Classical Greek Mythology
The Meaning of the Greek Hero Myths
What was the appeal of these hero myths to the ancient Greeks?
For the Greeks of the Classical period, the heroes of the Trojan War—Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and the others—were essentially historical figures who could represent the “glories” of Greek history and could stand as examples of physical and mental prowess. The fact that these epic heroes had failings—jealousies, exaggerated pride, emotional lapses—made them all the more appealing. At some level these heroes were people like us, with whom we could identify.
Other heroes and the stories surrounding them were more likely seen as metaphorical rather than historical. The events in the Odyssey, such as those concerning the Sirens and the Cyclops and the visit with the dead, would probably have been essentially what fairytales and other folktales are for us. They could reflect human curiosity, be used as cautionary tales, and as examples of moral or immoral behavior. Penelope represented fidelity, Odysseus cleverness but also dangerous impulsiveness.
Heroes such as Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason would almost certainly have been seen by fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians as folklore figures who, nevertheless, like Odysseus, represented certain values and flaws. Theseus was somewhat of an exception as he would probably have been considered a real king of Athens in the distant past. For the most part, however, these hero myths were told for entertainment purposes and for their value as lesson stories.