Folly in Greek Mythology

Zeus forbade Ate, goddess of folly, from returning to Olympus.
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The Greeks represented folly through the goddess Ate, a minor deity who nevertheless interacts with a number of key figures in Greek mythology. Like many mythological characters, Ate's history and parentage changed depending on the needs of the story. In most stories, she is a negative figure who clouded the judgment of heroes, but in others, she exists to punish the wicked for misdeeds.

1 Banished from Olympus

Homer depicted Ate as the eldest daughter of Zeus, who conspired with Hera, Zeus's wife, to undermine Zeus's authority. When she discovered Zeus had conceived yet another illegitimate son with a mortal woman, Hera took her rage out on the child, Herakles. Ate assisted her mother, tricking Zeus into taking an oath at Herakles's birth. Hera used the oath to make Eurystheus ruler of the Argives in Herakles' stead, thereby denying Herakles his birthright. Zeus subsequently disowned Ate, flinging his daughter from Olympus by her hair and forbidding her return.

2 Ate and Ampelos

Hera often called upon Ate to assist in vendettas against Zeus's numerous illegitimate children. Among these was Dionysos, god of wine, who had befriended a young man named Ampelos. While the two were hunting, Ate took the form of a young man, accosted Ampelos and questioned Dionysos' identity and generosity. She convinced the young man that he could impress Dionysos and win his favor by riding a bull. Although Ampelos was fated to die atop a bull, the young man eagerly approached a bull, climbed atop it and rode to his death. Ate's victims typically went against their better judgment in this manner, exhibiting the goddess's aptitude for inciting folly among men.

3 Daughter of Discord

In other versions of her story, Ate is the daughter of Eris, goddess of discord. The biological relationship between the two serves to illustrate the conceptual relationship between discord and folly. Ate represents not only the actions that constitute folly, but the delusional rationale that leads to such folly. Poets like Homer would also depict Ate as a swift force capable of outrunning Zeus's daughters the Litai, or prayers. However, the Litai would assist in the aftermath, attempting to undo the damage Ate wrought.

4 Ate in The Iliad

The characters in Homer's "The Iliad" referenced Ate frequently, often blaming her for lapses in judgment. Agamemnon notes that Ate blinded him when he took Briseis, the concubine of the powerful warrior Achilles, for himself. However, he vowed to ignore Ate in the future and to pay for his actions. Homer also noted that the very Litai who help to resolve conflicts caused by Ate would give the goddess of folly free reign when they were ignored. Humans who stopped praying or otherwise ignored the will of the gods were thereby punished for their folly.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.