By Jove! Crime in Mythology

The Banquet of Tereus by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1635
Crime is old, as old as written language itself, and a favorite theme in the world’s mythology. Whether it’s the murder of Abel by Cain, the theft of fire by Prometheus, Actaeon spying on a naked Artemis, or stealing away Helen of Troy, crime is everywhere, and in every variation.

Not only is crime prevalent, there are some interesting features about crime that come forward. First and foremost is that there is no getting away with it. For the gods it’s a simple matter to look down at the mortal world to see the crimes, whether it’s Zeus catching Prometheus or the God of the Old Testament asking Cain some pointed, uncomfortable questions in what is not only the first murder, but the first murder investigation and interrogation.

Now these first crimes aren’t committed by what anyone thought of as a master criminal (Really, Cain? “Not my brother’s keeper”? Is that the best you can do?). There were no CSI teams to comb the scene for miniscule evidence, so disposing of the weapon and abandoning the scene was advanced thinking. It’s a long time before a James Bond villain emerges with something approaching a good scheme.

In the story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus, Tereus thought ahead. Married to Procne, Tereus wanted his wife’s sister Philomela, too. He stashed her away in remote cabin, and removed her tongue. Even if Philomela was found, she couldn’t finger the one who kept her. No doubt Tereus had a nice, villainous cackle to congratulate himself. It didn’t matter; he was found out, and the jig was up. Clearly, the ancient peoples knew then what we know now, you really can’t get away with it. All your plans, all your hubris, will result in getting caught no matter what.

Prometheus learns crime doesn’t pay
Next is that crime doesn’t pay. Cain had a mild price with his mark and curse (though he certainly thought it was too much). Prometheus is serving eternal life without parole chained to a rock. Oh, and a vulture (or eagle depending on your source) eats his liver every day (because it grows back).

For me the one that takes the cake is back with Tereus, Philomela, and Procne. To punish Tereus, Procne and her sister Philomela slaughtered Itys, the son of Tereus. And Procne. This bears repeating. Procne killed her own child to punish Tereus. And it didn’t stop there. Chop the kid up, add in some fresh veggies, and stew him all day long. Serve the resulting stew to Tereus, then tell the man he ate his son. This is vicious by today’s standards, but a little more common in the ancient world as Seneca’s Medea shows the same result.

Motives in these stories are refreshingly simple. There are no complicated plots and maneuverings. Cain was jealous of Abel: killed him. Mankind needed fire: Prometheus stole it. David wanted Bathsheba for himself: Send her husband to the front lines on a suicide mission. Philomela’s husband Tereus repeatedly raped Procne: Chop up Itys and serve him in a stew to Tereus along with a nice red wine (maybe a Pinot Noir).

This really is the tip of what mythology has to offer to crime readers and writers. The stories range from the simple and mundane such as what Cain and David did, all the way up to the ultra-supernatural with rigged beauty pagents among goddesses and the rebellion of Lucifer in heaven. Needless to say that anyone writing about paranormal crime should take a strong look at mythology.

Mythology can serve as a palate freshener (I know, this is in bad taste after talking about Itys stew) after all of the modern stories. So dig into a really old crime story to see how the original authors did it. It might be an eye opener (or eye plucker if you want to talk about Oedipus).

Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams at Criminal Element.


  1. Doreen Sheridan

    Is it terrible that every time I re-read the tragedy of Itys, I immediately think of The Boondocks? Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid is my favorite re-telling of the myth, btw.

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