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Mythology | Part 5, Chapter 3 : The Royal House of Athens | Summary

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Summary

Cecrops

Cecrops is the first king of Attica, the country surrounding Athens. In some stories, he is said to be half human and half dragon. Poseidon and Athena compete to become the protector of Cecrops's city. Poseidon strikes the Acropolis, Athens's tallest hill, with his trident to create a deep saltwater well. Athena gives Athens the olive tree, a staple of culture and agriculture. Cecrops chooses Athena as the protector, and Poseidon sends a great flood in anger.

In one version of this story, the women of Athens vote for Athena and the men vote for Poseidon. The women outnumber the men by a single vote. After Poseidon sends the flood, the men take away the women's right to vote.

Procne and Philomela

Procne and Philomela are Cecrops's sisters. Procne marries Tereus of Thrace. When Tereus goes to Athens to bring Philomela back to visit her sister, he falls in love with Philomela. Tereus tells Philomela that Procne is dead and lures her into a sham marriage. When Philomela learns the truth, she threatens to tell the world about Tereus's treachery. He cuts out her tongue and imprisons her, telling Procne that Philomela has died.

Unable to speak or write, Philomela has little recourse; however, she weaves her story into a tapestry she sends to her sister. Procne understands the tapestry at once and goes to Philomela, vowing to make Tereus pay. Procne kills their son, Itys, and serves his remains to Tereus for dinner. Tereus's shock when he learns what he has eaten allows the sisters time to flee, but he pursues them. Before he catches them, the gods turn Procne into a nightingale and Philomela into a swallow. Tereus becomes a large, ugly bird, possibly a hawk.

Procris and Cephalus

Procne and Philomela's niece Procris marries Cephalus, grandson of Aeolus. Shortly after the wedding, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, kidnaps Cephalus, but he will not betray his wedding vows. Aurora releases him but warns Cephalus to be sure that Procris has been equally faithful to him. Cephalus is driven mad with jealousy and suspicion.

Cephalus returns to Procris in disguise as another man and attempts to seduce her. She refuses firmly for months, but one day she hesitates before her refusal. This is sufficient evidence for Cephalus to reveal himself and call her "false and shameless." She leaves him immediately, and he realizes his error. He finds her living alone in the mountains and begs her forgiveness. She eventually takes him back, and they live happily until Cephalus accidentally kills her while hunting.

Orithyia and Boreas

Procris's sister Orithyia is beloved by Boreas, the North Wind, but her father opposes the match. He and the people of Athens hate all who come from the north because Tereus came from the north. Boreas carries Orithyia away while she is out with her sisters. Their sons, Zetes and Calais, join the Quest of the Golden Fleece.

Creüsa and Ion

Creüsa is a sister of Procris and Orithyia. Apollo abducts her while she is picking flowers and takes her to a cave. She conceives a child and hates Apollo for not helping her because the pregnancy could cause her to be killed if she confessed. She conceals her condition and returns to the cave to give birth, then leaves the baby there to die. She goes back later, curious about what has happened, and finds no trace of the baby.

She marries a Greek named Xuthus. He is not Athenian, so people think it is no great loss when the couple are unable to conceive a child. Creüsa consults the oracle at Delphi and finds a boy working in the temple. They talk, and Creüsa hints at her own misery, but asks the boy, Ion, about himself. He says Apollo's priestess found him in the temple and raised him as her own.

Creüsa explains that her husband wants a child, but she is here to ask about the fate of a child borne to Apollo by her "friend." Ion gently scolds Creüsa for accusing Apollo of villainy. Xuthus enters the room to announce that Apollo has declared Ion is Xuthus's son. Creüsa is not happy to take in an unknown child, but the priestess brings Ion's baby clothes. Creüsa realizes that Ion is the baby she left in the cave. Ion thinks she is crazy until Athena arrives to confirm the story and declare Ion fit to rule Athens.

Analysis

Cecrops

The story of Cecrops provides a few important points about the history of Athens, including the origin of the city's name; Athena is the city's patron goddess. The story also emphasizes the vital role the olive tree plays in the city's economy and daily life. Olive trees provide food, cooking oil, and wood for construction and household items. In contrast with the multiple uses of the olive tree, Poseidon's gift of a deep saltwater well appears weak. Striking the rock of the Acropolis and creating this well is an impressive demonstration of Poseidon's might, but a deep saltwater well is far less useful than fresh water for a growing city's needs. The flood that follows further demonstrates Poseidon's power over the city, but the people of Athens are wise to choose the sponsorship of a god who gives them tangible rewards instead of choosing a sponsor purely because they fear offending him.

Procne and Philomela

The story of Procne and Philomela serves as a caution against marriage to the wrong sort of man, and their story differs from the stories of so many other women who meet punishment for defying the men who wrong them. In Part 5, Chapter 2, Antigone is put to death for defying her uncle Creon. In Part 5, Chapter 1, Clytemnestra is killed after she avenges her daughter's death by killing Agamemnon. Procne's ingenious solution to her inability to communicate shows the importance of weaving as a skill. While characters such as Tantalus are severely punished for cannibalism, Philomela's decision to kill her son—who reminds her of his evil father—reads as a reasonable punishment for Tereus's misdeeds. The women are not punished with death or creative suffering in the afterlife. Instead, they are transformed into pretty little birds. The justice is not entirely complete, because Tereus becomes a bird as well, but he is an ugly bird.

Procris and Cephalus

Cephalus serves as a caution against unwarranted jealousy and a demonstration of the corrosive power of suggestion. Cephalus is loyal to his new bride, Procris. Even though the beautiful goddess of the dawn wants him, he never wavers in the face of temptation. Aurora's jealousy causes her to plant the seed of suspicion in Cephalus's mind. His decision to disguise himself and his reaction when Procris wavers slightly implies that he wants her to be guilty of something, because his jealousy has spiraled nearly to the point of delusion. At this point, even though he professed unerring love for his wife, his suspicion makes him unfaithful to her. He is punished for his own lack of faith in his wife's love for him when he kills her accidentally, and must cope not only with losing her, but also with his guilt for being responsible for her death.

Orithyia and Boreas

Orithyia and Boreas demonstrate how deeply the Athenian people feel a grudge against Tereus for his treatment of Procne and Philomela. The gods may have spared him death by changing him into an ugly bird, but his reputation is tainted forever. Edith Hamilton relates a story about the philosopher Socrates talking with a student and expressing doubt about the reality of the myths, which shows how the world is beginning to turn away from the stories of myth in favor of the logic and reason of philosophy.

Creüsa and Ion

The story of Creüsa and Ion provides another example in mythology of how fate will have its way, regardless of human action. Creüsa is rightly upset by Apollo's abandonment. He takes her from her family and impregnates her against her will. She has no power or agency in this relationship, and she has no power or agency against the family members who will likely kill her if they discover her pregnancy. Under the circumstances, she has little choice but to abandon the child in the cave, even though she feels guilty for leaving him in the cave and wonders if he is dead.

Creüsa suffers for years not knowing what happened to her baby, even though she hates Apollo for placing her in the unappealing position of pregnancy and abandoning her child. Her suffering speaks to the strong pull of motherhood, even in less than ideal conditions. When she marries, she and her husband are unable to have a child. Her husband, Xuthus, wants a child more than she does, because she still experiences guilt about the child she was forced to leave behind in the cave.

When Creüsa encounters Ion in Apollo's temple, her immediate connection with him in conversation hints at his true identity before all is revealed to the characters in the story. Ion's incredulity at discovering his mother in these circumstances adds mild comic relief to the drama of the revelation, and Creüsa's joy at finding her son emphasizes again the strength of the maternal bond.

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