Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Gods | Summary

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Summary

The Titans and the Twelve Great Olympians

The Titans were the first gods, sometimes called the Elder Gods, notable for their enormous size and strength. Cronus and his wife, Rhea, are the parents of the first Olympian gods, but other notable Titans include Ocean, the river that circles the earth; Mnemosyne, or memory; Atlas, who holds the world on his shoulders; and Prometheus, who brings gifts to mankind.

The 12 Olympians succeed the Titans and make their home on Mount Olympus. While Olympus is the highest peak in Greece, the myths make clear that the Olympus of the gods is something more transcendent, encompassing the sky, the sea, and the underworld. Zeus is the king of the Olympians, joined by his brothers Poseidon and Hades and his sisters Hestia and Hera. Hera is also Zeus's wife. The children of these gods round out the Olympian family and include Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus. Each god is assigned an area of specialty, representing an important part of Greek life.

The Lesser Gods of Olympus

Other gods and goddesses also live on Mount Olympus, including Eros, the god of love, Hebe, the goddess of youth, and Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. The three Graces, incarnations of happiness and beauty, live on Olympus, as do the nine Muses. Each Muse has a specialty in the arts or sciences and serves as inspiration for studies or creations in these areas. Olympus houses the personages of other important concepts, including Themis (divine justice), and Dike (human justice).

The Gods of the Waters

Poseidon rules over the sea, but the waters are also home to a multitude of lesser sea-gods such as Pontus, the deep sea, and Proteus, a god who can change shape at will. The waters are also filled with nymphs, and each river has an affiliated god as well.

The Underworld

Hades rules over the land of the dead, which is often referred to by the same name as its king, Hades. Different writers provide different accounts of the underworld, sometimes dividing Hades into two parts, Tartarus and Erebus; this structure is reflected in Dante's Inferno as well. Erebus is the area where the dead go as soon as they die, and Tartarus is the deepest pit, which serves as a prison. Heroes and people who do good go to a paradise called the Elysian Fields. Some accounts provide no distinction between different parts of the underworld. The underworld is surrounded by Acheron, the river of woe; Cocytus, the river of lamentation; Phlegethon, the river of fire; Styx, the river of unbreakable oath; and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Charon ferries the souls of the dead across the rivers to Hades proper, but he will only accept passengers who can pay him. Once across the rivers, the dead must pass the three-headed guard dog Cerberus and face Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus, kings in life who now judge the dead. The Erinyes, or Furies, punish evildoers both in the underworld and on earth.

The Lesser Gods of Earth

Earth is the mother of all, but the earth is also populated by a number of minor deities. Pan is part goat and part man, and he protects wild places and shepherds. Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Leda and the offspring of Zeus's seduction of Leda in the form of a swan, are deities who protect sailors. Their sisters are Helen of Troy and the hero Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. Aeolus is the king of winds, but each of the four winds is also a god: Boreas, the North Wind; Zephyr, the West Wind; Notus, the South Wind; Eurus, the East Wind.

Other immortals that inhabit the earth include Satyrs (half-man and half-goat creatures like Pan), Centaurs (half man, half horse), and the Gorgons, dragon-like creatures who can turn men to stone with one look. The three Fates also dwell on earth: Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis assigns destiny; Atropos cuts the thread at death.

The Roman Gods

The Romans adopted many of the Greek mythological concepts. The Romans call the gods and heroes by different names, but most of the stories overlap.

The Romans also have gods of their own. The Numina are powers that have control over various parts of daily life and the household. The Lares are ancestral spirits who protect and defend each household with the Penates, who guard the hearth and family storehouses. Manes are the spirits of the good dead who are worshiped, and Lemures or Larvae are the evil dead who inspire fear. Camenae are practical goddesses who guard water sources and treat disease—they are later associated with the Greek Muses.

Analysis

The Titans and the Twelve Great Olympians

The introduction of the Titans and Olympians in this chapter includes a list of these gods and their domains. The creation story in Part 1, Chapter 2 provides more insight about the relationship between the Titans and Olympians, which is generally contentious. The Titans, who remain active in myths after the Olympians take over the world, tend to be associated with natural elements and phenomena, such as Ocean providing the boundaries of the world and Atlas holding the world on his shoulders.

The Olympians rule over an assortment of lesser gods who provide essential functions, but the focus on the Olympians provides a snapshot of the principles and phenomena most important to the Greeks. Zeus, who rules over thunder and lightning, is positioned as the king of the gods, which indicates the extent to which the Greeks felt themselves at the mercy of the forces of weather. A modern news report about the destruction wreaked by a hurricane or blizzard indicates how little has changed over the centuries; weather patterns have a fundamental influence on human life and one over which people have no power. The other two central gods are affiliated with similarly uncontrollable natural phenomena: Poseidon rules the sea and Hades rules death. As a seafaring people, the Greeks saw the seas as central to commerce and travel. Death is, of course, universal.

The other Olympian gods and goddesses also reflect fundamental elements of human existence. Zeus's sister Hera represents marriage, and his other sister Hestia represents the home. These are foundations of an organized society. Apollo is affiliated with light and truth. Hunting was more central to ancient life than it is today, so Artemis is represented as the goddess of the hunt, but she is also affiliated with the universal values of youth and innocence. Hermes is associated with trade and travel—and the thievery that accompanies both these enterprises. Athena represents the values of wisdom and reason. Aphrodite represents the most influential of human emotions, love, and it is no accident that her lover Ares is the god of war. The bulk of human history is driven by love and battle. Hephaestus is the god of smiths, another trade specific to early cultures, but his presence among the central deities speaks to the human drive to make items that are both useful and practical.

The Lesser Gods of Olympus

The lesser gods of Olympus further illustrate classical values. The presence of Eros, for example, assigns a second deity to the most important of human emotions. Like the other lesser gods, Eros seems to take a much more active role with humans than his mother, Aphrodite. Aphrodite may inspire love, but in most myths, she needs Eros and his arrows to carry out this inspiration. The Muses and the Graces provide other examples of how these lesser gods have a direct impact on human lives. The Graces create human joy, while the Muses directly influence human creativity.

The Gods of the Waters

Water is essential to human life, and Greece remains a country whose fortunes are closely tied to the sea. Islands make up much of the geography of Greece, and the mainland contains many rivers, bays, and inlets. Fishing and trade remain part of the Greek economy, as has been the case for thousands of years. Poseidon is second only to Zeus in importance among the Olympians, but water is sufficiently important to require an entire sub-pantheon of lesser sea-gods, river-gods, and water nymphs.

The Underworld

Most mythologies and religions of the world have, at their center, an elaborate concept of what happens to the human body and soul after it dies. Most also incorporate descriptions of elaborate rituals and customs associated with the burials of the dead. The underworld in classical mythology presents a detailed realization of the realm spirits enter after the body dies, complete with a long and dangerous journey to this realm, a judgment of each person's actions in life, and an ultimate assignment to an eternity of bliss in the Elysian Fields or an eternity of punishment in Hades. Later myths emphasize the importance of a proper burial on earth to facilitate the soul's journey to the underworld, including supplying coins to pay the ferryman. Without these rituals, souls wander in oblivion.

The Lesser Gods of Earth

In Greek mythology, the earth is populated with a variety of monsters and threatening creatures with the capacity to upend human life. Centaurs and Satyrs represent sexual desire and urges run amok, sometimes to the point of violence. These creatures show the importance of self-control and the dangers inherent in losing this control. Gorgons are grotesque to the point of being able to turn men to stone with a single look. It is important to note that the Gorgons are female, which indicates a fear of unconstrained female power, while reinforcing the value of beauty in Greek culture. Ugliness can literally be deadly.

The presence of lesser gods who protect sailors along with gods who represent the four winds provides further evidence of the importance of sailing and navigation in Greek society. The Fates also reveal a belief in destiny and inevitability that, paradoxically, indicates how human action and interaction with the other gods may ultimately prove futile.

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