favorite “crime and punishment” stories from mythology or other stories? Post your comments below…