Category Archives: Heroes[post_grid id="10042"]
“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.’”
“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”.
By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard
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.
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 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/
By Spencer Klavan
Quick! Name this fictional character: the long-lost son of super-parents in the sky, fostered by an ordinary human couple to save the earth with his unmatchable strength.
If you guessed Superman, you’re correct. If you guessed the Ancient Greek hero, Herakles, bingo: right again. DC Comics’ Man of Steel is right out of Classical myth, and he’s not the only one. There’s Batman, an ordinary kid turned extraordinary crime fighter, defying the justice system to avenge his murdered father — just like Orestes. There’s Phoenix from X-men and Achilles from the Iliad, two unstoppable renegade live-wires who throw devastating temper tantrums before saving the day in a doomed blaze of glory.
In comic books, Modern America tells the stories Ancient Greece told in hero myths. From Mount Olympus to the DC/Marvel Universe, these stories have endured because we need them. They’re our only way to capture what it means to fight for justice.
Just like the Ancient Greeks, we have canonical, “official” versions of our hero stories with uncontested cultural authority — Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Schuster’s Action Comics #1 is to Superman what Homer’s Odyssey is to Odysseus. And just like us, the Greeks had fan fiction, alternate universes that tweaked the traditional storylines.
Herakles, for example, had his slightly more commercial Roman spinoff, “Hercules.” Apollonius wrote the definitive iteration of Jason’s adventures, but there was also Euripides’ tragedy (the equivalent of a movie adaptation) and a later epic (something like a remake) by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, each putting a slightly different spin on the original.
The same thing happens to superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, whose stories have been filmed, remade, and rebooted almost beyond recognition. There are reams of fan fiction in which Superman impregnates his girlfriend, takes a gay lover, or even dies. Ancient Greek fanboys, too, cooked up innumerable local legends, retellings, and even cults.
Whether in modernity or antiquity, truly iconic heroes tend to develop passionately invested fan bases who participate in their stories, turning them into hands-on public property. When we really love a hero, we get our hands dirty with him. We make him our own.
So, as enamored as we are of these myths, it’s not because they tell the truth — not literally, at least. We’re not interested in what “actually” happened. Clearly we’re happy to play fast and loose with those details, and anyway it’s all make-believe to begin with: there’s no truly “real” version. What hero myths communicate to us, what we’re so thirsty for, is the reality of a certain experience, the exhilarating and righteous feeling of fighting for what’s right.
The historian Herodotus wrote that he wanted to preserve humanity’s “mighty and marvelous deeds” so they wouldn’t “become faded with time”. Herodotus fudged factual details so he could encapsulate emotional truths, conveying what it felt like to be there. Hero myths do that, too.
“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.” -Herodotus (The Histories)
Of course no one has ever actually flown on a horse, or run through walls, or gutted a hundred-headed dragon: the Greeks knew that as well as we do. But soldiers and freedom fighters like the Spartan general Leonidas are capable of towering acts of valor whose significance we can only convey in metaphors and tall tales. To memorialize that kind of real-life heroism, we have to tell inaccurate but viscerally true stories, to depict Leonidas standing up to an army of millions with three hundred men. We have to tell hero myths.
That’s why the perennial impulse to debunk heroes is so misguided. These days, filmmakers in particular love to offer “the real scoop,” smugly invalidating the credentials of famous heroes by showing how it was all a hoax the whole time, how Hercules was just a muscleman with a club. Take Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy or Brett Ratner’s Hercules, realist retellings that erase the gods and giants out of their source material.
This isn’t new either — Euhemerus of Messene made a living tracing myths to their pedestrian origins. It was just as silly then as it is now.
Turning heroes into average joes misses the point. Aquaman and Achilles, the Avengers and the Odyssey — these aren’t stories about what really happened. They were never meant to be. Stripping away their supernatural embellishments to get at some nonexistent “real version” doesn’t reveal the true core of hero myth; in fact, it erases that core entirely. We need myths to help us feel, in our guts, the soaring power of human courage. We don’t need them for their biographical value. Take away Achilles’ godlike strength, and you get a thug with a spear. But give Wolverine back his adamantine claws, and you get a hero: an embodied allegory of the nobility of self-sacrifice. Ancient or modern, that’s something worth preserving.
By John Mancini
The original sword-wielding dragon slayer of legend was not the knightly Orlando saving Angelica, nor was it Sigurd killing Fafnir… And it wasn’t even the Archangel Michael or St. George.
It goes much further back than all of those… straight to the Ancient world.
In fact, the ancients had a fairly well-documented obsession with snakes, especially the large fire-breathing winged variety. From India to Egypt to Peru, a plethora of cultures around the world had some version of a snake-myth.
It was in Classical Greece, however, that the story elements were arguably perfected (at least in our opinion). There, the dragon-serpent antagonist was none other than the primeval water god, Poseidon, a close relative of Gaia, the earth goddess. He was, you could say, from the beginning of their time.
But what good is a story with the ideal ‘bad guy’ without the perfect hero?
Not much according to Ancient Greek mythology, which supplied some fantastic examples of monster vanquishing champions for us to cheer on.
So, without further adieu, let us look at the five original weapon-wielding dragon slayers from Greek mythology…
Our first hero was more than just a man, but a god all together. Where better to start really, than with one of the most famous and favored of the Olympians, Apollo, the god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, etc, etc.
His story begins with his house of worship: the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Appearing on coinage for centuries and supremely important to every culture that knew it, the temple was rebuilt five times in its several thousand year history.
In fact, the earliest version of the temple predated Homeric poetry and was likely devoted to an earth deity, not so dissimilar to our antagonist Poseidon, who was thought to be the most ancient possessor of the oracle.
Funnily enough, it was also supposedly the “earthshaker” Poseidon who was responsible for the earthquakes that destroyed the temple time and time again.
According to the mythology, a spring nearby the location of the temple was guarded by the large Python or she-dragon, which Apollo slayed upon arrival, thus freeing the people from their fear of the earth and its power.
After Apollo’s triumph at Delphi, the traditional omphalos (a rounded stone artifact and early focal point of the temple) came to feature a snake wrapped around it.
This marked it as a symbol of Apollo, the dragon slayer, god of wisdom and healing. The last trait he passed on to his son, Asclepius, who, according to Ovid, transformed into a snake and founded Rome.
The second dragon slayer on our list is Cadmus, a Phoenician prince who introduced the alphabet to Greece around 2000 B.C. On a quest to find his sister, Europa, he stopped at the Delphic temple to consult Apollo’s oracle, which led him to found the city of Thebes.
While building the Theban temple, Cadmus’ assistants were slain by a dragon as they attempted to collect water from a nearby spring. (Apparently dragons like hanging around springs.) Athena instructed Cadmus to slay the dragon and then sow its teeth into the ground like seeds. These seeds then grew into a fierce army.
Following Athena’s orders yet again, Cadmus threw a stone into the center of the advancing warriors, causing them to attack each other until only five remained. With these men, or Spartoi, he was able to complete the citadel.
Unfortunately for Cadmus, this wasn’t just any dragon; it had been sacred to the god Ares.
After its death, Cadmus had to do eight years penance, but was plagued nonetheless by the slaying. Cadmus’ family, as well as the city of Thebes, was cursed with innumerable tragedies, including the death of his four daughters and the fate of his grandson, Oedipus.
Eventually, overcome with his misfortune, he exclaimed that if the gods loved snakes so much, then he wished to become one. Ovid claimed that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia then turned into the reptiles and slithered away into the forest together. Other versions of the myth, however, say that the gods transformed them into snakes as punishment.
Our next dragon slayer is just like a comic book hero. His team, the Argonauts, were a seafaring crew that included Heracles, Asclepius, Orpheus, and Atalanta, among dozens of others. These larger than life lads accompanied Jason in his heroic quest for the Golden Fleece, which was, of course, guarded by a dragon.
Jason was sent by Poseidon’s son, Pelias, to fetch the Golden Fleece. Along the way, he acquired additional tasks: to plow a field with fire-breathing oxen, to steal a tooth from a dragon, and to slay the dragon that guarded the fleece.
Luckily for Jason, his lover Medea was trained in Hecate’s dark arts and gave him an ointment that would keep him from being burned by the oxen, in addition to a herbal potion with which he could put the dragon to sleep.
He did as advised and stole the tooth from the sleeping monster. Then, like Cadmus, he sowed the dragon tooth into the field, which grew into an army… and, again like Cadmus, he threw a rock into the middle of the crowd. Not knowing where the blow had come from, the army once more turned on each other and self-destructed.
In one version of this myth (and there are many), Jason is swallowed and then regurgitated by the dragon, thus reborn a bonafide hero.
Next up is Perseus, the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans. In fact, Perseus’ deeds were so grand that they went on to provide the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians, a first of the heroes of Greek mythology.
Of his conquests, one of the most memorable is the beheading of Medusa, the snake haired gorgon, with the aid of Athena’s polished shield. Afterwards, Perseus went on to slay another monster, the sea serpent Cetus sent by Poseidon.
This time it was to save Andromeda, his prize for slaying both dragons.
It is interesting to note that Cetus is essentially another aspect of Poseidon (being sent by him) and Medusa is often thought to be representative of nature’s wrath, something for which the sea God is notorious.
The most accomplished of the Greek dragon slayers, Heracles, strangled his first snake when he was still just a baby in the cradle. Exhibiting strength, courage and ingenuity, he is considered the greatest of the Greek heroes, especially by the many Roman emperors who came to identify with him.
Heracles, in Greek, is another name for the sun. He is the ruler of the zodiac who rings in the new season by continuously slaying the old. Throughout his twelve labors he conquered two multi-headed snakes, including the Hydra and the Ladon.
In an interesting relationship to Jason’s and Perseus’ story, Heracles was instructed for his tenth labor to capture the “golden haired” cattle of the triple-headed Geryon (the son of Chryasaor, who, like his grandmother Medusa, lived on an island at the far edge of the western sea).
Besides mirroring Perseus’ earlier victory over Medusa, Heracles’ slaying of the Geryon follows as all his labors do… the archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey to slay the metaphorical dragon.
This, of course, begs the question: what does dragon slaying represent?
Of course we can never be certain, but it could be seen as a symbolic act of taming the wild, the natural, the demonic. Living in water but breathing fire, with the ability to swim as well as fly, the dragon embodies all the natural forces the ancients would have feared. Slaying them, meant slaying fear itself.
We’ve been writing for a while about one of the most famous myths of Ancient Greece, Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece. It’s a story filled with heroes, monsters, triumph and treachery, all while the main man, Jason, attempts to retrieve his rightful place as king of Iolcos.
So far Jason has gathered his infamous gang, which unabashedly enjoyed the man-free island of Lemnos and accidently killed the kind king of Cyzicus and many of his trusted men. One might not be cheering these fellows at the moment, but nevertheless, they continue on their crusade.
This time the group, named the Argonauts after their speedy boat, land in Thrace, at the court of Phineus of Salmydessus. Due to his keen ability of prophecy and his propensity to reveal too much, the poor King Phineus had incurred the disfavor of Zeus. The God of the Gods responded by blinding the foreseeing royal and placing him on an island in front of a buffet of food. But with his twisted ways, Zeus also sent Harpies, or mythological winged spirits, to steal Phineus’ food everyday.
When Jason chanced on the emaciated king, he took pity on him and killed the Harpies. As thanks for this good deed, Phineus revealed the next set of clues for Jason: the location of Colchis, where Jason would find the elusive Golden fleece, as well as how to pass the Symplegades, or The Clashing Rocks.
This passage was surrounded by huge cliffs which would crash together randomly, making the journey incredibly dangerous, if not impossible. However, it was the only way to get to Colchis.
Following Phineus’ advice, Jason released a dove upon arrival. He was informed that if the dove makes it, they should row with all their might. If their feathered friend dies, however, the Argonauts were doomed. Fortunately the brave bird only lost a few tail feathers and so Jason and his team proceeded with all their strength. They passed, with minor damage to the extreme stern of their ship. From that moment onwards, the clashing rocks stopped clashing.
Finally Jason arrived in Colchis, which is on the modern day Black Sea coast of Georgia. The Golden Fleece was so close… and yet still far away. The precious item was owned by the King of Colchis, King Aeetes. He promised to give Jason his quest’s goal, but only if he could perform three, seemingly impossible tasks. Jason was in despair, as it involved fire, mythical warriors and of course, a dragon.
But here the deities that be stepped in. Queen of the Gods, Hera, convinced Aphrodite and her son, Eros, to ensure that Jason had help, in the form of King Aeetes’ daughter, Medea. With cupid’s arrow, she fell in love with our hero and so was able to aid him in each of the potentially insurmountable tasks.
Jason’s first duty was to plow a field with the Khalkotauroi, or fire breathing oxen, which Jason himself had to yoke. Medea fulfilled her role nicely by providing Jason with an ointment that made him fireproof and so he was able to combat the oxen’s flames.
His second assignment required that he sow the teeth of a dragon into a field. This might seem easy enough, except that the teeth sprouted into an army of warriors or spartoi. Fortunately Medea already had insider knowledge – these spartoi were not particularly intelligent. And so she advised Jason to throw a rock into the group of fighters, who promptly attacked and killed each other, as they did not perceive from where the rock had come.
Finally, his last labour was in front of him. He had to combat a large, fierce, sleepless dragon which was charged with guarding the sacred golden fleece itself. Once again, Medea came to the rescue. She concocted a potion from distilled herbs which put the beast to rest, enabling Jason to thieve the fleece. The quest had been achieved!
However, they still needed to leave Colchis…
As they departed, Jason and Medea were chased down by her father, King Aeetes. It is here that Medea does the most extreme, seemingly horrendous, thing in her love and devotion for Jason. She butchers her own brother and spreads his remains into the sea… forcing her father to collect what’s left of his son and abandon the pursuit.
Jason and Medea had finally escaped with the Golden Fleece.