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!
The anti-hero can be a rogue or even the “bad guy,”
but usually, will come to forefront when things get
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
But before there was a James Dean, there was Theseus,
Perseus, and Arthur.
• 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.
• 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
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
Arthur, raised by Sir Kay, must draw his real
father’s (Uther Pendragon) sword from a stone,
thus claiming his birthright.
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.
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
Theseus loses a part of his derriere to the bench.
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.
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
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
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
Do NOT trust movies
based on myths—’nuff
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).
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
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
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
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
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.