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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What does Odysseus's relationship with his dog in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology reveal about the connection between humans and animals?

When Odysseus enters his home for the first time in 20 years, his cover is almost blown by his old dog, Argos, who recognizes his master right away, even in disguise. The dog wags his tail but lacks the strength to stand and approach his master. Odysseus does not go to the dog for fear of exposing his secret identity, but he sheds a tear of regret. In the same moment Odysseus turns away from Argos, the dog dies. One interpretation of this moment may be that the dog dies of heartbreak from feeling rejected by his old master after such a long wait for his return, but the timing—the dog dies in the same moment Odysseus turns away, not the moment after—indicates a more positive interpretation. Odysseus had Argos before he left for Troy 20 years before, which means the dog has lived far beyond the average lifespan of its species. He is too weak to stand and greet Odysseus, so his health is not good. In light of these facts, Argos has waited all these years for Odysseus to return, and having seen his beloved master he can let go of life at last. The dog represents loyalty and enduring love. He is part of what makes Odysseus's house a home. This small plot point shows the bond pets feel for their owners, and Odysseus's tear of regret indicates a similar bond on his part.

What purpose does Aeneas's encounter with Andromache serve in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

After the Trojan War, Achilles's son Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus) takes Andromache as his prize from the war. It is unclear whether he marries her, but he abandons her to marry Helen's daughter Hermione. He dies shortly after, and Andromache is free to marry the Trojan prophet Helenus. The meeting between Aeneas, Andromache, and Helenus serves a practical purpose—Andromache and Helenus warn Aeneas to land on the west coast of Italy because eastern Italy is full of Greeks. The warning indicates lingering bitterness and hostility between the Trojans and the Greeks, but this message could easily have been delivered by a different source. The meeting provides a tangible connection to the Trojan War, and allows Andromache a much-deserved happy ending, which readers will find satisfying and which will add to Aeneas's legitimacy as a hero of Troy by his association with her courage and perseverance against incredible odds. In Part 4, Chapter 2, Andromache is devastated at the end of the war. Her husband, Hector, is dead, and the Greeks throw her infant son from the city walls as a sacrifice. She becomes a slave to the son of the man who killed Hector, and Neoptolemus killed her father-in-law, Priam, himself. Andromache is a sympathetic character, a virtuous woman who does not deserve the suffering laid upon her, so the Aeneid rewards her with a contented marriage, a peaceful life, and a reunion with old friends.

Why is Dido so undone when Aeneas leaves her in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

The Aeneid portrays Dido as a powerful and independent woman. She is not only the ruler of Carthage; she is the city's founder, a remarkable position for a woman in the ancient world (or the modern one). She alludes to the difficulty of her position and her struggles when she tells Aeneas and his men she is "not ignorant of suffering." In this context, her ability to rule her domain rests on the perception of her strength and honor. If her citizens or the rulers of other cities sense weakness on her part, it could jeopardize her position. From Dido's perspective, she has welcomed Aeneas into her realm, into her home, and offered him resources, assistance, and love; he has abused her hospitality and used her for his own gain. Now he appears to be discarding her when she is no longer useful to him. She is heartbroken, yes, but also humiliated on a level that may adversely affect her ability to lead.

What does Aeneas's journey to the underworld reveal about the importance of a proper burial for the dead in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

The practice of honoring the dead provides closure to living friends and family members and serves as a mark of civilization. Burial rites are an expression of humanity and honor for those conducting the rites as well as those receiving them, but they also serve a practical purpose for the dead. The story of Achilles and Hector in Part 4, Chapter 1 and the story of Antigone in Part 5, Chapter 2 hint at this necessity, but Aeneas's journey to the underworld shows what happens to the souls who do not receive a proper burial. They wander the banks of the rivers that surround the underworld, begging the ferryman, Charon, for passage across. Charon, however, is implacable, and he will not ferry a soul with no money to pay him, part of the rites these souls did not receive on earth. The souls are doomed to an eternity of unrest, always waiting for a release that will never happen, which is presented as worse than any torment waiting in the underworld.

What do Dido's and the Sibyl's contributions to Aeneas's quest reveal about the importance of women to heroes in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

When Aeneas leaves her, Dido rightly points out that Aeneas was starving and helpless when he landed in her kingdom. Without her assistance, his journey would have ended with starvation and defeat, or perhaps death at the hands of a hostile king. Aeneas braves the underworld to gain knowledge about his destiny, but the Sibyl does most of the work to get them there. She makes sacrifices to appease Hecate, the terrible goddess of night. The Sibyl instructs Aeneas to bring the golden bough to pay Charon for passage, and she knows to give Cerberus cake to appease the snarling dog. Aeneas becomes the hero of Rome later, but in these early scenes of his journey he is entirely dependent on the kindness and knowledge these women possess. Women also facilitate the victories of Jason in Part 2, Chapter 3 and Odysseus in Part 4, Chapter 3. Without their contributions to these quests, the hero could not overcome the obstacles in his journey, yet these women do not receive the same glory and credit the heroes do.

What do Anchises's revelations to Aeneas in the underworld reveal about the nature of life and death in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

Anchises shows Aeneas a line of souls in the Elysian Fields, the underworld home of heroes, poets, and other figures who have lived lives of glory on earth. These souls wait to drink from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, so they can forget their past lives and return to the world and live again. Members of this illustrious company are destined to become citizens of Rome, the city Aeneas is destined to establish. This story glorifies Roman civilization and culture, which Edith Hamilton points out as the epic poet Virgil's purpose in composing the Aeneid. The Romans are a great people not only on their own merits but because they have done great things in previous lives and are destined to do great things again. The story also introduces a concept as yet unmentioned in Greek or Roman mythology and generally associated with Hinduism and other Eastern religions: reincarnation. This scene is notable because it introduces the idea that a soul is not destined to spend eternity in the dark and foreboding underworld. Those who live notable and glorious lives will have an opportunity to live again and earn more glory in a new body, a new form. It is a message of hope and an encouragement for living humans to achieve greatness in their lives.

How do the kings presented in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology lay the groundwork for Aeneas to be welcomed as a great leader in Italy?

Three kings become Aeneas's adversaries when he and his people finally arrive in Italy. These adversaries represent undesirable qualities in a leader and set up Aeneas as an appealing alternative. Latinus, the king of the Latins, is not an evil leader. He welcomes Aeneas at first but caves to pressure from his wife and his citizens—spurred on by Hera—to oppose Aeneas. He is cowardly and demonstrates how inaction stemming from fear can be as destructive as premeditated malice. His people are drawn into a war they will lose because Latinus fails to speak up for Aeneas, even though he knows Aeneas is destined to marry his daughter. Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, is self-serving and hostile. He allows his desire to marry Latinus's daughter Lavinia to guide his actions. He draws his people into war because of his greed for power, and eventually meets his own death as a result. He also aligns himself with the worst leader of the three, Mezentius, whom the Etruscans have exiled. Mezentius is sadistic and perverse. He loses favor with his own people because he executes people by binding a living body face-to-face with a dead one, allowing the dead body to slowly poison and kill the living one. He enjoys watching others suffer, and his cruelty—along with his escape from his citizens' justice—spurs the Etruscans to join forces with Aeneas and crush him. The Etruscans recognize right away that Aeneas is a greater leader compared to their former king. Aeneas does not arrive in Italy with the intention of starting a war. He only wants a homeland for his people, the survivors of the Trojan War, and his actions are a defensive response to the hostility of these inferior kings. Aeneas's victory distinguishes him as their opposite and establishes Rome as a just and rational culture, superior to the ones that came before it because Rome's founder is superior to the kings that preceded him.

What lessons are present in the example of the Trojan soldiers Nisus and Euryalus in Part 4, Chapter 4 of Mythology?

Nisus is a seasoned soldier from the Trojan War, while Euryalus is less experienced but enthusiastic. When Turnus launches an offensive against the Trojan refugees while Aeneas seeks reinforcements, these two men decide to try to break through the enemy lines to reach Aeneas and warn him. It is a dangerous mission with little chance of success, but Nisus and Euryalus are willing to make the sacrifice. They meet with early success, killing many enemy soldiers as they sleep. Unfortunately, they take too long getting through the sleeping camp, and Euryalus is captured by Turnus's reinforcements. Nisus comes to Euryalus's aid, hoping to save the younger man by sacrificing himself. The enemy leader kills Euryalus anyway, so Nisus kills the leader before being slain as well. Nisus and Euryalus show the value of taking on a mission in the name of right, even if the mission is likely doomed to fail. Their dedication to their fellow soldiers motivates them to take on an incredible challenge. Even though there are only two of them, and they don't reach Aeneas, they do significantly weaken the enemy forces. Their effort is not in vain. Furthermore, Nisus could have abandoned Euryalus and perhaps completed the mission on his own, but loyalty to the young man is more important. He cannot in good conscience leave Euryalus behind to meet his fate alone. Nisus is a seasoned soldier who has experienced life, and he risks himself to save Euryalus so the younger man might do the same. When both men die, the effort may appear futile, but they die with honor, the attempt to serve right carrying more weight than the outcome of the mission.

What do Athena's actions in Part 4, Chapter 3 of Mythology and Hera's actions in Part 4, Chapter 4 reveal about these goddesses' approach to reward and punishment?

At the beginning of Part 4, Chapter 3, Athena is furious with Odysseus. In sacking Troy, the Greeks have forgotten to honor the gods, inflicted needless cruelty on the people of Troy, and desecrated Athena's temple. Odysseus takes the brunt of Athena's punishment because his plan to infiltrate Troy makes this violence possible, and he does nothing to temper the Greeks' behavior. After Odysseus spends years wandering at sea, Athena decides he has suffered enough and helps him return to Ithaca. Athena sees value in the process of suffering and redemption, and she is prepared to offer rewards to those who atone, either through conscious effort or circumstance. Her justice is tempered with mercy, so she is highly regarded in Greek culture. When she appears in the myths, it is usually as a force for good, and she is honored with the patronage of Greece's most important city, Athens. Hera never releases her grudge against the Trojans. During the war, she is determined to see Troy razed because Paris, a prince of Troy, judges Aphrodite fairer than she. Aeneas has nothing to do with Paris's decision; he may not even be aware of it. Even so, Aeneas is a Trojan who survives and is Aphrodite's son, so Hera decides to punish him. Like Odysseus, Aeneas wanders at sea and suffers through hazards and trials on his journey to Italy, but Hera does not relent. Even when Aeneas reaches the place of his destiny, Hera sparks a war against him. Hera punishes those who are only tangentially related to offenses done to her, and there is no atonement or forgiveness. When she appears in the myths, she is a force of vengeance who inspires chaos. Married women pray to her for assistance, but no cities or major landmarks beyond her own temples are dedicated to her. The contrasting reputations of these two goddesses show how the Greeks value redemption and true justice—the punishment of real wrongs and the redemption that follows—over blind rage and resentment.

What does the story of Pelops in Part 5, Chapter 1 of Mythology reveal about the gods' sense of justice?

Pelops's father, Tantalus, murders him, cooks him, and serves him at a feast for the gods as an expression of his own contempt for the gods. For this unnatural act, Tantalus is condemned to an eternity of suffering in the underworld, and Pelops's sister and descendants bear a curse that brings them generations of misfortune. Pelops, on the other hand, receives no such punishment. The gods restore him to life, and in one version of the story, they restore his shoulder, which may have been eaten accidentally. Poseidon gives him a pair of horses that allow him to win a chariot race and marry a princess named Hippodamia. The marriage is a happy one, but their children do not fare as well as their parents. While the gods punish the man who deserves punishment, the curse on the rest of the family reveals how the gods are less discerning about visiting punishment on innocents. Pelops does not live a blessed life because he is innocent, but because he has already endured suffering and punishment at his father's hands.

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