Heroes & Gods and the Heroic Ideal
The hero and the heroic ideal are central themes in ancient Greek literature, particularly in epic poetry. The concept of the hero has evolved over time and has had a significant impact on Western culture.
Using the Homeric epics as the defining texts, the epic hero embodies the ideal of excellence (arete) in all aspects of life. The hero is often a warrior who possesses exceptional physical strength, courage, and skill in battle. However, the hero is also expected to possess intellectual and artistic skills, as well as moral virtues such as justice, wisdom, and compassion. Epic heroes are members of the aristoi or the noblest members of society, and they received the finest education and cultural development, know as paideia. Epic heroes were expected to possess not only physical strength and prowess but also intellectual and artistic skills. The education of heroes was seen as a lifelong process, and heroes were expected to continue their development throughout their lives. The ideal hero strives to be a well-rounded individual who embodies the highest ideals of ancient Greek culture.
The epic hero has a long history in ancient Greek literature, dating back to the Homeric epics, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. These two epics are among the earliest surviving examples of Greek literature and have had a profound impact on Western culture. The heroes in these epics, Achilles and Odysseus, are still celebrated today for their heroic deeds and noble qualities.
In epic poetry, the hero is often defined by his or her relationship to the concept of timē. Timē is an ancient Greek term that refers to honor or esteem, particularly in relation to social status and reputation; think of it as family honor. The hero earns timē through various means such as displaying physical prowess in battle, demonstrating moral virtue, or acquiring material wealth. Timē may be inherited through one’s family or lineage, as social status was highly stratified in ancient Greek society. Timē is central to the narrative of the Iliad, as Achilles’ decision to withdraw from battle is driven in part by his anger at having his timē threatened by Agamemnon.
The concept of arete is also central to the heroic ideal in epic poetry. Arete is an ancient Greek term that refers to excellence or virtue. The hero is expected to embody arete in all aspects of life, including physical prowess, intellectual skill, and moral virtue. The hero’s pursuit of arete is a lifelong process that involves constant self-improvement and personal growth.
Arete is often displayed through aristeia, or the moment in an epic poem when a hero experiences a period of exceptional valor or excellence in battle. This can often be seen as a defining moment for the hero, and it is often the culmination of their training, skill, and courage. In many ways, aristeia represents the ultimate expression of the heroic ideal, as it embodies the hero’s ability to rise above their ordinary limitations and achieve greatness in the face of adversity. Epic poetry celebrates this quality as a symbol of the hero’s noble character and their willingness to risk everything for the sake of their people or their cause.
Examples of aristeia can be found throughout Greek epic poetry, including in the Iliad, where heroes such as Achilles, Diomedes, and Hector all experience moments of exceptional valor and skill in battle. These moments serve to highlight the hero’s unique abilities and character, and they often play a pivotal role in the hero’s overall journey and transformation.
The hero’s moment of exceptional valor and excellence in battle can often be seen as a double-edged sword, as it can lead to both great glory and tragic consequences, as is the case with Patroclus in the Iliad. His aristeia ultimately leads to his downfall, as he becomes too ambitious (hubris) and takes on Hector, the Trojan prince, who kills him in battle. While Patroclus is celebrated for his bravery and skill in battle, his death is a tragic loss for the Greeks and for his close friend, Achilles.
Similarly, in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus experiences his own moments of aristeia, but these moments are often tempered by the challenges and hardships he faces on his journey home. While Odysseus is celebrated for his cunning and bravery in battle, his journey is also marked by loss and tragedy, as he faces numerous obstacles and loses his men along the way.
In addition to timē and arete, the concept of kleos, which means “glory” or “renown,” plays a significant role in an epic hero’s motivation. Kleos is the lasting fame and reputation that a hero earns through their heroic deeds and accomplishments. It is the hero’s legacy, the stories and songs that are told about them long after they have passed. Kleos is closely tied to the hero’s pursuit of timē and arete, as it is the ultimate validation and recognition of their exceptional qualities and actions.
Kleos is not merely about personal fame or ego; it is deeply intertwined with the hero’s connection to their community and their role within society. The hero seeks kleos not only for his own glory but also to bring honor and pride to his family, his city-state, and his people. It is through kleos that the hero becomes a symbol of inspiration and a cultural icon, inspiring future generations to strive for greatness and embody the virtues and ideals upheld by the hero. For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus seeks kleos not only by surviving his perilous journey and returning home but also by reclaiming his rightful place as king of Ithaca and restoring order and prosperity to his kingdom. His adventures and triumphs are recounted by the bards, ensuring that his kleos will endure for generations to come.
Kleos is not without its complexities and challenges. The pursuit of glory can lead to acts of hubris, overstepping one’s boundaries and defying the gods. It can also result in personal sacrifices and hardships, as heroes often face immense trials and sufferings in their quest for kleos. Yet, the allure of kleos is powerful, as it represents the hero’s eternal presence in the collective memory and the admiration of future generations.
The concept of kleos in epic poetry reflects the human desire for immortality and the longing for a legacy that transcends individual mortality. It underscores the importance of heroism, bravery, and noble virtues as ideals worth pursuing. Ultimately, kleos serves as a reminder of the enduring power of the heroic ideal and the impact that exceptional individuals can have on shaping the course of history and inspiring others to strive for greatness.
The heroic ideal in epic poetry has had a lasting impact on Western culture. The concept of the hero has been celebrated in literature, film, and other forms of media—even sports. The archetype of the hero is still prevalent in modern culture, and heroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman are often seen as modern-day embodiments of the heroic ideal.
Role of the Gods
The gods play a significant and multifaceted role in epics, often serving as powerful and influential characters within the narrative. Their presence and actions shape the course of events, influence the lives of mortal heroes, and reflect the beliefs and values of the society in which the epic is rooted.
Divine Intervention: The gods frequently intervene in the affairs of mortals, either directly or indirectly, to guide or manipulate the course of events, often supplying a deus ex machina or miraculous outcome to some problem or situation. They can aid or hinder the heroic protagonist, bestowing blessings or curses, altering outcomes, and providing assistance or obstacles on their quests or battles. These interventions often underscore the themes of fate, destiny, and the relationship between gods and mortals.
Moral and Ethical Guidance: The gods serve as moral and ethical guides, embodying and promoting the values and virtues upheld by the society that produced the epic. They reward or punish characters based on their adherence to these values, emphasizing concepts such as honor, courage, loyalty, and justice. By aligning their actions with divine will, the heroes can achieve success and glory.
Symbolic Representations: The gods in epic poetry often represent abstract concepts or forces of nature. For example, Zeus in Greek mythology symbolizes divine authority and justice, Athena embodies wisdom and strategic warfare, and Poseidon represents the power of the sea. These symbolic representations add depth and complexity to the narrative, allowing for the exploration of larger philosophical, moral, and cosmic themes.
Epic Conflict and Drama: The gods’ interactions and conflicts among themselves mirror the conflicts faced by mortal heroes. Their rivalries, alliances, and disputes contribute to the overarching plot and create dramatic tension. The gods’ personal agendas, grudges, and power struggles often spill over into the mortal realm, impacting the lives of the epic’s characters and intensifying the stakes of their quests.
Metaphysical and Cosmic Order: The gods’ presence in epic poetry reinforces the belief in a metaphysical and cosmic order. Their actions and decisions reflect a hierarchical structure where the gods govern and manipulate the mortal world. This divine hierarchy serves as a reflection or parallel to the societal and political structures of the culture from which the epic originates.
Religious and Cultural Significance: Epic poetry often draws from religious beliefs and practices, weaving them into the narrative fabric of the poem. The gods in epic poetry represent the religious pantheon of the culture, and their worship and reverence are deeply embedded in the society’s cultural and spiritual traditions. The portrayal of the gods in the epic reinforces the cultural and religious identity of the audience, serving as a medium for cultural transmission and preservation.
- Kendrick, M. Gregory (2014). The Heroic Ideal: Western Archetypes from the Greeks to the Present. New York: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers.
- Lindberg, Tod (2015). The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern. New York: Encounter Books.
- Miller, Dean A. (2000). The Epic Hero. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP.
- Nagy, Gregory (2013). The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- See “The Heroic Ideal” for a more general discussion of the hero in non-Greek epics.
- While both kleos and timē are related to recognition and reputation, the key difference lies in their scope and focus. Kleos is specifically connected to the hero’s fame and how their heroic deeds are remembered and celebrated by others. It emphasizes the external impact and legacy of the hero’s actions. Timē, on the other hand, is a broader concept that encompasses not only the hero's reputation but also their social standing, honor, and the esteem they hold within their community.