Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
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

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.

Love

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.