Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is primarily a collection of Greek and Roman myths. Several Norse myths are included, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the gods and goddesses created by the ancient Greeks and generally adopted by the Romans, who gave them different names and incorporated them into their own body of mythology. In language that is simple and direct, Hamilton introduces and describes the deities in the pantheon, explains their relationships with one another, and tells their stories—ancient myths about creation and stories that incorporate the heroes and great families of the ancient world. Before addressing specific gods and goddesses, however, the author devotes the first section of her book to a general discussion of the origins of Greek mythology and the writers who first recorded the myths.
First published in 1942, Hamilton’s Mythology continues to appeal to new generations of readers. Not written for academics pursuing research in mythology, the book instead offers an overview of the subject that is as entertaining as it is informative. Organized much like an encyclopedia, it also serves as an excellent reference book. Although Hamilton did not write her book for scholars, her own scholarship is evident in the text. She culls from Greek and Roman authors, including Homer and Hesiod (Greek texts from 750–550 BCE); Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Greek authors from 500–400 BCE); Ovid and Virgil (Roman authors circa the beginning of the Common Era); and Apollodorus (a Greek writer circa 150 CE). Her research also includes the Norse poems of the Elder Edda (early thirteenth century). At the beginning of each chapter in Mythology, Hamilton notes the specific sources that support the text.
Myths played several important roles in the lives of the Greeks and the Romans. They explained the natural world, provided a platform for ethical and philosophical debate, and justified particular political and imperial systems. They also entertained. Filled with stories of heroism, beauty, love, death, betrayal, revenge, victory, defeat, and the immutable power of fate, the myths engaged the ancient Greeks and Romans just as they continue to entertain us today. Furthermore, the myths develop universal themes in regard to human nature. They present a particularly complicated view of mankind; many of the hero’s challenges arise from within himself, and no clear definition of good and evil exists. Greek and Roman myths present a complex view of women, as well; women are dangerous and deceitful or loyal and beneficent, but all are subject to male domination, even those who are powerful goddesses. In contrast, women are not significantly represented in Norse mythology, which is firmly rooted in the Heroic Code that celebrates fame achieved through fierceness in battle.
Mythology was published when Hamilton was sixty-two years old, but it was far from being her final literary achievement; she published an additional nine books on Greek and Roman culture and mythology. Hamilton admired the lucidity of Greek poetry and myth and lamented the fact that American society had become too complicated to live by the values of the ancient Greeks. In 1957, at the age of ninety-one, Hamilton traveled from America to Greece for the first time; she was made an honorary citizen of Athens and was awarded the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction. Despite having had a very successful career as an educator and then as a writer, Hamilton exclaimed upon receiving the award, “This is the proudest moment of my life!”
Hamilton adopts a Eurocentric view of Greek mythology, asserting that it informed the cultural evolution of Western civilization. The influence of Greek mythology in Western art, literature, and philosophy is readily apparent. Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were inspired by classical mythology, and the works of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Byron, and Shelley also reflect its influence.
As students become acquainted with the characters and stories in Hamilton’s book, they may be surprised to discover that mythology influences their own culture, as well. Movies draw on the larger-than-life heroes of myth in creating contemporary heroes like Spiderman and Batman, and numerous video games, such as Titan Quest and Rise of the Argonauts, incorporate mythology. Creatures of the Norse imagination—dwarves, elves, and trolls—people the world of fantasy in the movie Shrek! and in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Additionally, miscellaneous references to mythological deities are rife in our culture. Car models are named after Saturn and Mercury; Venus is the subject of song; Adonis is synonymous with male beauty; a space mission is named Apollo; and Atlas is always a popular name for moving companies.
Familiarity with Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology gives students insight in regard to ancient societies and universal human behavior; it develops cultural literacy and augments their understanding and appreciation of art and literature. These educational objectives, however, won’t be uppermost in students’ minds as they read Hamilton’s Mythology. They will instead be caught up in the fascinating world of gods and goddesses and the adventures of the mortals whose lives they protect or destroy.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes developed in Mythology.
2. Identify the symbols present in Mythology and discuss their significance.
3. Identify the common root of fate for the gods and mortals alike. Discuss how fate and mortality versus immortality are developed thematically in a story.
4. Determine and define the elements of Greek and Roman mythology that have influenced modern literature, social science, and religion.
5. Explain the notions of good and evil illustrated throughout the collection of myths, and discuss how the gods reward and punish.
6. Discuss the themes of morality and ego (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, and ambition), especially in regard to the behavior of the gods and goddesses.
7. Identify examples of the motifs of beauty, love, death, nature, hospitality, and the foreigner, and discuss their significance.
8. Explain how, and through which characters, revenge is exacted, and discuss how some characters are perceived by their actions as villainous, while others are seen as heroic.
9. Compare and contrast the representations of women in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
- The Lesson Guide is organized for a section-by-section study of the book. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the book and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Lesson Guide vocabulary lists include words from the book that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Lesson Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them.
Essay and Discussion Questions
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the book; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
(The entire section is 507 words.)
1. How are the world, the human race, and specifically women created, according to Greek mythology?
2. What does the Greek explanation for creation suggest about the Greek character?
3. What is your impression of the society in which these myths were created? What does this culture value?
4. How do myths function as the basis for modern literature? Identify examples of the influence of classical myths in modern life.
5. Consider the concept of godliness. Compare and contrast various gods’ and goddesses’ strengths and weaknesses. Do the storytellers of the myths consider their humanity an attribute or a flaw? Why or why not?
6. Consider the individual personalities and characteristics of each of the Greek gods. How do these depictions change when Roman storytellers write about them?
7. How do myths give complicated and often contrasting depictions of females? How do the huntresses contrast with other women and goddesses?
8. Consider all of the incidents in which women commit suicide. Why do many of the women kill themselves? How are their stories similar?
9. Discuss Aphrodite’s exploits. Is she a feminist or a sexist?
10. If love is the “virtue” of myth and a motif in many of the stories, does that make Aphrodite the strongest deity? Why is it significant that she can manipulate both humans and gods?
11. Identify examples of incest in Mythology. What does this reflect about the time in which the stories were created?
12. Discuss the sacrifice, killing, and abandonment of children throughout Greek mythological stories. Why would this motif appear in so many of them?
13. Why is reward and punishment so prevalent in the myths?
14. Punishment for excessive ego or lack of obedience to the gods is a theme in numerous myths. Is the gods’ retribution fair and consistent? Consider how Perseus exhibits pride by declaring he will bring Medusa’s head, and how Hercules perpetually confronts the gods.
15. How are heroes and villains depicted throughout Mythology? Does being conflicted make a hero more believable but less heroic? Does being compassionate make a villain less evil?
16. In Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts represent advanced civilization. Does Jason deserve to be considered a hero? Why or why not?
17. Compare the “evil” acts of Orestes and Medea. Why is one considered a villain, while the other is not?
18. What is the significance of the Trojan War’s tragic ending? Is it fair that Helen escapes Troy?
19. Write alternative endings for the story of a character of your choice. Perhaps Helen or Paris, Persephone, Hercules, Oedipus, or Odysseus?
20. Write a myth explaining how evil first enters the world.
21. In the last pages of Mythology, Norse poetry is presented that reflects great common sense and contrasts with the Heroic Code of the time that emphasized loyalty, courage, honor, and fame. Discuss the meanings of these poems. Are they still relevant today?
Introduction to Classical Mythology, The Mythology of the Greeks, The Greek and Roman Writers of Mythology
allegory: a narrative that serves as an extended metaphor
buccaneering: pirating; ruthless speculating
deities: gods and goddesses
meed: archaic reward
naiad: a water nymph
nymph: a spirit, imagined as a beautiful maiden, that inhabits the woods and rivers
Olympus: home to the ancient Greek gods and goddesses
suppliant: a person making a humble plea to a person in authority
1. What is noticeable about Hamilton’s style of writing and Mythology as a book?
Hamilton writes clearly, simply, and accessibly. This book is written for...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)
aegis: a goatskin shield or breastplate that is an attribute of Zeus and Athena
implacable: relentless, unstoppable
incarnate: embodied in flesh
inexorable: impossible to stop
oracle: a priest or priestess acting as a medium for the gods
pinnacle: a peak, a summit
redoubtable: formidable; arousing fear or awe
transgress: to infringe, to go beyond the bounds of a moral issue
wielded: held or used (as a weapon)
1. How does creation occur in Greek mythology?
In Greek mythology, the universe creates the gods. There is heaven and...
(The entire section is 1933 words.)
chasm: a deep gulf or divide
desolate: deserted of people and in a state of bleak and dismal emptiness
discern: to distinguish, to perceive
exult: to show or to feel elation, jubilation
fetter: to restrain with chains or manacles
hallow: to honor as holy
hasten: to move or travel hurriedly
manifest: to display, to show, to demonstrate
revelry: lively and noisy festivities
reverent: respectful, deferential
sheaves: bundles of grain stocks after harvest
taut: tight, strained
winnowing: removing chaff from grain
1. Identify and describe Demeter and...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
Part One – The Gods, Creation, and the Earliest Heroes, Chapter 3 – How the World and Mankind Were Created
anvil: a heavy steel or iron block with a flat top and concave sides
bade: uttered a greeting or farewell
beneficent: generous, resulting in good
boon: a blessing, a benefit
brazen: bold, without shame
deluge: a severe flood
lament: to mourn a loss, to grieve
stead: the place or role that someone or something should have or fill
writhing: continual twisting, squirming movements or contortions of the body
1. Summarize the first story of creation found in Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks believed the universe created its gods, not the other...
(The entire section is 1227 words.)
affectation: pretense, simulation
ascribe: to attribute something to a cause
clambering: climbing, moving, getting in or out of something in an awkward manner
commemorate: to show respect for something or someone in a ceremony
laggard: slower than desired or expected
loathe: to dislike intensely
ponderous: heavy, weighty, awkward
scepters: ornamental staffs or canes
slain: killed in a violent way
staunch: loyal and committed in attitude
suppliants: those who make a humble plea to those in authority
thrice: three times; “once, twice, thrice”
wafted: passed easily or gently through...
(The entire section is 873 words.)
Part Two – Stories of Love and Adventure, Chapter 5 – Cupid and Psyche, Chapter 6 – Eight Brief Tales of Lovers
ardent: enthusiastic, passionate
clamor: noise, uproar
diligent: conscientious, industrious
enamored: marked by a foolish or unreasoning fondness
fraught: full, replete, loaded
homage: special honor or respect shown publicly
inexplicable: unaccountable, incomprehensible
pious: devoutly religious
smite: to strike with a firm blow
tarry: to stay longer than expected
tryst: a private, romantic rendezvous; a meeting
wayfarer: a person who travels on foot
zeal: enthusiasm, excitement
1. Why does Aphrodite/Venus dismiss Psyche?
Aphrodite is jealous...
(The entire section is 1004 words.)
abashed: caused to feel embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed
defile: to sully, to mar, to soil
elixir: a magical or medicinal potion
exult: to show or feel elation or jubilation, especially as the result of a success
shorn: cut off (hair, wool) with scissors or shears
torrent: a sudden, violent, copious outpouring of words or feelings
valor: great courage
1. What does the sea symbolize? Why?
The sea symbolizes possibility and adventure. In ancient Greece, the oceans were primary ways to journey from one land to another, and the journeys were often dangerous voyages, fraught with many perils....
(The entire section is 800 words.)
Chimaera: a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head and a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail
covet: to yearn to possess something
cunning: sly, crafty, artful
portent: a sign or warning that something momentous or calamitous is likely to happen
precipitous: dangerously high or steep
thither: archaic to or toward that place
1. Why do the nymphs honor Phaethon?
Phaethon’s father is the sun god. He drives his father’s chariot too close to the sun and burns to death. The nymphs honor him because even though he failed to control the horses and the chariot, he was brave:...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
abode: a residence, a home
forewith: archaic immediately, instantly
raze: to destroy completely
sanctuary: a place of refuge and safety
shroud: to wrap or cover, as if from view
1. How does King Acrisius attempt—and fail—to defy fate?
A priestess tells King Acrisius that his daughter, Danae, will have a son who will kill him; the only sure way to avert this fate, she says, is for the king to kill Danae. The king cannot do this because killing kin is an action that may incur the gods’ wrath. Instead, he imprisons her. Zeus visits Danae and impregnates her. She gives birth to a son, Perseus....
(The entire section is 845 words.)
arduous: hard, difficult, challenging
coverts: covers, shelters
defiled: sullied, marred, and soiled
exonerate: to acquit, to absolve from a crime
expiating: atoning for guilt or sin
invariable: never changing, constant
penitence: remorse for past conduct
pestilence: fatal epidemic disease
undaunted: not intimidated or discouraged by difficulty, danger, or disappointment
1. How is Hercules different from other mythological heroes?
Hercules is simple, good-hearted, and brave, but he offends the gods, makes mistakes, and inadvertently causes much suffering, including his own....
(The entire section is 872 words.)
appeasing: pacifying or placating (someone) by acceding to their demands
circumvent: to find a way around (an obstacle), to overcome a difficulty
solemn: grave, serious, formal
treachery: betrayal of trust; deceptive action or nature
upbraid: to find fault, to scold someone
utmost: most extreme, greatest
vexed: annoyed, frustrated, worried
1. What is the significance of the character of Helen?
By creating the character of Helen, the ancient Greeks create the cause for human struggle and war. A series of events leads to the Trojan War, but Helen is considered to be the reason it...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)
apparition: a ghost or ghostlike image of a person
feat: an achievement that requires great courage, skill, or strength
gallant: brave, courageous
rapture: intense pleasure
votive: offered or consecrated in fulfillment of a vow
1. Explain Odysseus’s plan for placing Greek warriors within the walls of the city of Troy.
Odysseus devises the plan for the Trojan horse, which is hollow inside so that it may be a hiding place for the Greek soldiers so they can get into the Trojan fort; they treacherously present the horse as an appeasement gift after the ten-year war between them. The Greeks then pretend to sail...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
indiscriminate: done at random, without careful consideration
insolent: insultingly contemptuous in speech or conduct
perilous: full of danger; risky
roistering: enjoy oneself or celebrating in a noisy or boisterous way
sacrilege: a violation or misuse of what is considered sacred
sumptuous: splendid, expensive looking
swagger: to walk or behave in a very confident, arrogant manner
tempest: a violent, windy storm
wrathful: filled with rage
1. Why do the gods punish the Greeks?
After the fall of Troy, the Greeks forgot to give gifts to Athena and Poseidon, who helped the...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
haven: a place of safety, refuge
indolent: lazy, idle, sluggish
oblivion: the state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening
pallor: an unhealthy pale appearance
portentous: ominous, sinister
smote: struck with a firm blow
squalid: sordid, filthy, foul
stripling: a young man
susceptible: easily influenced, sensitive, responsive
1. Why did the Roman historian and poet Virgil exalt in tales about Aeneas?
Aeneas is said to have been the founder of ancient Rome, and Virgil understandably believed in Rome as a political capital. Aeneas is also a reasonable man who...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
abhorrent: inspiring disgust and loathing
abominable: causing moral aversion
absolved: given absolution for a sin; relieved of blame, fault, guilt
arrayed: displayed or arranged in a particular way
atonement: reparation for a wrong or injury
brooded: thought deeply about something that makes one unhappy
consecrate: to make or declare something sacred
contrived: deliberately created rather than spontaneously or naturally created
entrancing: filling someone with wonder and delight, holding their entire attention
foreboding: fearful apprehension, dread
laden: heavily loaded, weighted down
lofty: of imposing height;...
(The entire section is 1123 words.)
acquiesce: to accept something reluctantly but without protest
assertion: a confident and forceful statement about fact or belief
blight: disease, affliction
enmity: the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone or something
guile: slyness, cunning intelligence
inexplicably: without a possible explanation
ordinance: a decree, an order, an edict
1. What is the essential moral about the House of Thebes?
The moral is that fortunes change all the time, and the Fates punish the good, too.
2. How does Cadmus and Harmonia’s experience indicate the...
(The entire section is 773 words.)
arbiter: a person who settles a dispute
chagrined: abashed, feeling or being caused to feel embarrassed
palpitating: beating rapidly, strongly, or irregularly
reparation: repair, compensation
1. How does Hamilton’s tone change in the beginning of this chapter? What observations does she make about the demise of mythology in the lives of the Greeks?
Hamilton is more analytical and serious. Her opening pages observe that when myths became misrepresented and crass in order to make successful literature or theater, “the end of Greek mythology was at hand.” Even by the fifth century BCE, people were beginning to...
(The entire section is 849 words.)
Part Six – The Less Important Myths, Chapter 20 – Midas—and Others, Chapter 21 – Brief Myths Arranged Alphabetically
audacity: boldness, daring
cornucopia: a symbol of plenty consisting of a goat’s horn overflowing with flowers, fruit, and corn
divination: the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means
emulate: to match, usually through imitation
promontory: a cape, a headland of a body of water
rustic: having a simplicity and charm that is considered typical of the countryside
spoils: goods stolen or taken forcibly
unerring: always right or accurate
1. What is the moral in the story of Midas?
Midas represents human greed and foolishness. “He...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
Part Seven – The Mythology of the Norsemen Introduction to Norse Mythology, Chapter 22 – The Stories of Signy and Sigurd, Chapter 23 – The Norse Gods
adjudged: considered or declared to be true; to be ruled upon
conception: an idea, a notion, a concept
exacted: demanded and obtained
fatalistic: believing that all events are predetermined by fate and are therefore unalterable
foes: enemies, opponents
imperiled: put at risk of being harmed, injured, or destroyed
shalt: archaic shall
somber: so shaded as to seem dark and gloomy; melancholy of character
therein: in or into that place, time, or thing
thou: archaic you
treatise: a written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject
unsullied: spotlessly clean and fresh...
(The entire section is 743 words.)
1. Why did the ancient Greeks create their gods in the image of human beings?
A. Because the Greeks were unimaginative.
B. Because the Greeks wanted gods to whom they could relate.
C. Because the Greeks wanted to be different from the Egyptians.
D. Because the Greeks were arrogant.
E. Because the Greeks wanted to be different from the Hindus.
2. According to Hamilton, why is Homer’s Iliad important?
A. A new perspective was created that put the gods in their rightful place.
B. A new perspective dawned in which humans were at the whim of nature....
(The entire section is 1415 words.)
1. Explain how women are depicted in Greek mythology. Support your discussion with examples from several of the myths.
There is a consistent portrayal of females throughout Greek mythology: mortal women are unlucky, particularly if gods are in love with them, and immortal women are powerful, though secondary to male gods. In addition to these two factions of goddesses and mortal women, there are huntresses, both mortal and immortal, who are women who do not want a conventional life of marriage and children. Despite these varying models of the female in Greek mythology, all women are depicted as being troublesome, petty, disloyal, and vindictive. These consistent portrayals of women in mythical stories indicate ancient...
(The entire section is 2990 words.)