Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Dominance of Fate
Fate was of great concern to the Greeks, and its workings resonate through many of their myths and texts. We see countless characters who go to great lengths in attempts to alter fate, even if they know such an aim to be futile. The inability of any mortal or immortal to change prescribed outcomes stems from the three Fates: sisters Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who assigns each person’s destiny; and Atropos, who carries the scissors to snip the thread of life at its end. These three divinities pervade all the stories of Greek myth, whether they be stories of gods, goddesses, demigods, heroes, or mortals and regardless of the exploits recounted. Nothing can be done to alter or prolong the destiny of one’s life, regardless of the number of preparations or precautions taken. This inflexibility applies just as much to Zeus as to the lowliest mortal, as we see in Zeus’s hounding of Prometheus to divulge the name of the woman who will bear the offspring that one day will kill him.
Though this lesson is somewhat consoling—the way of the world cannot be bent to match the whims of those in authority—it is also very disturbing. The prospect of free will seems rather remote, and even acts of great valor and bravery seem completely useless. The myths provide an interesting counterpoint to this uselessness, however. In virtually all the stories in which a character does everything in his power to block a negative fate, and yet falls prey to it, we see that his efforts to subvert fate typically provide exactly the circumstances required for the prescribed fate to arise. In other words, the resisting characers themselves provide the path to fate’s fulfillment.
A perfect example is the king of Thebes, who has learned that his son, Oedipus, will one day kill him. The king takes steps to ensure Oedipus’s death but ends up ensuring only that he and Oedipus fail to recognize each other when they meet on the road many years later. This lack of recognition enables a dispute in which Oedipus slays his father without thinking twice. It is the king’s exercise of free will, then, that ironically binds him even more surely to the thread of destiny. This mysterious, inexplicable twinning between will and fate is visible in many the stories and philosophical treatises of the Greeks.
Bloodshed Begets Bloodshed
Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, Euripides’ plays, and Homer’s two great epics all demonstrate the irreparable persistence of bloodshed within Greek mythology that leads to death upon death. The royal house of Atreus is most marked in this regard: the house’s ancestor, Tantalus, inexplicably cooks up his child and serves him to the gods, offending the deities and cursing the entire house with the spilling of its blood from generation to generation. We see the curse manifest when Atreus himself kills his brother’s son and serves him up—an act of vengeance for wrong-doing done to him. Atreus’s son, Agamemnon, then sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, as he has been told it will procure good sailing winds for the Greeks to start off to Troy. Rather, this deed leads his wife, Clytemnestra, to kill him on his first night home, with support from his cousin Aegisthus, who is in turn avenging Atreus’s crimes. Last but not least, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, comes back to kill his mother and Aegisthus. Only two members remain in the House of Atreus: Orestes and his sister Electra. Everyone else has been foully murdered in this bloody chain of events.
Though these characters have brought terrible violence upon those to whom they owed bonds of love and loyalty, they are still not wholly condemnable. Orestes knows that he will incur the wrath of the Furies and the gods in committing matricide. As terrible as matricide is, Orestes would be even more in the wrong if he let his father’s death go unpunished. Clytemnestra no doubt follows a similar rationale, as she cannot allow Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter to stand unavenged. Even this is not the beginning of the chain: Agamemnon felt he had no choice but to sacrifice Iphigenia, since his only other option was to break the oath he made to Menelaus years before. Indeed, the whole line of Atreus is cursed with such irresolvable dilemmas, the outcome of divine anger at Tantalus’s horrific and unprompted sacrifice of his son. In this slippery world of confusing and conflicting ethics, the only certainty is that bloodshed merely begets more bloodshed.
The Danger of Arrogance and Hubris
In many myths, mortals who display arrogance and hubris end up learning, in quite brutal ways, the folly of this overexertion of ego. The Greek concept of hubris refers to the overweening pride of humans who hold themselves up as equals to the gods. Hubris is one of the worst traits one can exhibit in the world of ancient Greece and invariably brings the worst kind of destruction.
The story of Niobe is a prime example of the danger of arrogance. Niobe has the audacity to compare herself to Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo, thus elevating herself and her children to the level of the divine. Insulted, the two gods strike all of Niobe’s children dead and turn her into a rock that perpetually weeps. Likewise, young Phaëthon, who pridefully believes he can drive the chariot of his father, the Sun, loses control and burns everything in sight before Zeus knocks him from the sky with a thunderbolt. Similar warnings against hubris are found in the stories of Bellerophon, who bridles the winged Pegasus and tries to ride up to Olympus and join the deities’ revelry, and Arachne, who challenges Athena to a weaving contest and is changed into a spider as punishment. Indeed, any type of hubris or arrogance, no matter the circumstance, is an attitude that no god will leave unpunished.
Reward for Goodness and Retribution for Evil
The Greeks and Romans incorporated aspects of their ethical codes in their myths. In a sense, these stories are manuals of morality, providing models for correct conduct with examples of which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished. The clearest example is the story of Baucis and Philemon, an impoverished old couple who show kindness to the disguised Jupiter and Mercury. Of everyone in the city, only Baucis and Philemon are generous with their humble hospitality. Jupiter and Mercury reward them and destroy all the other inhabitants of the area. The lesson is clear: the gods judge our moral actions and dispense blessings or curses accordingly.
The idea of these myths as moral guides is not unlike the Judeo-Christian morality tales in the Bible. However, while the God of the Bible is an infallible moral authority, the gods who judge good and evil in classical myth harbor their own flaws. They have favorites and enemies, often for vain reasons—Hera’s jealousy, for example, predisposes her against several entirely innocent women—and are capable of switching sides or abandoning their favorites for no clear reason, as Apollo does to Hector just as Hector faces Achilles in combat. Aside from their prejudices, of course, the gods are poor moral judges because they frequently act immorally themselves, philandering, raping, lying, and callously using innocent mortals as pawns.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
The Hero’s Quest
The story of a hero with a quest frequently recurs in mythology. Many of these stories are similar: a hero is born, raised in poverty by foster parents or a single mother, and at a certain age ventures forth to reclaim his patrimony. He is charged with some very difficult task and is offered the hand of a noble woman in marriage upon his success. By accomplishing these tasks, the otherwise unknown hero demonstrates his fitness to take on his father’s throne. This framework is subject to some degree of variation, of course, but it holds true for many of the hero stories Hamilton retells in Mythology.
Theseus is the perfect example: though raised far from Athens, he proves himself—from the moment he departs toward his father—a decent and upstanding heir by ridding the highway of bandits. Perseus, Hercules, Achilles, and others offer small variations on this framework of the hero’s quest. Interestingly, however, Odysseus, whose name has come to be synonymous with the hero and quest, offers a notable difference from the archetype. He does not grow up away from his parents, and he is already married and undergoes an arduous journey on his return home after battle. This difference, perhaps, explains why Odysseus strongly resonates as a more modern character relevant to present times.
Beauty in all its forms figures prominently in Hamilton’s Mythology, particularly in the Greek myths, which ascribe an immeasurable value to beauty. Though appreciation of beauty is hardly a surprising find, it may seem superficial to see aesthetic and artistic beauty given such a prominent place in myths that also purport to be religious or moral guides.
Nonetheless, the assertion that beautiful is better pervades the myths. It is evident in Zeus’s and Apollo’s philandering, Orpheus’s winning over of Hades with his lovely music, the sparking of the Trojan War over Helen’s legendary loveliness, and Hera’s and Athena’s bitterness at Paris’s preference for Aphrodite’s fairness. With these myths in mind, we see that, in the classical worldview, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but rather a verifiable, objective actuality about which even the gods must agree.
The seemingly indefinable notion of love is an important agent in much of Mythology, the source for many rewards, punishments, motivations, and deceptions. The myths treat love in a way that is different from most of our modern-day ideas of love. In creation myths, love is described as a force, and it is out of love that Earth arises. There are actually very few ordinary love stories, at least in our traditional sense of the word, with a man and woman bonding in romance and living happily ever after. There are, rather, several tragic tales, as those of Pyramus and Thisbe or Ceyx and Alcyone, as well as many stories of unrequited love, such as Polyphemus and Galatea or Echo and Narcissus.
Broadening the myth’s exploration of love and lust are tales of kidnapping and rape, such as Hades and Persephone or Apollo and Creusa. There are instances in which one party—always the woman—loves so strongly and under such false premises that it spells disaster for her. Such are the cases of Medea, Ariadne, and Dido, all of whom give themselves over to love, heart and soul—betraying their own families—only to have the men whom they love heartlessly move on after the women’s usefulness is expended. These tales perhaps imply a cautionary warning that blood is thicker than water and that a bride’s family by marriage is never as trustworthy as her birth family, to whom she truly owes allegiance.
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.
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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