Spite might be one of the world's oldest emotions. For proof, read the "Iliad", the Greek poet Homer's story of the Trojan War, written around the 7th century B.C.E. In it, the Greek king Agamemnon compelled Achilles, his most able warrior, to give him a captured concubine named Briseis.
This angered Achilles so much that he not only refused to fight, he asked his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to convince Zeus to let the Trojans win the war for a while.
But even after the humiliated king offered to give back Briseis, Achilles was unmoved, perhaps because he was enjoying Agamemnon's misery too much. That's when Achilles' spitefulness backfired on him, because his friend Patroklos was killed in battle by the Trojan warrior Hector. This ultimately led to Achilles taking revenge upon Hector, only for Hector's brother, Paris, to kill him with an arrow [source: Reed College].
But hey, even though it cost Achilles his life, he sure did show Agamemnon, didn't he? That's one of the problems with spite. It may feel deliciously satisfying to punish someone we feel has wronged us. But the urge can become so powerful that, if left unchecked by reason, it can spiral to self-destructive extremes.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Assessment in 2014, researchers questioned almost 300 adults about the degree of their desire to get back at others, and compared it to other data about their mental health. The researchers found that spitefulness was associated with a host of undesirable qualities, including aggression, narcissism, and psychopathy [source: Marcus, et al.].
But all the same, it's hard not to admire the sheer ingenuity and determination of the spiteful. And some of their targets probably deserve it. In that spirit, here are 10 noteworthy examples of things done completely out of spite.
The Nuns Who Cut Off Their Noses
You've probably heard the old expression "he'd cut off his nose to spite his face," and assumed that it was just a colorful metaphor. Unfortunately, the saying may have been inspired by an actual historical event.
According to the 1904 book "A Dictionary of Saintly Women," in 867 C.E., Viking raiders — led by the sons of Ragner Lothbroc, the king of Denmark and Sweden — sailed southward and invaded the British Isles. As they ravaged the country with fire and sword, they gained a fearsome reputation for extreme cruelty as well as greed.
But when they attacked a monastery of Coldingham in Scotland, the female head of the institution, St. Aebee the Younger, assembled the nuns and exhorted them to avoid being raped by voluntarily disfiguring themselves. As an example, St. Aebbe is said to have cut off her own nose and upper lip. The rest of the sisters did the same. When the Vikings finally broke into the convent, their lust turned to disgust when they saw the self-mutilated nuns.
But unfortunately, that act of defiance didn't prompt the raiders to spare their lives. Instead, they simply set fire to the place, and burned the nuns to death [source: Dunbar].
Henry Clay Frick's Classic Rebuff to Andrew Carnegie
In the late 1800s, gilded age moguls Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick teamed up to make massive fortunes in the steel industry. But their relationship eventually soured, and Carnegie muscled his partner out of the business. Even after winning a lawsuit against Carnegie and receiving compensation for the ill-treatment, Frick wasn't satisfied, and spent the remainder of his life coming up with ways to get back at Carnegie. After Carnegie built a mansion in New York City, for example, Frick built a bigger, grander one nearby to upstage him.
Finally, in 1919, when the elderly Carnegie was in ill health, he dispatched his longtime personal secretary, James Bridge, to visit Frick, who was similarly elderly and frail, and deliver a conciliatory letter, in which he asked for a meeting at which the two old men could patch up their differences before they died.
After reading the letter, Frick responded in a fashion that has gone down in history as one of the coldest insults of all time. "Yes, you can tell Carnegie I'll meet him," Frick said to Bridge, crumpling the letter in a ball and throwing it at him. "Tell him I'll see him in Hell, where we both are going" [source: Standiford].
Saddam Used a Hotel Floor to Insult George H.W. Bush
When the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein held a grudge, he sometimes used his absolute power to take it to ridiculous extremes. After his defeat by the U.S. and its allies in the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, Saddam's humiliation festered into a personal hatred for U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
One of the ways that Saddam chose to express it was to have a huge mosaic floor laid in the entrance of Baghdad's five-star al-Rashid hotel, with the tiles arranged to form a portrait of Bush. The idea was that people entering the hotel would be forced to tread upon Bush's face. In a Middle Eastern culture where striking someone with the sole of your shoe is a sign of disapproval, it was supposed to be a conspicuous affront [source: Robertson, Al-Zubaidi].
But Saddam's gesture didn't stop Bush's son, President George W. Bush, from leading another U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam's regime in 2003. U.S. soldiers then went to the hotel with hammers and chisels and dug out the mosaic of the former U.S. President. In its place, they laid a portrait of Saddam himself [source: Associated Press].
John Lennon's Musical Taunt to Paul McCartney
As members of the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed perhaps the greatest songwriting team in the history of pop music. But after the group's members began to bicker, McCartney left the group in 1970 and filed a lawsuit to make the dissolution official [source: Gilmore].
The former collaborators had once been so much in sync that they would go back-and-forth for hours, feeding off one another's lyrical brainstorms. But after the breakup, McCartney's insistence that he enjoyed working solo because "I only had me to ask for a decision" irked Lennon.
In 1971, Lennon responded with a song, "How Do You Sleep?" which was a scathing attack on his fellow ex-Beatle. It contained lines such as "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead"—a taunting reference to conspiracy theories that Paul had died in a car accident and been replaced by a double — and "The only thing you done was Yesterday," a put-down of the Beatles hit associated with McCartney. "The sound you make is Muzak to my ears" likened McCartney's solo work to the canned music played in elevators. Whew, a little bitter, John?
Fortunately, the two mates eventually patched up their differences. In a 1972 TV interview, Lennon said, "If I can't have a fight with my best friend, I don't know who I can have a fight with" [source: Slate].
Ford Built a Sports Car to Settle a Score with Ferrari
In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II, chief executive of U.S. automaker Ford, decided to get involved in auto racing to help build the Ford brand. He tried a shortcut to building a reputation in racing, by acquiring the Italian auto maker Ferrari, which already was renowned for its racing success. Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari proposed a deal in which Ford would pay $18 million for a 90 percent interest.
But once Ford officials arrived in Italy to ink the deal, Ferrari decided that the American company's "suffocating bureaucracy" was unsuitable for his genius, and backed out. When Henry Ford II was told of the rebuff, he decided that the best response was to build his own race car, one good enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — the endurance race that was perhaps most prestigious motorsport event around. It involves racing an 8.4 mile (13.6 kilometer) course near the city of Le Mans over and over to see how much distance can be covered in a day.
That was a tall order, since Ferrari had dominated the event for years. But Ford's chief engineer, Roy Lunn, came up with a concept for a two-seater sports car with a low-slung body and a powerful V-8 engine located between the axles. Ford teamed up with British automaker Lola to build the car, the Ford GT40, which eventually bested Ferrari at Le Mans 1966, totally dominating the Italians by taking first, second and third in the race. The GT40 also won in 1967, '68 and '69 [source: Johnson].
The Spiteful Road
In China, one thing you don't want to do is incur the ire of government officials. In 2012, a Chinese man named Luo Baogen and his wife learned that lesson when they refused to allow the government to acquire and demolish their home in Wenling, Zhejiang province, because it was in the path of a planned highway. The elderly couple felt the compensation that the government offered to pay them for their house was too low.
But that didn't stop the road builders, who had purchased and demolished other houses in the couple's neighborhood. Instead, they simply built the road around the one remaining house, and left it encircled by asphalt [source: Taylor].
As the provincial government may have suspected, the residents tired quickly of having cars whizzing by their front door and under their windows. A few weeks later, they accepted a slightly larger compensation offer from the government of 260,000 yuan ($41,000). Their house was bulldozed and the island it had created was paved over [source: Taylor].
Painting a House into a Gay Pride Symbol
The Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church has aroused the ire of quite a few people over the years, not just for what Time magazine calls its "virulently anti-homosexual views," but also for its members' practice of picketing military funerals to get their point across. But Aaron Jackson, who runs a nonprofit organization called Planting Peace, came up with an ingenious way to needle the church group and promote tolerance at the same time.
As Jackson told the magazine in 2013, he was checking out the church's location on Google Earth when he discovered that the house across the street had a "for sale" sign on it. Jackson quickly got in touch with a realtor to acquire the property, with the idea of turning it into a gay rights museum. Local zoning prevented that from happening, so Jackson instead opted to paint the house in bright hues to mimic the rainbow Pride Flag [source: Yang].
Unlike most spiteful gestures, Jackson's Equality House doesn't directly taunt Westboro, but simply confronts the church with an example of what it loathes. Since opening, it has hosted an assortment of events championing gay rights, ranging from a same-sex wedding to a "drag down bigotry" show featuring drag queens, to a fundraiser to help LGBT Russians who are subject to discrimination and mistreatment in their country [source: Nichols].
Japanese Retaliation After the Doolittle Raid
After Japan launched its infamous sneak attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941, American forces responded four months later with a daring surprise bombing raid on Tokyo, under the command of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. Aviators took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet without enough fuel in their bombers to make it back to the ship. Instead, most of them flew to parts of China that were still defying Japanese invaders, and bailed out or crash-landed along the coast. Local villagers, anti-Japanese guerillas and missionaries did their best to help the U.S. airmen escape.
The indignity of being punished so quickly by the U.S. — and the brave defiance of the Chinese who helped the bomber crews — so infuriated the Japanese military that they launched a series of almost unspeakably brutal reprisals. A Catholic missionary, Father Wendelin Dunker, wrote in his memoir that in the town of Ihwang, Japanese troops "shot any man, woman, child, cow, hog, or just about anything that moved, They raped any woman from the ages of 10–65, and before burning the town they thoroughly looted it ... None of the humans shot were buried ... but were left to lay on the ground to rot, along with the hogs and cows" [source: Scott].
But those extreme acts did nothing to prevent the Japanese military from suffering a series of ignominious defeats at the hands of the Americans, and ultimately having to surrender in 1945 to the nation they had attacked.
Prince Changed his Name to an Unpronounceable Symbol
When he died unexpectedly in 2016 at age 56, Prince Rogers Nelson —known to the world as Prince — was mourned by legions of fans and praised as one of the most creative geniuses in the history of pop music. But the performer, who deftly fused an array of musical genres from R&B to new wave, could be as artfully spiteful as he was innovative.
Case in point: In 1993, Prince started feuding with his then-record label Warner Bros., in part because the company didn't want to release his album "The Gold Experience" as soon as he wanted. Though Prince reportedly had a lucrative contract, he decided that he wanted out.
Prince came up with a bizarrely attention-getting way to make his point and embarrass the label in the process. He abruptly changed his name from Prince to an unpronounceable symbol, which wasn't on the contract. To proclaim how he viewed his working relationship with his label, he took to performing with the word "slave" written on his cheek.
But while those tactics burnished Prince's reputation as an eccentric, they didn't get him out of his contract. Instead, he had to wait until it expired in 2000, at which point he reverted to calling himself Prince [source: Merry].
The Pink House
Over the years, numerous people have used "spite houses" — dwellings that are strangely designed or decorated, or located in devilishly inconvenient places — as a way of getting back at everyone from city officials and neighbors to ex-spouses after an acrimonious breakup.
One of the most extreme examples of a spite house is the famous Pink House on Plum Island in Massachusetts. According to a 2015 New York Times article, the garishly-colored structure sits alone in a desolate area, "overlooking a vast flat landscape of pristine salt marsh."
Its apparent origin: Back in 1925, a woman agreed to give her husband a divorce, provided that he built for her an exact duplicate of the house that they shared in town. Not wanting to give her the satisfaction of besting him, he did so, but put the house in the least desirable location he could find: an island without any other inhabitants or fresh water. Surprisingly, the house was lived in until 2011 [source: Bolick]
Despite its spiteful history, local artists have developed a curious affection for the Pink House, which was sold by its last private owners to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, and is now off-limits to the public. They've started a lobbying group to convince federal wildlife officials not to demolish it [source: Coffey].
What began in 1968 as a 'revolution of values' in America has continued as a modern-day movement taking on systemic racism, poverty, ecological issues and the war economy.
Author's Note: 10 Things Done Completely Out of Spite
This assignment stirred up some confusing emotions in me. On one hand, I couldn't help but be amused at some of the clever ways that people have dreamed up to get back at someone for a slight, whether real or imagined. But as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that time spent seeking payback is time lost from doing something more positive and fulfilling. And sometimes, perhaps, simply not allowing another person to inspire resentment might be the best revenge.
More Great Links
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