Greek Mortals

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.

Greek Heroes Hero

Top Questions

  • 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).

Overview

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]

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.”[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

  • Heracles

    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.

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    Heracles, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Perseus

    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.

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    Perseus, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Achilles

    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.

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    Achilles, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Odysseus

    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.

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    Odysseus, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Agamemnon

    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.

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    Agamemnon, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Cadmus

    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.

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    Cadmus, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Amazons

    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.

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    Amazons, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Theseus

    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.

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    Theseus, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Castor and Polydeuces

    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.

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    Castor and Polydeuces, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Hippolyta

    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.

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    Hippolyta, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Antiope (daughter of Ares)

    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.

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    Antiope, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Oedipus

    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.

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    Oedipus, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Asclepius

    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.

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    Asclepius, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Ajax the Greater

    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.

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    Ajax the Greater, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Atalanta

    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.

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    Atalanta, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Bellerophon

    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.

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    Bellerophon, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Hector

    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.

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    Hector, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Jason

    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.

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    Jason, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Meleager

    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.

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    Meleager, Greek Hero (3x2)
  • Orpheus

    Enchanting musician who sailed with the Argonauts

    Orpheus was the most famous musician of Greek mythology, whose songs were endowed with miraculous and superhuman power. Orpheus sailed with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece but was most famous for his tragic love of Eurydice.

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  • Penthesilea

    Amazon queen killed by Achilles in the Trojan War

    Penthesilea was the last of the great Amazon queens. During the tenth year of the Trojan War, she fought bravely alongside the Trojans before falling to the Greek hero Achilles.

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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

Kapach, Avi. “Greek Heroes.” Mythopedia, December 09, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/greek-heroes.

Kapach, Avi. “Greek Heroes.” Mythopedia, 9 Dec. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/greek-heroes. Accessed on 13 Jan. 2023.

Kapach, A. (2022, December 9). Greek Heroes. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/greek-heroes

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

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