DISABILITY IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY

COMPENSATION AND PUNISHMENT

Greek mythology is full of deadly monsters, epic battles, tragic love stories and multifaceted characters with complex – often intertwined – relationships. It also reflects ableist ideals that existed in antiquity, which is evident in how disabled characters are regarded. Symmetrical features and able bodies were associated with physical attractiveness and morality. On the other hand, imperfections, disfigurements and disabilities of any kind were often associated with being the result of immoral behaviour.

Lara

Larunda, or Lara, is a Naiad, a river nymph – the daughter of Almo, a river god. She is not an easily recognisable figure in mythology, because she only appears in Ovid’s Fasti. Nevertheless, her story is unpleasantly memorable.

According to myth, Lara was very talkative and her father often warned her that she should remain quiet. She learned that Zeus was attempting to seduce her sister, Jurunta, so warned her sister to flee. Lara then proceeded to inform Zeus’ wife Hera of his adultery. An enraged Zeus cut out Lara’s tongue so she could never speak again, then ordered Hermes to take Lara to the Underworld.

This story reflects attitudes towards both disability and women’s rights. In antiquity (and in some countries today) women were expected to stay silent and live without question under the rule of men. Lara’s muteness represents the ideal female silence and, in addition, is a penalty for her “bad behaviour”. In this case, a punishment for alerting Hera of her husband’s infidelity. Lara’s spoken words, foreshadowed by her father’s warning to remain quiet, are rewarded with a horrific result.

Tiresias

Tiresias, a blind prophet, is well-known for advising both Oedipus and Odysseus. He appears in various pieces of Classical literature, including Homer’s The Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone.


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There are many versions of how Tiresias came to be blind, but there are two versions most commonly told. According to Callimachus’ poem The Bathing of Pallas, Tiresias accidentally came across Athena, goddess of war and craft, in her bath. Known for her short temper, Athena blinded Tiresias, though “made up” for this hasty action by giving him the gift of seeing the future. Metamorphoses tells of how Tiresias settled a bet between Zeus and Hera, declaring Zeus the winner. A furious Hera blinded him, but Zeus gave him the power of augury as compensation.

The common ground in all the versions of Tiresias’ story is that he is compensated for his disability, depicting a disabled character who has super powers. This narrative is highly damaging, as it carries with it the message that blindness alone reduces an individual to being less than valid; inferior to those who possess sight, full or partial.

Hephaestus

Aside from being the smith-god who makes weapons and jewellery, Hephaestus is probably the most well-known disabled figure in Greek mythology.

The birth of Hephaestus is widely debated: some sources say he is the son of Zeus and Hera, while others say he was born of Hera alone as revenge for Zeus bearing Athena without her. According to Homer’s The Illiad, as a baby Hephaestus was thrown from Mount Olympus in a rage by his mother, simply because he was born with a lame foot. As an adult, Hephaestus is married to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, at Zeus’ command. Aphrodite resents this and has an affair with Ares, the god of war.

Unlike Lara and Tiresias, Hephaestus is not punished by disability, but punished for it. Hera’s shame of her own child’s condition symbolises not only Hera’s cruelty but also the belief that Hephaestus is a burden to his able-bodied parents. Having to endure Aphrodite’s infidelities appears to be an inevitability – something Hephaestus ought to expect because he lacks the handsome looks and physical agility synonymous with Aphrodite’s lovers.

From these three examples, we can see that, in Greek mythology, disability was seen as either an inherent defect or a punishment inflicted from doing the wrong thing. Either way, the character would be poorly regarded by spectators.

MACKAYAN: GREEK FOLKLORE