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Category Archives: Heroes

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Hector (The Iliad)

by September 18, 2019

Hector_and_Andromache

Known From: The Iliad

“One omen is best: defending the fatherland” -Hector, from The Iliad
Hector is a prominent character in Homer’s The Iliad, who gains the wrath of Achilles after he kills Achilles’ friend, Patroclus. Hector is the prince of Troy, the great walled city that is under siege from Achilles and the invading Greeks. Hector is often considered a brave and honorable man, fighting to defend his country from ferocious invaders.
Hector is the first born son of the Trojan king Priam. The young prince is born into nobility and heir to his fathers throne. He has a wife, Andromache, and  a young son, Scamandrius. During the Trojan war Hector slays  many invaders. It is told that by the time of his death, he was responsible for the death of 31,000 Greek warriors.
Hector is depicted as a loyal son of Troy who wishes only to see his homeland spared from the invading Greeks, and it is never suggested that Hector has any dark or sinister motivations.  And while Hector often scolds and belittles his younger brother Paris, the man largely responsible for starting the Trojan war, he still fights nobly to protect Paris and all the citizens of Troy.
Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

Although Hector is a skilled warrior, he unfortunately gains the wrath of Achilles when he slays Achilles’ companion, Patroclus. At the time of Patrocles’ death, Hector stands over him and declares:

“I am foremost of all the Trojan warriors to stave the day of bondage from off them; as for you, vultures shall devour you here.”

These words would gain the attention of Achilles. Hector would be pursued by the legendary warrior throughout the course of the war. Hector would finally meet his end at the hands of Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Achilles slays Hector and proceeds to drag his corpse behind his chariot. Achilles retorts to Hector as he dies:

“I would now be inclined to hack the flesh from your body and devour it, such agonies you have caused me”

It is only after King Priam pleads with Achilles, does Hector ever receive proper burial rites.
Achilles with Hector's body

Achilles with Hector’s body “Triumph of Achilles” in Corfu

The myth of Jason and the Argonauts

by July 16, 2019

Imagine a group of superheroes, each with their own special power, traveling around on wild, improbable adventures. There is the guy who can fly, another with super strength and yet another fellow with a secret, unbeatable weapon. And of course there is also the captain of the team, usually an “all around good guy” who’s almost an everyman… if it wasn’t for his quick-witted thinking and problem solving.
This is the Argonauts, a fantastic ancient Greek gang, complete with a cool name and trusty boat to speed them on their way.
myth of jason and the argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts

The main man leading the group is Jason. In his cadre of killers are famous myth makers such as the Boreads (sons of Boreas, the North Wind) who could fly, Heracles, Philoctetes, Peleus, Telamon, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Atalanta, and Euphemus.
Their mission? To help Jason take his rightful place as king. To accomplish this quest, however, the band of heroes must fetch the golden fleece…. which is hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never sleeps.
Back up a minute.. you might say. A golden fleece? A displaced price? A fire breathing dragon? How did this all happen in the first place? How did our greek myth get to this fantastic junction point, filled with monsters, martyrs and missions?
It began, like many great stories, with a power struggle. Not pleased at being second to the throne, our stereotypical baddie, Pelias, killed his half-brother and rightful king, Aeson. Not only that, Pelias murdered all of Aeson’s descendents to be rid of his competition.
Jason and the argonauts slay the dragon
After the familial slaughtering, Pelias was still worried that one day he would be overthrown. He consulted with an oracle to be certain and was dismayed at the news: Be wary of the man with one sandal.
Unfortunately for Pelias, the oracle was right. Aeson’s infant son, Jason, miraculously survived.
When the executions began, Jason’s mother ordered the women to cluster around the baby and cry as if he was still-born. Thus they successfully deceived the wrathful uncle that he was not alive. Afterwards she sent Jason away to be educated with the centaur Chiron, knowing his life would be in danger if Pelias found out the truth.
Jason grew up to be a strong, capable man who was determined to return to his hometown and take back his rightful throne.
One day Pelias decided to throw a few games in honor of his alleged father, the god Poseidon. This was the perfect opportunity for Jason to visit. On the way, he crossed a river to help an old woman (who, fantastically enough, was the goddess Hera) and he lost his shoe. When Jason was announced as the man with one sandal, the fearful uncle knew the time had come. Pelias could not kill his nephew, however, in front of all the gathered kings and spectators, so he sent Jason on a misson, one he thought was impossible to accomplish…
The myth of Jason and the argonauts starts with the boat The Argo

The Argo (ca. 1500-1530), painting by Lorenzo Costa

He told Jason this: “To take my throne, which you shall, you must go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Jason happily accepted.
Jason then assembled his super team of monster vanquishing men, and embarked in their famous ship, the Argo. Their first stop? The island of Lemnos, known for the foul smelling, men-killing women who inhabit the place.
And so, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts began…

Spotlight on Heroes: Achilles

by June 10, 2019

achilles

Achilles

Known From: The Iliad
Notable Quotes about Achilles:
 “Sing Goddess, Achilles’ rage, 
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark” 
 
“For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, tells me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.”
 
The Hero

Statue of Achilles in London

Achilles is the central character and most ferocious warrior in Homer’s classic epic The Iliad. He is often portrayed as being a mighty warrior who is often filled with grief and remorse. The grief and suffering of Achilles is recounted several times throughout the poem and is often cited as one of the major themes.
Achilles was born to the sea nymph Thetis and the mortal king  PeleusHe was raised by the centaur Chiron and taught to be a great warrior. As a young man he ate the innards of lions and wild boars. It was predicted by Achilles’ teacher that he would be a fierce fighter who would kill many men and sack many cities.
In The Iliad, Achilles is found to be in conflict with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. His feud with Agamemnon is caused by the theft of Briseis, whom Achilles believes is his rightful trophy of war. Achilles is so angered that he considers leaving Troy and returning home.

Achilles Laments the death of his friend

Before Achilles can make the trip back, his dear friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Prince of Troy. Achilles is so distraught by the death of his friend that he quickly forgets his thoughts of home and pursues Hector on the battlefield. Achilles finds Hector and slays him outside the Walls of Troy. Achilles then drags the body of Hector behind his chariot as he circles the city.
Achilles is eventually killed by an arrow to the heel from the bow of ParisThis is revealed to be his weakness. He is cremated and his ashes are put in an urn… along with the ashes of his dear friend Patroclus.
Read more about Achilles here
 
 
 
 
 

That Time Heracles Met Snake Woman…

by May 8, 2019

By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
While completing his Twelve Labors, the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) got up to tons of mischief—and that included bedding a lot of women. In the process, he fathered a whole host of legendary sons, called the Heracleidae, from whom many clans across the Mediterranean claimed descent. According to Herodotus, the “Father of History,” the Greeks living in Scythia—an area of Central Eurasia—were descended from one of Heracles’s most interesting sons.
Heracles and Omphale

‘Heracles and Omphale’ (1724) by François Lemoyne. (Deriv.) ( Public Domain ) Like the Echidna, mythology counts Omphale as another of Heracles’ lovers.

Heracles Meets a Half-Human, Half-Serpent Mate
The Greeks who lived on the Black Sea (a.k.a. “Pontic Greeks”) created a founding myth directly tied to their homeland. During Heracles’s tenth labor—capturing cattle belonging to the monster Geryon—the hero arrived in what would eventually become the fertile land of Scythia, then a desert. Geryon himself lived on an island, so Heracles decided to rest up before sailing out to tackle him. He must have forgotten to tie up his horses, though, since they ran off while he was asleep.
Statue of Heracles

Heracles and the Horses of Diomedes

While searching throughout Scythia, Heracles came across an area called “The Woodland.” In that cave, he discovered a hybrid creature whose upper half was that of a human woman, but her bottom half was 100% pure snake. Both she and the famed Greek monster Echidna, mother of the likes of the Sphinx and Cerberus, were half-snake, half-woman. Our viper madam was never given a first name, so she’s more likely an echidna, not the Echidna.
Statue of Echidna

Echidna. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy.

Heracles asked this unusual half-human, half-serpent if she’d seen his horses; she said she was hiding them, but would only give them back if he had sex with her. Emotional and sexual blackmail? Par for the course for Greek mythology, Heracles agreed to the bargain, but the snake woman was so into him that she pulled a Circe and tried to keep him there forever by refusing to return his horses.
Eventually, he got really annoyed—and then she told him she was pregnant! The snake lady said she had three of his sons in her belly and asked the hero what she was supposed to do with them when they grew up. Heracles gave her a belt with a golden goblet hanging from it and a big bow. He told her that, when they were adults, the youths should all try to draw the bow and put the girdle on; whoever drew the super-stiff bow and wore the girdle best would inherit her land in Scythia. The other ones, she should send away.
Sculpture of Heracles

Heracles drawing back his bow.

Heracles’ Three Sons with the Snake Woman Compete
Years later, the snake woman’s three sons grew up into nice young men. The oldest was Agathyrsus, the second Gelonus, and the youngest Scythes. The eldest two guys couldn’t draw their dad’s bow or put his belt on properly, so their mom banished them, but little Scythes was able to do the job.
Scythes went on to found the kingdom of Scythia, and, as Herodotus claimed, “from Scythes, the son of Hercules, were descended the after kings of Scythia.” And those very monarchs also wore belts with goblets hanging from them, in the tradition of their legendary ancestor.
Painting of the Scythians

‘Ovid among the Scythians’ (1862) by Eugène Delacroix.

And Agathyrsus and Gelonus fathered tribes named after themselves in the same general area; not bad for failures. Interestingly, some medieval Irish chroniclers traced the ancestry of the Picts, a confederation of tribes in what is now Scotland, to the Agathyrsi and Geloni.

Ajax: Clean out your soul

by May 16, 2018

By Ben Potter
Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he was ‘the best of all men that ever came to Troy, save only Achilles’.
However, Ajax’s status as number two in the Greek pecking order wasn’t always fully appreciated. After Achilles perished when the arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris pierced his Achilles’ heel (oh the irony!) and Ajax gallantly carried his fallen comrade from the battlefield, it was assumed that the coveted armor worn by the slain hero would pass on to the number two warrior, Ajax.

Ajax returning Achilles

However, the Greek commander Agamemnon and his brother, husband of the wanton Helen, Menelaus had other ideas. Persuaded by his eloquence, they decided to give the armor to Odysseus.
So what’s the big deal? Ajax is a wealthy prince and a mighty warrior, surely he doesn’t need Achilles’ armor, right?
Wrong.
The armor is not merely precious, useful and a wonderful souvenir which could rival a piece of the true cross, but it is hugely symbolic. It is so saturated in symbolic honor that to be denied it, Ajax has been forced to suffer a de facto demotion.
This snub is enough to tip a character, who is often portrayed as tactless, boorish and arrogant, totally over the edge.

Ajax

He resolved to steal out into the night and enter the beach encampments of his fellow Greek commanders whereupon he would kill whomever he could and bring the rest back to his own tent for torture.
This, Ajax achieved… or at least thought he had achieved. Instead the goddess Athena, looking to protect her favorite, Odysseus, sent Ajax mad so that instead of mutilating Agamemnon, Menelaus et al, he butchered a flock of sheep.
It is at this point, with sanity suddenly returning to him, that Sophocles’ Ajax begins.
However, an Athenian audience wouldn’t have been waiting with bated breath to see what was in store for the man whose stock has dropped from the heights of second greatest of all the Greeks to being a traitor and maniacal livestock botherer. They already knew his fate; he was to commit suicide.
Whilst myths are able to evolve and Athenian tragedians do often significantly change major details of stories, this one was perhaps a step too far even for the innovative Sophocles to tinker with.
Instead what he does is develop Ajax’s tragic flaw. Quite obviously pride would be the one to play up, but Sophocles mixes it with a shot of blasphemy to make a cocktail of hubris.
There is some minor evidence for such impiety in The Iliad. In book XI, Ajax won’t listen to the gods when they instruct the Greeks to retreat from the battlefield, but continues fighting nobly and bravely when the other heroes are making their tactical withdrawal.
Also, most Greek heroes are honored by a patron deity who watches over them. Odysseus and Diomedes have Athena, Achilles has Thetis; even the Trojans Paris and Hector have Aphrodite and Apollo respectively. However, Ajax is alone.

Achilles and Thetis

It is this theme that Sophocles nurtures as we learn that Athena did not merely send Ajax wild to save her dear Odysseus, but to punish the doomed man himself. The Messenger (a stock character in ancient tragedy) highlights just why this is:
“The gods have dreadful penalties in store for worthless and redundant creatures, mortals who break the bounds of mortal modesty. And Ajax showed he had no self-control the day he left his home. ‘Son,’ said his father – and very properly – ‘Go out to win, but with God beside you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Ajax with vain bravado, ‘any fool can win with God beside him; I intend to win glory and honor on my own account.’”
Thus Ajax is seen not only as a character with a deeply flawed personality, but one who is on the end of Divine retribution. So the question that crops up isn’t so much ‘did he deserve his fate’ as ‘can we feel any sympathy for him at all’?
Well… Ajax was honor-bound to come to Troy by the oath sworn during his courtship of Helen. In Sophocles, Ajax is less concerned with rescuing the stolen princess than with trying to please or even emulate his father Telamon, who himself sacked Troy in the previous generation along with Heracles – a feat, of course, which Ajax has been unable to better.
Telamon, “the man who never smiles”, is the only man who Ajax seems afraid of and indeed he comments timorously: “How will he welcome me, when I come home empty-handed?”

Death of Ajax

It feels like Ajax been pushed all his life to try and accumulate kleos (reputation) and succeed at every turn simply in order to be able to step out of his father’s shadow. The failure to gain Achilles’ armor would have be seen as unacceptable in Ajax’s own eyes and presumably also in those of Telamon.
Can we find sympathy for a man whose every waking thought is centered round yearning for his father’s approval? Is this something which reinforces Ajax’s pathetic vanity? And in turn does it cause us to pity rather than despise him?
Sophocles includes a “family scene” which contrasts starkly to its inspiration in book VI of The Iliad. It involved Hector, his wife, Andromache and their son, Astyanax. Hector, knowing he was going into mortal combat from which he may not return, is depicted as a loving husband and gentle father.
The parody in Ajax shows the ‘hero’, not going nobly into battle, but about to selfishly and capriciously commit suicide. In these final moments they can share together he is very curt and snaps at his wife, Tecmessa. He hopes that his son, Eurysaces, will be as good a man as he is, only more lucky. Hector on the other hand desired that Astyanax would emulate him, going on to bigger and better things. This makes it seem like Ajax can’t bear to be outshone by anyone, not even his own flesh and blood!
Both men also worry about their wives being sold into slavery should they die. However, by committing suicide and Tecmessa being a foreigner, Ajax has all but guaranteed this fate for her.
The dramatic irony of this scene causes us to feel great pity for poor Tecmessa, an innocent victim of a self-destructive and proud fool who, instead of being the linchpin of victory in the Trojan War heaps woe upon woe, tarnishes his reputation, enslaves his loved-ones, bereaves his loyal and loving half-brother and leaves his father without an heir.
However, this is not the only way in which Sophocles creates suspense, pity and fear. Ajax falls on his sword just over half way through the story, the rest of the play is a struggle between Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer and the opposing, gloating siblings, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
The tension comes about because Teucer is being denied by the Atreidai (the sons of Atreus) the right to bury Ajax.
Prohibition of burial rites might seem like more of an insult than a real tragedy to us, but it was of vital importance to the Greeks. It was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that!

Ajax commits suicide

Indeed, the importance of burial rites ties in with the fact that Sophocles has been, very wrongly, accused of making a hash out of Ajax due to the fact that the main character dies, and therefore the climax is reached, so early in the performance.
What these critics don’t understand is that the death is a foregone conclusion, common knowledge to all, but the burial of Ajax is far from guaranteed. Consequently, this sacred rite, the blasphemous denial of which would leave no Athenian theatre-goer sitting comfortably, creates tension and drama of the very highest order. Especially as all the men at the crux of the debate are edgy, angry and highly dangerous.
Indeed some interpret the play as reflecting the mental pressure on men in the appalling conditions of siege-warfare, far away from their homes and loved-ones and with the constant threat of slavery or annihilation hanging over their heads.
However, the play ends on a hopeful note thanks to a most unlikely source.
Odysseus, acting like a deus ex machina, manages to convince Agamemnon that Ajax, despite his faults, deserves a burial. Although Agamemnon doesn’t really concur and is amazed that Odysseus, mortal enemy of Ajax, wants to help Teucer, he allows him to do as he pleases.
And these are the words with which Odysseus guides the heart-broken Teucer through his darkest hour:
“I have this to say to you: I am your friend henceforth, as truly I was your enemy; and I am ready to help you bury your dead and share in every office that we mortals owe to the noblest of our kind”.
And thus Odysseus shows us that even in death, even through enmity, even when blood has been shed, bile been spat, even when hate and hostility trickle from the lips more readily than any words of friendship or conciliation…. even then there is still room for someone to step in and make things right, to honor the gods through a kind act and to lighten, even slightly, the weight upon a bereaved and dejected soul.

Jason: Sniveling Worm or Unfortunate Bloke?

by March 30, 2018

By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard
myth of jason and the argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts

It’s a myth famed in the ancient greek world, filled with monsters, superheroes and of course femme fatales. The main plot centers around Jason, who with his band of badass super heros (including the likes of Heracles), adventures in his quest to regain his rightful throne. And he is usually depicted as a great and resourceful hero.
However, there is a dark and disturbing chapter involving the magical priestess Medea. At the bequest of the gods, this woman falls madly in love with Jason and aids him significantly in accomplishing his tasks, even when it means betraying her own people. This would be fine enough if it stopped there, but unfortunately once Jason didn’t need her, he cast her away for another woman.
It is here that Euripides’ play, Medea, which was first performed in 431 BC, begins. It charts the final stages of Medea’s life in Cornith as an exile from Iolchos and tells the story of her revenge. Essentially, she retaliates by killing Jason’s new wife, the wife’s father and Medea and Jason’s own sons. She then flees into exile.
Hell really, really hath no fury like a woman scorned.
So knowing all this, Euripides presents Jason as such a despicable character that it is impossible to sympathize with his fate at the hands of Medea… but the question is, is this fair?
For starters, Euripides seems to portray all his male characters as very weak and gullible men, and Jason is no exception from this rule. He is even convinced at one point that Medea has given up on her crazy and murderous antics and has additionally decided that she could not be happier for Glauce and Jason in their new life. Clearly he was wrong, but just because Jason is a poor and stupid fool does that mean that no sympathy can be found for him?
Jason really has done nothing outrageously wrong. Initially he was sent on a certain death mission to the land of Colchis, (modern Black Sea coast of Georgia) where he meets up with some crazy witch who falls passionately in love with him. The only way it seems that Jason can fulfill his task is with the help of this rather troubled young lady.

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

It must be noted that Jason witnesses Medea betray her family and even brutally murder her brother in order to aid him in his quest. At this point Jason must surely have thought to hide the pets and the pressure cooker.
In the play itself we see that Jason doesn’t seem evil in his actions, but merely angry that Medea has been so foolhardy in getting herself exiled. Jason acts with great grace, saying to Medea ‘Hate me: but I could never bear ill-will to you’.
There would have been little to stop Jason having Medea executed, ensuring that his new life would be a happy and prosperous one. Instead he offers Medea food and money to aid her in her exile. Jason’s biggest crime seems to be marrying for the status that Medea had lost him in tricking Pelias’ daughters in Iolchos.
On the other hand, we could argue that Jason would be nothing without the help she had given him and thus she is entitled to a little more respect than being traded in for a younger model. The fact that Medea loved Jason so strongly as to perform the acts she did, most noticeably the dicing of her own brother, would serve to say that Jason should have known not to toy with her emotions. Even in the prologos, or the prologue to the story, we learn that Medea was a reasonably happy lady living as a princess and priestess in Colchis and that she experienced nothing but ill fortune since the arrival of Jason.
Indeed the brutality of Jason’s punishment in not only having his wife killed, but also his twin sons, shows the anguish that Medea must have been experiencing and the drastic retaliation she took. When seeking revenge, we wish to try and cause pain to the other equal to the pain they have caused us. If this is true for Medea than Jason must have hurt her more than any physical pain could come close to. No woman could have taken such a revenge without first being subjected to great emotional brutality.

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862)

Medea isn’t like normal women, either contemporary to the play or indeed today. To be quite frank, Medea is a loony. This is a woman who is so amazingly emotionally unstable that when a vaguely handsome man appears on her doorstep she betrays her father, kills her brother and gets a king boiled. These all happened when the wedlock between Jason and Medea was still in the happy honeymoon phase. We see that at the start of the play, Medea is actually mourning for her brother, a quite ridiculous action seeing as she was the murderer. The insight into Medea’s twisted mind is clear here when she complains of not having the brother she murdered to turn to… Surely, this is as ludicrous as men who cry whilst cheating on their wife with a prostitute and are in need of just as much therapy.
The love that a mother has for a child is hard to explain and impossible to equal. Maternal instincts are some of the strongest in life. Even a vixen will willingly die fighting to protect her cubs and yet Medea actually plans to kill her children. This sickest and most heinous of crimes cannot be justified by any lust revenge, no matter how burning. It would be conceivable that Medea will kill the man that spurned her, as this would make her only partially deranged. But sticking a knife in her boys seems the darkest and most vile action that could be imagined.
Seeing that Jason is depicted as evil by Euripides makes us assume that the ancient Greek playwright seems to have some sort of problem with male characters. His need to portray them as weak, feeble and easily controlled by a strong woman may lead us to believe that he has some sort of inferiority complex that is played out in these pathetic males. Maybe indeed he has issues with his mother to Woody Allen proportions in the sense that Medea is all powerful, cunning, ruthless and ultimately unloving, especially to her innocent sons.
So although Jason is presented quite undoubtedly as a snivelling worm of a man with less balls than a eunuch, he doesn’t come across as evil and most certainly doesn’t deserve the immeasurable suffering that Medea bestows upon him. Jason doesn’t get much sympathy from the audience either, but not because he is despicable in any way, but because he is such a fundamentally unlikeable character whom we have no desire to see or hear from again.
Read Euripides’ Medea for yourself for free here: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/medea-by-euripides/