Document belonging to the Greek Mythology Link, a web site created by Carlos Parada, author of Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology
Characters • Places • TopicsImagesBibliographyPDF Editions
Copyright © 1997 Carlos Parada and Maicar Förlag.


7108: Medea meditates about slaying her children. Pompei, casa dei Dioscuri. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

"But a man's blood, once it has first fallen by murder to earth in a dark tide—who by magic spell shall call it back? Even he who possessed the skill to raise from the dead—did not Zeus make an end of him as warning?" (Argive Elders. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1020).

"A small part of the wealth is fully enough for me, if I may but rid these halls of the frenzy of mutual murder." (Clytaemnestra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1575).

"And it is the eternal rule that drops of blood spilled on the ground demand yet more blood." (Aeschylus, Libation-Bearers 399).

"A savage desire eats away at you, drives you to murder, blood-sacrifice proscribed by divine law, whose only fruit is bitterness." (Theban maidens. Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 694).

"A man committed a murder, and was pursued by the relations of the man whom he murdered. On his reaching the river Nile he saw a Lion on its bank and being fearfully afraid, climbed up a tree. He found a serpent in the upper branches of the tree, and again being greatly alarmed, he threw himself into the river, where a crocodile caught him and ate him. Thus the earth, the air, and the water alike refused shelter to a murderer." (Aesopus, Fables).

There is a law of stern Necessity,
The immemorial ordinance of the gods
Made fast for ever, bravely sworn and sealed:
Should any Spirit, born to enduring life,
Be fouled with sin of slaughter, or transgress
By disputation, perjured and forsworn,
Three times ten thousand years that soul shall wander
An outcast from Felicity, condemned
To mortal being, and in diverse shapes
With interchange of hardship go his ways.
The Heavens force him headlong to the Sea;
And vomited from the Sea, dry land receives him,
But flings unwanted to the burning Sun;
From there, to the heavenly vortex backward thrown,
He makes from host to host, by all abhorred.

(Empedocles, c. 493 - c. 433 BC).

Murders are the children of Eris, but otherwise Murder is a notion denoting the premeditated killing of a human being by another (or several). It is generally assumed that such an act demands a human mind, i.e., its peculiar kind of intention and the ability to discern and choose; if these faculties are absent, then it becomes difficult or impossible to talk of murder when a killing occurs.

Those never charged with murder 


Animals may kill human beings, but this killing is seldom called murder, since beasts are normally assumed to lack the kind of wicked intention or premeditation that is the prerequisite of murder. Thus, if Abderus is destroyed by the MARES OF DIOMEDES 1, or Actaeon by his dogs, no one calls the beasts murderers. Likewise, they are not called murderers the serpents that ended the lives of Aepytus 3, Aglaurus 2, Asterope 1, Mopsus 1, Munitus, Opheltes 1, and Orestes 2, nor the bulls that killed Ampelus, Androgeus, and Hyas, nor the lions that killed Evippus 3 and Phalaecus, nor the boars that killed Adonis, Ancaeus 1, Attis, Enaesimus, Hyleus, and Idmon 2, nor the horses that destroyed Anthus 1, nor the asses that devoured Lycius 2, nor the Stymphalian birds—said to use their feathers as arrows and eat human beings—nor the serpent that killed many of the inhabitants in Rhodes, nor the turtle that ate the passers-by whom Sciron had thrown into the sea. Yet some do not think of absolving animals from murder:

"If a mule or any other animal murder anyone—except when they do it when taking part in a public competition—the relatives shall prosecute the slayer for murder, and so many of the land-stewards as are appointed by the relatives shall decide the case, and the convicted beast they shall kill and cast out beyond the borders of the country." (Plato, Laws 873e).


Neither monsters and similar creatures—though they kill humans—are called murderers, since they are believed to follow a compelling and unchangeable nature (that nevertheless could be called murderous), like the sea-monsters that threatened Andromeda and Hesione 2, or like the Chimera, or Echidna, or the Hydra, or Python, or the dragons that guarded the Golden Fleece, the apples of the HESPERIDES, and certain springs. And even if they show features of human intelligence—like the Sphinx, or the Minotaur, or Scylla 1, or Medusa 1, or Argus 1, or Cacus, or Geryon, or the CENTAURS—still they are not called murderers.

Lethal devices

The same applies to apparently living lethal devices, such as the brazen man Talos 1, or the brazen-footed bulls that puffed fire from their mouths which Hephaestus gave to Aeetes; they are not, by themselves, capable of murder either, since these—like animals and monsters—lack the faculty to renounce their deadly intent, so that the responsibility or guilt deriving from the destruction they might cause revert to their constructors, owners, or steersmen. But concerning the actions of common lifeless things it has been said:

"If a lifeless thing rob a man of life—except it be lightning or some bolt from heaven,—if it be anything else than these which kills someone, either through his falling against it or its falling upon him, then the relative shall set the nearest neighbor to pass judgment on it, thus making atonement on behalf of himself and all his kindred, and the thing convicted they shall cast beyond the borders, as was stated in respect of animals." (Plato, Laws 874a).

Beasts sent by the gods to kill

Similarly, they are not called murders the beasts sent by the gods either to torment or to kill: Neither the eagle that devoured the liver of Prometheus 1, nor the gadfly that pursued Io, nor the boar that Artemis sent to punish King Oeneus 2 of Calydon, nor the serpents and the crab that Hera sent to attack Heracles 1, nor the scorpion that Gaia sent to kill Orion, nor the snake that Demeter sent to plague Triopas 2, nor the serpents that some deity sent against Laocoon 2 and his sons when Troy had to fall. And although some of these were sent by the gods to end the life of one mortal or several, neither the beasts nor the gods who sent them are called murderers.


The gods themselves may resolve to end the life of a man or a woman: Such is the case of Ajax 2, whom Athena and Poseidon destroyed; and that of Amphilochus 1, whom Apollo killed. And Apollo, though called the bright one, once came down darker than night, and let a pestilence decimate the Achaean army. And before that, the same god, helped by his sister Artemis, slew the NIOBIDS, and Coronis 2, mother of Asclepius. And Asclepius himself was killed by Zeus, who also put an end to the lives of Ischys, Iasion, and Phaethon 3. Also Dionysus 2 killed Sithon 2, whom the god held responsible for the death of his daughter's wooers.

And Ares killed Halirrhothius, who attempted to violate Alcippe 1, daughter of the god. For this death, Ares was impeached by Poseidon and tried for murder in the Areopagus before the twelve gods, who acquitted him. But otherwise, gods are not called murderers. For it is generally thought that the meaning of such events cannot be properly judged by the human mind, which necessarily transposes anything divine into its own terms. Murder, on account of its wickedness, is not reconciled with the nature attributed to the gods: "That any god is evil I do not believe." (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 390). Murder is thus mostly or exclusively human, and requires the specific qualities of the human mind. Among these, special emphasis is put on premeditation, since guilt is derived from it. If there is no premeditation, then it is usually called manslaughter. In such a case guilt diminishes, since it is considered to spring from the malice nurtured by premeditation. Yet a number of premeditated killings could take place that may or may not be called murder, according to opinion.


"If a person with his own hand kills a free man, and the deed be done in passion, in a case of this kind we must begin by making a distinction between two varieties of the crime. For murder is committed in passion by those who, on a sudden and without intent to kill, destroy a man by blows or some such means in an immediate attack, when the deed is at once followed by repentance; and it is also a case of murder done in passion whenever men who are insulted by shameful words or actions seek for vengeance, and end by killing a man with deliberate intent to kill, and feel no repentance for the deed ..." (Plato, Laws 866e).

"... The best and truest way is to class them both as resemblances, and to distinguish them by the mark of deliberate intent or lack of intent, and to impose more severe penalties on those who slay with intent and in anger, and milder penalties on those who do so without intent and on a sudden. For that which resembles a greater evil must be more heavily punished, that which resembles a lesser evil more lightly." (Plato, Laws 867b).

Killing unintentionally

When Althaemenes killed his own father Catreus, believing him to be a pirate and invader, no one charged him with murder before he disappeared in a chasm; for he was ignorant of the facts, and therefore to be regarded as innocent. (That he nevertheless had the intention to kill someone (a pirate) is not regarded as murder for reasons exposed further below.) Similarly, Odysseus killed Euryalus 9, not knowing he was his son, and thinking he was engaged in a plot against him. And without wishing to cause any harm, Heracles 1 killed the boy Eunomus 1, with a blow of his knuckles; and, on another occasion, he killed the boy Cyathus, cup-bearer of Oeneus 2, by striking him on the head with one of his fingers. And Bellerophon killed unintentionally his brother Deliades.
And—most conveniently, some could say—Peleus killed his father-in-law Eurytion 2 while hunting, whereupon he inherited the rest of the kingdom of Phthia, in addition to the third part he had received from the same Eurytion 2, who had before purified him for another death. Also Perseus 1 claimed innocence when he, after engaging in the pentathlum (a competition), threw a quoit and struck Acrisius (his grandfather), killing him instantly. Now, some may think that Perseus 1 could have intentionally murdered the man that once had him put in a chest and cast into the sea. Yet he denied; and others supported him, arguing that Acrisius died in accordance with the will of the gods, his fate having been predicted by the Oracle of Delphi. In any case, this death forced Perseus 1 to exchange kingdoms with Megapenthes 2, who later killed him "on account of the death of his father"—as someone puts it—although Megapenthes 2 is otherwise regarded as Acrisius' nephew, being the son of Acrisius' twin brother Proetus 1, whose death has not been reported.

Guilty accidents

They are not accidents of the same kind, when the intention of murdering is present. Thus, Themisto 2 (third wife of Athamas 1) is still seen as a murderess despite the fact that she failed to kill the children of Ino (second wife of Athamas 1), and instead killed by mistake her own. The same can be said of Polymestor 1, who, wishing to murder Priam 1's son Polydorus 3, slew his own son Deipylus 1 (as some say, for others assert that he did kill Polydorus 3). Similarly, Oedipus had no intention of killing his own father; but overcome by anger in a certain narrow road, he became a murderer by slaying a stranger that happened to be his father (in addition to the latter's herald).

Victim restored to life

And if the unusual accident occurred that the victim came back to life, the perpetrator would still be regarded as a murderer. For although Pelops 1 was restored to life—as they say fairer than ever, given that Demeter, noticing that the shoulder blade was not complete, since she had eaten of it, fixed one of ivory in its place—still Tantalus 1 did slaughter his child and served his boiled limbs at the banquet of the gods.


But the daughters of Pelias 1 (among whom Alcestis), who made mincemeat of their father and boiled him, are not regarded as murderers; for they did the terrible deed after being persuaded by Medea, who had promised them to make him young again by her drugs. After the crime, some of them emigrated to Arcadia, probably reproaching more their naïveté than their malice, but still some may ask how naïf one has the right to be.

Also the naïveté of Deianira 1, besides her jealousy, made her the instrument of death—if not exactly of murder, since she was deluded by the centaur Nessus 2. This centaur ferried passengers across a river for hire, and once Heracles 1, while intending to cross the river by himself, entrusted his wife Deianira 1 to him to carry over. But while ferrying her across, the centaur attempted to rape her; so, from the distance, Heracles 1 shot Nessus 2 in the heart when he emerged from the river. Nessus 2 then, being in agony, called Deianira 1 and gave her a love-charm mixed with the blood that flowed from his wound, saying that with its help she would be able to influence her husband whenever she needed it. Deianira 1 accepted the charm and later, when she learned about Heracles 1's love for Iole, she smeared a tunic with it and gave it to Heracles 1, believing that the blood of the centaur was in truth a love-charm. But the tunic caused her husband's death, since Heracles 1's arrow, having been dipped in the gall of the Hydra, had poisoned the blood of the centaur.


Killing at war

Many killings take place in times of war, a periodic process of mutual destruction during which great efforts are invested in extinguishing as large a quantity of lives as it is considered necessary. Yet killing at war is not normally considered murder, and therefore is not condemned. Instead it is rewarded for the personal courage and skill it often implies, and also because the values defended through war are regarded as standing higher than the lives of those who perish, either fighting against them or for them. This may apply sometimes to big quarrels, as that among the SPARTI, or that between Perseus 1 and the ETHIOPIAN CHIEFS.

Excessive violence

However, this exemption is granted mainly in the battlefield, where unlimited cruelty is not well seen either. Thus, Athena abstained from granting immortality to Tydeus 2 when she saw him, in the midst of the fight, eating the brains of his enemy. Unbridled violence outside the battlefield is not rewarded, and it is often seen as dishonourable, as when the same Tydeus 2during the war of the SEVEN—murdered Oedipus' daughter Ismene 2 while she was having intercourse with Theoclymenus 4. But then Tydeus 2 was a violent man that was forced to leave his country for having committed murder, his own brother Olenias being perhaps the victim. Also Peleus appears to have abused the victory he obtained, when he slaughtered King Acastus' wife Astydamia 3 and, having divided her limb from limb, led the army through her into the city of Iolcus.

Single combat

These outrages can hardly occur in single combat, and that is why this form of fight—which sometimes spares the lives of others—is often regarded as the most fair and one of the less likely to be called murder, despite its deadly results. The rivalry and war between Turnus and Aeneas ended in a single combat, in which Turnus lost his life; and so did Heracles 1's son Hyllus 1, whom Echemus killed. And Heracles 1 killed Lepreus from Elis in a duel, and Cycnus 3, son of Ares, in another. Also King Xanthus 6 of Thebes is said to have perished in a duel against Andropompus 1, king of Messenia. And the half-brothers Mopsus 2 and Amphilochus 2, sons of Manto 1, daughter of Tiresias, killed each other in the course of a single combat, as also did the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles 1 and Polynices, whose fate was

"... by a kinman's hand to die and slay." (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1385).

Running amok

But indiscriminate killing, massacring, raping, and the like, have never been regarded as justifiable by the harsh conditions imposed by war. This is why the Achaean kings assembled on account of the outrage that Ajax 2 committed against Cassandra, and Odysseus advised to stone him to death for his crime. No punishment was resolved, but later the gods sent storms and contrary winds to punish the Achaeans for having despoiled the shrines, and Ajax 2 was destroyed for having dragged Cassandra from a sanctuary and raped her. And Cassandra may stand just as a symbol; for the Achaeans succeeded in achieving several milestones in the field of criminality, giving themselves to murder, rape, plunder, and destruction in all the forms they could conceive.


Dangerous heirs

Odysseus himself has been charged with the murder of little Astyanax 2 (the son of Hector 1), whom—others say instead—was murdered either by Neoptolemus, or generically, by the Achaeans. For some, the murder of an innocent child can never be justified; and yet, those who find themselves fighting against a dynasty feel sometimes that they will never be safe unless they murder its last heir. Their fears find justification in the example of Aepytus 2 (son of Cresphontes, one of the HERACLIDES), sole survivor of his house: Cresphontes' rule in Messenia, they say, was directed in favor of the people, and for this reason the rich rebelled, killing him and all his sons except Aepytus 2, who escaped when he was only a boy. Cresphontes himself was killed by the usurper Polyphontes 3, who besides married, against her will, the wife of the murdered man. Years later, however, Aepytus 2, having reached manhood, obtained help from other kings and was restored. He then killed Polyphontes 3 and punished all who had supported the usurper.

To murder or be murdered

Yet another of the HERACLIDES, Temenus 2 (who received Argos), was conspired against and murdered, though by his own sons. For they considered that Temenus 2 favored his daughter Hyrnetho and her husband Deiphontes. And Hyrnetho was murdered for refusing to become a murderer; for she declined to conspire with her brothers against father and husband, and therefore was kidnapped by them, and murdered while she was pregnant.

Revolt and murder

Assassinating kings and rulers is not seen as crude murder by the perpetrators and their supporters, since they may regard such an act as one of war, or civil war, which seems to suspend the very notion of murder. So when Amphion 1 and Zethus, having gathered an armed force, took power in Thebes, they slew the regent Lycus 5 and his first lady Dirce, whom they tied to a bull to be dragged by the beast. And when she was dead, they cast her dead body into a spring. Yet the lawful successor was not Amphion 1 but Laius 1 (Oedipus' father), whom the brothers expelled from Thebes. Some seem to believe that justice best recovers its balance when a cruel ruler is cruelly punished. Thus, in the turmoil of revolt, extraordinary things are done, and murderers gather together to do them, feeling that cruel revenge is justified, and that a crime shared among many perpetrators will weigh little upon each one of them. So for example, when the Edonians revolted against King Lycurgus 1—a cruel ruler, no doubt—they thought it fit to bind him to horses that rent him in pieces.

The collective Anonymous

This is why—concerning Romulus' death—we learn that he was killed by "the Patricians", a vague term, although we also learn their reasons with detail: that Romulus exercised his power more like a tyrant than a king, that he had unduly released certain hostages, and that he no longer treated the original citizens as they deserved. Those who committed this murder are said to have physically shared all burdens, dividing the victim's body in pieces, and later coming out of the senate-house, each one hiding his part of the body under his robes. Also Tatius—the Sabine king who shared kingship with Romulus at Rome—was murdered in a conspiracy by the friends of some ambassadors from Laurentum, who had in turn been murdered by kinsmen of Tatius. Here it was asserted that Tatius turned aside the course of justice, protecting his friends.

"If a man catch and slay a thief who is entering his house by night to steal goods, he shall be guiltless; and if a man in self-defence slay a footpad, he shall be guiltless. The man who forcibly violates a free woman or boy shall be slain with impunity by the person thus violently outraged, or by his father or brother or sons. And should a man discover his wedded wife being violated, if he kills the violator he shall be guiltless before the law. And if a man slay anyone when warding off death from his father (when he is doing no wrong), or from his mother or children or brethren, or from the mother of his own children, he shall be wholly guiltless." (Plato, Laws 874c).

Human justice, like war, has sometimes the right to kill; and whereas murder is unlawful, and therefore condemned, executions are lawful and consequently not called murder. Some find them even justifiable and necessary, since by killing criminals they hope to effectively protect the law abiding citizens, or teach a lesson to others. Similarly, killing others, for example in self-defence, is not regarded as murder.

Establishing order

Even the beginnings of orderly justice could, not seldom, be violent themselves. Thus it is told that Theseus paved the way to order by clearing it first from all sorts of criminals while he traveled between Troezen and Athens. He slew first Periphetes 2, who attacked passers-by with a club; and after him, Theseus met Sinis, who forced travellers to keep bending pine-trees until they were tossed up by them and perished. Theseus employed the criminal's own method in order to punish him; and when he was dead, he ravished Sinis' daughter Perigune. Sciron was yet another bandit; he compelled passers-by to wash his feet and, while they washed, he kicked them into the sea to be the prey of a huge turtle beneath. Him Theseus seized by the feet and threw into the sea. Then he met Cercyon 1, who forced passers-by to wrestle, and in wrestling Theseus lifted him up and dashed him to the ground. Having him thus out of the way, Theseus ravished his daughter, like he had previously done with Perigune. Then Theseus killed Procrustes, who offered hospitality to the passers-by and laid the short men on a big bed and hammered them, to make them fit in the bed, but the tall men he laid on a little bed, amputating the portions of their bodies that projected beyond it. Likewise Heracles 1 killed Termerus, who used to murder those who encountered him by dashing his head against theirs; and he killed Saurus, whose habit was to attack travellers near the river Erymanthus in Elis.

Disobedience punished

Still at other times—when justice seems well-behaved—there is yet nothing preventing it to be the first to shed blood, by punishing crimes that, in other regions or times, had not been considered as such. But personal opinions about the fairness of a established law are not regarded as reason enough for disobeying or challenging it. And although Creon 2 may be called cruel, unwise, or a stern tyrant, he was still the ruler of Thebes, and it was as such that he forbade the burial of the Argives and in particular that of Antigone 2's brother Polynices, who had been among those who attacked the city. But when Antigone 2 learned about the order, she understood that such laws are unknown to Justice, who dwells with the gods; and even if the girl thought that government edicts are indispensable in a civilized community, she felt compelled to resist this one that, in her view, seemed to overrule the unwritten and everlasting laws of Heaven. This is why Antigone 2 resolved to go against the law, and give his brother Polynices burial. And since she thereby contravened Creon 2's authority, he put her to death for the action—illegal but rather honourable—of burying a brother.

Deadly legal edicts

Similarly, few among those who were about to sail against Troy, would have called murder the sacrifice of Iphigenia. For this act was sanctioned by a priest (Calchas), by a ruler (Agamemnon), and by the majority within the community (the Achaean army). Yet, those directly affected—particularly Clytaemnestra, who called Iphigenia her sweet flower—regarded the act as a vicious murder.

Barbarous rulers

And also law and authority can be barbarous, or even murderous: King Busiris 2 of Egypt had the custom of sacrificing any foreigner that appeared within his land (much as the Scythians). That was his law; but even during his time, he was regarded as a savage, and Heracles 1 killed him with his club or perhaps had him sacrificed too, as if wishing to demonstrate who is able to do worse and worst.

Heracles 1 also ended the life of Hermes' son Faunus 2, who was wont to sacrifice his guests to the god that was his father; and that of Antaeus 1, the ruler of Libya whose strength was dependent on he keeping contact with the earth. Antaeus 1 used to kill strangers by forcing them to wrestle, but Heracles 1 killed him while holding him in the air.

Following custom

When there is no written law nor specific legislation, the punishment for transgressing rules and customs may be promptly administered at home. So for example Botres was immediately killed by his father Eumelus 6 for eating the brains of a sheep that had been sacrificed before it had been put on the altar. And Aeolus 1 killed his daughter Canace because she had committed incest with her brother Macar 2. And a group of herdsmen killed Harpalyce 1 because she had plundered their cattle. And Althaemenes kicked his sister Apemosyne to death for having lost her virginity.

Opposing subversion

Odysseus, on his return from Troy, administered his own law by slaying the many SUITORS OF PENELOPE, who during his absence had plundered his property and grown to become a subversive force based in his own hearth. For this massacre Odysseus, although being the lawful king, was accused by the relatives of the slain SUITORS, the case being submitted to the judgment of Neoptolemus, who condemned the slayer to exile. Also Theseus went into banishment for a year in order to be purified from the guilt incurred by killing his cousins, the Pallantides, in the course of a civil disorder in Attica. For Pallas 5 and his sons refused to accept Theseus as successor to the throne of Athens, and they went to war. After their defeat, Theseus was tried for murder at Delphinium, but was acquitted on the plea of justifiable homicide. It is said that it was the custom—even before Theseus' time—for the shedder of blood to go into exile, or else to be put to a similar death.

Potential traitors

The victors of these internal conflicts often argue that they have confronted treason, a hated kind of action that calls for great violence. Yet treason not always is a matter of actual betrayal: the potential traitor may also be put to death, if he is perceived as such for having disregarded conventions ritually or symbolically related to the public welfare. Thus Poemander threw at Polycrithus a great stone for having spoken slightingly of the fortifications at Poemandria and for having—in derision—leaped over the moat. However, he hit instead his own son Leucippus 9 and, having killed him, had to leave Boeotia (according to another law) and become a suppliant in a foreign land. For the same reason Romulus killed his brother Remus 1, who had leapt across the new walls of Rome. Or else he was killed by Celer, who had been named by Romulus to urge the work on the Roman walls. Celer, some say, had been instructed to let no man cross the walls, and put to death whoever dared to do so. So when Remus 1 mocked the lowly walls and leaped across them, he was immediately killed. And exactly the same did King Oeneus 2 of Calydon: he killed his son Toxeus 1 for leaping over a ditch.

Traitors despised

But also those who benefit from treason despise traitors; for Minos 2 killed Scylla 2, who, during the siege of Megara, fell in love with him and for his sake murdered her father, King Nisus 1, causing, through her treachery, the defeat of the city. But once Minos 2 had taken Megara, he tied the girl by the feet to the stern of the ship and drowned her. Likewise Amphitryon killed Comaetho 1, who, having fallen in love with him, betrayed his father and the kingdom of Taphos to the invader. And Pisidice 4, princess of Methymna in Lesbos, fell in love with Achilles when he was besieging the city, promising to put the town into his possession if he would take her to wife. Achilles—like Minos 2 and Amphitryon before him—consented, but when the city was in his power he bade his soldiers stone her. Also Tarpeia 2—the woman who betrayed the Roman citadel to the Sabines for the sake of their bracelets—was killed by those whom she assisted. Having got the keys of the gates, she promised to deliver up the place upon condition that they gave her the bracelets. It seems that later—when the treachery was accomplished—she changed her demand and instead asked for the shields. So Tatius (for he was the Sabine commander), hurled his shield at her and ordered the rest of the army to do the same; thus Tarpeia 2 died overwhelmed by shields. If someone reproached the above mentioned commanders for having accepted the benefit of treason without keeping their obligations, they would probably show in their reply their profound despise for all traitors, saying that these are utterly unreliable and good for nothing, once treason has been consummated. And they could also remind of the necessities of war, which inevitably lead to tricks and a good deal of killing: the life of one traitor, they could argue, cannot be weighed against the lives of those who sacrifice themselves in the battlefield.

Miscarriage of justice

Treason is deeply despised because traitors are not thought to possess any personal integrity, in the sense that they, by hiding intentions, pretend to be one thing while being another. Having two faces, they win confidence with one of them, only to betray it with the other. Therefore, the charge of treason is one of the most serious; for it touches, not only a deed—that may be right or wrong—but the very soul of a human being, questioning not just what he does but what he is. But as treason acts in the dark, also from the dark comes the force to oppose it, generally under the form of suspicion which, however, seldom speaks aloud, but spreads as rumour. Now rumour has the tendency to grow out of proportion, and when a rumour of treason reaches the ears of many, then it is up to the suspect to prove his innocence, rather than for those gossiping to prove his guilt. This is how Odysseus framed Palamedes, spreading the rumour that he was a traitor, and later presenting evidence, whose strength derived from the rumour itself. So—by a miscarriage of justice—Palamedes was stoned by the Achaean army, being guilty of this death, not only Odysseus, who started the plot, but also those who contributed to take the life of a man on the ground of hearsay:

"The victims of calumny incur considerable dangers, since they are ... sure to be disliked without having done any wrong, yet neither are those who incline to listen to the calumnies free from danger; for in the first place they will be convicted of paying respect to lies and giving them as much attention as they would to the truth, and secondly they are convicted of levity and credulity ..." (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 6.13).

Achaeans murdered

Now, when Palamedes' father Nauplius 1 learned that calumny and a miscarriage of justice had killed his son, he sailed to the Troad and claimed satisfaction from the Achaean commanders. He was not able to obtain it, since all favored Agamemnon, who protected Odysseus. But after the fall of Troy, he awaited the return of the Achaean fleet, and with the help of false beacon lights which he kindled in Mount Caphareus in the island of Euboea, he led many vessels against the rocks where they were wrecked and many men perished.

Murders indeed 
"So this law will serve as an instructor, to teach that the man who intends to be happy must seek not to be wealthy, but to be justly and temperately wealthy; and if this were so, no murders that needed purging by murders would occur in States. But, as things now stand, this love of riches is ... one cause, and a very great cause, which produces the most serious of trials for willful murder. A second cause is the temper of the ambitious soul, which breeds envies that are dangerous associates for the man that feels the envy, in the first place, and dangerous also for the best citizens in the State. Thirdly, fears bred of cowardice and iniquity have wrought many murders—in cases where men do or have done things concerning which they desire that no one should share their secret; consequently, if there are any who might expose their secret, they remove them by death, whenever they can do so by no other means." (Plato, Laws 870c et seq.).

Treason pays treason

Also Pelops 1 paid treason with treason, murdering Myrtilus, who in turn had tricked his own master—the barbarous ruler Oenomaus 1causing his death and helping Pelops 1 to gain his bride and the kingdom of Pisa in Elis. But when Pelops 1 saw that the king dead, the bride his, and himself about to become a respectable man of power by inheriting his victim's kingdom, he started to see things in a different light, reasoning that the whole affair could disgrace him. So he refused to keep his promise (half of the kingdom) and, deciding to get rid of his accomplice and witness, cast Myrtilus into the sea. But before he died, Myrtilus uttered terrible curses against the whole house of Pelops 1, knowing that the punishment for breaking an oath also comes upon the descendants of the sinner. And as his curse was fulfilled, it could be said many years later:

"O chariot-race of Pelops long ago, source of many a sorrow, what disaster you have brought upon this land! For ever since Myrtilus sank to rest beneath the waves, hurled to utter destruction from his golden chariot in disgraceful outrage, from that time to this, outrage and its many sorrows were never yet gone from this house." (Mycenaean women. Sophocles, Electra 504).

The spirit of vengeance

From then on the Pelopides requited murder by murder, as if following the rule:

"Justice cries out as she exacts the debt, 'and for a murderous stroke let a murderous stroke be paid.' 'Let it be done to him as he does,' says the age-old wisdom." (Aeschylus, Libation-Bearers 310).

First a dispute arose between Atreus and Thyestes 1 concerning the throne of Mycenae: Thyestes 1 slept with his brother's wife and, with her help, deceived him. Then Atreus murdered his brother's children, cut them limb from limb and served them to Thyestes 1 for a meal. Then the latter, being in banishment, raped a girl that happened to be his own daughter. As a result, she conceived a child Aegisthus, whom Atreus adopted, not knowing who he was. Years later, when Atreus had Thyestes 1 in prison, he sent Aegisthus to murder him, but the latter discovered that the prisoner was his father and spared him. It is now that Aegisthus commits his first murder, going back and killing Atreus while he sacrificed on the shore. Much later he also murdered Atreus' son Agamemnon, and Atreus' grandsons Pelops 2 and Teledamus 1, when they still were babies. Yet he never thought he could be doing something wrong. For those committing murder usually think they have a good reason to do it, or that they are assisted by justice:

"This is the reason that you see this man fallen here. I am he who planned this murder and with justice. For together with my hapless father he drove me out, me his third child, as yet a baby in swaddling-clothes. But grown to manhood, justice has brought me back again." (Aegisthus, after the murder of Agamemnon. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1605).

Vengeance avenged

Agamemnon is said to have been murdered by both Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra, although it has been difficult to determine who actually held the weapon. Clytaemnestra never forgave what Agamemnon did to her sweet flower Iphigenia, nor to the child that was hers, and that he murdered. For Agamemnon murdered Tantalus 3—her first husband—and tearing violently the babe from its mother's breast, dashed it against the stones, breaking its head. Besides, on his return home as the great conqueror of his time, Agamemnon brought Cassandra as a concubine. She, Clytaemnestra murdered along with her husband. After these crimes, Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus reigned in Mycenae; but later came Agamemnon's son Orestes 2 and murdered them both to avenge his father. But as he now was guilty of matricide, he was driven mad by the ERINYES of his mother's murder:

"I will wither you alive and drag you down, so that you pay atonement for your murdered mother's agony." (The ERINYES to Orestes 2. Aeschylus, Eumenides 265).

Orestes 2 then went abroad, and in the meantime Aegisthus' son Aletes 1 seized power in Mycenae, remaining on the throne until Orestes 2 returned and killed him.

" ... for of the pollution of common blood there is no other purification, nor does the stain of pollution admit of being washed off before the soul which committed the act pays back murder for murder, like for like, and thus by propitiation lays to rest the wrath of all the kindred. Wherefore, in dread of such vengeances from Heaven a man should refrain himself ..." (Plato, Laws 873a).

Bringing up the past

Orestes 2 is also held responsible for the murder of Neoptolemus, who kept Hermione in his power and whom the former claimed, since Menelaus had promised her to him (but Menelaus promised her twice). It has been remarked that this murder has a connection with another, committed many years before against Phocus 3, son of Aeacus and the Nereid Psamathe 1: Phocus 3, they say, was a great athlete and because of this he became the victim of a plot conceived by his envious half-brothers Peleus and Telamon, being killed by one of them. Because of this murder both Peleus and Telamon were banished from Aegina by Aeacus, but it may be seen that, some generations later, Pylades (son of Strophius 1, son of Crisus, son of Phocus 3) plotted together with Orestes 2 against Neoptolemus (son of Achilles, son of Peleus).

"... so that if 'to die a hundred deaths' were possible for any one man, that a parricide or a matricide, who did the deed in rage, should undergo a hundred deaths would be a fate most just." (Plato, Laws 869b).

Another matricide

Like Orestes 2, also Alcmaeon 1 killed his mother Eriphyle following, as they say, an oracle of Apollo. And like Orestes 2, he was also pursued by the ERINYES of his mother's murder.

"For this is the office that relentless Fate spun for us to hold securely: when rash murders of kin come upon mortals, we pursue them until they go under the earth; and after death, they have no great freedom." (ERINYES. Aeschylus, Eumenides 335).

He was purified by Phegeus 1, who gave him his daughter Arsinoe 1; and to his bride Alcmaeon 1 gave, as a wedding present, the Robe & Necklace of Harmonia 1 that he, as leader of the EPIGONI, had in his possession. But the weight of his crime would not let him go, despite the purification, and he decided to leave his new abode.

"We drive murderers from their homes." (ERINYES. Aeschylus, Eumenides 420).

So he emigrated and married another woman, who coveted the treasure he had before given to Arsinoe 1. Wishing to please his second wife Callirrhoe 2, he asked the Robe & Necklace back from Phegeus 1, saying that he was to dedicate it at Delphi in order to get rid of his sorrows. However, the truth was disclosed and the sons of Phegeus 1, Pronous 1 and Agenor 3, following their father's orders, waited for Alcmaeon 1 in an ambush and murdered him. When Callirrhoe 2 learned that she was a widow, she requested of Zeus that the sons she had by Alcmaeon 1 might be full-grown in order to avenge their father's murder. And Zeus, who at the time courted her, granted her wish. So when Pronous 1 and Agenor 3, on their way to Delphi (where they intended to dedicate the treasure), arrived at a certain place, they met the suddenly grown-up children of Alcmaeon 1 and Callirrhoe 2, Amphoterus 1 and Acarnan 1, who happened to arrive at the same time. The sons of Alcmaeon 1 killed on the spot their father's murderers, and afterwards, going to Psophis and entering the palace, they slew both Phegeus 1 and his wife.

Trust betrayed

Specially treacherous are those murders which are committed at the expense of trust. So for example the DANAIDS killed their husbands, after an agreement of marriage had been reached between their father and the sons of Aegyptus 1. During the wedding feast the girls were given the daggers with which they, following their father's instructions, murdered their husbands; and for that crime they are still being punished in the Underworld where they must carry water to fill a leaky jar. And Polymestor 1 murdered his guest for the sake of riches, betraying at the same time the confidence of Priam 1, who, along with his son Polydorus 3, sent to Thrace a store of gold intended to help—if ever Troy should fall—to rescue the remains of his house. While Troy stood firm, Polydorus 3 lived a happy life in King Polymestor 1's palace, but when the city was sacked and its king was dead, Polymestor 1—in order to get the Trojan gold—murdered his guest, throwing his body into the sea. Similarly, Minos 2 was murdered by his host. For when he learned that Daedalus was hidden in Sicily, he came to the court of King Cocalus in Camicus demanding him for punishment. Cocalus promised to meet his demands and brought Minos 2 to his home as guest. But while Minos 2 was bathing, either the king or his daughters, murdered him, explaining afterwards that Minos 2 had slipped in the bath and by falling into the hot water had died. Daedalus too was notorious for abusing confidence. Being Minos 2's guest, he betrayed him by revealing the secrets of the labyrinth to Ariadne in Crete, where he had been received as an exile for having murdered, in Athens, his pupil Talos 2, whose talents he feared.

Anger not fought against

Heracles 1, who fought victoriously against many dangers, was nonetheless incapable of fighting against his anger. So Linus 3—brother of Orpheus—who taught Heracles 1 to play the lyre, was killed by him with a blow of the lyre, because Linus 3 had struck him. And because, as they say, a goddess drove him mad, he gave himself to domestic violence and murdered his wife Megara and his children by her, casting them into the fire. And in another fit of anger he murdered his friend Iphitus 1, whom he threw from the walls of Tiryns while they were having a delicate conversation about some stolen cattle.

Love betrayed

As for Medea, a notorious murderess, she destroyed her own blood, for she killed both her brother Apsyrtus and her children by Jason; she lured others to commit murder (Pelias 1), was involved in the death of two other kings (Creon 3 and Perses 3), and by sending a bridal robe steeped in poison to Glauce 4, she killed her. Medea committed most of her crimes guided by the love she once had felt for Jason, who betrayed her.


Also the force motivating Oenone 1, who let Paris die, was love betrayed. No one calls her a murderess for not having saved his life, although she could. Yet those who, like Oenone 1, are guilty of omission: who can feed the starved, who can heal the sick, who can shelter the vulnerable, and yet refuse, are not without responsibility, much in the same way as a commander is not without responsibility if he, by negligence, endangers the lives of his soldiers. For in the same way as it is demanded of humans that they should not murder by choice, it is also demanded that they should not cause death to their equals through negligence, indifference, exalted egoism, or even ignorance. This is so because negligence can be made the accomplice of death and murder; and complicity is guilty, as Andromache reminded Menelaus after being threatened by his daughter Hermione:

"From that point on she will not escape the pollution of murder. But in the eyes of the majority you also will be on trial for this murder, for the complicity of your hand will compel you." (Andromache to Menelaus. Euripides, Andromache 335).

Oenone 1 was too bitter to heal her wounded husband. But later she deplored her own wickedness and leapt herself onto his funeral pyre, as if saying that by letting him die she had already killed herself.




Eris.- (By herself)

Related sections Suicides 

See the linked names, or look for them in the Dictionary.

Free counter and web stats