Heroes of Greek Mythology: Exceptional, God-like Figures of Ideology

The heroes of Greek mythology are quite exceptional, more akin to gods than humans and in considering this, Greek heroes and gods are parallel in a variety of aspects- serving as an exaggerated ideal of human attitudes, beliefs, strengths and flaws. Though in different contexts and domains, their stories and epics educated the Greeks in antiquity and even modern audiences on the extremities of human nature and fate. Like the gods of mount Olympus, ancient Greek heroes practice the values of bia and metis into their experiences to prevail, but in turn are not invulnerable, as both prove to be susceptible and under the control of fate and its harsh, unjust circumstances. Heroes prove to be a sort of counterpart to the ancient gods, an authority over their subjects and immortal (in actuality and memory).
In Greek mythology, heroes are expected to have a particular set of abilities, which are mainly categorized under bia (force) and metis (wisdom) in order to achieve their goals, which are also utilised by the gods with their own challenges. Each hero has a measure of both bia and metis, though in varying levels. By sheer use of bia, great heroes such as Hercules perform miraculous physical feats in order to defeat monsters such as Cerberus of the Underworld whom he wrestled with pure strength and managed to subdue. As a model for heroes for bia, the ideal deity to demonstrate bia is Zeus, whom faced the threat of being usurped by his grandmother Gaia’s child Typhon, a serpentine beast he ultimately decimated. Another hero famous for his bia is Theseus, whom powerfully engaged in battle with the ferocious Minotaur and ultimately slew it by stabbing at its throat(Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.169-71). Yet, there are heroic figures whom show both metis and bia, and even unusually, more wisdom than strength; such was the case of Odysseus. Though strong as a fighter, the only one whom could restring the bow Penelope provides among all other suitors (Homer, Odyssey 21.146-7), he shows incredible cunning in his stay at Kalypso’s island, ensuring his safe leave by forcing her to swear an oath to the Styx regarding her sincerity (Homer, Odyssey 5.178-79). Such ability for stratagem and forethought is shared by the gods also, in particular one of the primordial forces and mother earth, Gaia- the first being to use metis in Greek mythology. Her plan to free her imprisoned children consisted of convincing her youngest son Cronus to take up arms, in particular her sickle, and fortunately, he successfully castrated and maimed his father, Ouranos. This stratagem is also in turn, mimicked by the next great mother figure, Rhea, to overthrow Cronos, end his tyranny and secure her youngest son Zeus on the throne. Alternatively, metis was also used by the gods to achieve wicked goals. For instance, out of unbridled passion, Hades sought Persephone as his wife and triumphed in trapping her by tricking her into eating a pomegranate grown in the underworld.

Though powerful with strength and wisdom, the heroes of Greek mythology prove to be similar to the gods in a contrary manner; their weakness to fate and the unjust circumstances it sometimes brought upon them. As a child, Hercules was a victim of Hera’s jealousy, as a child of one of Zeus’ mistresses, she attempted to assassinate him as a babe, sending snakes to his crib to attack him (Ovid, Heroides 9.14). Though he luckily fends the attack away and strangles the snakes, it is not the end of Hera’s torment towards him. She targets him once more after a few years, driving him to madness- resulting in his slaughter of his own wife and children, leaving him in great grief and shame. The hero Perseus also lingered near death as an infant, when he and his mother Danae were cast onto the sea in a wooden casket by his grandfather Acrisius, whom had murderous intent (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.34). Fortunately, they survived and settled into Seriphos, cared for by a fisherman, Dictys. Though not only heroes suffered under cruelty, Cronos was threatened to be imprisoned by his father Ouranos, and Zeus nearly devoured by him in turn; both persecuted as children, like Hercules. Though Persephone was originally deceived into living in the underworld, despite Zeus’ negotiations and Demeter’s despair, she is still unfortunately forced to stay with Hades most of the year as his wife. It is an irony that even though the gods, and also heroes have supernatural powers and abilities that can easily end the lives of one or many, that they are still subject to the nature of fate. While the actual goddesses labeled The Fates (Moirai) held control of mortals’ lives and destinies, the gods could interfere with their authority, but at times this was not the case . Even the gods themselves have demonstrated that they are under some form of authority akin to fate, where they have no control. This is seen in the instance where in order to determine the fate of Turnus in his battle against Aeneas, Zeus utilizes a scale on which both the men’s lives are weighed, and as Turnus’ resulted as the heavier, the gods concluded his destiny was to lose and perish (Virgil, Aeneid 12.725-8). In this circumstance, the gods were inclined to take action on behalf of the scale’s power to determine fate instead of their own.

Despite these weaknesses, compared to the average person, many Greek gods are extraordinary, they possess not only unnatural strength and cunning but also incredible leadership, battle skills, an arsenal of legendary weapons and tools, as well as groups and cults of dedicated followers. In considering this, heroes are also just as extraordinary, as they harbor the same traits. As deities are born with jurisdiction over mortals due to their heritage and powers, heroes are traditionally born from royal or immortal bloodlines, or even both. Heroes like Jason, Theseus and Odysseus are heirs to their kingdom, and ultimately take their place as reigning monarchs in their epics. Zeus also becomes the rightful ruler of Mount Olympus, after facing numerous challenges like the aforementioned heroes have. All Greek gods have followers and worshippers, and some of the most popular such as Athena and Zeus, have temples built in their honor. Similarly, heroes also have cults- groups of worshippers and admirers, and a numbered few have their own shrines, including Hercules . Famous legendary figures, even women, also have established hero cults, such as Helen of Troy. Furthermore, the gods and heroes not only share high status but also proves themselves to be worthy of their followers by showing might on the battlefield, both parties assisted by a range of supernatural, exceptional weapons. Zeus wields the powerful lightning bolt, crafted by the Cyclops from Tartarus and was a key element in defeating the Titans and Typhoeus and identifies him as the god of lightning as well. Many other gods also held such mighty weapons and tools; Poseidon himself brandishes the trident, a symbol now commonly associated with the sea, while Hades’ famed armament is his helmet of invisibility or alternatively, the helmet of darkness. As most gods are known to have their legendary equipment by default (save for Zeus), heroes acquire them often due to necessity during quests. Perseus, on his quest to defeat the Gorgon, is aided by a collection of items; a knapsack for Medusa’s head from Hesperides, an adamantine sword from Zeus, Hades’ helmet of invisibility, a polished shield from Athena, and lastly, winged sandals from Hermes. Hercules, as a result of his quests also establishes his own symbols of valor; a large club stemming from his prowess as a fighter and the Nemean lion skin, supposedly impenetrable, these he is shown to wear generally when depicted. Eventually, some heroes and important figures also begin to share a crucial similarity to the gods- immortality and deity status. Such is the case for Hercules and Asclepius . Particularly Hercules, whose extraordinary deeds had led to a justification for the passing of his mortal body and his ‘god attributes’, the part of him enabled by Zeus, lived on as a deity and is worshipped by his own hero cult (Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.268-71).

Heroes like Hercules are a role model to ordinary humans, as well as the Greek gods whom illustrate the importance of family and its structure, and ideally demonstrates how to respect and protect family, as well as show loyalty to friends and allies. Avenging a loved one is a common action between both gods and heroes, and revenge is usually a motive for their violence. Achilles rides to Troy and without hesitance declares his bloodlust for Hector, perceiving his death as a perfect act of justice due to his killing and humiliation of Achilles’ dear friend, Patroclus. Hercules also embarks on his twelve labours in order to avenge his slaughtered family, and atone for his sin in ending their lives. As for the Greek gods, Helios, in spite of his granddaughter’s atrocities in murdering her own children, sends for his sun chariot to rescue Medea when she summons him to escape from Jason and the city Corinth, where she was due punishment. From the beginning of time of the gods, both Rhea and Gaia demonstrate one of the first examples of familial love, a maternal love that drives them to trick their cruel husbands and empower their sons in order to free their other children from the torment of their respective fathers. Not only is loyalty a prevalent theme among them, but also the preservation of family is proven to be crucial. Outraged several times, Hera, in order to preserve the reputation of her marriage with Zeus, repeatedly exacts her assaults towards his mistresses and bastard children (such as Hercules). Odysseus, though a famous hero, ultimately prefers to retire into a peaceful family life with Penelope once he had returned from his long journey, rather than dying on a battlefield by fate or choice.

In conclusion, the gods and ancient Greek heroes are revealed to lead lives armed with metis and bia, through circumstances they controlled or succumbed to fate. They are assisted by special abilities, armaments and demand respect and worship from all mortals, either through kingship and/or holiness. Through family, loyalty to blood, strong friendships and honor, they aid each other in living longer, mightier lives, eternal or not. Heroes are like gods, and gods are like heroes, usually only separated by a veil of plane, the border between earth and Mount Olympus- but there are always exceptions.

Homer Odyssey trans. Richmond Lattimore. (Harper Collins, 1965).
Ovid Heroides trans. Harold Isbell. (Harmondsworth, 1990)
Ovid Metamorphoses trans. Brookes More. (Cornhill, 1953).
Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca trans. Keith Aldrich. (Coronado, 1975)
Virgil Aeneid trans. David West (Penguin Classics, 2003)

Berens, E.M. Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome (Maynard, Merrill and Co, 2007)
Blondell, R. Helen of Troy: beauty, myth, devastation (Oxford University, 2013)
Erskine, A. and Bremmer, J.N. The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations (Edinburhg University, 2011)
Magiorkinis, E., Diamantis, A., and Androutsos, G., ‘Gods and heroes of Medicine in Greek mythology’, The International Journal Of Medicine, 2008, Vol. 1, No. 3, 144-147.
Rose, H. A Handbook of Greek Mythology (Routledge, 2005)
Walker, H.J. Theseus and Athens (Oxford University, 1995)

-The Musing Mestiza, 2nd Year

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