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Hamilton takes these stories from Latin poets, largely Ovid, but also borrows from the Greek tragedians, which increases the stories’ pathos and reduces their sensationalism and gory detail. The Royal House of Athens is notable in the number and degree of supernatural feats that befall its members. The ancestor is Cecrops, who in some cases is a magical half-man, half-dragon creature. Cecrops is said to have chosen Athena over Poseidon to be the protector of Athens. The angered Poseidon floods the land, and the men of Athens, who have voted for the god, take the vote away from the more numerous women. In other stories, Cecrops is merely the son of Erechtheus, a great Athenian king. Erechtheus has two sisters, Procne and Philomela. Procne is married to Tereus, a son of Ares. When Tereus sees the lovely Philomela, he seduces her into a false marriage by telling her that Procne has died. When Philomela learns the truth, Tereus cuts out her tongue and imprisons her to prevent her from telling anyone. He then tells Procne that Philomela has died. But Philomela weaves a beautiful tapestry as a gift for her sister and secretly embroiders into it the story of her troubles. Procne then rescues her sister and, for revenge, kills Itys—her son with Tereus—and cooks him and serves him to his father. The women escape, but Tereus pursues. As he is about to catch them, the gods take pity on the women and turn them into birds: Procne becomes the beautiful singing nightingale, the tongueless Philomela into the songless swallow.
Erechtheus also has a daughter, Procris, who is married to Cephalus. Just after their wedding, Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, falls in love with Cephalus and kidnaps him. He resists her advances and finally she gives up but not before spitefully planting the suggestion that his wife may not have been faithful as he has. To test it, Cephalus returns home disguised as a stranger and repeatedly tries to seduce Procris, but she always remains faithful to her missing husband. One day, however, she briefly hesitates before rejecting his advances. He becomes angry and reveals his deception, and Procris runs away, furious. Realizing his error, Cephalus follows and apologizes. The two reunite, but tragedy strikes again later when, while hunting, Cephalus accidentally kills Procris with his javelin.
Two of Procris’s sisters also have tragic love stories. One, Orithyia, wins the heart of Boreas, the North Wind. Her family opposes the marriage, but Boreas carries the girl off. Creüsa is kidnapped and raped by Apollo. Shamed at the encounter, she bears their baby boy in secret and leaves him to die in the same cave where Apollo assaulted her. Creüsa later feels guilty and goes to retrieve him, but he has vanished. Her father, meanwhile, has married her to a man named Xuthus. Unable to conceive a child, the pair go to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. While Xuthus confers with one of the priests, Creüsa speaks to a beautiful young priest named Ion, wanting to ask, out of Xuthus’s earshot, what happened to the baby she abandoned. Xuthus suddenly appears and hugs Ion, saying that Apollo has told him that Ion will become his own son. An older priestess reveals that she found Ion as a baby, wrapped in a cloak and veil. Creüsa recognizes the garments as her own and realizes that Ion is her son. Athena then appears and confirms this revelation, announcing that Ion will one day become a great king of Athens.
Midas, a king of Phrygia, performs a favor for Bacchus and is granted one wish in return. Midas foolishly wishes for the power to turn everything he touches into gold. As a result he is unable to eat or drink. Bacchus tells Midas to wash himself in the river Pactolus to remove the spell. Midas later serves as the judge of a music contest between Apollo and Pan. When Midas stupidly calls Pan the better musician, Apollo changes his ears to those of a donkey.
Apollo once loved a mortal woman named Coronis who, for a change, cheats on him. He learns of the treachery and kills her but saves her unborn child. He takes the infant boy, Aesculapius, to the centaur Chiron, who raises him and trains him in the arts of medicine. Aesculapius is such a good doctor that he raises a man, Theseus’s son Hippolytus, from the dead. Because this is a power no mortal should have, the angry Zeus strikes Aesculapius dead with a thunderbolt. Apollo, enraged at his son’s death, attacks the Cyclopes, makers of Zeus’s thunderbolts. Zeus condemns Apollo to serve as a slave to King Admetus for a number of years.
The fifty daughters of Danaüs, the Danaïds are pursued by their fifty male cousins. Danaüs is opposed to the marriages, but the men somehow capture the women and arrange for a gigantic marriage ceremony. Danaüs gives each daughter a dagger. On the wedding night, each girl except one, Hypermnestra, kills her new husband. Danaüs imprisons Hypermnestra for her treachery, but the other girls receive worse torment in the afterlife. They must fill a series of jars with water. The jars are full of holes, so their task never ends.
A fisherman who eats magic grass, Glaucus becomes a sea-god. He falls in love with the nymph Scylla, who resists his advances. He asks Circe for a love potion, but she falls in love with him. Circe instead makes a magic poison and pours it into Scylla’s bath water. When Scylla touches the water, she becomes the famous rock-monster that later torments the Argonauts, Odysseus, and Aeneas.
Erysichthon dared to cut down Ceres’ (Demeter’s) sacred giant oak tree. As punishment, Ceres condemns him to starve to death, no matter how much food he eats. He sells everything he has, including his daughter, for food. His daughter prays to Poseidon to free her from slavery, and the god helps her by transforming her into a fisherman so that her master will not recognize her. She returns to her father, and they perpetrate the scheme again and again: Erysichthon sells her into slavery, and she then transforms and escapes. Erysichthon remains hungry, however, and he finally dies of starvation.
Pomona, a Roman nymph, loves only her fruit orchards. Vertumnus loves her, but she ignores him. One day, he sneaks into her orchard disguised as an old woman, slips up to her, and kisses her. In disguise, he explains that a youth named Vertumnus cares for her and for the same fruit trees she loves. He reminds her that Venus hates women who reject love. He reveals himself as Vertumnus. Pomona relents, and the two cultivate the orchard for the rest of their lives.
Note: As this chapter summarizes what Hamilton categorizes as less important myths, the following is a brief listing and summary of several of the most recognizable characters.
Minerva’s equal at weaving, whom the jealous goddess changes into the ever-weaving spider.
A girl who attracts Zeus’s fancy and whom Hera turns into a bear. Zeus rescues her and makes her into stars.
The great centaur whom Hercules accidentally kills.
A man who sleeps for fifty-seven years, then later cures Athens of a plague.
Six daughters of Atlas who raise Dionysus and, as a reward, are transformed into stars.
Impregnated by Zeus, she mothers Artemis and Apollo.
A great hunter, he becomes a constellation after death.
Fierce soldiers whom Zeus creates out of ants, they later serve as Achilles’ soldiers.
Seven daughters of Atlas whom Orion pursues. Changed into stars, two of them have famous children.
He angers Zeus and is punished in Hades with the task of pushing uphill a rock that eternally rolls back down.
The final Greek and Roman myths are full of minor characters and stories. A few names—Orion, Sisyphus, Arachne—are familiar, but most of these stories are obscure. They do not display much thematic unity but are largely a potpourri of themes we have seen earlier. Indeed, what the pattern that emerges is the simplicity of most of these stories. Unlike the complex heroic epics, many of these are fables or simple tales of good and evil. They fit nicely with the moral and cultural world we have already seen: we again see the power and reward of love, the importance of obedience to the gods, and the inflexibility of fate. What is striking is the straightforwardness of the stories’ moral lessons: the Danaïds kill their husbands and are punished; Coronis is unfaithful to Apollo and is killed. In contrast, the stories of Odysseus or Orestes are full of complexity, ambiguity, and struggle, with difficult moral questions and protagonists with great depth of character. The characters of these simpler myths have survived largely as conceits upon which to overlay artistic creations or as rigid symbols with clear denotations. Hero and Leander, for example, occur in literature as the stereotypical star-crossed lovers, while Arachne represents the arrogance of a human when she makes objects she deems equal to Nature or the work of the gods.
The one well-developed story here—that of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus—is alien to our modern sensibility and even, perhaps, bears the marks of an earlier stage of Greek civilization. Hamilton implies this idea when she notes that Philomela lived so long ago that it was before writing was invented, which is why she was forced to weave her story. Philomela’s choice of medium has made her story a rich analogy for issues of representation and self-expression, particularly for women. Scholars and critics have wondered what it might mean to be stripped of one’s voice, whether by self, by society, or by trauma. Perhaps the most famous usage of Philomela in this regard is in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Broken lines in Eliot’s poem, such as the one word “Tereu,” enact Philomela’s inability to name what has happened to her and her heartbreaking struggle to regain her voice. Eliot uses the metaphor to describe the devastation in Europe after World War I. Despite Philomela’s resonance in Western culture, nowhere does she, Procne, or Tereus attain the gravity, depth of character, sense of moral agency, and emotional repercussions we see in Orestes and Oedipus.
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