Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 2 Chapter 4 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 2, Chapter 4 : Four Great Adventures | Summary

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Summary

Phaëthon

Phaëthon learns from his mortal mother, Clymene, that his father is Helios, the sun god. When father and son meet, the father makes an unbreakable oath by the River Styx to grant Phaëthon anything he asks. Phaëthon wants to drive his father's chariot across the sky, and Helios says this is impossible for other gods, let alone a mortal. Phaëthon insists, and Helios must acquiesce. Phaëthon quickly loses control of the chariot and causes great destruction. Jove intervenes and strikes the chariot with a thunderbolt before Phaëthon can destroy the whole world. Phaëthon falls dead into the river Eridanus and is mourned by Helios's daughters, the Heliades, and the water nymphs, the Naiads.

Pegasus and Bellerophon

Bellerophon may be the son of Glaucus, a king of Corinth who angers the gods by feeding his horses human flesh to make them fierce in battle. Other stories claim Bellerophon's father is Poseidon. Bellerophon's great ambition is to own Pegasus, a legendary winged horse. Bellerophon goes to Athena's temple to seek help, and falls asleep there. When he wakes, he finds a golden bridle beside him, which he uses to tame Pegasus when he finds him.

Bellerophon kills his brother in an unspecified accident and goes to Argos to do penance for King Proteus. Proteus's wife, Anteia, falls in love with Bellerophon, but Bellerophon does not reciprocate. Anteia tells Proteus that Bellerophon has wronged her, but Proteus can't kill him because they have shared a dinner table. Instead, Proteus sends Bellerophon to Asia with a letter for the king of Lycia. Pegasus easily accomplishes the task. The letter asks the King of Lycia to kill Bellerophon, but the king doesn't want to kill him, either. The Lycian king sends Bellerophon to kill the Chimaera—a creature that is "a lion in front, a serpent behind, a goat in between." Pegasus enables Bellerophon to slay the creature from above with little danger to himself. Proteus then sends Bellerophon on missions to fight two races of warriors, the Solymi and the Amazons. Bellerophon's continued success impresses Proteus, and the two becomes friends. Bellerophon marries Proteus's daughter.

Later, Bellerophon tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, but Pegasus recognizes Bellerophon is overreaching and throws his rider. Pegasus then finds a home in Olympus, and Bellerophon wanders the earth alone until he dies.

Otus and Ephialtes

Otus and Ephialtes are sons of Poseidon, twin Giants "straight of form and noble of face." Their ambitions lead them to imprison Ares, the god of war, who is rescued only by Hermes's cunning. They then threaten to pile mountains to reach Olympus in imitation of the Giants of old, whom Zeus drove from the earth. Zeus wants to stop them with a thunderbolt, but Poseidon intervenes and stops the twins himself.

The brothers then decide to kidnap Hera and Artemis, whom Ephialtes thinks he loves, but the twins are really devoted to each other. They attempt to take Artemis first, but she leads them to an island where the twins are separated in the forest. They come to a clearing from opposite sides and see a white deer in the center. Each brother takes aim at the deer, which disappears when they fire their arrows. The arrows sail across the clearing and find their marks in the two brothers who have now accidentally killed each other.

Daedalus

Daedalus is an architect most famous for constructing the Labyrinth that holds the Minotaur—a half-man, half-bull creature—in Crete. King Minos of Crete learns that Daedalus has helped some Athenians sacrificed to the Minotaur escape the Labyrinth, and imprisons Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in the Labyrinth.

Daedalus constructs wings so he and his son can fly out of the Labyrinth. He warns Icarus not to fly too high, lest the sun melt the glue holding the wings together. Icarus ignores the warning, flies too high, and falls into the sea when the glue melts. Daedalus flies on to Sicily. Minos searches for him, offering a reward to any man who can pass a thread through a spiral shell. Daedalus uses an ant to accomplish the task, exposing his location to Minos. The Sicilian king will not give up Daedalus when Minos arrives, and Minos is killed in the ensuing conflict.

Analysis

Phaëthon

Phaëthon's story cautions against the impetuous and stubborn behavior of youth and inexperience. Phaëthon either does not understand his father's admonitions against driving the chariot of the Sun, or he understands but does not care. It is not unusual for young people to believe themselves invincible, even as their elders tell them otherwise. However, Phaëthon's epitaph reads, "Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared." These words imply that Phaëthon's risk and his death are worth the fleeting glory he experiences in the chariot's seat, that it is better to try to do something incredible and fail incredibly than to never strive for greatness.

Pegasus and Bellerophon

Bellerophon fits the model of many other classical heroes in that he is born to greatness, either as the son of a king or the son of a god. If he is Glaucus's son, he escapes the punishment the gods often send to the children of those who offend them. Instead, Athena blesses Bellerophon for his loyalty to her by giving him the bridle to tame Pegasus. His life's ambition is accomplished with an ease uncharacteristic of most heroic journeys in classical mythology.

Likewise, Bellerophon faces no serious consequence for accidentally killing his brother. Proteus and the King of Lycia refrain from killing Bellerophon after showing him hospitality. Even though Proteus believes his wife when she claims Bellerophon has "wronged" her, the bond of hospitality is more important, just as the bond of hospitality is more important than the alliance between kings when Bellerophon reaches Lycia. With Pegasus as his ally, Bellerophon accomplishes the quests assigned him as easily as he tames the horse in the first place. Only when Bellerophon grows too confident and fails to respect the gods who have blessed him repeatedly does he finally know suffering. Pegasus abandons him, and without Pegasus and the gods' blessings, Bellerophon loses everything and everyone he holds dear. His life is a lonely shell of the glory he once held.

Otus and Ephialtes

The deaths of Otus and Ephialtes are a good example of the kind of punishment the gods like to visit on those who dare defy them. These twin brothers love each other more than anything else on earth, yet in their misguided ambition and delusional desire for two Olympian goddesses, they kill each other. For the gods, and the Greeks who create these stories, punishments are not randomly assigned. Punishments must be carefully tailored to the offense done to the gods or to cultural expectations. In this case, the brothers are not content with the power and companionship they have with one another; they always want more. This flaw in their character—their ambition—directly leads to their deaths at each other's hands.

Daedalus

As later myths in the text will show, particularly the saga of Theseus in Part 3, Chapter 2, Minos of Crete shows little mercy to those who disobey him. Minos's punishment of Daedalus for his disobedience and his ruthless pursuit of Daedalus after he escapes paint Minos as unreasonably vengeful. His thirst for revenge against Daedalus eventually leads to his death, providing a caution against this kind of all-consuming desire. In the meantime, Daedalus, with his cool rationalism and unique intelligence, ultimately triumphs over Minos, finding a safe home in Sicily.

Of course, Daedalus does not emerge from his ordeal completely unscathed. His clever solution to escape the Labyrinth costs his son Icarus his life. Like Phaëthon before him, Icarus is overtaken by the joy of flight and is too young to fully understand his father's warning, especially in the face of the power his wings allow him.

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