Justice is a complicated and sometimes inscrutable concept in the Greek myths, as neither the heroes nor the gods act as infallible moral authorities. There were certain rules held sacred in Greek society, like being hospitable to guests, respecting one’s parents, or avenging a loved one’s murder, and the poets often created situations where these rules contradicted each other, which led to situations of vengeance. A famous example is Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; then Clytemnestra, his wife, kills him to avenge their daughter. Iphigenia’s brother Orestes is then caught in this bind of justice and vengeance – it would be wrong not to punish his father’s murderer, but it would also be wrong to kill his own mother. The only rule that seems to hold true in such stories is that bloodshed begets more bloodshed.
The gods themselves contribute to the confusion regarding justice, as their punishments of mortals often far outweigh the crime and lean towards jealous revenge, like Hera tormenting Zeus’s innocent lovers in horrible ways. Because of this, Greek mythology is very different from other religious stories like the Bible. The Greeks were not trying to create a consistent moral code or idea of justice with their stories, but instead preferred to heighten the elements of explanation and entertainment.
Justice and Vengeance ThemeTracker
Justice and Vengeance Quotes in Mythology
One could never tell where Zeus’s thunderbolt would strike. Nevertheless, the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancingly beautiful with a human beauty, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying. The early Greek mythologists transformed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty.
This strange god, the gay reveler, the cruel hunter, the lofty inspirer, was also the sufferer… Like Persephone Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in other by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again… He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god. There was none other.
There is a story, too, that Medea restored Jason’s father to life and made him young again, and that she gave to Jason the secret of perpetual youth. All that she did of evil and of good was done for him alone, and in the end, all the reward she got was that he turned traitor to her.
Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s car,
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.
He lived happily thus for a long time; then he made the gods angry. His eager ambition along with his great success led him to think “thoughts too great for man,” the thing of all others the gods objected to. He tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. He believed he could take his place there with the immortals. The horse was wiser. He would not try the flight, and he threw his rider. Thereafter Bellerophon, hated of the gods, wandered alone, devouring his own soul and avoiding the paths of men until he died.
The Goddess of Love and Beauty knew very well where the most beautiful woman on earth was to be found. She led the young shepherd, with never a thought of Oenone left forlorn, straight to Sparta, where Menelaus and Helen received him graciously as a guest. The ties between guest and host were strong. Each was bound to help and never harm the other. But Paris broke that sacred bond.
“If I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.”
Nevertheless he yielded. His reputation with the Army was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.
“He dared the deed,
Slaying his child to help a war.”
Troy has perished, the great city.
Only the red flame now lives there.
The dust is rising, spreading out like a great wing of smoke,
And all is hidden.
We now are gone, one here, one there.
And Troy is gone forever.
Farewell, dear city.
Farewell, my country, where my children lived.
There below, the Greek ships wait.
Aeneas, we are given to understand, married Lavinia and founded the Roman race – who, Virgil said, “left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.”
Insolent words uttered in the arrogant consciousness of power were always heard in heaven and always punished. Apollo and Artemis glided swiftly to Thebes from Olympus, the archer god and the divine huntress, and shooting with deadly aim they struck down all of Niobe’s sons and daughters… she sank down motionless in stony grief, dumb as a stone and her heart like a stone within her. Only her tears flowed and could not stop. She was changed into a stone which forever, night and day, was wet with tears.
“Slay the two who slew.
Atone for death by death.
Shed blood for old blood shed.”
And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.
“You knew my edict?” Creon asked. “Yes,” Antigone replied. “And you transgressed the law?” “Your law, but not the law of Justice who dwells with the gods,” Antigone said. “The unwritten laws of heaven are not for today nor yesterday, but from all time.”…
As she was led away to death, she spoke to the bystanders: -
“… Behold me, what I suffer
Because I have upheld that which is high.”
He was a universal benefactor. And yet he too drew down on himself the anger of the gods and by the sin the gods never forgave. He thought “thoughts too great for man.” He was once given a large fee to raise one from the dead, and he did so… Zeus would not allow a mortal to have power over the dead and he struck Aesculapius with his thunderbolt and slew him.
Minerva did her best and the result was a marvel, but Arachne’s work, finished at the same moment, was in no way inferior. The goddess in a fury of anger beat the girl around the head with her shuttle. Arachne, disgraced and mortified and furiously angry, hanged herself. Then a little repentance entered Minerva’s heart… Arachne was changed into a spider, and her skill in weaving was left to her.
Never shalt thou be stained by baseness.
Yet a day of doom shall come upon thee,
A day of wrath and a day of anguish.
But ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life.
And a nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurd.