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Ixion: The Tragic Tale of a Fallen King in Greek Mythology

Ixion was the king of the ancient Thessalian tribe, known as the Lapiths. He was well-known for being a great but incredibly wicked king in Greek mythology. He suffered one of the greatest downfalls by ending up as a prisoner of Tartarus, punished for eternity.

Who Was Ixion?

Ixion was the son of Antion, the great-great-grandson of the sun god Apollo, and Perimele, the daughter of Hippodamas. In some accounts, his father was said to be Phlegyas, the son of Ares.

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Ixion by Jules-Elie Delaunay
Ixion by Jules-Elie Delaunay, public domain

As the myth goes, Phlegyas went into an uncontrollable fit of rage against the sun god, burning down one of the temples dedicated to him. This mad behavior on Phlegyas’ part resulted in his death and is considered to have been hereditary. This could explain some of the events that later took place in Ixion’s life.

When his father died, Ixion became the new king of the Lapiths who lived in Thessaly, near the river Peneus. Some say that the land was settled by Ixion’s great-grandfather, Lapithus, after whom the Lapiths were named. Others say that Ixion drove out the Perrhaebians who lived there originally and brought the Lapiths to settle there.

Ixion’s Offspring

Ixion and Dia had two children, a daughter and a son called Phisadie and Pirithous. Pirithous was next in line for the throne and Phisadie later became  one of the handmaidens of Helen, the Queen of Mycenae. According to some ancient sources, Pirithous wasn’t Ixion’s son at all. Zeus had seduced Dia and she gave birth to Pirithous by Zeus.

Ixions’s First Crime – Killing Deioneus

Ixion fell in love with Dia, the daughter of Deioneus, and before they got married, he made a promise to his father-in-law that he would present him with a bride price. However, after they got married and the ceremony was over, Ixion refused to give the bride price to Deioneus. Deionus was angry but he didn’t want to start arguing with Ixion and instead, he stole a few of Ixion’s valuable, prized horses.

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It didn’t take long for Ixion to notice that some of his horses were missing and he knew who had taken them. From that moment, he began to plot his revenge. He invited Deioneus to a banquet but when his father-in-law arrived to find that there was no such banquet, Ixion pushed him to his death into a large fire pit. That was the end of Deioneus.

Ixion is Banished

Killing a relative and a guests were heinous crimes in the eyes of the ancient Greeks and Ixion had done both. Many regarded his father-in-law’s murder as the first murder of one’s own kin in the ancient world. For this crime, Ixion was banished from his kingdom.

It would have been possible for the other neighboring kings to exonerate Ixion, but none of the them were willing to do it and they all believed that he should be made to suffer for what he’d done. Therefore, Ixion had to wander through the country, being shunned by everyone he encountered.

Ixion’s Second Crime – Seducing Hera

Finally, the supreme god Zeus felt pity for Ixion and cleansed him of all his previous crimes, inviting him to attend a feast with the rest of the gods on Mount Olympus. Ixion had gone quite insane by this time, because instead of being happy that he was exonerated, he went to Olympus and tried to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera.  

Hera told Zeus about what Ixion had tried to do but Zeus couldn’t or didn’t believe that a guest would do something so inappropriate. However, he also knew that his wife wouldn’t lie so he came up with a plan to test Ixion. He created a cloud in the form of Hera and named it Nephele. Ixion tried to seduce the cloud, thinking she was Hera. Ixion slept with Nephele, and then began to boast about how he had slept with Hera.

Nephele had either one or several sons by Ixion, depending on different versions of the story. In some versions, the single son was a monstrous Centaur that became the ancestor of Centaurs by mating with mares who lived on Mount Pelion. In this way, Ixion became the ancestor of the Centaurs.

Ixion’s Punishment

When Zeus heard Ixion’s boasting, he had all the proof he needed and decided that Ixion would need to be punished. Zeus ordered his son Hermes, the messenger god, to bind Ixion to a large, fiery wheel which would travel across the sky forever. The wheel was later taken down and placed in Tartarus, where Ixion was doomed to suffer punishment for eternity.

Symbolism of Ixion

The German philosopher Schopenhaur, used the metaphor of Ixion’s wheel to describe the eternal need for the satisfaction of lust and desires.  Like the wheel which never remains motionless, so too does the need to satisfy our desires continue to torture and haunt us. Because of this, Schopenhaur argued, humans can never be happy because happiness is a transient state of not-suffering.

Ixion in Literature and Art

The image of Ixion doomed to suffer for all eternity on a wheel has inspired writers for centuries. He has been mentioned numerous times in great works of literature, including in David Copperfield, Moby Dick and King Lear. Ixion has also been refered to in poems such as The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.

In Brief

There isn’t a lot of information to be found about Ixion since he was only a minor character in Greek mythology. His story is quite tragic, since he went from being a highly respected king to a miserable prisoner of Tartarus, a place of suffering and torment, but he had brought it all down upon himself.   

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.