Books, Words

Essays on Greek Mythology

I just found the two essays I wrote for a course on Greek and Roman mythology last year. I enjoyed this course so much, particularly the assigned readings and the writing of these essays. My arguments are slightly truncated due to lack of space (only so many words allowed) but, I admit, I’m pretty proud of them. So, I thought I’d share them here…

Mythology essay 1 – Question 2: Functionalism

Female fidelity was an important social value in ancient Greece*. Women’s chastity was thought key to securing the paternity of children. If a wife was known to have been adulterous it brought doubt on the legitimacy of her offspring. A man could never be sure – even Telemachus only has his mother’s word that Odysseus is his father (Fagles, 114).

Three examples of adulterous women are noted in the ‘The Odyssey’: Aphrodite; Helen; and Clytemnestra. Three sisters in fact.

We hear of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares through Demodocus’ bawdy comic song (Fagles, 200-203). The goddess of love is unfaithful to her husband Hephaestus. Learning of the affair he fashions a trap for Aphrodite and her lover. Once he has them pinned to his marriage bed, Hephaestus calls the other gods to witness their shame. However, Aphrodite is a goddess, and Goddess of Love at that. She is not bound by the same values and norms as mortal women. She is embarrassed but otherwise neither punished or harmed for her infidelity.

Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus, is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and the most beautiful woman in the world. She runs away with Paris, thereby triggering the Trojan War. However, Helen is not entirely responsible for her actions since she was given to Paris by Aphrodite as a prize. Her infidelity is the will of the gods. Like Aphrodite, Helen receives no real punishment for her adultery, serious as it is and even with the massive death toll that results. This may seem incongruous but, like her half-sister Aphrodite, Helen is divine. She was a prize for Paris but she is Menelaus’ prize too. His place in the afterlife is secured just by being her husband:

“All this because you are Helen’s husband now –
the gods count you the son-in-law of Zeus”
(Fagles, 142)

Clytemnestra of Argos is also a daughter of Leda but fathered by Leda’s husband Tyndareus rather than Zeus (Fagles, 526). So, though she is Helen’s sister, she is merely a mortal woman, and therefore subject to mortal values and norms. We hear on various occasions of Clytemnestra’s wrong doing. It is talked about by gods, mortals and ghosts alike. Zeus mentions her story (Fagles, 78); Nestor describes her seduction by Aegisthus (Fagles, 116); and finally Agamemnon’s ghost accuses her of complicity in his murder (Fagles, 474). (It doesn’t seem to matter that he has arrived home with his war-prize Cassandra in tow).

So, as a mortal woman, Clytemnestra’s perfidy is punished most severely. She is murdered by her own son Orestes in revenge for his father’s death. She is defamed throughout the cosmos. Agamemnon’s ghost curses her memory (Fagles, 474).

In contrast to these women, Penelope is held up as a paragon of fidelity. Agamemnon’s ghost even calls for a song to immortalise her virtue (Fagles, 474). That song could in fact be ‘The Odyssey’!

In conclusion, the episodes detailing Clytemnestra’s adultery and subsequent punishments legitimise the social norms calling for fidelity from Greek women.

*’Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece’, Nigel Wilson (Google eBook), 2013, p. 11

Bibliography
‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books Ltd, 2004

*******

Week 9: Essay – Question 3: Relationships

Among the numerous kinds of relationship in the Greek myths studied, I believe familial relationships are of greatest importance to the narratives.

There are many family relationships in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. Most obvious are:

  • Odysseus’ relationships with his wife, son, father, mother
  • the twisted relationships between Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children
  • the strained family life of Helen and Menelaus

However, the familial relationship of most importance to the narrative of ‘The Odyssey’ is between the god Poseidon and the cyclops Polyphemus, his son.

Following Odysseus’ attack in which Polyphemus is blinded and mocked, the cyclops prays to his father:

Poseidon…
If I really am your son and you claim to be my father –
come, grant that Odysseus…
never reaches home. Or…
…let him come home late
and come a broken man – all shipmates lost,
alone and in a stranger’s ship –
and let him find a world of pain at home!
(Fagles, p.228)

Poseidon hears his son and does all in his godly power to make his prayer come true. All the suffering and hardship Odysseus experiences is a direct result of his attack on a son – and a father’s subsequent retribution.

Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ is more or less all about family relationships. Hesiod uses genealogical structure to present disparate elements of the cosmos in an ordered manner. He tries to connect similar concepts using a familial bond. e.g:

Night bore hateful Doom and dark Fate and Death, she bore Sleep, she bore the tribe of Dreams (West, p. 9)

The ‘Homeric Hymn To Demeter’ examines a strong bond between mother and daughter. When Persephone is married/abducted and carried off by Hades, Demeter reacts with powerful grief. The goddess behaves in the way a mortal mother would on the death of her child:

Sharp was the pain that clutched her heart. Her own hands
Tattered the veil on her immortal hair.
She threw a dark-blue cloak around her shoulders…
(Ruden, p.4)

Demeter’s grief and the consequences for both humanity and the gods drive this myth.

The tragedies we studied are replete with familial relationships, integral to their plots. ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘The Eumenides’ evolve out of a dark, twisted family tree. The familial ties in ‘Oedipus the King’ are too complex to even start unraveling in this short essay.

Much strife is caused in Greek mythology by Zeus’ serial adultery and Hera’s resultant jealousy. This adultery/jealousy leads to the fiery death of Semele. Euripides ‘The Bacchae’ is driven by Dionysus’ subsequent mission to prove his own divinity to his mortal family, simultaneously punishing them for their lack of belief in him and defamation of his mother:

For I have come
to refute that slander spoken by my mother’s sisters –
They said that Dionysus was no son of Zeus,
but Semele had slept beside a man in love
and fathered off her shame on Zeus…
(Grene, p.194)

In conclusion, of the numerous kinds of relationship in the myths we’ve studied, familial relationships seem to be of greatest importance by far.

Bibliography

  • The Odyssey’, Homer translation by Robert Fagle
  • ‘Theogeny/Works and Days’ by Hesiod, M.L. West (translator)
  • ‘Homeric Hymns’, Sarah Ruden (translator)
  • ‘Greek Tragedies’, vol 1 and vol 3, translated by David Grene

BTW. I notice that course is about to be run again. If you’re interested in the topic at all I highly recommend you sign up.

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