Mythos: The Heroic Age of Greece

Myth and the human story are one. Myth has served thousands of years as both origins that situate humanity in relationship with the cosmos and as an inspiration to life on earth. Whether true or fiction, myth intertwines itself with the human understanding of the world and is thus indispensable to humanity and the study of it. Myth exists not only as story, but as a fantastical retelling of history, and in no other time did myth or hero flourish as vibrantly than in the heroic age of Greece.

Before writing, humanity had but one way to remember its history, orally. For hundreds and thousands of years storytellers enraptured audiences with the tales of Achilles, Theseus, and Heracles. Though retellings often began with the story of a real hero and a real event, over centuries orators perfected their performances by adding fantastical details to enthrall audiences. Rhapsodes, playwrights, historians, and writers were under immense pressure to captivate their audiences; failure to do so would mean a penniless existence, and thus liberties had to be taken. These stories, once history, became so enriched with later fantasy that they became the magnificent, creative blend we now know as myth. Part fantasy, part history, these stories inspired countless generations to act on courage and to dream that they themselves could achieve greatness. We now look at these myths to remember the fantasy and uncover the history of the great tales of old.

Hellas, more commonly known as Greece, produced fantastic poetry, science, art, architecture, and democracy. But perhaps what Hellas was best at producing was heroes. The Heroic age of Greece, a time of Mycenean dominance, grand wars, vicious monsters, and great heroes gave us Theseus, Jason, Perseus, Heracles, Achilles, and Odysseus. These were just the most notable of heroes produced in an age of Hellenic adventurers. In Magna Grecia, the name given by the Romans to greater Greece, it was a time of explorers, settlers, and adventurers. The Heroic age was also the first known age of great exploration, as countless Hellenic adventurers embarked on expeditions that would take them west into Italy, and as DNA evidence has confirmed as far east as China.[1]

The explorers of the Heroic age are often forgotten, partially because the Hellenes did not place as much emphasis on the achievements of explorers as they did on those of warriors. Still, stories of explorers such as Dionysus and Jason survive. Our first explorer, the god Dionysus, is believed to have begun being worshipped in around 1500 B.C.[2] Dionysus was the god of parties, excess, wine, and theater. But he takes on the strange role of doing incredibly human things. Apparently unable to travel in godly fashion, he is described as a sailor who conquered the whole world and returned triumphantly to Hellas from his conquest and, upon doing so, began to be worshipped as a god.[3] His human quality suggests that he might have been an actual man that lived and that he returned to Hellas after an incredible conquest and was deemed divine upon his return. Importantly, he is mentioned as having gone to Asia, something incredibly important, as Alexander the Great records in his diary the surprise he felt upon seeing a statue of Dionysus in India around 327 B.C.[4] It is therefore possible that Dionysus was an ancient Alexander himself. Whatever the case may be, Dionysus being mentioned traveling east, and statues of him being seen in the east indicate that there is something to this ancient tale.

Jason, another Hellenic prince, is sent, according to another myth, on an impossible suicide mission to reach kingdom of Phyra, to steal the Golden Fleece at the end of the world. The quest is daunting and involves surviving the clashing rocks in order to enter the Black Sea. The sea tries to sink them; and the stones try to crush them; but Jason and his ship, the Argo, make it past the clashing rocks. When Jason and his crew reach Phyra, the King’s daughter Medea helps Jason slay the dreaded Colchian Hydra and steal the Golden Fleece.

The tale of Jason and his argonauts is likely as much history as fantasy. The Hellenic Heroic age was one fraught with dangerous explorations into unknown lands. This seafaring tale encapsulates an age of daring exploration. The clashing rocks, we know, are no mere tale. The entrance to the Black Sea is guarded by the most dangerous strait in the world. In 2014 alone it claimed 440 ships; for a wooden penteconter such as the Argo, passing the Bosporus strait was a legendary feat.[1] Recently, the world’s oldest intact shipwreck was found in the Black Sea off the Bulgarian coast. It is none other than a seventy-foot-long Hellenic trireme, believed to be from around 400 B.C.[2] This ship sailed much later than Jason’s would have, but proves that a wooden trireme could make it past the clashing rocks. The next clue is the kingdom of Cholkis, which was the Hellenic name for the kingdom of Georgia. Established sometime around 2000 B.C., Cholkis was a land laden in gold, iron, honey, and other riches and would later come to trade heavily with Greece before being conquered by the Persians in 650 B.C.[3] To gather the gold, the Cholkian villagers would take a ram’s hide or fleece and use it to trap the gold in the rivers.[4] It is therefore probable that the Golden Fleece itself was a metaphor for gold collected in this way, and that Jason was a plunderer, sailing into Phyra with his soldiers and stealing treasure.

The warriors of Hellas were rewarded with notoriety from their conquests, but what the Hellenic populace valued most in their heroes was the slaying of fantastic beasts and monsters. The difference between the Hellas and their contemporaries in this regard is easily displayed. The Persians had several mythological monsters such as the chimeric manticore, and yet most of these monsters were never defeated by a hero. The same can be seen in Egypt: the Sphinx was a potent Egyptian monster, and yet it was not until falling into Greek hands that the legend gained a hero to defeat it. The sphinx in Hellenistic tradition asked an impossible riddle, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The young Oedipus answered ‘man,’ and the sphinx died upon hearing the correct answer, throwing herself into the Aegean Sea.[5] The story embodies the typical Greek belief that wit is as deadly as brute strength is. Most Hellenic heroes not associated with the slaying of monsters have been forgotten, showing us the importance of storytellers’ adding the defeat of monsters to a hero’s resume, not for the hero’s sake, but for the added gratification that the epic struggles against fantastic creatures gave audiences listening to the tales. The more vile and impressive the monster, the greater the hero and the louder the applause. However even the monster slayer is no match for time, Coraebus, Cychreus, Damasen, Eurybarus, Menestratus and Phobis are among an endless list of greek dragon slayers long since forgotten by time. It is with this principle in mind that we now investigate the remaining pure warrior heroes of the Heroic age of Hellas.

It is in Crete, at Knossos, where mankind witnesses the first of the Hellenic heroic tales. There the queen commits the most atrocious of acts when she mates with the Cretan bull. She gives birth to an abomination — half man, half bull. The deformed prince Asterion is walled up under the palace by order of King Minos. There he remains, appeased by human sacrifices and the thrill of the hunt. Athens was forced to pay tribute to Minos by providing human sacrifices for Asterion. Theseus, a prince of Athens, enters into the labyrinth and slays the monster.

The legend of the Minotaur seems to be based on much truth. Minoans, as we know, were bull worshippers; and indeed the complex at Knossos boasts an impressive labyrinth. The conquerors of the Minoans, the Mycaeneans we know continued the bull cult of the Minoans. A Linear B tablet found within Knossos reads “One jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the Labyrinth.” This tablet written by Mycaneans refers to the labyrinth, and strongly suggests the name of the palace of Knossos was in fact the labyrinth. The palace of Knossos is indeed a disorienting maze. It contains one thousand rooms, all with no hallways. One room connecting to another seemingly infinitely across its 5 stories. At the entrance to the palace two large horns protrude above the main gate, known as the horns of consecration an important religious symbol. Inside the references to bulls is even more dramatic, frescoes and ornaments of bulls adorn the entire palace.

In the legend of Athenian prince Theseus and the Minotaur, the stepson of the Cretan king Minos was none other than the abominable bull creature, a curse from the gods. When Minos’s wife became smitten with a bull and engaged in intercourse, the bullish humanoid creature was born. According to the legend, Minos demanded that people be sacrificed to the monster and that each year the Athenians must send them sacrificial victims as tribute. This portion of the story could be partially true. A 1979 archeological expedition at Knossos uncovered the bones of over three hundred children all bearing the tell tale signs of human sacrifice, but morbidly cannibalism as well. An inscription on a tablet found in the palace records the sacrificing of a female servant as well as ten males. We know that the Crete’s trading partner in Canaan engaged heavily in bull worship. Their god Moloch, or Baal, was a giant bronze bull idol, and their religion demanded sacrifice to this god. Children would be placed inside the idol; a fire would be lit; and the child would be cooked alive. It is very possible that the Cretans were adopters of the Canaanite religion, and that the bull monster of the Minotaur was actually the idol of Moloch. We know from archaeological evidence that children were sadly sacrificed frequently by the Minoans, echoing elements of the story of Theseus, as well as giving credence to the idea that the Minotaur, called Asterion by the Cretans, was a form of the Canaanite deity. Interestingly, the name Asterion was one given to Minoan kings, and the Hellenic name of Minotaur is derived from the Cretan king of the time, Minos, perhaps suggesting that the Minotaur is an allegory for the bloodthirsty king Minos himself, who was a worshipper of bulls. The term minotaur, mino meaning Minos, and Taurus being bull literally means ‘bull of Minos’. To add further confusion, Minoan coins depict a humanoid figure with a bull’s head being crowned king. Perhaps this Asterion was facially deformed and wore a bull’s mask, or the king donned a bull’s mask for religious rituals, or in an attempt to intimidate wore a helmet crafted to look like a bull’s head. Helmets imitating bulls certainly existed and were popular in the ancient Mycanean world. Their soldier’s helmets always bore two horns or tusks, making them appear as devilish creatures. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ were an important societal symbol for the Minoans, and it would make sense for a Cretan warrior king to wear them.[1] The evidence suggests not only answers but infinitely more questions. The myth seems to be as much history as fantasy but it is unknown whether the defeat of the Minotaur signifies the Mycenaean world conquering its former Minoan overlords, or if it is referring to Athens freeing itself from the tribute of a Mycenaean Crete. Suffice it to say the story of the Minotaur seems to be based on actual events of some truth that time forgot.

Cadmus, who is credited as the first Greek hero, is known for bringing the alphabet and agriculture to Hellas from Phoenicia and for founding the city of Thebes (and thereby essentially founding Hellenistic civilization). He becomes a tragic figure after his slaying of the Lernean Hydra. The gods considered the Hydra a sacred dragon, and Cadmus was punished for his action. In his grief he remarks that if the dragon was so precious to the Gods he might as well wish for that life instead. Cadmus becomes one of the earliest moral reminders that people should be careful what they wish for. Cadmus grows scales and morphs into a hydra, the very monster that he slew. Cadmus appears in Hittite texts in 1250 B.C., where he is referenced by the Hittites as the forefather to the Mycenaeans. This textual reference remains the only possible evidence of physical existence for a man that was said by Homer to have lived in 2000 B.C. Regardless, Thebians and Boetians in general regarded him as having been a real person.

Bellerophon, like Cadmus, was perhaps once a real man, though whatever real exploits he might have had are now far overshadowed by his achievements in the realm of fantasy. At a young age Bellerophon murdered his brother, and in order to win back the King’s trust, he was sent to slay the dreaded Chimera. Along the way, Bellerophon was able to acquire a flying horse named Pegasus and hastily mounted his attack upon the fire breathing Chimera. To defeat it, he placed a lead block at the end of his spear and lanced it into the beast’s mouth. The Chimera attempted to expel fire to dislodge the block but instead suffocated on its own fumes. Believing himself to now be a god, Bellerophon flew towards Olympus on his winged horse to join the gods but was struck down by a thunderbolt thrown by Zeus. Bellerophon’s fate echoes down the ages as a warning on the dangers of pride and was adapted as such in a play by Euripides, in his now lost work Bellerophon. Bellerophon’s story remained popular until the coming of Hercules, a far more compelling tale. By the classical era Bellerophon’s story was forgotten, and his iconic flying steed Pegasus was regifted to the hero Perseus.

Perseus, who the Greeks believed to be the first king and founder of Mycenae, remains one of the greatest Greek heroes, not because Perseus himself is unforgettable, but because the monsters he faced are. Whatever existed of the real Perseus has been long forgotten; what remains now is the fantasy. He is a hero remembered best for his monster slaying, particularly because the monsters he faced remain so interesting. Perseus seeks to defeat a colossal sea monster that has plagued the city of Argos. In order to defeat it, he must first slay the Gorgon Medusa. A hellish serpentine abomination, Medusa was once a maiden who had been transformed by Hera into a hideous creature with snakes for hair. So hideous was she that one look from her would turn the viewer to stone. Perseus overcame her not with spear or blade but with a mirror. The Gorgon saw her own reflection and was instantly turned to stone. Perseus took the head of Medusa, her eyes still capable of petrification, and showed it to the sea monster, turning it to stone and saving the princess Andromeda.

The most famous of the Hellenic heroes was Hercules, the future king of Argos, who would become both a Hellenic hero and a god. After killing his own children, he was forced to do twelve labors to atone for his sins. In these labors he killed the dragon Ladon, a lion, and a fire-breathing bull. He defeated Cerberus and picked golden apples. He is also said to have slain the Lernean Hydra, a beast felled long ago by Cadmus before being transformed into the dragon itself, meaning the monster Hercules slew was in fact the cursed hero Cadmus, the original Hydra slayer and the founder of Hellenistic civilization. Hercules, along with other heroes, is also said to have been a sailor on the Argos during Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.

Of great importance is that he is stated in myth to have sacked Troy with the help of his soldiers a few years before the Trojan war. Before this, myth states that a sea monster destroyed Troy years prior. Surprisingly, archeological records confirm that Troy was indeed destroyed three times in relatively close sequence. The first time on the archeological record is roughly 1300 B.C. Archeologists believe this to have been an earthquake, which the ancients deemed to have been the work of a sea monster. In 1250 B.C. Troy was sacked again, possibly by a real Hercules who according to myth killed the Trojan royals but spared the youngest Priam, who later became the king of Troy during the Trojan war and witnessed its final destruction in 1190 B.C., the date given by archeologists for the Trojan war. According to Homer, Heracles (the Greek equivalent of Hercules), near death, wished someone to light his funeral pyre. The only man brave enough was Poeas, whom Heracles gratefully gave his bow. Poeas’s son Philoctetes is said to have wielded the bow of Hercules/Heracles during the Trojan war. That the dates involving Hercules and Troy all match the findings of archaeologists suggest that Heracles/Hercules was a real man. It also proves that despite the story being passed on orally for 900 years, Homer’s dates for the Trojan war are correct and correspond with archeology. Oral tradition, it seems, despite the injection of myth, preserves facts over long periods of time as well.

The final tales of the Heroic Age involve a war between Hellas and Troy. The war began when King Menelaus’ wife Helen was stolen by the Trojan Prince Paris and whisked away to Troy. The brother of Menelaus, the glory seeking Agamemnon, the most powerful of the Hellenic kings, summoned the other Hellenic kings to aid him and launched a war on Troy. The siege lasted ten years; in that final year the Hellenic hero Achilles slew the Trojan Prince Hector and was later killed by a blow to his heel. The best-remembered hero of the Trojan war was Achilles, the great warrior, and slayer of men. Achilles, like the others, was of divine blood, blessed by the gods, a prerequisite for any sort of success in a society where the gods played such a large part. Any gift or curse, any victory or failure, the gods had a part in, so every Greek hero was considered blessed or cursed by Olympus.

The Trojan war finally came to an end when King Odysseus of Ithaca fashioned a large wooden horse and faked surrender. The Trojans, pleased with their victory and seeing the wooden horse as tribute, brought the horse within the walls of their city, only to have the Hellenes climb out of the hollow horse and attack while the Trojans slept, destroying the city of Troy. Troy was long believed, like the other myths, to be a complete fantasy, but archaeologists found Troy and discovered that the Trojan war was a real event. The ruins of the city show it was burned to ash on several occasions, indicating that serious warfare took place there. To doubt the existence of the primary characters seems foolish. Wives are routinely stolen or have affairs, and wars typically have heroes. The Trojan horse, while miraculous, was an ingenious and original military tactic; and many wars have seen soldiers employ tactics more outlandish.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ attempt to return home after the Trojan war. Here the Odyssey serves as a mythic sequel to the events of Troy. According to Homer, many of the veterans of the Trojan war decided not to return home, either staying behind or relocating elsewhere. After ten years away, some had lost the desire to return home. Others simply became lost or were sunk by foul weather at sea. The Odyssey serves as a metaphor, suggesting that indeed returning home can be harder for a soldier than the war itself. Odysseus struggled with the effects of the war; the people of Troy had been raped and slaughtered in a tremendous massacre because of the success of the Trojan horse. The victory for Odysseus came at a high price. We see in the Hellenic heroes a reflection of the society. It was not Achilles’s strength that won Hellas the Trojan war, but Odysseus with his wooden horse. Perseus had defeated Medusa with a mirror; Jason had vanquished the Hydra with a sleeping potion; and Bellerophon had overcome the Chimera with a lead block. It was asymmetrical thinking and inventiveness that led to these great victories. As important as strength was, the mind was ultimately more powerful and more valued in Hellenic society.

That many of the Greek heroes happened to be kings should not be a surprise. The powerful city states of the Greek golden age competed with each other via art and architecture; they laid claim to their superiority through their artistic achievements. It is therefore not out of the realm of theory that the powerful city states of the Heroic Age after the break-up of the Mycenaean empire competed with one another. The superpowers of this era were Mycenae, Argos, Thebes, Corinth, and Athens. Theseus was a king and hero of Athens, Bellerophon of Corinth, Cadmus of Thebes, Perseus of Mycenae, Jason of Thessaly, and Hercules of Argos. Like the Greeks of the Golden Age who competed with their art, the Greeks of the Heroic age it would seem competed with their heroes. Perhaps once real men and kings of these cities, the fantastical accomplishments assigned to them could have been spurred by political competition. The artistic societies of the Golden Age competed to create the greatest art; it is possible the warrior societies of the Heroic age were competing to create the greatest warrior. The political ramifications of such would be enormous, who would dare wage war or not pay tribute to the descendants of Perseus? Their hero was an icon of their military superiority, broadcast to all who listen, to teach them to fear the men of their city.

The Heroic Age of Hellas comes to an end with the death of Mycenaean civilization. Here ensues a dark age that envelops Greece; from these ashes Athens, Argos, Corinth, Thebes, and Sparta would rise to bring about another Golden Age of Hellas. The myths from the Heroic Age remained. Belief in them would not begin to unravel until well after the coming of Christ, but a multitude of changes occurred in Hellas from the Heroic to the Golden Age. The collapse of the warrior society of Mycenae was followed by numerous city states’ each embracing different philosophies. Some warrior states such as Argos and Sparta would arise, but in large part the arts and commerce became the priority in Greece. A non-warrior society has less need for warrior heroes, and with a plethora of heroes from the Heroic age, the creation of new heroes was seldom desired. This shift correlates with the increase in the recording of history: No longer would history be left solely to the storytellers who wove their spoken tales, but recorded as well. The orator’s career had been made on embellishment, while the recorder’s devotion was to accuracy. The recorder quickly usurped the orator and the job of the historian morphed away from merely telling a good story. Accuracy became the primary of objective in the field of history. For all intents and purposes, history left the realm of the arts and became a field firmly rooted in science. This transition would sound the death knell for many of the fantastical details required to create myth. Hellenes would have to embrace the true actions of mortal men to create a hero or have no heroes at all. The death of the introduction of fantastic elements to heroic figures, however, did not signify the end of the public’s appetite for mythical heroes, as worship of these heroes would carry on till 500 A.D. and idolization of them continues to this day. They live on in the human imagination and in literature.

The tragedy of many a myth is that the real histories of these heroes has been lost, replaced instead with fantasy. The boon, on the other hand, has been that myths have inspired generations of Greeks and others beyond to emulate the heroes that myth made. Greek soldiers aspired to be like Achilles slaying foe after foe; explorers sought to be as Jason and to sail beyond the ends of the earth. The philosopher Oedipus defeated the sphinx not with a blade but a riddle, inspiring men like Socrates and Aristotle. Other men were inspired by Daedalus and Icarus, Greek thinkers such as Aristarchus, who would discover the earth revolved around the sun a thousand years before Copernicus came to concur. The result of these myths was an inspired people emboldened to achieve greatness in every capacity. Men of every type had a god to pray to and a hero to aspire to. What resulted was a Hellenic society that produced great men and great works at an unparalleled rate.

Many have asked why heroes are absent from the modern era. It is not that they are absent; they are only unheralded. Long ago, warriors and adventures were celebrated because they existed in communal warrior societies. Today it is artists and merchants that are celebrated. There are many courageous soldiers and others who have overcome incredible odds in American society to achieve world-changing results. They remain anonymous, however, because our society is uninterested. Entrepreneurs, actors, and musicians are the new celebrities of our world because that is what an individualistic capitalist society desires. Hundreds of brave men and women achieve tremendous heroic acts each year. It is not that the world lacks heroes; it is that they are not celebrated and therefore seem extinct.

The end of the Hellenic Heroic Age was not the end of Greek heroes. The Persian wars would produce many men of wartime fame. Pheidippides would run 26 miles straight to warn the Hellenes of the Persian invasion. Leonidas of Sparta would then famously sacrifice himself in the hot gates to stop the Persian advance, and the Athenian commander Themistocles, inspired by the asymmetrical thinking of Odysseus, ordered the city of Athens be abandoned during the Persian war. The infuriated Persians chased the Athenians into a narrow straight of water where Themistocles had 200 triremes waiting to meet them. The result was a decisive victory for Athens and the end of the Persian war. The most well-known Greek hero would come near the end of the Hellenic age — one final hero named Alexander, who would become infatuated with the ancient myths. He carried a copy of the Iliad with him where ever he went and attempted to model himself on Achilles. He wished to become a hero like the those in tales of old; what he accomplished, however, would eclipse them all. Whether the heroes of the Heroic Age were real has always been irrelevant: Their importance was that people believed in them. And when people believe in heroes, they often become heroes themselves. No greater example can serve the Heroic Age than Alexander the Great. A Macedonian king who aspired to be like Achilles and the heroes of old, his inspiration would lead to the creation of a Greek empire that would spread from India to Egypt and the conquest of the Persian Empire. It took one man inspired by myth a thousand years later to turn Greece into the greatest force the world had ever seen and to conquer the known world. The power of myth has never rested in whether it is real, but in whether it is believed. May the power of these heroes to inspire the dreams of humanity never fade.

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Tristan Erwin

Tristan Erwin

History student at UNG Military College. Specialist in European history and Mythology. Footnotes and Bibliography always provided. Only scholarly sources used.