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Themes and Colors
Fate Theme Icon
Pride and Hubris Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mythology, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Heroism Theme Icon

Heroism and the motif of the hero’s quest are important elements in Mythology, and represent one of the highest ideals of ancient Greek culture. As she moves through the stories, Hamilton paints a picture of the varieties of Greek and Roman heroism. Theseus is the Athenian hero, and the most “heroic” seeming to the modern reader, as he slays monsters but also institutes a democracy. Hercules shows what the rest of Greece found heroic, however: he is passionate but unintelligent, and often kills innocent people because of his uncontrollable strength. Hercules’s heroism consists of great deeds rather than good deeds; brute strength, self-confidence, and a simplistic but upright virtue are his most valued traits. Aeneas, the Roman hero, likewise exhibits the Roman values of strength, military prowess, and order. Many of the heroes do decidedly unheroic things as well, like Jason betraying Medea. Like the gods themselves, who can be cruel and childish, the heroes show that the Greeks often honored strength and song-worthy deeds over complex morality. When the later Greeks began to question the gods’ moral superiority, this was a sign that their idea of heroism had changed.

The “hero’s quest” is a recurring framework for many stories, notably Jason and Hercules. It usually involves a hero who is raised as an orphan, is given an impossible task that requires leaving home, and is offered the hand of a princess if he succeeds. Odysseus, the most famous “questor,” actually shares few motifs with the rest, as he is returning home instead of leaving it, and is already married and middle-aged.

Hamilton briefly discusses heroism in Norse mythology, even more solemn subject because of the morbid Norse worldview in which the universe is doomed at Ragnarok. Tragedy is unavoidable for Norse heroes, so the heroic man is one who dies bravely for a doomed cause. This also connects to the idea of Fate and the Greek stories of prophecies, as the tragic end is already foreseen, but true heroism is when the hero faces his own fate and still fights to the death for what is right.

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Heroism Quotes in Mythology

Below you will find the important quotes in Mythology related to the theme of Heroism.
Introduction to Classical Mythology Quotes

With the coming forward of Greece, mankind became the center of the universe, the most important thing in it… The Greeks made their gods in their own image. That had not entered the mind of man before.

Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamilton suggests in this passage that a central innovation of the "Greek miracle" was that the Greeks began to think of human beings as being important enough for their gods to be made in their own image. While in other cultures the gods had been inhuman, animal, or hybrid, the Greeks created gods who looked like humans and, more important, acted like humans--they were contradictory, fallible, and powerful. Hamilton posits this as an improvement on older mythologies that did not recognize the importance and power of humanity, but her formulation of the "Greek miracle" is not without its own biases. Hamilton writes that, "In Greece man first realized what mankind was," implying that Greek mythology reflects a truth that humans are at the center of the universe. While many people share that belief today, things like technology and the environmental movement have challenged the belief that humans are the most important and most powerful force in the universe. Furthermore, the fact that Hamilton makes these statements without really qualifying them or acknowledging alternative systems of belief seems dated and acknowledges her Eurocentric biases.


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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

This strange god, the gay reveler, the cruel hunter, the lofty inspirer, was also the sufferer… Like Persephone Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in other by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again… He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god. There was none other.

Related Characters: Hera, Dionysus, Persephone
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Dionysus, one of the two gods most relevant to the daily lives of humans, shares a central concern of mortals: death. Despite his divinity. Dionysus embodies a duality with which humans are familiar; he is someone of great joy, exuberance, and revelry, but also someone who experiences great suffering and even tragic perennial death. The implication of his life cycle seems to be the acknowledgement that there must be a balance in life between joy and sorrow, revelry and suffering, life and death. In Dionysus, this balance is also understood to be seasonal--Dionysus revels during the fertile months, and dies in Winter. This connects gods to humans to the earth; each must experience times of plenty and barrenness. This passage also shows the power of fate over the lives of the gods. Dionysus, though divine, cannot escape his yearly painful death, and he is also always reborn.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

The idea of the great adventure was delightful to Jason. He agreed, and let it be known everywhere that this would be a voyage indeed. The young men of Greece joyfully met the challenge. They came, all the best and noblest, to join the company… Hera was helping Jason, and it was she who kindled in each one the desire not to be left behind… but even at the price of death to drink with his comrades the peerless elixir of valor.

Related Characters: Hera, Jason
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at the beginning of Jason's quest for the golden fleece, in which Jason has decided to reclaim his kingdom from Pelias (who is fated to be killed by Jason). Pelias, knowing that Jason matches the description of his fated usurper, sends him on a hero's journey, hoping it will kill him. Here, at the outset, Jason is excited about the journey, despite its danger, which seems to show a heroic courage. This passage shows the social importance of the hero's journey in ancient Greece, as young men were eager to join Jason because of the "peerless elixir of valor." Each man wanted to prove himself as heroic in society and reap the admiration that bravery would bring. However, as in many ancient Greek hero's journeys, valor does not come without consequence. These men are ravaged by the obstacles they must confront, which shows that heroism, while highly valued, comes with serious consequences. 

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s car,
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.

Related Characters: Phaëthon
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is what the naiads inscribe on the tomb of Phaëthon after he is killed driving the Sun's chariot. Phaëthon, the mortal child of the Sun, is told by his divine father that he will grant any wish, and Phaëthon arrogantly asks to drive his chariot. Predictably, Phaëthon is killed because, as a mortal, he is unable to carry out this divine task without causing chaos and danger. This quote sums up the ancient Greek attitude towards heroism. As we saw with Jason, the ancient Greek culture rewarded deeds that were ambitious or powerful more than deeds that were unequivocally good, advisable, or even successful. Despite Phaëthon's failure--and the fact that his hubristic assumption that he could be equal to the gods got him killed--he is memorialized honorably for the scale of his ambition and daring. This story is somewhat unique in that the gods typically vengefully punish mortals for their hubris, but here their slaying of Phaëthon seemed necessary for everyone's safety. Despite the fact that Phaëthon was, perhaps, not even wrongly killed, he is still remembered as a hero simply for having done a stupid thing that was daring.

He lived happily thus for a long time; then he made the gods angry. His eager ambition along with his great success led him to think “thoughts too great for man,” the thing of all others the gods objected to. He tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. He believed he could take his place there with the immortals. The horse was wiser. He would not try the flight, and he threw his rider. Thereafter Bellerophon, hated of the gods, wandered alone, devouring his own soul and avoiding the paths of men until he died.

Related Characters: Bellerophon, Pegasus
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes after Bellerophon's successful hero's journey, in which he becomes Pegasus's rider and defeats all the obstacles that King Proetus requires. Hamilton indicates here that had Bellerophon been satisfied with his already outrageously good fortune, he could have remained happy and successful. But when Bellerophon decides to ride Pegasus to Olympus (revealing his hubristic assumption that he is fit to mingle with the gods, despite being a mortal), he angers the gods, Pegasus bucks him, and he lives out his life in misery. It's important to note that the hubris Bellerophon shows in attempting to reach Olympus is not his first prideful ambition of the story; wanting to be Pegasus's rider, for instance, is arrogant, as well as his facing all of Proetus's obstacles. However, hubris was only condemned when it was seen to affect the gods. This is revealing of ancient Greek morality; some kinds of arrogance were seen as boldness worthy of reward, while others were considered unacceptable and required vengeance. 

Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

The greatest hero of Greece was Hercules… He was what all Greece except Athens most admired. The Athenians were different from the other Greeks and their hero therefore was different. Theseus was, of course, bravest of the brave as all heroes are, but unlike other heroes he was as compassionate as he was brave and a man of great intellect as well as great bodily strength… But Hercules embodied what the rest of Greece most valued… Hercules was the strongest man on earth and he had the supreme self-confidence magnificent physical strength gives. He considered himself on an equality with the gods – and with some reason.

Related Characters: Theseus, Hercules
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout much of Greek mythology, we see a complicated cultural appreciation of heroism and bravery. Unless a mortal crossed the line into trying to be godlike, any act of ambition or daring was admired, regardless of whether it was unkind, reckless, or even arrogant. However, this passage shows that the culture of Athens was slightly different from the rest of Greece. Greece admired Hercules above all (who was the strongest man alive, despite being somewhat stupid and making poor choices). By contrast, the people of Athens idolized Theseus, who was the "bravest of the brave," but whose courage was tempered by intelligence and compassion. Hamilton suggests here that Athens had a more sophisticated, nuanced, and even healthier culture of heroism than Greece overall.

It's also worth noting that Hercules transgressed the sacred boundary present in most other stories—considering himself equal to the gods—but the ancient Greeks did not themselves begrudge him that, or require the vengeance that the themes of Greek myth indicate he should receive. This suggests that the Greeks might have themselves been hungry to be equal to (or at least relate to) the gods, and thus eager to cheer someone who could do so without consequence. 

There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match.

Related Characters: Hercules
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at a moment when Hercules is at a friend's house whose wife has just died, but Hercules doesn't know about the tragedy so he behaves disrespectfully. When he realizes what happened, he makes amends by bringing his friend's wife back from Hades. Hamilton holds this story up as being exemplary of Hercules' character overall, and she insists that it showcases the characteristics that the Greeks most associated with him. Not all of these qualities are good--he is stupid and disrespectful and brutish--but, despite this, he is still considered an admired hero. This shows, again, the complexity of ancient Greek heroism. In many cases one simply had to be brave and ambitious to be heroic, not skilled or kind. This story does, however, show Hercules' innate desire to do good, which, perhaps indicates (since Hamilton cites this story as exemplary) that the Greeks saw kindness as ideal, even if not a required one, for heroism. Hercules' act of bravery in bringing his friend's wife back from the underworld is an act of contrition for his previous inappropriate behavior, which shows that he has a good heart, even if his stupidity often gets him into trouble.

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

“If I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.”

Nevertheless he yielded. His reputation with the Army was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.

“He dared the deed,
Slaying his child to help a war.”

Related Characters: Agamemnon, Iphigenia
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as the Greek warriors are headed to Troy to fight, and Artemis, angry that somebody killed one of her sacred deer, demands the sacrifice of the Greek leader Agamemnon's daughter as retribution. This is a story full of retribution, in fact--Agamemnon ultimately agrees to sacrifice his daughter because he is eager to get retribution against the Trojans for taking Helen from her husband, who is Agamemnon's brother. Agamemnon is also fated to perish at the hand of Clytemnestra, his wife, who is seeking vengeance for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter. So, in many ways, the story of the Trojan war is a story of the ways in which "justice" being pursued through vengeance only begets more and more violence. This is also an example of the gods being just as petty and cruel as the humans. Artemis worsens the bloodshed already inevitable due to war because of her petty need to inflict a disproportionate punishment on Agamemnon. Despite the heroic nature of brave men heading off to war, this story is not one that casts anyone in a particularly good light.

Priam, the King, and his Queen, Hecuba, had many brave sons to lead the attack and to defend the walls, one above all, Hector, than whom no man anywhere was nobler or more brave, and only one a greater warrior, the champion of the Greeks, Achilles. Each knew that he would die before Troy was taken… Both heroes fought under the shadow of certain death.

Related Characters: Achilles, Hector, Priam
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as the Greeks and Trojans begin to battle one another, and it describes the two most heroic soldiers: Hector on the Trojan side, and Achilles on the Greek side. These men are strong, brave, and good warriors, but their heroism has a different tone than the heroism we have previously seen. Achilles and Hector are tragic heroes because they are both destined to die during this war (according to prophecies), and they both fight anyway, though Achilles tries to shirk his fate for a while. As the role of fate in Greek mythology has made us come to expect, Achilles, despite his resistance to fighting, is compelled to fight and die anyway. Despite their knowledge of their own certain death, both heroes fight hard and do not let their knowledge of their fate take away their ability to care about their friends and communities. Achilles' and Hector's heroism is not a victory against fate, then, but it is certainly one against fatalism. 

Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Troy has perished, the great city.
Only the red flame now lives there.

The dust is rising, spreading out like a great wing of smoke,
And all is hidden.
We now are gone, one here, one there.
And Troy is gone forever.

Farewell, dear city.
Farewell, my country, where my children lived.
There below, the Greek ships wait.

Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

This comes at the end of Hamilton's description of the destruction of Troy, and is a quote from Euripides' play The Trojan Women. Though the Greeks were nearly defeated, their clever use of the Trojan horse allowed them to enter the city walls and win the war. However, this passage reflects that the Greeks did not stop at just winning the war--they ravaged Troy, massacring its people, enslaving the women and children, and destroying its legacy. The Greeks were not content with victory alone--they required vengeance, which was a cruelty and arrogance that the gods would ultimately punish them for. This passage is meant to show the tragedy, cruelty, and senselessness of war, and it's significant that Hamilton doesn't explain this in her own voice, but rather quotes an ancient text so we get a sense of the personal tragedy of its author (himself a Greek) looking upon the destruction of Troy. While the Greeks were technically heroic in war in that they fought bravely and successfully, this passage undercuts the way we understand Greek heroism by also forcing us to see the Trojan perspective, which was one in which the Greeks were guilty of excessive cruelty.

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

Aeneas, we are given to understand, married Lavinia and founded the Roman race – who, Virgil said, “left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.”

Related Characters: Aeneas, Lavinia
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at the end of Hamilton's narration of the story of Aeneas, the sole male survivor of the sack of Troy who goes on to become the founder of Rome. This story, which is the story of his hero's journey, is unique in the book because it is told from the Roman perspective rather than the Greek perspective, and it illustrates several differences between the two cultures. Perhaps the most salient difference here concerns the ideals of heroism. The Greeks generally measured heroism in terms of ambition and daring; Greek heroes were not always unambiguously good, and they were often punished for their misdeeds or arrogance, despite being widely admired as heroes. Aeneas, a Roman hero, causes a lot of trouble on his hero's journey, but is allowed unambiguous success afterwards, which would seem unlikely in Greek myth. This being the founding myth of the Roman empire, it also shows the cultural value placed by the Romans on strength and order above all else (including art and science, which the Greeks prized). In the context of the book, this representation of Roman culture comes off as being less morally complex and sophisticated than Greek culture, but also arguably more "just."

Part 5, Chapter 1 Quotes

“Slay the two who slew.
Atone for death by death.
Shed blood for old blood shed.”

And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.

Related Characters: Orestes
Page Number: 358
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes within a complex description of the familial curse affecting the House of Atreus. The story of Orestes is one example of a life consumed by this curse. The quote comes from an oracle (speaking in the voice of Apollo) who confirms Orestes' intuition that he must kill his mother to avenge his father, even though he knows that to do so will destroy him. This story makes us contemplate the senselessness and inevitability of vengeance. Because of old sins and violence, Orestes is doomed to repeat patterns of bloodshed even while he knows they will ruin him and beget more violence and despair. Even so, Orestes is considered brave because he carries out this task, despite knowing its end, because it is what is fated and it is what the gods will. On the one hand, Orestes is brave to do as he is asked without complaint or attempting to escape his fate, but on the other hand, Orestes kills his mother without much thought--usually an unforgivable sin. This is another example of the complex and even contradictory moral system of the ancient Greeks.

Part 5, Chapter 2 Quotes

“You knew my edict?” Creon asked. “Yes,” Antigone replied. “And you transgressed the law?” “Your law, but not the law of Justice who dwells with the gods,” Antigone said. “The unwritten laws of heaven are not for today nor yesterday, but from all time.”…

As she was led away to death, she spoke to the bystanders: -
“… Behold me, what I suffer
Because I have upheld that which is high.”

Related Characters: Antigone, Creon
Page Number: 388
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the climax of the story of Antigone, who defies Creon's unjust order not to honorably bury her brother, and is executed for her defiance. Antigone is a unique hero and her story is a unique tragedy in Greek myth. While heroism has often meant ambition and bravery regardless of goodness, Antigone sacrifices her life for what she sees to be justice and respect. Antigone is brave and visionary, but she is not unduly strong or blustering--she is a quiet and morally forceful heroine, which is uncommon in Greek myth. This is also a different kind of tragedy from the ones we've commonly seen before, in which a mortal defies the gods in some way, intentional or not, and is punished for it. Instead, in this story Antigone violates the laws of men in order to act in accord with divine justice, and she is still punished for it. The tragedy here is that divine justice is not being served, and Antigone, who stands up for divine justice to a powerful king, is not rewarded.

Part 6, Chapter 1 Quotes

He was a universal benefactor. And yet he too drew down on himself the anger of the gods and by the sin the gods never forgave. He thought “thoughts too great for man.” He was once given a large fee to raise one from the dead, and he did so… Zeus would not allow a mortal to have power over the dead and he struck Aesculapius with his thunderbolt and slew him.

Related Characters: Zeus, Aesculapius
Page Number: 414
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes in Hamilton's narration of the story of Aesculapius, the mortal son of Apollo who is an adept and generous doctor. Aesculapius is so skilled that he finds himself raising a man from the dead, seemingly from generosity more than hubris. However, the gods (predictably) are enraged that a mortal could have control over life and death (which the gods feel is their realm), and Zeus strikes Aesculapius dead. As we have seen several times before, however, Aesculapius's death at the hands of Zeus did not shame him in the eyes of mortals--he was honored as a hero (and even a demigod) rather than disregarded as a fool, which shows the Greek appetite for humans ambitious and daring enough to take on or rival the gods. This story also illuminates the uneven temperaments of the gods, who could not differentiate between genuine hubris and a good deed that accidentally transgressed a line. The slaying of Apollo's son further brings forth a cycle of senseless and destructive vengeance that seems hardly merited by Aesculapius's supposed transgression.

Part 7, Introduction to Norse Mythology Quotes

The gods know that a day will come when they will be destroyed. Sometime they will meet their enemies and go down beneath them to defeat and death… necessarily the same is true of humanity… The heroes and heroines of the early stories face disaster. They know that they cannot save themselves, not by any courage or resistance or great deed. Even so, they do not yield. They die resisting.

Page Number: 442
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamilton introduces Norse mythology by suggesting that the foundation of the Norse worldview was an acceptance by gods and mortals alike that one day they will all be defeated by their enemies. With this large-scale death looming over all of Norse myth, the ethical imperative--and the source of culturally-valued heroism--becomes to die in the midst of futile but noble resistance to their fate. Fate emerges here as a force similar to fate in Greek mythology; it's something more powerful than the gods whose inevitability anyone would be foolish to deny. However, like Hector and Achilles showed at Troy, it is also noble not to allow fate to drain a struggle of its meaning. Despite the pervasive understanding that fate will prevail, Norsemen and gods were only noble and heroic if they struggled against fate rather than yielding to it. Fate for the Greeks was less pervasive--only some were fated to tragic deaths. Here, the fated catastrophe of Norse myth presents a much darker worldview, one with fewer possibilities for joy, redemption, and lasting success.

Although the Norse hero was doomed if he did not yield, he could choose between yielding or dying. The decision was in his own hands. Even more than that. A heroic death, like a martyr’s death, is not a defeat, but a triumph. The hero in one of the stories who laughs aloud while his foes cut his heart out of his living flesh shows himself superior to his conquerors.

Page Number: 443
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage clarifies the power of fate, the definition of heroism, and the possibilities for redemption and honor within the bleak Norse worldview. Since all Norsemen and Norse gods were doomed, life's meaning was found in how one faced that doom--to give up was dishonorable, but to die resisting was, in a sense, to triumph. In Greek myth, death often came as a result of hubris or foolishness, but in Norse myth death is expected, so it is not, in itself, a sign that somebody has erred or showed weakness. Hamilton's example of the man who laughed while his heart was cut out shows that, essentially, heroism to the Norse was to accept your bleak fate without allowing that knowledge to break you. Hope and luck are not possible for the Norse, only courage in the face of certain doom. Norse heroism is, then, a contest of who can retain composure and courage in the face of catastrophe.

Part 7, Chapter 1 Quotes

Never shalt thou be stained by baseness.
Yet a day of doom shall come upon thee,
A day of wrath and a day of anguish.
But ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life.
And a nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurd.

Related Characters: Sigurd
Page Number: 451-452
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as Sigurd is on the way to Brynhild for the first time and he stops to ask a wise man to tell him his fate. Despite the dark talk of wrath and doom and anguish, this is actually the best possible fate a Norseman could anticipate. Sigurd knows that he's destined to die cataclysmically (because all Norse are), but the wise man confirms that Sigurd's fate is to die honorably and courageously, and that, because of his bravery and spirit, he will be the noblest of all the Norse. So Sigurd goes about his life of bravery, performing good deeds for others and facing trouble and danger with courage. He eventually is murdered, but he has done nothing to dishonor himself in the process, so he is remembered as a hero. This story is tragic in that, despite Sigurd's goodness and courage, he cannot escape a horrible fate, but it is also hopeful and optimistic within the Norse worldview because it represents the best of possible fates.