The Greeks looked at their gods with attributes they only wished they could attain. They developed stories of extraordinary people that were the offspring of immortals such as Nymphs or gods like Hermes or Zeus. Most of these stories consisted of labors, quests, or bloody wars, where the heroes were at the epicenter of the tale. What made these heroes so great was not just the fact they had godly attributes or completed monumental tasks, but endured more tragedy or more bliss than any common Greek would undergo.
One tale commonly told was that of a demigod named Achilles. His mother Thetis was a Sea Nymph, and his father was Peleus, was the king of the Myrmidons. Most stories of Achilles revolved around war, where either his gift was at his greatest or worst. Every Greek sought him for battle so his skills would tip the balance to their favor. No myth exemplified this more than that of the ten-year Trojan War.
An excerpt from a translation written by Apollodorus that accounts this time state, “He also took Lesbos and Phocaea, then Colophon, and Smyrna, and Clazomenae, and Cyme; and afterwards Aegialus and Tenos, the so-called Hundred Cities; then, in order, Adramytium and Side; then Endium, and Linaeum, and Colone. He took also Hypoplacian Thebes and Lyrnessus, and further Antandrus, and many other cities. ” (Frazer) By many accounts, you could argue that Achilles was the dealer of death and that he relished in every moment of his adventures.
By his own words, this was not the case. For example, in the textbook the Classical Mythology it states, “The now dead Achilles laments, I should prefer as a slave to serve another man, even if he had no property and little to live on, than to rule all those dead who have done with life” (Morford, Lenardon, Sham, 2011). Another hero that many spoke of during that day an age was Odysseus. He was a descendant of Hermes who became king of Ithaca. The real stories of Odysseus that Greeks and many others embrace were of the Trojan War and Homers poem the Odyssey.
Some Greeks would argue Odysseus came second only to Achilles as a hero due the trials he endured. Odysseus’s story began at the start of the Trojan War where he stood and fought for ten years. After nine years of failure, Odysseus was enlightened by Athena to trick the Trojans and capture its city. He erected a symbol, he knew only the Trojans would accept and embrace. He hid the strongest Greeks inside a giant wooden horse who laid and waited until nightfall.
Once inside impenetrable walls the Greeks were able to sake the city. Once war was all but over, Odysseus sailed for home. “Come then, do as I say, let us all be won over; let us run away with our ships to the beloved land of our fathers since no longer now shall we capture Troy of the wide ways. ” (Lattimore, 1999)
During this voyage, he encountered a man eating Cyclops named Polyphemus who he ended up blinding to escape. Unbeknownst to him Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, who became enraged. The consequences of these actions did not lead him home to his kingdom and beloved wife, but astray for another ten years of wars and adventures.
The one hero that endured more pain and suffering than any other was Heracles. He was the bastard son of the god Zeus and a beautiful Greek woman named Alcmena. Hera, the wife of Zeus, always showed distain for Zeus’s infidelities, yet took a close personal interest in Heracles. There are several instances where she intervened to cause him great tragedy. First, she tried to stop his birth. This was only overcome by tricking Ilithyia, the goddess of birth, who Hera had sent.
Months after that Hera sent serpents to his cradle, but he grabbed them by the neck shacking them as if they were just one of his toys. The next obstacle came when he was a man after he was to wed the King Creon’s daughter, Megara. Seeing that Heracles had found his piece of happiness with his new wife and daughters Hera drove Heracles mad. In his fit of rage, he killed them. Overwhelmed with grief Heracles searched for a way of redemption. He came across the King of Tiryns, Eurystheus, who told him the only way he could cleanse his soul was to endure 12 impossible labors.
One of his labours was to kill the Nemian lion, which was ironic. “The Nemeian Lion whom Hera, the queenly wife of Zeus, trained up and settled among the hills of Nemeia, to be a plague to mankind. There he preyed upon the tribes of the indwelling people, and was as a king over Tretos and Apesas and Nemeia. Nevertheless, the force of strong Heracles subdued him” (Evelyn-White, 1914). After completing the 12 labours, Heracles enjoyed many adventures. He saved Olympus from the Gigantes and assisted in conquering Troy.
For a moment, life for him was peaceful until Hera drove him mad again. During that fit of rage, he threw his closest friend Iphitus over a wall to his death. After this tragedy, Heracles knew he would have to cleanse his soul again. Queen Omphale offered him a choice. A task that would require him to endure one of the worst shames a man could. Her proposal was for him to wear women’s clothing and conduct the tasks as one of her female servants. For the next three years, Heracles completed his servitude in shame without ever being honored for any of his previous glories.
In conclusion, all these heroes had godly attributes which enabled them to complete monumental tasks, but at the same time endure more tragedy or bliss than any common Greek would undergo. Achilles was a great warrior but found no peace with what he had accomplished in his life. Heracles also endured much strife and ended up dying a gruesome fate. On the other hand, Odysseus left his home, endured many obstacles, but returned from twenty years of servitude with rejoices from all of Greece.
One common fact remains, despite each hero’s fate no Greek would endure so much, but could look to these myths as a testament to great achievements or failures. References: Frazer, J. G. (1921) Apollodorus, Epitome 3. 33. Retrieved from http://www. theoi. com/Text/ApollodorusE. html Morford, M,Lenardon, R, Sham, M, (2011) Greek Mytholodgy 9th Ed. Oxford University Press Lattimore, R (1999). The Odyssey of Homer. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Evelyn-White, H. The Theogony of Hesiod. (1914). Retrieved from http://www. sacred-texts. com/cla/hesiod/theogony. htm