Midas, a king of Phrygia, once comes upon the drunken Silenus sleeping in his rose gardens. Midas treats Silenus hospitably, and then brings him back to Bacchus, who is so relieved to have him back that he grants Midas a wish. Midas wishes that whatever he touches would turn to gold.
Midas is one the most familiar names among these shorter myths. His actual myth is fairly simple and straightforward, but it has become an analogy for foolish greed and the love of material things.
Midas quickly discovers that he cannot eat or drink anymore, so he hurries back to Bacchus to undo his wish. Bacchus tells him to wash in the river Pactolus, and the spell will be broken. This is why gold is sometimes found in this river.
These “less-important” myths will be notably more simple and less interesting, and just a random sampling of the themes unified in the other myths. This one turns into another explanation for a river.
Later Midas acts as a judge in a music contest between Pan and Apollo. Pan plays the pipes well, but cannot compare with Apollo’s silver lyre. Midas stupidly says that Pan is the better musician, and so the angry Apollo turns Midas’s ears into donkey’s ears. Midas hides them under a cap after that, but later his secret is magically spread throughout the land, revealing the truth about Midas’s stupidity, but also the lesson to always side with the stronger god.
This little tale offers another example of the value the Greeks placed on artistic beauty. Apollo’s jealousy and anger and not being considered the best musician is similar to Athena and Hera’s anger at not being chosen to be “the Fairest” by Paris. This is also a morality tale about being obedient to the gods.
Aesculapius. Apollo falls in love with a maiden named Coronis, but Coronis is unfaithful to him with a mortal man. Apollo learns of the treachery from his white raven, which he then turns black in his anger. He kills Coronis but saves his unborn child, giving it to the Centaur Chiron to raise. The boy, whose name is Aesculapius, grows up and learns all Chiron’s wisdom about the arts of medicine.
Most of these tales are much simpler in their justice than the complex stories of fate and tragedy Hamilton has described earlier. Evil is generally punished and good is rewarded, as Coronis is killed for her unfaithfulness but her child is spared.
Soon Aesculapius surpasses Chiron and becomes such a great healer that he raises a man, Theseus’s son Hippolytus, from the dead. The gods are angry that a mortal should have this much power, and so Zeus kills Aesculapius with a thunderbolt. Apollo is angry at his son’s death, so he attacks the Cyclopes who make Zeus’s thunderbolts. Zeus then makes Apollo serve as a slave to King Admetus for several years.
As usual the gods punish any mortals who grow too lofty or proud, but in the case of Aesculapius they seem more unjust than usual. The whole end of this myth is one cycle of vengeance and punishment – Zeus killing Aesculapius for his power, Apollo killing Zeus’s Cyclopes, and then Zeus making Apollo a slave.
Though Aesculapius displeased the gods, he was greatly honored by mortals. Temples are built to him where people come for healing. Snakes are his sacred servants, and thousands of sick people believe that Aesculapius is the one who cured them.
Like Prometheus, Aesculapius becomes a hero despite the gods’ hatred. His healing power is also very human, and seems to be able to alter fate itself. Because of this he is honored like a god.
The Danaïds. Danaüs, one of Io’s descendants, has fifty daughters. Their fifty male cousins pursue them, but the daughters (the Danaïds) are opposed to marrying them, and they flee with their father to Argos. Somehow (it is never explained) the male cousins catch them and marry them, and at the wedding feast Danaüs gives each of his daughters a dagger. That night, all of them kill their husbands except for one, Hypermnestra, who pities her young groom.
This story is again simple in its idea of evil and punishment, and it is interesting mostly in the mass repetition of the same crime. It is a traditional (for the myths) tale of a wife murdering her husband, but multiplied fifty-fold.
Danaüs throws Hypermnestra into prison for treachery, but her sisters receive a worse punishment in the afterlife. They are forced to endlessly fill jars with holes in the bottom, so the water runs out and their work never ends.
Hypermnestra becomes the hero of this story, suffering for her virtue and pity while her sisters are justly punished for their murders.
Glaucus and Scylla. Glaucus is a fisherman who eats some magic grass and then becomes a sea-god, half-man and half-fish. He falls in love with Scylla, a nymph, but she flees from him. Glaucus goes to Circe to ask for a love potion, but Circe falls in love with him instead. Glaucus rejects her, and Circe turns her rage against Scylla. She pours magic poison into the bay where Scylla bathes, and when Scylla enters the water she becomes a monster with many heads growing out of a rock. This is the creature who is later such a peril to Jason, Odysseus, and Aeneas.
This story seems more fantastical than most in the way that it meanders about and seems to have no clear notion of cause and effect or justice. It is mostly an explanation story for Scylla, the famous obstacle of so many hero’s quests, but it is also another example of the wrong person being punished for another’s crime. This is the same Circe from Homer’s Odyssey.
Erysichthion. Erysichthion arrogantly cuts down an oak tree sacred to Ceres (Demeter), despite many warnings. To punish him, Ceres makes Erysichthion constantly starving, no matter how much food he eats. He sells everything he has to buy food, and then he even sells his daughter. She prays to Poseidon to save her from slavery, and the god transforms her into a fisherman so her master cannot recognize her.
This is one of the few stories where Demeter appears as a character who is anything but kindly, though she is simply punishing wickedness with a unique kind of torment. Poseidon becomes a kind of “magic lamp” in this story, less a character than a source of endless magic.
The daughter returns to Erysichthion, and together they begin a money-making scheme: Erysichthion sells his daughter over and over, and each time Poseidon transforms her into something new so she can escape. Erysichthion is still never satisfied, however, and he dies devouring his own body.
This tale is mostly interesting because Erysichthion’s daughter gains a shape-shifting power like that of the god Proteus, but she uses it only as a scheme for making money. Erysichthion suffers the ultimate punishment for his gluttony.
Pomona and Vertumnus. Pomona is a Roman nymph, the only one who does not love the wild forest, but instead cares only for her fruit orchards. Vertumnus loves her, but she always rejects him. One day he comes to Pomona disguised as an old woman and surprises her with a kiss. He then explains that a man named Vertumnus loves her deeply, and would help her care for her gardens. He reminds her that Venus hates hard-hearted women who reject love. He then reveals himself as Vertumnus, and Pomona accepts his love. The two tend the orchard together ever after.
This is a story only from Rome, as Hamilton earlier mentioned these characters among the strictly Roman deities. Again there is an emphasis on love and a sense of disapproval for women who reject marriage. Pomona is also the only nymph who favors cultivation and agriculture instead of the wildness of the forest, which is perhaps representative of the Roman love of order.