Greek heroes tend to share uncommon strength, immense bravery, and noble morality. They also depend upon a certain degree of clever ingenuity to achieve success. For example, Perseus could not have killed Medusa if he did not have the smarts to steal the Gray Women's eye. Exceeding the limits of average men, the heroes act somewhere between gods and mortals in the hierarchy of the Greek myths. Their stories are some of the most memorable; consider Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus. Through these figures, the modern reader can understand many Greek values.
Throughout the Greek myths, generosity appears to be noble. Sometimes, generosity subtly reinforces a story, such as when Metaneira takes in Demeter, disguised as an elderly woman, or when Dictys takes in baby Perseus and Danae when they wash up on his shore. Hospitality is a particularly important species of generosity. In the case of Baucis and Philemon, the theme is much more pronounced. When the poor couple take two travelers into their home, they have no idea that Jupiter and Mercury are testing their hospitality. Their selfless behavior saves them from the flood and secures their respect in the eyes of the gods. In these generosity stories, one can see a way in which Greek myths were used as morality tales, explaining what is right and what is wrong, how to live and how not to live. Generosity, altruism, or freely giving to others may not seem to be in the immediate interest of the giver, which might be why these myths reinforce the idea that it is a good quality that should be valued.
Faith is perhaps the most widely important theme in Greek mythology. For one thing, those who hear the myths must in some way believe they are true in order for them to be meaningful. Humans, not only those in the myths but also those who hear the myths, generally go even further and believe that the gods actually exist. Characters who defy or anger the gods are punished, and those who honor and praise the gods find rewards. Having faith in a prophecy is better than trying to circumvent it. Faith also appears in more nuanced situations having to do with trust and belief. Psyche, for example, cannot bear to not see her husband during the daylight, so she chooses to see Cupid in the light, against his wishes. Although eventually she redeems herself from this betrayal, it takes much suffering and effort. Orpheus, by contrast, finds no forgiveness when he loses his faith while leading Eurydice up from the underworld. Such myths reinforce the theme that faith should not be broken or misused.
Love appears throughout the Greek myths and often drives the narrative forward. However, different kinds of love emerge in the text with different implications. In some instances, love is visceral and impulsive, caused by Cupid's arrow. This kind of love causes Alpheus to chase Arethusa, Apollo to chase Daphne, or Zeus to take Europa across an ocean on his back. Such love is characterized by intense feeling and frenzy. Alternatively, we see in the Greek myths a less exciting but ultimately longer lasting kind of love. Ceyx and Alcyone become birds who fly together for eternity after they die. Mulberry grows from the blood of Pyramus and Thisbe. And Baucis and Philemon become intertwined trees when they die. In these instances, love exists among mortals in an eternal realm, and it is perhaps the closest that most humans can ever approach godliness in the myths.
Throughout the myths, fate appears as a powerful force that no human or god may contend with. Cronus received a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his son, as did King Laius. Both men tried to prevent the outcome, and both failed. In this sense, mankind and gods share a similarly naive character when it comes to reconciling themselves to fate. But these tales raise the question of who controls fate, if not the gods. Is there an even higher power than those on Mount Olympus, if even the gods cannot control fate? Or is fate just a way of characterizing the truth about what will happen at a future time?
In several instances, variations of strange love present complex challenges in Greek mythology. Narcissus, for example, falls in love with his own image and cannot leave it alone for one moment. He withers and dies by the pool in which he sees his own reflection. Selene falls in love with Endymion and hopes to keep him forever by making him sleep forever. Unfortunately, she suffers from loneliness. In both of these circumstances, a selfish kind of love results in suffering. In the case of Pygmalion, Venus rewards his love for his sculpture, but only when he himself decides that it is not healthy for him to give such affection to an inanimate object. As if rewarding his realistic maturity, Venus then turns the piece of stone into a real woman. Perhaps the unifying theme of these examples of strange love is that true love is mutually felt from both parties but that such love is very difficult when it involves two natures, such as human and beast, human and sculpture, or divinity and human.
Sacrifices recur throughout the Greek myths, not just because physical sacrifice was significant in ancient Greek societies. Antigone stands as the best example, for she sacrifices herself in order to bury her brother. Pyramus and Thisbe sacrifice themselves for each other. Baucis and Philemon sacrifice their comfort in order to house two travelers in their small house. In these and other cases, heroism becomes something not just reserved for strong people (like Hercules) but a quality that any common person can achieve. Through sacrifice, characters are rewarded by gods and stand as good examples to the characters surrounding them. In the case of Baucis and Philemon, this example is so extreme that the gods flood out everyone else in the village. While it is not easy, as Prometheus can attest, sacrifice often must be made for the sake of honor and morality rather than simply out of the love of one's own.
What role does pride play in Greek mythology?
Answer: Specific characters illustrate the difference between confidence and egotism. A hero is confident in his strength, but pride goes too far when a human challenges the gods. Pride cometh before a fall.
How do the myths differentiate between human and divine power?
Answer: Many of the myths point out these distinctions. The gods intervene when humans need help or when the gods want to accomplish goals on earth, but humans are often unable to solve their own problems and cannot really intervene among the gods; mortals even have limited abilities in the Underworld. When a human asserts divine power, the gods often put the person back in his or her place.
What do the Greek myths suggest about tragedy?
Answer: Tragedy serves both as a narrative device and as a reminder of everyday human reality. In tale after tale, tragedy unfolds. Even some stories that begin happily have unexpected, sad endings for their characters. Human failings, prophecies, and unexpected coincidences all can lead to tragedy.
How is the value of family loyalty portrayed by the myths?
Answer: Many of the Greek myths center around the importance of family relationships. Although some family members kill one another, the famly members who show loyalty tend to be set up for admiration. Antigone, for instance, challenges the law of Creon in order to bury her brother, facing death rather than be disloyal to her brother. Yet, loyalty is not so uncomplicated; her two brothers had fought on opposite sides in the conflict. Loyalty to one's family is complicated by conflicts even within one's family.
How does the conflict between free will and the predestination of fate play out in Greek mythology?
Answer: Free will appears to be circumscribed by fate. Despite our best efforts, fate controls our destiny. On the level of individual decisions, however, humans make their own choices and face the consequences. Human nature is implicated here: it seems that we all are fated to die, yet we have much we may choose to do while we are alive.
What have the myths to tell us about love?
Answer: Many different human relationships can be characterized by love: family love, the love of friends, and romantic love all lead people to do things with and for their beloveds that they would not otherwise do--to the point of great feats of skill and strength, on the one hand, or murder on the other hand. The gods sometimes love one another in similar ways. When gods and humans love one another, complications often ensue. When love is one-sided, moreover, other complications ensue. Cupid can make people fall in love, or people can fall instantly in love with one another.
How do myths account for natural events?
Answer: To account for something in nature that people do not yet understand, they tell a story about a being whose actions or life has resulted in what can be observed. Sometimes the story seems to have nothing in common with the reality that scientists later construct as explanation, but sometimes elements of the story are good metaphors for details of the natural event.
What is Greek virtue in the Greek myths?
Answer: We most often see virtue displayed by the Greek heroes, although we need not see all of their choices and actions as virtuous. Male virtue and female virtue seem to be different, but all virtue seems to have in common something about greatness, whether it is about wisdom, mental cunning, physical strength or speed, loyalty, or love. The characters who are honored by the gods appear to be the ones with virtue or who made virtuous choices, such as those who engaged in hospitality, while those who are punished by the gods appear to have either abused their virtue or contaminated it with pride. But the gods also test those whom they admire for their virtue, or even punish sometimes out of jealousy.
How do the Greek myths fit together?
Answer: Sometimes they do, and often they do not. Sometimes a myth picks up where another left off. Sometimes a myth expands upon a neglected but interesting part of another myth. The myths are told and retold with different emphases at different points in history and from the perspectives of different tellers. But they all tell a story of a hierarchy of gods, humans, and nature in which problems arise and choices must be made.
Why do so many beings transform in the myths?
Answer: In the myths about nature, we see something human in nature when we imagine that a transformation has taken place, such as when a hyacinth can be traced to Hyacinthus. Indeed, in a world where scientific explanations are difficult, it is not uncommon to imagine that one being simply turns into another. In a world before science and evolution, transformations occur quickly, and the boundaries between stone, plants, animals, people, and gods seem easy to cross with the power of the gods. From a narrative point of view, the plot can move faster if one being simply becomes another being able to accomplish what is needed for the tale. An interesting question to consider in each transformation is how much of the original nature, if any, is preserved after the change.