Heroes: A Motley Crew


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A short discussion of heroes including Theseus, Perseus, and Arthur.

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Heroes: A Motley Crew

  1. 1. Heroes
  2. 2. Gil et al   Heroes are a bit of a motley crew, but many of them share the share traits and incorporate standards of Gilgamesh into their tales.  The hero changes over the centuries—there is the reluctant hero who must be encouraged or pushed to undertake his quest, and there is the anti-hero.  The anti-hero is the protagonist who lacks the, ahem, finer qualities that most heroes possess. They might be liars, lack altruism, or they just are not . . . heroic!
  3. 3.  The anti-hero can be a rogue or even the “bad guy,” but usually, will come to forefront when things get tough.  Han Solo begins as an anti-hero. He is not into making the universe safe for democracy; his interest is in saving his skin and making a buck. However, he does a turnaround and in the process, becomes a hero.  In modern times, the anti-hero is also symbolic of the outsider, the person (yes, usually a male), who “goes it alone,” alienated from society. The rebel archetype is often an anti-hero, as exemplified by James Dean in the 1950s.  But before there was a James Dean, there was Theseus, Perseus, and Arthur.
  4. 4. Theseus • The myth of Theseus serves a couple of Campbell’s functions of myth. In addition to being a “simple” hero tale, it is also a strong indicator of relations between Crete and Greece. His victory over the Minotaur is most likely historical allegory for the mainland breaking the dominance of Minoan society. • Theseus, however, also sets some standards for later heroic myth as did Gilgamesh—while also incorporating aspects of the Sumerian tale.
  5. 5. • As was Gilgamesh, Theseus was half god and mortal. However, his mother, Aethra, lay with Poseidon and Aegeus (king of Athens) on the same night. Theseus was recognized as a son by “both” of his fathers. • Like many other heroes, he grew up without knowing either of his fathers. • As Arthur does later, Theseus must prove his strength and his lineage in order to receive his birthright
  6. 6.  Arthur is not a god (and he will be discussed later), but he does fit into the mold of the hero. He and Theseus, though separated by thousands of years, by geography, and by culture, share similar experiences.  When Aegeus leaves Aethra after their tryst, he puts a pair of sandals and a sword under a rock, telling Aethra that if a son is born, he should try lifting the rock when he is of age. If he can lift the rock, he is to travel to Athens to claim his birthright.  Arthur, raised by Sir Kay, must draw his real father’s (Uther Pendragon) sword from a stone, thus claiming his birthright.
  7. 7. Theseus, Arthur, rocks, and swords.
  8. 8.  Shoes or sandals do not figure in Arthur’s tale, but shoes are prominent in other myths; they are symbolic of wealth. Poor people went barefoot or wrapped their feet in whatever they could find. Rich and noble people wore shoes.  In modern times, we do not always understand the importance of shoes OR swords. Again, poor people did not own swords. Metal was at a premium and a well cast sword was a treasure; swords were passed down from father to son. Both Theseus and Arthur’s ability to retrieve their respective sword showed that they were worthy and were of royal lineage.
  9. 9.  Theseus goes on a quest—first to Athens, then to Crete. In Crete, he slays the minotaur.  When Theseus becomes king of Athens, he suffers from hubris, and the result is akin to Gil and Enkidu’s tale. Along with his friend, Peirithous (sidekick), he makes a trip into the underworld. After abusing Hades’ hospitality, the pair are invited to sit on a bench where they become stuck fast. Heracles rescues Theseus, but not Peirithous—like Gil and Enkidu, the friends are parted and one must stay in the underworld. (There are variant myths in which both are rescued.)  Theseus loses a part of his derriere to the bench.
  10. 10. Perseus   Perseus is another Greek character fitting the role of the archetypal hero.  His father is Zeus; Zeus impregnates Danae, Perseus’ mother, via a stream of gold when she is imprisoned by her father, Acrisius. As in other tales, it is prophesied that if Danae has a son, the son will grow up to kill his grandfather. This theme of patricide is rampant in Greek myth and is found in other mythoi, as well. After Perseus is born, Acrisius sets the pair afloat in a box—reminiscent of Osiris being imprisoned in a box and set afloat on the Nile.
  11. 11.  An aside! Acrisius does not kill the pair outright for a reason: by setting them afloat, their fate is in the hands of the gods. Acrisius is not “responsible” for their deaths. This is why Greeks left their unwanted children exposed on hillsides; they avoided penalties for killing their children. We will see this in the myth of Oedipus.  The aspect of fate is strong in this myth: by trying to avoid his fate, Acrisius essentially brings it into being. As Gil cannot avoid death, characters in Greek myths cannot avoid their fates; Acrisius dies at the hands of Perseus, Oedipus marries his mother and kills his father, and Troy falls because of the actions of Paris.  Perseus’ BIG quest was to kill Medusa and to save Andromeda.
  12. 12.  Clash of the Titans aside (I have a bitter taste in my mouth for even thinking those words), Cassiopeia had a husband and they sought to kill Perseus after he rescued Andromeda.  Do NOT trust movies based on myths—’nuff said.
  13. 13. Arthur   Arthur, like other heroic figures, may well be based on a historical personage, but his origins are largely lost to time while his legend/myth remains.  The last fiasco of a movie that I saw had Arthur in Scotland. The gods weep. Although Wales might not have existed (per se) when the “real” Arthur would have been alive, he is still Welsh, through and through, as is Merlin (Myrddin); he is also associated with Cornwall—but I digress.  Arthur is a “Corn King,” a human who sacrifices himself—or is sacrificed—for the good of country and/or humanity. Corn Kings are often intimately intertwined with the fertility or wellbeing of their countries; Arthur and Oedipus fit into this category (we will look at Oedipus in a separate module).
  14. 14.  As mentioned, Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon, and while he is not the son of a deity, he is conceived by magical means when Merlin helps Uther lie with Ygraine, the wife of the Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Merlin transforms Uther into the likeness of Gorlois and thus, he is able to fool Ygraine. As with Perseus’ conception, all is ordained.  However, Merlin takes Arthur from Ygraine at birth and he is given to Sir Ector to raise as his son; fulfilling the heroic standard of being separated from his biological parents.’  When Arthur is still quite young, he pulls a sword from a stone where it had been plunged by Merlin. Only the heir of Uther could accomplish this feat. An aside: The “identity” of the sword is disputed. Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake—the sword he withdrew was very likely broken in a fight with King Pellinore.
  15. 15.  Arthur unites the Bretons and becomes king, leading a faerie tale life in Camelot. The best known tales of his lore include his knights of the Round Table (including Lancelot) and his quest for the Holy Grail. However, Lancelot and other “factors” are later additions to the tales; we will examine these because they are the myths/legends that have become associated with Arthur.  Arthur’s quest for the grail (which, in reality, is performed by his knights) is a Christianized addition.  And I am stopping here! In the next module, we will read Oedipus the King by Sophocles and compare Arthur to Oedipus: this gives you something to look forward to.