Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 1 Chapter 4 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 1, Chapter 4 : The Earliest Heroes | Summary

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Summary

Prometheus and Io

Io is a Greek princess whom Zeus seduces in her dreams before consummating the affair. Hera is suspicious of her husband's activities, and she finds Zeus with his lover despite his attempts to conceal the earth in thick clouds. Before Hera arrives, Zeus changes Io into a white cow to hide her identity, but Hera sees through this ruse and asks for the cow as a gift, which Zeus is obliged to give her. Hera sets Argus, a giant with 100 eyes, to guard the cow because even when he sleeps, some of his eyes remain open. Eventually, Zeus sends Hermes to lull Argus to full sleep and retrieve Io, but even Hermes's beautiful music is unable to close all of Argus's eyes. Pan has greater success with a boring story about unrequited love; when the last of Argus's eyes close, Hermes kills the giant and frees Io. Hera sets Argus's eyes into the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock, and sends a gadfly to torment Io. The girl/cow flees all around the countryside, meeting Prometheus in his own place of torture. He tells her she will wander still further before finding peace when she reaches the Nile. At the Nile, Zeus finds Io and changes her back into a woman. She bears him a son names Epaphus and lives "forever after happy and honored."

Europa

Europa is another princess who catches Zeus's eye. As with Io, he seduces her in her dreams before approaching her. While picking flowers in a meadow with her friends—carrying a basket woven with images from Io's story—she spots a beautiful bull near the seashore. She approaches the bull, who lies down for her to get on his back, and invites her friends to join her. Once Europa is on the bull's back, however, he takes flight across the sea to Crete. Zeus's own mother hid him from Cronus on Crete when Zeus was a child, so they are safe from Hera's eye as well. Zeus and Europa have two children, Minos and Rhadamanthus, both men of honor on earth who are rewarded in death by becoming judges of the dead.

The Cyclops Polyphemus

Zeus banishes most of the monsters born to Gaea after he assumes control of the world, but he allows the Cyclopes to remain on earth, where they inhabit their own island—a dangerous place for travelers. Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus, who is identified as a son of Poseidon. Polyphemus traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, and eats four of them before Odysseus devises a plan for their escape. While Polyphemus tends to his sheep in the fields, Odysseus and his men sharpen a great stake in the cave. When Polyphemus returns to the cave with his sheep in the evening, Odysseus gets Polyphemus drunk on wine, then the men use the stake to put out Polyphemus's eye, which causes the Cyclops to thrash about the cave, but he does not roll away the great stone blocking the entrance. In the morning, Odysseus and his men escape by hiding among the Cyclops's sheep as he takes them out to the fields, and Odysseus taunts Polyphemus once his ship is away from shore, which angers Poseidon and dooms Odysseus to more years of wandering.

Polyphemus appears in a later tale, with his eye restored, as he is tormented by love for a nymph named Galatea. She flirts and teases with him even though she does not return his affections, leaving Polyphemus in misery. In one version of this story, Galatea defends Polyphemus when her friends mock him, saying he deserves respect as Poseidon's son. Galatea marries a man named Acis, though, and Polyphemus kills him in a jealous rage. Acis is turned into a river-god.

Flower-Myths: Narcissus, Hyacinth, Adonis

Narcissus is a young man of exceeding beauty. Although many women love him and pursue him, he scorns them all. A nymph named Echo is especially enamored of him, but Hera, in the mistaken belief that Echo is one of Zeus's conquests, takes Echo's voice and dooms her to only repeat what she hears. She is unable to speak to Narcissus. Eventually, the goddess Nemesis, represented as "blind justice" or the woman who holds the scales, curses Narcissus to love only himself, and he wastes away staring at his own reflection in a pool of water. Echo is the only witness to his death, but on the spot where he dies a new flower springs forth and the nymphs call it Narcissus.

Hyacinth is a close friend of Apollo, who accidentally kills Hyacinth in a discus-throwing contest. Inconsolable, Apollo holds Hyacinth as he dies, and where his blood falls to the ground new flowers spring forth, which Apollo inscribes either with Hyacinth's initials or the Greek word that means "alas."

Adonis suffers a similar fate as Hyacinth. Both Aphrodite and Persephone love him, and after much quarreling between the goddesses, Zeus decrees that Adonis will spend autumn and winter with Persephone, and spring and summer with Aphrodite. He is gored by a wild boar during a hunt, and Aphrodite laments that she was not there to protect him. Where his blood falls to the earth, red anemones bloom.

Analysis

Prometheus and Io

Io's story is an illustration of how Zeus's actions result in terrible consequences for the mortal women who get involved with him. Hera's thirst for revenge is bottomless. The story acts as a deterrent for marital cheating by illustrating how severely the participants might be punished, but it also places the bulk of responsibility for infidelity on the women involved. The wife is responsible for seeking revenge, and the mistress is the object of this revenge, even if her role in the actual seduction is relatively passive. Zeus pursues Io, but Io is the one who suffers. She is hardly in the position to refuse the attentions of a god, but the story shows the suffering likely to arise for humans who involve themselves too closely with gods. However, if a woman is prepared to endure such suffering, she may also reap great rewards in the long term, as Io does. Io's story illustrates how myths can provide both moral lessons and natural explanations by providing the backstory for the "eyes" on a peacock's tail serving as a memorial to Hera's trusted friend and watchman, Argus.

Europa

Europa is the only woman who consorts with Zeus and finds only glory, no punishment. It is the first of several stories featuring Zeus assuming different shapes and forms to seduce mortal women; in this case, a beautiful bull. An illustration in the chapter is captioned "The rape of Europa," which indicates Zeus's neglect of Europa's consent in taking her to Crete. The presumption appears to be that a mortal woman would not refuse the love of a god, and Europa clearly benefits from her association with Zeus. She has two sons who become great kings and are honored in life and in death. Europa herself is commemorated in the name of her home continent, Europe.

The Cyclops Polyphemus

Both aspects of the story of the Cyclops Polyphemus provide strong evidence against angering the gods by harming their children. The Cyclopes' island is one of the first stops for Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey (see Part 4, Chapter 3). On one hand, Polyphemus meets his fate—blinded with a stake—because he fails to show Odysseus and his men proper hospitality. It is possible that Poseidon might have accepted Odysseus's actions as self-defense and a natural punishment to Polyphemus for eating travelers. Odysseus's ego gets in the way, though, and he taunts Polyphemus, which angers Poseidon. Odysseus might have avoided a decade of wandering had he not gloated about besting the son of a god.

Galatea fares little better. While in later versions of her story she seems to respect the fact that she is beloved by the son of a god (even though she does not reciprocate these feelings), she is still punished for not loving Polyphemus when the Cyclops murders her groom. In this story, Polyphemus is a grotesque and pitiful creature in his unrequited love, but the story also shows how little room there is in Greek mythology for those who are not beautiful and who, ultimately, lack a sense of kindness.

Flower-Myths: Narcissus, Hyacinth, Adonis

The myth of Narcissus shows how the justice of the gods is swift, merciless, and sometimes misguided. Echo, the nymph who loves Narcissus, is an innocent bystander to Hera's bottomless jealousy. Echo already suffers from her unrequited love for the self-absorbed Narcissus, but Hera punishes her further because she suspects Zeus is in love with Echo. There is no evidence in the story that Zeus and Echo have even met, which also reveals how the gods are not omniscient and are capable of mistakes—very different from gods in other pantheons. Any slim chance Echo might have had with Narcissus, or in finding love with someone else, is destroyed when she loses her voice. In contrast, Narcissus's punishment fits his sins perfectly. He is consumed by the self-love that has caused him to hurt so many women, and he suffers as they have suffered.

The stories of Hyacinth and Adonis reveal the hazards of consorting with gods. Apollo accidentally kills Hyacinth in a sporting event, the result of his superior strength. A discus thrown by a mortal might have injured Hyacinth, but the injury would not necessarily have been lethal. Adonis dies in a hunting accident without Aphrodite's protection. Had Hyacinth consorted only with other mortals, he might have kept himself out of harm's way. Adonis usually hunts with Aphrodite's protection, which likely inflates his confidence as a hunter and results in his death. Although both men are memorialized in flowers, this form of immortality hardly compensates for young and beautiful lives cut short.

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