Greek Mythology

Greek Heroes

The Greek heroes were the most powerful mortal men and women of myth. They slew monsters, built cities, and fought great wars, achieving a level of fame that sometimes rivaled that of the gods.

By Avi KapachLast updated on Nov. 20th, 2021
Greek Heroes Hero
  • When was the “Age of Heroes”?

    The ancient Greeks believed that there had been an “Age of Heroes” in the remote past. They usually dated this period to what is today called the Greek Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1100 BCE).

  • Were all heroes demigods?

    Many of the most famous Greek heroes—including Heracles, Perseus, and Achilles—were “demigods,” mortals born from the union of a mortal and an immortal. But there were also many important heroes—including Cadmus, Jason, and Odysseus—who were not demigods.

  • Did heroes become gods after they died?

    Many heroes were worshipped through “hero cult” after they died. A few of them were believed to have received a special afterlife for their remarkable deeds, spending eternity in the Fields of Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed. But very few actually became full gods (the notable exceptions being Heracles, Asclepius, and the Dioscuri).

Hovering somewhere between mortals and gods, the Greek heroes were larger-than-life figures whose adventures and sufferings defined the mythical period. Yet the concept of “hero” is difficult to pin down. The ancient Greek word hērōs (ἥρως) did not always have a consistent meaning, even in antiquity: the same word could refer to distinguished warriors, to those who died in battle, or to revered ancestors and kings.

The Greeks saw the “Age of Heroes” as transitional, standing between an earlier period in which gods and immortal giants inhabited the world and the current “Age of Iron,” defined by toil and corruption. It was believed that after the Greek heroes died out, many were granted a blissful afterlife in the Field of Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed.

Though each Greek hero was distinct, they tended to share certain characteristics. They were always mortal, though many had a divine parent or ancestor; they were almost always distinguished by their remarkable valor and military accomplishments; many were great inventors or founders of cities; and they were usually closely associated with death, boasting famous tombs or distinctive myths about their demise.1

1Despite these shared qualities, an exact definition of the Greek “hero” remains elusive. Indeed, we must distinguish between the religious definition of the term and the literary or mythological one. 

The religious definition is relatively straightforward: a “hero” was anybody who received worship through “hero cult.”2 In this capacity, heroes were looked upon as powerful and even semi-divine ancestors who could act as benevolent helpers (or dangerous avengers) to their living descendants. The heroes with the widest appeal—most notably Heracles—were regarded as Panhellenic (that is, common to all the Greeks), while others were more local. But heroes never became full-fledged gods, except in extraordinary cases; the only ones to ever ascend to the level of the gods were Asclepius, the Dioscuri, and Heracles.

However, this religious definition of the “hero” does not always align with how the term was used in ancient mythological texts; it is at once too broad and too narrow. On the one hand, there were many Greek mythical figures who were recipients of hero cult yet failed to exhibit the typical qualities of the hero (divine parentage, military accomplishment, etc.); on the other hand, some mythical figures who did display typical heroic qualities do not seem to have enjoyed a hero cult.

This article has devised a working definition of the literary (as opposed to the religious) Greek hero—the hero as portrayed in ancient mythological narratives. To make the cut, he (or she) must have accomplished one or more of the following feats:

  1. The hero has killed monsters (e.g., Heracles, Perseus, Bellerophon)

  2. The hero has founded a city, kingdom, or dynasty (e.g., Cadmus, Perseus, Pelops)

  3. The hero has invented a new technology or trade (e.g., Asclepius, Aristaeus)

  4. The hero has participated in one or more “heroic” expeditions of a military or athletic nature, of which the most important were:

    1. The Voyage of the Argonauts (e.g., Jason, the Dioscuri, Heracles)

    2. The Calydonian Boar Hunt (e.g., Meleager, Atalanta)

    3. The Theban Wars (e.g., the Seven against Thebes, the Epigoni)

    4. The Trojan War (e.g., Achilles, Odysseus, Hector)

Using this (admittedly imperfect) definition, we can endeavor to list the great heroes of ancient Greek myth and literature.

List of Greek Heroes

References

Notes

  1. These (and other) qualities of Greek heroes have been much discussed by scholars: see esp. Angelo Brelich, Gli eroi greci: Una problema storico-religioso (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1958), Lewis Richard Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), and, more recently, Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). For a comparative approach to the concept of “hero” (not specific to ancient Greece), see Fitzroy R. S. Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London: Methuen, 1936) and Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon, 1949).

  2. Water Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 203–8; Robert Parker, “Greek Religion,” in The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, ed. John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 248–68, at 250.

Citation

“Greek Heroes.” Mythopedia. Accessed on December 23, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/greek-heroes

About the Author

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Avi Kapach

Scholar and Educator

Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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