There is a special genre of tales in the texts of Hellenic mythology that recounts the deeds of extraordinary men and women such as Herakles, Perseus, Jason and Medeia to name but a few. These larger-than-life people are called the Heroes. Their stories derive from the most ancient form of the oral tradition and have evolved through the ages into the symbolic and historical mythology of mortals who were granted immortality through their destinies and the homage and remembrance of their descendants.
To study the heroes is both an historical and symbolic journey that explores how the world of the immortal Gods interacts with the world of mortal men and women. The heroic tales speak not only of the history of mankind upon the earth but also explores the very nature of humanity itself.
The Definition of a Hero
The word hero in English has come to mean many things. A dictionary defines the word in the following manner:
(1) A person distinguished for valour, fortitude or bold enterprise
(2) Anyone regarded as having displayed great courage, exceptional nobility or qualities that distinguished or exemplified the finest virtues of their gender.
(3) Those whose deeds displayed heroic qualities
(4) In classical mythology, the offspring of a God/Goddess and a mortal mother or father.
(5) In classical history and literature, the eponymous founder of a city or family
(6) The central character of a poem, play or work of fiction
The ancient and modern Hellenic word for hero is ‘ieros’ (pronounced ee-ros). The etymology of the word in the ancient language is not certain although it may derive from a very ancient prefix ‘cer-‘ meaning ‘to protect’ or ‘to preserve’. In Homeric times the word was used to describe both the Gods and to mortals of noble birth. In the Classical period, the meaning of the word hero changed and was used to refer to the race of Demi-Gods who were born from a God or Goddess together with a mortal parent. Furthermore, the similarity between the word hero and Hera, the Queen of the Gods should not be overlooked as coincidental. The Goddess Hera often played a crucial role in the myths concerned with the development of Hellenic heroes.
From the etymology of the word ‘hero’ it is significant that the definition of a hero changed from Homeric times to Classical times. This change in the meaning of the word is not coincidental and the explanation therefore is revealing as how the concept of the hero in Hellenic mythology emerged and changed over the passage of the time.
The qualities inherent within the word ‘hero’ in English are sharply defined. The modern western understanding of heroic characteristics has been shaped by the course of history and literature. History, in turn, is often shaped by religion. Since the rise of Christianity, the concept of martyrdom and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of the greater collective has changed the modern concept of heroism. In today’s world, a hero is more often than not lauded for heroic qualities due to their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the safety or benefit of others. This lack of concern for personal well-being and safety in sight of a great threat is deemed courageous and the essence of heroism. This heroic ideal of the courageous martyr underlies many of the modern ideals of heroic qualities such as bravery, strength and fortitude. Often a person will be hailed as hero merely for the act of dying in the name of a just cause.
Another factor in the modern concept of heroism arrives from the medieval concept of chivalry and the knight errant of Arthurian mythology who displays qualities of bravery and magnanimity. This image of the courteous, self-sacrificing knight who was a paragon of all virtues is often far removed from certain Hellenic heroes such as Herakles who kills his wife and children in a fit of rage and madness.
The ancient Hellenic heroes of myth and history could not always be classified as heroic in the modern understanding of what a hero is. They were often depicted as utterly human in their susceptibility towards vice and misdeed. Yet they survived their own vices and rose to meet the challenges of their destiny in an unwavering manner that earned them the respect due to a hero. In other words, they were heroes because of how they lived and not because of how they died. They were heroes because of their great deeds not because they were always morally incorruptible. And even after they died….they lived on through the influential role they played and continued to play in the lives of other mortals who could attest to their continuation. The local or regional acknowledgement of the continuation of the hero after death is one of the many features that mark the true nature of ancient Hellenic Heroes. Pindar testifies to this truth with his paradoxical formula of the test and reward of a true hero.
‘Not all who die, die‘ – Pindar