Ancient Greece’s Three Types of Heroes

The definition of the word hero is quite skewed. People tend to have their own definitions and interpretations of what the word means. However, people can usually agree on who a hero is and what makes a person a hero.

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In most cases, a hero can be described as one who shows great courage and is admired for noble achievements and noble qualities. Greek heroes show all of these qualities. They were admired for achieving incredible mythological feats and were idolized for their actions. Though stories of these heroes were just myths, the Greek people treated their fictional heroes to be role models as they are today. Greek heroes are ones who do extraordinary things like slay hydra and wrestle boars, while modern “heroes” are ones who partake in random acts of kindness and nobility. As shown in Greek mythology, the definition of hero has changed over the centuries. The use of the word hero should be reserved to those who achieve noble and courageous feats, such as Hercules, Theseus, and tragically, Oedipus.

As is the case in most hero stories, Hercules starts out as a nobody. He is raised an orphan, and goes on to do great deeds.  What sets Hercules apart from other heroes, however, is the fact that most of his deeds are great, and not necessarily good. He means well, but is not very smart and he often ends up killing innocent people because of his great strength he cannot seem to control. In most cases his stupidity ends up just getting him in trouble rather than ending in the death of an innocent person. “There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead: his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even death was his match” (Hamilton 242). This quote occurs when Hercules is at his friend’s house whose wife has just died, but Hercules does not know about this so he behaves accordingly. He tries to make up for his behavior by bring his friend’s wife back up from Hades. This shows Hercules character, and the characteristics of Hercules that make the Greeks worship him. Even though he is stupid and disrespectful, he is still an admired hero. “The greatest hero of Greece was Hercules… Hercules was the strongest man on earth and he had the supreme self-confidence magnificent physical strength gives. He considered himself on an equality with the gods and with some reason” (Hamilton 225).  Hercules was so prideful that he considered himself to be on par with the gods- something that no mortal dares to do. This is the confidence that made Hercules such a popular figure in Greece, and thus making him Greece’s hero.

Theseus is the mythological hero credited with founding democracy. Athens was the first city in Greece to implement this system, making Athens Theseus’s patron city. Athens preferred a different type of hero; a hero that had qualities such as intelligence and compassion, quite unlike the characteristics of Hercules. “The Athenians were different from other Greeks and their hero therefore was different. Theseus was, of course, bravest of the brave as all heroes are, but unlike other heroes he was compassionate as he was brave and a man of great intellect as well as great body strength” (Hamilton 225). Athenians idolized Theseus, “bravest of the brave.”, but his courage was kept in check by intelligence and compassion. Theseus is a more intelligent, sophisticated, and healthier version of hero in comparison to Hercules.

Some characteristics of a tragic hero that Oedipus possesses are anagnorisis and hamartia. Hamartia is the tragic fault that eventually leads to the hero’s downfall. Oedipus’s main hamartia is his ignorance and blindness. “Did you rise to the crisis? Not a word, you and your birds, your gods nothing. No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant, I stopped the sphinx! With no help from the birds, the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark” (36). Oedipus and Tiresias start fighting, and Oedipus reprimands Tiresias for not stepping in when Thebes was previously under attack by the Sphinx. He brags to Tiresias that he did not use help from the gods and other methods of prophecy such as reading bird entrails to solve the riddle of the sphinx. Oedipus states that it was “his own intelligence” that led him to solving the riddle. This statement shows Oedipus’s ignorance in talking down to Tiresias, the blind seer. Oedipus’s anagnoresis, or sudden insight into the tragic hero’s tragic flaw, occurs when he realizes that he is the one that killed Laius, the former king of Thebes and father to Oedipus. “Take me far, far, from Thebes, quickly, cast me away my friends- this great murderous, this man cursed to heaven, the man the deathless gods gate most of all!” (66) Oedipus rants about darkness and blindness, and asks to be thrown out of Thebes. He denounces the city that he ruled and saved, and claims that he was cursed to heaven, showing his futile attempt to take control of his tragic fate. Hercules is described as Greece’s hero. However, he shows severe ignorance and insensitivity which leads to his fall. On the contrary, Theseus is the Athenian’s hero, showing wisdom and compassion in addition to superhuman strength similar to the likes of Hercules, save the ignorance that leads to bad decisions.

The meaning of the word hero has lost its meaning over the years. People like Hercules, who do great deeds and show great feats of strength of, used to be the standard for heroes today. Today, any person can be described as a hero for doing small tasks or favors. The word has since changed and is now used as a word not taken seriously, taken out of its original context. A hero is someone who shows great courage and is admired for noble achievements and qualities.

The purpose of a hero is to inspire people and set a standard for which people think about themselves. The appeal of these heroes are their seeming perfection, and the Greeks idolized them for their perfect physical forms, and their stories of success. People appreciate them for their timeless appeal; the qualities of these flawless were appealing in ancient times, and are still talked about today. Another appeal is that Ancient Greek heroes were made up to be relatable to everyday people. Through the perfect physiques and noble deeds, these heroes still end up making a fatal mistake in the end. It comforts people to know that if a hero makes mistakes, it is not unusual for someone to slip up now and then. The use of the word hero should be only used to describe people such as the likes of Hercules, Theseus, and Oedipus.

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