Homeric heroes

What do you think of when you think of a hero?

Where I might think of heroism as rooted in personal sacrifice and strength of character—running into a burning building to save those who are vulnerable without concern for your own life—the ancient Greeks did not characterize heroes in moral terms but in terms of skills and abilities. Heroes were a different, earlier breed of man, one with divine ancestry. The heroes of Homeric epic were neither immortal nor merely human but hovered between the two. Their strength is described in the Iliad as literally superhuman—so Nestor can easily lift a cup that two “contemporary” men would struggle to carry. But this excessive vitality, as Gregory Nagy characterizes it, could lead them to excess, mistakes, and ruin. Their very strengths transmuted into flaws.

Homeric heroes might have inspired admiration, awe, and even worship because of their battle and public speaking skills, but not because they were particularly good or just. Hero worship seems to have been a kind of power worship: Heroes had powers that ordinary mortals could only dream of and perhaps wish for, but power also creates problems, as we see explored not only in ancient Greek poetry but also in tragedy, philosophy, and history.

If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into what it meant to be a hero in the ancient Greek world, Gregory Navy’s book is a fascinating study and a pleasure to read!

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