10 Women in Greek Mythology Who Got Jilted

The other night we were watching the latest Clash of the Titans remake, the one with Liam Neeson in it and I was generally grumbly about Hollywood’s casual reworking of Mythology.  There are certainly several variations on the same theme/story out there “Who was the son of who,” “Where did that particular event happen,” and so on.  Why did they have to stick Io in the middle of the story?  In myth she was the maiden turned into a heifer by Zeus to hide her from Hera and was pursued by a fly across the country side and down into Egypt.  It just wasn’t necessary, other than Hollywood’s rampant belief if you don’t stick a chick in the middle of the fight scene you’ll loose half your demographic before they get past the ticket booth (Yes, dear Husband of mine, like sticking Arwen in the middle of the Lord of the Rings trilogies). Further more they muck up Io’s story by saying she was given eternal beauty/youth and forced to watch her loved ones die and she had, for some reason, taken to watching over Perseus.  Then in the end, even though she was dead, Zeus brought her back from the dead to give to Perseus as a “Adda Boy” trophy.

That got me thinking though there are a lot of sad stories in Greek mythology about women so I thought I’d put together my own list. I’ll also take this moment to give a shout out to a very comprehensive blog I found: http://www.paleothea.com/ where I got most of my names from. I also crossed over with my own recollection of stories with a dose of Wikipedia to rev up my memory (it has been over 10 years since I read some of these stories after all).

It’s pretty fair to say a society who’s general beliefs were that women were so lowly that having sex with them on a regular basis other than for rituals regarding fertility or for the necessary evil of producing an heir is going to have some pretty craptastic perspectives about women in the first place.  Rarely is there a truly happy story for any women in most myths unless they play such a minor role as to be inconsequential.

That all being said, I’ve always been a general fan of Greek mythology and found the pantheon and keeping track of who was related to who and the assorted demi-gods as a result of the Olympian’s dalliances with mortals pretty fun.  However, even some of those stories just really illustrated how women weren’t very well-regarded, even the goddess usually came out second best if they had to go up against a brother god.

The following deserve a little extra helping of sympathy in my opinion.

10. Danaë: OK, I’m starting lite here since she ended up with a happy ending, eventually.  If you’ve seen Clash of the Titans (the original with stop animation) you’ll know the basic gist.  Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius who was told by an oracle that the son of his daughter would rise up against him and kill him.  Naturally he wasn’t pleased with that, so he thought to thwart the idea by locking her in a tower (possibly the first version ever of the princess in a tower).  The gods though know a hottie when they see one from Mt. Olympus and Zeus visited her as a shower of gold (rain?). Perseus was born (imagine giving birth without a midwife by yourself in a tower), and this terrified Acrisius so he had her shut in a casket and set on the waves of the ocean.  Apparently despite numerous other homicidal parents in Greek myth Acrisius either was told he couldn’t kill her and her son as that would be cheating on the whole predicting fate thing or he honestly didn’t want to kill his daughter. In either way Danaë washed up on shore and was taken in by Dictys, the brother of the king there, and raised Perseus of his own.

Danae and the shower of Gold, by Klimt

9. Daphne: Was a minor nymph whose father was your run-of-the-mill river-god.  While minding her own business Apollo saw her and began to pursue her. This was Greek code for ‘attempted rape’ and like most women, whether the dude is a god or not, wasn’t in the mood to just put out because he was amorous. She ran for the safety of her father crying out for him to help her. I guess being a minor deity he didn’t have a lot of mojo to put up a fight against Apollo so to spare his daughter he turned her into a laurel tree just as Apollo caught up to her. Apollo, still smitten, took some of her branches and made the laurel wreath head wear so popular there after for gods, Greeks, and Romans alike.

Apollo chasing Daphne, sculpture by Bernini

8. Syrinx: We have another nymph like Daphne above, only this time instead of being pursued by a god Syrinx had the misfortune of being chased by Pan (think Mr. Tumnus from Chronicles of Narnia, only hornier). In case you don’t recollect Pan is a hairy, ugly little dude with the upper body of a man with goat horns, and the lower torso completely goat, right down to the cloven hooves.  Of course she wasn’t down for that, and ran away. She called out to the gods to save her and instead of pimp slapping Pan they decided the more humane thing would be instead to turn her into a set of reeds (as in water reeds, the plant, which is what Syrinx means).  Pan, naturally disappointed, also pulled an Apollo, cut down a bunch of reeds and instead of making a hat made the Panpipes which became his totem musical instrument (click to listen).

Pan chasing Syrinx, sculpture by Wal

7. Echo: Was a nymph that made the mistake of having a fling with Zeus who was also having a fun time with her other sister nymphs (depending on the version you read) and then tried to deny it when Hera straight up asked her what was going on. If you’ve been paying attention at all through Greek Mythology or now this list, Zeus was more of a ‘Hit it and Forget it’ lover. He didn’t intervene when Hera got her ‘mad’ on and decided to curse Echo with always repeating the last words that someone else said.  To add insult to injury she fell in love with a youthful male named Narcissus. There are a few variations on this too, but my favorite is that Narcissus who, in the words of Forrest Gump’s Momma was “Stupid is as stupid does,” fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.  Convinced it was a nymph that would disappear when he touched the water and too entranced by his own beauty to figure it out he eventually died by the pool and from there the first Daffodils, aka Narcissus, flowers bloomed. Echo forever alone was also pursued by Pan, dirty goat bastard, and Pan tricked some shepherds into killing her.

Echo and Narcissus, painting by Waterhouse

6. Persephone: The delicate and innocent daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter, she was kidnapped and raped by Hades, god of the underworld.  Note: common misconception is Hades = Hell.  This is not true; everyone went to the underworld unless they were lucky enough to be metamorphosed or blessed with ‘god’ status.  Generally speaking though it wasn’t a happy place because while life in general was difficult for ancient Greeks, being dead was no picnic either and everyone basically stood around looking emo. Naturally, Persephone was not a happy camper in the underworld, had no love for Hades and missed her mother dearly. Meanwhile Momma Demeter was pretty much tearing the shit out of the world above looking for her kid when someone finally admitted to seeing Hades drag her down some chasm in the ground. The deal was made that Persephone could come back to the surface to be with Demeter if she hadn’t consumed any food while being in the underworld.  Well, turns out being a demi-goddess, you still get hungry and she had sampled some pomegranate seeds, so she was doomed to return to the underworld for part of the year; generating the growing seasons while up top with Demeter and fallow winter while on her throne by Hades’ side.

Hades pursuit of Persephone, sculpture by Bernini

Can you believe that's stone and not skin?

5. Cassandra: I think we’ve all had the experience of trying to tell someone not to do something because you have wisdom or a pretty good hunch that ‘penny stock’ being sold by the ‘Nigerian Royal Family’ just isn’t going to quadruple their life savings.  We all relish these moments and it has a national mantra called ‘I told you so.’ Doomed Cassandra though was a prophetess who ended up on the losing side of the Trojan War. She got her gift for being a prophet from Apollo who was doting on her.  Like most dates who begrudge paying $24 for a steak and lobster dinner and not getting any, when she didn’t accept his advances he cursed her to never have anyone believe what she predicted. At the fall of Troy she was raped by the plundering Grecians and then taken as a concubine (so, you know, more rape) by King Agamemnon back to Mycenae. Agamemnon was an ass, so don’t get me wrong here, I’m not throwing him a pity party, but poor Cassandra was dragged along with him and was collateral damage to the palace intrigue that had sprung up in Agamemnon’s absence while his queen, Clytemnestra, had started an affair with another man and plotted Agamemnon’s murder.  Naturally Cassandra saw all that was about to happen going on at the palace, but was powerless to prevent it and walked to her own murder knowing what was to be.

Cassandra, painting by De Morgan

4. Antigone: You know when you find out your Father is really your half-brother and your Mother is also your Grandmother as a result of an unholy union combined with a lemony snicket’s series of unfortunate event-like tragedies you’re having a reeeally bad day. Brave Antigone probably thought the gods on Olympus had gotten together and decided to take a cosmic dump on her life.  She’s the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta and the story is strung out in the Greek trilogy of tragedies written by Sophocles about Oedipus Rex killing his own father and marrying his mother (granted he totally didn’t know it at the time, but still, gross) having four children by her, discovering the horrible story and gouging out his own eyes (Jocasta hangs herself) and then roams the land with Antigone and her sister Ismene.  All the while Antigone tries to keep her emotional state in check while being supportive of her wrecked family members. The last play by Sophocles is that of Antigone’s story and she advocates for her brother and defies the evil King Creon. She is buried alive in a cave and rather than wait to die she kills herself.  Only when it’s too late does Creon relent and goes to release her.  Like I said, cosmic dump.

Antigone mourns her brother, painting by Stillman

3. The Gorgons, specifically Medusa: Medusa was part of the whole Clash of the Titans (both movies this time) and her tale as told by the character Io in the remake with Liam Neeson is actually pretty spot on.  The Gorgons were three sisters (Greeks do love their twins and trios), the daughters of Phorcys a sea-god, and Ceto a daughter of a Titan.  Some versions have them starting off having been beaten with the ugly stick from birth, but other versions, like the one mentioned in Clash of the Titans has the sisters (Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale) once being beautiful. Ovid’s collection of stories in Metamorphoses had her as a priestess in Athena’s temple with many suitors coming to call. Medusa was pursued by Poseidon (there’s that term again) and he ravaged her in the temple of Athena. Athena basically had the attitude of ‘you had that coming to you’ I guess because of all her suitors, so instead of taking issue with her Uncle for his poor behavior she cursed Medusa instead to have snakes for hair and to turn anyone that should look upon her into stone. There is debate on how she birthed the horse Pegasus. In one version she did it the old-fashioned way, in another when Perseus cut off her head the Pegasus sprung from her neck, not so old-fashioned. It is my humble opinion that Poseidon is the father of Pegasus because the Horse is one of Poseidon’s token animals which I know is weird given he’s the god of the sea, but I don’t write the rules. In either case people didn’t have a lot of sympathy for her back in the day, and in Ovid’s telling Perseus said she deserved what she got.

Fan Art, GOOGLE images

2. Medea: Born a princess, but the niece of Circe, the goddess on the island that entrapped Odysseus on his return home after the Trojan War and turned his men into swine. Auntie Circe appears to have granted Medea some pretty bad-ass sorceress tricks of the trade. She fell in love and helped Jason of the Argonauts (the whole capture the Golden Fleece story) and was madly in love with him and they had two children, Mermeros and Pheras. Through the various versions it is her sorcery, wise counsel, and healing skills that helped Jason and the Argonauts have success, and basically if it wasn’t for her they’d have been up shit creek without a paddle. In the classic version of Euripides tale “Medea” Jason abandons her when he gets a better offer from King Creon of Corinth to marry his daughter Glauce. (Different King Creon from Antigone’s story!) Jason sets aside his wife to marry Glauce.  I don’t know this for certain, but I feel it is safe to assume the idiom “Hell knows no fury like that of a woman scorned” could have been coined from what Medea perpetrated next. She sent a gown and coronet to Glauce dipped in poison and it killed both her and her father the King when he tried to save her. Not done yet with dolling out her wrath Medea went on to murder the children she had with Jason. Uncharacteristically in Euripedes version she is spared the consequences of her actions from facing Jason by flying away in a chariot drawn by dragons. In other versions though she manages to flee to Athens where she marries again, this time to Aegeus. Aegeus though had a long-lost son, so even though Medea had produced another heir when Theseus came back into the picture she strove to murder him too. This time her scheme is disrupted and Theseus survives. She flees with her son, Medus, back to her original country of birth.  Discovers her Uncle deposed her Father for rule of the land, casually murders him, and puts her father back in charge. OK, so I know she turns a bit psychotic in the end, but this chick really bent over backwards to help people out and then they were all pretty ungrateful.  I got pissed when my husband was ungracious about whether or not he would like me to make him some chocolate milk and I stormed out of the house for several hours and didn’t come home until midnight, so I guess I’m just saying I can relate a little, ya know what I mean?

Medea, painting by Waterhouse

1. Philomela: This, to me, is the wickedest of the stories and trumps Medea’s. Philomela was a princess and you would expect for a princess who was traveling with a royal envoy to Athens to have a pretty safe journey; especially if your broth-in-law, husband of your sister Procne, is escorting you on the journey. Tereus lusted after Philomela and after they landed he forced her to a cabin in the woods where he brutally raped her. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela laments,

“Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it. Given the chance, I will go where the people are, Tell everybody; if you shut me here, I will move the very woods and rocks to pity. The air of Heaven will hear, and any god, If there is any god in Heaven, will hear me.”

Tereus decided if that was the way she was going to be he’d cut out her tongue and keep her in the cabin to do with as he pleased. Other versions by the way don’t have him being a gentle lover with Procne either and he was your arch typical abusive husband keeping the women locked up in different houses away from other human contact. Locked in the cabin alone with few forms of communication Philomela wove a tapestry that conveyed her story.  It got back to her sister Procne who roused herself from her hellish location bringing along her son, by Tereus, Itys to discover her disfigured sister in the cabin. Between realizing what her husband had been doing to her and that of her sister the sisters decided for revenge to kill little Itys and served him as dinner to Tereus. They fled from him of course, and once he managed to pull himself together (I’m imagining a lot of self-induced vomiting) Tereus gave chase with an axe. The women cried out to the gods to have mercy on them and given the situation they did, transforming them into birds. Procne was turned into the Nightengale who forever mournfully cries ‘Itu! Itu!’ and Philomela was turned into the voiceless swallow. What doesn’t make sense is the gods also took pity on Tereus and turned him into a Hoopoe, a small bird resembling a King Fisher, with a golden crown of feathers.

Engraving of Philomela being attacked and disfigured. By Virgil Solis

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One response to “10 Women in Greek Mythology Who Got Jilted

  1. That takes me back to high school and my class on Mythology. It was the best class – so interesting and sort of ridiculous as well. Great stories and yes, truly downtrodden women for the most part. And they are all turned in to something else which is in itself interesting.

    Thank you for the excellent story telling!

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