Edith Hamilton has been my weekend companion for five months now, but I've finally turned the last page on her Mythology. It's been an entertaining and educational journey, and I have a feeling I won't be able to leave behind the gods and goddesses for too long. In any case references to myths seem to pop up all over the place in my reading now (they probably always have but now I am much more attuned to them), and I am contemplating starting a new page (perhaps a tab will show up at the top of my page soon) with quotes from my reading. I want to keep up with things so people and stories don't fade too far (or too quickly) from mind, so expect further reading in the future (and maybe even viewing of movies or documentaries) to help it all stay fresh.
The last two sections of the book deal with the lesser Greek myths--some familiar but most were new to me--as well Norse mythology. Both sections are brief yet broad overviews. I was wondering why she felt the need to tack on Norse myths at the end since they vary so much in tone, but after having read the section I now see why. But first a few highlights from the lesser myths. There are too many to summarize here, and many so brief they only get a short paragraph, so let me pick out a few favorites.
Midas you'll have heard of since he's famous. His name has even crept into our current jargon. If you don't immediately think of gold when you hear him mentioned, I bet you might think of a popular automotive jingle. Midas might have had the ability to turn anything he touched into gold, but the joke was on him. The gods can be so literal. Either they're jokesters at heart or are simply not in the least practical. When Midas asked to be able to turn whatever he touched into gold, he should have been a little more specific. Everything he touched turned to gold, and the poor man (no pun intended) couldn't even pick up food to eat. When dealing with the gods it's best to remain quiet and agree and not give them any wiggle room for creative interpretations to any requests.
My favorite of the lesser myths is that of Arachne. The story is only told by Ovid and hence was written in Latin. It didn't dawn on me at first that this is where Arachnid (Arachnida) must have come from. Arachne was a fine weaver, but no matter how good she never should have called her work better than that of Minerva's (Athena). Do mortals never learn not to mess with the gods? Even if Arachne's work was finer, Minerva would never thank her for pointing it out. The two had a contest. Arachne finished her work at the same time as Minerva and her work was equally as good and she didn't fail to point this out. In her fury Minerva slit the web (weaving) from top to bottom and then smacked her with her shuttle (yes, really, that's what Hamilton says--smacked her). Arachne was not only mortified and disgraced but also furious. She hanged herself, which caused Minerva to feel a little remorse. She removed Arachne's body from the noose, sprinkled it with a magic liquid and turned her into a spider. So in the end Arachne kept her great skill in weaving. I really liked this one--it has an air of Roger Deakin about it, too.
Another case of the gods taking requests literally. In the story of Aurora (goddess of the Dawn) and Tithonus, Aurora asks Zeus to make Tithonus immortal. He agrees but since she didn't also specify that he should remain young, Tithonus continues to age but will never die. He becomes a dry husk of a man, and eventually Aurora puts him out of his misery by turning him into a (noisy) grasshopper.
I've always liked stories of people who are turned into trees (either willingly or not) like Daphne. Dryope made the mistake of picking blossoms floating near a tree from a pool to "please her baby". She's terrified when she discovers the stems are dripping blood. As it turns out the tree was actually a nymph who had been fleeing from a pursuer and had taken refuge in the form of a tree. An outcome that now will be shared by Dryope however unintentional her own flower picking was. She had only enough time to tell her husband to warn their son "never to pluck flowers, and to think every bush may be a goddess in disguise."
I was ill-prepared when I read A.S. Byatt's retelling of the Norse myth Ragnarok. It would have been really helpful to have read these short chapters by Edith Hamilton to at least get a little background. It's interesting reading about Norse myths since they are so very different than Greek myths. Although she really only give a very cursory nod to them, I liked being able to compare the two.
First it's helpful to share a few names since knowing the cast of characters is always helpful. Odin is the equivalent of Zeus, the "sky-father". But the two couldn't be more unalike. As a matter of fact Greek and Norse mythology are really quite different. Odin resides in a golden palace called Gladsheim, or with the heroes in a place called Valhalla. He's serious, solemn and aloof. You'll not find him partaking of any ambrosia. Balder is a name that will pop up right away. He is the most beloved of all the gods and is joined by Thor, Freyr, Heimdall and Tyr in terms of importance. And Loki. He's not a god but he's going to stir up a lot of trouble. He's a trickster and it's thanks to him that the events leading up to the end of the world (Ragnarok) were set in motion.
Asgard is where the gods reside, and Midgard is where the first man and woman were created. A wondrous tree known as Yggdrasil had roots both in Midgard and Asgard. It supported the universe, and over it hung the threat of destruction. The thing about Norse mythology is that it's really dark. Both Yggdrasil and the gods were destined to die. Therein lies one of the greatest differences between Greek and Norse mythology.
"No god of Greece could be heroic. All Olympians were immortal and invincible. They could never feel the glow of courage; they could never defy danger. When they fought they were sure of victory and no hard could ever come near them."
Although the gods in Norse mythology know they are doomed to die, they will still enter the struggle between good and evil. Despite the outcome gods and men will fight to the end as it is the glory of courage that matters.
"The only sustaining support possible for the human spirit, the one pure unsullied good men can hope to attain, is heroism; and heroism depends on lost causes. The hero can prove what he is only by dying. The power of good is shown not by triumphantly conquering evil, but by continuing to resist evil while facing certain defeat."
I find this fascinating and illuminating. It's certainly a different way of thinking though not entirely foreign. Hamilton touches only briefly on the history of this literature. Much of it is based on the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda, though they had no Homer like the Greeks did to "work it over".
Of course this is all calls for much more exploration. I can see now why Hamilton only tacked on such a short section for the Norse myths, but she raises more questions than answers them and ignites curiosity to learn more.
My mythology reading is going to have to continue, but I plan on taking a breather for a while and will be embarking on a new long reading project soon (as soon as I have made a choice between the few books that I've narrowed the field down from).