Greek heroes tend to share uncommon strength, immense bravery, and noble morality. They also depend upon a certain degree of clever ingenuity to achieve success. For example, Perseus could not have killed Medusa if he did not have the smarts to steal the Gray Women's eye. Exceeding the limits of average men, the heroes act somewhere between gods and mortals in the hierarchy of the Greek myths. Their stories are some of the most memorable; consider Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus. Through these figures, the modern reader can understand many Greek values.
Throughout the Greek myths, generosity appears to be noble. Sometimes, generosity subtly reinforces a story, such as when Metaneira takes in Demeter, disguised as an elderly woman, or when Dictys takes in baby Perseus and Danae when they wash up on his shore. Hospitality is a particularly important species of generosity. In the case of Baucis and Philemon, the theme is much more pronounced. When the poor couple take two travelers into their home, they have no idea that Jupiter and Mercury are testing their hospitality. Their selfless behavior saves them from the flood and secures their respect in the eyes of the gods. In these generosity stories, one can see a way in which Greek myths were used as morality tales, explaining what is right and what is wrong, how to live and how not to live. Generosity, altruism, or freely giving to others may not seem to be in the immediate interest of the giver, which might be why these myths reinforce the idea that it is a good quality that should be valued.
Faith is perhaps the most widely important theme in Greek mythology. For one thing, those who hear the myths must in some way believe they are true in order for them to be meaningful. Humans, not only those in the myths but also those who hear the myths, generally go even further and believe that the gods actually exist. Characters who defy or anger the gods are punished, and those who honor and praise the gods find rewards. Having faith in a prophecy is better than trying to circumvent it. Faith also appears in more nuanced situations having to do with trust and belief. Psyche, for example, cannot bear to not see her husband during the daylight, so she chooses to see Cupid in the light, against his wishes. Although eventually she redeems herself from this betrayal, it takes much suffering and effort. Orpheus, by contrast, finds no forgiveness when he loses his faith while leading Eurydice up from the underworld. Such myths reinforce the theme that faith should not be broken or misused.
Love appears throughout the Greek myths and often drives the narrative forward. However, different kinds of love emerge in the text with different implications. In some instances, love is visceral and impulsive, caused by Cupid's arrow. This kind of love causes Alpheus to chase Arethusa, Apollo to chase Daphne, or Zeus to take Europa across an ocean on his back. Such love is characterized by intense feeling and frenzy. Alternatively, we see in the Greek myths a less exciting but ultimately longer lasting kind of love. Ceyx and Alcyone become birds who fly together for eternity after they die. Mulberry grows from the blood of Pyramus and Thisbe. And Baucis and Philemon become intertwined trees when they die. In these instances, love exists among mortals in an eternal realm, and it is perhaps the closest that most humans can ever approach godliness in the myths.
Throughout the myths, fate appears as a powerful force that no human or god may contend with. Cronus received a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his son, as did King Laius. Both men tried to prevent the outcome, and both failed. In this sense, mankind and gods share a similarly naive character when it comes to reconciling themselves to fate. But these tales raise the question of who controls fate, if not the gods. Is there an even higher power than those on Mount Olympus, if even the gods cannot control fate? Or is fate just a way of characterizing the truth about what will happen at a future time?
In several instances, variations of strange love present complex challenges in Greek mythology. Narcissus, for example, falls in love with his own image and cannot leave it alone for one moment. He withers and dies by the pool in which he sees his own reflection. Selene falls in love with Endymion and hopes to keep him forever by making him sleep forever. Unfortunately, she suffers from loneliness. In both of these circumstances, a selfish kind of love results in suffering. In the case of Pygmalion, Venus rewards his love for his sculpture, but only when he himself decides that it is not healthy for him to give such affection to an inanimate object. As if rewarding his realistic maturity, Venus then turns the piece of stone into a real woman. Perhaps the unifying theme of these examples of strange love is that true love is mutually felt from both parties but that such love is very difficult when it involves two natures, such as human and beast, human and sculpture, or divinity and human.
Sacrifices recur throughout the Greek myths, not just because physical sacrifice was significant in ancient Greek societies. Antigone stands as the best example, for she sacrifices herself in order to bury her brother. Pyramus and Thisbe sacrifice themselves for each other. Baucis and Philemon sacrifice their comfort in order to house two travelers in their small house. In these and other cases, heroism becomes something not just reserved for strong people (like Hercules) but a quality that any common person can achieve. Through sacrifice, characters are rewarded by gods and stand as good examples to the characters surrounding them. In the case of Baucis and Philemon, this example is so extreme that the gods flood out everyone else in the village. While it is not easy, as Prometheus can attest, sacrifice often must be made for the sake of honor and morality rather than simply out of the love of one's own.
Mythology Questions and Answers
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The Mythology study guide contains a biography of Edith Hamilton, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of the major Greek myths and Western mythology.