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Mythology

Edith Hamilton

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Zeus

Though Zeus (Jupiter or Jove) is the closest figure in mythology to an omnipotent ruler, he is far from all-powerful. He also lacks the perfection we might expect in a divine ruler. However, this imperfection is only a detriment if we view Zeus as a moral authority, which, according to his stories, he is not. Hamilton portrays Zeus as both an agent and victim of fate. As ruler of the gods, Zeus is destined to overthrow his father, Cronus, who himself became lord of the universe after overthrowing his own father, Heaven. Cronus’s inability to prevent his overthrow is the first example we see of the inevitability of fate—a recurring theme in mythological stories. Even Zeus himself is fated to be overthrown by one who is yet unborn.

Zeus attempts to learn the identity of his future overthrower from Prometheus but continues his daily habit of revelry, sometimes at the expense of innocent mortals and other gods. Always conscious of what he sees as an insurmountable difference between gods and humans, he has no pity for mortals. It is perhaps this essential lack of sympathy that enables Zeus to toy with humans heartlessly, raping and ruining the lives of many women, who seem to exist only for his pleasure. Yet this behavior only represents one side of Zeus’s character; the other, more evolved side is his role as the divine upholder of justice for both gods and humans.

Odysseus

Odysseus, king of Ithaca, is one of the best-known ancient Greek heroes. Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid both portray Odysseus as, if not the strongest Greek chieftain in the Trojan War, certainly the smartest and likely the most valuable. He is entrusted with any task that requires more than brute force, from drawing the great Achilles into the Greek army to inventing the tactic of the Trojan Horse—the ruse that finally enabled the Greeks to win the war. Odysseus’s sharp wit works wonders that no feat of arms can achieve. It is in reflection of this worth that Odysseus is given the fallen Achilles’ armor, the highest honor for a warrior.

Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey, records Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca from Troy. It is the first—and until the Aeneid, the only—large-scale classical work focusing on one character. As such, Homer gives Odysseus a depth of character and richness of psychological texture lacking in other classical protagonists. Without supernatural powers or divine heritage, Odysseus must rely on his own shrewd intellect to survive—a human and modern approach to the challenges and temptations he encounters.

Oedipus

Oedipus is remembered today largely in the context of the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, as the mythic archetype of the allegedly universal psychic phenomenon that men unconsciously desire to kill their fathers and have sexual relations with their mothers. Regardless of the validity of Freud’s theory, it is important to note that the theory does not provide a wholly accurate description of the Oedipus of classical mythology. Indeed, Oedipus does end up killing his father and marrying his mother, but he does so entirely without awareness. It is interesting that Freud looks to Oedipus as an incarnation of a supposedly universal trait, as there is indeed much in the story of Oedipus that makes him resonate in universal ways. First, and most apparent, is the case of the riddle of the Sphinx, which Oedipus solves at the gates of Thebes. The Sphinx asks which creature walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening. Oedipus’s answer is man, because man crawls as a baby, walks upright in maturity, and walks with a cane in old age. Perhaps the most direct and universal statement on the nature of man to be found in classical myth, this riddle retains its accuracy even today and still lies within our own power to answer.

Oedipus’s subtler universality is evident later, when he learns the incredible truth about his mother and father. In despair, he puts out his own eyes and leaves his city to wander and eventually die. This form of self-punishment is an unusual choice: while we imagine he might choose to kill himself like his mother or the Sphinx have, his choice to blind himself is a poignant statement on the human condition. In putting out his eyes, Oedipus creates an actual, physical manifestation of what he understands his condition as a human being to be—that we are often blind to our true fate and, as a result, do not know the consequences of our actions. Oedipus thus also acknowledges that fate guides our steps from birth to death, brooding over us however or wherever we wander through life.

Medea

Though Medea is generally less popular than some of the major male heroes of classical mythology, her story retains remarkable poignancy to this day. A princess from Colchis on the Black Sea, she first appears during the tale of Jason, a prince of Greece whose life she saves and for whom she secures the Golden Fleece, the object of his quest. After living with Medea as his wife for several years, Jason cruelly abandons her. Rather than meekly accept this wrong, Medea takes full vengeance on Jason—though at a terrible cost to herself—by killing his new bride and father-in-law, as well as the two small children she and Jason had together. Medea then rides off in a chariot drawn by dragons, which she is able to do because she is both a sorceress and a descendent of a god.

Medea is arguably the strongest non-Olympian woman in all of Greek mythology. There are many other wronged women in these myths: Dido and Ariadne, like Medea, sacrifice much to benefit their lovers and are also abandoned, while scores of other women are seduced or raped by the gods. However, many of the other female non-deities are either vain and jealous (Cassiopeia, the wicked stepmother Ino, and Hercules’ wife Deianira) or stupid, calm, and voicelessly beautiful (Helen, who more closely resembles a snow-white heifer than a person). Though it is Jason who openly breaks his oath to the gods by promising fidelity to Medea, it is she who is demonized by classical tradition, with its condemning portrayal of her murderous act and her unremorseful flight from Earth. The reason for this is unclear, as it appears more complex than simple gender inequity. Medea represents certain aspects of culture that Greek society repressed: first, she is a “barbarian,” from part of the vilified non-Greek world; and second, she is a witch and, as such, belongs to an earlier universe of religious beliefs and superstitions that were replaced by the Greek worldview. Even these considerations, however, do not entirely explain Medea’s nature or the reception she receives—which is perhaps why, even today, her complicated, wounded, and misunderstood character remains a subject of fascination.

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"god"

by Alleeeson, August 08, 2012

On page 380 I found it really interesting that Oedipus said " ' For the love of God, ' " a couple of times. I thought they might say for the love of the gods (plural) since they honored many not just one. Or was God considered Zeus to them?

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