Cecrops. These stories come mostly from Ovid, who uses an excess of sensational detail, but Hamilton also borrows from the Greek tragedians at the end of the age of mythology, when people began to question how “divine” some of the gods’ actions were. The House of Athens in notable because of the number of strange things that happened to its members.
There are no epic, sweeping tragedies in this section, but rather a collection of various stories and a few more developed tales. Hamilton again refers to how the gods became objects of satire at the end of the age of mythology.
The first king of Attica is Cecrops, who is half man, half dragon. He is the one who chooses Athena over Poseidon to be the protector of Athens – Poseidon offered a deep well, but Athena offered an olive tree. This angered Poseidon, and he sent a flood to Athens.
This is the explanation myth for Athens’ name, and for the importance of the olive tree to the Greeks. The Athenians also favored virtues like those of Athena – intellect, heroism, and independence.
In another version, the women of Athens used to have the right to vote along with the men. But in the choice between Athena and Poseidon, the women gave the vote Athena. After Poseidon’s flood, the men keep Athena but take away the women’s voting rights. In still other versions, Cecrops is not a half-dragon, but merely the distinguished son of King Erechtheus.
This is another origin myth to explain why the Athenian women did not have the vote. The implication that both genders originally had a voice means that Athens was even more ahead of its time than it seemed.
Procne and Philomela. Erechtheus, a great Athenian king in the time of Demeter’s introduction of agriculture, has two sisters, Procne and Philomela. Procne, the elder, is married to Tereus of Thrace, who is the son of Ares and just as cruel. Procne asks Tereus to let her sister Philomela visit her, and he agrees to fetch her from Athens. Tereus falls in love with the beautiful Philomela, and he seduces her into a pretend marriage by telling her that Procne is dead.
This is another series of relatives who all have unfortunate lives. As will be revealed, this story takes place very early in history, so it might illustrate an early incarnation of the Greek consciousness. Otherwise it seems less familiar and resonant to modern readers.
Philomela soon learns the truth, however, and then Tereus cuts outs her tongue and imprisons her so she can never tell about his sins. Tereus returns to Procne and tells her that Philomela died on the journey. This is in the days before writing, so Philomela has no way of sending a message about her plight. But she weaves a beautiful tapestry portraying the tale of her misfortune, and sends it as a gift to Procne.
This is the beautiful, lasting image from the tale – the voiceless Philomela finding a way to express herself. This has become a classic analogy for oppressed and silenced minorities, and a metaphor for women’s rights. T.S. Eliot references her plight in his famous poem The Waste Land.
When Procne receives the tapestry and learns what happened to Philomela, she rescues her sister and then devises a revenge for Tereus. She kills Itys, her young son with Tereus, cooks him, and serves him to Tereus. After he has eaten, Procne tells him that he is now a cannibal, and while he is frozen with horror the two sisters flee.
This same motif repeats itself from Tantalus and Atreus, with cannibalism as the ultimate vengeance and atrocity. After the lovely image of Philomela’s self-expression, the tale suddenly becomes dark and alien.
Tereus then pursues the women and overtakes them. He is about to kill them when the gods turn them into birds: Procne becomes a nightingale and Philomela becomes a swallow, which cannot sing because of Philomela’s tongue. Tereus is turned into a hawk or other cruel bird.
Like many of Ovid’s tales, the story ends as an explanation myth for a kind of bird. This is a kind of “deus ex machina,” in that the gods resolve the conflict by transforming the characters into animals.
Procris and Cephalus. Procris is the niece of Procne and Philomela, and she marries Cephalus, the grandson of Aeolus. Soon after their wedding, Cephalus is carried off by a lovestruck Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn. She had fallen in love with him as he hunted deer in the early morning. Cephalus resists Aurora’s advances and stays true to Procris, and finally Aurora dismisses him, but first she spitefully implies that Procris might not have been as faithful to Cephalus as he was to her.
These myths return to many of the motifs of Hamilton’s earlier retellings, focusing on gods falling in love with mortals and vice versa instead of complex, ironic tragedies. Aurora causes discord with a simple phrase just as Eris did with her golden apple “For the Fairest.”
This suggestion torments Cephalus, and he decides to test Procris’s faithfulness. He disguises himself as a stranger and tries to seduce Procris. She always refuses him, but one day she hesitates and Cephalus reveals himself, accusing her of betraying him. Procris, furious at her husband’s deception, runs away without a word and goes to live in the mountains.
This is a similar situation to Odysseus’s homecoming, except Cephalus clearly doesn’t trust Procris, and he ends up punishing both her and himself with his distrustfulness. The mountains seem to the be natural refuge of women who scorn marriage.
Cephalus eventually finds Procris and wins her back after many apologies. They spend a few happy years together, but then tragedy strikes again. The couple is out hunting together and Cephalus, thinking she is an animal, accidentally kills Procris with his javelin.
This is a similar sort of accident to the death of the Giant brothers Otus and Ephialtes. Procris dies tragically, but it is not especially poignant or unique.
Orithyia and Boreas. Orithyia is one of Procris’s sisters. Boreas, the North Wind, falls in love with her, but her father and the people of Athens oppose the marriage. Boreas carries her away nonetheless, and she bears him two sons that sail with Jason as Argonauts.
This story could have fit into the earlier chapter about “lovers,” or be any one of Zeus’s philandering adventures.
Hamilton then relates a story about the Greek philosopher Socrates and his friend Phaedrus. They are out walking and pass the spot where Boreas supposedly carried Orithyia away. Socrates says that he doubts the truth of the story, and Hamilton points out that by then (the fifth century B.C.) the myths were losing their importance.
The importance of the previous story was mostly to lead to this anecdote. Hamilton gives this scene as an example of how the myths lost their religious importance to the later Greeks. Socrates, the famous philosopher, considered doubt important.
Creüsa and Ion. Creüsa is the other sister of Procris and Orithyia. One day she is gathering flowers when Apollo kidnaps her and rapes her in a cave. Angry and ashamed, Creüsa hides her pregnancy and gives birth to a son in the same cave. She leaves him there to die, but then feels guilty and returns to find the baby has disappeared.
Related to the earlier scene, this story shows Apollo at his worst, and could be an example of the kind of myth that made the later Greeks lose faith in their gods. Many characters in the myths begin as abandoned children.
Later Erechtheus gives Creüsa as a bride to a foreigner named Xuthus. When they cannot conceive a child, they go to the oracle at Delphi for help. Creüsa first goes to the temple alone, and there she speaks to a handsome young priest named Ion. She laments her miserable life, and how Apollo is a source of suffering for her, not comfort. Creüsa then asks Ion what happened to the baby she abandoned. Ion is upset at her story, and cannot believe that Apollo would act as he did.
Ion seems to represent the earlier Greeks, or the mindset that took the myths as religious truth, while Creüsa speaks for the later, doubting Greeks or the modern readers who could not imagine a rapist being worthy of worship. The story is generally a simple case of mistaken identity, but the interesting part of it comes with Creüsa’s justifiable bitterness against Apollo.
Just then Xuthus enters the temple, embraces Ion, and says that the oracle told him he is to adopt Ion as his son. Then an old priestess enters and explains everything: she is the one who found Ion as a baby, and she reveals the veil and cloak she found with him, which Creüsa recognizes them as her own. Creüsa realizes that Ion is the son she abandoned, and Athena suddenly appears and confirms this revelation, declaring that Ion will one day rule Athens. Hamilton interjects to wonder whether this late reparation was enough to make amends for Apollo’s rape of Creüsa.
The story has a traditional “happy” ending, as Xuthus’s purpose for Creüsa (as a woman) was to give him a son, so in this sense everything turns out well. Hamilton asks the obvious question about just how “happy” Creüsa must have been with the resolution though. Once again, most of the myths fail to take the woman or foreigner’s point of view into consideration.