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Dive into the timeless tales of gods and heroes in this bestselling A-to-Z encyclopedia detailing classic myths and legends—perfect for curious readers and academics alike.Edith Hamilton's mythology succeeds like no other book in bringing to life for the modern reader the Greek, Roman and Norse myths that are the keystone of Western culture—the stories of gods and heroes that have inspired human creativity from antiquity to the present.
We follow the drama of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus. We hear the tales of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Cupid and Psyche, and mighty King Midas. We discover the origins of the names of the constellations. And we recognize reference points for countless works for art, literature and culture inquiry-from Freud's Oedipus complex to Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas to Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra
Both a reference text for scholars of all ages and a book to simply enjoy, Mythology is a classic not to be missed.
Strange clouded fragments of an ancient glory,
Late lingerers of the company divine,
They breathe of that far world wherefrom they come,
Lost halls of heaven and Olympian air
The Greeks did not believe that the gods created the universe. It was the other way about: the universe created the gods. Before there were gods heaven and earth had been formed. They were the first parents. The Titans were their children, and the gods were their grandchildren.
THE TITANS AND THE TWELVE GREAT OLYMPIANS
The Titans, often called the Elder Gods, were for untold ages supreme in the universe. They were of enormous size and of incredible strength. There were many of them, but only a few appear in the stories of mythology. The most important was CRONUS, in Latin SATURN. He ruled over the other Titans until his son Zeus dethroned him and seized the power for himself. The Romans said that when Jupiter, their name for Zeus, ascended the throne, Saturn fled to Italy and brought in the Golden Age, a time of perfect peace and happiness, which lasted as long as he reigned.
The other notable Titans were OCEAN, the river that was supposed to encircle the earth; his wife TETHYS; HYPERION, the father of the sun, the moon, and the dawn; MNEMOSYNE, which means Memory; THEMIS, usually translated by Justice; and IAPETUS, important because of his sons, ATLAS, who bore the world on his shoulders, and PROMETHEUS, who was the savior of mankind. These alone among the older gods were not banished with the coming of Zeus, but they took a lower place.
The twelve great Olympians were supreme among the gods who succeeded to the Titans. They were called the Olympians because Olympus was their home. What Olympus was, however, is not easy to say. There is no doubt that at first it was held to be a mountain top, and generally identified with Greece’s highest mountain, Mt. Olympus in Thessaly, in the northeast of Greece. But even in the earliest Greek poem, the Iliad, this idea is beginning to give way to the idea of an Olympus in some mysterious region far above all the mountains of the earth. In one passage of the Iliad Zeus talks to the gods from “the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus,” clearly a mountain. But only a little further on he says that if he willed he could hang earth and sea from a pinnacle of Olympus, clearly no longer a mountain. Even so, it is not heaven. Homer makes Poseidon say that he rules the sea, Hades the dead, Zeus the heavens, but Olympus is common to all three.
Wherever it was, the entrance to it was a great gate of clouds kept by the Seasons. Within were the gods’ dwellings, where they lived and slept and feasted on ambrosia and nectar and listened to Apollo’s lyre. It was an abode of perfect blessedness. No wind, Homer says, ever shakes the untroubled peace of Olympus; no rain ever falls there or snow; but the cloudless firmament stretches around it on all sides and the white glory of sunshine is diffused upon its walls.
The twelve Olympians made up a divine family:—
(1) ZEUS (JUPITER), the chief; his two brothers next, (2) POSEIDON (NEPTUNE), and (3) HADES, also called PLUTO; (4) HESTIA (VESTA), their sister; (5) HERA (JUNO), Zeus’s wife, and (6) ARES (MARS), their son; Zeus’s children: (7) ATHENA (MINERVA), (8) APOLLO, (9) APHRODITE (VENUS), (10) HERMES (MERCURY), and (11) ARTEMIS (DIANA); and Hera’s son (12) HEPHAESTUS (VULCAN), sometimes said to be the son of Zeus too.
Zeus and his brothers drew lots for their share of the universe. The sea fell to Poseidon, and the underworld to Hades. Zeus became the supreme ruler. He was Lord of the Sky, the Rain-god and the Cloud-gatherer, who wielded the awful thunderbolt. His power was greater than that of all the other divinities together. In the Iliad he tells his family, “I am mightiest of all. Make trial that you may know. Fasten a rope of gold to heaven and lay hold, every god and goddess. You could not drag down Zeus. But if I wished to drag you down, then I would. The rope I would bind to a pinnacle of Olympus and all would hang in air, yes, the very earth and the sea too.”
Nevertheless he was not omnipotent or omniscient, either. He could be opposed and deceived. Poseidon dupes him in the Iliad and so does Hera. Sometimes, too, the mysterious power, Fate, is spoken of as stronger than he. Homer makes Hera ask him scornfully if he proposes to deliver from death a man Fate has doomed.
He is represented as falling in love with one woman after another and descending to all manner of tricks to hide his infidelity from his wife. The explanation why such actions were ascribed to the most majestic of the gods is, the scholars say, that the Zeus of song and story has been made by combining many gods. When his worship spread to a town where there was already a divine ruler the two were slowly fused into one. The wife of the early god was then transferred to Zeus. The result, however, was unfortunate and the later Greeks did not like these endless love affairs.
Still, even in the earliest record Zeus had grandeur. In the Iliad Agamemnon prays: “Zeus, most glorious, most great, God of the storm-cloud, thou that dwellest in the heavens.” He demanded, too, not only sacrifices from men, but right action. The Greek Army at Troy is told “Father Zeus never helps liars or those who break their oaths.” The two ideas of him, the low and the high, persisted side by side for a long time.
His breastplate was the aegis, awful to behold; his bird was the eagle, his tree the oak. His oracle was Dodona in the land of oak trees. The god’s will was revealed by the rustling of the oak leaves which the priests interpreted.
She was Zeus’s wife and sister. The Titans Ocean and Tethys brought her up. She was the protector of marriage, and married women were her peculiar care. There is very little that is attractive in the portrait the poets draw of her. She is called, indeed, in an early poem,
Golden-throned Hera, among immortals the queen,
Chief among them in beauty, the glorious lady
All the blessed in high Olympus revere,
Honor even as Zeus, the lord of the thunder.
But when any account of her gets down to details, it shows her chiefly engaged in punishing the many women Zeus fell in love with, even when they yielded only because he coerced or tricked them. It made no difference to Hera how reluctant any of them were or how innocent; the goddess treated them all alike. Her implacable anger followed them and their children too. She never forgot an injury. The Trojan War would have ended in an honorable peace, leaving both sides unconquered, if it had not been for her hatred of a Trojan who had judged another goddess lovelier than she. The wrong of her slighted beauty remained with her until Troy fell in ruins.
In one important story, the Quest of the Golden Fleece, she is the gracious protector of heroes and the inspirer of heroic deeds, but not in any other. Nevertheless she was venerated in every home. She was the goddess married women turned to for help. Ilithyia (or Eileithyia), who helped women in childbirth, was her daughter.
The cow and the peacock were sacred to her. Argos was her favorite city.
He was the ruler of the sea, Zeus’s brother and second only to him in eminence. The Greeks on both sides of the Aegean were seamen and the God of the Sea was all-important to them. His wife was Amphitrite, a granddaughter of the Titan, Ocean. Poseidon had a splendid palace beneath the sea, but he was oftener to be found in Olympus.
Besides being Lord of the Sea he gave the first horse to man, and he was honored as much for the one as for the other.
Lord Poseidon, from you this pride is ours,
The strong horses, the young horses, and also the rule of the deep.
Storm and calm were under his control:—
He commanded and the storm wind rose
And the surges of the sea.
But when he drove in his golden car over the waters, the thunder of the waves sank into stillness, and tranquil peace followed his smooth-rolling wheels.
He was commonly called “Earth-shaker” and was always shown carrying his trident, a three-pronged spear, with which he would shake and shatter whatever he pleased.
He had some connection with bulls as well as with horses, but the bull was connected with many other gods too.
He was the third brother among the Olympians, who drew for his share the underworld and the rule over the dead. He was also called Pluto, the God of Wealth, of the precious metals hidden in the earth. The Romans as well as the Greeks called him by this name, but often they translated it into Dis, the Latin word for rich. He had a far-famed cap or helmet which made whoever wore it invisible. It was rare that he left his dark realm to visit Olympus or the earth, nor was he urged to do so. He was not a welcome visitor. He was unpitying, inexorable, but just; a terrible, not an evil god.
His wife was Persephone (Proserpine) whom he carried away from the earth and made Queen of the Lower World.
He was King of the Dead—not Death himself, whom the Greeks called Thanatos and the Romans, Orcus.
PALLAS ATHENA (MINERVA)
She was the daughter of Zeus alone. No mother bore her. Full-grown and in full armor, she sprang from his head. In the earliest account of her, the Iliad, she is a fierce and ruthless battle-goddess, but elsewhere she is warlike only to defend the State and the home from outside enemies. She was preeminently the Goddess of the City, the protector of civilized life, of handicrafts and agriculture; the inventor of the bridle, who first tamed horses for men to use.
She was Zeus’s favorite child. He trusted her to carry the awful aegis, his buckler, and his devastating weapon, the thunderbolt.
The word oftenest used to describe her is “gray-eyed,” or, as it is sometimes translated, “flashing-eyed.” Of the three virgin goddesses she was the chief and was called the Maiden, Parthenos, and her temple the Parthenon. In later poetry she is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, purity.
Athens was her special city; the olive created by her was her tree; the owl her bird.
The son of Zeus and Leto (Latona), born in the little island of Delos. He has been called “the most Greek of all the gods.” He is a beautiful figure in Greek poetry, the master musician who delights Olympus as he plays on his golden lyre; the lord too of the silver bow, the Archer-god, far-shooting; the Healer, as well, who first taught men the healing art. Even more than of these good and lovely endowments, he is the God of Light, in whom is no darkness at all, and so he is the God of Truth. No false word ever falls from his lips.
O Phoebus, from your throne of truth,
From your dwelling-place at the heart of the world,
You speak to men.
By Zeus’s decree no lie comes there,
No shadow to darken the word of truth.
Zeus sealed by an everlasting right
Apollo’s honour, that all may trust
With unshaken faith when he speaks.
Delphi under towering Parnassus, where Apollo’s oracle was, plays an important part in mythology. Castalia was its sacred spring; Cephissus its river. It was held to be the center of the world, so many pilgrims came to it, from foreign countries as well as Greece. No other shrine rivaled it. The answers to the questions asked by the anxious seekers for Truth were delivered by a priestess who went into a trance before she spoke. The trance was supposed to be caused by a vapor rising from a deep cleft in the rock over which her seat was placed, a three-legged stool, the tripod.
Apollo was called Delian from Delos, the island of his birth, and Pythian from his killing of a serpent, Python, which once lived in the caves of Parnassus. It was a frightful monster and the contest was severe, but in the end the god’s unerring arrows won the victory. Another name often given him was “the Lycian,” variously explained as meaning Wolf-god, God of Light, and God of Lycia. In the Iliad he is called “the Sminthian,” the Mouse-god, but whether because he protected mice or destroyed them no one knows. Often he was the Sun-god too. His name Phoebus means “brilliant” or “shining.” Accurately, however, the Sun-god was Helios, child of the Titan Hyperion.
Apollo at Delphi was a purely beneficent power, a direct link between gods and men, guiding men to know the divine will, showing them how to make peace with the gods; the purifier, too, able to cleanse even those stained with the blood of their kindred. Nevertheless, there are a few tales told of him which show him pitiless and cruel. Two ideas were fighting in him as in all the gods; a primitive, crude idea and one that was beautiful and poetic. In him only a little of the primitive is left.
The laurel was his tree. Many creatures were sacred to him, chief among them the dolphin and the crow.
Also called Cynthia, from her birthplace,
Mount Cynthus in Delos.
Apollo’s twin sister, daughter of Zeus and Leto. She was one of the three maiden goddesses of Olympus:—
Golden Aphrodite who stirs with love all creation,
Cannot bend nor ensnare three hearts: the pure maiden Vesta,
Gray-eyed Athena who cares but for war and the arts of the craftsmen,
Artemis, lover of woods and the wild chase over the mountains.
She was the Lady of Wild Things, Huntsman-in-chief to the gods, an odd office for a woman. Like a good huntsman, she was careful to preserve the young; she was “the protectress of dewy youth” everywhere. Nevertheless, with one of those startling contradictions so common in mythology, she kept the Greek Fleet from sailing to Troy until they sacrificed a maiden to her. In many another story, too, she is fierce and revengeful. On the other hand, when women died a swift and painless death, they were held to have been slain by her silver arrows.
As Phoebus was the Sun, she was the Moon, called Phoebe and Selene (Luna in Latin). Neither name originally belonged to her. Phoebe was a Titan, one of the older gods. So too was Selene—a moon-goddess, indeed, but not connected with Apollo. She was the sister of Helios, the sun-god with whom Apollo was confused.
In the later poets, Artemis is identified with Hecate. She is “the goddess with three forms,” Selene in the sky, Artemis on earth, Hecate in the lower world and in the world above when it is wrapped in darkness. Hecate was the Goddess of the Dark of the Moon, the black nights when the moon is hidden. She was associated with deeds of darkness, the Goddess of the Crossways, which were held to be ghostly places of evil magic. An awful divinity,
Hecate of hell,
Mighty to shatter every stubborn thing.
Hark! Hark! her hounds are baying through the town.
Where three roads meet, there she is standing.
It is a strange transformation from the lovely Huntress flashing through the forest, from the Moon making all beautiful with her light, from the pure Maiden-Goddess for whom
Whoso is chaste of spirit utterly
May gather leaves and fruits and flowers.
The unchaste never.
In her is shown most vividly the uncertainty between good and evil which is apparent in every one of the divinities.
The cypress was sacred to her; and all wild animals, but especially the deer.
The Goddess of Love and Beauty, who beguiled all, gods and men alike; the laughter-loving goddess, who laughed sweetly or mockingly at those her wiles had conquered; the irresistible goddess who stole away even the wits of the wise.
She is the daughter of Zeus and Dione in the Iliad, but in the later poems she is said to have sprung from the foam of the sea, and her name was explained as meaning “the foam-risen.” Aphros is foam in Greek. This sea-birth took place near Cythera, from where she was wafted to Cyprus. Both islands were ever after sacred to her, and she was called Cytherea or the Cyprian as often as by her proper name.
One of the Homeric Hymns, calling her “Beautiful, golden goddess,” says of her:—
The breath of the west wind bore her
Over the sounding sea,
Up from the delicate foam,
To wave-ringed Cyprus, her isle.
And the Hours golden-wreathed
Welcomed her joyously.
They clad her in raiment immortal,
And brought her to the gods.
Wonder seized them all as they saw
The Romans wrote of her in the same way. With her, beauty comes. The winds flee before her and the storm clouds; sweet flowers embroider the earth; the waves of the sea laugh; she moves in radiant light. Without her there is no joy nor loveliness anywhere. This is the picture the poets like best to paint of her.
But she had another side too. It was natural that she should cut a poor figure in the Iliad, where the battle of heroes is the theme. She is a soft, weak creature there, whom a mortal need not fear to attack. In later poems she is usually shown as treacherous and malicious, exerting a deadly and destructive power over men.
In most of the stories she is the wife of Hephaestus (Vulcan), the lame and ugly god of the forge.
The myrtle was her tree; the dove her bird—sometimes, too, the sparrow and the swan.
Zeus was his father and Maia, daughter of Atlas, his mother. Because of a very popular statue his appearance is more familiar to us than that of any other god. He was graceful and swift of motion. On his feet were winged sandals; wings were on his low-crowned hat, too, and on his magic wand, the Caduceus. He was Zeus’s Messenger, who “flies as fleet as thought to do his bidding.”
Of all the gods he was the shrewdest and most cunning; in fact he was the Master Thief, who started upon his career before he was a day old.
The babe was born at the break of day,
And ere the night fell he had stolen away
Zeus made him give them back, and he won Apollo’s forgiveness by presenting him with the lyre which he had just invented, making it out of a tortoise’s shell. Perhaps there was some connection between that very early story of him and the fact that he was God of Commerce and the Market, protector of traders.
In odd contrast to this idea of him, he was also the solemn guide of the dead, the Divine Herald who led the souls down to their last home.
He appears oftener in the tales of mythology than any other god.
The God of War, son of Zeus and Hera, both of whom, Homer says, detested him. Indeed, he is hateful throughout the Iliad, poem of war though it is. Occasionally the heroes “rejoice in the delight of Ares’ battle,” but far oftener in having escaped “the fury of the ruthless god.” Homer calls him murderous, bloodstained, the incarnate curse of mortals; and, strangely, a coward, too, who bellows with pain and runs away when he is wounded. Yet he has a train of attendants on the battlefield which should inspire anyone with confidence. His sister is there, Eris, which means Discord, and Strife, her son. The Goddess of War, Enyo,—in Latin Bellona,—walks beside him, and with her are Terror and Trembling and Panic. As they move, the voice of groaning arises behind them and the earth streams with blood.
The Romans liked Mars better than the Greeks liked Ares. He never was to them the mean whining deity of the Iliad, but magnificent in shining armor, redoubtable, invincible. The warriors of the great Latin heroic poem, the Aeneid, far from rejoicing to escape from him, rejoice when they see that they are to fall “on Mars’ field of renown.” They “rush on glorious death” and find it “sweet to die in battle.”
Ares figures little in mythology. In one story he is the lover of Aphrodite and held up to the contempt of the Olympians by Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus; but for the most part he is little more than a symbol of war. He is not a distinct personality, like Hermes or Hera or Apollo.
He had no cities where he was worshiped. The Greeks said vaguely that he came from Thrace, home of a rude, fierce people in the northeast of Greece.
Appropriately, his bird was the vulture. The dog was wronged by being chosen as his animal.
HEPHAESTUS (VULCAN AND MULCIBER)
The God of Fire, sometimes said to be the son of Zeus and Hera, sometimes of Hera alone, who bore him in retaliation for Zeus’s having brought forth Athena. Among the perfectly beautiful immortals he only was ugly. He was lame as well. In one place in the Iliad he says that his shameless mother, when she saw that he was born deformed, cast him out of heaven; in another place he declares that Zeus did this, angry with him for trying to defend Hera. This second story is the better known, because of Milton’s familiar lines: Mulciber was
Thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’er the crystal battlements; from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer’s day, and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith like a falling star,
On Lemnos, the Aegean isle.
These events, however, were supposed to have taken place in the far-distant past. In Homer he is in no danger of being driven from Olympus; he is highly honored there, the workman of the immortals, their armorer and smith, who makes their dwellings and their furnishings as well as their weapons. In his workshop he has handmaidens he has forged out of gold who can move and who help him in his work.
In the later poets his forge is often said to be under this or that volcano, and to cause eruptions.
His wife is one of the three Graces in the Iliad, called Aglaia in Hesiod; in the Odyssey she is Aphrodite.
He was a kindly, peace-loving god, popular on earth as in heaven. With Athena, he was important in the life of the city. The two were the patrons of handicrafts, the arts which along with agriculture are the support of civilization; he the protector of the smiths as she of the weavers. When children were formally admitted to the city organization, the god of the ceremony was Hephaestus.
She was Zeus’s sister, and like Athena and Artemis a virgin goddess. She has no distinct personality and she plays no part in the myths. She was the Goddess of the Hearth, the symbol of the home, around which the newborn child must be carried before it could be received into the family. Every meal began and ended with an offering to her.
Hestia, in all dwellings of men and immortals
Yours is the highest honor, the sweet wine offered
First and last at the feast, poured out to you duly.
Never without you can gods or mortals hold banquet.
Each city too had a public hearth sacred to Hestia, where the fire was never allowed to go out. If a colony was to be founded, the colonists carried with them coals from the hearth of the mother-city with which to kindle the fire on the new city’s hearth.
In Rome her fire was cared for by six virgin priestesses, called Vestals.
THE LESSER GODS OF OLYMPUS
There were other divinities in heaven besides the twelve great Olympians. The most important of them was the God of Love, EROS (Cupid in Latin). Homer knows nothing of him, but to Hesiod he is
Fairest of the deathless gods.
In the early stories, he is oftenest a beautiful serious youth who gives good gifts to men. This idea the Greeks had of him is best summed up not by a poet, but by a philosopher, Plato: “Love—Eros—makes his home in men’s hearts, but not in every heart, for where there is hardness he departs. His greatest glory is that he cannot do wrong nor allow it; force never comes near him. For all men serve him of their own free will. And he whom Love touches not walks in darkness.”
In the early accounts Eros was not Aphrodite’s son, but merely her occasional companion. In the later poets he was her son and almost invariably a mischievous, naughty boy, or worse.
Evil his heart, but honey-sweet his tongue,
No truth in him, the rogue. He is cruel in his play.
- "Edith Hamilton retells the Greek, Roman, and Norse myths with a sure taste and scholarship that help to restore their quality as perennial and refreshing fables about human nature, including our own."—The New Yorker
- "No one in modern times has shown us more vividly than Edith Hamilton 'the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.' Filtering the golden essence from the mass of classical literature, she proved how applicable to our daily lives are the humor and wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago."—New York Times
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Grand Central Publishing