In the next few episodes of the podcast, we'll be venturing back in time from the Classical Age of Greece (5th and 4th centuries BCE) toward the mythic Heroic Age, which roughly corresponds with Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BCE) civilization.
What made this Heroic Age special and why do we still know the stories of so many heroes today? Who were these heroes?
According to Hesiod - the poet who, along with Homer, created the first guides to ancient Greek religion and customs - there were 5 ages of mankind. In the 4th of these ages, Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, created a race of men especially powerful and noble. They were mortals, but they were "god-like".
This Heroic Age, which spanned approximately 6 generations according to ancient genealogy, was the time of legendary figures like Perseus, Heracles, Jason, Achilles, and Odysseus. All of the greatest heroes of ancient Greece lived during this 4th Age. It was a time of great adventure but also turmoil and bloodshed. Most of its heroes died in battle. The Greeks who recounted these legends centuries later believed they were living in a far less glorious 5th Age of mankind.
Was any of this heroic history based in reality? Historians of modern times were very skeptical until the shocking findings of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century. In his quest to show that the events of Homer's epic poems were rooted in historical events, Schliemann unearthed a goldmine of Bronze Age artifacts and structures at multiple sites (including what is now widely believed to be the site of Homer's Troy).
The excavations carried out by Schliemann and later archaeologists have revealed that this Late Bronze Age civilization, which we call Mycenaean, was the first advanced civilization in Greece (and one of the most advanced in all of Bronze Age Europe). The Mycenaeans built lavish palaces, as well as bridges, roads, and aqueducts. They also provide us with the first evidence of written language in Greece (called Linear B). Many of the religious figures and customs referenced in Homer can be traced back to the Mycenaean period.
But Mycenaean civilization essentially vanished from the historical record around 1100 BCE. Many of their palaces and city centers were either destroyed or abandoned, leaving no clear accounts of what happened. Modern archaeologists are torn on the subject; some believe outsiders invaded their cities, while others claim internal conflict caused the civilization's demise. Regardless, the grand culture of the Mycenaeans was no more.
The 300 years or so that followed the collapse of Mycenaean civilization is known as the "Greek Dark Age". Those who remained had a new lifestyle, characterized by a general decline in sophistication. They no longer used a writing system, nor lived in large settlements with elaborate infrastructure.
But even though the splendor of Mycenaean times may have been beyond their reach, it was not forgotten. Memories of those more prosperous times, along with remnants of Mycenaean religious beliefs and customs, continued to be passed from one generation to the next.
Around the 8th century BCE, Greek civilization reemerged. They began using a new alphabet adapted from the Phoenicians. Society and life became centralized once again, but this time around the polis, rather than the palace citadels of the Mycenaeans. The first Olympics took place in 776 BCE and the works of Homer and Hesiod were composed. Greece was well on its way to another golden age.
When one understands this historical progression, the role of the ancient Greek heroes becomes clearer. Greeks of the Dark Age could not help but idealize their past, which truly was exceptional in many ways. The impressive ruins and relics of the Mycenaeans were all around them, which only reinforced the power of these legends. Homer, Hesiod, and other epic poets ultimately consolidated the stories which had been passed down and made them their own.
What were the heroes like?
All of this leads one to wonder how many of the specific stories, like Homer's Iliad, are actually based on historical events and figures. It's a fascinating, and complicated, question that we will explore in more depth in later blog posts and podcast episodes. Now that we have some context for who these heroes were and when they lived, I'd like to shift our focus to what made them heroes in the first place.
The most important thing to know about the epic heroes of Homer is that they were "god-like". In other words, they were exceptional in one way or another. Heracles was the strongest man alive, Achilles was the most skilled warrior, Odysseus was the most cunning, etc. However, despite their attributes, there was still one big difference between the heroes and the gods. Here is a passage from Harvard professor Gregory Nagy's book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours:
“It is clear in the epic, however, that the father of Achilles is mortal, and that this greatest of heroes must therefore be mortal as well. So, too, with all of the ancient Greek heroes: even though they are all descended in one way or another from the gods, however many generations removed, heroes are mortals, subject to death. No matter how many immortals you find in a family tree, the intrusion of even a single mortal will make all successive descendants mortal. Mortality, not immortality, is the dominant gene” (9-10).
To be god-like meant to be descended from the gods and to have a special relationship with them. It also meant the ability to accomplish superhuman feats. At first impression, the heroes seem to have more in common with the gods than they do with men. But that's an illusion. Like all other humans, the heroes were destined to die.
It may seem like the heroes of Greek myth had a pretty sweet life, even if it was finite. However, there's another defining aspect of ancient Greek heroism that often goes overlooked. In Professor Nagy's list of the characteristics of the prototypical Greek hero, he writes that the hero was "un-seasonal". This basically means that the greatest heroes were born into dire circumstances of some kind.
Heracles (known to the Romans as Hercules) - the greatest hero of all - is the poster boy for unseasonality. According to myth, he was the son of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, and a mortal woman. Hera, Zeus' goddess wife, was jealous of her husband's affair and used her supernatural powers to delay his birth. This allowed another boy, Eurystheus, to be born first and become king in his stead. Hera and King Eurystheus then conspire throughout Heracles' life to punish him, despite his incredible attributes of strength and courage. It was Eurystheus who forced Heracles to undergo his famous 12 Labors, in which he battled some of the worst monsters in the world, like the Nemean Lion and the hydra serpent. Despite his accomplishments, Heracles died a terribly painful death; he is poisoned before burning alive atop a funeral pyre. Not exactly a life of relaxation and luxury.
Heracles is not the only hero to suffer immensely. Achilles, the protagonist of the Iliad, experiences near-constant sadness and rage throughout his time in the Trojan War. Although he had the capability to be kind, Achilles' pride and anger outweighed all else. On top of that, the gods had told him that he could either experience a young death and win eternal glory, or an everlasting life but get no glory. Achilles was torn over his decision until his best friend, Patroclus, was killed by his Trojan rival Hector. He then went on a killing spree before being killed himself on the shores of Troy.
For the Greeks of the Dark Age and beyond, the heroes were men (and occasionally women) of the distant past who possessed god-like traits. Yet despite their superhuman attributes and accomplishments, they did not enjoy easy lives. They faced immense struggles and typically died premature, violent deaths. However, their pain in life resulted in fame after death. This fame was passed on through what the Greeks called kleos, or glory. Through kleos, the heroes achieved their own form of immortality.
For more detail on what made a Greek hero, check out The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (it’s free to read online). Best book I’ve found on the subject so far. Nagy’s ability to dissect the ancient languages and find the non-obvious meanings behind stories and terms is flat out ridiculous.