But then there are some punishments that really cross a line. Some of the foulest monsters of Greek mythology started out as mortals or demigods who actually didn't do anything. Arguably the most memorable metamorphosis in the mythos was in fact right. And there's something else they all have in common, aside from the varying degrees of innocence: the cruelest transformative punishments in Greek mythology are all perpetrated on women, by women.
Let's start off light. Atalanta, fastest human who ever lived, has just lost the race to Hippomenes, who cleverly employed divine assistance from tricksy Aphrodite. But lo and behold, the frigid ice-queen falls head over heels in love with the man who defeated her! It's a happy ending all around, with Atalanta bending her murderous pride enough to fall in love, Hippomenes' guts and devotion being amply rewarded, King Iason getting his troublesome daughter off his hands, and Aphrodite getting plaudits for arranging the whole thing.
But Aphrodite, as previously stated, is a vindictive bitch. One roll in the hay too many, and poof! Atalanta and Hippomenes are now lions. "So what?" you ask. So plenty - the Greeks thought lions couldn't mate with each other. Aphrodite harnesses the pair to her chariot, furnishing them with an eternal bondage setup that, according to the wisdom of the day, they could never take advantage of.
|Atalanta and Hippomenes Changed into Lions, Crispijn van de Passe|
|Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse|
And she never suffers for it. Sure, she loses Glaucus, but she'd already done that; transforming Scylla is retaliation, not Plan B. She never gets called to account; she just goes on with her seductive witch-goddess gig. And she never gives a second thought to the innocent whose immortal life she just ruined. I never thought I'd say this, but she might be worse than Aphrodite.
Continuing the "unexpected bitch" trend, guess who makes it on here twice?
Only my favorite goddess, Athena. You know. Goddess of wisdom. The one who you'd think would be immune to all this nonsense. Dammit.
|Athena and Arachne, SnittyCakez|
I also don't think it's a coincidence that Arachne challenges Athena on that most womanly of her talents, weaving. It's easy to forget, what with her armor and badass nature and patronage of Odysseus, that Athena also taught handicrafts to humankind. By picking a fight over weaving, Arachne issues a direct challenge to a surprisingly masculine goddess's sense of femininity. No wonder Athena gets defensive; in modern terms, Arachne is blatantly implying that even a goddess can't have it all. But it's hard to see Athena's reaction as a feminist triumph when it comes at the expense of an even more talented woman (not to mention a melodramatic tantrum that could provide a textbook case of that most female of fake diseases, "hysteria").
|Medusa, Peter Paul Rubens|
This one is even sadder than Scylla, and the vindictive goddess involved is even worse than Circe. Medusa, like Scylla, started out as quite a looker (in fact, the only pretty Gorgon). Like Scylla, Medusa was desired by a god, in this case Poseidon himself. But Scylla actually lucked out in her unwanted admirer; the worst Glaucus did was try to buy a love potion. When Medusa refuses Poseidon, he rapes her in Athena's own temple and waltzes off scot-free.
|Perseus, Medusa, and Athena, 5th century (artist unknown)|
|The Medusa, CarrieAnn Reda|
Nothing. The answer is, she did nothing. She, in fact, is the only one in the whole sordid situation who did anything right. She said no to a guy she didn't want to sleep with. Is it her fault that she happened to be in Athena's temple? Is it her fault that Poseidon couldn't take no for an answer? The entire case against her is circumstantial at best and built on others' faults at worst.
|The Despair of Scylla, Le Minh Bui|
So why isn't Hera in this post more? Well, because even she never goes to these extremes. She's persistent and vindictive, sure, and her treatment of Semele in particular is unnecessarily harsh. But all Hera wants is a quick proof that she's better than whatever hussy her husband's shacking up with today. She's not after the long-term revenge, the slow torture, the painful day-after-day agony of a life utterly blighted. She doesn't want her rivals to suffer endlessly; she just wants them gone. She's not a patch on Athena for inventiveness, or Aphrodite for cruel irony. Hera invented the technique of persecuting the defenseless woman; the other goddesses perfected it.
|Athena, Leonidas Drosis|