Forced Relationships in Greek Mythology
Forced relationships, both in terms of romantic liaisons and other interactions, are unfortunately common in Greek mythology.
Below, World History Edu presents 10 most notable examples of forced relationships in Greek mythology:
Zeus and Europa
Like many myths involving Zeus, the story begins with his infatuation. Zeus, the king of the gods, became enamored with the beauty of Europa, a Phoenician princess. Given his history of taking on various forms to seduce or abduct women without being recognized by the other gods and mortals, Zeus transformed himself into a beautiful white bull.
The bull’s appearance was captivating, with muscles that shimmered and horns that looked as if they were crafted out of polished moonlight. Drawn to the magnificent creature, Europa, along with other maidens, approached to admire it. Finding the bull gentle, Europa, either out of curiosity or under some divine enchantment, decided to climb onto its back.
Once Europa was on the bull’s back, Zeus, still in his bovine form, seized the opportunity. He charged towards the sea and swam away with Europa clinging to him, crossing the sea to the island of Crete.
Upon reaching Crete, Zeus revealed his true form to Europa. He then seduced or, depending on the interpretation, raped her. Europa became the mother of three children fathered by Zeus: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. All three would become significant figures in Greek mythology, with Minos notably becoming the legendary king of Crete and, after death, one of the judges in the Underworld.
Zeus and Leda
Zeus, the king of the gods, was known for his numerous affairs and liaisons with both goddesses and mortal women. In many of these stories, he takes on various forms to approach or seduce these women. In the case of Leda, he transformed into a swan to seduce or rape her, depending on the version of the myth.
On the same night, Leda also slept with her mortal husband, Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. As a result of these unions, Leda laid two eggs.
From one egg, Helen and Polydeuces (Pollux) emerged. They were considered to be the divine offspring of Zeus because of their immortal lineage. Helen would later become known as Helen of Troy, the face that “launched a thousand ships,” and was central to the events of the Trojan War. Polydeuces, on the other hand, was known for his boxing skills and, along with his twin brother, became part of the constellation Gemini.
From the second egg, Clytemnestra and Castor emerged. They were the mortal children, attributed to Tyndareus. Clytemnestra would later play a significant role in the tragic events of the House of Atreus, especially in the narratives surrounding Agamemnon and the Trojan War. Castor was known for his horse-taming skills.
The twin brothers Castor and Pollux are often referred to as the Dioscuri, which means “Sons of Zeus” in Greek. They shared a close bond and took part in various adventures together. One of the most famous aspects of their myth is that when Castor, the mortal twin, died, Pollux was so devastated that he asked Zeus to share his immortality with his brother. Moved by this act of love, Zeus placed them together in the sky as the constellation Gemini.
Hades and Persephone
Zeus and Danaë
Acrisius, the king of Argos, was given a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. Disturbed by this, he confined his daughter, Danaë, to a bronze chamber (or a tower in some versions) to prevent her from bearing any children, as she was the only way the prophecy could come true.
As with many mortal women, Danaë caught the eye of Zeus. Given her confinement, a direct approach was impossible. So, demonstrating his shape-shifting abilities once more, Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold.
The golden rain, representing Zeus, poured through the roof of Danaë’s chamber. It’s through this act that Danaë became impregnated with a child. The imagery of golden rain, often interpreted symbolically, suggests divine interaction and the insemination of the mortal woman by the god.
From this union, a son named Perseus was born. Perseus would later become one of the most famous heroes in Greek mythology, known for his feat of beheading the Gorgon Medusa and rescuing the princess Andromeda.
On discovering Danaë’s pregnancy, Acrisius, unable to kill the mother and child directly due to fear of divine retribution, placed them in a wooden chest and set them adrift at sea, hoping the elements would take care of them. However, Danaë and Perseus were safely carried to the island of Seriphos, where they were found and taken in by a fisherman named Dictys.
The prophecy concerning Acrisius ultimately came to pass when, years later, he attended a games competition where Perseus was participating. By a tragic turn of events, an errant discus throw by Perseus struck and killed Acrisius, fulfilling the prophecy.
Poseidon and Medusa
Medusa’s transformation into a Gorgon is one of the most famous myths from ancient Greece, and, like many myths, it has been told and retold with various interpretations and nuances over the centuries.
In one of the more popular versions, Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden who served as a priestess in Athena’s temple. The temple was a place of virginity and purity, and as a priestess, Medusa was meant to uphold these virtues. However, Poseidon, the god of the sea, became enamored with Medusa. In some accounts, he pursued her, and they were intimate in the temple of Athena.
This act in the goddess’s temple was a great offense, both because of the desecration of the sacred space and because it violated the vow of chastity Medusa was supposed to uphold as a priestess of Athena. In some versions, Athena’s reaction is portrayed as retribution for the defilement of her temple, while in others, it reflects her anger at Medusa’s failure to maintain her vows. Regardless of the cause, Athena’s punishment was severe: she transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair into a writhing mass of snakes, and her gaze was cursed such that any who looked directly into her eyes would be turned to stone.
This transformation made Medusa into a Gorgon, one of the three monstrous sisters with snake hair and the ability to turn onlookers to stone with their gaze. Out of the three, only Medusa was mortal. She was eventually beheaded by the hero Perseus, who used her severed head as a weapon before giving it to Athena to place on her shield, the Aegis.
Apollo and Daphne
In Greek mythology, Apollo, the god of the sun and arts, was struck by one of Eros’s (Cupid’s) golden arrows, causing him to become infatuated with the nymph Daphne. However, Eros also struck Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow, causing her to feel aversion to Apollo’s advances.
As Apollo relentlessly pursued her, Daphne, desperate to escape and maintain her chastity, called out to her father, Peneus, for help. In response, Peneus transformed Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances.
Though unable to win her love, Apollo, in reverence to Daphne, declared the laurel as his sacred tree. He often wore a wreath of laurel on his head as a mark of respect and remembrance for Daphne.
This myth symbolizes the themes of unrequited love, the consequences of meddling with love by external forces (like Eros’s arrows), and the drastic measures one might take to escape unwanted advances.
Ares and the daughters of Helios
The myths surrounding the god Ares often portray him in various love affairs and conflicts. Among the most famous of his relationships was his affair with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. They were caught in the act by Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, through a clever trap he devised, leading to them being exposed to the laughter and mockery of the other gods.
However, another less-discussed myth involves Ares and Ocyrrhoe, one of the daughters of the sun god Helios. According to some accounts, Ares took Ocyrrhoe against her will. In retaliation for this violation, Helios transformed Ares into a rooster, a bird that is often associated with combativeness and aggression, traits also linked to the war god. This myth underscores the consequences of the gods’ actions, even amongst themselves, and showcases the protective nature of Helios towards his offspring.
Boreas and Oreithyia
Boreas, the god of the North Wind in Greek mythology, is often depicted as a fierce and powerful figure. His romantic interest in Oreithyia, the daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens, is a notable myth that blends elements of passion and force.
According to the tale, Boreas was infatuated with the beautiful Oreithyia. However, his advances were rebuffed by her. Instead of accepting her rejection, Boreas’ passion transformed into aggression. One day, as Oreithyia was playing by the Ilissos River, Boreas took the opportunity to abduct her, sweeping her up in his winds and taking her to his homeland in the far north.
In this distant land, Oreithyia became Boreas’ wife. The two of them had children, including two sons, Calais and Zetes, who are often depicted as winged heroes and known as the Boreads. They participated in the legendary quest for the Golden Fleece as part of the Argonauts.
The story of Boreas and Oreithyia is a complex one, emblematic of many myths in Greek mythology where gods, driven by passion, resort to force or trickery to obtain their desires. The abduction reflects the often tumultuous and problematic nature of relationships between mortals and deities in these ancient tales.
Theseus and Antiope (or Hippolyta)
The relationship between Theseus, the famed hero and king of Athens, and Antiope, the Amazonian queen, is one of the many tumultuous romantic entanglements featured in Greek mythology. Their story intertwines romance, abduction, and warfare.
Theseus, during one of his many adventures, encountered Antiope and became captivated by her. As the tale goes, there are different versions of how Antiope ended up in Athens with Theseus:
- Abduction: In one version, Theseus forcibly abducted Antiope and took her back to Athens.
- Romance: In another account, Theseus and Antiope fell in love, and she willingly went to Athens with him.
Regardless of how Antiope came to Athens, her presence or absence from the Amazons led to tensions. The Amazons, a fierce tribe of warrior women, marched to Athens to reclaim their queen or avenge her abduction. This resulted in the Amazonomachy, a legendary battle between the Athenians, led by Theseus, and the Amazons.
In many artistic depictions, particularly on ancient pottery, the Amazonomachy is represented as a symbol of the conflict between civilization (represented by Athens) and barbarism (represented by the Amazons).
Antiope’s fate varies according to different versions of the myth. In some stories, she bore Theseus a son named Hippolytus and was later killed either by other Amazons for her perceived betrayal or accidentally by Theseus. In other tales, she’s killed during the Amazonomachy.
Ajax the Lesser and Cassandra
The violent act committed by Ajax the Lesser (to distinguish him from Ajax the Great, another hero of the Trojan War) against Cassandra is one of the darker episodes that followed the fall of Troy in Greek mythology.
Cassandra was a Trojan princess and daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. She was gifted with the power of prophecy by the god Apollo, but when she spurned his advances, he cursed her so that no one would believe her predictions. This led to many tragic outcomes for Cassandra and Troy, as her accurate but unheeded warnings went ignored by her people.
Following the ruse of the Trojan Horse and the subsequent sack of the city by the Greeks, many unspeakable acts were committed against the Trojans. One of these was the assault on Cassandra by Ajax the Lesser. While seeking refuge in the temple of Athena, hoping the sanctity of the place would protect her, Cassandra was violently dragged away by Ajax and assaulted.
This act was a grave sacrilege, as violating someone in the sanctuary of a god was considered a heinous act of impiety. Outraged by this, the Greeks wanted to stone Ajax for his crime. However, he took refuge at the altar of Athena, and the Greeks hesitated to kill him within another god’s sanctuary, for fear of committing a similar sacrilege. The Greeks let him go, but Athena was angered by the violation of her temple and the act committed against her priestess, Cassandra. The goddess sought retribution, and with Poseidon’s help, she ensured Ajax suffered a tragic fate on his journey home.
This episode underscores the chaotic and brutal nature of the sack of Troy and the profound consequences of violating divine sanctuaries and the figures associated with them
Many of the above myths reflect the societal norms and values of ancient Greece, where women often had little agency. The narratives also serve to underscore the overwhelming powers and sometimes capricious behaviors of the gods.
Greek myths frequently mirror the power dynamics and gender roles of ancient Greek society. Women in these stories, whether mortals or deities, often had limited agency and were subjected to the whims and desires of male figures, especially powerful ones like kings or gods. These narratives serve as both reflections and reinforcements of the societal norms of the time.
The gods of the Greek pantheon are characterized by their very human emotions and flaws. Their impulsivity, jealousy, lust, and anger are comparable to human emotions but magnified by their divine nature. When gods desired someone, they often took what they wanted without regard for the feelings or well-being of the other party. Their divine status meant that resistance was typically futile.
Many of the forced relationships in mythology can be interpreted as allegorical tales illustrating various aspects of human experience. For example, Hades’ abduction of Persephone can be seen as a mythological explanation for the changing seasons. It’s not just about a forced relationship but also about cyclicality, death, rebirth, and the delicate balance between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Also, forced relationships often serve as catalysts for further events in mythological stories. They introduce conflict, result in revenge, births of heroes, or other significant outcomes. For example, the Trojan War, one of the most epic events in Greek myths, was indirectly precipitated by the forced relationship between Paris and Helen.
Many forced relationships involve a god and a mortal. These tales highlight the vulnerability of mortals in the face of divine power. They also emphasize the consequences, often tragic, of mortal and divine worlds intertwining.