Greek Hero

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The Hero

G.J. Riley (One Jesus, Many Christs. 1997:39ff) has suggested the following characteristics of the hero in ancient folk lore.

  • Divine Genetics & Virgin Births
  • Remarkable Talents
  • Interwoven Destinies
  • The Trap of Fate and Freewill
  • Divine Enemies
  • Rulers as Human Enemies
  • The Test of Character
  • Bait in a Trap
  • Early Death in the Midst of Life
  • Prize of Immortality
  • Dead Hero as Protector of the Living
  • Heroes as Examples

Genetics & Virgin Births

  • as a class heroes were properly the offspring of divine and human parents
  • most often a virgin human mother and a male deity as father

Remarkable Talents

  • offspring of divine-human liaisons were gifted: prowess, or strength, or beauty, or wisdom
  • divine lineage was always suspected for “normal” but notable persons
  • also acquired mortality (archetypal human condition) from human parent

Interwoven Destinies

  • hero was a kind of bridge between divine and human worlds
  • central players in divine plan to control balance of diké among humans

The Trap of Fate and Freewill

  • hero was heir to a more-than-human destiny, yet often caught by fate
  • trapped or ensnared by something beyond personal control
  • choice to die for principle and with honor could be a pivotal heroic event

Divine Enemies

  • divine parent (or a jealous rival) may turn against the hero
  • success and popularity can provoke divine envy

Rulers as Human Enemies

  • major human opponents usually rulers and kings
  • hero often a subversive element refusing unjust dictates of those in authority
  • sometimes stands as a symbol of abuse of power by authorities
  • ruler and city can suffer for their unjust treatment of the innocent hero

The Test of Character

  • some critical situation demonstrates the true character of the hero
  • not all heroes pass the test but suffering can result in learning

Bait in a Trap

  • fate of the hero can be part of a larger divine ploy
  • hero can suffer and even die as bait to catch and destroy the wicked

Early Death in the Midst of Life

  • heroes often have an early death
  • commonly a painful death in the prime of life

Prize of Immortality

  • skepticism about an afterlife was typical of Greek outlook
  • but heroes were assured a place of honor after death: the Elysian Fields

Dead Hero as Protector of the Living

  • the death of the hero was an ironic victory
  • after a faithful death the hero could protect own devotees as they faced the test
  • dead heroes offered protection and help in dire circumstances
  • cult of the heroes was most widespread religious activity in ancient world

Heroes as Examples

  • served as models, examples and ideals

These notes are based on G.J. Riley (One Jesus, Many Christs. 1997:39ff)