Prometheus and Io. Hamilton takes this story from the Greek poet Aeschylus and the Roman poet Ovid. She returns to Prometheus, who is still chained to the rock in the Caucasus. A white heifer approaches him, talking wildly with a girl’s voice, and Prometheus recognizes her as a maiden named Io. Zeus had seduced her, but then transformed her into a cow to hide her from an angry Hera. Hera was not deceived, and she asked for the cow and then imprisoned Io under the watch of the hundred-eyed Argus.
This is one of Zeus’s many philandering adventures, though it also features the hero Prometheus. Hera is always pursuing Zeus’s lovers and punishing them, and Zeus then uses different tricks to protect the women or hide his infidelity. This is the more “comic” side of the chief of the gods.
Zeus sends Hermes to free Io and he lulls Argus to sleep with a story about Pan. Hermes kills Argus, but later Hera takes his eyes and sets them in the tail of a peacock. Hermes frees Io, but Hera punishes her again by sending a gadfly to endlessly sting her, forcing her to wander the earth. Prometheus tries to comfort Io by telling her how Zeus was also the source of his own troubles, and he says that Io will soon return to human form and bear Zeus a son named Epaphus. Prometheus also tells Io that one of her descendants will be Hercules, the greatest of heroes, who will someday free Prometheus himself.
Embedded in the story is an explanation for the peacock’s beautiful tail. Prometheus is able to comfort Io with the fact that a good fate inevitably awaits her, and Prometheus himself knows he will eventually be freed as well. Zeus seems a little less malicious in his infidelities by the fact that he seems to genuinely love his mistresses, if only briefly, and love was the most sacred thing of all to the Greeks.
Europa. Hamilton takes this story from the Alexandrian poet Moschus. Europa is another girl who Zeus falls in love with. She has a strange dream about continents and then goes out to a meadow with some friends. Zeus watches her, and then Cupid shoots him in the heart and he falls madly in love with Europa.
Zeus’s lovers rarely have any agency in their position, as they are usually kidnapped and then seduced, or else raped. This makes Hera’s punishments seem all the more unjust, and makes Zeus’s “love” often more of a curse than a blessing.
Wary of Hera, Zeus transforms himself into a beautiful, docile bull and approaches Europa. She and her friends gather round him, enchanted, and Europa can’t help climbing onto his back. Suddenly the bull rushes away and leaps over the sea, accompanied by Poseidon and the other sea-gods. Europa is frightened, but Zeus comforts her by revealing his identity.
This is a very fantastical, beautiful image, and though the tale culminates in an explanation of a continent’s name, the story is clearly intended mostly as entertainment. Zeus frequently turns into an animal as part of his tricks to escape Hera.
Zeus takes Europa to Crete, where he returns to his true shape and seduces her. Europa’s descendants include Minos and Rhadamanthus, who become judges of the dead in Hades, and the continent of Europe is named for Europa herself.
Europa is one of Zeus’s most fortunate lovers, though the tales rarely discuss how the women themselves felt – they are simply assumed to be lucky because they will have great descendants.
The Cyclops Polyphemus. This story comes from three sources which span a thousand years: Homer’s Odyssey, the Alexandrian poet Theocritus, and the satirist Lucian. Polyphemus is one of the Cyclopes, the only of the original monstrous children of Earth not banished by the gods. The Cyclopes become the forgers of Zeus’s thunderbolts, and Zeus gives them a good country with herds of sheep and goats.
Mostly because of Homer’s Odyssey, Cyclopes are one of the ancient Greek monsters still very familiar to modern culture. They are more ambiguous than they seem at first, sometimes evil and sometimes neutral or comic, but always monsters because of their ugliness.
Polyphemus is most famous for his encounter with Odysseus. He traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, and promises to eat some of them every day. After several of Polyphemus’ gruesome meals, Odysseus cuts a huge piece of wood into a stake, and with his men drives the stake into Polyphemus’ eye while he is sleeping. Polyphemus is blind then, but still alive. Odysseus and his men escape the cave by covering themselves with ram skins, so that Polyphemus thinks they are part of his herd.
Hamilton tells this story of Odysseus here, though she will relate the rest of his adventures later in the book. Odysseus is a famously clever hero, and this is one of the many great escapes on his “hero’s quest,” which was his difficult journey home from the Trojan War.
Another story involves Polyphemus, but in it he is less terrifying and more ridiculous. He falls madly in love with Galatea, a sea nymph, but she only mocks him and never returns his love. There is an even later story where Galatea at least speaks kindly of Polyphemus, but then she falls in love with a prince named Acis, whom the jealous Polyphemus kills.
In this story Polyphemus is a negative character only because of his ugliness, and in that he becomes almost tragic. He still has his fearsome temper and strength, however, as he kills the prince out of jealousy.
Flower-Myths: Narcissus, Hyacinth, Adonis. Hamilton takes these stories from a variety of sources including Ovid, Apollodorus, and Euripides. She describes how the many wildflowers of Greece seem so miraculous considering the country’s stony, dry climate, and how the ancient people created myths to encapsulate the loveliness and strangeness of these flowers.
These myths are foremost explanations of natural phenomena, but they also have a darker underside that Hamilton will explain later. The many flower myths and their associations with lovely youths show the Greek fascination with beauty.
There are two stories about the narcissus flower. In one, Zeus creates it to help lure Persephone away from her friends so that Zeus’s brother Hades could kidnap her. The second, better-known story involves a beautiful young man called Narcissus. Every girl that sees him falls in love with him, but Narcissus ignores them all, including the nymph Echo – whom Hera had earlier cursed to repeat only what she heard. Echo follows Narcissus and repeats his words sadly, but Narcissus scorns her.
Narcissus’s beauty is his greatest resource and gives him his fame, but his proud lack of love is his greatest sin. Great beauty is always desired and fought over in the myths, and often it causes more sorrow than happiness. The story of the nymph Echo explains the modern meaning of the word.
The gods punish Narcissus for rejecting love, and Nemesis curses him to love no one but himself. Narcissus goes to a pool to drink and then falls in love with his reflection. He cannot look away, and he dies still staring into the water. Even when he crosses the river into Hades Narcissus looks for his reflection in the water. A new flower blooms where he died, and the nymphs Narcissus had scorned name it after him.
This myth again emphasizes the importance of love, as Narcissus is punished for his lack of love. It is associated with a kind of pride, as he considers no one good enough for him, and the gods always punish mortals who are too proud. Yet Narcissus’ beauty is important enough to make his famous.
The hyacinth is created when Apollo accidentally kills his close young friend Hyacinthus in a discus contest. There is another version where Zephyr, the West Wind, is jealous of Apollo and blows the discus to strike Hyacinthus. Either way, Apollo is distraught, and he creates a red flower in remembrance of his friend and his own sorrow.
These flower myths are usually tragic stories that celebrate beauty and youth above all else. What is interesting is that they also associate the death of someone beautiful with the birth of a beautiful plant.
Hamilton interrupts to analyze these flower myths. She feels that they probably have dark origins, and may be “modernized” versions of stories of human sacrifice. At the very least they connect the idea of the sacrifice of a beautiful youth with a bountiful new harvest. The myths may have been invented to make these sacrifices seem less cruel.
Hamilton analyzes this connection between the death of youths and the birth of plants. This ties into her theory that the Greek myths have their origins in the “primitive,” “barbaric” practices of other cultures, but the Greeks have civilized and beautified their ancient savagery.
Hamilton then tells the story of Adonis, who was a youth so beautiful that even Aphrodite herself fell in love with him. She gives him to Persephone to be taken care of, but then Persephone falls in love with him too. Zeus has to judge their quarrel, and he decides that Adonis will spend half the year with Persephone and half with Aphrodite. Then one day (when he is not in Hades) Adonis is gored by a wild boar during a hunt. Aphrodite kisses him as he dies, and a red anemone springs up where his blood stains the ground.
Adonis is another youth immortalized for his beauty. None of the gods seem immune to great mortal beauty, and the infidelities are not limited to Zeus. Again there is a connection and a kind of “justice” in beautiful blood giving birth to a beautiful flower. In this way Aphrodite also immortalizes her love, which makes the story seem less sinister.