Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Part Two, Chapters III–IV

Summary Part Two, Chapters III–IV
Daedalus - 

The son of master inventor Daedalus, Icarus is also prideful. The architect of the Labyrinth of Minos in Crete, Daedalus is imprisoned with his son. He builds wings for their escape but warns Icarus not to fly too high, as the sun will melt the wings. Icarus does not listen: he flies high, his wings melt, and he plummets to his death in the sea.

Analysis: Chapters III–IV

The story of Jason is the first real epic in Mythology. It follows a common pattern: a hero sets out on an adventure and must pass a number of perils and complete a number of tasks to achieve his goal. Upon returning, they must unseat a usurper and reclaim the throne. This pattern is almost exactly duplicated in the Odyssey and the stories of Aeneas, Theseus, and Hercules.

The bloody and dark story of Jason is somewhat unusual, however, as it gives no clear reason why Jason should be considered a hero. He does nothing remotely heroic in the story, aside from confronting danger without cowardice. The Lemnians unaccountably help the Argonauts, the sons of Boreas drive off the Harpies, and Phineus’s advice helps them surpass the Clashing Rocks. Jason does not really do anything in these adventures, and his next challenges—yoking the bulls, plowing, defeating the armed men, stealing the Fleece, escaping, and killing Pelias—are accomplished by the enamoured Medea, not by Jason. Yet Medea comes off as the villain at story’s end, while Jason is portrayed as her needless victim.

This portrayal of Jason as heroic and Medea as villainous stems from Greek biases against women and “barbaric” foreign civilizations. Though Jason victimizes Medea, as a foreign woman, she is given no sympathy, and is forever portrayed as an evil witch. Indeed, her acts, though performed out of love and devotion, are so shocking and horrible that she cannot possibly be a heroine. This, as we see later, is the case with other mythical figures, such as Tantalus, whose well-intentioned but gruesome acts are punished by the gods.

Indeed, intention is just as meaningless in regards to fate. The crucial theme of humility before fate and the gods resurfaces repeatedly in these stories. Pelias tries to defy fate, wrongly thinking he can avoid death at the hands of the one-sandaled man by killing him. Likewise, Phaëthon, Bellerophon, Otus, Ephialtes, and Icarus warn against the folly of trying to equal the gods. The image of Icarus is the classic symbol of “one who flew too high.” Like the crucial trait of obedience, humility before the gods represents a proper understanding of the order of the universe. Mortals secure their place in the world only by remaining subservient to divine powers.

These chapters also focus on the important virtue of hospitality. The code of hospitality—particularly the idea that once one houses a guest, one cannot harm that guest—might seem foreign to us. Aetes cannot kill Jason outright because he has fed him and housed him: “If these strangers had not eaten at my table I would kill them.” The same obligation binds Proteus to Bellerophon. Though this straightforward social code might seem odd to us today, it was, as we see in the myths, an important part of ancient civilization.