Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 1 Chapter 2 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Two Great Gods of Earth | Summary

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Summary

In contrast with the intrigues and schemes of the Olympian gods, two earth gods are regarded as "mankind's best friends" because of their essential roles in the functions of daily life.

Demeter (Ceres)

Demeter (Ceres) is the goddess of corn, and she is celebrated in harvest festivals. Her worship takes place in the fields and threshing floors as the harvest and processing of grain provides daily sustenance. Her feminine nature appeals to the women who take charge of farming in Greek society. Yet Demeter's personal history is a sad one. Hades kidnaps her daughter Persephone (Proserpine) to be his queen in the underworld. Heartbroken, Demeter leaves Olympus and, disguised as an old woman, wanders the earth looking for her daughter.

A woman named Metaneira, along with her four daughters, invites the disguised Demeter into her home, offering food and shelter. In secret, Demeter nurses Metaneira's son Celeus and places him in a fire at night, planning to give the boy eternal youth through this process. When Metaneira discovers her son in the fire one night, she becomes furious at Demeter, who then reveals her true self and casts the child aside. Although Celeus does not attain eternal youth, he does go on to have a life blessed by his early contact with the goddess. After this incident, the harvest fails and earth falls into famine. Zeus intervenes, sending Hermes to the underworld to fetch Persephone. Hades makes Persephone eat a pomegranate seed, which ensures her return to him, but mother and daughter are reunited. Learning about the pomegranate seed, Demeter fears losing Persephone again, but in the final compromise, Persephone must return to Hades for four months of the year. During these months the plants die and the world goes dark, but Persephone's "footfall" as she returns to her mother signals the flowering of spring.

Dionysus or Bacchus

Wine is another staple of the Greek diet; hence, Dionysus enjoys a popularity similar to Demeter's. He, too, is the focus of worship and festivals, but he, too, has a tragic history. As the personification of the vine, Dionysus endures pruning and death to be reborn in the spring like Persephone. He is born the son of Zeus and Semele, a princess of Thebes. In a revenge scheme devised by Hera, Semele asks Zeus to see him in his full glory. The sight kills her, but Zeus rescues their unborn child and hides him in his own side until he is born. Dionysus is raised by nymphs in the valley of Nysa. Once grown, he travels around the world, teaching men to make wine. During his wanderings, he is captured by pirates who are unable to contain him, and he makes the decks of their ship run with wine. But Dionysus never forgets his lost mother and eventually travels to the underworld to demand Death release her. She is allowed to live in Olympus as the mother of a god.

Dionysus, like wine itself, has a dual nature. He is associated with merrymaking, but he can also drive people to madness. For example, his followers (the Maenads) are women driven to frenzy by wine, who leave their homes to live in the wilderness. Dionysus provides for their needs. These women accompany Dionysus to Thebes, his mother's home, where he hopes to introduce wine. The king Pentheus, not knowing Dionysus is a god (as well as his own cousin), imprisons him and his followers. They escape, and Pentheus gives chase, only to be torn apart by the Maenads. The women feel remorse and regret after this bloody act. Despite this dual nature, or perhaps because of it, Dionysus is exulted throughout Greece and his festivals inspire great art and poetry.

Analysis

Demeter (Ceres)

The story of Demeter is the clearest use of myth creation used as an explanation of a natural phenomenon. In an agricultural society, the change of seasons would be an event demanding explanation and predictability. When Demeter's daughter Persephone is kidnapped and taken to the world of the dead, her grief causes all the plants and crops to die. The yearly cycle of death and rebirth is established with Persephone's death and return each year.

The story of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades also reveals some disturbing truths about the role and value of women in mythology and in classical society. Hades kidnaps Persephone. He takes her as his bride without her, or her mother's, permission. An illustrated panel in the chapter is captioned "The rape of Persephone (Proserpine)," which indicates the disturbing reality of what happens to the young goddess. Hades's use of force against Persephone extends to making her eat a pomegranate seed that binds her to him and his realm for all eternity. The other gods find these actions, more or less, acceptable. Hades is not reprimanded or punished for these actions, showing how women are subjected to the whims and desires of powerful men. Demeter does not get her daughter back or force Zeus to mandate a compromise on the merits of the case; Demeter is only able to get justice because she threatens to starve all of mankind if Zeus does not intervene. It is notable that Persephone, as a young woman, has no agency of her own in any of these events. In this culture, women have little recourse when wronged unless they happen to have some kind of specific leverage over those who wrong them; justice is a matter of might between men and women, not a matter of principle.

Dionysus or Bacchus

The story of Dionysus's birth also illustrates how powerful women can attack and destroy other women when they are wronged, perhaps because other women are easier targets for revenge than powerful men. Semele is one of many women Zeus seduces and impregnates outside his marriage to Hera, yet Hera never directs her revenge at her husband, the king of the gods. Invariably, Hera seeks revenge against the mortal women Zeus loves. Semele's child—a powerless infant—must be hidden from Hera's revenge as well. Hera could never hope to defeat Zeus, the master of lightning and thunder, so she must channel her anger and humiliation toward his lovers and the innocent offspring of his dalliances. Ironically, Zeus also fears his wife's retaliation toward his lovers and children, which leads him to conceal them, but he never confronts his wife to protect Semele or Dionysus. He knows his association with Semele and Dionysus places them in danger, yet he pursues Semele anyway, which victimizes her twice, in a sense.

The central message in Dionysus's story is a cautionary tale about the nature of drinking wine, providing an explanation of the natural phenomena that occur when humans consume alcohol. Wine is an essential part of Greek social life, and Dionysus inspires many festivals and celebrations—known as Bacchanals in reference to his Roman name—that bring people together. The sharing of wine and food is integral to the Greek principle of hospitality; plus, it allows drinkers to create the songs and poetry prized in Greek culture. However, the Greeks understand the danger of excess, so these myths also feature stories of men and women driven to madness by overconsumption. They commit gruesome acts of murder. In the story of Pentheus, the women don't just kill him—they tear him apart with their bare hands. The acts of violence wine can inspire are directly proportional to the amount of wine consumed. More wine equals more mayhem. While classical culture values community, joy, creativity, and hospitality, it values self-control and moderation even more.

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