Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Part Two, Chapters I–II

Baucis and Philemon  - 

The love of Baucis and Philemon is also rewarded by the gods. One day, Jupiter and Mercury (Latin Hermes) descend to earth in disguise in order to test the hospitality of the people of Phrygia. No one is kind to them except an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who are very poor. Revealing themselves, Jupiter and Mercury drown the rest of Phrygia’s wicked inhabitants in a flood and offer Baucis and Philemon any wish they desire. Modest and content, Baucis and Philemon merely ask never to live apart from one another. The two thus live to a very old age, when the gods transform them into two trees—a linden and an oak—growing out of a single trunk.

Endymion and Daphne  - 

Though they are not lovers to each other, Endymion and Daphne each have an important relation to an immortal. Endymion is a handsome young shepherd loved by Selene, the Moon, who casts a magic sleep over him so that she can visit him whenever she wants. She is always sad, however, as he can never return her love. Daphne is a beautiful, headstrong huntress-nymph whom Apollo loves. She runs away from him but he pursues her all the way to the waters of her father, the river god Peneus. Appealing for instant help, Daphne finds her arms hardening and twisting—her father turns her into a laurel tree. Apollo proclaims that the laurel will forever be his sacred tree, and, since that time, its leaves signify music, songsn and triumphs.

Alpheus and Arethusa  - 

Arethusa is another huntress who disdains marriage and is also pursued by a god—the river god Alpheus. When he is about to overtake her, she appeals to Artemis for help. Changed into a spring of water, Arethusa plunges deep into the earth. Alpheus changes himself into a river, and their waters mingle, forming a connection between the river Alpheus in Greece and Arethusa’s spring in Sicily.

Analysis: Chapters I–II

The different styles of Hamilton’s sources are apparent in these chapters. Except for the story of Endymion—which, written by the Greek Theocritus, does indeed stand out as unique—these tales all come from Latin writers, primarily Ovid. We must remember that the earliest Greek myths date from about 1000 b.c. and Hesiod’s creation stories from about 700 b.c. At this time, Greece was a violent, unstable set of city-states. Its authors faced a virtual literary void, as no one had gone before to explain the incomprehensible mysteries of life. The world of the Latin writers were very different, as many characterize the Roman world as an even more secure, luxurious, and ordered world than our own today. Rome was the largest empire known to man, and wealth and luxury abounded to the point of decadence. Light, gaudy tales of lovers were in demand, since the Romans preferred pretty accompaniments to aristocratic banquets rather than dread epics of the beginning of the world or humbling accounts of man’s modest origins.

These stories must be read in the context of such a cultural moment. Though details of Roman life are not the subject at hand, they are important to making sense of the themes of these myths and evaluating their place in the larger realm of classical mythology. Clearly, the force of love—an important force in Hesiod’s account of the creation—is given further weight here. Cupid, burnt by Psyche’s oil, cries out, “Love cannot live where there is no trust.” True love is always rewarded, even if it meets a tragic end: Pyramus and Thisbe are forever remembered by the red mulberries, and the Muses celebrate Orpheus by burying him at the foot of Mount Olympus.

The place of women in these stories deserves some scrutiny. The myths reflect the patriarchal structure of classical civilization in a variety of ways. Though, to us, Psyche’s desire to see her husband’s face is wholly understandable, she is punished nonetheless. Daphne and Arethusa, who despise marriage for the loss of independence it entails, are pursued against their will. As we have seen in the story of Pandora, classical society saw women as inferior to men and an inherent cause of evil. Nonetheless, there are numerous powerful goddesses in the Greek pantheon: Hera, who often outwits and punishes Zeus; the strong and independent Athena and Artemis; the revered Demeter; and the Fates—perhaps the most powerful beings of all—are all female, complicating the myths’ patriarchal tone.

Another major virtue that makes up the myths’ moral guidance is obedience. Psyche’s troubles stem from her disobedience of Cupid, just as Daphne’s and Arethusa’s stem from their resistance of divine lovers. Considering the gods’ occasional impulsiveness and irrationality, we may question why the Greeks felt that obedience to such capricious will was so important. Perhaps this sense of divine power and purpose gave the Greeks a sense of security, a sense that the world was less chaotic. Indeed, despite their shortcomings, the gods generally do reward the good and punish the evil, thus making sense of right and wrong. Obedience to the gods not only indicates acceptance of the world as it is, but also acceptance of the moral code of the society, critically important in a fiercely democratic culture.