The mythology of the ancient Greeks tells us much not only about Greek culture and values, but about their understanding of the human condition. The hero in Greek mythology is submitted to many trials, both personal and external. Though the monsters he battles change form and the lands he visits change names, the hero can be identified by several common elements that are repeated in many of the classical Greek myths.

Not Just Heroes, But Demigods

The hero's genealogy is usually half mortal on the mother's side and half god on the father's side. Some examples of this are Theseus whose mother was Aethra and father was Poseidon and Heracles who was born to the mortal Alcmena and was fathered by Zeus. The hero is usually separated from his mortal father, his mother's husband, and rejected by him. This tension arises later in life when the hero returns to his birthplace and encounters his mortal father who recognizes him as a threat to his power.

Battling Monsters Both Internal and External

His mortal father then sends him on a dangerous journey to complete a mission that is expected to lead to his death. The hero accepts the challenge and sails to strange lands. Throughout his journey, he must battle mythical creatures, such as centaurs, creatures that are half horse, half human, representing untamed lust and barbarism. Both Theseus and Heracles visited the island where the Amazons, a race of warrior women, lived and whose behavior posed a threat to accepted gender roles in Greek society. Odysseus' battle with the sirens, half bird, half woman, whose seductive calls lure men to their deaths, is an internal battle rather than a physical one. In order to prevent himself from being lured by them, he ties himself to the mast of his ship.

The Return and Relationships with Women

The hero returns victorious, having slayed the monsters, resisted the temptations and upheld the integrity of Greek values. Upon his return, he usually kills his mortal father and becomes king. He often forms a bond with an older woman, usually a mother figure who provides him with advice and bestows upon him the honor and status he deserves. In the case of Oedipus, he formed a bond with his own mother, married her and became king. However, the hero more commonly brings home a woman who is a princess in one of the foreign lands he's visited and marries her.

The Hero's Downfall

Following the hero's return and his celebrated victory, the beginning of his inevitable downfall begins. Just as his demigod status allowed him the formidable strength to battle monsters on his journey and resist temptations, his half-human side provides him with weaknesses and tragic flaws, such as flagrant drunkenness and the murder of his wife and children in the case of Heracles. The hero is ultimately killed, and his death is usually followed by cult worshiping by the public.