After the Olympian gods toppled the regime of the Titan Kronos and accepted lightning-wielding Zeus as the new leader of the Greek divine world, the victorious deities convened to set up new rules and procedures for their reign. One of the important ceremonies that they developed was the ability to make oaths. The guardian and enforcer of these promises was the goddess, Styx, who personified and sustained the famous underworld river that shared her name. When the gods made oaths or were questioned for facts, the deities reportedly swore to tell the truth over a cup or jug of Styx’ water, which Zeus had on hand or fetched for such occasions. Telling lies or breaking oaths after making a vow over the waters of Styx reportedly had dire consequences in itself, but Zeus amplified the punishment with his own personal touch after the Styx water’s effects wore off.
According to the Theogony of Hesiod, if a god or goddess of Olympus lied or broke an oath after swearing not to do so over the water of Styx, the guilty deity would suddenly stop breathing and fall into some sort of coma. Motionless and speechless, the stricken god or goddess was then simply left on a bed, and the other deities of the community kept their distance, not even bringing the ill creature ambrosia or nectar for strength. The oath-breaking or lying god or goddess would remain comatose and ambrosia deprived for a year, at which time they would wake from their slumber. Yet, the punishment was just beginning. Zeus, upon hearing the coma had ended, would then sentence the oath-breaker to nine full years of exclusion or banishment. During that time, the ostracized god or goddess could not participate in any divine councils, nor attend any feasts or parties held by Zeus and the other Olympian gods. Only after serving the full nine-year term of exclusion would the punishment end, and the oath-breaker would finally be allowed to rejoin the community of gods when the long-awaited tenth year arrived.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Council of Gods, painted by Raphael (1483–1520), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.