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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Motifs



Hospitality is a key part of Greek culture that shapes the stories in interesting ways. In the stories of Jason, Theseus, and others, heroes are often sent on impossible quests because kings are loath to kill men after showing them the hospitality of their dinner table. One of Hercules's friends is so concerned with showing Hercules hospitality that he lies about the death of his own wife because he doesn't want to make Hercules uncomfortable. In the myth of Baucis and Philemon, Zeus and Hermes reward a poor elderly couple for their hospitality, while demolishing the rest of the homes in the city that offered the gods no comfort.

Honoring the Dead

The gods punish those who fail to provide comfort to visitors, but they also punish those who desecrate the dead. During the Trojan War, Achilles offends gods and men mightily when he drags Hector's dead body behind his chariot. Achilles does not face direct retribution for this act, possibly because he sees the error of his ways. When Achilles gives the body back, the fighting stops for nine days so that Hector can be mourned. Even though the Trojan Horse proves that the Greeks are not above using trickery to win, the mourning period is too serious to be broken. In another instance, Theseus takes Athens to war against Thebes to ensure the dead from a war Athens didn't even take part in are given a proper burial. These rituals reflect a devotion to a law that transcends personal interests.

The Arts

The arts—music, poetry, drama—figure in many of the myths, showing the importance of these elements in Greek culture. Artists hold prominence in the myths, and the nine Muses are a designated group of minor goddesses who serve as patrons for specific areas of the arts. Poets hold special reverence in many myths, which makes sense because these myths were preserved in the work of living poets. For example, when Odysseus rids his home of the suitors who pursue his wife while he is away at war, he kills the suitors' priest without regret, but he allows their bard or poet-singer to live. He fears that killing a poet may anger the gods. In a minor myth, the poet Arion escapes from pirates by using his song to summon dolphins who rescue him. The musician Orpheus uses his musical talents to achieve the status of a hero, providing encouragement to the Argonauts in the Quest of the Golden Fleece and moving Hades himself to release Orpheus's dead wife.


Wine is an integral part of life in ancient Greece. It is present at every meal, and often appears in celebration scenes or consumed in casual social situations. Myths are also filled with tales of men and women driven to madness by wine, leading them to commit acts of terrible destruction. Maenads—the women who follow Dionysus, god of wine—are a good example of wine's dual nature. On one hand, the Maenads' devotion to Dionysus and wine gives them meaningful lives. On the other hand, they often tear men limb from limb simply because they happen to be nearby.

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