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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Discussion Questions 61 - 66


What lessons are visible in the stories presented in Part 6, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

In the 31 brief myths presented in Part 6, Chapter 2, six main lessons emerge: Don't compete with the gods. The gods make poor romantic partners. Loyalty to parents is an important virtue. The gods can be generous. The gods can be ruthless. Love is destructive. Apollo skins Marsyas for challenging him to a musical competition. Athena beats Arachne and drives her to suicide for competing in a weaving contest against her. Zeus strikes Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for impersonating him. It is best to leave the gods alone and be content with what you have. Leto, Clytie, Callisto, Antiope, and Tyro are all either rejected or abandoned by gods they fall in love with, leading to humiliation or death. Only Marpessa chooses a mortal husband over a god because she understands that a god is a less reliable choice. Pelias and Neleus defend their mother Tyro's honor, as does Merope's son, Aepytus. Biton and Cleobis die helping their mother make a pilgrimage to honor Hera. Scylla betrays her father, but he forgives her and rescues her from death anyway. Poseidon rescues Amymone and honors her with a spring. The gods reward Arion by saving his life because his songs are so beautiful. Chiron is relieved from eternal suffering because he is a valuable teacher. Callisto and her son, along with Orion and the Pleiades, are placed among the stars. Linus is memorialized in harvest songs after he dies prematurely. Sisyphus must roll a boulder uphill for all eternity because he witnessed Zeus abducting a young woman. Hera transforms the Myrmidons, men who live on the same island as one of Zeus's lovers, into ants. Dryope loses her family and is turned into a tree for picking flowers. Leander dies trying to swim across a strait during a storm to get to his lover, Hero, who kills herself when she learns Leander is dead. Clytie pines for the Sun god until she turns into a sunflower. Rhoecus is blinded when he improperly reciprocates the affections of a nymph.

Why does Signy decide to die in the burning house with her family in Part 7, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

Signy crafts an elaborate revenge plan when her husband kills her father, Volsung. She conspires with her brother Sigmund and has a child with him, Sinfiotli. When the child is grown, Sigmund and Sinfiotli come to Signy's home, kill her husband and children, and set the house ablaze. Once this is done, Signy goes into the house and dies with her husband. She understands she is tainted with the blood of her husband and children by conspiring against them, so she avenges them by killing herself. Her decision also reveals a strong sense of loyalty to family that is unbreakable and nonnegotiable. She conspires against her husband because of loyalty to her father, but he is still her husband, so she maintains loyalty to him as well. The decision reflects the Norse belief Edith Hamilton discusses in her introduction: that the important element of heroism is the willingness to fight against injustice and evil, even when the fight is futile.

How is love presented as a destructive force in the story of Sigurd in Part 7, Chapter 1 of Mythology?

Love brings no joy to anyone in the story of Sigurd. He and Brynhild are happy together briefly, but when Sigurd swears allegiance to Gunnar, his mother, Griemhild, gives him a potion that makes him forget Brynhild and marry Gunnar's sister Gudrun. Sigurd disguises himself as Gunnar to court Brynhild, and she marries Gunnar. When Brynhild discovers that Sigurd was tricked into marriage to Gudrun and then tricked Brynhild into marriage to Gunnar, she had Gunnar kill Sigurd and kills herself. From this chain of events, everyone ends up brokenhearted and/or dead. Gudrun is paralyzed by her grief for Sigurd, unable to even cry until she sees his face. Gunnar loses Brynhild, whom he loves enough to kill his best friend for her. Brynhild and Sigurd both die. Love is a source of bitter deceptions and crushing grief. The brief happiness each couple experiences is not genuine or lasting, so love is best avoided altogether.

How does Balder's story in Part 7, Chapter 2 of Mythology resemble Achilles's story in Part 4, Chapters 1 and 2?

Balder's mother, Frigga, is desperate to protect her son from harm, just as Thetis wants to protect Achilles. While Thetis dips her son into the River Styx to make him invincible, Frigga takes on a far more daunting task. She obtains an oath from every thing on earth to do Balder no harm. Both women overlook a mundane detail and fail in their ambition to render their sons invincible. Thetis forgets to dip Achilles's heel into the Styx; her hand covers this part of his body while he holds him. Frigga forgets to obtain an oath from the mistletoe plant. Achilles dies of an injury to his heel, while Balder is stabbed through the heart with a mistletoe branch. Both stories illustrate the measures mothers will take to protect their children, but they also illustrate the futility of such efforts. Their goal is noble, but it is not possible to protect a child from everything in the world. The dangers are too numerous, so something is bound to be missed in the effort. It is better to allow children to live, teach them to defend themselves against dangers, and hope for the best.

What do the ash tree Yggdrasil and its accompanying wells symbolize in the Norse myths presented in Part 7, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

Yggdrasil supports the entire universe, which gives the universe a stable core and symbolizes how nature forms this core. The roots of the tree extend through the worlds of man, the gods, and the dead, which symbolizes the unity between these three realms. They only appear separate, but they are connected in a fundamental way and depend on one another. The tree is flanked by two wells. The first is called Urda's Well, and is guarded by the personifications of the Past (Urda), Present (Verdandi), and Future (Skuld). Urda is the Past, so this well symbolizes the memory and understanding of history and its influence on the present and future. The second is the Well of Knowledge, the symbolism of which is evident in the well's name. The proximity of these two wells to Yggdrasil shows how memory and knowledge form part of the core of existence along with the tree that gives the universe its physical structure.

What purpose is served by the promise of another god that will rise after Odin falls in Part 7, Chapter 2 of Mythology?

As Edith Hamilton points out in her "Introduction to Norse Mythology," the Norse tradition is somewhat bleak in its belief that the forces of good are constantly at war with the forces of evil, and someday the forces of evil will triumph. The tree of Yggdrasil will fall, and the universe will collapse with it. The primary function of all the Norse gods—but especially Odin, the All-father—and the Norse heroes is to postpone for as long as possible the day evil triumphs. This day is known as doomsday or Ragnarok. The Norse gods are doomed to be defeated by the Frost Giants and Mountain Giants who are the source of human suffering. Such a pessimistic worldview is not sustainable in the long term, though, because it offers few reasons for resistance or hope anything might improve. This pessimism is tempered with the promise that when Ragnarok comes and Odin falls, a new god will emerge who is stronger than Odin. A new universe of beauty and light will replace this one. While humans may not be able to experience this new and beautiful universe, it is helpful to know that life will continue, and it will continue in a better form.

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