Lessons in Greek Mythology: Hubris

By: Aislin Freedman, Sophomore 

If you read, hear, or learn about almost any Greek myth, then you may have realized that there tends to be a pattern in the themes, or messages, of the stories. This common theme revolves around one word – hubris, and why you should stay away from it. To quote Percy Jackson when he first heard the word, “that brown stuff you spread on veggie sandwiches?” I’ll admit, the word hubris does sound a whole lot like the word hummus, but as Annabeth responded, “Hubris is worse… hubris means deadly pride, Percy.” And indeed, that is a valid explanation of what hubris is.  

  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self confidence.” So how does this all tie into Greek mythology? Well look at almost any Greek cautionary tale, or Greek hero, often both, and you will notice that hubris was their ultimate downfall. I could go on with myth after myth and how they show this, but for the sake of brevity, I will choose three stories I personally enjoy. The first is the story of Icarus, and probably the most famous of these.  The second is the story of Jason and the Argonauts, another generally well known story. The last is one of my favorites, though many people I speak to don’t seem to recognize the name, and that is the story of Bellerophon. 

   The story of Icarus is well known, and a fairly short one. A great inventor, the best, Daedalus, is hired to create a labyrinth to trap a great beast. The only problem is that no one is allowed to know the secrets of the labyrinth, and so Deadalus is trapped in the center of the labyrinth with his son Icarus. To escape this prison, Daedalus does what he does best – invent. He creates two sets of wings made out of wax and feathers, for the two of them to fly out of their open-air prison. Before they make their escape, Daedalus warns Icarus that if he flies too low the dampness of the sea will clog the wings, but if he flies too high then the sun will melt the wax. This is a warning against complacency – flying too low, or thinking too  lowly of yourself, as well as a warning against hubris – flying too high.

   And as anyone who knows this story has heard, Icarus gets excited and flies up high, melting the wax, and forcing Deadalus to watch his son plummet to his death. In this example, Icarus is struck down by his hubris – thinking that he is immortal, and disregarding his father’s warning. 

  The most common reference including Jason is that of the Argonauts, or those sailing on the ship Argo to obtain the golden fleece. However, that is a story for another day. Jason has many stories attached to his name; all of which are long and vary greatly, as is the custom with oral traditions. In order to get the fleece, Jason receives help from the beautiful Medea, who then escapes with Jason and a promise of marriage. Later, they are happily married with two children, but Jason wants more. Upon his return, for long political reasons involving a lot of murder, Jason is not welcome to rule his old kingdom. So he starts courting the princess of another kingdom with the intention of marrying her and becoming king. When Medea gets wind of her husband’s shenanigans, she is exiled with access only to her own children, who she murders to hurt Jason, as well as killing the princess. Jason dies alone and sad, as the rotting hull of the Argo collapses on top of him. Putting aside the incredible meaning and irony of Jason being killed by the decomposing personification of his only great achievement, this also shows great hubris. Jason thinks he can have everything–a woman he loves, glory, children, and a kingdom. However in his own pride, he loses all of it. 

   Bellerophon is often referenced in tandem with a better well known character of Greek mythology-Pegasus. Winning favor with the gods, Bellerophon is given a golden halter to put on the great Pegasus, which tames the creature. Bellerophon then completes quests to prove his worth, until the day he decides to fly his magical winged horse up to Mount Olympus as if he is a god. Zeus is offended, as Bellerophon is a mere demigod, and has no place in the home of the gods. And so Zeus strikes Bellerophon down with a lightning bolt. Bellerophon exhibits hubris when he thinks he is worthy of visiting the home of the gods, and the teaching moment, where he learns his lesson, is when he is stricken down from the sky with a lightning bolt.

   Hubris seems to be the main driving force for most Greek stories, as shown by these three examples. Other examples would be the story of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ariadne, Achilles, and many, many more. But why did the Greeks teach this lesson over and over instead of other lessons that we now might consider just as important, or even more so? This has to do with their belief system. The gods were moody, and any show of hubris at all would be severely punished by them. There was nothing the gods hated more than a mortal who thought themselves better than a god, because the gods thrived on mortals worshiping them. If mortals could be as good at anything as a god, then there would be no point in worship, and so hubris was the ultimate crime. 

  This isn’t to say that other lessons weren’t taught in Greek myths. Every Greek story is individually packed chalk full of lessons, if you look hard enough, and many don’t even include hubris. But hubris is, and will always be, one of the important and most often taught lessons in Greek mythology.

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