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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What does the gods' interference in the Trojan War reveal about their nature in Part 4, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

All the gods of Olympus choose sides in the Trojan War. While Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera have reason to be involved in the conflict (as the war originated with them), the others choose sides based on personal preferences. The gods not only start the war, but they prolong the fighting. Artemis tries to prevent the Greek fleet from sailing to Troy. Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague. Ares joins the fighting on the Trojan side. To the gods, the war is a game and a way for them to settle scores with one another by having their chosen side gain the upper hand. At one point, Menelaus and Paris meet on the battlefield. The Trojans dislike Paris for starting the war, and they are willing to negotiate Helen's return to Menelaus to end the decade-long siege on their city. This is the perfect opportunity to let the two men resolve their differences and end the war, but Hera is not having it. She wants to see Troy annihilated, even though the Trojan citizens have nothing to do with Paris's judgment of Aphrodite as the fairest goddess. Hera sends Athena to inspire a Trojan soldier named Pandarus to shoot an arrow that breaks the tenuous cease-fire and ends the chance to negotiate peace. The gods have no interest in human welfare or suffering, but they are happy to encourage both if it serves their own purposes.

Why does Achilles's treatment of Hector's body bring dishonor upon him in Part 4, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

Greek culture places a high value on proper burial of the dead. In Part 4, Chapter 4, the Trojan soldier Aeneas visits the underworld and sees how the dead who do not receive a proper burial are doomed to wander the riverbank opposite the underworld, never receiving passage across the river or the peace of having a place of eternal rest. To deny a soul such peace is shameful, and it is equally shameful to deny a family the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one. Hector specifically asks Achilles to return his body to his father, Priam, for burial, so Achilles's refusal to respect this last wish is purely vindictive. Achilles is, in modern terms, a sore winner. He has killed Hector in a fair fight, but dragging his naked, dead body behind his chariot makes Achilles seem like a villain, gloating over his victory by humiliating Hector's memory. A hero is supposed to embody honor, but there is no honor in Achilles's actions immediately following Hector's death.

Why are Ajax's final acts in the Trojan War seen as dishonorable in Part 4, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Ajax feels humiliated after Achilles dies and Menelaus and Agamemnon sway the vote among the assembly of Greek soldiers to give Achilles's armor—crafted by the god Hephaestus—to Odysseus rather than to Ajax. Edith Hamilton writes, "such a decision was a very serious matter in those days. It was not only that the man who won was honored; the man who was defeated was held to be dishonored." Ajax is not only upset about losing an extraordinary set of armor, he also feels shamed because the armor represents glory for the man chosen to wear it and dishonor for the man who is not chosen. His reputation has been damaged in this exchange, but had he accepted Menelaus and Agamemnon's decision with dignity and continued to serve as a hero in the war, Ajax might have minimized the damage. Instead, he is overcome by fury and swears vengeance on Agamemnon and Menelaus. Athena, who has favored Odysseus in all matters, strikes Ajax with a madness, causing him to slay the army's cattle, thinking they are Menelaus, Agamemnon, and the commanders. He brings a ram into his tent, thinking it is Odysseus, and beats it to death before the madness leaves him. When Ajax sees what he has done, he believes his reputation is beyond repair. As a practical matter, he has destroyed the army's food supply. As a personal matter, everyone will know he was taken by madness, and his humiliation will be complete. The vote about the armor was out of Ajax's hands, but slaying the cattle is entirely his own action. Ajax kills himself, thinking this the most honorable course of action. Even so, his death also lacks honor, and Ajax is not burned on a pyre as a hero should be. Again, Ajax might have accepted the shame of his actions and attempted to atone for them by continuing to serve nobly on the battlefield. Such atonement is possible for heroes, as the example of Hercules shows in Part 3, Chapter 3. In suicide, Ajax removes any possibility of redemption for his reputation, and compounds his shame further.

Why does the nymph Oenone kill herself after refusing to save Paris's life in Part 4, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Paris lives with, and presumably loves, Oenone before he leaves her to run away with Helen and starts the Trojan War. When he is injured, he asks to be taken to Oenone so she might heal his injury and save his life. It is possible that Paris still has feelings for Oenone, but to her it likely appears he has returned only because he wants something from her. Were Paris not in crisis, he might never have given Oenone another thought, and this compounds the humiliation of his leaving her with the humiliation of his attempting to use her for his own ends. It is possible she fears punishment for allowing a prince of Troy to die, but her suicide also indicates that she still has feelings for Paris and grieves for his death. This combination of humiliation, fear, and grief leads her to the rash action of taking her own life.

If Odysseus and Diomedes successfully climb Troy's wall to steal an image of Athena, why is the Trojan Horse necessary in Part 4, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

In the wake of losing two of their greatest fighters, Achilles and Ajax, the Greek army scrambles for any solution that might allow them to regain the upper hand against the Trojans. Odysseus and Diomedes decide to steal a highly sacred image of Athena, called the Palladium, kept inside Troy's walls, because they have been told the Greeks will be unable to defeat the Trojans as long as they hold this image. This plan seems logically flawed because Athena has favored the Greeks throughout the war, and Odysseus in particular. In Part 4, Chapter 1, Athena actively refuses to answer prayers from Hector's wife, Andromache. Possession of the Palladium does not appear to give the Trojans any advantage with the goddess, but because she is a goddess of Greece, perhaps Odysseus and Diomedes believe that the Trojans' possession of it is a sacrilege for the Trojans. At any rate, when Odysseus and Diomedes scale the city walls and bring back the Palladium, it reads as an inconsistency in the plot once the Trojan Horse is introduced. If Odysseus and Diomedes can scale the walls and bring back a heavy image of a goddess, it raises the question as to why they do not simply scale the walls again and let their fellow soldiers into the city without the ruse of the horse. Such a question assumes that the gates can be operated by two men, which is unlikely. Edith Hamilton does not provide details of the gates' mechanisms, but city gates large enough to allow a giant wooden horse to pass through are sufficiently large to require a team of men to open them. It is probable that Odysseus and Diomedes are the only soldiers in the Greek army strong enough to scale the walls without assistance. However, it is likely that this midnight raid plants the idea of a night raid in Odysseus's head as a way to win the war, and he develops the horse as a means of accomplishing this goal.

How do the men of Odysseus's crew bring danger upon themselves as they journey back to Ithaca in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Odysseus's crew encounters many dangers on their journey to Ithaca from Troy, but no matter how many dangers they face, the men appear to learn nothing from experience. In the land of the Lotus-eaters, the first island they encounter, several men become addicted to eating the lotus flower and have to be dragged away. The second island is home to the Cyclops Polyphemus (Part 1, Chapter 4) who eats many of the men before the crew escape his cave. These experiences should be sufficient to cultivate a healthy sense of caution. Instead, the men's greed cause them to open a bag full of winds, thinking it is a bag of gold. They fail to use logic and consider the source of the bag: Aeolus, the god of winds. The winds rush forth and cause a storm that drives them toward an island inhabited by the gigantic, cannibalistic Laestrygons. While the island seems like a safe respite from the stormy seas, the men sail heedlessly to the harbor, and their ships are destroyed. The experience with the Cyclops might have taught them to use more caution—they know creatures of superhuman size and strength exist on these islands. Certainly, they have endured a hardship at sea that makes them desperate for a safe harbor, but they also created some of this hardship with their thoughtless actions. They fail to exercise caution when they encounter Circe as well. Starved for the company of women, they greet her without thinking, and are transformed into pigs. Odysseus saves his men from Circe, but only because Hermes shows him an herb that makes him impervious to her spells. The remaining men in Odysseus's company are lost when they kill and eat the Sun's cattle. The prophet Teiresias warns them specifically not to do this, but they allow their hunger to overcome caution and wisdom. In these two examples, the men endanger themselves by yielding slavishly to their physical instincts and desires. Survival depends on rising above base instincts, and caution equals behaving in a civilized and thoughtful manner as Odysseus does.

What does the story of Odysseus reveal about the state of Menelaus and Helen's marriage after the Trojan War in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Athena sends Odysseus's son, Telemachus, to consult Menelaus in Sparta for news of Odysseus's whereabouts. The journey allows Telemachus a journey of his own and develops his character as a brave and honorable young man, but it also provides an opportunity for readers to check in on Menelaus and Helen and see what has become of them after her infidelity sparked a 10-year war. Their marriage appears normal when Telemachus visits them, as Helen joins the men shortly after Telemachus arrives. She is not confined to her quarters, nor does she appear to have been punished in any other sense. After Menelaus tells Telemachus what he knows of Odysseus and Calypso, he makes a brief reference to their departure for Troy 10 years earlier. This mention brings tears to Menelaus's eyes along with the other soldiers in the room. Helen also weeps, and Hamilton speculates she is crying for Paris. This is a likely possibility, but Helen also knew Paris's brother, Hector, and his parents, Priam and Hecuba. Helen calls Hector her only friend in Troy when he dies in Part 4, Chapter 1, so it is possible she grieves for him as well as Paris. It is unlikely she cries for any of the Greek soldiers except in a purely abstract sense; there is no evidence she knew any of the slain Greek heroes personally. She may also feel guilt for causing so much death and destruction. At any rate, this moment reveals Helen still feels a bond with Troy and responsibility for what her actions wrought, which means her marriage to Menelaus may appear normal, but it now carries a deep undercurrent of grief.

How does Penelope present an ideal of womanhood in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Penelope's character is flawless. Her age is not specified, but she has a son in his early 20s, so she is well past youth and maidenhood. Yet, she attracts scores of persistent suitors who are drawn by more than her wealth. She has managed her household and her wealth in such a way that it has lasted for 20 years, despite the plague of suitors who consume her stores daily. She has raised a son who shows every sign of being as noble and intelligent as his parents, as evidenced by the goddess Athena's devotion to Telemachus. Penelope is as clever and cunning as her husband, devising a ruse to keep the suitors at bay. A talented weaver, she tells them she must make a burial shroud for Odysseus before she marries, but she undoes her weaving at night so the shroud never makes enough progress to put her in danger of choosing a new husband. She is eventually found out, but the deception holds for a long time. She follows this plan with another stroke of genius, challenging the suitors to string Odysseus's bow and use it, confident no man but Odysseus will be able to do so. In this way, the bow becomes a symbol of a man's worthiness to love a woman as rare as Penelope. Despite her loneliness, she remains emotionally and physically faithful to Odysseus for 20 years—a claim Odysseus himself cannot make in return. Yet, she expresses no anger or jealousy after Odysseus returns from his long absence. When Odysseus returns in disguise and the suitors scorn the beggar in their midst, Penelope shows the poor man kindness, feeding him and calling a servant to wash his feet as a display of acceptance and hospitality. Even after Odysseus defeats the suitors and reveals his identity, she greets him with the reserve and dignity befitting a woman of her stature.

What does Odysseus's return to Ithaca reveal about the importance of treating servants well in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca to reclaim his home and throne, secrecy is important while he develops his plan to rid his home of the suitors. He conceals his identity from Eumaeus the swineherd when he first arrives, but the kind swineherd takes in the man he believes is a beggar because he recognizes the principle of hospitality and knows visitors may be gods or important people in disguise. Eurycleia nursed Odysseus as a baby and recognizes a scar on his foot, made by a wild boar during a childhood hunt, when she washes the beggar's feet at Penelope's urging. She is shocked, but immediately and quietly promises to keep Odysseus's secret. Once his plan is settled, Odysseus reveals his identity to Eumaeus and his cattle keeper, knowing they can be trusted to help him. In many other myths, kings are tyrannical toward their children, their citizens, and their servants to their detriment. For example, Minos of Crete meets his downfall from mistreating his architect Daedalus in Part 2, Chapter 4. Odysseus is a kind and fair ruler, so he inspires loyalty in those close to him. Because he has always been good to Eurycleia and Eumaeus, he knows they will not betray him to the suitors or anyone else. The close relationships Odysseus has cultivated with his servants ensures his success because they remain loyal to him, even after a 20-year absence.

Why is it important for Odysseus to keep his identity a secret when he returns to Ithaca in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

The suitors in his home outnumber Odysseus considerably. Even though they are less clever and skilled than Odysseus, their presence in his home and their abuse of Penelope's hospitality reveal them, as a group, to be ill-mannered and greedy. If they were not intimidating, Telemachus and Penelope could have pushed the suitors out of their home years before. Odysseus has been gone for 20 years, so if he were to burst into his home and declare himself the returned king, there is every chance the suitors would fail to recognize him, declare him a fraud, and kill him. Even if they were to believe that Odysseus is who he claims to be, there is nothing to stop them from killing him—Odysseus would hardly be in a position to prove his true identity once he is dead. The element of surprise is the only advantage Odysseus has over these men until he can get a weapon in hand.

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