Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
Zeus lay with Aegina on the island of Oenopia, and she gave birth to Aeacus, who became king and named the island after her. Hera had never forgiven Aegina for tempting Zeus, so she visited the island with plague and famine, which killed all but Aeacus and his family. Aeacus then prayed to Zeus, who created a new race of men out of ants — the Myrmidons, renowned for their tenacity, thrift, and patience. Aeacus himself became famous for his integrity and piety. When he died Zeus made him one of the three judges of the underworld, along with Minos and Rhadamanthus.
Alcyone and Ceyx
Ceyx, the son of the morning star, married Alcyone, the daughter of Aeolus. They were devoted to each other, and in their bliss Alcyone began calling herself Hera and her husband Zeus. For this presumption Zeus destroyed Ceyx as he sailed to consult an oracle. Alcyone, who had been left at home, then learned of Ceyx's death in a dream, so she plunged herself into the sea. But a god took pity on the pair, changing them into king-fishers. The female kingfisher lays her eggs and hatches them in a sea-nest during the two weeks in winter when the sea is calm. This time is called the Halcyon Days.
Apollo noticed a beautiful girl named Cyrene as she fought off a lion while tending her father's sheep in Thessaly. He fell in love with her and asked the Centaur Chiron's advice about abducting her. Chiron said she would become a great queen in Libya, so Apollo carried her off to that land, where she gave birth to Aristaeus. Aristaeus, "the best," became proficient in agriculture: tending olive trees, making cheese, raising cattle, and cultivating bee hives. However, he made the mistake of lusting after Orpheus' bride, Eurydice, who died as he pursued her. His bees started dying, so his mother Cyrene advised him to capture the sea god Proteus. Finding Proteus, Aristaeus compelled him to prophesy. The god told him to make sacrifices to the Dryads and to Orpheus. Upon doing so the bees revived, and the art of beekeeping was preserved for posterity.
Apollo loved the beautiful Coronis, who proved unfaithful to him. The angry god killed her but saved her unborn infant, his own son Asclepius, whom he placed in the care of the wise Centaur Chiron. Asclepius learned the art of medicine, in which he had a miraculous skill. However, when he brought a dead man back to life he overstepped himself, offending Hades. Zeus killed the physician with a thunderbolt. But even after his death he continued to cure the sick in temples of healing by appearing in dreams and giving remedies.
Castor and Polydeuces
These twin sons of Leda, Castor and Polydeuces, had different fathers. Castor, who became famous as a horse tamer and soldier, was sired by King Tyndareus of Sparta, while Polydeuces, who became an invincible boxer, was fathered by Zeus. These Spartan heroes were inseparable, undertaking many heroic missions together. They went on the Calydonian boar hunt; they shipped with Jason on the Argo; they rescued their sister Helen from Theseus. On their last expedition Castor was killed by a cattle breeder named Idas in a fight over some oxen. Polydeuces took revenge and then prayed to Zeus that he might die and share his own immortality with Castor. Zeus granted the request. The brothers were to spend one day in Hades, the next on Olympus, and so on. They were venerated as the protectors of sailors.
King Danaüs of Egypt had fifty daughters. His brother Aegyptus had fifty sons who wanted to marry their cousins, but the girls and their father were utterly opposed to it. They fled to Argos and took sanctuary, but despite the aid of the people of Argos the sons of Aegyptus prevailed. Danaus presided over the wedding rites but secretly gave each of his daughters a dagger. That night the Danaïds slew the bridegrooms. Only one did not: Hypermnestra refused to stab Lynceus, for which her father threw her in prison. Hypermnestra's sisters, however, had a worse fate and were sentenced to carry water in leaky jars for all eternity in Hades.
In Caria there is a Mount Latmus, which has a cave containing the shepherd Endymion, a youth of surpassing beauty. Selene, the moon, found him there one night, lay beside him, and kissed his eyes. He sleeps there permanently in a magic trance, never growing older, as a captive of the moon.
A famed seer and physician, Melampus acquired his prophetic powers in a strange way. When his servants killed a pair of snakes Melampus buried them and raised their young. As he was sleeping two of his snakes crawled up and licked his ears, which gave him the ability to understand the speech of all living creatures. His brother Bion wanted to marry Pero, but her father demanded the cattle of Iphiclus in return for his daughter. Melampus offered his aid, but was caught and jailed in trying to steal the cattle. In prison he heard the termites saying the building would collapse soon. He told this to Iphiclus' father, and it came true. Iphiclus' father then said Melampus could have the cattle if he found the reason for Iphiclus being childless. Melampus learned the secret from a vulture, obtained the cattle, and saw his brother happily married to Pero.
Dionysus passed through Phrygia on his way to India, and there his drunken follower Silenus wandered into the rose gardens of King Midas, the wealthiest man in the world. Midas entertained Silenus for several days and learned the Mysteries of Dionysus from him. Then Midas led the reveler back to Dionysus, who promised to grant anything he wished for. The king wished that all he touched would turn to gold, and Dionysus granted the wish. When Midas tried to eat, his food turned to gold, so the starving man returned to Dionysus to get him to retract his gift. The god told Midas to wash in the River Pactolus, which he did, thereby turning the sands to gold but curing himself. On another occasion Midas preferred Pan to Apollo in a musical contest, so Apollo gave him a pair of asses' ears. Midas hid his ears under a cap, and only his barber knew of them, but he had promised to tell no one. Burdened with this secret the barber went down to the shore, scooped out a hole and whispered, "Midas has asses' ears," into it. The next year reeds grew in that spot, and as the wind rustled through them the reeds repeated the secret to everyone who came past.
Narcissus was a youth possessed of incredible beauty, and while everyone who saw him loved him, males as well as females, he spurned them all through pride. The hapless nymph Echo, whom Hera had punished by turning her speech into a repetition of what others said, came across Narcissus in a glade and pleaded with him, using his own words, to love her. He rejected her. Artemis grew angry and caused him to fall in love with himself. Narcissus came to a clear pond and became enraptured when he saw his reflection. He sat down and gazed longingly at himself hour upon hour. At length he desperately killed himself with a knife, unable to bear his self-love, and where his blood fell grew up the narcissus flower, which has medicinal properties. Echo repeated his dying word, "Alas!"
Orion, the huge, handsome son of Poseidon, was a hunter of Boeotia. Courting Merope, he grew impatient of her father's conditions and raped her, whereupon her father blinded him and threw him out. Advised by an oracle, Orion traveled east to the point where Helios arose from Ocean. Dawn fell in love with Orion and slept with him. Helios, the sun, cured his sight. Then the hunter went searching for Merope's father to get revenge. But Artemis dissuaded him and he became her hunting companion. Fearing for the chastity of his sister Artemis, Apollo sent a large scorpion to chase Orion. Unable to subdue the vicious beast, Orion set out across the water. Apollo persuaded Artemis to shoot the bobbing object out on the waves and she pierced Orion's head. She then set his image up among the stars, where it was pursued by the constellation of the scorpion.
Otus and Ephialtes
The gigantic sons of Poseidon, Otus and Ephialtes knew they could not be killed by gods or other men, and in their self-confidence they laid siege to Olympus. Ephialtes intended to rape Hera, and Otus swore he'd rape Artemis. They captured Ares and locked him in a brass jar for thirteen months. Artemis then offered to lay with Otus on the island of Naxos, which made Ephialtes jealous. On Naxos a quarrel arose between the two giants. Changing herself into a white doe, Artemis sprang between them. They seized their spears and attempted to slay the doe, but they killed each other instead, putting an end to their war against the gods.
The sun, Helios, had a son named Phaëthon who yearned to drive his father's fiery chariot across the sky. Helios made the mistake of promising the boy anything he wanted and could not go back on his word. Despite. Helios' warnings Phaëthon insisted. The boy began to climb through the sky easily enough, but the horses soon knew they had an inexperienced driver and began racing wildly, careening against the stars and then swooping toward the earth, setting the world in flames. To save the earth Zeus struck the terrified boy with a thunderbolt, killing him instantly. The horses rushed into the sea.
Renowned for his cleverness and knavery, Sisyphus lived by thieving. When the famous thief Autolycus began stealing his cattle Sisyphus marked the hooves and caught him, and then seduced his daughter. He treacherously ousted his brother from the Thessalian throne. But he overreached himself in telling the river god Asopus where Zeus had abducted his daughter Aegina. Asopus nearly avenged himself on Zeus, so Zeus ordered his brother Hades to fetch Sisyphus to the underworld. But Sisyphus tricked Hades into putting on his own handcuffs and kept him captive until Ares released the god of death. Sisyphus had told his wife not to bury him, and when he went to Hell he complained of this dishonor and was allowed to return to the land of the living to avenge himself. But he refused to return, and finally Hermes had to drag him back. In the underworld for good, Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a huge boulder up a hill, one which kept rolling back down after reaching the top. This was his eternal punishment.
Eos, the dawn, had slept with Ares, the lover of Aphrodite. So Aphrodite revenged herself by giving Eos an insatiable desire for young men. She took the Trojan prince Tithonus, among others, as her lover, and she asked Zeus to grant him immortality. Zeus did, but Eos had forgotten to request eternal youth as well, so Tithonus was fated to live forever and grow increasingly older. In time he withered into a parody of a man. His voice became shrill. And Eos shut the loathsome creature away in a closet, where it turned into a grasshopper.
In this assorted collection of myths we see the spectrum of Greek mythological styles. There are the explanatory tales. "Aeacus" shows how the Myrmidons came about and accounts for their character. "Orion" relates how two constellations came to be. There are the heroic legends of "Castor and Polydeuces," "Otus and Ephialtes," and "Asclepius." There are cautionary legends such as "Phaëthon," "Narcissus," and "Alcyone and Ceyx." There are the folk tales of "Midas" and "Sisyphus." And there are such romanticized tales as "Endymion" and "Narcissus." If they lack the seriousness of the major Greek myths and legends, they still have value as entertaining stories.