Mythology Summary and Analysis
Tantalus and Niobe; Iphigenia Among the Taurians
Tantalus is a son of Zeus who is extremely well-liked by the gods until he plays a malicious trick. He murders his son Pelops and tries to feed Pelops to the gods without their knowledge. Of course, they all see through the trick. As punishment, they put Tantalus in Hades in a pool full of water. But the water always recedes as he tries to drink from it. Similarly, trees above him bear beautiful fruit, but the instant he reaches for them, they recede. Thus "tantalized," Tantalus will neither drink nor eat for eternity.
The gods also bring Pelops back to life. He has a daughter, Niobe. Like Tantalus, Niobe believes herself to be better than the gods. As a queen with seven strong sons and seven beautiful daughters, Niobe feels superior to the goddess Leto, and she tells her subjects to worship her instead of Leto. But Artemis and Apollo shoot deadly arrows into Niobe's fourteen children. Niobe cries until she turns into a stone that is always covered with tears, night and day.
Greek hunters kill one of Artemis's favorite wild animals. To win back her affection, they must sacrifice a young girl, Iphigenia. Just as the knife falls on her neck, however, she disappears. In this version of the tale, Athena has relocated the girl to the land of the Taurians. Iphigenia is made queen and forced to arrange the death of any Greek person who happens upon the island. She is very depressed and misses home for a long time.
One day, Iphigenia's younger brother Orestes and his friend Pylades arrive. Orestes accidentally killed his mother, and in order to cleanse himself, the gods told him, he must go to the land of the Taurians. Wracked with guilt, Oretes assumed he would meet his death on the island. Indeed, Iphigenia almost kills him, but just in time they realize their kinship, and they escape the island together.
Unfortunately, wind blows their ship back to land. The king almost kills his treacherous wife and her brother, but Athena steps in and, with the help of Poseidon, arranges for their safe travel.
In the stories of both Tantalus and Niobe, the gods do not tolerate challenges from mortals. The harsh punishment dealt to both characters serves as a reminder that humans should never try to put themselves on the level of or even ahead of the gods. The punishment for Tantalus is fitting in that his crime also involved eating. Leto’s punishment is to lose her children, who were central to her pride. Tantalus deserves special punishment for being a father who kills his own son, unlike the other fathers in almost all the other myths.
The harsh punishment of the gods shows that they have no mercy in dealing punishment to such egoists. The image of Artemis murdering all of Niobe's children stands out as a particularly vivid display of divine superiority. The theme of human and godly status recurs throughout the Greek myths, but nowhere is it more clear that the gods do not appreciate any human believing himself to be more than he is.
The stories of Tantalus and Niobe reveal the interconnected nature of the tales, as Niobe is Tantalus's granddaughter. Does such egoism run in the family? Why are two characters, separated by two generations, so very similar to one another? The parallels between the characters are too clear to ignore.
Hamilton's version of the myth of Iphigenia displays the power of familial loyalty as well as the willingness of gods sometimes to protect humans. Twice in the tale, Athena steps in at the last moment to directly alter Iphigenia’s fate. Iphigenia was innocent from the start, and perhaps she cannot be faulted for wanting to escape the island. But indeed she is guilty of trying to escape and of failing to kill her brother according to the law of the Taurians. Whether Iphigenia is truly guilty or innocent, Athena brings her justice to the situation.
As for family loyalties, Iphigenia reveals that no bond is more powerful than that which she feels for her brother. Orestes, who accidentally killed his mother, also feels the importance of family loyalty. Similarly, the recurring theme of the tragic mistake arises again in this tale. Since the gods do help the brother and sister, it seems that there may be a measure of forgiveness for innocent but tragic acts. Perhaps because Orestes assumed he would meet his death on the desert island, the gods took pity on him. In any case, the family bond between brother and sister remains intact despite all other circumstances.
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