Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 2 Chapter 2 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 2, Chapter 2 : Eight Brief Tales of Lovers | Summary

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Summary

Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus and Thisbe, a story that appears in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, grow up in homes next to one another in Babylon. They fall in love, but their parents forbid them to marry. Instead, the couple talks through a space in the wall that separates their gardens, and they plan to run away together. They arrange to meet under a mulberry tree by the Tomb of Ninus. Thisbe arrives first and is frightened by a lioness, so she runs away, dropping her cloak in the process. The lioness, whose mouth is bloodstained by a fresh kill, mouths the cloak and stains it. When Pyramus arrives, he finds the cloak and believes his beloved has been killed, so he stabs himself with his sword. Thisbe returns to the tree to find Pyramus dying under it and understands what has happened. She takes his sword and kills herself. The gods turn the white fruit of the mulberry tree red as a memorial to the couple, and their parents allow the ashes of both lovers to occupy the same urn.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus, the son of a Muse and a Thracian prince, is a musician of great renown. He travels with Jason on the Argo, where his music saves the band of heroes from the Sirens and keeps the men's spirits high during the long and perilous quest for the Golden Fleece. He falls in love with a woman named Eurydice, but she is bitten by a snake and dies shortly after their wedding. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back, and his music so moves Hades that he allows Orpheus to bring Eurydice back to earth, on the condition he does not look at her before they reach the surface. When he steps into daylight, he turns to finally see her, but she is still a few steps behind him, not yet at the surface. She is pulled back into the darkness, lost forever. Desolate, Orpheus wanders on earth until he encounters a band of Maenads who tear him apart in their frenzy. The Muses place his remains in a tomb at the foot of Mount Olympus, where "to this day the nightingales sing more sweetly than anywhere else."

Ceyx and Alcyone

Ceyx is a king of Thessaly and the son of Lucifer, "the star that brings in the day." He is married to Alcyone, the daughter of Aeolus, King of the Winds. The two are "never willingly apart," but Ceyx decides to make a sea voyage to go consult an oracle about some matters troubling him. Alcyone wants to accompany him, but he insists she remain at home for her own safety. The night after he leaves, a storm moves in and sinks Ceyx's ship, but he is comforted by the knowledge that his wife is safe as the water closes over him. In the meantime, Alcyone waits for Ceyx to return, not knowing what has happened to him. Eventually, the rainbow goddess Iris and the God of Sleep send the god's son Morpheus to Alcyone to deliver the news of Ceyx's fate in a dream. When she wakes, she runs to the shore and into the water. The gods transform her into a bird, and they do the same for Ceyx so the two can remain together. For seven days each year, the seas are calm as Alcyone broods over her nest on the sea, and these days are known as "Halcyon days."

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion is a sculptor on Cyprus who resolves never to marry. Yet, he spends his time creating a female form more perfect than any real woman and eventually falls in love with his creation. His love is a torment because the statue is unable to love him in return. He tries to pretend she is real, dressing her in clothes and bringing her gifts. Venus takes pity on Pygmalion when he comes to pray to her, asking that he might meet a woman like his statue. She sees what he really wants, and when he returns home he finds the statue has been made flesh and embraces him in return. He names her Galatea and the two have a child named Paphos.

Baucis and Philemon

Jupiter and Mercury get bored in Olympus and go to Phrygia to test the hospitality of the country's people. Disguised as poor travelers, Jupiter and Mercury discover no one in Phrygia will give them food or shelter, until they come to a small hovel. They are welcomed into this modest dwelling by an elderly couple who are poor but happy—and willing to share what little they have. The woman's name is Baucis and her husband is Philemon. They set a table for their guests that includes a cabbage roasted with pork, olives, eggs, and wine. The couple notices their wine bowl never empties, no matter how much they pour from it, and they realize their guests are gods. Wishing to offer the gods better fare, they attempt to catch a goose in their yard. The gods are amused by the chase, but Baucis and Philemon fail to catch the goose. The gods thank them for their hospitality and show them that their neighbors have been punished for their indifference. When they go outside, they see their hut surrounded by water and the hovel transformed into a temple. Baucis and Philemon serve the rest of their lives as priests in the temple, and when they die they are transformed into two trees, a linden and an oak, that grow from one trunk.

Endymion

Endymion is a shepherd whose beauty captures the love of the moon, Selene. She comes to lie beside him and casts him into eternal sleep. He rests on a hillside, immortal but never waking, while the moon visits him each night and covers him with kisses.

Daphne

Apollo falls in love with a wood nymph and huntress named Daphne. She has sworn never to marry, and she finally convinces her father, the river-god Peneus, to agree to allow her to remain free. Yet Apollo pursues her, and one evening he almost overtakes her. She begs her father for help, and at the edge of the river she is transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo makes the laurel his sacred tree to honor her.

Alpheus and Arethusa

Arethusa is a huntress and follower of Artemis, but she catches the attention of a river god named Alpheus while resting in the woods one day. Arethusa is not interested in his attentions and has no desire to marry, but Alpheus pursues her anyway. Exhausted by the chase, Arethusa calls upon Artemis for help, and the goddess turns Arethusa into a spring of water and makes a tunnel under the earth from Greece to Sicily. The spring emerges in Ortygia and is sacred to Artemis. Alpheus continues to pursue Arethusa, changing back into his river form and following her through the tunnel so that their waters mix in the fountain. Legend says Greek flowers sometimes appear in the spring in Sicily, and that items thrown into the River Alpheus in Greece will emerge in Sicily.

Analysis

Pyramus and Thisbe

That Shakespeare used the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe as inspiration for Romeo and Juliet is well documented. The story captures the destructive nature of love in the hands of young, rash people; however, Pyramus and Thisbe (like their Shakespearean counterparts) are driven to the rash action of running away together by their parents' resistance to their love. Once one rash action has been undertaken, it is much easier for passion to drive human nature to further rash action. Pyramus does not stop to consider that Thisbe's body is not visible, only the bloodstained cloak is. His passion drives him to irrationality, and he pays for this irrationality with his life. In this way, the story upholds the classical value of reason over passion.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice uses a love story to illustrate other values important in classical culture. Music was an important part of Greek life and creative expression; mastery of an instrument was a standard part of a young person's education. Orpheus's talents as a musician show how powerful and important music can be. Music makes Orpheus an important part of a heroic quest, and literally gives him power over life and death.

At the same time, the story provides a caution against impatience. After much peril to himself, Orpheus is able to bring his wife back from the underworld. He is specifically cautioned the only condition that can stop her return is if he looks at her before she reaches the surface. Impatience causes Orpheus to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as he loses his wife forever mere moments before she is safe.

Ceyx and Alcyone

The story of Ceyx and Alcyone provides a caution against ambition and needless wandering. Ceyx's reasons for separating from his wife and taking a sea voyage are not made clear, only that "various matters" occupy his mind. Unlike the voyages of later heroes, Ceyx's voyage does not seem to be driven by an absolute imperative. He is happy in his marriage, and Alcyone begs to accompany him. As the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds, she might have provided Ceyx some protection had he allowed her to accompany him. Because Ceyx is not content to stay with his wife or bring her with him, he pays with his life.

The ending of the story reveals how some couples are not meant to be parted. Ceyx dies because he parts with his wife in life. They are brought together in death and become birds. The story also provides an explanation for the calm seas that appear during a few days in winter, named Halcyon days, after Alcyone. The term survives in modern English as a descriptor for any string of days that are idyllic and calm.

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion's fate stands in sharp contrast with the story of Narcissus in Part 1, Chapter 4. Like Narcissus, Pygmalion eschews all female admirers. Unlike Narcissus, Pygmalion sets himself to the task of creating an ideal woman who surpasses all mortal women. While Narcissus is punished for his arrogance and self-absorption, Pygmalion is rewarded when his creation becomes human. It is a surprising outcome because his belief that he can craft a woman from marble that surpasses all living women reads as the sort of hubris the gods tend to punish. In this respect, Pygmalion ultimately has more in common with Orpheus, because his creative powers and devotion to beauty and art not only save him but give him his heart's desire. Pygmalion also has enough sense to show gratitude to the gods for his good fortune, so he is allowed to keep Galatea and make a life with her.

Baucis and Philemon

Baucis and Philemon are old when Jupiter and Mercury meet them. Their romantic beginning is already well past them, but they provide a beautiful portrait of loyalty and ongoing love through various circumstances. Baucis emphasizes their ongoing happiness despite their poverty, the product of a "contented spirit." In contrast with Ceyx and Alcyone, this couple is happy together, so they don't rock the boat, so to speak. Their contentment also leads them to show generosity toward the travelers who come to their door, even though they have little to spare. The gods, especially Jupiter, place a high value on hospitality, as the rest of the story illustrates. The houses that do not accept the gods are submerged at the end, and the elderly couple who share their meager provisions are rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.

Endymion

Endymion's story illustrates a kind of love that is not really love at all. Selene places Endymion into an eternal sleep "so that she might always find him and caress him as she pleased." Her feelings for Endymion are based purely on her attraction to his beauty, and her actions reveal a desire to have Endymion for her own pleasure. As a result, she is tortured by her longing for him and the "burden of pain" that is her own creation. Her neglect of Endymion's autonomy brings her the punishment of eternal misery, because love cannot exist without interaction and mutual understanding.

Daphne

The story justifies Daphne's rejection of Apollo with the reminder that many women beloved of gods meet with the misfortune of secret children and death. A myth about Apollo in Part 5, Chapter 3 tells the story of a woman called Creüsa forced to abandon her baby when Apollo abandons her. The gods are not reliable partners.

Daphne's story is notable also because she exercises her autonomy by avoiding marriage to mortal men as well. Her only wish is to remain free and independent as she hunts in the forests. Her fate, being turned into a laurel tree by her sympathetic father, reads as a mixed blessing. She is allowed to remain unmarried, but she is hardly unfettered, now literally rooted to the ground. She does not suffer, but she must give up her life and freedom to preserve her independence from men. While Apollo's decision to associate himself with the laurel tree is intended as an honor to her, it also means she is never able to truly escape Apollo.

Alpheus and Arethusa

Like Apollo in the story of Daphne, Alpheus is a god who cannot take no for an answer. Arethusa, like Daphne, is a huntress, but unlike Daphne, she is not a nymph. Because Arethusa is a devoted follower of Artemis—Apollo's twin sister—Artemis takes pity on Arethusa's desire to evade Alpheus's attentions. Like Daphne, Arethusa's choice is to give up life as she knows it or yield to a man she does not want. Also like Daphne, the transformation—in this case, into a spring—does not deter Alpheus in any meaningful sense. He is a river, so he mixes his waters with hers and follows the spring to Sicily, making himself into the only river that travels beneath the ocean. The poetic lines at the end of this section praise Alpheus's persistence as a lover, which indicates a high value placed on sacrifice and refusal to give up on love, even to extreme measures that defy the laws of nature.

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