Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 51 - 60


What evidence appears in Part 5, Chapter 1 of Mythology to support designating Agamemnon's son, Orestes, a hero?

Orestes is faced with an impossible decision. He is bound by honor to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon; however, to do so requires him to commit the dishonorable act of killing his own mother, Clytemnestra. Like many heroes, he grows to manhood away from his family, but he is aware of the curse on his family. He is aware that his actions have the capacity to break the curse and free future generations from additional misery. His heroism comes from the self-sacrifice he exhibits in choosing a difficult path. He goes through with killing his mother, completing the cycle of wrongdoing and vengeance that has plagued his family: Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon to avenge her daughter Iphigenia. Orestes kills Clytemnestra to avenge Agamemnon. There is no one left to avenge. Orestes is tormented with visions of women in black with hair like snakes—the Furies who pursue him—and he leaves his home country to wander the earth in search of solace but does not find it. After many years, he goes to Athens, where Apollo attempts to take the blame for Orestes's actions before Athena. Orestes takes responsibility and convinces the Furies to forgive him. The Furies become "the Eumenides, protectors of the suppliant." Orestes's suffering and atonement gives his family the gift of release from their curse and paves the way for all humanity to find absolution for their wrongs, making his act of sacrifice one of heroism.

In Part 5, Chapter 2 of Mythology, how does the Sphinx's riddle connect to Oedipus's own life?

The Sphinx's riddle reads as follows: "What creature ... goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday, on three in the evening?" Oedipus responds, "Man ... In childhood he creeps on hands and feet; in manhood he walks erect; in old age he helps himself with a staff." When Oedipus answers the Sphinx's riddle correctly, she kills herself, but the riddle reflects how Oedipus's own story spans all stages of his life and how the events of each stage connect to one another. The stories of other heroes tend to focus primarily on adulthood, or midday. His troubles begin in childhood, when he "creeps on hands and feet." They peak with the revelations about his identity in adulthood, "when he walks erect." The third part of the riddle hints that despite the shame and suffering of killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus will live to old age, and he does. Even though he stoops under the burden of his memories and the knowledge of what he has done, Oedipus finds some peace in his later years.

What does the story of Oedipus indicate about the gods' sense of justice in Part 5, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Oedipus is part of the Royal House of Thebes, a family not directly cursed by the gods but one that endures substantial suffering. Apollo figures prominently in Oedipus's story, but it is not clear if he simply announces the truths that will come to pass through his oracle or if Apollo's act of speaking these events makes them true. He has no reason to bear ill toward Oedipus, so the former theory indicates he is only revealing truths the Fates have already designated. As happens in so many cases in the myths, Oedipus suffers mightily for obscure reasons. His father, Laius, hears the prophecy that his son is destined to kill him, and his decision to send Oedipus away paves the way for the killing to happen. Oedipus is punished for killing his father by the revelation he has unwittingly married his mother, Jocasta. It does not matter that Oedipus suffers this punishment for fulfilling a destiny he could not control. He is later punished with exile from Thebes for the sin of incest, another action Oedipus could not control because he did not know. Culpability for actions rests solely in the actions themselves. The gods do not consider causes, motives, or accidents when they mete out justice.

Why does Antigone deserve to be designated a hero based on her actions in Part 5, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Heroes are characterized by a willingness to make sacrifices to serve a greater good, either for their country, their family, or for humanity. Antigone's entire life is about sacrifice for the good of others, a typical cultural expectation for women in general in ancient Greece. Antigone plays the role of dutiful daughter by following her father, Oedipus, when he is exiled from Thebes. Her journey represents a quest of sorts, with the reward being her father's eventual redemption in Athens and honorable death surrounded by friends and loved ones. Her sacrifice is somewhat more than most children take on when caring for an aged parent, as it includes dangerous travel and accepting her father's shame, but when she stands up for her brother's right to burial rites, she goes beyond typical sacrifice and moves into heroic sacrifice. She believes so strongly in the higher law of nature and humanity, she is willing to face death to honor her brother. She shows the necessity of standing up to those in power when those in power endorse laws and actions that are inherently immoral. She is put to death, but she is rewarded with the knowledge that she has done the right thing and that her brother's soul is at peace.

What do Creon's actions as regent of Thebes in Part 5, Chapter 2 of Mythology reveal about his leadership and humanity?

When Creon first appears, he only delivers the message that Apollo has cursed Thebes with a plague for giving shelter to Laius's killer, who turns out to be Oedipus. Apollo's proclamation forbids anyone in Thebes from sheltering the guilty party—still Oedipus—but Creon and the people of Thebes allow Oedipus to remain in the city for many years, feeling sympathy for the family's terrible situation. They understand that Oedipus's sins result from incomplete knowledge and terrible twists of fate. Creon urges Oedipus's exile much later. His reasons are unclear and difficult to evaluate, but the sudden and unexplained change of heart seems cruel. Oedipus is an old, blind man when he is exiled. He would be helpless in the outside world without Antigone's assistance. When Polyneices leads a rebellion against his brother and Creon, Creon's weakness as a leader becomes more apparent. Creon is willing to die to save Thebes but refuses to allow his son Menoeceus to be sacrificed. This decision reflects the general distaste for human sacrifice present in the myths, but Creon places the good of his family above the good of his people. Creon then immediately leaves Menoeceus alone, giving the boy an opportunity to escape to the battle, where he dies. Creon's actions in this instance are not inhumane, but they are short-sighted for a man in an important leadership position. Creon's greatest display of inhumanity comes with his declaration after the rebellion ends. He decides none of the soldiers involved in the rebellion can receive burial rites. While these men are guilty of treason toward Thebes, the decision violates cultural expectations and the gods' laws. Creon is willing to put his people through another war, this time with Athens, to uphold a deeply flawed principle. Again, he displays shortsightedness because his refusal to allow these men a proper burial or cremation angers their sons and incites them to terrible revenge 10 years later. Thebes is destroyed because of Creon's inflexible and unjust declaration.

What does the anecdote about the people voting for Athena as Athens's sponsor over Poseidon reveal about cultural attitudes toward women in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Athens prides itself as the birthplace of Western democracy, and the story about the vote for Athens's sponsor reveals that the democracy is a direct one. Each citizen votes on issues instead of electing representatives to vote on issues for them. This myth explains why women are prohibited from voting, providing a divine explanation for a cultural practice. The myth covers a cultural prejudice by showing how women once could participate in democratic elections, but they are barred from participation after a woman's vote tilts the outcome and incurs Poseidon's wrath. Women voted "wrong," so they can no longer be trusted with the power of a voice in democracy, a position that reads as hypocritical by modern standards. The women and a god's rage are blamed for a natural phenomenon, providing a convenient way to limit the rights of half the population. Ironically, women are prohibited from wielding power in a city named after, and sponsored by, a goddess.

What does the story of Procne and Philomela demonstrate about the power men exercise over women in Greek culture in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

Following the story of how women lost their voice in Athenian democracy is a story about a woman who literally loses her voice to an abusive man. Procne's husband, Tereus, tricks her sister Philomela into a sham marriage by telling Philomela her sister is dead. When Philomela discovers the truth, Tereus cuts out her tongue and imprisons her. Edith Hamilton points out that these events transpire before written language becomes common, so Philomela truly has no voice with which to communicate her plight. Because of his superior strength and apparent cunning, Tereus is poised to get away with deceiving both sisters to satisfy his own desires. Philomela is saved by her talent at a uniquely feminine pursuit: weaving. It is appropriate she regains her power to communicate through an activity exclusive to women, because it shows how women have power they don't always recognize until they need it. The choice to weave her story into the images of a tapestry also demonstrates the power of art and creative expression to change the course of a life.

What does the story of Cephalus and Procris teach about the nature of love and fidelity in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Mythology?

The story of Cephalus and Procris echoes the primary message of the story of Cupid and Psyche in Part 2, Chapter 1: "Love cannot live where there is no trust." The jealous Aurora, bitter at having to release Cephalus because he only loves his wife, Procris, sows seeds of jealousy in Cephalus's heart that nearly costs him the love of his life. He returns home to Procris, suspicious of her activities in his absence, and attempts to trick her into confirming his suspicions. These suspicions are unfounded, which shows a fundamental lack of trust on Cephalus's part. He sees her grieving his absence, which should provide sufficient proof of her fidelity, but he goes through with his plan to test her faithfulness anyway. When he finally accuses Procris of being unfaithful (because she wavers momentarily in the face of his attempts to seduce her while disguised as another man), he accuses her of betraying him. Cephalus exposes his lack of trust and destroys Procris's trust in him in one fell swoop. She leaves him, and it appears their love is dead. Cephalus realizes his grave mistake and goes to find his wife. When he begs her forgiveness, she does not take him back right away. Rebuilding trust and the love that goes with it takes time and effort. Over time, Cephalus wins Procris's heart again, which shows it is possible to repair a broken love.

How does Creüsa's experience in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Mythology demonstrate the injustice inherent in being a woman in the ancient world?

Creüsa is subjected to years of misery rooted in her lack of power. She is powerless to refuse the attentions of the god Apollo. He ignores her screams, abducts her, and carries her away to a cave where he rapes her. She is a mortal and he is a god; thus, she lacks the strength to resist him. After she learns she is pregnant, she has new problems to contend with. Apollo has abandoned her, so she has no one to defend her against the deep shame of being pregnant out of wedlock. She has no way of even confirming that the baby's father is a god even if this were an acceptable excuse, which, Edith Hamilton points out, it is not. More than Creüsa's reputation is in danger if her pregnancy is discovered; she could be killed for her perceived lack of virtue. She has no choice but to hide the pregnancy, abandon the baby in Apollo's cave, and live with the guilt. When Creüsa marries, she is given to an ally of her father's, Xuthus. She has no say over whom she marries. Xuthus is not an Athenian, so society does not judge her harshly for failing to bear him a child, but Xuthus does. When Apollo gives Ion to Xuthus as his son, Creüsa is indignant at first. Again, a choice has been foisted upon her, and she believes she will be forced to raise a child of unknown parentage. She has no power to refuse Apollo's edict, but she resents it deeply until she discovers that Ion is the baby she was forced to abandon. If Ion weren't her child, though, she would still have to raise him because she has been ordered to do so. Cultural and social standards allow Creüsa no true agency in her own life.

What do the stories in Part 6, Chapter 1 of Mythology teach about human weakness and the nature of reward and punishment?

In five of the six stories in Part 6, Chapter 1, the main characters are punished for failure to conform to expectations set forth either by society or by the gods. Midas is a foolish man, but Apollo punishes him by giving him a set of donkey ears because he judges in Pan's favor when Pan and Apollo have a musical contest. Midas means no harm in his judgment; he just doesn't know anything about music and is unqualified to judge such a contest. Apollo punishes him anyway. Zeus punishes Aesculapius for his intelligence, which leads Aesculapius to raise a man from the dead, a grave offense to the gods' powers. Aesculapius means only to do good, but he disregards the limitations and expectations of the gods and finds himself punished for it. Ceres strikes Erysichthon with famine for the accident of cutting down a sacred oak tree, not caring about his motives. He fails to even attempt to make amends to the goddess, so he starves to death. The Danaïds and Scylla are punished for refusing to conform to the social convention of marriage. The Danaïds kill the men they are slated to marry, which makes their punishment of carrying water in leaky jars for eternity appropriate. Scylla only refuses the attention of a sea-god, Glaucus, but Circe turns Scylla into a monster for rejecting him because Circe wants Glaucus for herself. Circe faces no punishment for illogical behavior. Only Pomona receives a reward in these stories. She marries Vertumnus, a man who combines "such beauty joined to such eloquence." She conforms to the social expectation that she marry, and in return she gets a good husband and a happy marriage. However, Vertumnus's eloquence includes a speech in which he cautions her with the example of another woman who faced severe punishment for refusing a suitor, so the fear of nonconformity ultimately spurs Pomona's decision to marry.

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