by: Edith Hamilton


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Cannibalism, eating the flesh of one’s own kind, is disturbingly present in Mythology. While it might seem repulsive to include cannibalistic details within a story, there are a strikingly large number of myths in which people—for the most part children—are sliced, cooked, and eaten. Aside from Tantalus’s inexplicably poor decision to serve his son to the gods, we see several stories in which the cannibalism of one’s children serves as the sweetest revenge—as Atreus exacts it upon his brother, and Procne upon her husband, Tereus. Even Cronus, the father of Zeus and lord of the universe, methodically swallows his children one by one in an attempt to forestall his downfall. Though the prevalence of cannibalism in these myths might lead us to believe that the practice was accepted in classical society, we see that cannibalism is severely punished in each case. Why it occurs so frequently in the first place remains a mystery.

Perhaps the roots of cannibalism lie in human sacrifice, the same source Hamilton identifies in the flower myths of Hyacinth and Adonis. As we see, these sacrifices are unwanted by the gods and typically punished severely, an indictment of both cannibalism and human sacrifice. In this regard, it is interesting to note the one instance in which a god actually does want such a sacrifice: Artemis’s call for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Significantly, in a later telling of this myth, Artemis miraculously saves the girl instead.


As civilizations prized for their art, it is no wonder that the Greeks and Romans retained a mythology that elevates art to a divine practice or at least one that almost consistently pleases the divine. The most prominent examples of mythological artistry are Pygmalion’s beloved statue Galatea, Arachne’s tapestry, and the poet who is the one person Odysseus spares from death at the end of the Odyssey. Both gods and mortals in the myths understand the power and influence of art almost as they do the unwritten rules of fate.

On a literary level, the symbol of art serves a glorifying purpose, staking a claim for the power of the text itself. This self-glorification is perhaps most obvious in Homer: Odysseus spares the poet, unlike the priest whom he has just dispatched, because he is loath to kill “such a man, taught by the gods to sing divinely.” In a less than subtle way, Homer is hinting that he himself is one such sacred, divinely touched creature. In addition to this self-glorification, art is used to link men with their gods, as the gods not only appreciate art, but actually make it themselves. Apollo is proud of his lyre, Pan of his set of pipes, and Hephaestus of the artisanship of the fine products of his smithy. Art, then, is symbolically and literally a bridge between mortals and gods.