Hermes and the thief of Apollo’s sacred cattle
One of the most well-known acts that could be seen as unvirtuous in the Hellenic Culture is the thief of Apollo’s scared cattle by the new born Hermes. Hermes is the son of Zeus and Maia; who was one of the “The Pleiades” the name given to the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione (Elliott). “According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia” (Leadbetter, Hermes). After his birth Hermes snuck out of the cave where he came across his brothers sacred cattle. It is at this time he steals a number of the cattle which he hides in Greece. Interestingly enough it was this unvirtuous behavior that resulted in the mythological creation of the most notable symbols of Apollo, the lyre:
“Before returning to the cave he caught a tortoise, killed it and removed its entrails. Using the intestines from a cow stolen from Apollo and the hollow tortoise shell, he made the first lyre” (Leadbetter, Hermes).
Of course Apollo being the god of prophecy knew who had taken his prized cattle. So he went to Maia for restitution. Maia could not believe that his new born child could be responsible for such an act, especially against Apollo. However Zeus had witnessed it all. As the three argued about the events that took place, Hermes began to play his new creation. Apollo was spellbound by the beautiful music. Knowing he must possess such a wondrous instrument he agreed to allow Hermes the cattle which he had taken in return for the lyre.
“As the argument went on, Hermes began to play his lyre. The sweet music enchanted Apollo, and he offered Hermes to keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Apollo later became the grand master of the instrument, and it also became one of his symbols” (Leadbetter, Hermes).
Arachne and Athena
I think one of the most memorable tales of a deity behaving unethically, which has always been my favorite story of Greek Mythology is that of Arachne and Athena. This tale is one that warns of the dangers of mortals pointing out the flaws in the gods and the, sometimes, unethical asks towards their people. In this tale the young beautiful Arachne was a well-known artisan. Her weaving was a talent that could not be denied, however her own pride can be seen as precipitating the vengeance of the goddess Athena. Her skill was so great that:
“Nymphs were said to abandon their frolicking to come observe Arachne practice her magic. So remarkable were her works that observers often commented that she must have been trained by the very patron goddess of weaving, Athena herself” (Leed)
This notoriety lead Arachne to boasting that her skills were greater even than those of Athena. This of course reached the goddess of skilled arts which angered her greatly. Being a generous goddess she wanted to give Arachne the benefit of dough and a chance to redeem herself for the prideful claims.
“She came to Arachne disguised as an old woman and warned her to be careful not to offend the gods, lest she incur their wrath. But Arachne told the old woman to save her breath. She welcomed a contest with Athena, and, if she lost, would suffer whatever punishment the goddess deemed necessary” (Leed)
That was all Athena needed. She cast off her guise and accepted the challenge laid down before her by this mortal. Though the onlookers were horrified, Arachne stood her ground believing fully in her skills. So the two set out in a weaving contest to see who was the most skilled in this ancient art:
“Athena began to weave the scene of her contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens. A beautiful scene developed from the threads, showing Poseidon and the salt water spring, and Athena with an olive tree, gifts to the people who would name Athena as their patron, and their city after her.” (Leed)
Hers was the picture of divine inspiration showing all the glory which the gods were known for. But what Arachne wove into splendid beauty angered the goddess:
“Arachne, for her part, created a tapestry showcasing scenes of Zeus' various infidelities: Leda with the Swan, Europa with the bull, Dana� and the golden rain shower. So exquisite was the mortal's work that the bull seemed lifelike, swimming across the tapestry with a real girl on his shoulders. Even Athena herself was forced to admit that Arachne's work was flawless” (Leed)
Arachne had been incensed by the fact that Athena had come to her dressed in disguise. This was the very think which she thought was wrong with the gods and decided to weave her images of all the trickery that the gods had played upon humankind. Wither Arachne out skilled Athena or not, the goddess would not stand for such blasphemous attitude towards the gods by a mortal. Athena destroyed the work of art which Arachne was creating. She then turned to the mortal woman touching her on the forehead. The goddess poured the fullness of her wrong against the gods into Arachne, which proved too much for the poor mortal soul. Arachne look her own life. In turn Athena was shocked that the girl had taken her own life and in an act of pity, or perhaps guilt, she brought Arachne back to life: “but not as a human. By sprinkling her with the juices of aconite, Athena transformed the woman into a spider, her and her descendants to forever hang from threads and to be great weavers” (Leed).
I have always believed that we as humans can never truly know why deities behave in any specific way because their actions are their own. But if I had to venture a guess it would be this: the divine has far more knowledge than we mortals can hope to achieve. What might appear to us as actions of unvirtuous is just our lack of understanding. In the example of Hermes, perhaps he knew the string events that would lead to the creation of the lyre and if he did not do so then it would not be created. For Athena’s actions, perhaps it was anger at human perception of the gods that angered her. And when Arachne took her own life out of shame when divine understanding was forced upon her Athena remembered that we are only mortal which limits us in our understanding.