As children, many of us are taught about the myths of powerful Greek heroes. There’s Heracles completing his 12 labours, Theseus slaying the vicious minotaur, and Perseus’ prowess in defeating the evil gorgon Medusa. Yet, we are scarcely taught of their true characters and acts of villainy. Should we as a modern society idolise the heroes of Greek mythology purely due to their strength and courage, without acknowledging their less than heroic deeds?
Firstly, it’s crucial to take note of the differences between the modern and Classical definitions of a hero. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hero as “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. By contrast, in Greek mythology, a hero is defined more as a person, often of divine ancestry, who is celebrated for their bold exploits, and favoured by the Gods. Evidently, the way in which you could be deemed a hero in either of these definitions is vastly different.
To become a hero in Ancient Greece, a person needed to do something extraordinary or unusual, and could gain the title if a family member years later wished for them to be remembered as heroic. This process was called ‘heroisation’ and occurred most in the Hellenistic period (323 BC - 33 BC).
An example of this would be Cleomedes of Astypalea. Cleomedes was (according to Puasanias, a 2nd AD travel writer) a champion of Pankration – an ancient martial art which involved a mix of wrestling and boxing – who killed his opponent in the Olympic games. Out of anger, he suffered a fit, and pulled the roof of a school down, killing 60 children. Surely, this act of violence would condemn his name to the depths of villainy forevermore. Think again. As this was seen as an extraordinary incident, he was declared a hero by the Delphic oracle, a figure of great authority in Ancient Greece. Not only does the title of “hero” lack in the modern aspects of a saviour, but the men who are awarded it can be cruel and undeserving of praise.
That, however, is not to say that some Greek heroes didn’t endure great deals of suffering to help those around them. Take Orpheus, for example: he journeyed to the underworld to save his deceased wife Euridice. To achieve this, Orpheus was challenged with the task of walking out of the underworld without looking back. Sadly, Orpheus escaped the underworld just before his partner, so when he went to turn around to see her, she was swallowed back into the depths from which they had come. As Orpheus had the favour of the Gods by being the son of Apollo and considering that the purpose of his quest was to save his wife, he is the only character in Greek mythology who could be deemed a hero in both the mythological and the modern sense.
Nevertheless, most of the supposed ‘heroes’ of Ancient Greece should not be presented to children as such. The fact that Theseus, a man who abducted and raped the Queen of the Amazons, is idolized in schools is abhorrent. From reading ‘Ariadne’ by Jennifer Saint, anyone can understand that Theseus used Ariadne so that he could help his own people. He tricked her into thinking that he would marry her and left her on Naxos to die and remain unburied. These are the efforts of a villain.
Similarly, many people are unaware that Heracles killed his wife and children. However, these actions can almost be forgiven as he performs his 12 labours to repay his debt and he was forced into a manic state by Hera and her jealousy. But can journeying to the underworld and saving the morally dubious Theseus truly make him a hero? Of course, if you were to take the inaccurate representation of Heracles in the Disney movie ‘Hercules’ at face value, you would probably say yes.
Some may argue that it is better for young children to be ignorant to the upsetting details, however this doesn’t mean that when teaching them a partial history of Greek Mythology that we should continue to praise these villains just for having muscles and killing the odd criminal. So next time you hear about the valiant deeds of Heracles, Theseus and Perseus, remember these men are as monstrous as the creatures they are lauded for slaying.