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.