I am celebrating being in Greece this spring break with a few Student Series! blog posts related to the famed civilization of the Aegean Sea.
Close your eyes and picture a Greek hero. You know, one of those sandaled sword-fighters painted in full semi-divine glory on the side of an ancient vase. Nearly godlike physique? Check! Deadly weapon at the ready? Check! Curly hair flowing dramatically as he prepares to slay the monster? Check, check, and check! Now, let’s try something you might recognize a little better. Close your eyes again and picture a hero from a movie trailer you recently saw. The image that comes to mind might be a bit more gritty. Visibly flexed biceps beneath his khaki shirt? Check! Looking all tough with his weapons akimbo? Check! Steely eye and five-o’clock shadow glinting in the dim light as he chain saws his way through the zombie horde? You get the idea!
Everyone Needs A Hero
Heroism has been an enduring concept throughout the ages for obvious reasons-we love the idea. Who wouldn’t want to hear about the valiant deeds of those who take the challenge, do the impossible, and kick some serious butt? People are drawn to extraordinary circumstances-and the people who cause them. However, as monotheistic faiths have become more commonplace in our society with the good versus evil approach, the word “hero” nowadays is often interchangeable with “good guy.” And while yes, heroes are often “good,” we do happen to live in a world where “good” and “bad” means different things to different societies.
Greek Heroes: Close to the Gods
Traditionally, Greek heroes weren’t just anybody. They were usually of noble birth and, of course, as Greek as it gets; bonus points if the hero is also a demigod (so at least you have some explanation for his supernatural abilities). The agenda of a Greek hero was this: do the impossible, go where no man has gone before (while slaying everything in your path, of course), and prove your greatness. While some, like Odysseus, made it to the end of their respective tales, many heroes had a fatal flaw that came back to seal their doom. If the hero dies, at least make sure he dies in the most weird or over-the-top way possible (I’m looking at you, Herakles and Agamemnon.) The Greeks believed that death was the end of mortal being, but heroes were believed to live on in spirit. Their praises were sung at rituals in the form of kleos, elegies for fallen heroes, and the legends were passed down through generations, meaning that their heroic deeds were never truly forgotten.
But I Thought You Were My Hero???
Despite all the positive portrayals of these heroes and their near-godlike qualities, a lot of the things they did would be a one-way ticket to the dark side today, like Achilles of The Iliad. Achilles may have been portrayed as a good guy, but the fact that he withdrew into his tent to mope after the girl he was promised as a prize was taken (that alone probably raises a few eyebrows now) and refused to come out until he realized that the glory of fighting would be “wasted” on a bunch of random soldiers instead of an awesome demigod warrior like him. In other words, he’s basically a glory-addicted brat in shining armor. He’s really not that nice a guy-dragging around Hector’s corpse on the back of a chariot and only letting his father bury the body once he sees him grieve really doesn’t give him any hero points. Oh, and we can’t forget the fact that his favorite hobby was going on rapid-fire murder-fests. If The Iliad had been written today, Achilles would’ve been the villain and the only praise he’d be getting would be the “love to hate” variety.
Modern Heroes: Flawed Individuals
Greek heroes may have been empowered demigods and rough-and-tumble royals, but in a modern action flick, the hero can come from anywhere in society. He can be anyone from a military leader to an ordinary everyman who somehow acquires superpowers/combat skills. Like the lean, Hellene, fighting machines of yore, today’s action heroes also do the extraordinary, but not out of motivation to do the impossible. Modern heroes seek to protect others or merely revel in the thrill of combat. Their flaws tend to be more evenly combined with their virtues-and some of them are more on the flawed side. However, like the Greek heroes, today’s fearless film protagonists are also very much human, seeing as a lot of them also do things that would be considered morally unquestionable. For example, many of the superheroes in popular movies do thwart the villains and fight for the greater good, but at the same time, they sometimes betray others, defy the law, or cause collateral damage during the battles which presumably kills innocent civilians. (Heck, some action heroes are just as dishonest as the villains they fight!)
The modern hero is also similar to the Greek hero because both are well aware of one thing-they are mortals with a finite amount of time on Earth. They know that they may perish should they stand up to whatever threat comes their way-but they knew that, whatever happened, they had to fight bravely. In spite of whatever flaws they have, humans have always been fascinated with the tales of the not-exactly-idyllic hero. Maybe it’s because perfect protagonists with the bravery and unpredictability of a vanilla candle never stay interesting for long? Maybe it’s because we find a little of ourselves in these gritty good guys due to how much their struggles and flaws seem all too human?”
- Anti-Hero.” TV Tropes. Accessed December 16, 2016. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AntiHero
- Awana, Momi. “What Did the Ancient Greeks Value in a Hero?” Classroom. Updated June 26, 2018. http://classroom.synonym.com/did-ancient-greeks-value-hero-13474.html
- “The Heroic Outlook and the Greek World.” The History Guide. Accessed December 16, 2016. http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/heroic.html
- The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.