Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Part 1, Chapter 1 of Mythology, what is significant about the marriage between Zeus and Hera?

As the wife of Zeus, the king of the gods, Hera's status as the goddess of marriage makes logical sense. Her marriage is the most important marriage among the gods of Olympus, which makes it one of the most important marriages in the universe. Hera is the protector of marriage. She receives prayers from women seeking her assistance, and her status emphasizes the importance of marriage as a cornerstone of classical society (other myths emphasize marriage by featuring various punishments visited upon young women who refuse to marry). However, Zeus and Hera's marriage is somewhat of a paradox, because despite the status of their marriage, it is not a conventionally strong one. Hera spends much of her time protecting her own marriage against Zeus's near-constant philandering. Zeus spends much of his time trying to appease or evade Hera's jealousy. As king and queen of the gods, Hera and Zeus should present an ideal of marriage, but they present a vision of marriage filled with unfaithfulness, suspicion, and mutual fear. They reinforce an old stereotype of an unhappy marriage between a cheating, browbeaten husband and a suspicious, angry wife.

In Part 1, Chapter 1 of Mythology, what is significant about Aphrodite's marriage to Hephaestus and her relationship with Ares?

Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, but both of her significant relationships are to men who are the opposite of these traits. Hephaestus is the blacksmith of the gods. He is described as very kind and exceptionally talented, but he is also ugly and lame. Aphrodite, a goddess whose beauty in comparison to the other goddesses later gives rise to the Trojan War, would not be expected to give a dirty, ugly smith a second thought, but she marries him. However, she is not faithful to him. She takes Ares, the god of war, as her lover. Love is often a catalyst for war, but it is also the opposite of war. The pairing of beauty with ugliness and love with war indicates a philosophical desire to pair opposing forces with one another, to reconcile them and create a sense of balance in the forces controlling the universe.

In Part 1, Chapter 1 of Mythology, how do the nine Muses illustrate some of the values of ancient Greek culture?

The arts are of sufficient importance to classical culture that nine minor goddesses, called Muses, are designated as patrons of different areas of the arts. Their parentage emphasizes their status: Zeus, the king of Olympus, is their father. Their mother is the Titan Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, which indicates the connection between memory and artistic expression. The designations of the nine Muses also show which areas of the arts and sciences are most valuable to Greek culture. The Muses are all represented as women, which connects the feminine ability to create life with the ability to create art. Clio represents history. Urania represents astronomy. Calliope represents epic poetry. Erato represents love poetry. Euterpe represents lyric poetry. Polyhymnia represents songs to the gods. Terpsichore represents dance. Melpomene represents tragedy. Thalia represents comedy. Three different Muses represent specific forms of poetry, which underscores the value of poetry to the culture. Tragedy and comedy are the foundation of theater in the classical world. History emphasizes the necessity of understanding the past to make sense of the present, and astronomy and agriculture are significant to the seafaring culture of the Greeks.

In Part 1, Chapter 2 of Mythology, what does the interaction between Metaneira and Demeter reveal about the importance of hospitality?

Hospitality is a cultural norm emphasized due to a belief that mortals never know when the stranger at the door might be a god in disguise or someone with a close connection to the gods. Therefore, the gods tend to punish severely those who fail to invite visitors into their homes and provide them with shelter, food, and kindness. Metaneira does this for Demeter, who is a goddess in disguise. Showing hospitality not only allows mortals to avoid punishment, but they can reap significant rewards as a result. Demeter wants to repay Metaneira by gifting her son with eternal youth and beauty—prized values in the myths—and she sets about the process of conferring these gifts on the child. Unfortunately, this process includes placing the baby in a fire, and Metaneira happens upon Demeter and the child during this part of the ritual. Metaneira still does not know that Demeter is a goddess, so she is understandably alarmed. At Metaneira's screams, Demeter grabs the child from the fire and throws him to the ground, then she shows Metaneira who she really is. At the withdrawal of Metaneira's hospitality, Demeter is so angry and hurt she threatens all of humanity with a famine, which reveals how far away the gods stand from understanding human concerns. Demeter's lack of understanding is peculiar because she is led to Metaneira's home in her grief for her kidnapped daughter, Persephone. If any god or goddess can sympathize with Metaneira's fears for her child, it should be Demeter, but Demeter meets Metaneira with rage instead. It is a human trait to entertain the idea that one's suffering is unique and special and not to be compared to that of anyone else, especially the suffering of a powerful goddess such as Demeter. The condition of empathy requires humility, and Demeter, like her godly counterparts, falls somewhat short in this respect.

What does the story of Dionysus in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Mythology reveal about ancient fears of female power?

The defining element of Dionysus as a god is his dual nature. As the god of wine, he represents the unity, joy, and celebration brought about by the consumption of the beverage. However, wine also has the capacity to inspire madness and violence when consumed in excess. The Maenads embody this dual nature in Dionysus's most devoted followers. They are women who find connection with one another and with their god through wine. They thwart cultural expectations by leaving society—marriages, families—and living rough in the forest to be closer to one another, to nature, and to Dionysus. The downside of this lifestyle is that these women drink wine and transform into roving bands, tearing men limb from limb and spreading destruction. The example of the Maenads teaches how women loosed from social constructs and allowed to follow their own desires become extremely dangerous, so women must be encouraged to conform to their culture's expectations.

What moral lessons can be learned from the example of Prometheus in Part 1, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

The Titan Prometheus's brother Epimetheus is tasked with creating animals and humans, but Epimetheus gives all the best gifts to the animals and has nothing left to give humans when the time comes to create them. Prometheus solves Epimetheus's dilemma by allowing humans to walk upright, "like the gods," and giving them the gift of fire. Zeus is not pleased. He is even less pleased when he discovers that Prometheus has allowed humans to take the best parts of animals for themselves and sacrifice the worst parts to the gods. Prometheus knows life and survival will be difficult for humans, so he does what he can to improve their chances. Zeus punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock high in the Caucasus Mountains and sending an eagle to eat his liver. At night, the liver grows back, because Prometheus is immortal, so the process repeats every day. Zeus does this to punish Prometheus's favor to humans and to try to extract a secret from him—Zeus believes Prometheus knows the name of the woman who will bear Zeus a son who will dethrone Zeus. Prometheus holds to his principles in spite of the endless torture because he knows he has been right to help humans, and he knows Zeus is wrong to punish the services Prometheus has done him in the past. Doing what is right, standing by one's principles, is often difficult—even torturous—but endurance in the service of higher principles is necessary.

What does the story of Pandora's box in Part 1, Chapter 3 of Mythology reveal about the role of women in classical society?

Pandora is presented as the first woman introduced into a world of men living peacefully. Zeus sends her to mankind with a box filled with miseries that will plague humans if released from the box. She is meant as a punishment to mankind for the favor Prometheus showed them during their creation. Of course, Pandora does not know what the box contains. She has only been told never to open the box. Curiosity gets the best of her, and she opens the box, releasing misery into the world—as Zeus has planned all along. Telling a person they cannot look at something will, of course, make them want to look at it. Curiosity is not a gender-specific trait. However, Pandora's role in the introduction of misery into the world cautions against female curiosity, implying that curiosity is inherently dangerous in a woman. Instead, Pandora's story places the blame for human misery on women and gives rise to the idea that their thinking and behavior should be monitored and constrained.

In Part 1, Chapter 4 of Mythology, what is revealed about Greek culture when two of Zeus's lovers are immortalized through geographical names?

Zeus changes his lover Io into a cow to conceal her from his jealous wife, Hera. The ruse doesn't work, and Hera sends a gadfly to torment Io—still in cow form—when she escapes from Hera's grasp. The fly chases Io all over the countryside, and she eventually crosses the sea between Europe and Asia. The sea is known as the Ionian Sea, and the place where she crosses is called the Bosporus, which translates to "Ford of the Cow." Later, Zeus kidnaps and seduces a woman named Europa, who faces no punishment from Hera because he successfully hides Europa. When Zeus begins his courtship of Europa, he sends her a dream in which two continents want to possess Europa. The first is Asia, where Europa is born. The second has no name but tells Europa that Zeus will give her to this unnamed land. The unnamed continent becomes Europe. The dream represents the significant and eternal rewards of being loved by a god. Many places around the Mediterranean derive their names from Greek mythological figures, but these names are significant because they reflect how Zeus's lovers are honored forever, even if they must hide or endure torment during their lives. They achieve a kind of immortality that eludes even the gods themselves. The stories of Zeus and his affairs are popular, pervasive, and influential in historically significant ways that have shaped the way people view the world to this day.

In Part 1, Chapter 4 of Mythology, how is the story of the Cyclops Polyphemus a cautionary tale about honoring the principle of hospitality?

In many stories conveying the virtues of hospitality, the visitor is a god or the associate of a god who inflicts punishment on an unwelcoming host. The story of Polyphemus and Odysseus reverses this plotline. Polyphemus is the son of the god of the sea, Poseidon, and he is the one who fails to show Odysseus and his men proper hospitality. Polyphemus does not turn the men away from his cave, but goes so far as to trap the men in his cave. He doesn't offer the men food and drink; instead, he eats them. The mortal Odysseus does as the gods would do in a situation when hospitality is denied. He punishes his hostile host by using a stake to put out his eye, which not only blinds the Cyclops but causes him tremendous pain. Poseidon bears a grudge against Odysseus for this act in Part 4, Chapter 3, but Polyphemus's suffering does not end with his blinding. Even after Polyphemus's sight is restored, he is doomed to torment from an unrequited love for a nymph. Even if a visitor is not a god in disguise, the visitor is capable of inflicting great harm if the conventions of hospitality are not observed. Even if the gods do not actively inflict punishment for a failure to welcome guests, fate may devise other punishments for a poor host.

In Part 1, Chapter 4 of Mythology, how do the flower myths reveal the gods' inconsistency in dispensing rewards and punishments?

The greatest evidence of the gods' inconsistent application of justice appears in the myth of Narcissus. In this myth, Narcissus scorns all the women who love him and is cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. He pines away staring into a pool of water, but after he dies, he receives a reward reserved for the friends and lovers of gods in the other two myths. Both Adonis's and Hyacinth's blood gives rise to flowers the gods cause to grow in their memory. These two men are cut down in the prime of life by accidents, so they receive rewards in death. Narcissus does not die under honorable circumstances, and he is not beloved by a god, but he gets the same reward in death. He changes into a flower known by his name. In the meantime, one of Narcissus's most ardent admirers, a nymph named Echo, is severely punished for no offense at all. Hera suspects Zeus may be in love with Echo and takes away her voice, dooming the woman to only repeat the words she hears. No evidence in the story indicates Echo and Zeus have even met, yet she suffers. Hera makes no attempt to correct her mistake, either. Sometimes innocents are rewarded, sometimes innocents are punished, and sometimes wrongdoers are both rewarded and punished. The justice of the gods is fickle and incomplete.

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