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.
Heroism Quotes in Mythology
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.
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.
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.
Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s car,
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.