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Ixion is punished for loving Hera by being tied to a wheel that travels through the sky:

Ixion fell in love with Hera and attempted to force her; and when Hera reported it, Zeus, wishing to know if the thing were so, made a cloud in the likeness of Hera and laid it beside him; and when Ixion boasted that he had enjoyed the favours of Hera, Zeus bound him to a wheel, on which he is whirled by winds through the air; such is the penalty he pays. And the cloud, impregnated by Ixion, gave birth to Centaurus.

(Epitome by Appollodorus)

They say that by the commands of the gods Ixion spins round and round on his feathered wheel, saying this to mortals: “Repay your benefactor frequently with gentle favors in return.”

(Pythian by Pindar)

My question is simple: what is the symbolism/meaning behind tying Ixion to a wheel? Why is that his punishment for rape?

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Since the questioner said that his inquiry was inspired by my blog post that featured a fiery wheel (see above) and since Anna quoted from my post and showed my photo of that wheel, I figure that I'd better address his question!

A wheel, especially a spoked one in the sky as in this case, is of course commonly a symbol of the sun. In this connection, Kerenyi in his The Gods of the Greeks (pp. 159-60) penned a conclusory statement, "One can easily recognise in the whole story the punishment of an older, savage sun-god who had to had to be tamed beneath the rule of Zeus." This might be the case since Zeus was in the business of absorbing other deities and their functions, but Kerenyi points to no sources or other grounds for this conclusion. The article that Anna quotes in her answer above, which relies on Cook's Zeus, takes the same view. There is indeed significant iconography showing the wheel to be flaming (just search on Google for Ixion images), so this image appears to have been popular. On the other hand, Robert Graves (Greek Myths, 63.1-2) goes off in another direction showing echoes of Frazer, claiming that Ixion was an oak-king who married a moon-goddess (Dia), and was then slain in a ritual involving him being spread-eagled on a tree, which image later became Ixion on the wheel. He also claims that old kings called themselves Zeus and their marriage to the moon-goddess displeased the later Olympian priests, hence the hubris theme leading to the punishment. Graves also links Ixion's name to vegetation, not anything solar. So no solar motif for Graves.

Turning to the actual sources, from what I see they don't seem to be stressing a solar theme. Although the Scholiast on Pindar's Pythians mentions that the wheel was fiery, Pindar himself (Pythian Ode 2.39-44), as well as Hyginus (Fabulae 62), Diodorus (Historical Library 4.69.5), Apollodorus (Library, Epit. 1.20), Virgil (Georgics 4.484; Aeneid 6.601), and Lucian (Dialogues of the Gods VI) never mention fire; they just mention the wheel spinning/whirling, not necessarily going across the sky (although that could be the case), and that the wheel turns due to the force of the winds (not its own power, as sun-gods do). To my mind, this, plus the fact that some later sources (Hyginus; Virgil, Aeneid; Lucian) felt comfortable placing the wheel in Hades rather than in the sky, suggests that a solar symbolism of the wheel is not the main point here, at least as the story appears in these later versions which differ from the presumed versions that Kerenyi and Cook were talking about. Thus, Kerenyi and Cook could be right in the sense that we may just be seeing later versions that mask the original, apples vs. oranges to some extent.

Based on what we do have for sources, for these authors the wheel and its spinning appear to symbolize primarily the passage of time into eternity, showing that Ixion's punishment is for eternity. Most of the sources (Pindar, Diodorus, Hyginus, and Lucian) stress that the wheel is supposed to turn for eternity. This has a rough parallel in the punishment of Prometheus for his act of hubris, which likewise was supposed to be eternal. Finally, Pindar mentions that the wheel has 4 spokes, which normally symbolizes dividing the passage of time into measures (seasons), which are endless cycles. That is, the hub, which appears not to move, represents eternity, while the outer part with the spokes moving represents time passing. See, e.g., The Book of Symbols, A. Ronnberg, ed., p. 504.

I don't think the wheel here has anything to do with the earthly punishment of being broken on the wheel. In that punishment, the victim dies within 1-3 days, whereas Ixion's punishment is eternal and none of the accounts has him dying. None of the accounts has him being broken or otherwise physically abused while on the wheel; except, of course, for the eternal flames in any versions of the story which have fire on the wheel, but that is very different from being broken on the wheel. Finally, based on my prior research, I don't recall this form of punishment being used in the ancient world. (I didn't research this point here since it was not mentioned in your original question, and was raised only in another answer above.)

  • I accepted this answer, not because you wrote the article, but because it made the most sense, included multiple interpretations, and had the best use of sources. That said, the other three answers were also very good. I'm glad my question (and your blog post) sparked this conversation. – user62 Jul 4 '15 at 23:43
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on which he is whirled by winds through the air;

In the greek wikipedia he is turning around tied with snakes on a burning wheel in Tartarus, which is a punishment place entered through some caves .

In Perseus one finds the following quote in an article on Apollodorus

According to some, the wheel of Ixion was fiery (Scholiast on Eur. Ph. 1185); according to the Vatican Mythographer it was entwined with snakes. The fiery aspect of the wheel is supported by vase paintings. From this and other evidence Mr. A. B. Cook argues that the flaming wheel launched through the air is a mythical expression for the Sun, and that Ixion himself “typifies a whole series of human Ixions who in bygone ages were done to death as effete embodiments of the sungod.”

This is some possible symbolism as the sun wheel is found in several mythologies.

Why this punishment? Greek mythology is full of horrible punishments for hubris, see what happened to Prometheus.

In the book Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, Volume 3, Part 2, A,B.Cook I screen captured the amphora depicting the torture of Ixion

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The light source is definitely sun like, reflections in the water. The wheel is on fire, but not with the strong light of the sun. It could be the artist is thinking "close enough to the sun to burn to a crisp forever". As the modern wish "may you burn in hell" . It is consistent with the Ikaros myth ( the closer to the sun the more heat) .

Looking at the link you provided

Another solar-fire ritual was to roll a flaming wheel down a hill and into a river or lake at the bottom, if there was one. The wheel symbolized the wheel (circle) of the seasons, as well as the sun-disk. The sun as a wheel is an ancient symbol, often depicted in the form of a wheeled chariot being driven across the sky; the swastika is another version of the sun-wheel in motion. In this ritual, the wheel was stuffed with straw or hay (the yellowish color of which resembled the sun) so that the wheel itself was barely visible, and in many cases an axle protruded a meter or so on each side, which people used to guide it down the hill. The idea was for it to roll all the way to the bottom, into the water if any; if it did not roll all the way down, the harvest would be bad

flaming wheel

In the lower amphora image, on the right , there is an extension and it looks as if the "nymph"? is sitting on it, and it does look like the axle in the third picture. (On the summer solstice there exists still a pagan ritual with fire in Greece. Fires are lit in the evening of the 24th of June and the people jump through it. It happened in the neighborhoods of Athens when I was growing up).

A possibility exists that the rolling wheel ending up in the water was a ritual in the area , as described above, and Ixion was tied up to the wheel in the myth on a preexisting symbol so that he would burn as a punishment.

  • My question was (it may have been unclear due to how I worded it) was "why was ixion associated with that specific punishment", i.e. is there any reason why his punishment was one associated with the sun. It may be that the reason is just that "it's a horrible punishment", but I have a hunch that the reason may be more complicated than that. – user62 Jul 3 '15 at 0:16
  • (Also, +1 for the images) – user62 Jul 3 '15 at 15:26
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So, there are a couple things at play here. As Anna V. noted, he likely represents the sun. Besides the flaming wheel in the sky, a cult title of Apollo is Ixios, apparently from the city of Ixiae, but perhaps also related to Ixion here. However, Apollo and Helios (i.e. the sun) were not originally the same deity, and so the connection there is intriguing but uncertain. Moreover, the name defies attempts at etymology, although the LSJ suggests a possibility with ἱκέτης (hiketēs), meaning "suppliant."

Other ideas for Ixion put forth are related to clouds. Since Ixion laid with a cloud thinking it was Hera, some, such as Martin Nilsson, have speculated that instead of a sun, he was some figure for making it rain. Nilsson also points out that this cloud was connected with Nephele (which is merely Greek for "cloud") in the Argonaut story, where she saves Phrixus and Helle by sending them a ram with golden fleece.

Ixion also must be of extreme antiquity and likely connected to Märchen, as he is completely divorced from any of the major lineages.

There are parallels for him, though. Besides "the sun" or "rain clouds", he is one of the major offenders against the order of Zeus' universe, such as Sisyphus, Tantalus, Asclepius, Atlas, Prometheus, and later Iapetus' two other sons Menoetius and Epimetheus.

Sisyphus might be the closest parallel to Ixion, as one who rolls a rock up the hill and lets it fall back down parallels the rising and fall of the sun, but other interpretations are possible, such as the waves, the tides, the moon even. His sin was to hold death hostage so that no one could die.

Tantalus' crime I outlined here. I do not know what the pool of water below and fruit trees above him mean. It is interesting to note that Pindar thinks his crime was stealing ambrosia (and thus attempting immortality), which parallels not only Sisyphus' crime above, but also Asclepius', who with his medicine could raise the dead. Asclepius wasn't punished in Hades, but outright zapped by lightning (Pindar, Pythian 3).

Their crime however probably reflect Pindar's preoccupation with the hubris of his clientele. After winning fame and glory (kleos is the key word here) in athletic games, they might have developed a big head, and Pindar, suggests Crotty, Kurke, and Nicholson, might have added a tender caution in his praise.

Atlas and Prometheus are both tied in some way to mountains (Prometheus literally), with Atlas at the western edge of the world (the Atlas Mountains in Morocco) and Prometheus in the eastern edge (the Caucasus Mountains).

Hesiod picked up on this and schematized it, making Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Menoetius (though a titan, the name is human, and is shared with Patroclus' father in the Iliad, e.g. 16.14), all of which committed some injustice against Zeus which characterizes human condition. Menoetius was full of hubris, and thus Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt. Epimetheus ("afterthought", based on his brother Prometheus, "forethought") of course received Pandora, the first woman and the one who unleashed evils on humankind. (Hesiod, Theogony 507–558 and Works & Days 69–105)

Sources:

Clay, J. S. 2003. Hesiod's Cosmos. Cambridge.

Crotty, K. 1982. Song and Action: The Victory Odes of Pindar. Baltimore. s Gantz, T. 1993. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Source. Baltimore.

Kurke, L. 1991. Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Berkeley.

Nicholson, N. 2005. Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece. Cambridge.

Nilsson, N. The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology. Berkeley.

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Being bound to a cartwheel and then having your limbs broken was one of the more painful methods of execution in antiquity (Breaking wheel), and as such often used for rapists. Whether Ixion was battered after being tied is not clear, but it would certainly have come to the mind of ancient audiences.

"Karl von Amira and Hans von Hentig have written that the breaking wheel was an archetypical emblem of the sun. Thus the torture wheel, which dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, was in their view a type of pagan sacrifice to the sun god Zeus....Perhaps Ixion's eternal punishment corresponded to the slow death one suffered from the breaking wheel." (Corretti, Cellini's Perseus and Medusa and the Loggia dei Lanzi, in a chapter on 'The Public face of Justice').

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    Is there evidence that the breaking wheel was used in ancient Greece though? I'm no expert on the matter, but wikipedia gives the earliest historical reference to the punishment around the 6th century CE, which is about 1000 years later than Ixion's punishment was written of by Pindar – femtoRgon Jul 2 '15 at 23:10
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    Did a bit of further digging, from your update, and found some references to people being racked on a wheel, which might be of interest (from Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and Plutarch). No sure of any "breaking" involved with these references, but that would seem to make it fit all the better, to me. – femtoRgon Jul 6 '15 at 17:55

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