In Greek mythology, a hero is a character who is said to have remarkable courage and achievement and who has exerted a great influence on people and events.
He rose above mortals by waging war with bravery or performing feats with courage.
After his death, a particular veneration or worship was rendered to him to commemorate his memory.
Little by little, cities or important figures claimed the existence of eponymous heroes like Macedonia or famous ancestors like Julius Caesar who claimed to be a descendant of Aeneas and thus of Venus.
The cult of the hero is linked to the existence of a tomb that becomes the object of veneration. Offers and prayers are addressed to heroes in the evening because they belong to the world of darkness, unlike the ceremonies for the gods that take place in the morning. The victim is sacrificed on a low hearth, his head bent down so that the blood flows into a pit and the flesh is completely burned, unlike victims dedicated to the gods whose fat and bones are only burned as instituted Promethee. For the most famous heroes, there were also celebrations or games.
Main Greek Heroes
- Achilles: King of the Myrmidons, the hero of the Trojan War, Achilles is the central and essential character of the Iliad.
- Bellerophon: Corinthian hero, Bellerophon tamed Pegasus and killed Chimera.
- Heracles: Famous hero, known for his strength, Heracles had to perform twelve works to atone for the murders of his wife Megara and his children.
- Jason: Thessalian hero, Jason organized the Argonauts’ expedition to recover the golden fleece.
- Œdipus : Hero of the Theban cycle, Oedipus solved the enigma of the Sphinx but he killed his father and married his mother.
- Perseus: Greek hero, Perseus killed Medusa and delivered Andromeda.
- Theseus: Athenian hero, Theseus killed the Minotaur and achieved many exploits like Heracles.
- Odysseus: King of Ithaca, Odysseus is the author of the Trojan horse scheme, his return to his homeland upset by Poseidon is told in the Odyssey.
Characteristics of Greek heroes
A human part
It can be noted that heroes often have a divine relative like Zeus for Heracles and Perseus or Thetis for Achilles… The other parent is a human (mortal) Peleus for Achilles, Alcmene, and Amphitryon for Heracles, Aegean for Theseus, but both parents of Oedipus, however, are human. These human parents give the hero a geographical anchorage (Heracles son of the king of Argos, Perseus descending from the kings of Corinth, Theseus son of the king of Athens). This allows the different cities of Greece to have their own heroes. During the Greek colonization, the colonies also transformed their founder into heroes to whom they worshipped.
Exceptional man the hero shows his value and achieves fame through his fight against also exceptional opponents. The hero fights monsters. For the Greeks can be considered as a monster a real animal being part of the fauna existing in ancient Greece. But the animal then stands out for its exceptional size or strength. This is the case for the Nemean lion or the Erymanthian boar that Heracles fights. These monstrous animals are often the perpetrators of considerable devastation that afflicts neighboring populations.
More common are the monsters who are hybrid beings, with a with a multi-compound body, like the sirens on the body and bird’s claws but with a female head that Odysseus faces, or the hydra of Lerna, this dragon with a hundred heads, growing back as soon as they were cut. The Sphinx that poses its enigma to Oedipus is also composite with his lion body extended by a woman’s bust. The Minotaur killed by Theseus had a man’s body surmounted by a bull’s head. By ridding the surface of the earth of these monsters, the hero erases the one who disrupts the natural order and restores the norm (the Greeks hated what was not balanced or harmonious).
The intervention of the deities
The hero usually acts on the initiative of a deity. She either wants to punish the mortal who displeases her or who has harmed her. Thus Odysseus is pursued by the revenge of Poseidon who outraged him by bringing the horse into Troy (according to the legend Troy was built with the help of Poseidon). Heracles, son of Zeus born as a result of adultery of the latter, is pursued by the hatred of Hera (Zeus’ legitimate divine wife). By attacking the monsters put on his path by the divinity, the hero responds to the challenge posed by the divinity, proves his value but also does a service to the inhabitants from whom he removes the devastating action of the monster.
Sometimes, an intermediary slips between the hero and the divinity. To be obeyed, this intermediary must have a high social rank. Thus it was Eurystheus, inspired by Hera, who imposed the twelve works on Heracles. It was Jason’s uncle who forced him to travel to bring back the Golden Fleece in order to find the usurped throne.
But the hero is also supported by deities. Odysseus has Athena as his ally, the same is true for Perseus. Hera takes Jason under her protection. The help of the divinity is decisive for the hero who can thus triumph over the monsters.
The hero’s means of action
The hero mainly uses physical force. This force can be used as it is. Heracles defeated the snakes that threatened him in his cradle by suffocating them between his arms, as did the Nemean lion, who was invulnerable to conventional weapons.
The weapons used are the bow: Heracles uses it against the birds of Lake Stymphalus, the sword like Perseus who cuts the head of the Medusa or Heracles who cuts the heads of the hydra of Lerna. Since the use of force is widespread, it is understandable why there is very little heroin. In Greek society, women were not educated in the use of weapons (an exception is the Amazons, these warrior women, but they appear as a kind of anomaly in the eyes of the Greeks).
But the hero can also use his intelligence or cunning. Odysseus escapes the spell of the sirens by being tied to the mast of his ship and by covering the ears of his companions, he deceives the Cyclops by giving him an ambiguous false name. Oedipus manages to defeat the Sphinx by solving the enigma through reflection. Even Heracles, who is often presented as a brute, uses this means. He asks his nephew to burn the heads of the Lernaean Hydra so that they no longer grow back and he entrusts the task of stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides to the giant Atlas who will have to face a dragon. Heracles managed to defeat the lion of Nemea by closing one of the openings in the cave that served as his den. Perseus manages to cut Medusa’s head off by using Athena’s shield as a rear view mirror, which allows her not to look the monster in the eye.
Most of the time the hero kills. Of the fifteen creatures he met during his lifetime, Heracles killed eight, Theseus killed the Minotaur, Perseus killed the Medusa, Bellerophon killed the dragon… Few monsters, while defeated, are not eliminated. Heracles manages to chain Cerberus who keeps the underground world in place but leaves it alive. The defeated Sphinx commits suicide, the sirens are destroyed because they could not stop Ulysses’ ship.
The cult of heroes
The cult of the hero is linked to the existence of a tomb and a sanctuary. Indeed, the hero is not admitted among the gods who live apart from humans. Only Heracles will be welcomed in Olympus, but he is also honored in Sparta, Mantua, Sicyona, Tirynthe, Thebes, Marathon.
In his tomb, the hero hears the men and can thus help them. Also, ancient cities make great efforts to collect the remains of a hero. Thus the Athenian Cimon went to the island of Skyros to bring back the remains of Theseus. Oedipus’ bones are transferred to Thebes….. The colonies also built a tomb for their founder who, upon his death, was considered a protective hero.
While ceremonies to satisfy the gods take place in the morning, those for heroes take place in the evening. In the worship of the gods, the fat and bones of the sacrificed animals are burned (as Prometheus had suggested making fun of the gods). In the cult of heroes after having cut the victim’s throat so that his blood could seep into the ground, the whole animal was burned.