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Pride and Hubris Theme Analysis

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The greatest sin in many myths is when a mortal grows too proud and claims to be the equal or superior of the gods. This arrogance, also called “hubris,” is inexplicably common and always punished horribly. The Greeks clearly felt that hubris was a terrible sin, but often in punishing it so extremely the gods showed their spiteful, jealous sides. There are even cases where the mortal’s pride is deserved, as with Arachne, who boasts of her skill at weaving but then is able to actually weave cloth as beautiful as Athena’s. The jealous Athena turns Arachne into a spider for this.

Other punishments for pride include Niobe, who wanted to be worshipped like a goddess, and so has her sons murdered and is turned into a weeping stone, and the famous Icarus, who flies too close to the sun on his man-made wings and then drowns. In her introduction, Hamilton notes how the Greek gods were more familiar and human than the gods of most cultures, and it is perhaps because of this that so many mortals thought they could be like them – the gods were just human enough to relate to, but still all-powerful, jealous beings who relentlessly punished any mortal with too much pride.

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Pride and Hubris Quotes in Mythology

Below you will find the important quotes in Mythology related to the theme of Pride and Hubris.
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.


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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 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

The greatest hero of Greece was Hercules… He was what all Greece except Athens most admired. The Athenians were different from the other Greeks and their hero therefore was different. Theseus was, of course, bravest of the brave as all heroes are, but unlike other heroes he was as compassionate as he was brave and a man of great intellect as well as great bodily strength… But Hercules embodied what the rest of Greece most valued… Hercules was the strongest man on earth and he had the supreme self-confidence magnificent physical strength gives. He considered himself on an equality with the gods – and with some reason.

Related Characters: Theseus, Hercules
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout much of Greek mythology, we see a complicated cultural appreciation of heroism and bravery. Unless a mortal crossed the line into trying to be godlike, any act of ambition or daring was admired, regardless of whether it was unkind, reckless, or even arrogant. However, this passage shows that the culture of Athens was slightly different from the rest of Greece. Greece admired Hercules above all (who was the strongest man alive, despite being somewhat stupid and making poor choices). By contrast, the people of Athens idolized Theseus, who was the "bravest of the brave," but whose courage was tempered by intelligence and compassion. Hamilton suggests here that Athens had a more sophisticated, nuanced, and even healthier culture of heroism than Greece overall.

It's also worth noting that Hercules transgressed the sacred boundary present in most other stories—considering himself equal to the gods—but the ancient Greeks did not themselves begrudge him that, or require the vengeance that the themes of Greek myth indicate he should receive. This suggests that the Greeks might have themselves been hungry to be equal to (or at least relate to) the gods, and thus eager to cheer someone who could do so without consequence. 

There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match.

Related Characters: Hercules
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at a moment when Hercules is at a friend's house whose wife has just died, but Hercules doesn't know about the tragedy so he behaves disrespectfully. When he realizes what happened, he makes amends by bringing his friend's wife back from Hades. Hamilton holds this story up as being exemplary of Hercules' character overall, and she insists that it showcases the characteristics that the Greeks most associated with him. Not all of these qualities are good--he is stupid and disrespectful and brutish--but, despite this, he is still considered an admired hero. This shows, again, the complexity of ancient Greek heroism. In many cases one simply had to be brave and ambitious to be heroic, not skilled or kind. This story does, however, show Hercules' innate desire to do good, which, perhaps indicates (since Hamilton cites this story as exemplary) that the Greeks saw kindness as ideal, even if not a required one, for heroism. Hercules' act of bravery in bringing his friend's wife back from the underworld is an act of contrition for his previous inappropriate behavior, which shows that he has a good heart, even if his stupidity often gets him into trouble.

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. 

Part 5, Chapter 2 Quotes

Apollo was the God of Truth. Whatever the priestess at Delphi said would happen infallibly came to pass. To attempt to act in such a way that the prophecy would be made void was as futile as to set oneself against the decrees of fate. Nevertheless, when the oracle warned Laius that he would die at the hands of his son he determined that this should not be. When the child was born he bound its feet together and had it exposed on a lonely mountain where it must soon die. He felt no more fear; he was sure that on this point he could foretell the future better than the god.

Related Characters: Phoebus Apollo, Oedipus, Laius
Page Number: 377
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage begins Hamilton's narration of what is, perhaps, the most famous Greek tragedy of all: the story of Oedipus. Oedipus's father, King Laius, learns that he is fated to die at the hands of his son, so he leaves baby Oedipus on a mountain to die. As one would expect based on the body of Greek myth that Hamilton has detailed so far, Oedipus still manages to survive and kill his father, a fate in fact secured by Laius's actions and thus his ironic inability to recognize the grown Oedipus as his son. This passage is an example of hubris, in that Greeks are supposed to know better than to defy fate. Laius is also committing a cardinal sin of ancient Greek life; he thinks that he can "foretell the future better than the gods." While he believes that this hubris is helping him defy fate, Laius's hubris is actually contributing to his eventual tragic fate. This combination of hubris and fate is among the most common ironies of ancient Greek tragedy.

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.