Gods & Mortals: Hubris
02 November 2020
The idea of hubris is a very popular theme among Greek mythological works. Oftentimes, people believe that they are better than the gods, which leads to their destruction or demise. In many Greek myths, there is a consistent relationship between the gods and mortals. Where the gods are at the top of the “food chain” and humans are very close to the bottom. Humans need to know their place in the world. They can’t go around telling people they are better than the gods. This will usually end badly for the human. An example of this is in the myth of Arachne. Arachne was a girl in Greece boasting about her weaving skills saying she was better than the goddess Athena. Athena hears this and challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who really is the best weaver.
After the contest, Athena tore up Arachne’s tapestry and started beating her. Unable to bear the beating, Arachne attempted to hang herself. Athena said, “‘you may go on living… but you must hang suspended. To make sure you do not grow negligent in future…’” (Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Arachne lines 225–227). By believing she is better at weaving than Athena, Arachne committed hubris. As punishment, Athena beat her and turned her into a spider. By doing this, Athena was putting Arachne in her place; punishing her for believing that a simple mortal could be even close in comparison to a goddess. This put out the message to other Greeks to revere the gods and that no human could ever be like the gods, so just accept your place in the world.
The Greeks’ definition of hubris is somewhat different than the definition of it today. Today it is defined as having excessive pride or confidence, like in the myth of Arachne. This definition is also included in the Greek definition of hubris, believing you are better or equal to the gods.
Other hubris acts include rape, sex with an underaged partner, the humiliation of a fallen opponent, mutilation of a corpse, and ignoring or breaking rules set by the gods.
An example of humans breaking the rules set by the gods is the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, an inventor, angered King Minos and had to flee the island of Crete. Daedalus created wings made of wax for himself and his son, Icarus. Daedalus told Icarus to fly at a medium height because flying too low would cause the wings to get damp (from the sea below) and flying too high (close to the sun) would melt the wax in the wings. Icarus ignored his father’s warnings and soared higher and higher.
The wax on the wings melted and Icarus plummeted into the sea and drowned (Apollodorus: Icarus and Daedalus lines 12–13). Flying was a thing reserved only for the gods, both Daedalus and Icarus paid the price for committing an act of hubris. Icarus lost his life and Daedalus lost his son. The myth told people that instead of wanting something incredible and unobtainable, like flying, they should be happy with what they already had. Yet another example of the gods putting humans in their place.
The myth of Niobe is another example of someone committing an act of hubris and being punished by the gods for it. Niobe was the wife of Tantalus. Together they had fourteen children. She mocked Leto, and bragged that she had fourteen kids, while Leto only had two. She boasted that she was able to give birth to her kids without any problems, but Leto “whom the great globe once refused… not earth, nor sky, nor water would accept… outcast from the world, until Delos took pity” (Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Niobe lines 187- 191).
When Artemis and Apollo heard of Niobe’s vanity, they killed all her children. The punishment for Niobe’s arrogance and disregard for the gods’ superiority to humans left Niobe crippled with grief and unable to stop crying.
By committing hubris, and boasting about her superiority to the gods, Niobe was severely punished and she was put in her place. By killing all of Niobe’s children, the gods showed that they are superior to Niobe and her children. That the gods have the power to give life and they can take it away just as quickly. As a result of many of these stories of acts of hubris and being punished for it, exemplifies to the Greeks where they stand in the world. The gods are always on top and they remain at the bottom.