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Betrayal across Mythology

Updated on March 4, 2015

What is betrayal? Betrayal is when a person willingly goes against something or someone who he or she followed with loyalty. Ancient Greek, Egypt, Norse, Irish, and Indian cultures all feature myths on the theme of betrayal. Ancient India and Egypt both highly valued fidelity and viewed adultery in the harshest light. Ancient India and Egypt both allowed the husband of the woman who committed adultery to decide the punishment of the adulterous couple. The ancient Greek, Irish, and Norse cultures valued the laws of hospitality as essential laws of life, and viewed a breakage in hospitality as a betrayal of the host or guest depending on the circumstances. Greece believed in punishment from the betrayed host and the gods, Ireland believed in fining the guilty party, and Scandinavia was of the belief that Odin would punish those who failed to offer hospitality. These ancient cultures have often viewed adultery or the breakage of the laws of hospitality as one of the greatest betrayals, and each culture tended to have a different view of the type of punishment merited for each type of betrayal; the betrayals throughout these culture’s myths have often served as a vehicle to convey the values of each ancient culture.

Adultery

Fidelity was an important value of ancient India’s culture; according to Ancient Indian Law: Eternal Values in Manu Smriti mutual fidelity is the highest principle to be observed by husband and wife in India and adultery was considered a betrayal of the utmost kind. The myth of Ahalya begins with Brahma creating Ahalya and giving her great beauty. Braham then married Ahalya to Sage Gautama after the Sage beat Indra at a competition for Ahalya’s hand. However, fuelled by jealousy, Indra seduced and slept with Ahalya; when the Sage found out that his wife had betrayed him he turned Ahalya into stone. In ancient India, this type of punishment would not have been deemed too harsh for they practiced the use of corporal punishment to penalize adultery, specifically the amputation of the nose (Sperati 44-50). The punishment in ancient India was so harsh because of the great value the culture placed on fidelity; women were seen as belonging to their husbands and to stray from them would bring great shame and punishment. Historically, ancient India valued fidelity so much that many wives would chose to burn alive next to their deceased husband on the funeral pyre so that she would not have to live with the shame of being a window. This practice, sati, was believed to be the “ultimate form of womanly devotion and sacrifice” (Heaphy 1). For a woman to betray her husband by sleeping with another man, the way that Ahalya did with Inra, was seen as a great betrayal and dishonor by the culture that encouraged woman to die next to their deceased husband.

The ancient Egyptian culture was similar to ancient Indian culture in that both cultures valued fidelity to the extreme and would allow the husband of the woman who strayed to punish both the woman that betrayed him and her lover himself. In the myth “The Story of the two brothers,” Anubis, Anubis’s wife, and his brother Bata lived together on a farm. One day when Bata was alone in the house with his brother’s wife she propositioned him and when he refused her she made “herself look like she had been assaulted” (Powell 88). When her husband returned to the house, the wife told him his younger brother had assaulted her when she refused to get in bed with him. After Anubis confronted Bata and learned the truth of his wife’s betrayal he returned to his house and he killed his wife, dismembered her body, and fed her limbs to the dogs (Galpaz-Feller 155). This type of punishment was common in ancient Egypt because Egyptians believed that the body must remain whole for the passage of the deceased to the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians valued fidelity so much that they believed that those who betrayed their spouse should not be allowed to enter the afterlife.

Historically, ancient Indian and Egyptian cultures both valued fidelity. Both cultures shared a similar view on the punishment of adulterers; the punishment was left to the husband that was betrayed. In ancient India, the husband might have decided to have his wife’s and her lover’s noses amputated so that all might know of their crime; while in Egypt the husband might have those involved killed and dismembered so as not to allow them access to the afterlife. Both myths proved to be effective vehicles for conveying the cultural values of fidelity by emphasizing the punishment for those who would betray their spouse through adultery. The Indian myth proved to be an effective vehicle for conveying the Indian value of fidelity through the demonstration of the extreme lengths the culture would have gone to in order to punish adulterers. The Egyptian myth proved to be an effective way of conveying the Egyptian value of fidelity through the ways the Egyptian culture would have punished those who betrayed their husband through adultery.

Breakage of the Laws of Hospitality

Hospitality was a very important value of Greek culture according to “The Law of Hospitality” by Julian Pitt-Rivers; hospitality allowed people to be a guest is someone else’s home without worry of hostility or conflict. One of the most well-known myths from Ancient Greek culture is the myth surrounding the Trojan War, which is based on a betrayal of the laws of hospitality. According to myth, after Paris named Aphrodite the fairest goddess she told him to set sail for Sparta where he would find his bride to be. Paris arrived in Sparta and remained as a guest of King Menelaus and his wife Helen who treated him to their hospitality; Paris broke the laws of hospitality when he took Helen back to his home of Troy to be his. In the myths, it is unclear whether Helen went with Paris by choice or not; in one version of the myth Aphrodite made her fall in love with him, in another she fell in love with him on her own, and in another he falls in love with her and he takes her to Troy against her will. The Abduction of Helen is a piece of art created by Giuseppe Salviati depicts Helen be taken onto a boat headed Troy against her will. If Helen was abducted against her will by Paris as this piece of art depicts that in itself is a set of betrayals; Paris would have betrayed Helen’s trust, Menelaus’ goodwill, and Greek hospitality. The Abduction of Helen displays Paris breaking the rules of hospitality by usurping the role of his host, King Menelaus. Paris usurps the role of his host by taking “what is not offered”, in this case Menelaus’ wife, Helen (Pitt-Rivers 515). This breakage of hospitality eventually leads to King Menelaus gathering his army and attacking Troy, retrieving his wife, and killing Paris.

It is believed in Greek culture that Paris’s betrayal of the laws of hospitality was punished by the gods by having all of his children born from Helen die during infancy, and punished by humans through his death during the Trojan War. This myth showcases the value the ancient Greek culture put in the laws of hospitality and that a breakage of hospitality on the part of the guest, if severe enough, could lead to the death of the guest who broke the hospitality offered by the host (Pitt-Rivers). The ancient Greeks valued the laws hospitality because it allowed for safety when staying in a stranger’s home; the betrayal hospitality was so appalling because of how many guests and hosts trusted in the laws of hospitality to ensure their safety.

While the ancient Greeks valued hospitality for the safety it offered the ancient Irish valued hospitality because it encouraged travel and trade across Ireland. “The Tradition of Hospitality” article states that “all householders were obliged by law to provide food, drink, a bed and entertainment to anyone who appeared on the doorstep” (Niafer 1). The ancient Irish’s disdain for those who betrayed their role as host to any guests who requested hospitality is shown in the myth, “The Long Life of Tuan McCarrell”. In the myth Finnan, the abbot of Moville in the Kingdom of Donegal, sets out to travel to the fort of Tuan Mac Carrell. Once Finnan arrived at the fort he sent a message to the chieftain, Tuan Mac Carrell, stating that he wished to enter the fort and preach to the tribe; in response he was told to return to where he belonged. Finnan remained outside the fort for days; while inside the fort the chieftain was faced with the disdain of his people because it was a betrayal of the laws to forbid an individual hospitality. The chieftain eventually realized the shame he had brought upon himself and sent for Finnan to be brought into his fort. Once Finnan was inside the chieftain professed his shame and sought forgiveness for his crime. Finnan gave his forgiveness after he was allowed to preach to the tribe of Mac Carrell. Typically in ancient Ireland a breakage of hospitality was considered a great embarrassment because wealth was judged based on what one gave instead of what one had (Niafer 1). The ancient Irish valued hospitality for the trade it encouraged across Ireland; a betrayal of hospitality was looked down upon because it would have lessen the number of traders who would have been willing to travel, which would have harmed the economy of the time.

While the Ancient Irish looked down on a betrayal of hospitality for the ways it would reduce trade; the ancient Norse viewed a lack of hospitality as one of the most heinous crimes and believed the guilty would be struck down by Odin. The myth of “Geirrod and Agnar” demonstrates how the ancient Norse felt about those who betrayed the laws of hospitality. The myth began when Prince Geirrod and his brother Prince Agnar, were swept away to an island inhabited by Odin and his wife Frigga by a storm when they were fishing. On the island Odin and Frigga shaped the two boys into heroes and then sent the two boys back home in a boat, but on the way home Geirrod took the oars and sent the boat and his brother back out to sea. Years later Odin disguised himself as a wanderer and sought King Geirrod’s hospitality. Geirrod had Odin seized and bound to two pillars surrounded by fire for eight days without food or drink, but Agnar, disguised as servant, provided Odin with a horn of ale every night. At the end of the eight day Odin sung a prophecy about how Geirrod would soon die on his own sword because he had betrayed himself and his guests by failing to follow the laws of hospitality. Geirrod then charged Odin with his sword, but fell on it when Odin revealed his true form. Odin then named Agnar as King for the hospitality he offered Odin when he gave him the ale each night. This myth shows that the ancient Norse not only disdained those who failed to do their duty as a host, but felt that such people would be struck down by Odin. The ancient Norse valued the laws of hospitality because they believed the laws were created and given to them by Odin and to follow the laws of hospitality was to show Odin their devotion; a betrayal of hospitality was seen as a betrayal against the Gods. The ancient Norse felt that only Odin could punish a host that failed in his duty because while the guest was betrayed by the lack of hospitality the greater betrayal was to Odin.

Historically, ancient Greek, Irish, and Norse cultures have greatly valued the laws of hospitality, but they differed in their views of punishment of those who would break the laws of hospitality. In ancient Greek culture it was believed that hospitality was a test from the gods and to break it would bring down the wrath of the gods (Melissa, Mollie, Dustin, and Jonas 1). This is shown in myth by how Paris was punished through the gods by not allowing any of his children to survive infancy. In ancient Irish culture, a breakage of hospitality was typically punished by a fine unless the host realizes his shame and atones for his crime to the person he wronged. In the Irish myth the fine is not used as a punishment because the chieftain obtained Finnan’s forgiveness when he sought to correct his behavior and atone for it by allowing Finnan to preach to his tribe. In ancient Norse culture it was believed that Odin himself decreed that people were required to offer hospitality to wanderers, travelers, and anyone seeking hospitality. It was also commonly believed that those who betrayed their role as host were punished by Odin with misfortune, loss of status, and/or death, while those who fulfilled their role were rewarded by Odin (Guerber 41). In the myth of “Geirrod and Agnar” Odin punishes Geirrod’s betrayal of hospitality with death and rewards Agnar’s hospitality with the throne. Historically ancient Norse culture believed that misfortune that befell those who betrayed Odin’s laws were punished by him. The Greek myth proved to be an ineffective way of conveying the Greek value of hospitality because most of the emphasis in the myth was placed on Paris and Helen instead of Paris’s betrayal of hospitality. The Irish myth was an effective way of conveying the Irish cultural value of hospitality as the myth emphasized how the chieftain both broke the laws of hospitality, realized his shame, and redeemed himself. The Norse myth proved to be an effective way of conveying the Norse values of hospitality, their gods, and their disdain of those who fail their duty of host.

Cultural Values and Teachings

Betrayal has served to highlight the cultural values of ancient cultures in myths. The ancient Indian and Egyptian cultures both have many myths on the subject of the betrayal of fidelity; the ancient India had the myth of Ahalya and ancient Egypt had “The Story of the two brothers”. Both of these myths demonstrated the value these two cultures placed in fidelity through myths about adulterers and their punishments. The myths of adultery were meant to teach the ancient Indian and Egyptian people to remain fidelis to their spouse, to not lie about adultery, and of the consequences of a betrayal of one’s spouse through adultery. The ancient Greek, Irish, and Norse cultures all have their own myths on the subject of the laws of hospitality; ancient Greece had their myths about Paris and Helen during the Trojan War, ancient Ireland had “The Long Life of Tuan McCarrell”, and ancient Norway had the myth of “Geirrod and Agnar”. These three myths showed the valued these cultures bestowed on the laws of hospitality through the ways each culture believed a breakage in hospitality should be punished. The myths of hospitality were meant to teach the ancient Greek, Irish, and Norse people to respect the laws of hospitality, to be welcoming to strangers, and about the consequences of betraying the laws of hospitality. These myths of betrayal have all served as a vehicle for cultural values and have all been used to warn humans away from a betrayal of fidelity or of the laws of hospitality through the use of punishments that culture deemed justifiable.

Works Cited

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Guerber, H. A. "Odin." Myths of the Norsemen. New York: George G. Harrap, 2009. 35-42. Print.

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Justice, Rama. "Dharma of Husband and Wife and Family Life." Ancient Indian Law: Eternal Values in Manu Smriti. India: Universal Law, 2010. 39-42. Print.

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Niafer, Fenian. "The Tradition of Hospitality." The Tradition of Hospitality. AncientWorlds LLC, 26 Aug. 2005. Web. 31 Jan. 2015. <http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/617978>.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. "The Law of Hospitality." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2012): 501–517. Print.

Powell, Barry. "Myths of the Brothers Who Hated Each Other." World Myth. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 86-96. Print.

Salviati, Giuseppe. The Abduction of Helen. Mid-16th Century. Pen and brown ink, brown wash,heightened with white (partly oxidized), over traces of black chalk, on light blue paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, n.p.

Sperati, G “Amputation of the Nose throughout History.” Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica 29.1 (2009): 44-50. Print.


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