Mythology Summary and Analysis
Pyramus and Thisbe; Orpheus and Eurydice; Ceyx and Alcyone; Pygmalion and Galetea
Pyramus and Thisbe are madly in love and live in houses next to each other. Their parents, however, forbid their romance and build a wall between the houses. The lovers find a chink in the wall through which they speak and kiss one another. One night they decide to run away together, meeting at the Tomb of Ninus. Thisbe arrives first, and she sees a terrifying lioness with blood on its mouth. She runs away in fear, dropping her cloak. The lioness tears up the cloak and bloodies it. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the cloak, assumes his lover has died, and kills himself in sorrow. Thisbe returns, sees Pyramus' body, and kills herself with the same knife. From then on, mulberries take on the dark red color of their blood, making the lovers' bond eternal.
Orpheus is the most talented musician alive, rivaling only the gods. He falls in love with Eurydice, but a viper stings her and she dies. Devastated, Orpheus travels down into the underworld to beg her return. He successfully charms the creatures of death with his sweet music, and finally Hades agrees to give Eurydice back to Orpheus on one condition: Orpheus must not look back at his wife as she follows him back above ground. Just before the two lovers return to the light, Orpheus cannot wait any longer and looks back. He sees his wife disappearing, saying "farewell."
Ceyx and Alcyone are married happily until the day when Ceyx decides to journey across the ocean. Knowing the dangers of the sea, Alcyone begs him not to go, or at least to take her with him. But Ceyx declines her offer and sets out without her. On the first night of the journey, a storm ravages his ship, and Ceyx dies with Alcyone's name on his lips. Alcyone continues to wait for her husband, making him cloaks and praying fruitlessly to Juno for his safe return. Juno pities the woman and asks Somnus, god of Sleep, to tell her the truth about her husband's death. Somnus sends his son Morpheus to break the news in a dream, so Morpheus takes the form of the drowned Ceyx. Alcyone wakes from the terrible dream and knows her husband has died. She goes into the ocean to drown herself and be with him, but she sees his body floating towards her. She dives in but, miraculously, flies over the waves instead of sinking into them. The gods have turned her into a bird! The body of Ceyx disappears, and Ceyx turns into a bird as well. They are still together, flying and in love.
Pygmalion is a tremendously talented artist who has never fallen in love with a woman. Instead, he has fallen in love with his art--specifically, a beautiful sculpture of a woman. He gives her presents, tucks her into bed, and dresses her. Finally, Pygmalion realizes the futility of his efforts and gives up. Venus notices the situation and pities him, turning the statue into a living woman named Galetea. Pygmalion marries her.
Like the story of Cupid and Psyche, the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe centers around the idea that true love is forever. Love cannot be contained or regulated, even by death. Unlike with Cupid and Psyche, of course, this myth is a tragedy. The tale seems to be refigured in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare certainly used this play in his Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the merchant characters stage their own version of the tragic love tale.
The tragedy that unfolds between Pyramus and Thisbe once again suggests that it is not the job of the gods to step in and make everything happy. Although they often take active rolls in helping human characters, they also may take a more passive role as observers. Pyramus and Thisbe seem to have done no wrong to any of the gods, but find themselves as victims to cruel fate.
The tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice concerns love and temptation. Orpheus overcomes enormous obstacles to win his love back, but in his desire he cannot withstand the temptation of looking back to make sure she is there. Like Psyche's need to see Cupid, Orpheus's need to see Eurydice marks a lack of trust or satisfaction in his situation. This myth emphasizes trust and faith in love, knowing that one’s beloved is present and not needing to prove it.
As with Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice illustrate that lovers can meet tragic ends. Unlike Pyramus and Thisbe, however, Orpheus undoubtedly causes his own demise when he turns around to look at Eurydice. In this sense, the story highlights mankind's freewill. While fate clearly plays a strong role in most Greek myths, in this case it is unquestionably Orpheus's doubting which causes Eurydice' tragic farewell.
The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is an interesting variation on the Greek love myth because it is both tragic and hopeful. Although Ceyx has died and the two lovers will never have a human life together, the gods reward the lovers with new life as birds. The depth of passion and strength of commitment on Alcyone’s part, at least, prove that the two mortals are worthy of everlasting life and love.
Note the gendered actions of Ceyx and Alcyone. Ceyx is the one who goes on the journey, while Alcyone stays home. She seems more concerned about being with him than with the dangers of the ocean—which are real. But Ceyx insists that he will travel without her.
Alcyone and Ceyx also illustrate the recurring theme of life's cycles. As in the story of Hyacinthus, when Apollo's love causes the slain man to return in the form of flowers, it is the love between Alcyone and Ceyx that allows them to move through life's cycle without death. In this way, they achieve a status somewhere between human and divine.
The famous myth of Pygmalion, often reinterpreted in modern times, is an unusual love story. Like the story of Narcissus, the tale of Pygmalion includes an unconventional romantic interest. If an artist’s works are extensions of himself, Pygmalion's love for his art begins as a love for himself. In any case, a mortal loves a stone. Perhaps this is the analogue to a god loving a mortal.
It is only when Pygmalion leaves the sculpture alone that Venus intervenes. In this case, she does not seem jealous or threatened. Instead, she uses her power to increase love and to transform the stone to mortal status. Venus would draw the line, it seems, at any challenge to her divine prerogatives. The story thus rewards the recurring theme of humans using their rational intelligence. Although the love he feels for the sculpture is strong, Pygmalion finally relies upon his thinking mind to accept the impossibility of the affair. It is precisely when he does this that Venus turns the sculpture into a living woman, thus rewarding Pygmalion.
Finally, it is notable that so many myths are about a pair of persons, usually two males or a male and a female. This structure can help draw contrasts between competing qualities or show how similar qualities work together. More often, the pairing seems to reflect something about human relationships, focusing most intensely on the relationship between the two people.
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