The hero of an epic is generally larger than life. He is stronger, braver, and more clever than the other characters. Sometimes his powers are superhuman. Choose three stories about heroes from...

The hero of an epic is generally larger than life. He is stronger, braver, and more clever than the other characters. Sometimes his powers are superhuman. Choose three stories about heroes from Edith Hamilton's Mythology and discuss the following:

What makes this character a hero to the ancient Greeks?

What Greek values are shown through the hero's story?

What personal qualities does the hero possess?

Is the hero admirable?

Compare the three heroes and explain which hero best illustrates the heroic ideal.

Expert Answers
Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a lot of question. I don't have the space in this format to address each item completely, but I'll do what I can in the space allowed. 

Hercules, one of the heroes written about in Edith Hamilton's Mythology, is revered by the Greeks for many reasons.

Hercules is a demi-god (son of Zeus and Alcmene), and he is unafraid to challenge and fight the gods. At the same time, he fights with them to defeat the giants. This unique position is one reason he is revered by the Greeks, and it clearly reflects the Greeks' complicated views regarding their gods. While the Greeks fear their Gods, they also show their disdain for them in many ways, from simple disobedience to belligerent defiance. Hercules represents this same attitude, making him a hero to the Greeks.

Hercules is seen as the strongest man who ever lived, which clearly indicates that the Greeks valued physical strength. While Hercules is a moral and courageous man, he's also quick-tempered and often acts impetuously (he threatens to shoot an arrow at the sun because he thinks it's too hot). What matters most to the Greeks, then, are strength, courage and ethics rather than wisdom, patience and reason. 

When Hercules is manipulated into killing his family, he feels shame and pain. Rather than killing himself, he gladly does the twelve tasks Eurystheus gives him; even more, he performs several "extra" acts along the way. On the other hand, Hercules gets drunk, behaves badly and then dies because he refuses to accept correction. 

The Greeks clearly admire him and for some good reasons, but we have to question their choice of a man who murdered his wife and children to be one of their greatest heroes. It's not something Hamilton spends any time contemplating in this work (which she's "sanitized" for general readership), but it's a valid point of speculation about the Greeks and their value system. 

Atalanta is another hero to the Greeks, and she, too, has both positive and negative characteristics. While she performs with great physical strength (sensing a trend?) when killing a vicious boar and wrestling Peleus, she is also directly or indirectly responsible for many deaths. She has no intention of marrying (a potentially admirable quality), yet she rather taunts young men by her promise to marry them if they can beat her in a race--which is impossible without trickery (another praiseworthy physical trait). 

Atalanta would not have been caught if she had not been distracted by beautiful golden apples. This vacillation between strength of will and lack of focus does not keep Atalanta from being a Greek hero. The Greeks obviously valued physical strength but were willing to overlook flaws in those who possessed it, something they undoubtedly did on a human level, as well.

Theseus is Athens' greatest hero, the son of Athenian King Aegeus. Theseus is raised away from his father and has to prove himself in strength and valor (there it is again), but he does possess finer qualities which he exhibits consistently throughout his life. He kills thieves on the road to make traveling safer for others and he offers himself as a sacrifice to the Minotaur; though he has some help to escape, he kills Minotaur with his own hand. As king of Athens, he is a wise judge who is willing to fight for justice for his people; he also brings democracy to Athens. He is a consistently wise, brave and selfless hero.

Hamilton says it this way:

None so good that he has no faults, none so wicked that he is worth naught.