Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Part One, Chapters III–IV

Summary Part One, Chapters III–IV

Flower-Myths: Narcissus, Hyacinth, Adonis  - 

Several floral-origin myths tell how the narcissus, hyacinth, and blood-red anemone flowers came into being. There are two stories of the narcissus. In the first, Zeus creates it as a bait to help Hades kidnap Persephone. The second and more famous tale concerns a handsome young man named Narcissus. Self-obsessed, he constantly breaks the hearts of others enamored of his beauty, including the nymph Echo—who could only repeat what was said to her, hence the modern meaning of echo. Finally, the goddess Nemesis, who is the personification of righteous anger, punishes Narcissus, allowing him to love no one but himself. He dies gazing at his own face in a pool of water, unable to break free from the sight. The nymphs who have loved him, albeit unrequitedly, create a flower in his name.

The hyacinth is created when Apollo accidentally kills his dear friend Hyacinth with a discus (in another version, jealous Zephyr, the West Wind, caused it to strike Hyacinth). Apollo makes the flower as a remembrance of his companion. The red anemone has a similar story. Adonis—a youth so handsome that even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is enamored—is loved by everyone who sees him. Persephone and Aphrodite share him until a boar gores him during a hunt. Adonis goes forever to Persephone’s realm of the dead, and the red anemone springs up where his blood hit the earth.

Analysis: Chapters III–IV

These stories establish the fundamentals of Greek civilization very broadly, but the details leave us a strangely incomplete picture of the origins of civilization. Phenomena that we understand in other ways find wholly different explanations. In Greek myth, the universe creates its own gods, while we are used to it happening the other way around. Moreover, the Greeks consider the earth to be a flat disk surrounded by a river named Ocean, beyond which live strange, inaccessible peoples, rather than as a spherical globe that orbits a star.

Perhaps the most strikingly foreign elements in these stories are the violence, incest, and immorality that lie at their heart. Zeus kills his father Cronus, who himself has wounded his father Heaven gravely. Earth and Heaven have both a mother-son and husband-wife relationship, just as Zeus and Hera have both a brother-sister and husband-wife relationship. Zeus is cruel to Prometheus, just as Hera is cruel to the innocent women Zeus seduces. Meanwhile, humanity’s lot is one of death, destruction, and inevitable doom at the hand of Zeus—who will himself one day be overthrown.

Hamilton believes that this sinister tone—found even in the flower myths—is a vestigial trace from an older tradition. She points out that, although human sacrifice was not a part of Greek culture when these myths were written down, the connection between human blood and the growth in the fields suggests an older time when such sacrifice was used to promote springtime growth. The constant pain, deceit, and violence of the myths are not merely relics, however, but also reflect aspects of real life in the ancient world. As wars were common and existence was difficult, it makes sense that even the divine members of this world mirror this hardship.

These early myths, however, also emphasize noble values. Perhaps most surprising is the central motif of love: despite the violence and darkness, love remains the primary and essential virtue of the myths—the inexplicable force at the center of the creation of Heaven and Earth. Love is constantly celebrated in the morals of the stories: Prometheus displays noble, selfless love for humanity; Zeus’s crime against his father is forgivable because he is acting out of filial love and obedience; Apollo’s love for Hyacinth and Aphrodite’s love for Adonis create beautiful flowers out of their lovers’ blood; and Zeus’s indiscretions can be interpreted as more than mere maliciousness because they come out of love, not a desire to cause further rupture with his wife. Perhaps most telling of all, the cruel punishment given to Narcissus is his incapacity to really love anybody. Love is important because it inspires kindness and trust—the moral foundation upon which Greek civilization rests.

Another value stressed here is justified rebellion against unjust authority. Prometheus embodies this virtue, defying Zeus repeatedly to help mankind, even in the face of terrible torture. Zeus himself defies his father in the face of injustice. Violence is a constant in the world, but the myths help make sense of it by drawing the distinction between cruel violence and justified violence. As we can see, justified violence often results in rewards—as Zeus becomes ruler of the Heavens—while cruel violence only begets retribution.

These hallmarks—love, trust, the glory of rebellion against unjust authority, and the idea of reward for upright actions and retribution for evil—form the core of the myth’s moral element. The Greeks used these myths to guide their actions, separating good from evil, what pleases the gods from what displeases them, what results in fortune from what results in misfortune. Yet a stranger, subtler role of fate also braids itself into this pattern. Time and again, the gods and other supernatural beings try to thwart their fates and fail. Cronus’s attempt to prevent his overthrow only plants the very seed that ensures that downfall, making Rhea so miserable that she saves Zeus, who subsequently kills Cronus. These themes—which come up again and again in the stories to come, most notably in the story of Oedipus—reflect the ancient Greeks’ puzzlement over the workings of the world and the reason that good deeds sometimes reap unhappiness. In these myths, then, we see the groping for answers that perhaps introduced the Greeks to philosophy.