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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Themes



Mythologies often provide explanations for natural phenomena that are otherwise difficult to explain. In this sense, they represent an early form of science. For example, Greek mythology explains the onset of autumn and winter with the myth of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and agriculture who mourns for her daughter Persephone during the four months Persephone must live with her husband, Hades, in the underworld. When Persephone returns to her mother, the world blooms in spring.


The heroes of mythology present the ideal traits most valued by a given society. For example, Theseus is an ideal hero for Athens because he embodies ideals of reason and justice, along with physical strength and a spirit of adventure. The rest of Greece idealized Hercules much more because they valued his physical strength against all else. In Norse culture, the gods and heroes fight against impossible odds and often lose what they value most, which reflects the culture's esteem for perseverance in harsh circumstances. Hero stories also tend to follow at least some of the same steps in a pattern Joseph Campbell identified as the "heroic cycle" or "hero's journey" in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Love is often the driving force behind heroic acts in Greek mythology. Poet, musician, and prophet Orpheus braves the underworld to rescue his wife. Hercules completes his 12 labors to atone for the deaths of his family because he loves them. Odysseus's love for his wife and child make him brave 10 years of trials at sea. At the same time, love—or something like love—can also be a force for destruction. Hera ruins the lives of every woman Zeus seduces out of her jealous love for her husband. Paris's and Menelaus's love for Helen ignites the Trojan War, which causes a decade of destruction and death, culminating in the collapse of the city of Troy.

It might also be argued that love becomes a disguise for the quest for patriarchal power. Menelaus may have been more interested in possessing Helen than in loving her. His cousin Agamemnon is not much different, treating his daughter Iphigenia like a possession when he sacrifices her to the gods to get the wind to take the ships to Troy. This act (among others) earns him the wrath of her mother, Clytemnestra.

Reward and Punishment

Sometimes the gods reward good behavior. Heroes and other notable mortals live in the paradise of Elysian Fields after they die. Hercules is allowed to live in Olympus after his death. Many myths describe mortals being allowed to live on as various kinds of animals instead of dying; birds are an especially popular choice.

In many other cases, the gods harshly punish perceived slights or disrespect, sometimes at levels disproportionate to the offense committed. The entire Trojan War is driven by the whims of the gods. Hera wants an entire city wiped out because one man judged another goddess more beautiful than she. Athena, however, appears in different forms to give good and sensible advice to avoid bloodshed. The other gods intervene to help their preferred sides and hinder their enemies throughout the war. Odysseus is punished more severely than many others for the actions of his soldiers more than his own deeds, and is forced to endure a 10-year odyssey to reach home.


Roles and expectations for men and women are strictly defined in the myths. While the Olympian goddesses wield considerable power—in many instances, Zeus himself fears the wrath of his wife, Hera—most mortal women in mythology exercise much more limited power. While the heroes such as Jason, Perseus, Hercules, Odysseus, Aeneas, and others are defined by their strength, cleverness, and daring as they move through various adventures and quests, few women encounter similar opportunities. The women in mythology are chiefly valued for their beauty. They serve as catalysts or assistants in the hero's journey, as is the case for Medea in Jason's quest and Dido in Aeneas's quest. Helen of Troy is the great catalyst for the brutal Trojan War. Sometimes women are presented as a kind of reward for the hero, such as Andromeda for Perseus. Odysseus's wife, Penelope, demonstrates intelligence and cunning to match her husband, but she is stuck at home while her husband travels the world. In other myths and stories, it is common to see women punished severely for exerting independence or power.

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Questions for Themes

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How would you explain how a good, loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil in his creation?
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In Of Queen’s Gardens , John Ruskin echoes gender norms in the Victorian period. Ruskin states, The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer
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