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Justice and Vengeance Theme Analysis

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Pride and Hubris Theme Icon
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Justice is a complicated and sometimes inscrutable concept in the Greek myths, as neither the heroes nor the gods act as infallible moral authorities. There were certain rules held sacred in Greek society, like being hospitable to guests, respecting one’s parents, or avenging a loved one’s murder, and the poets often created situations where these rules contradicted each other, which led to situations of vengeance. A famous example is Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; then Clytemnestra, his wife, kills him to avenge their daughter. Iphigenia’s brother Orestes is then caught in this bind of justice and vengeance – it would be wrong not to punish his father’s murderer, but it would also be wrong to kill his own mother. The only rule that seems to hold true in such stories is that bloodshed begets more bloodshed.

The gods themselves contribute to the confusion regarding justice, as their punishments of mortals often far outweigh the crime and lean towards jealous revenge, like Hera tormenting Zeus’s innocent lovers in horrible ways. Because of this, Greek mythology is very different from other religious stories like the Bible. The Greeks were not trying to create a consistent moral code or idea of justice with their stories, but instead preferred to heighten the elements of explanation and entertainment.

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Justice and Vengeance Quotes in Mythology

Below you will find the important quotes in Mythology related to the theme of Justice and Vengeance.
Introduction to Classical Mythology Quotes

One could never tell where Zeus’s thunderbolt would strike. Nevertheless, the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancingly beautiful with a human beauty, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying. The early Greek mythologists transformed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty.

Related Characters: Zeus
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamilton lays out in great detail a theory that seems, in light of the myths that follow, rather dubious. For Hamilton, Greek mythology's placement of the human at the center of the universe meant that fear became irrelevant. This supposed freedom from fear relies on the concept of beauty--Hamilton proposes that "nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying." On the one hand, she could be saying that infusing something scary with a human quality made it relatable, so things that had once seemed scary, unfamiliar, and unpredictable suddenly seemed, at the very least, rational and relatable. This would seem to be a decent explanation of Hamilton's argument, except that some of the scariest and most destructive figures in Greek myth are the most human. (For example, the several examples of humans getting revenge on someone by killing their children and serving them as food to the unsuspecting victim.) So Hamilton's theory could be generally correct--Greek myth could be less permeated by terror than mythologies that came before it, because its gods were at least humanlike, instead of natural forces or animal-like demons--but it certainly does not account for everything in Greek mythology. 


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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

This strange god, the gay reveler, the cruel hunter, the lofty inspirer, was also the sufferer… Like Persephone Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in other by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again… He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god. There was none other.

Related Characters: Hera, Dionysus, Persephone
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Dionysus, one of the two gods most relevant to the daily lives of humans, shares a central concern of mortals: death. Despite his divinity. Dionysus embodies a duality with which humans are familiar; he is someone of great joy, exuberance, and revelry, but also someone who experiences great suffering and even tragic perennial death. The implication of his life cycle seems to be the acknowledgement that there must be a balance in life between joy and sorrow, revelry and suffering, life and death. In Dionysus, this balance is also understood to be seasonal--Dionysus revels during the fertile months, and dies in Winter. This connects gods to humans to the earth; each must experience times of plenty and barrenness. This passage also shows the power of fate over the lives of the gods. Dionysus, though divine, cannot escape his yearly painful death, and he is also always reborn.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

There is a story, too, that Medea restored Jason’s father to life and made him young again, and that she gave to Jason the secret of perpetual youth. All that she did of evil and of good was done for him alone, and in the end, all the reward she got was that he turned traitor to her.

Related Characters: Jason, Medea
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

To a modern reader, the heroism in Jason's quest for the golden fleece is ambiguous at best. While Jason is the face of the journey and it is his ambition that fuels the trip, the Argonauts are able to overcome many of the obstacles that they face because of help from Medea, whose courage, cleverness, and sacrifice is much more apparent than Jason's. It's important to understand that Medea was a much less sympathetic character to ancient audiences--culturally, as a woman, a foreigner, and a betrayer of her family, she was a clear-cut villain who, perhaps, deserved her tragic fate. However, this passage shows the moral complexity of the story of the golden fleece. All of Medea's good and evil acts were done for love, and her loyalty to Jason was boundless until he betrayed her. With that in mind, her terrible vengeance seems, while perhaps not proportional to Jason's betrayal, comprehensible. Jason was certainly unjust to her, treating her badly while taking credit for everything she gave him. 

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s car,
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.

Related Characters: Phaëthon
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is what the naiads inscribe on the tomb of Phaëthon after he is killed driving the Sun's chariot. Phaëthon, the mortal child of the Sun, is told by his divine father that he will grant any wish, and Phaëthon arrogantly asks to drive his chariot. Predictably, Phaëthon is killed because, as a mortal, he is unable to carry out this divine task without causing chaos and danger. This quote sums up the ancient Greek attitude towards heroism. As we saw with Jason, the ancient Greek culture rewarded deeds that were ambitious or powerful more than deeds that were unequivocally good, advisable, or even successful. Despite Phaëthon's failure--and the fact that his hubristic assumption that he could be equal to the gods got him killed--he is memorialized honorably for the scale of his ambition and daring. This story is somewhat unique in that the gods typically vengefully punish mortals for their hubris, but here their slaying of Phaëthon seemed necessary for everyone's safety. Despite the fact that Phaëthon was, perhaps, not even wrongly killed, he is still remembered as a hero simply for having done a stupid thing that was daring.

He lived happily thus for a long time; then he made the gods angry. His eager ambition along with his great success led him to think “thoughts too great for man,” the thing of all others the gods objected to. He tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. He believed he could take his place there with the immortals. The horse was wiser. He would not try the flight, and he threw his rider. Thereafter Bellerophon, hated of the gods, wandered alone, devouring his own soul and avoiding the paths of men until he died.

Related Characters: Bellerophon, Pegasus
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes after Bellerophon's successful hero's journey, in which he becomes Pegasus's rider and defeats all the obstacles that King Proetus requires. Hamilton indicates here that had Bellerophon been satisfied with his already outrageously good fortune, he could have remained happy and successful. But when Bellerophon decides to ride Pegasus to Olympus (revealing his hubristic assumption that he is fit to mingle with the gods, despite being a mortal), he angers the gods, Pegasus bucks him, and he lives out his life in misery. It's important to note that the hubris Bellerophon shows in attempting to reach Olympus is not his first prideful ambition of the story; wanting to be Pegasus's rider, for instance, is arrogant, as well as his facing all of Proetus's obstacles. However, hubris was only condemned when it was seen to affect the gods. This is revealing of ancient Greek morality; some kinds of arrogance were seen as boldness worthy of reward, while others were considered unacceptable and required vengeance. 

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

The Goddess of Love and Beauty knew very well where the most beautiful woman on earth was to be found. She led the young shepherd, with never a thought of Oenone left forlorn, straight to Sparta, where Menelaus and Helen received him graciously as a guest. The ties between guest and host were strong. Each was bound to help and never harm the other. But Paris broke that sacred bond.

Related Characters: Aphrodite, Paris, Helen, Menelaus
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as part of Hamilton's explanation of the causes of the Trojan War. Aphrodite has promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in exchange for proclaiming her to be the most beautiful goddess, and so Aphrodite must now deliver Paris to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world--but Helen is married to Menelaus. This passage is culturally revealing in several ways. First, the shallowness and selfishness of the gods and mortals are equated here--Paris and Aphrodite behave equally reprehensibly, which will eventually bring vengeance upon the guilty and innocent alike. Second, this shows the complicated place of beauty in ancient Greek society. While beauty is often uncritically revered in Greek myth, here it is shown to be a mixed blessing. Because beauty is so valued and loved, it is also something that causes gods and mortals to fight and wrong one another. Of all the Greek myths, this one is, perhaps, most damning of the power of beauty. 

“If I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.”

Nevertheless he yielded. His reputation with the Army was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.

“He dared the deed,
Slaying his child to help a war.”

Related Characters: Agamemnon, Iphigenia
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as the Greek warriors are headed to Troy to fight, and Artemis, angry that somebody killed one of her sacred deer, demands the sacrifice of the Greek leader Agamemnon's daughter as retribution. This is a story full of retribution, in fact--Agamemnon ultimately agrees to sacrifice his daughter because he is eager to get retribution against the Trojans for taking Helen from her husband, who is Agamemnon's brother. Agamemnon is also fated to perish at the hand of Clytemnestra, his wife, who is seeking vengeance for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter. So, in many ways, the story of the Trojan war is a story of the ways in which "justice" being pursued through vengeance only begets more and more violence. This is also an example of the gods being just as petty and cruel as the humans. Artemis worsens the bloodshed already inevitable due to war because of her petty need to inflict a disproportionate punishment on Agamemnon. Despite the heroic nature of brave men heading off to war, this story is not one that casts anyone in a particularly good light.

Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Troy has perished, the great city.
Only the red flame now lives there.

The dust is rising, spreading out like a great wing of smoke,
And all is hidden.
We now are gone, one here, one there.
And Troy is gone forever.

Farewell, dear city.
Farewell, my country, where my children lived.
There below, the Greek ships wait.

Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

This comes at the end of Hamilton's description of the destruction of Troy, and is a quote from Euripides' play The Trojan Women. Though the Greeks were nearly defeated, their clever use of the Trojan horse allowed them to enter the city walls and win the war. However, this passage reflects that the Greeks did not stop at just winning the war--they ravaged Troy, massacring its people, enslaving the women and children, and destroying its legacy. The Greeks were not content with victory alone--they required vengeance, which was a cruelty and arrogance that the gods would ultimately punish them for. This passage is meant to show the tragedy, cruelty, and senselessness of war, and it's significant that Hamilton doesn't explain this in her own voice, but rather quotes an ancient text so we get a sense of the personal tragedy of its author (himself a Greek) looking upon the destruction of Troy. While the Greeks were technically heroic in war in that they fought bravely and successfully, this passage undercuts the way we understand Greek heroism by also forcing us to see the Trojan perspective, which was one in which the Greeks were guilty of excessive cruelty.

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

Aeneas, we are given to understand, married Lavinia and founded the Roman race – who, Virgil said, “left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.”

Related Characters: Aeneas, Lavinia
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at the end of Hamilton's narration of the story of Aeneas, the sole male survivor of the sack of Troy who goes on to become the founder of Rome. This story, which is the story of his hero's journey, is unique in the book because it is told from the Roman perspective rather than the Greek perspective, and it illustrates several differences between the two cultures. Perhaps the most salient difference here concerns the ideals of heroism. The Greeks generally measured heroism in terms of ambition and daring; Greek heroes were not always unambiguously good, and they were often punished for their misdeeds or arrogance, despite being widely admired as heroes. Aeneas, a Roman hero, causes a lot of trouble on his hero's journey, but is allowed unambiguous success afterwards, which would seem unlikely in Greek myth. This being the founding myth of the Roman empire, it also shows the cultural value placed by the Romans on strength and order above all else (including art and science, which the Greeks prized). In the context of the book, this representation of Roman culture comes off as being less morally complex and sophisticated than Greek culture, but also arguably more "just."

Part 5, Chapter 1 Quotes

Insolent words uttered in the arrogant consciousness of power were always heard in heaven and always punished. Apollo and Artemis glided swiftly to Thebes from Olympus, the archer god and the divine huntress, and shooting with deadly aim they struck down all of Niobe’s sons and daughters… she sank down motionless in stony grief, dumb as a stone and her heart like a stone within her. Only her tears flowed and could not stop. She was changed into a stone which forever, night and day, was wet with tears.

Related Characters: Phoebus Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Niobe
Page Number: 349-350
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage concerns the tragic fate of Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, who has, because of her familial curse, been fated to a terrible life. This is an interesting story because it puts fate in tension with hubris. The gods supposedly kill all of Niobe's children in front of her as punishment for the arrogance of considering herself godlike, but it also seems that Niobe had to display that arrogance in order to bring the gods' vengeance down upon her, so she could fulfill her tragic role in the family curse. In other words, her bad behavior was fated because of her father's sins, so it might not really be her fault, and yet she had to suffer the consequences anyway. This shows the great moral complexity of Greek myth--viewed from different perspectives, this story can be seen as an example of the saying that "sometimes bad things happen to good people," and it can also be seen as an example of righteous retribution for multi-generational sins. 

“Slay the two who slew.
Atone for death by death.
Shed blood for old blood shed.”

And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.

Related Characters: Orestes
Page Number: 358
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes within a complex description of the familial curse affecting the House of Atreus. The story of Orestes is one example of a life consumed by this curse. The quote comes from an oracle (speaking in the voice of Apollo) who confirms Orestes' intuition that he must kill his mother to avenge his father, even though he knows that to do so will destroy him. This story makes us contemplate the senselessness and inevitability of vengeance. Because of old sins and violence, Orestes is doomed to repeat patterns of bloodshed even while he knows they will ruin him and beget more violence and despair. Even so, Orestes is considered brave because he carries out this task, despite knowing its end, because it is what is fated and it is what the gods will. On the one hand, Orestes is brave to do as he is asked without complaint or attempting to escape his fate, but on the other hand, Orestes kills his mother without much thought--usually an unforgivable sin. This is another example of the complex and even contradictory moral system of the ancient Greeks.

Part 5, Chapter 2 Quotes

“You knew my edict?” Creon asked. “Yes,” Antigone replied. “And you transgressed the law?” “Your law, but not the law of Justice who dwells with the gods,” Antigone said. “The unwritten laws of heaven are not for today nor yesterday, but from all time.”…

As she was led away to death, she spoke to the bystanders: -
“… Behold me, what I suffer
Because I have upheld that which is high.”

Related Characters: Antigone, Creon
Page Number: 388
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the climax of the story of Antigone, who defies Creon's unjust order not to honorably bury her brother, and is executed for her defiance. Antigone is a unique hero and her story is a unique tragedy in Greek myth. While heroism has often meant ambition and bravery regardless of goodness, Antigone sacrifices her life for what she sees to be justice and respect. Antigone is brave and visionary, but she is not unduly strong or blustering--she is a quiet and morally forceful heroine, which is uncommon in Greek myth. This is also a different kind of tragedy from the ones we've commonly seen before, in which a mortal defies the gods in some way, intentional or not, and is punished for it. Instead, in this story Antigone violates the laws of men in order to act in accord with divine justice, and she is still punished for it. The tragedy here is that divine justice is not being served, and Antigone, who stands up for divine justice to a powerful king, is not rewarded.

Part 6, Chapter 1 Quotes

He was a universal benefactor. And yet he too drew down on himself the anger of the gods and by the sin the gods never forgave. He thought “thoughts too great for man.” He was once given a large fee to raise one from the dead, and he did so… Zeus would not allow a mortal to have power over the dead and he struck Aesculapius with his thunderbolt and slew him.

Related Characters: Zeus, Aesculapius
Page Number: 414
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes in Hamilton's narration of the story of Aesculapius, the mortal son of Apollo who is an adept and generous doctor. Aesculapius is so skilled that he finds himself raising a man from the dead, seemingly from generosity more than hubris. However, the gods (predictably) are enraged that a mortal could have control over life and death (which the gods feel is their realm), and Zeus strikes Aesculapius dead. As we have seen several times before, however, Aesculapius's death at the hands of Zeus did not shame him in the eyes of mortals--he was honored as a hero (and even a demigod) rather than disregarded as a fool, which shows the Greek appetite for humans ambitious and daring enough to take on or rival the gods. This story also illuminates the uneven temperaments of the gods, who could not differentiate between genuine hubris and a good deed that accidentally transgressed a line. The slaying of Apollo's son further brings forth a cycle of senseless and destructive vengeance that seems hardly merited by Aesculapius's supposed transgression.

Part 6, Chapter 2 Quotes

Minerva did her best and the result was a marvel, but Arachne’s work, finished at the same moment, was in no way inferior. The goddess in a fury of anger beat the girl around the head with her shuttle. Arachne, disgraced and mortified and furiously angry, hanged herself. Then a little repentance entered Minerva’s heart… Arachne was changed into a spider, and her skill in weaving was left to her.

Related Characters: Pallas Athena, Arachne
Page Number: 425-426
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the end of the myth of the mortal Arachne, who is challenged to a weaving contest by Minerva (the Latin Athena) and wins. In many instances when gods punish mortals for daring to try to usurp them, the gods are unrepentant and their disproportionate punishments engender more violence rather than any sense of justice. This myth is different. Minerva does unjustly punish Arachne, which leads to her death (though she has done nothing wrong except participate successfully in a contest Minerva suggested). Minerva, in this case, does feel regret, though, and changes Arachne into a spider so that she can continue to use her weaving skills. The reasons for Minerva's repentance are left open, but it's possible that Minerva felt bad because of the ancient Greek worship of beauty. Minerva had punished Arachne for making a beautiful thing, which might have, in combination with her recognition of the excessive violence of a punishment that led to Arachne's death, changed Minerva's mind. Regardless, this is an example of vengeance that has a relatively happy ending because Minerva at least had the humility to make amends.

Part 7, Chapter 1 Quotes

Never shalt thou be stained by baseness.
Yet a day of doom shall come upon thee,
A day of wrath and a day of anguish.
But ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life.
And a nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurd.

Related Characters: Sigurd
Page Number: 451-452
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as Sigurd is on the way to Brynhild for the first time and he stops to ask a wise man to tell him his fate. Despite the dark talk of wrath and doom and anguish, this is actually the best possible fate a Norseman could anticipate. Sigurd knows that he's destined to die cataclysmically (because all Norse are), but the wise man confirms that Sigurd's fate is to die honorably and courageously, and that, because of his bravery and spirit, he will be the noblest of all the Norse. So Sigurd goes about his life of bravery, performing good deeds for others and facing trouble and danger with courage. He eventually is murdered, but he has done nothing to dishonor himself in the process, so he is remembered as a hero. This story is tragic in that, despite Sigurd's goodness and courage, he cannot escape a horrible fate, but it is also hopeful and optimistic within the Norse worldview because it represents the best of possible fates.