Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What lesson is present in each of the "Four Great Adventures" presented in Part 2, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

Hubris, overconfidence without basis in reality, leads to tragic consequences for the primary characters in each adventure in Part 2, Chapter 4. Despite repeated warnings from his father, Helios, the Sun god, Phaëthon believes he can somehow do what other gods and mortals cannot: drive the Sun's chariot across the sky. He refuses to listen to reason and fails spectacularly, dying after he loses control of the chariot and nearly destroying the earth. Bellerophon has years of successful adventures and quests with Pegasus's assistance. Encouraged by these years of success, he decides he can use Pegasus to enter Mount Olympus. However, the horse recognizes Bellerophon's folly and abandons him, leaving him to a life of isolation and failure. Daedalus loses his only son, Icarus, when the boy fails to heed his father's warnings about flying too high and destroying the wings that enable their escape from the Labyrinth. Otus and Ephialtes slay each other after years of challenging the gods, tricked into shooting arrows at one another when they decide to kidnap Artemis. While it is fine to strive for greatness, each of these examples cautions against attempting to break the laws of the gods and nature. No good can come of such unrealistic expectations.

What do the portrayals of the Gray Women and the Gorgons, contrasted with those of Andromeda and Danaë, demonstrate about women's roles in Part 3, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

In the simplest terms, physical beauty reflects a woman's moral value in the myth of Perseus. The Gray Women are not presented as evil or destructive, but they are threatening. They are hunched, stooped, and old with bird wings. They will not help Perseus without the threat of losing the eye the three of them share. The Gorgons are much uglier than the Gray Women, and proportionately more threatening. The Gorgons' ugliness is their weapon and the source of their evil, as they turn people to stone by simply looking at them. In contrast, Andromeda and Danaë are both beautiful women, worthy of rescue and rewards because they are young "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with their husbands' ideals, in contrast to the older women whose opinions are threatening. Danaë's beauty is sufficient to attract Zeus's attention. While she suffers somewhat from her father's attempts to keep her from bearing the son that will kill him, she is repeatedly rescued from peril. Perseus rescues and marries Andromeda based on her beauty when he comes across her during his travels. Only Andromeda's mother, Cassiopeia, shows moral failing in tandem with great beauty. Her ego leads her to boast about her beauty, which endangers Andromeda's life. Still, even Cassiopeia is not evil or threatening in the way the Gray Women and the Gorgons are. She is careless and disrespectful to the gods, but shows no evidence of malice.

What does the gods' allocation of rewards and punishments in the story of Perseus in Part 3, Chapter 1 of Mythology reveal about the nature of justice?

Justice is relatively consistent in Perseus's adventure compared with the haphazard distribution of justice in many other myths. Those who are good prosper, and those who do evil ultimately suffer. However, justice is not swift for anyone in the story. Danaë does nothing wrong except have an affair with Zeus, after her father, King Acrisius of Argos, imprisons her in an underground room only Zeus can access. She has no choice about being imprisoned, and mortal women are not generally in a position to refuse the affections of a god. Danaë is rewarded by being rescued by her father when he sets her adrift at sea, and she has a peaceful life as she raises Perseus. Acrisius does not suffer extensively for his actions, but he is killed in the way fate has mandated for him when Perseus accidentally strikes him with a discus during an athletic contest. The tyrant Polydectes tries to kill Perseus by tricking him into volunteering to go after Medusa. His comeuppance is delayed as Perseus completes his quest, but Polydectes brings death upon himself when Perseus uses the Gorgon's head to turn Polydectes to stone. Polydectes's humble brother, the fisherman Dictys, becomes king, his reward for years of quiet goodness and his assistance to Danae and Perseus.

While Theseus is a noble and intelligent hero, how are the acts of his later life a display of human frailty in Part 3, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Theseus has a reputation for his even-handed justice and rational thinking. After his early heroics, Theseus engages in an ill-advised adventure to the underworld with his friend Pirithoüs, who has decided to steal Persephone away from Hades. The two men end up on the Chair of Forgetfulness in the underworld, their minds blank of all memory. Hercules rescues Theseus from this predicament, but Theseus's intelligence and wisdom should have kept him from the situation in the first place. Theseus's frailty becomes much clearer when he marries Phaedra and creates a rift with his son, Hippolytus. Even though Phaedra pursues an affair with Hippolytus in Theseus's own home, Theseus never notices the attention his wife directs toward his son. He is away from home when she reaches the peak of her anguish and resolves to kill herself, so perhaps he can be forgiven for believing the note she leaves behind, accusing Hippolytus of laying "violent hands upon" Phaedra. Theseus, usually wise in the face of conflict, weighing the evidence and willing to consider all angles before meting out justice, casts Hippolytus out of his home immediately. He takes Phaedra's death as proof of the accuracy of her words, a decision lacking logical sense. Only Artemis's intervention reveals to Theseus the truth of Phaedra's death and his son's innocence.

How does Hippolytus, Theseus's son, resemble his parents in Part 3, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Hippolytus rejects the company of all women. He has no desire to interact with them and pays them no notice, preferring the pleasures of the hunt. In this sense, he resembles his mother, Antiope or Hippolyta (the name varies in different versions of the story), an Amazon. The Amazons famously reject the company of men, preferring to build their strength and skill for warfare. When Theseus's wife, Phaedra, expresses an interest in Hippolytus, he rejects her partly because he lacks any interest in women, but also because she is his father's wife. He has a strong sense of integrity and loyalty to his loved ones, as does Theseus. He is disgusted by the prospect of betraying his father and says, "I feel polluted by merely hearing such words." When Theseus accuses him of causing Phaedra's death, Hippolytus protests his innocence, but he also accepts his exile with dignity, another of his father's signature traits.

What does Hercules's story reveal about the nature of reward and punishment in Part 3, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Hercules suffers because Hera hates him for being the product of one of Zeus's affairs. Zeus seduces Hercules's mother, Alcmena, in the guise of her husband, Amphitryon. Amphitryon raises Hercules as his own son, so there is little evidence he or Alcmena are aware that Hercules is Zeus's child. Only Hera and Zeus know the truth, but this is sufficient reason for Hera to vent her rage on Hercules. Even when he is an innocent child, she sends snakes to kill him and his brother Iphicles. Later, Hera inflicts the wound that will define the rest of Hercules's life. She drives him into a madness that ends with his killing his wife, Megara, and their three children. Megara has done Hera no wrong. She and the children are removed from Zeus—the deserving target of Hera's anger—by two degrees of separation. They are collateral damage in Hera's war against Hercules. Yet, Hera gives little thought to the killing of innocents if they are in the way of her pursuit of personal justice. Hercules has a narrow and skewed definition of justice, as well. Even though Theseus absolves Hercules for killing his family, Hercules feels compelled to do a lengthy penance involving 12 labors. The penance is not sufficient for Hercules, and he spends the rest of his life making amends for Megara and his children. At the same time, Hercules kills several innocent bystanders by accident—not knowing his own strength—and feels little remorse about these deaths, even though he is in his right mind at the time. Hercules even goes to war with King Eurytus because he objects to the penance he had to do for killing Eurytus's son. He seems content to suffer for killing people he cares about, but he does not understand the need for justice, nor is he punished consistently, for the other deaths he brings about by accident. Hercules's traits of strength, beauty, power, and eternal youth do not support the development of empathy for the sufferings of others as comparable to his own sufferings, nor do they support the compassion needed to express that humility.

What do the women in Hercules's story in Part 3, Chapter 3 of Mythology demonstrate about the roles of women in ancient Greek culture?

Women play a secondary role in Hercules's life, but they tend to be a source of trouble for him, either intentionally or unintentionally. Alcmena does not know she has had an affair with Zeus when Hercules is conceived because Zeus comes to her disguised as her husband, Amphitryon. However, this affair causes Hercules a lifetime of trouble because it incurs Hera's wrath. Alcmena's history shows that women are subject to the whims and desires of men (or gods) more powerful than themselves. Hera's rage at Hercules is misdirected, because Zeus is the one who has wronged her. Hera is a powerful goddess, but she is not powerful enough to seek direct revenge against her husband, the king of the gods. Her best alternative is to avenge herself on those Zeus cares for, the children of his illicit unions. Her example paints women as petty, vengeful, and bitter. Hercules loves his wife, Megara, and the couple have a happy marriage. She only troubles him after he kills her in a fit of insanity because he carries the guilt for the rest of his life. Megara, like Alcmena, paints women as subject to the whims and dangers of strong men and gods. Omphale is a queen who takes Hercules as a servant while he does penance for killing the son of King Eurytus. She often forces Hercules to dress as a woman for her own amusement, which shows women with power will abuse it, just as powerful men do. Hercules's humiliation at being dressed as a woman causes him to declare war on Eurytus, which indicates that he believes association with femininity makes him a lesser man. Hercules's second wife, Deianira, plots against him and attempts to kill him when she thinks he is in love with a slave from the war with Eurytus. She has only the word of a messenger as evidence that Hercules is in love with the other woman. Like Hera's retaliation against Zeus, Deianira's revenge toward Hercules paints her as petty, but her lack of evidence also presents an image of women as irrational and inherently suspicious.

How does Atalanta's marriage at the end of Part 3, Chapter 4 of Mythology reflect the expectations for women in Greek society?

Atalanta avoids marriage for many years, pursuing the life of a hero, hunting in the forests and engaging in quests. When suitors come to seek her hand, she declares she will only marry a man who can beat her in a foot race, knowing no man can outrun her. Melanion tricks her into losing the race when they run, using golden apples as a distraction. Melanion's use of trickery to win Atalanta's hand shows how even a woman as powerful and strong as Atalanta has little agency in choosing her husband, even when she thinks she does. Atalanta's attraction to Melanion or her interest in him are immaterial once he wins the race. Atalanta's marriage also shows how strong the expectation to marry truly is. As many great feats as Atalanta has accomplished, she is expected to conform to the social contract requiring her to settle down and have children. This is not a negotiable option, even for heroines.

How do the events leading to the Trojan War present a negative view of women in Part 4, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

Women and goddesses are the primary causes of the Trojan War. The goddess of discord, Eris, instigates the conflict by throwing a golden apple marked "For the fairest" into the wedding feast of Achilles's parents Thetis and a mortal king, which sparks an intense competition among the female guests. Eris plays this trick because she is offended at being excluded from the feast, which reveals her as a petty and thin-skinned figure who can be compared to the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty. The three finalists for the apple are the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. They ask Paris, a prince of Troy, to choose the winner, and each offers him a reward for choosing her. He picks Aphrodite because she promises him the most beautiful woman in the world. The jealousy and competition between the three goddesses paints women as disloyal to one another and willing to go to great lengths to serve their vanity. Aphrodite promises Paris a married woman, Helen, who is faithless enough to leave her husband for him. Neither the goddesses nor Helen feel remorse at starting a war to serve their egos and selfish desires.

How does Achilles's relationship with his mother, Thetis, threaten his status as a hero in Part 4, Chapters 1 and 2 of Mythology?

Thetis is extremely protective of her son. Even though she dips him in the River Styx as an infant to protect him from harm, she has heard a prophecy that he will be killed in war, so she does not want him to fight with the Greek army in Troy. Achilles assents to his mother's wishes. He lets her disguise him as a woman and send him to the court of King Lycomedes. Achilles's desire to join the fighting becomes apparent when he falls for the lure of Odysseus's weapons. Hercules in Part 3, Chapter 3 finds being dressed as a woman so humiliating that he declares war on a man only marginally related to this circumstance, so Achilles can't be happy about being disguised as a woman, yet he clearly lacks the fortitude or desire to defy his mother. Had her efforts been successful, Achilles would not have become the great hero of the Trojan War. When Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel in Troy over their respective female servants, Thetis comes to Achilles and encourages him to stay out of the battle. She appeals to his ego, telling him the Greek army is not worthy of his efforts. Her true purpose is to keep him away from the fighting and his fate. Her actions cause him to abandon his countrymen when they need him, which leads to the death of Achilles's friend Patroclus. Patroclus's death leads Achilles to kill Hector and desecrate his body. This action, along with his prolonged absence from the battle, taints his reputation as a hero. Achilles dies in Troy, as his fate dictates, so his mother's efforts serve little purpose except to embarrass him and tarnish his full glory.

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