Famous Liars in Greek Mythology

Aphrodite and Ares had an adulterous love affair.
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Greek mythology may be filled with the feats of heroes and gods, but it is also a landscape full of deception, tricks and lies. Liars are so prevalent in Greek mythology that when ancient Greek philosopher Plato imagines his ideal city, he wants to abolish all poetry because of all of its representations of cheating, lying and swindling. Being a hero or a god in the world of Greek myth does not mean being truthful.

1 Behind the Trojan Horse

Perhaps the most famous liar of Greek myth is Odysseus, the character at the center of the Homeric epic "The Odyssey," which recounts Odysseus’ return to his homeland, the island of Ithaca, after the Trojan war ends. The cunning of Odysseus was so notable that centuries later the Roman poet Virgil would credit him with the stratagem of the Trojan Horse. Even when Odysseus finally arrives at his own kingdom after ten years of wandering, he lies, and assuming the clothing of a beggar, attempts to deceive everyone including his wife Penelope.

2 Gods Tricking Gods

According to the Theogony, a poem written by Hesiod in the fifth century B.C., the reason mortals suffer is on account of another liar -- who happens to be a god -- Prometheus. Prometheus enraged the king of the gods, Zeus, by furtively bringing fire to humans, but his deceit can be traced further back to a feast between gods and men. There, Prometheus served the meal, but he tricked Zeus. Though Prometheus gave Zeus a seemingly handsome portion of meat, it was merely bone and skin made to appear appealing.

3 Lying and Kings

Some liars in Greek mythology are more than mere tricksters, however. In the tragic love triangle between King Tereus of Thrace, his wife Procne and her sister Philomela, deception spells especially gruesome tragedy. Tereus lies to his wife in order to sail to Athens to bring home Philomela. During the voyage, Tereus brutally rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue and tells his wife that her sister has died. But the story does not end there. Once Procne learns the truth, she deceives her husband and serves him their son for dinner!

4 A Hero's Defeat

Lies led to the death of one of the greatest Greek heroes, Heracles, son of Zeus. His nemesis, the centaur Nessos, claims that if Heracles’ wife gives the hero a shirt steeped in the centaur’s blood, then she can secure his love forever. Instead, the garment is poisonous and proves the cause of the hero's death. Even the most famous of Greek heroes is defeated by a lie.

5 An All-Powerful Liar

Even the most powerful figure in Greek mythology, Zeus, the king of the gods, is the beneficiary of lies and a liar himself. Zeus becomes ruler of the Olympians only because his mother Rheia gives her husband, Zeus's father, a stone to swallow instead of his son! Moreover, Zeus is always at work deceiving his wife Hera, goddess of marriage, by constantly attempting to conceal his affairs with nymphs and mortals alike. He turns the unfortunate Io into a cow in order to disguise his affair with her and assumes the form of a cow himself in order to seduce another maiden, Europa.

Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.