Myths of Heroes

A deeper examination of the Greek heroes and demi-gods and their cultural significance.


Introduction to Greek heroes

When asked to think about Greek mythology, the gods like Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, or Apollo may be the first to come to mind. You may also think about traditions such as theatrical production or athletic competitions in Greek worship. However, to the Greeks, hero worship was almost as important as the worship of their gods.


In Ancient Greece, heroes were worshiped alongside and just as widely as the gods. The worship of heroes was similar to ancestral worship and became even more deeply cemented in Greek society and culture with the popularity of Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.

The worship of Greek heroes was seen as filling in the history of Greek civilizations. According to oral myths, most Greek heroes were demi-gods, meaning the half-human, half-immortal offspring of the Greek gods.

Greek hero cults

The expression of hero worship was largely done in localized ‘cults’. Greek ‘demes’ were suburbs or parts of cities, and for each deme, there were possibly hundreds of local heroes that were worshiped by cults. The worship of heroes was similar to ancestral worship. There were many local sacred sites set up that, according to oral tradition, were home to different body parts or bones of fallen heroes.


Similar to the Christian veneration of the relics of saints, the Ancient Greeks believed that these bones or pieces of fallen heroes were worthy of worship and created blessings or brought gifts to those who venerated them. These relics of Greek heroes were also seen as symbols of fertility and prosperity bringing good health and a bountiful harvest to the local community.

While the worship of the gods united all of ancient Greece, it was the veneration of heroes and the development of local hero cults that united a smaller unit of peoples. This brought individual traditions and customs to a smaller community of people and helped connect them to a larger identity with the passing down of stories of the local heroes.

Looking up or around

The worship of Ancient Greek gods usually took place in temples at holy sites. Within these temples, animals were sacrificed by priests, and incense was burned. These sacrifices were oftentimes burned at the end of the ritual to represent their movement above to the heavens where the gods would then accept them.

The worship of the gods involved a metaphorical rising up whether it be smoke from the sacrifice or incense burned.

In hero worship, the blood of sacrificial animals or libations such as oils or wine was poured onto the earth, not burned. The sacrifices were meant to go down into the earth where the relics of the heroes were buried.

The worship of heroes was aimed toward or below the earth. This represented the ability of humanity to become great, not as great as gods, but the demi-god heroes presented an ideal for humanity to abide by and live up to.

The story of Perseus

One of the most celebrated of ancient Greek Heroes is Perseus. Perseus was a demi-god, he was the son of the supreme god Zeus and the mortal princess Danae. He grew up on the island of Seriphus after being cast into the sea as an infant with his mother because his grandfather. King Acrisius, believed his grandson would one day kill him.


Perseus’ most notable heroic conquest was the slaying of the Gorgon Medusa. While growing up in Seriphus, King Polydectes fell in love with Perseus’ mother, Danae. After multiple attempts to woo Danae failed, Polydectes realized his only chance at marrying Danae was to get rid of her son, Perseus.

King Polydectes faked an engagement and ordered every citizen to bring him a wedding gift. Perseus was too poor to bring the King his requested gift of a horse and asked the king to name any other gift he could give him.

The King asked for the head of Medusa, knowing this meant almost certain death for Perseus.

Perseus’ noble quest

After being told by King Polydectes to bring back the head of the Gorgon Medusa, Perseus set off on this quest, and his bravery and nobility were noticed by the gods Athena and Hermes.

Medusa was a fearsome figure – an evil creature with snakes for hair known as a Gorgon. Gorgons were especially dangerous, because anyone who looked them in the eye would be turned to stone.

The gods blessed Perseus on his journey. The goddess Athena gifted him a bronze shield and from Hermes, he received a pair of winged sandals. They also gifted him a cap of invisibility from Hades.

With these gifts, Perseus was able to slay the Gorgon Medusa and store her head in a bag to show King Polydectes his triumph.


After the slaying of the Gorgon Medusa, Perseus began the long journey back to his home of Seriphus with the prized head of Medusa in tow.

On the way back to Seriphus, Perseus was challenged by the god Atlas to take a turn carrying the world on his shoulders. When it became clear that Atlas was threatening Perseus, he used the head of Medusa to turn the god to stone in what is now known as the Atlas Mountain Range.

Perseus’ later triumphs and legacy

Before arriving in Seriphus, Perseus came upon the princess Andromeda in Ethiopia who was chained to a rock and waiting to be devoured by sea beasts.

These beasts of the sea were jealous of Andromeda after her mother bragged she was more beautiful than they were. Perseus fell in love with the princess and fought off Cetus, Poseidon’s beast of the sea, turning him to stone with Medusa’s head.


Upon returning to Seriphus and learning the extent of King Polydectes’ plot and harassment of his mother, Danae, in his absence, Perseus revealed Medusa’s head to the king and his court, turning them to stone in an instant.

Perseus had seven children with Andromeda, and his granddaughter was Alcmene, mother of Heracles. Perseus is also known as the founder of the city Mycenae and the Perseid dynasty. There are many sacred sites dedicated to the hero in the cities of Seriphus, Mycenae, Athens, and Argos.

The hero Heracles

One of the greatest and most celebrated of Ancient Greek heroes was the demi-god Heracles, or Hercules as he is commonly known today. This iconic hero was seen as the epitome of heroism and masculinity in Ancient Greece.

As the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus, Heracles showed impressive strength even as an infant. When Zeus’s wife sent two snakes to his crib in an act of jealousy, Heracles strangled them.


From hunting and strangling lions to defending local tribes, Heracles’s growth into adulthood was one of courage and strength that established his reputation. However, it wasn’t until his marriage to the Princess of Thebes, Megara, that his strength was truly put to the test. In a final act of jealousy, Hera cursed Heracles with madness which led him to slay his wife, Megara, and their children.

Distraught and attempting to make amends for his actions, Heracles consulted the Delphic oracle who told him to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns for the next ten years and do anything asked of him by the king. This punishment would turn into what is now known as Heracles’s Twelve Labors.

Heracles’ labors

While in service to Eurystheus, Heracles was forced to endure ten labors including ​​killing the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra, capturing the Ceryneian Hind the Erymanthian Boar, cleaning the stables of Augeas in one day, and killing the Stymphalian Birds.

He was also tasked with capturing the Cretan Bull, stealing the Mares of Diomedes and the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons and finally stealing the cattle of the Gorgon monster Geryon.

Heracles completed these tasks, but King Eurystheus was not pleased. He tasked Heracles with two additional labors since two of the original ten he believed Heracles to have cheated or received help in completing.

Heracles’ final two labors were stealing the Hesperidean Apples and capturing Cerberus, the three-headed pet dog of the god Hades who served as guardian of the underworld. After completing these final two tasks with cunning and strength, Eurystheus is finally satisfied.

Heracles’ legacy and worship

The demi-god Heracles was one of the most widely worshiped heroes of Ancient Greece. His life was one of bravery and courage and cemented him as a symbol of fertility, masculinity, and strength.

The most notable of the cults devoted to the worship of this hero was in Thebes, the place where Heracles was said to be born. In some tellings of the myths of Heracles, he was said to be taken up to the home of the gods after his death while in others, such as in Homer’s The Odyssey he was taken to the underworld where his ghost demanded awe and respect even in the afterlife.


These different variations of Heracles’ afterlife lead him to be worshiped as both a god and a hero and led to localized cults and sacred sites developing their own individual ways of worshiping the Greek hero.

Heracles is often depicted in Ancient art and sculptures with a club or shield and wearing a lion-skin cape from his first victory in slaying a lion as a young man.

The hero Odysseus

The protagonist of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey was a legendary hero of Greek mythology known for his cunning and trickery. Odysseus was the only son of Laertes and Anticlea and his name means ‘to be at odds with’ demonstrating the trials of his life right from the beginning.


Known as a cunning trickster with unmatched eloquence, it was believed that Odysseus was the descendant of the tricky Sisyphus or Autolycus, son of Hermes. He was scarred as a young man while hunting a boar with his grandfather, a physical trait that would go on to be an integral part of his life story and legacy.

Odysseus’ journey home

Odysseus was a suitor of Helen of Troy but eventually left Troy and married the princess Penelope with whom he had a son, Telemachus.

When Helen of Troy was abducted, all of her former suitors were summoned to find her and fight for her honor. Odysseus was reluctant to respond to this summons after the ​​seer Halitherses warned him that if he left, his journey home would be long and arduous.

To avoid this summons to fight, Odysseus feigned madness. However, his ploy was revealed when put to the test and Odysseus was forced to fight for the Greeks in the Trojan war. His presence in the war is credited with the Greeks’ victory over the city of Troy and established Odysseus as a heroic presence in battle.


Though he was not known for his physical strength or stature, it was Odysseus’ cunning and wisdom, and strategy that made him a hero of war and one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War.

Odysseus’ long journey home

After the Trojan War, Odysseus embarked on a long and arduous ten-year journey to return to his home in Ithaca and his wife Penelope.

Odysseus embarked on the journey home with twelve ships and after first being washed up on the shores of Thrace from a storm and narrowly escaping, he had to overcome temptation and possibly forget the promise of home when reaching the land of the Lotus Eaters. His journey home led Odysseus to face the wrath of gods, battle creatures, and beasts, and even journey to the underworld before finally reaching the shores of his home, Ithaca.


Upon reaching Ithaca, he reunited with his son Telemachus and together they, with the help of a shepherd Eumaeus, slay all the suitors of his wife, Penelope, and Odysseus is able to return to his home and throne.

This journey is immortalized in Homer’s The Odyssey. Although there is little historical proof of the existence of Odysseus or any greek heroes, this epic poem united the myths of the hero into one chronology and painted a vision of a shared history of Greece that all the people of Ancient Greece, from the aristocracy and scholars to the farmers and beggars could participate in.

The importance of heroes

According to Homer, ‘heroi’ were the greatest living warriors. These men were mortals that demonstrated gifts of strength, cunning, wisdom, or virtue that transcended what is normally seen in humanity.

The myths of Greek heroes were an important part of Ancient Greek culture. They united the Ancient Greeks in a pseudo-historical version of history, such as the many heroes that emerged from the myths of the Trojan War.

While there is little historical evidence for the existence or lives of the Greek heroes, they were an integral part of the history of a community or people and provided a standard of excellence or virtue to live up to.

These heroic figures are worshiped nearly like gods and hold a mythical place in society, but they are also influenced by folklore and superstition.

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