There were innumerable heroes and heroines in Greek mythology. Famous or anonymous, celebrated throughout Greece or locally, they were usually benefactors. Originally, the word meant “king”, or at least someone who was distinguished in some way. However, because what characterised the heroes in Homer was their valour. it came to mean someone who was brave.
Zeus fell in love with many mortal women. One of them was the beautiful Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon, king of Mycenae . Taking on the form of the king, Zeus slept with Alcmene on the very same night as the real Amphit ryon. Some months later, Alcmene gave birth to twins lphicles, the son of Amphitryon, and Heracles the son of Zeus.
This did not please Zeus’ s wife, Hera, at all. Her first attempt to dispose of her husband’ s child did not succeed. While still a baby in his cradle. Heracles managed to strangle the two enormoussnakes sent by the goddess with his bare hands.
When he grew up, Heracles became a strong, brave man who lived a happy life until Hera remembered him and again turned her hatred on him. According to the tragic poet Euripides she induced a fit of madness in him and he killed his wife and children. As soon as he came to his senses. the devastated Heracles rushed to the oracle of Delphi to ask how to atone for his terrible deed. The priestess of Apollo replied that the only way was to faithfully serve his uncle Eurystheus who was then the ruler of Mycenae.
As if doing Hera’ s will Eurystheus assigned him twelve impossible tasks. or labou rs. in the hope that he would perish. Yet Heracles managed them all: he slew the bloodthirsty Nemean lion, and then wore its skin; he killed the Lernaean Hydra. a serpentine sea monster with nine heads; he captured the terrible Erymanthian Boar and the sacred hind of the goddess Artemis with the golden horns; he drove off some man-eating birds at Stymphalia Lake; he cleaned King Augea’s s land of the manure from his countless herds of cattle ; he captured the wild bull of Marathon and the man-eating horses of Diomedes. king of Thrace; he stole the girdle of Hippolyta from the Queen of the Amazons . the bulls of the three-bodied giant Geryon and the golden apples of the Hespe rides; and also brought the three-headed Cerbe rus. the terrible dog that guarded Hades. up from the Underworld.
These labours were not Heracle’s only achievements. During his travels he performed other brave deeds. because he always wanted to help people . When he finally died , he was elevated to Mount Oly mpus near his father. There he married Hebe, the goddess of youth, and finally reconciled with Hera.
Theseus was the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens, but it took him a long time to discover this. He spent his childhood with his mother, Aethra, in the palace of his grandfather, Pittheus, king of Troezen. When the time was right Aethra revealed who his father was and Theseus set off for Athens carrying the proof of identity that Aegeus had left behind: his sandals and sword.
On the way Theseus showed his worth by killing dangerous robbers such as the terrible Sinis, who used to tie travellers to the tops of two pine trees he had bent down and then release them so that his poor victims were torn in two. When he arrived in Athens, already illustrious, his father recognised him and named him as his heir.
As prince, Theseus travelled to Crete and slew the man-eating Minotaur. Later, as king, he played a leading role in two great mythical battles: with the centaurs and with the Amazons. The first broke out when the centaurs, half human and half horse, were invited to the wedding of the king of the Lapiths, Pirithous. They got drunk and attempted to seize the bride and the other Lapith women. Theseus, a friend of the groom. helped his hosts to calm the unruly guests . The second battle took place in Athens, after the capture of Antiope. the Queen of the Amazons . Theseus had fallen in love with her and had brought her from her far-off land to Athens to marry her. Enraged and armed to the teeth, the Amazons arrived to take revenge but were defeated. and Antiope herself was killed.
Theseus had many other adventures even going to the underworld together with Pirithous phone, the beloved wife of Hades. For the Athenians, however, not just a great hero, the second most important after Heracles, a good and wise ruler, a model of good judgement and virtue.
Jason grew up on Mount Pelion in the cave of the wise centaur Chiron. His father Aeson, the lawful heir of the throne of lolcus. had sent him there in secret. fearing that his brother. Pelias. who had violently seized power from him. would harmhim. When he reached the age of twenty, Jason a handsome young man with long blonde hair like Apollo, set off for lolcus to claim the throne and his inheritance.
His cunning uncle, Pelias, pretended to receive him warmly and told him that he would give him everything that was his due if he could bring back a treasure, the Golden Fleece, from far-off Colchis, on the Black Sea. In this way, he hoped to rid himself of Jason forever. His nephew, sure of himself. accepted.
And so Jason became the leader of the Argonauts, an expedition by the Greeks that contained myth, elements of fairy-tale and tales told by terrified sailors of moving rocks . beasts and monsters lurking in the sea. It also reflected distant memories of Greek campaigns to colonise the Black Sea.
With the help of the goddess Athena. he built a ship. the Argo, which was sturdy, light and marvellously fast. On its prow. the goddess wedged a piece of wood from the sacred oak tree of Dodona. which spoke and made prophecies. In addition to Jason, the crew included great heroes. some with unique powers. such as Orpheus. the famed singer whose music could enchant wild beasts and even rocks and trees .
The trip was crowned with success. The worthy and fortunate Argonauts survived tempests. adversity and every kind of obstacle. In Colchis. although its king, Aeetes, did not want to give up the Golden Fleece, Jason succeeded in taking it from him. There, of course, he also met Medea, the kin,g s daughter and a witch, who fell in love with him the moment she saw him.
Jason returned in triumph to lolcus with two valuable trophies, the Golden Fleece and Medea . The witch . now his wife, murdered Pelias through trickery but Jason gave up the throne and together with Medea and their two children went to live in Corinth. at the Palace of King Creon .
In Corinth. however. the tale took a tragic tu rn. Jason fell in love with Creo,n s daughter. Glauce. and decided to marry
her. In vain. Medea reminded him of the oaths they had exchanged but Jason ordered her to leave the city. In her rage, she sent Glauce an enchanted gown that enveloped her in flames. killing her. and then murdered her own child ren. Finally, she imperiously climbed onto a fiery chariot drawn by winged dragons sent by her grandfather Helios. and disappeared over the horizon.
As for Jason, some say that he burnt to death with Glauce, others that he hanged himself. and still others that the stern of the rotting Argo fell on his head and killed him while he was sleeping beneath it
The most tragic of all the heroes of Greek mythology was Oedi pus . The story began when Laius. the king of Thebes. received a prophecy that he should remain childless because his son would kill him. marry his mother and bring untold disasters on the city. The fearful Laius kept away from his wife Jocasta. but one night she got him drunk and enticed him into her bed . Thus a son was born but his father pierced his ankles with golden chains and gave him to a shepherd to abandon on the mountain . However. the shepherd took pity on the child and took him to the palace of Polybus . king of Co rinth. Polybus called him Oedipus. which means “the one with swollen feet “. because his feet been deformed by the injury, and adopted him.
Oedipus had a carefree upbringing in Corinth. until he learnt of the terrible prophecy. Believing himself to be the son of Polybus. he left the city to avoid his fearful fate . On the way, however. due to a misunderstanding, he killed Laius . He also slew the Sphinx. a winged monster with the head of a woman and the body of a lion. which devoured passers-by. His dispatching of the Sphinx led him to Thebes. where . in reward. he was given the hand of Jocasta in marriage.
Oedipus had thus killed his father and married his mother. with whom he had four children, Antigone. lsmene. Eteocles and Polyneices . By chance. again. as with everything in his li fe. he learnt the truth and understood that there is no escaping what fate has written. Full of horror. Jocasta rushed to her room and hanged herself. And Oedip us. unable now to face the world, pulled the brooches from her dress and stuck them in his eyes . Years later. as a blind old man. a guest of king Theseus in Athens. he miraculously disappeared from the face of the earth.
The fate of his children was similarly tragic. Eteocles and Polyneices fought over the throne of Thebes and were killed. Antigone was buried alive by her uncle, Creon. because she defied his order and gave burial rites to the dead Polyneices. And lsmene died at the hand of the terrible Tydeus in the temple of Athena during the siege of Thebes. when her two brothers fought one another.
Many heroes were said to be demigods. the offspring of a mortal parent and a god, as in the case of Heracles, for example, or Theseus, who some believed was the son of Poseidon. Another great demigod hero was Perseus .
Perseus was born in a state of imprisonment. A prophecy given to his grandfather, Acrisius, king of Argos, said that he would be killed by his grandson. The king thus hid his daughter, Danae. from the face of the earth in a cellar. However, Zeus saw her, fell in love with her and approached Danae by transforming himself into a shower of gold so that he could slip into her prison. The result of their union was Perseus.
As soon as Acrisius realised what had happened, he shut Danae and the newborn baby in a large wooden chest and threw them into the sea. Mother and child were saved when they were washed up on the Aegean island of Seriphos. Once Perseus had grown to manhood, he slew the fearsome Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, who were monstrous sisters with snakes for hair. the teeth of a wild boar and golden wings. By accident. he also killed his grandfather Acrisius. thus confirming the prophecy.
Another great hero in greek mythology was Bellerophon. the grandson of Sisyphus. the king who was punished in the Underworld by being forced to roll a great boulder uphill only to see it roll to the bottom again for all eternity. Mounted on the winged horse Pegasus. Bellerophontravelled as far as Lycia and killed the Chimaera. a wild monster with the head of a lion. the body of a goat in the tail of a snake. However like his grandfather Sisyphus. he came to a bad end . Through arrogance, he wanted to fly to Mount Olympus, but Pegasus threw him and he fell to earth. After that, Bellerophon wandered all alone, his mind unhinged, shunned by gods and humans alike.
Texts: Katerina Servi – archaeologist-museologist. writer
Translation, Texto Lexikopoleio Single Member Ltd
G & A Mamidakis Foundation