Greek heroes possessed superhuman abilities, yet their stories served as mythological reflections of human potential and human failure. By embodying and overcoming the limitations of humanity, heroes proved their value to gods and men alike. The gods rewarded heroes with an afterlife in Elysium or Olympus, while ancient Greeks honored heroes with songs and sacrifice.
Embrace of Mortality
Many of the Greek mythic heroes resulted from an illicit union between a human and a deity. Yet even these heroes were just mortal as human heroes like Jason and Hector. The Olympian gods had no need to fear monsters like the snake-headed Hydra or the colossal Cetus, but Heracles and Perseus defeated these monsters knowing that life was temporary and death, inevitable. In this manner, the Greek heroes faced danger willingly, exhibiting no fear of injury or death. Also, mortality was dominant in the genetic makeup of heroes, which means that all their descendants would also be mortal. While Heracles was restored to life after an excruciating death and was granted immortality, these tales are rare among heroes.
Owing to their celestial parentage, heroes often enjoyed superhuman abilities that helped them achieve seemingly insurmountable goals. For Greek heroes, great strength was often a necessity as much as it was a defining characteristic. In many cases, humans had already tried, and failed, to accomplish the tasks the Greek heroes completed. Only by merit of his great strength did Heracles defeat monsters like the Nemean Lion and the Erymanthian Boar. Likewise, Andromeda's parents preferred to sacrifice their daughter than to fight against the monstrous Cetus, whereas Perseus slayed the monster with ease.
Despite their heroic acts, ancient Greek heroes were by no means paragons of virtue. Heracles killed his wife and child, Achilles desecrated the body of Hector and Perseus turned a man to stone with the head of a Gorgon. Just as their accomplishments served to highlight the struggle for meaning in the face of mortality, their vindictiveness and lapses in judgment served as the mythological embodiment of human error. In the case of Heracles, that error was attributed to divine meddling, but other heroes committed unspeakable acts as a result of their very human emotions and attachments.
Death was the ultimate manifestation of their humanity, but to the Greeks, heroes could live on in the in memory, spirit and even in body. Hero cult members would sing "kleos," or songs, for fallen heroes, as well as offer animals and libations. During these ceremonies, they direct their gaze downward to the heroic Elysium, an afterlife separate from the purgatorial underworld of ordinary humans, though some heroes, like Heracles, achieved true immortality. In addition to keeping the memory of heroes alive through worship, Greeks believed that heroes could return to earth and speak to worshipers in moments called "epiphanies," indicating heroes were immune to the practical limitations of death.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images