Numerous heroes, due to their super-human strength, cunning and courage, were worshipped as gods or demigods. Their diligence in doing their duty for the good of all mankind, as well as their guts to slay monsters, have made their stories truly immortal.
Achilles was said to have been a demigod born by Thetis, a goddess of the sea, who led the fifty Nereids, and King Peleus, who commanded the Myrmidons of Thessaly. Achilles’ mother, Thetis, dipped her son into the river Styx, making his whole body impervious to attack, except for the heel from which she held him. Achilles was most famous for being a hero in the Trojan War. Although Thetis warned him that he would die if he fought, Achilles wanted fame and glory. So, he marched alongside Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and other kings against the Trojans, leading fifty ships of Myrmidons. He also brought his cousin and trustworthy companion, Patroclus, whom he really loved and took care of.
After a battle at the shore of Troy, Achilles quarreled with Agamemnon about the loot. Agamemnon took away Achilles’ captured mistress, named Briseis. Her loss made Achilles abandon the war, but Patroclus continued to lead the Myrmidons into the battle, so as to help the retreating Greeks. With Achilles absent, Patroclus was killed by Hector, prince of Troy. Consequently, Achilles was filled with rage, thus he killed Hector in a duel, tied him on his chariot and dragged his dead body along the shores of Troy. Eventually, when Greeks got into the city of Troy, Achilles was killed by Paris, lover of Helen and prince of Troy. According to Homer, Paris shot a fatal arrow, guided by Apollo, to Achilles’ only vulnerable part, the heel.
In Greek, the name Diomedes means the one who has divine thoughts, or one whom Zeus consults. His parents were Tydeus and Deipyle. He became the king of Argos and, although unknown to many people, he is famous for his determinant participation in the Trojan war. Homer considered him to be the second-best warrior in the war, bested only by Achilles. He was Hercules’ nephew and Odysseus’ best partner. He came to the shores of Troy having eighty ships, ranking him the third highest of the contributors to the war effort, while Agamemnon had a hundred and Nestor ninety. He was also one of the few warriors supposedly wearing armor crafted and blessed by the gods. His round shield depicted a boar, and he also carried a spear and his father’s sword.
After killing two of the Amazons, Diomedes won a race, which was held by Achilles in the memory of Nestor’s son. When Achilles died, games were also held. These included a foot race, which Diomedes won again and a wrestling match between him and Ajax, which resulted in a tie. Like his Trojan enemy, Aeneas, Diomedes migrated to Italy after the end of the Trojan War, where he founded many cities. A lot of stories claim that he died, but according to Homer, Diomedes was given immortality by Athena, which she had not given to his father.
Odysseus was the protagonist in Homer’s Odyssey and was also a very important figure in The Iliad. He was the king of Ithaca, the son of Antiklea and Laertes and was famous for his intelligence, inventiveness and cunning. According to Homer’s poetry, Odysseus invented the Trojan horse, with which Greeks captured the city of Troy. After the ten-year war was over, Odysseus and his crew unfortunately became stranded at sea for another ten years in consequence of the insults against the Gods that he committed in Troy. Luckily for Odysseus, Athena was watching out for him. The ten-year odyssey began with the island of the Cyclops. Odysseus blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus, but only did it after identifying himself as “Nobody.” Blind, Polyphemus cried out that Nobody had blinded him. This confused the other cyclopes, allowing the Greeks to escape. Even so, the wrathful Poseidon took revenge by making Odysseus’ voyage more difficult. Next, the fleet reached the island where Aeolus, the god of the winds, lived. He helped Odysseus by putting all the forceful winds, apart from the west wind, in a bag and gave it to him.
Just before they reached Ithaca, his companions opened the bag, thinking it contained gold, and the ships were blown away in an unknown direction. Following this new course, they encountered the Laestrygonians, the sorceress Circe, and the Sirens. They also ran into the sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, as well as the witch Calypso. Finally, they reached the island of the Phaeacians and lastly came home to Ithaca, where Odysseus killed all the suitors who were attempting to claim Penelope’s hand. Eventually, Odysseus was killed by Telegonus, his son with Circe, after the two did not recognize each other in a battle.
Theseus, a king of ancient Athens, was the son of Aegeus and Aethra. According to myth, he was actually believed to be the son of Poseidon and was considered to be of demigod status. Theseus’ most famous feat was the killing of the Minotaur. According to the myth, when king Minos defeated the Athenians, he obliged them to send seven boys and seven girls every nine years, so as to be eaten by the Minotaur. Theseus, unable to tolerate this sacrifice, decided to be one of these young men. His father told him to change his black sails to white ones on his return from Crete, in order to alert his father that he was still alive. When Theseus came to Crete, he fell in love with Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who gave him a skein of thread, helping him find his way out from the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Theseus, indeed, killed the Minotaur and returned to Athens. However, he forgot his promise to change the sails. His father, who saw the black sails, thought that his son was dead. In grief, the king committed suicide by plunging from a cliff into the sea. They say that King Aegeus’ memorable death is responsible for giving the Aegean Sea its name.
Theseus was worshipped in Athens with a festival. It was held in his sanctuary near the agora of Theseion on the eighth of October (Pyanopsion) and lasted four days. On the first day, there were sacrifices, and food was distributed to the poor. On the second day, military exercises and torch races took place. The third day was dedicated to the young people. They competed naked in nine different sports, including wrestling, boxing, pankration, javelin and four different types of running and fencing. On the fourth and last day, horse races were held.
According to myth, Pirithous was Theseus’ best friend and companion. Together, they hunted the Calydonian Boar. At Pirithous’ marriage with Hippodamia, the centaurs got drunk and tried to abduct the women of the Lapithae, causing a war in which the Lapithae slaughtered the centaurs. Years later, Theseus and Pirithous decided to marry two of Zeus’ daughters. Theseus chose Helen, whom he kidnapped at the age of thirteen and decided to keep until she was able to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone, so he traveled together with Hercules to Hades, the kingdom where Pluto and Persephone reigned as king and queen. Pluto pretended to be their friend, but when they sat in their seats, snakes wrapped around their legs, capturing them. Hercules managed to free Theseus, but the earth began to tremble when he tried to rescue Pirithous. Pirithous made a huge mistake when he tried to kidnap a god’s wife and he ultimately stayed in Hades, captured forever. Along with Theseus, he was worshipped as a hero in Athens.
Perseus was another Greek hero, famous for killing Medusa and saving Andromeda. Perseus’ grandfather, Acrisius, the king of Argos, wanted an heir to his throne. Frustrated over his lack of sons, King Acrisius visited Pythia, a priestess at Delphi, to learn whether he would have a boy or not. Pythia said that the heir he sought would be his grandson, born by the king’s daughter, Danae. Yet, the priestess also claimed that this grandson would eventually kill Acrisius. Frightened and disappointed by this, Acrisius returned to Argos and locked Danae in a dark tower, so as to not be able to have a child.
Zeus, nevertheless, visited Danae in the guise of a golden rain and impregnated her, causing the birth of Perseus. When Acrisius found out about the child, he locked them in a large chest and threw it in the sea, leaving the gods to decide their destiny. However, they survived and they were found by a fisherman named Diktys. Diktys’ brother, Polydektis, wanted to marry Danae, but he had to deal with Perseus, who was unwilling to give his mother to the man. In response, Perseus was commanded to bring back the head of Medusa, one of the three gorgons. Medusa was a monster that had snakes instead of hair, and she had the ability to literally petrify every man who looked into her eyes. To help with the quest, the gods sent the hero valuable gifts: Perseus obtained winged sandals from Hermes, a helm from Hades, and a magical sword and a shiny shield from Athena. Divinely equipped, he forced the other gorgons to divulge the location of their sister and successfully beheaded Medusa.
On the way back home, Perseus saw a gorgeous woman tied to a rock. She was Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Andromeda was so beautiful that she was punished by Poseidon after she claimed that she was more beautiful than the Nereids. She was guarded by a sea dragon, which Perseus killed in order to free her so that she could return with him back to Argos. There, Perseus competed in a discus competition and accidentally killed his grandfather, the king, with his mighty throw. Later, Perseus allegedly founded the city of Mycenae, known for its enormous walls. He had seven children and when he died, gods didn’t send him to Hades, but to the stars. So, the constellations of Andromeda, Cepheus, Perseus and Cassiopeia were created.
Bellerophon was a mythical hero, whose name in Greek means arrow slayer. He was believed to be the son of Poseidon and Eurynome, but was raised by Glaucus, the king of Corinth. After being exiled for the murder of a family member, he was forced to complete three tasks. Athena helped him by giving him a bridle, with which Bellerophon mounted the winged horse, Pegasus. The most famous task was the killing of the Chimaera, a terrible monster that exhaled fire, had the body of a goat, the head of a lion and the tail of a snake. Also, he slew the Amazons and the Solimus tribe, who had been terrorizing the kingdom of Lycia. Eventually, he married the daughter of the king of Lycia, Amfiklea, and they had two sons, Ippolochus and Isandros.
Blinded by the successes and his strength, Bellerophon decided to fly up in the sky and discover the residence of the gods. Then, Zeus, enraged at his arrogance, hit Bellerophon with a thunderbolt, leaving him blind and lame.
Hercules was not only the strongest man, but he was also considered to be the protector of all mankind. His grandfather was Perseus and his parents were Zeus and Alcmene. Zeus promised that the next son who would be born in the Perseid house would become the ruler of Greece. However, Hera, in order to spite Zeus, was responsible for the birth of another child, Eurystheus, who became king before Hercules. When Hercules was born, Hera sent a couple of snakes into his cradle, intending to kill him, but Hercules strangled them easily. In his later life, Hercules was obliged to serve Eurystheus. He married Megara, princess of Thebes, and had three children. Hera tricked Hercules again, leading him to kill his family in an act of madness. Then, Eurystheus imposed upon him the famous twelve labors:
- The killing of the Nemean Lion.
- Killing the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna.
- The capture of the intangible stag of Cyrene.
- Facing the wild boar on the mountain of Erymanthus.
- Cleaning king Augeas’ cattle stables.
- Slaying the man-eating Stymphalean birds.
- Capture of the rampaging bull of Crete.
- Stealing king Diomedes’ man-eating horses.
- Taking Hippolyte’s girdle.
- Returning Geryon’s bulls back to Eurystheus.
- Taking the golden apples of Hesperides.
- Fetching Cerberus from Hades.
After he completed these labors, Hercules undertook further missions. The most important was his victorious fight against the god, Achelous, for the hand of Deianeira. On the way back home, the centaur, Nessus, tried to take Deianeira away, but Hercules shot him with a poisonous arrow. As the centaur died, he mischievously told Deianeira to keep his blood and claimed that if Hercules wore a garment rubbed with it he would love her forever. Many years later, Hercules fell in love with another woman, named Iole. Jealous, Deianeira sent Hercules a garment covered in the centaur’s blood as a gift. Unfortunately, the gift proved to be poisonous and Hercules, screaming out in pain, committed suicide by burning himself to death on mount Oiti. Even today the top of this mountain is called Pyra (pyre). After his death, Hercules was sent to Olympus where he married Hebe, goddess of youth. In art, he was depicted as robust, youthful and gigantic, usually dressed with a lion skin and holding a club in his hand.
Jason was famous for being the heroic leader of the Argonauts, whose task was to retrieve the Golden Fleece. He was the son of King Aeson and Polyamide, aunt of Odysseus, and was raised by the centaur, Chiron. The quest began when his uncle Pelias, fearing a prophecy that a one-sandaled man could take his throne (aka Jason), commanded Jason to fetch the Golden Fleece. The fleece was owned by King Aeëtes and guarded by a vicious fire-breathing bull, earthen men and even a dragon (or a giant serpent).
So, the Argonauts sailed on their famous ship, Argo, from Greece to Colchis in search of their goal. After many adventures, Jason managed to return back to Iolkos with the Golden Fleece and even eloped with the sorceress Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes. Once back, Jason wanted to avenge his father’s murder. Medea helped him accomplish this by tricking Pelias’ daughters into murdering their own father. Jason and Medea left Iolkos and lived peacefully for about ten years in Corinth, until Jason fell in love with Glauce. Enraged, Medea killed her own children, as well as Glauce, and abandoned Jason for a new life in Athens. Years later, Jason became the king of Iolkos and died in his sleep inside his ship, Argo.
Atalante’s origin is not certain. She was believed to be from Arcadia or Thebes. She was a mythical heroine, protected by the goddess, Artemis, and was the only woman who took part in the Argonaut expedition. According to Hesiod, she was a virgin huntress, unwilling to marry. When two centaurs tried to rape her, she killed them both with her bow. Atalante offered to marry anyone who could defeat her in a foot race, but promised that she would kill anyone who failed. Many men tried and many died. Eventually, a man called Hippomenes (or Milanion) managed to outrun her, albeit with the help of Aphrodite, and Atalante married him. They had one son, Parthenopaeus. The asteroid 36 Atalante, discovered in 1855, was named in her honor.
Written by Stefanos Karampalis. (Read his Author Profile, HERE)
Picture Attribution: (censored and cropped version of The Apotheosis of Hercules, by Noël Coypel (1628–1707), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).