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.
Despite 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.” 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:
The hero has killed monsters (e.g., Heracles, Perseus, Bellerophon)
The hero has founded a city, kingdom, or dynasty (e.g., Cadmus, Perseus, Pelops)
The hero has invented a new technology or trade (e.g., Asclepius, Aristaeus)
The hero has participated in one or more “heroic” expeditions of a military or athletic nature, of which the most important were:
The Voyage of the Argonauts (e.g., Jason, the Dioscuri, Heracles)
The Calydonian Boar Hunt (e.g., Meleager, Atalanta)
The Theban Wars (e.g., the Seven against Thebes, the Epigoni)
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
The strongest and arguably greatest of the ancient Greek heroes
Heracles was a son of the Greek Olympian Zeus, famous for performing the Twelve Labors. Noted for his physical strength and heightened masculinity, Heracles was usually depicted wearing a lion skin and wielding a giant club.View
Slayer of Medusa and legendary founder of Mycenae
Perseus, a son of Zeus, was one of the greatest early Greek heroes. Often called “Gorgon-slayer,” Perseus’ exploits included beheading Medusa, saving the princess Andromeda, and founding the city of Mycenae and the Perseid dynasty.View
The greatest of the Greek heroes who fought at the battle of Troy
Achilles, often called “swift-footed” or “brilliant,” was a demigod and one of the greatest warriors of Greek mythology. During the Trojan War, Achilles was instrumental in the Greeks’ mission to retrieve Helen.View
The craftiest of the Greek heroes, known for his long and arduous wanderings
Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” was a Greek king famous above all for his cunning. After helping the Greeks conquer Troy, Odysseus wandered the world for ten years trying to get back home to his beloved wife and son.View
Leader of the Greek army during the Trojan War
Agamemnon, a powerful king of Mycenae, led the Greek army to victory in the Trojan War. A ruthless man who would stop at nothing to achieve his ambitions, he killed his own daughter to get to Troy and was eventually murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.View
The founding hero of Thebes
Cadmus, an eastern prince, was the founder and first king of the Greek city of Thebes. Throughout his storied life, Cadmus wandered far and wide, fought monsters, and was finally transformed into a serpent.View
Fearsome race of warrior women who lived near the Black Sea
The Amazons were formidable warrior women, said to be descended from the Greek god of war, Ares. They served as worthy adversaries for many of the greatest Greek heroes, including Heracles, Bellerophon, Theseus, and Achilles.View
Hero of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur
Theseus was an Athenian hero who defeated and killed the Minotaur. As king of Athens, he expanded the city’s power and perfected its government. In later Greek history, Theseus came to symbolize the greatness of Athens.View
The divine twins of Sparta who sailed with the Argonauts
Castor and Polydeuces, often known as the Dioscuri, were the sons of either the Spartan king Tyndareus or Zeus, the king of the gods. They grew into some of the greatest heroes of their time, taking part in such exploits as the voyage of the Argonauts and the Calydonian Boar Hunt. They were worshipped as gods after their death.View
Amazon queen whose famous girdle was taken by Heracles
Hippolyta was a queen of the Amazons and the owner of a renowned girdle. She fought Heracles when the hero came to her kingdom to steal the girdle.View
Amazon queen carried off by Theseus
Antiope was one of the queens of the Amazons, a race of warrior women who lived near the Black Sea. After she was carried off by the Athenian hero Theseus, the Amazons sailed across the sea and invaded Athens in order to get her back.View
King of Thebes who killed his father and married his mother
Oedipus, son of Laius and Jocasta, was a king of Thebes celebrated for defeating the fearsome Sphinx. He suffered a famous downfall, however, when he discovered that he had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.View
Hero-physician who became the god of medicine
Asclepius, son of Apollo, was the most important of the Greek hero-physicians. So skilled that he could even heal the dead, Asclepius was killed by the gods, only to ultimately become a god himself.View
Greek hero of the Trojan War known for his immense size and strength
Ajax the Greater was a Greek hero who hailed from the island of Salamis. Renowned for his great size and strength, he was one of the most formidable of the Greeks who fought at Troy, regarded as second only to Achilles.View
The fleet-footed heroine of Greek mythology
Atalanta, a female hero of Greek mythology, proved herself more than equal to her many male counterparts. A skilled hunter and warrior, Atalanta distinguished herself among the Argonauts and drew first blood during the Calydonian Boar Hunt.View
Tamer of Pegasus and slayer of the Chimera
Bellerophon was a son of Poseidon whose heroic exploits spanned Greece and Asia Minor. Riding into battle atop the immortal winged steed Pegasus, Bellerophon attained fame as the slayer of the Chimera and other vicious foes.View
The doomed protector of Troy, slain by Achilles
Hector was a prince of Troy renowned for his bravery, military skill, and sense of duty. During the Trojan War, he defended his city until he was slain by the Greek hero Achilles.View
Renowned Greek hero and the leader of the Argonauts
Jason was a Greek hero from Iolcus in northern Greece who led the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. During their adventures, Jason and the Argonauts tamed the sea, travelled to exotic eastern lands, and enlisted the help of the witch Medea, whom Jason later married.View
Prince of Calydon who led the Calydonian Boar Hunt
Meleager, son of Oeneus, was a prince of Calydon in Aetolia. A powerful warrior, an Argonaut, and (according to some traditions) the lover of the heroine Atalanta, Meleager was best known for his role in the Calydonian Boar Hunt and his death at the hands of his own mother.View