“What god, what hero and what man will we celebrate?”
τίνα θεόν, τίν’ ἥρωα, τίνα δ’ ἄνδρα κελαδήσομεν;
The Greeks have left us some evidence for attitudes about heroes that might surprise some modern readers. The line from Pindar above is a classic account of the hero as a mid-point between man and god, sharing in both worlds but truly part of neither.
One of the things that is different from our usage is that Greek heroes represent, in some readings, a particular generation in time (the race before ours, according to Hesiod in the Works and Days). And this race of heroes whose trials and tribulations give us so many myths included men and women, as the poet Corinna would remind us:
“I sing of the virtues of heroes and heroines.”
ἱώνει δ᾿ εἱρώων ἀρετὰς / χεἰρωάδων
This ‘race’ of heroes was appropriated to different contexts to different ends. As in our modern world, ‘heroes’ were sometimes portrayed as defenders of men and protectors of the community—and to an extent this is how they feature in the martial poetry of Kallinos of Sparta:
“The loss is felt by the whole country when a brave man dies,
A man the equal of heroes;
Someone they see as a fortress before their eyes;
Someone who does the work of many even when alone.”
λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.
But the Greeks, like everyone throughout time, were far from unanimous in their opinions about heroes. In the fragments of early comedy, for example, heroes are singled out for that which is their nature: being singled out, and different:
“Heroes get ornery and mean when people get too close.”
οἵ ἥρωες δὲ δυσόργητοι καὶ χαλεποὶ τοῖς ἐμπελάζουσι γίνονται
And even in early epic, what it means to be a hero is at play. The Iliad and the Odyssey give very different versions of what it means to be heroic (and they oscillate among differing visions in the same narrative. Other epic fragments play with the debates offered in the Homeric poems.
“I would make the fame of the man who enjoys himself at the feast equal to the one earned by commanding the rest of the army.”
τοῦ κεν ἐγὼ θείμην ἶσον κλέος, ὅς τ’ ἐνὶ δαιτὶ
τέρπηται παρεὼν ἅμα τ’ ἄλλον λαὸν ἀνώγῃ
In part, the exploration of what it means to be a hero is a further step in the definition of what it means to be a man, to be a human being, and to live together as people in a city. One of the things that both the Iliad and the Odyssey dramatize is the danger that their heroes can both fend off and cause to their people. This was probably a current in the thought of early Greek philosophers and poets.
“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”
οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·
By the time of Classical Athens, it was clear that the outsized ambitions (and honors) of individuals could be undermining to the state. Herein lies the quandary: cities need great men to protect them, but their very strengths often bring ruin. This is dramatized in the heroic myths from Herakles through Odysseus and explored as well in Athenian tragedy.
And to end, some random, confusing samples:
Euripides, fr. 237 (Archelaus)
“A young man ought to be bold always,
Since no laid-back man becomes famous.
Work gives birth to a good reputation.”
νεανίαν γὰρ ἄνδρα χρὴ τολμᾶν ἀεί·
οὐδεὶς γὰρ ὢν ῥᾴθυμος εὐκλεὴς ἀνήρ,
ἀλλ’ οἱ πόνοι τίκτουσι τὴν εὐδοξίαν.
Euripides, fr. 257 (Archelaus)
“A rash heart and a limited mind
Has destroyed many men: dual evils for whoever has them.”
πολλοὺς δ’ ὁ θυμὸς ὁ μέγας ὤλεσεν βροτῶν
ἥ τ’ ἀξυνεσία, δύο κακὼ τοῖς χρωμένοις.
Euripides, fr. 275 (Auge)
“Pray that all who rejoice in tyranny,
Or in some small monarchy in their city, die terribly.
The name ‘freedom’ is worth everything—
Even if he possesses a little, a man who has this is considered great.”
κακῶς δ’ ὄλοιντο πάντες οἳ τυραννίδι
χαίρουσιν ὀλίγῃ τ’ ἐν πόλει μοναρχίᾳ·
τοὐλεύθερον γὰρ ὄνομα παντὸς ἄξιον,
κἂν σμίκρ’ ἔχῃ τις, μεγάλ’ ἔχειν νομιζέτω.