K.B. Black

A hundred words

Short bits on mythology, writing or miscellaneous posts to start your day right

You & the Heroes of Old

Reading Time: ~10 minutes


You and the Heroes of Old

A common theme indulged by many fables and myths revolves around the way that the hero manages the shortcomings of their own character. Often, the hero’s internal struggle is framed withing the societal norms that stem from and create contemporary morality. Ancient mythology and folklore usually present these shortcomings as obstacles to be overcome by the hero, rather than an integral part of their character. This article is Part 1 of the comparison between old and current heroes.

What is a character flaw?

Simple. Anything that drives the character to diverge from the “righteous path” of honour, integrity, goodwill, kindheartedness, fairness; injustice, scheming, dishonor, greed, lust to name a few of them. The old hero made the choice between the two paths early on in his adventure.

Hercules, for example, made his choice when he was eighteen years old. He was about to graduate from his physical training, and had already discovered the powers that his demigod nature bestowed upon him. Acknowledging that his superhuman strength meant that he could have everything his heart could desire, Hercules found himself in front of a moral dilemma: “Is this divine talent to be put under the service of the general good, or do I use it to claim riches and power for myself?” Of course, either choice would be perfectly safe for Hercules. His powers were his and his only, and noone could claim that he use or abuse them but himself.

Of course, this dilemma is of extreme significance with regards to mythological archetypes, so the Poet had to address it. The story goes thus: Hercules had just completed his training, when he took a stroll out in the Greek wilderness. He walked for quite some time through the dense pinewoods, when he realized that he was lost. He walked a bit further, until he reached a narrow dirtroad, which he followed up to the point where the path split in two. The sun god Helios had driven his flaming chariot far across the celestial sphere, allowing his lover Selene to ride through the night sky. When Hercules peaked across the crossroads, trying to discern if anything lay at the end of the two paths, a magic mist fell down and covered everything under a thick, gray shroud. Hercules, not knowing what to do, sat on the crossroads for some time, unsure over which path he should follow. Then, a thunderous noise echoed in the distance. Hercules lifted his head up, and saw that the mist had dispersed up to a short distance, and spotted two unnaturally tall women walking towards him, each from a different path.

The first woman wore a basic mantle and simple sandals. Her face was well defined and perfectly clean and her gaze was serious and inquiring. She was slender in body-shape and calm in her manners. The second woman was dressed in expensive silks, with gold and silver chains holding giant rubies hanging all over her. Her face was painted in bright colors so as to accentuate her beauty, and her gaze was promiscuous and inviting. She was luscious in body-shape, and extremely theatrical in her manners. The second woman picked her pace up, so that she would be the first to get to Hercules.

And so it happened. The second woman stood right next to the hero and told him: “My beautiful and strong Hercules, I understand that you are pondering what kind of life you should lead from now on. If you follow me, I promise you that your life will be filled with pleasures, and you will never need to lift a finger. If you see something you want, you can just grab it out of its owners hands, and he will not be able to do anything to take it back. You will only live for pleasure, without a care in the world.” The path which she pointed towards was wide and flat, with multiple fountains and ample shade under which he would rest. In the far distance, a day’s walk from where he was, a rich city was having some sort of celebration.

Hercules listened with patience, and then asked the woman: “Who are you woman?”

To which she replied: “My friends call me happiness, my enemies call me Evil.”

The second woman finally reached Hercules and talked to him: “I come to tell you that I know your parents, and that I have learned how you were brought up. I do not come to you with ill-intent and bent on deception, neither will I promise you effortless gains and constant pleasure. What I can do though, is allow you to live life the way the Gods intended it to be. Follow me, and you will be met with pain, suffering and strife; you will have to tend to those around you, and in turn they will tend to you. You will have to labor for your people, if you want to see them make progress.” The path she proposed was narrow and steep, ridden with thorned bushes and dangerously sharp rocks, with an ominous dark forest rising just before the line of the horizon.

“See how hard and toiling is the task she puts before you Hercules?” Evil commented, garnering a strict look on behalf of the other woman. Hercules did not ask her to identify herself, as he recognized her as Virtue from her arguments. Of course, he followed her instead of Evil, and became one of the most renown heroes of all time.

What is important to note though, is that Hercules resolves his moral dilemma already, from the start of his hero’s journey (if not from the moment he was born, when he protected his baby brother from two snakes that Hera had sent to kill them both). The moral argument that is conveyed though the hero is not at all ambiguous or debatable. On the contrary, the morality of pleasure-seeking is dully rejected and framed as Evil from the get-go, and Virtue is selected as the hero’s moral compass in the aftermath of a singular event. The hero is not faced with a nemesis that, at the cusp of final victory, implores the hero to realize how much they have in common, tempting the hero to switch sides; morals are absolute and unwavering, the true immovable cornerstone of the rest of the adventure. Modern heroes, in antithesis, are locked in a perpetual struggle to decide between different sets of values, sometimes indulging in primal urges for power, riches and lust. Nowadays, it is a common plot device to have heroes turn villain or engage in intra-Good wars.

This artistic divergence can be explained in a multitude of ways. Perhaps the ancient Greek world had reached solid decisions over what was considered Good and Evil, while our current societies are struggling to find the balance they lost over the course of the last century, where the European motherland was sacked by two massive, and godless, wars. While the physical damages caused by bombing, pillaging and slaughtering have long been mended, the psychic wounds have not been tended to, leaving us in a state of void and denial (modern heroes will be a future part of the series, subscribe to be notified when it is published).

The myth holds it that Hercules then married, and had children. Hera, however, seeing that Hercules was the living proof of Zeus’ infidelity, sought revenge. She inflicted him with a spell of madness, driving him to brutally murder his wife and children as presented in Euripedes’ work titled “Ηρακλής Μαινόμενος (Hercules Raging)”.

Hercules had not done anything reprimandable prior to receiving punishment. Hera sought to punish him as a proxy for Zeus’ infidelity, and that was it. As the gods’ power is considered absolute in ancient Greek mythology, the half-mortal Hercules could not have done anything to resist Hera’s spell. Like Job (Book of Job), Hercules was impacted by divine rage that cannot be justified in terms of the mortal world, but whose motives are beyond human consciousness; rather they serve the purpose of satisfying the divine ego (amending the affront in the case of Hera, and proving omnipotence in the case of Yahweh). The horrible crime committed is not to be attributed to Hercules; he was simply the tool that carried the gruesome task out. Hercules is the weapon of murder. Can the weapon be held responsible? Of course not. It is an inanimate object, put to work by the wielder, rather than its own free will.

Still, Hercules took it upon him the massive task of amending the evil his own hands brought upon the world. He visited the Oracle at Delphi (the ruins of the Oracle’s temple stand to this day), and was told that, in order to purge himself, he would have to complete twelve labors, to be decided by king Euristheas of Mycinae and Tyrinth (who feared and loathed Hercules for his half-divine nature). Even though he was not to be held accountable for the heinous crime, he assumed responsibility to cure the Evil; meanwhile, Hera was enjoying nectar and ambrosia in Olympus (the mountain-home of the gods).

If Hera’s power is absolute, so is Hercules’ morality; he does not seek refuge in the argument that the murder is to be accounted to overwhelming divine influence, but, seeing that the gods are entities untouched by human notions such as justice, he takes the full responsibility upon himself.

With this single motion, he cancels Hera’s plan entirely. He may have been destroyed as a normal man; he chooses to be reborn as a hero. The gods may be superior to man in all aspects, but one: morality. Man cannot hope to challenge their omnipotence through brute force, nor their omniscience through mere cunning. His only weapon is Morality. Hercules does not scream towards Olympus (the seat of the gods). He recognizes that bad things happen, bad decisions are taken, and that no matter what brought them about, it is still up to Man to make the world right again. This is the skeleton key that can crack any question they present him with. Punish him, break his bones, make him go to hell and back. Man can still choose to make his own destiny no matter what.

The archetypal hero of old is not morally ambiguous. Rather, his journey through the “dark forest” (as J. Campbell called the scene of the adventure) is filled with enemies that threaten to overpower him. Monsters like the ever-regenerating Lernean hydra, the feral Nemean lion, or the desperate titan Atlas do not pose direct questions of moral quality and demanding answers. They are, on the contrary, tests to the hero’s strength and cunning. These labors (to be examined closely in the next installment), describe the spiritual stages that the hero has to go through if he is to elevate himself to Olympus.

Much like Hercules, we are often the victim of influence that moves us beyond control. Hercules is the paragon of the human race: the golden ιχώρ (divine blood) of the divine king Zeus flows through his veins, mixing with the normal scarlet blood of everyday Man. If he fails to resist the influence, the rest of us hold no chance. We can be certain that we will suffer divine wrath, and that catastrophes will occur throughout our lives.

Most, however, choose to scream to the gods. “I had a rough childhood”, “My lover did not love me enough”, “I never knew the economy would change”. The gods take many forms when they seek to destroy us. What does the paragon do? He takes control. Yes, you had a rough childhood; yes, your lover did not love you enough; yes, you couldn’t have known the economy would change. Yes, you suffered divine wrath. Is screaming to the gods going to improve anything? Definitely not. Salvation requires that you accept the wrath, and perish. Then, once nothing remains of your self but ash and dust, you have the duty to rise again as a hero.

Liked this article? You will probably enjoy Myth and The Decline of Religion