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One thing that most ancient religions and myths have in common are the number of bizarre stories and concepts that they carried. Not only are many such myths incredibly disturbing from today’s point of view, but you’ve got to believe they were seen as messed-up even back then. And few ancient religions are as rich with such strange stories as ancient Greek mythology.
From rescuing siblings out of their father’s belly, to transforming into a swan to have sex with a woman – the ancient Greek deities and heroes did some truly absurd things. Here’s a look at eight of the most messed-up stories in Greek mythology.
Pan crafted a flute out of the woman he loved after she turned him down.
The satyr Pan may have had a bit of a reputation rehabilitation in modern pop culture but, originally, he was quite the monster. More than just a joker or a trickster, Pan was famous for trying to “seduce” every woman that made the mistake of being anywhere near him. This also included various animals and goats. And, just so there’s no confusion, when the ancient Greek myths talked about “seducing” women, they almost always meant “forcing” and “raping”.
One day, the gorgeous nymph Syrinx had the misfortune of catching Pan’s attention. She repeatedly rejected his advances and tried to get away from the horny half-goat half-man, but he kept on following and pestering her. Eventually, Syrinx had what she thought was a bright idea – she asked a local river god to temporarily transform her into a bunch of river reeds so that Pan would finally leave her alone.
Yet, in true stalker fashion, Pan proceeded to cut off a bunch of the reeds. He then fashioned several panpipes out of the reeds and made his flute with them. That way he could always “kiss” her.
We’re not clear what happened to Syrinx after that – did she die? Was she fully restored back into a nymph?
What we do know is that the modern English word syringe comes from Syrinx’s name because the pipes Pan made from her body were syringe-like.
Zeus turned into a swan to have sex with Leda.
Zeus has to be one of the biggest perverts, not just in Greek mythology, but in the entirety of the world’s religions and legends. So, the time he had sex with Leda in swan form will be the first of quite a few Zeus-related stories here.
Why a swan? No idea – apparently, Leda was into that sort of thing. So, when Zeus decided that he desired her, he quickly transformed himself into the large bird and seduced her. It should be pointed out that this does seem to be one of the few cases of actual seduction and not rape in Greek mythology.
Curiously, Leda gave birth to two sets of twins after her affair with Zeus. Or, more accurately, she laid the eggs from which they hatched. One of those children was none other than Helen of Troy – the most beautiful woman in the world and the cause of the Trojan War.
When talking about Zeus transforming into animals to seduce women, this is hardly the only instance. Most people usually think of the time he turned into a white bull to get with the princess Europa. The reason we didn’t go with that story is that he didn’t actually have sex with her in his white bull form – he simply tricked her to ride on his back and he took her to the island of Crete. Once there, he did have sex with her, and in fact, Europa gave him three sons. However, he supposedly reverted to a humanoid form in that instance.
All this begs the question:
Why are Zeus and other Greek gods constantly transforming into animals to have sex with humans in Greek mythology? One explanation is that, according to the myths, mere mortals can’t see the gods in their true divine form. Our puny brains can’t handle their greatness and we burst into flames.
This still doesn’t explain why they chose animals. For example, Zeus used a human form when he raped Europa on Crete – why not do the same with Leda? We’ll never know.
Zeus gave birth to Dionysus from his thigh.
Continuing with another of Zeus’ bizarre love affairs, one of the most bizarre stories relates to when he slept with Semele, the princess of Thebes. Semele was a devout worshipper of Zeus and the lustful god promptly fell in love with her after watching her sacrifice a bull on his altar. He transformed into the form of a mortal – not an animal this time – and slept with her quite a few times. Semele eventually became pregnant.
Zeus’ wife and sister, Hera, finally noticed his new affair and grew furious as per usual. Instead of taking her anger out on Zeus, however, she decided to punish his much less guilty lover – also as per usual.
This time, Hera transformed into a human woman and befriended Semele. After a while, she managed to gain her trust and asked who the father of the baby in Semele’s belly was. The princess told her that it was Zeus in mortal form, but Hera made her doubt it. So, Hera told her to ask Zeus to reveal his true form to her and prove he really was a god.
Unfortunately for Semele, that’s exactly what Zeus did. He had sworn an oath to his new lover that he’d always do what she asked so he came to her in his true divine glory. As Semele was just a mortal, however, seeing Zeus caused her to burst into flames and die on the spot.
And things get even weirder from here.
As Zeus didn’t want to lose his unborn child, he took the fetus from Semele’s burning womb and put him in his own thigh. Essentially, he would carry out the rest of the pregnancy himself. Why the thigh and not any other part, we’re not sure. Regardless, when the full 9 months had passed, Zeus’ thigh gave birth to his new son – none other but the god of wine and festivities, Dionysus.
Hera bathes herself in a special spring every year to restore her virginity.
This is one myth you just know was invented by a man. While Zeus is known for freely frolicking around, Hera is seldom held to the same standard. Not only was she much more faithful to her husband than he was to her, and not only was their entire marriage forced upon her by Zeus, but Hera would even go the extra step to magically restore her virginity every year.
According to legend, the goddess would go and bathe in the Spring of Kanathos of Nauplia, where her virginity would magically be restored. To make matters even more bizarre, Hera’s worshippers would often bathe her statues once a year, presumably to “help” her restore her virginity too.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality, also went through a similar experience, with her purity and virginity renewed by bathing either in the seas of Paphos, her birthplace, or in other sacred waters. The meaning behind all this bathing is disturbingly clear – women, even the highest of goddesses, were seen as “unclean” if they weren’t virgins and that uncleanliness could only be removed by bathing them in holy water.
Kronos cut off his dad’s penis, ate his own children, and was then forced to vomit them out by his son Zeus.
The ancient Olympians weren’t exactly “a model family”. And that was clear right from the get-go when looking at Cronus, the titan god of time and son of the sky god Uranus and the earth goddess Rhea. You’d think as a lord of time, Cronus would be wise and clear-thinking, but he definitely wasn’t. Cronus was so obsessed with power that he castrated his father Uranus to ensure that the latter wouldn’t have any more children that could challenge Cronus for his divine throne.
After that, scared by a prophecy that he would be succeeded by his own children with the goddess Gaia, Cronus decided to deal with them too – this time by eating every last one of them. Devastated at the loss of her children, Gaia hid their firstborn, Zeus, and gave Cronus a wrapped stone instead. The oblivious and clearly demented titan ate the stone, not realizing the trickery. This allowed Zeus to grow up in secret and then go on to challenge his father.
Not only did Zeus manage to win and cast Cronus out, but he also forced Cronus to disgorge the other gods he had consumed. Together, Cronus’ children imprisoned him in Tartarus (or exiled him to be king of Elysium, according to other versions of the myth). Zeus then promptly went on to force his sister Hera to marry him.
Probably the weirdest part of this whole myth is that there are some Hellenic traditions that believed the period of Cronus’ rule was actually a Golden Age for mortals. Maybe Gaia should have let Cronus eat Zeus too?
Ixion managed to impregnate a cloud.
Another absurdity that Zeus facilitated but at least didn’t commit personally was the human Ixion having sex with a cloud.
How did that happen exactly?
Well, right off the bat we’re told that Ixion was the exiled former king of Lapiths, one of the oldest Greek tribes. In some myths, he’s also a son of the god of war Ares, making Ixion a demi-god and grandson of Zeus and Hera. In other myths, Ixion was the son of either Leonteus or Antion, with the latter also being of divine heritage as a great-grandson of the god Apollo. You’ll see exactly why that matters in a bit.
Seeing the exiled Ixion wandering Greece, Zeus took pity on him and invited him to Olympus. Once there, Ixion immediately became hopelessly enamored with Hera – his grandmother in some versions – and desperately desired to bed her. He tried to hide it from Zeus, of course, but the latter decided to test him just in case.
The test was very simple – Zeus took a bunch of clouds and reshaped them to look like his wife, Hera. You’d think Ixion would manage to control himself for what was basically cold air, but he failed the test. So, Ixion jumped on the cloud shaped like his grandmother and somehow managed to impregnate it!
Furious, Zeus cast Ixion out of Olympus, blasted him with a bolt of lightning, and told the messenger god Hermes to them bind Ixion to a giant spinning wheel of fire. Ixion spent quite a bit of time spinning and burning through the heavens until both he and his wheel was sent to Tartarus, the hell of Greek mythology where Ixion just kept on spinning.
And what of the impregnated cloud?
It gave birth to Centaurus – a man who, for some inexplicable reason, went on to have sex with horses. Naturally, said horses then gave birth to the centaurs – an entirely new race of half-men and half horses.
Why did all that happen?
There really doesn’t seem to be an explanation. The only connection between Ixion and horses is that his father-in-law once stole some horses from him and Ixion then killed him, resulting in Ixion’s exile from Lapiths. That hardly seems a sufficient explanation for Centaurus’ creation and later procreation but, hey – Greek mythology is messed-up.
Erysichthon ate his own flesh until he died.
Virtually every religion ever written has at least one myth denoting greed as something bad. The ancient Greek religion is no different, but it probably takes the cake for weirdness.
Meet Erysichthon – an incredibly rich person who amassed his wealth by not caring for anyone other than himself, including the gods themselves. Erysichthon wasn’t one for worship and routinely neglected his relationship with the gods. One day he crossed a line, however, by cutting down a sacred grove to build another feast hall for himself.
This act of blasphemy angered the goddess Demeter and she cursed Erysichthon to never be able to satiate his hunger. This curse forced the greedy man to start eating everything he came across, quickly going through all his wealth and getting to the point of trying to sell his daughter for more food.
In the end, having lost everything he owned and still starving, Erysichthon had no other choice but to start eating his own flesh – and in doing so, effectively kill himself.
Zeus gave birth to Athena with a “C-section” on his skull.
Believe it or not, Dionysus was neither the only child Zeus “gave birth to” nor was his even the weirdest birth. During yet another of Zeus’ affairs, this time with an Oceanid nymph named Metis, Zeus heard that his child with Metis would one day dethrone him. She was prophesied to have two children, a daughter wiser and more powerful than her mother, and a son more powerful than Zeus himself who would manage to cast him out of Olympus and become its new ruler.
Being his father’s son, Zeus did almost exactly what Cronus had done before him – he ate his own progeny. Only Zeus took it a step further as ate the pregnant Metis too before she even had the chance to give birth. Zeus accomplished this bizarre feat by tricking Metis to turn into a fly and then swallowing her.
To make matters even stranger, long before all that, Metis was the one who had given Zeus the special concoction that made Cronus vomit out Zeus’ siblings. She had also crafted a full set of armor and weapons for her still unborn daughter.
In a twist defying all rules of biology, Metis’ pregnancy not only remained “active” despite her turning into a fly, but it also “transferred” onto Zeus after he ate her. Cue in terrible headaches as Zeus’ offspring was now gestating in his skull.
Hermes saw his father Zeus suffering from a headache and had a bright idea on how to fix it – he went to Hephaestus, the blacksmithing god, and told him to split Zeus’ skull open with a wedge. It’s amazing what people had to endure before the invention of aspirin.
Hephaestus also saw no issues with this plan and went on to crack the thunder god’s head open. When he did so, however, out of the crack leaped a fully grown and armored woman. Thus, the warrior goddess Athena was born.
And there you have it, eight of the most bizarre and messed up myths from Greek mythology. While these are certainly very strange, and no doubt, extremely weird stories, such tales aren’t unique to Greek myth. Other mythologies also have their fair share of strange tales.