Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Themes

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.