Q) In what ways are Perseus and Heracles typical heroes? In what way are they not typical?
In the realm of Greek myth, it is the focus on heroes rather than of Gods themselves that humanises the myth. Although Gods may operate in the background it is the human traits such as worth, dignity and potential that holds the main focus. The heroes of Greek myth share certain characteristics or experiences. Some of these include a divine parent or ancestor, physical strength, a performance of seemingly “impossible feats” and an encounter with divine powers. Although the hero has his own characteristics, he will typically follow a traditional pattern throughout his life. Both the work of mythographer Lord Raglan and the Russian folkorist Vladimir Propp have identified characteristics of heroes. This paper will look at the characteristics of heroes, then by following the lives of both Perseus and Heracles show how they confirm to the pattern then differ from that of a typical hero.
The Greek heroes’ adventures follow a typical pattern. In the book by Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner titled Classical Mythology the pattern is broken down for us to follow. The hero is often born in an unusual or unnatural form. While still in infancy, the hero will survive an attempt on his life. The hero can quite often have two fathers, a divine real one and a mortal father figure. He will often face threats from the mortal father figure, which will lead to hostility. On reaching adulthood, the hero will either crave adventure or be sent on a mission that not only acts as a journey of discovery about himself, his society and universe but also to test his powers. In all cases, the hero is not expected to succeed. It is while on this quest that the hero will become isolated and must do battle with monsters or creatures and overcome almost impossible odds. To have success on his mission, the hero will often venture down to the Underworld or visit death in the face. It is here that the hero confronts the divine powers and gains a deeper insight to his relationship with the universe. Returning successful, having gained victory over his quest or a King, the hero will often be rewarded by the gift of marriage or a kingdom. By returning from the Underworld, the hero has experienced the whole life cycle, that of life, death and rebirth. It is this that reclaims his spiritual life and links him to the divine world.1 The mythological adventure of a hero may be summed up as found in Jason Cambell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces in the formula represented in the rites of passage as “seperation – initiation – return.”2 Campbell states “A hero ventures forth from the common day into a region of supernatural wonder : fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”3 The final trait found in many heroes is a trait that can also turn society against him. Having a compulsion for excess in times when society needs protection, the hero is no threat, however his cravings for love and companionship in times of peace can be the undoing of both himself and a threat to the society he is protecting. The hero can meet or cause a mysterious death.
Perseus was one of the first Greek heroes. He has a god as a father in Zeus and a mortal mother named Danae. His birth was unnatural. With an oracle telling Acrrisius, Danae’s father that a child of his daughter would kill him, Danae was locked in a tower away from men. Zeus, being attracted to her beauty came in the form of golden rain. After she had given birth, Acrisius locked mother and child in a chest and put them out to sea. They survived and washed ashore at Seriphus, were taken in by Dictys and raised amongst Dictys’ brother King Polydectes.4 This shows the first traits of the hero’s rite of passage. Perseus was born from one god as a parent, in an unusual method of conception and faced a...
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