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Mythology | Plot Summary

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Summary

As an anthology, Mythology does not follow a single plot line. The book is arranged into seven parts, divided into chapters, and subdivided into sections. Sometimes these sections connect as part of a greater story, but on other occasions, they relate individual tales that stand alone.

Part 1

The Gods, the Creation, and the Earliest Heroes provides the foundation of the Greek and Roman belief system. Part 1, Chapter 1, The Gods, provides an overview of the Olympian gods, the minor gods, and their hierarchy. Part 1, Chapter 2, The Two Great Gods of Earth, highlights two gods of great importance to the humans in the agrarian Greek culture: Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and Dionysus, god of wine. Part 1, Chapter 3, How the World and Mankind Were Created, details how the world was created through a love affair between Earth (Gaea) and Heaven (Uranus). They give rise to the Titans, the elder gods who first rule over creation until they are overthrown by their children, the Olympian gods who figure most prominently in the myths. Part 1, Chapter 4, The Earliest Heroes, retells four stories of early heroes to provide an overview of the relationships that form between the gods and mortals.

Part 2

Stories of Love and Adventure focuses first on love stories. Part 2, Chapter 1 describes the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, or love and the soul, providing a vision of love that is difficult and filled with obstacles, but that love ultimately triumphs over all. A folk version of this tale with many parallels to the original is the Nordic story East of the Sun and West of the Moon (a half bear–half man creature takes a peasant's daughter in exchange for wealth) and a much-altered version is reflected in Beauty and the Beast (a half beast–half man creature takes a merchant's daughter in exchange for his life). The love stories in Part 2, Chapter 2 present a mixed version of the nature of love, with young lovers dying and losing one another through senseless folly, older lovers who stand by one another through eternity, and lovers whose feelings go unrequited. Part 2, Chapter 3 presents the first heroic epic, the tale of Jason in The Quest of the Golden Fleece that takes him to a far land to bring a mystical object back to Greece for his glory and that of his country. Part 2, Chapter 4 presents four more stories of lesser adventures, each of which includes daring sons who strive for greatness but often fall just short of the mark because they do not listen to their fathers. Phaëthon loses control of his father Helios's chariot; Bellerophon, son of Poseidon, is unable to ride Pegasus; Otus and Ephialtes, twin sons of Poseidon, accidentally kill each other in their ambition to best the gods; and Daedalus and Icarus escape the Minotaur's labyrinth, but Icarus dies in the escape because he doesn't heed his father's warning about flying too close to the sun while wearing wings made of wax.

Part 3

The Great Heroes before the Trojan War presents four great heroes of Greece. Part 3, Chapter 1 describes Perseus's quest for the head of Medusa the Gorgon. Part 3, Chapter 2 presents the many feats of Theseus, an Athenian king known for his great wisdom as well as his courage and spirit of adventure. In Part 3, Chapter 3, the most famous of the Greek heroes, Hercules, performs feats of daring and strength, while enduring the emotional torment of killing his family in a fit of madness sent by the vengeful gods. Part 3, Chapter 4 tells the story of the Greek heroine and hunter Atalanta, less famous than her male counterparts, but just as accomplished. She is most well known for challenging her suitors to a foot race. She would marry anyone who could beat her but kill anyone she beat. Ultimately, she lost to Hippomenes, who dropped golden apples that Atalanta stopped to pick up.

Part 4

Part 4, Chapter 1, The Heroes of the Trojan War, presents the events leading up to the Trojan War, a decade-long battle between the Greek army and the city of Troy sparked when Paris, a prince of Troy, runs away with Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The battle is a long and arduous stalemate, featuring the fates of Greek heroes such as Achilles and Ajax. In Part 4, Chapter 2, the Greek hero Odysseus hatches a plan to smuggle Greek soldiers into Troy inside a giant wooden horse. These soldiers slip out of the horse by night and let the rest of the army into the city's gates, resulting in Troy's total annihilation. Part 4, Chapter 3 follows Odysseus on his journey home to Ithaca, which takes another 10 years because the Greeks offend the gods with their gratuitous violence toward the Trojans. Part 4, Chapter 4 presents the story of Troy's refugees, led by the hero Aeneas. They journey to Italy, where they found Rome under Aeneas's leadership.

Part 5

The Great Families of Mythology provides the histories of three prominent families in Greek mythology. Part 5, Chapter 1 tells of the House of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek troops in the Trojan War. The family bears a curse from an act of cannibalism perpetrated by Agamemnon's great-grandfather, and the curse is only lifted after Agamemnon's son Orestes performs an act of self-sacrifice, avenging his father's death by killing his mother. Part 5, Chapter 2 presents the history of the Royal House of Thebes, plagued by heavy misfortunes not based in any past wrongdoing. The most famous king of Thebes is Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother through many twists of fate. He bears his shame with his daughters' support, as his sons go to war for the throne. Oedipus's daughter Antigone defies the law of the city after the war, and is put to death for giving her brother a proper burial after his rebellion. Part 5, Chapter 3 provides the stories of members of the Royal House of Athens. Theseus is the most famous king of Athens, but this section tells the stories of his predecessors: a king rumored to be half dragon, sisters deceived by faithless husbands, and daughters violated by opportunistic gods.

Part 6

The Less Important Myths is something of a hodgepodge of minor myths that are well known but don't fit elsewhere. Chapter 1 tells the story of Midas, the king who foolishly wishes for everything he touches to turn to gold, as well as the early healer Aesculapius and a few others. Part 6, Chapter 1 also provides the origin story of Scylla, a maiden transformed into a fierce monster with multiple heads that torments every seafaring hero in mythology, from Jason to Aeneas. Part 6, Chapter 2 reads as a catalog of other minor myths, but presents the stories of some recognizable names, such as Orion, the hunter who becomes a prominent constellation in the night sky, and Sisyphus, a king doomed to roll a boulder uphill for all eternity.

Part 7

The Mythology of the Norsemen provides a brief overview of the Norse myths that stem from the Viking cultures of northern Europe. Part 7, Chapter 1 tells the stories of two Norse heroes. Signy is a woman who goes to elaborate lengths to avenge her father after her husband kills him. Sigurd is a Norse hero who falls in love with a Valkyrie—one of the lesser goddesses who attend heroes in the afterlife—but is tricked into marrying another woman. Through a complex series of events, the Valkyrie, Brynhild, finds out what Sigurd has done and her plan to avenge both of their deaths. This story provides the basis for the Wagner Ring Cycle, a series of four German operas based on Norse mythology that chronicle the history of the world and the struggle over a powerful ring. Part 7, Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Norse pantheon, including the most prominent gods, such as Odin (the All-father) and Thor (the Thunder-god). The Norse version of the creation story describes a world born from ice, fire, and death. Odin creates the world from the flesh and blood of his father, the Giant Ymir. Part 7, Chapter 2, and the book, concludes with aphorisms and proverbs from Norse wisdom literature, which provides common-sense advice for living.

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