Hubris (Greek: hybris) is a term often found in literary criticism to denote some kind of tragic flaw that brings disastrous fortune to a character or group. The idea has a complex history in ancient Greek culture and crops up in the Old Testament Proverbs, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”¹
In recent times, the idea of hubris has been explained through the concept of the unconscious.
Most of us have probably heard of the idea that some criminals, at some level, actually want to get caught. They leave obvious clues or do things that appear hard to understand (like a wealthy celebrity shoplifting in a store with security cameras, or an important politician tweeting profanities).
However, they do this unconsciously, so the theory goes, because they actually want to face their unresolved issues and return to their true selves and feelings. And getting caught doing a silly, shameful act is a surefire way of being humbled and feeling the unconscious guilt and shame that is stifling their personal growth.
Freudians would probably emphasize the bad act as an attempt to resolve issues with a punitive parent, while Jungians would not overlook personal dimensions but would also point to the entire self wishing to evolve not just psychologically but spiritually.
Meanwhile, theological explanations for bad things happening to people, especially good people, do not always put the blame on the person or their parents. Instead, theology usually says God tests, strengthens or purifies us for everlasting life in heaven. Two stellar examples that come to mind here are the Old Testament Job and the New Testament Christ.
The other day when its servers were not overloaded I asked the now very popular ChatGPT to provide examples of hubris from Greek Mythology. The answers were impressive:
Hubris is excessive pride or self-confidence that can lead to a person or organization making reckless or irresponsible decisions. It is often considered a tragic flaw in literature and can lead to the downfall of the person or organization that exhibits it. In Greek mythology, hubris was considered one of the greatest sins a person could commit and was punished severely by the gods. In modern usage, the term is often used to describe individuals or organizations that overestimate their abilities and underestimate the risks of their actions.
- Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, was punished by Zeus with eternal torture for his hubris in challenging the gods’ power.
- Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, was punished by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, for eternity. He had angered the gods through his deceit and hubristic ambition.
- King Tantalus, who invited the gods to dine with him, but served them with his own son as the main course, was punished in the underworld for his hubristic act of murder and sacrilege.
- Oedipus, the king of Thebes, was punished for his hubristic behavior of trying to escape his fate, which led to him unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. He was blinded by his own father and exiled from the city.
- Helios, the sun god, was punished for his hubristic behavior of revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men by being forced to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky every day.
- Arachne, a mortal woman who was skilled in weaving, challenged Athena, the goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a contest of weaving. Arachne’s work was so good that Athena was jealous, and in her rage, she turned Arachne into a spider, as a punishment for her hubris.
- Actaeon, a hunter, accidentally stumbled upon the goddess Artemis while she was bathing. He saw her unclothed and was punished by her by being turned into a stag, and then torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs for his hubristic act of seeing a goddess naked.
- Bellerophon, a mortal prince, was punished by the gods for his hubristic attempt to ride the winged horse Pegasus to Mount Olympus. He was thrown off the horse and suffered injuries that made him unable to walk.
- The Titans, giant gods who preceded the Olympians, were punished by Zeus for their hubristic attempt to overthrow him. They were cast into Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld, and were eternally punished for their hubris.
- Medusa, once a beautiful woman, was punished by Athena for her hubristic act of having sexual relations in her temple. Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and made her face so hideous that anyone who looked at her would turn to stone.
- Theseus, the prince of Athens, was punished for his hubristic act of not showing gratitude and respect to the god of the sea, Poseidon. He failed to make a sacrifice to Poseidon after the god helped him in his journey to Crete to capture the Minotaur. As a result, he was punished by being shipwrecked on his way back home.
- Calypso, a nymph, was punished for her hubristic act of keeping the hero Odysseus captive on her island for seven years. She refused to let him leave and go back to his wife and home. As punishment, the gods sent Hermes to command her to release Odysseus.
- The Nemean Lion, a monster that terrorized the countryside, was punished by Heracles (Hercules) for its hubristic act of being invincible. Heracles killed the lion using its own claws and skin, and used it as his first labor.
- Aegisthus, a mortal prince, was punished for his hubristic act of having an affair with the wife of Agamemnon and conspiring to kill him. He was eventually killed by Agamemnon’s son Orestes as a revenge for his father’s death.
- Orpheus, a mortal musician and poet, was punished for his hubristic act of trying to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead by traveling to the underworld. He was not able to resist looking back at her, which resulted in her being lost forever.
These examples from Greek mythology illustrate how hubris can lead to severe punishment from the gods, and serve as a warning to humans to be humble and not overestimate their abilities or place themselves above the gods.²
I could have kept going (ChatGPT gave five examples per query) but felt that was enough. Right now the server is overloaded so perhaps I’ll return and ask for more examples from literature in general. In the meantime, enjoy this story!
² OpenAI (2022). “Assistant.” [Online]. Available: https://openai.com/blog/openai-assistant/.
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