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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What does the story of Cupid and Psyche in Part 2, Chapter 1 of Mythology reveal about the nature of love?

Because the union of Cupid and Psyche is meant to symbolize the union of Love and the Soul, their story is meant to present an ideal of love. The ending of the story, in which Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after, is ideal, but they must conquer many obstacles to get to this point. There is also an undercurrent of cruelty in their match. When Psyche discovers her husband's identity, Cupid leaves her, declaring that love cannot exist without trust. This statement is true, but he has done little to cultivate her trust. Cupid's affections prevent Psyche from finding another partner, but Psyche endures years of loneliness and rejection that drive her to welcome the prospect of death. Cupid makes his move under the guise of having Psyche presented as a sacrifice to a serpent. His mansion is filled with invisible servants, and she is not allowed to see her husband. These circumstances make Psyche ripe to accept her sisters' jealous insinuations, and Cupid does little to quell these fears. While Psyche is wrong not to trust Cupid, he accepts no responsibility for his role in encouraging her actions. Trust is essential in love, but trust must be cultivated. Despite these problems, the message about love is ultimately positive. Cupid and Psyche are meant to be together, and even the forces of nature intervene to help them find their way back to one another. A swarm of ants helps Psyche sort tiny seeds. The reeds by a river advise her how to gather wool for Venus. An eagle appears to help Psyche gather water from the source of the Styx. Once his wound is healed, Cupid's longing for Psyche has not abated, and he finds a window to escape his room when his mother locks the door. As Edith Hamilton writes, "It is a difficult matter to keep Love imprisoned." When love is true, it finds a way to flourish.

What lesson about love do the eight tales in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Mythology convey?

Patience and generosity are revealed as essential factors for love to be successful in the eight tales of lovers. Pyramus leaps to the conclusion that Thisbe is dead when he sees a lioness with her cloak. Instead of patiently investigating what has become of his love, Pyramus stabs himself with his own sword. Orpheus loses Eurydice forever because he cannot wait a few more moments until they are both fully clear of the underworld to look at her. Alcyone loses Ceyx because he is impatient to take a sea voyage and too stubborn to take her with him on the journey. Selene suffers from an unrequited love for Endymion because she selfishly puts him to sleep for eternity so she can possess him. Apollo and Alpheus lose the women they pursue because they come on too strong and selfishly refuse to honor the wishes of these women. On the other hand, Pygmalion is rewarded beyond his wildest hopes when he patiently crafts his ideal woman in sculpture. He goes to Venus in humility and service, asking for something less than what he really wants, and she rewards him by turning the statue into a real woman. Baucis and Philemon live happily together for years, patient with their poverty and giving to one another and to others as their limited means allow. They are rewarded with a comfortable old age, and the gods allow them to remain together as trees after they die.

What role does fate play in the outcome of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

The events leading to the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe are so unlikely in their precision, they seem orchestrated by fate rather than chance. Pyramus and Thisbe live next door to one another, which means they were born in close proximity to their soulmates. On the night they decide to run away together, a lioness happens to be at the rendezvous site. Thisbe happens to arrive first and drops her cloak, which the lioness happens to pick up. The lioness happens to have blood on her mouth from a fresh kill, which leads Pyramus to believe the blood is Thisbe's. Instead of rationally investigating the scene, he leaps directly to suicide. The young lovers have done nothing particularly wrong or right, so this string of events is not the result of the gods' retribution or reward. Any deviation from any one of these details might have saved the young lovers' lives, but no deviation occurs, which implies larger forces are at play in the construction of their destiny. Centuries later, William Shakespeare picks up on this set of unlikely coincidences when he retells "Pyramus and Thisbe" as Romeo and Juliet, and makes the role of fate prominent in his adaptation.

What does the story of Orpheus and Eurydice illustrate about the nature of both love and fate in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Orpheus's dedication to his wife, and the dangers he faces in his attempt to retrieve her from the underworld, demonstrate how true love demands extreme sacrifice and bravery in the face of incredible odds. His love is deep and true, and he would rather brave death itself to be with Eurydice rather than live without her. Even Hades, the cold and inhospitable lord of the dead, is visibly moved by Orpheus's dedication to his wife. After Orpheus loses Eurydice a second time, he leaves the company of other people and wanders the earth until he dies. He is unable to live a normal life without his love. He seems to court danger by wandering in uninhabited areas, playing his lyre. It appears only a matter of time before he is set upon by someone—in this case, Maenads—and killed. At the same time, it seems Eurydice is not meant to live happily ever after with Orpheus. She is killed by a snake bite shortly after their wedding. The couple has little time together during life; her death, and its timing, is an extraordinary stroke of bad luck. Orpheus's decision to look back at her once he reaches the surface just moments before she steps into the light, reads as an example of his exuberant impatience to see his love again; but again, the moment is so closely timed, it also reads as another moment of exceptional bad luck. The Greeks do not believe in luck; they believe in fate. These near misses hint at the forces of fate keeping Orpheus and Eurydice apart.

What does the story of Pygmalion and Galatea in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Mythology reveal about the perception of women in classical society?

Pygmalion's story does not present an especially positive view of women in classical society. Pygmalion is an ordinary man, but he is unable to find a woman who embodies the traits he desires in a wife. He eschews real women, even though at least some of the women who are interested in him must be attractive. Pygmalion holds an impossibly high standard that can only be met in his imagination, and he is eventually rewarded for this attitude. In Part 1, Chapter 4, Narcissus is harshly punished for rejecting women who pursue him because he thinks himself too attractive for them. Pygmalion's rejection of women is not based on his own ego so much as his perception of inadequacy in the women around him, which is fine with Venus. The plot puts forth a message that Pygmalion's beliefs are merited and the only way a man can find a truly suitable mate is to form his ideal wife himself. In practice, this belief would reward a man who chooses to shape his partner into the ideal he has in mind rather than accepting and accommodating her flaws.

What do the fates of Daphne and Arethusa reveal about the role of women in classical society in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

The stories of Daphne and Arethusa follow similar arcs. In each story, a woman is pursued by a god who loves her. The god does not relent in his pursuit, despite the woman's rejection of his attentions. Each story ends with the woman issuing a desperate plea to be saved from the god's pursuit, and the woman is transformed from her human body into a natural feature. Daphne becomes a tree after she rejects Apollo. Arethusa becomes a spring after she rejects Alpheus. In both stories, the men refuse to take "no" for an answer and pursue these women even after they have been transformed. The message is that a woman lacks the power and agency to refuse the attentions of a man, particularly a powerful man such as a god. Her only hope of escape is to essentially die and change form completely. The state of nature provides respite from the expectations for her gender in a way human form does not. Even after this transformation, the two gods fail to recognize how they have wronged and intimidated these women. Alpheus, a river-god, continues to pursue Arethusa as a spring. Apollo makes his symbol the laurel tree—which Daphne has turned into. Even if a woman can escape a man's attention, the escape is only partial. He still has the power to pursue his desire, while she has none.

What does the ram with the Golden Fleece symbolize in Part 2, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

The Golden Fleece comes from a ram the gods send to rescue young Phrixus and his sister Helle when their stepmother, Ino, plots their deaths by sacrifice. The ram's appearance marks it as an instrument of divine intervention. The text does not clearly explain whether the fleece is made of actual gold or if it is merely wool golden in color. A fleece made of gold does not exist in nature, and naturally golden wool is vanishingly rare. The ram is also a symbol of innocence. He rescues innocent children from the clutches of evil, and Phrixus deems him sufficiently pure to offer as a sacrifice of gratitude to the gods after the rescue is successful. Later in the story, when Jason embarks on his quest, the Golden Fleece becomes a symbol of its owner's worthiness. Jason must seek the fleece to prove himself worthy to take Pelias's throne, and King Æetes makes Jason prove himself worthy to possess the fleece through a series of difficult tasks. When Jason obtains the fleece, he proves his worth as a hero.

How is hospitality a driving force behind the Quest of the Golden Fleece in Part 2, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Pelias sends Jason on the Quest of the Golden Fleece to get rid of him without having a direct hand in his death. Even though Jason is a threat to Pelias's power, he is also family, so killing him outright could incur the wrath of the gods. It is better for Pelias to present Jason with a quest and allow the events to unfold as they may, but Pelias believes Jason will fail. King Æetes welcomes Jason and the Argonauts into his palace, feeds them, and gives them rest before he learns their purpose. He regrets allowing them into his home, and thinks to himself, "If these strangers had not eaten at my table, I would kill them." The act of sharing a meal with someone creates an unspoken compact between host and guest that prohibits the host from killing his guest, so Æetes, like Pelias, devises an indirect way to eliminate Jason. After Jason accomplishes Æetes's first challenge, Medea tells Jason that her father is planning more obstacles to keep Jason from the fleece. Æetes's plan is to keep throwing Jason into dangerous situations until he is killed and no longer represents a threat. Even though these roundabout ways of attempting to kill Jason keep the letter of the law of hospitality and drive the action of the quest, both Æetes and Pelias are punished for their behavior. Æetes's daughter, Medea, betrays him, and his son is killed, while Pelias's daughters are tricked into killing him.

What elements of Jason's character are less than heroic in Part 2, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Jason's strength and eagerness for adventure mark him as a hero. He overcomes many obstacles to obtain a reward, as heroes do. However, he completes few of the tasks on his quest without considerable assistance, and this assistance is mostly supernatural. He needs help from the prophet Phineus to help his ship get past the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks). He would not be able to complete any of the tasks Æetes asks of him without help from Æetes's daughter, Medea. Jason is strong, but she makes him invincible with the magic ointment she gives him. She tells him exactly how to defeat the army of men who grow from the dragon's teeth. She warns him of Æetes's further treachery, and actually charms the serpents guarding the fleece. Jason is only an instrument in these scenes; Medea is the one driving the action. As a hero, Jason is supposed to return to his homeland and use his gifts to better the lives of his people. Heroes in Greek mythology experience a transformation and share their rewards. Medea is the one who eliminates Pelias by tricking his daughters into killing him. She is the one who avenges Jason's father, though she does this with Jason's blessing. After Pelias is gone, Jason leaves his kingdom to go to Corinth. He offers Medea little gratitude for her service and betrays Medea's loyalty to him, becoming engaged to another woman and abandoning Medea with their two children. Even though Medea retaliates harshly, Jason fails to realize the role his actions play in his own tragedy.

What evidence in Part 2, Chapter 3 of Mythology justifies Medea's gruesome acts of revenge against Jason?

After Jason arrives in Argos, Medea makes most of his victories possible. She makes him invincible and advises him how to defeat her father's trial. She warns him to leave Argos right away after the contest, and charms the serpent guards so that Jason can take the Golden Fleece. She also avenges Jason's father by tricking Pelias's daughters into killing him. She bears him two sons. When Jason becomes engaged to another woman, his ingratitude for the things she has done for him is sufficient to inspire a desire for vengeance. However, Medea has served Jason and has sacrificed much to do so. She has betrayed her father. She has killed her brother to facilitate Jason's escape from Argos. She has moved to an unfamiliar land, and if Jason leaves her to marry another woman, she will lose the sole means of support for herself and her sons. She has few options to ensure her own survival. She cannot return to her own home, and the alternative is to remain in Corinth, living in shame and neglect. Furthermore, she decides that her sons will be better off dead than living as slaves in Corinth, and she isn't wrong. Even before she uses them to murder Jason's fiancée, their options for success would be limited without their father's support. While her actions are cruel, she lacks other alternatives because of the position in which Jason has placed her.

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