Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Heroes — Perseus, Bellerophon, and Heracles
King Acrisius ruled Argos but possessed no heir who could take over the kingdom when he died. His only child was a lovely maiden, Danaë, but girls did not count for much then. Acrisius went to an oracle that informed him he would have no son, but that his own grandson would kill him. Greatly alarmed, the king had an underground chamber built, one with a skylight, and he imprisoned his daughter there in order that she might bear no children. However, Zeus saw the beautiful Danaë in her bronzed chamber and visited her in the form of a golden shower. Nine months later she gave birth to a son, Perseus. When Acrisius learned of this he hesitated to put them both directly to death, so instead he had his daughter and grandson sealed in a chest and cast adrift in the sea.
At length the chest landed on the beach of an island, where it was found and opened by a fisherman named Dictys. Being a kindly person, Dictys took the forlorn Danaë and her infant son home to his wife. The couple decided that they would care for Danaë and raise Perseus as if he were their own son, since they themselves were childless. Thus Perseus grew to manhood in congenial circumstances.
Danaë did not lose her beauty with the passing years, and Dictys' brother, the tyrannical king Polydectes, wished to make her his wife. But Polydectes regarded Perseus as a hindrance to his plans. Therefore he announced that he was going to marry another woman, which meant that everyone would have to present him with a gift. At the gift-giving feast Perseus was the only person present without anything to bestow upon the king. In his mortification Perseus rashly promised to bring the head of the Gorgon Medusa back as a gift. Polydectes was pleased, knowing that Perseus would die in the attempt, for one look from that hideous snake-headed monster turned men to stone. And even if Perseus should succeed, Polydectes would have a coveted trophy.
Perseus left the king's hall immediately and set sail for Greece, too upset to bid goodbye to his mother and foster parents. He went to Delphi to learn the whereabouts of the Gorgons, and while the oracle could not tell him it directed him to Dodona, the land of the whispering oaks. There Perseus learned nothing except that the gods were watching over him. Eventually though, Perseus met the god Hermes, who told him he must acquire some equipment from the Stygian nymphs. A pair of flying sandals, a magic wallet, and a helmet of invisibility would be essential for his success. Yet only the Graeae, or three gray women, knew the way to the Stygian nymphs. These crones lived far to the West beyond the river Ocean, and they had but one eye among the three of them. Hermes guided the young hero to them, and while one of the gray women was passing that single eye to another, Perseus jumped from behind and grabbed it. To get their eye back the Graeae told him where the Stygian nymphs lived. Again Hermes guided him there, and they borrowed the sandals, wallet, and helmet. In addition Hermes presented Perseus with a very sharp sickle with which to sever the Medusa's head.
Athena, too, proved helpful to Perseus, for she showed him how to distinguish between the three awful Gorgons, of whom only Medusa could be killed. The goddess also gave Perseus a mirror-like shield that would enable him to see the Gorgons without being instantly petrified. After this lengthy preparation, the hero was at last ready to take on the Medusa.
With his winged sandals he flew to the land of the Hyperboreans, and there he found the Gorgons sleeping. Gazing into his mirrored shield, Perseus approached them. As Athena guided his hand he struck off the monstrous head with one blow. From the blood of Medusa there sprang forth Pegasus, the winged horse, and a terrible warrior. Quickly Perseus put the head in his magic wallet and put on his helmet of invisibility. He did so in the nick of time, for immediately the other two Gorgons awoke. Seeing their slain sister, they set off to pursue and kill her murderer. But Perseus had no trouble eluding them, being able to fly without being seen.
He traveled south to Gibraltar and then east over Libya and Egypt. On the coast of Philistia he saw a beautiful, naked young woman chained to a rock. This was the princess Andromeda, who was awaiting execution at the hands of a sea-monster because her stupid, vain mother had claimed she was more lovely than the Nereids, or nymphs of the sea. Perseus fell in love with her and hastily arranged with her parents that if he could rescue her she would be his wife. When the monster appeared Perseus lopped its head off and freed Andromeda. Her parents, however, went back on their word, claiming that a previous suitor had a better right to their daughter. In addition, they summoned warriors to kill the hero. Since he found himself faced with too many enemies, Perseus drew the gory head from his wallet and transformed his antagonists to stone. Among them were Andromeda's parents, Cepheus and Cassiopia, who were turned into constellations for their treachery. But Perseus had acquired a wife.
He returned with her to the island where he had been raised and found that his mother, Danaë, and his guardian, Dictys, had fled to a temple for refuge from the courtship and vindictiveness of King Polydectes. Perseus went to the king's banquet hall to find Polydectes and his companions feasting. Greeted with insults, he pulled out the Medusa head as his gift for the king and changed Polydectes and the others into boulders.
To reward Athena for her aid Perseus gave her the head to wear on her breastplate, the aegis. And he returned the sandals, wallet, and helmet to the Stygian nymphs by means of Hermes. After making Dictys the new king of the island, Perseus set sail for his grandfather's kingdom of Argos, taking his mother and wife. He had hoped to be reconciled to King Acrisius, but the king no longer ruled there, having fled on learning that the grandson who was to kill him was a hero. Before long Perseus heard that the king of Larissa was going to hold an athletic competition, and he decided to enter. During the discus-throwing contest Perseus' discus was caught by the wind, which diverted it into the throng of spectators, where it killed an old man. The victim, of course, was King Acrisius, who had sealed Danaë and Perseus in a chest years before and cast them off to sea. Thus the oracle was fulfilled.
Stricken with guilt for killing a member of his family Perseus arranged to exchange kingdoms with an uncle, giving Argos for Tiryns. As a king he recaptured lost territories and fortified his city. And having settled down with Andromeda, he fathered a number of sons. Through these he became the ancestor of the great Heracles.
Corinth was the location of Bellerophon's family. His grandfather Sisyphus, for informing on Zeus, was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill forever in the underworld. His father, Glaucus, who fed human flesh to horses to make them savage, was trampled and devoured by those same horses at the will of Aphrodite. And Bellerophon himself had a luckless beginning. He murdered a fellow townsman named Bellerus, and by accident he killed his own brother.
Bellerophon went into exile and arrived at the court of King Proetus. The wife of Proetus fell in love with the handsome young man and attempted to seduce him, but he rejected her advances. To retaliate she told her husband that Bellerophon had tried to rape her. King Proetus did not want to kill a guest, fearing the punishment of Zeus, so he sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law, King Iobates, with instructions that Bellerophon be put to death.
At Iobates' court Bellerophon was well received. After entertaining him as a guest, Iobates asked to see the sealed letter. Upon opening it Iobates was filled with the same consternation that had filled Proetus, for he too could not kill a guest. But as an expedient Iobates decided to send Bellerophon off on dangerous missions that were bound to finish him off.
Now Bellerophon had one consuming passion, which was to possess the winged horse, Pegasus, that had sprung from Medusa's blood. On sound advice he went to sleep in Athena's temple, and upon awakening he found a golden bridle beside him. With this bridle he went into the fields and discovered Pegasus drinking from a spring. Bellerophon had no trouble in putting the bridle on the horse and mounting it. In his suit of armor he and Pegasus glided through the air and performed marvelous stunts. With his new steed he felt ready to undertake any exploits that King Iobates had in mind.
His first task was to kill the Chimaera, a formidable fire-breathing monster with the front of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. Bellerophon attacked the Chimaera from the air, riding Pegasus and shooting arrows at the monster. Finally he took a lance with a lump of lead on its end and held it to the beast's mouth. The flaming tongue melted the lead, which ran down in the belly and killed the Chimaera.
Iobates then sent Bellerophon against his enemies, the Solymi, but they were no match for Bellerophon's airborne assault with boulders. The king sent the hero against the Amazons as well, and he defeated them in the same manner. At his wit's end Iobates prepared an ambuscade for Bellerophon on his way home, and again he defeated the attack. Having failed to do away with the amazing young man, Iobates came to admire him for his valor and awarded Bellerophon his daughter for a wife.
However, Bellerophon's success did not last. After living in prosperity for several years Bellerophon decided that he belonged on Olympus for his famous deeds. Taking to Pegasus, he soared into the sky. But Zeus grew angry at this mortal's presumption and sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus under the tail. The horse bolted, throwing Bellerophon to the earth. Lame and cursed by the gods, the poor hero isolated himself completely from the company of men. Devoured by anguish, he wandered alone like a fugitive until he died. Zeus meanwhile had taken Pegasus into his own stable and used the wondrous horse to carry thunderbolts.
The most powerful and glorious hero of all was Heracles, better known by his Latin name as Hercules. A man of surpassing strength and coordination, he was able to perform super-human feats. Yet it was small wonder because he was the son of Zeus, and Zeus had arranged that one day Heracles should become a god. A protector, friend, and adviser to men, he also performed services for the gods, helping them defeat the Giants and rescuing Prometheus from his punishment in the Caucasus. Heracles was honored throughout Greece, and in honor of athletic prowess he instituted the Olympic games.
The last mortal woman that Zeus ever slept with was Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon, a woman renowned for her virtue, beauty, and wisdom. Zeus had selected her not for his own enjoyment primarily but because she was the aptest choice for bearing the greatest hero of all time. He wanted this last affair to be absolutely special. While Amphitryon was off fighting a battle, Zeus came to Alcmene disguised as her husband and lay with her for one very long night, regaling her in the meantime with stories of his victories. When the real Amphitryon arrived home shortly afterward he was surprised at his wife's lack of enthusiasm and her boredom when he recounted his military successes. She even seemed bored as he lay with her.
Nine months later Alcmene was about to give birth to twins. On the day on which Heracles should have been born, Zeus took a solemn oath that the descendant of Perseus born on that day would rule Greece. In a jealous fit Hera managed to delay Alcmene's delivery by magic and to induce an early delivery in a woman bearing another of Perseus' descendants. The result was that the infant Eurystheus was destined to rule Greece instead of Heracles. But Zeus in his anger made Hera agree that if Heracles should perform twelve tasks for Eurystheus he would become a god.
Alcmene gave birth to Heracles, the son of Zeus, and to Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon. When these twins were about a year old Hera sent two serpents to destroy Heracles in his crib. While Iphicles screamed and tried to escape, Heracles strangled the snakes, one in each hand. In his schooling Heracles preferred the athletic disciplines, over which he gained easy mastery, but he was never much of a thinker. Given to rash acts, he brained his music tutor with a lyre. After that Amphitryon sent him into the hills with shepherds. By the age of eighteen he had become the strongest man in the world as well as the ablest athlete, a hero possessed of great courage. Ordinarily a man of courtesy, he was prone to violent fits of temper under provocation, and sometimes he regretted his impulsive rages.
A lion was killing Amphitryon's cattle and Heracles went searching for it. On his first expedition he had the satisfaction of sleeping with King Thespius' fifty daughters with the father's consent. From these matings fifty-one sons were engendered. At length Heracles killed the lion. From it he made a cape and hood. In representations of him he was usually depicted wearing this lion-skin garment and holding the olivewood club with which he killed it.
The city of Thebes was forced to pay tribute to the Minyan king as reparation. Meeting the heralds who had come to collect this tribute, Heracles was treated with insolence so he cut off their ears, noses, and hands and sent them home. This precipitated a war in which the Minyans had the advantage. But with Athena's aid and his own reckless daring, Heracles helped the Thebans defeat their enemies. As a reward King Creon gave the hero his daughter Megara as a wife. But marriage did little to tame Heracles' rashness. Even the responsibility of raising sons could not curb him. So Hera sent a frenzied madness upon him in which he brutally slaughtered his children and wife. When he came to his senses he was overcome with horror and guilt. Despite the meager consolations held out by his friend Theseus and others, he contemplated suicide. Finally he went to the oracle at Delphi to learn how he could expiate his crime. The oracle informed him that he would have to submit himself to King Eurystheus of Mycenae as a slave and perform whatever tasks his royal cousin should command.
Although far inferior to Heracles in courage and might Eurystheus had cunning, and he devised a series of tasks that were next to impossible to complete. These were the "Twelve Labors of Heracles" that the hero undertook in his twelve years of servitude to the spiteful king.
His first labor was to kill the Nemean lion, an animal with an impenetrable hide. After vainly attacking it with arrows Heracles finally throttled the beast with his bare hands and carried it back to Mycenae. Eurystheus then resolved that Heracles must remain outside the city.
His second labor was to destroy the Lernaean Hydra, a serpent with nine heads and poisonous breath that lived in the swamps and ravaged crops and cattle. Having flushed the Hydra out of its lair Heracles attempted to club off its heads, but for every head that fell two grew in its place. With the help of his nephew Iolaus, who branded the severed necks, Heracles was able to kill the monster. He used the Hydra's blood to poison his arrows.
The third labor was to capture a deer with golden horns that lived on Mount Ceryneia and bring it back alive, an exploit that took Heracles a full year.
His fourth labor was to capture the wild boar of Erymanthus that was devastating nearby lands. On this expedition Heracles was treated hospitably by the Centaur Pholus, who opened a barrel of wine for him. But then other Centaurs savagely demanded it, and Heracles had to rout them with arrows. When he brought the boar back, Heracles showed it to Eurystheus, who was so terrified that he hid.
The fifth labor was to clean the Augean stables in one day. Since Augeas had thousands of cattle and their stables had not been cleaned for years the job seemed incredible, but Heracles diverted two rivers into the stalls that promptly cleaned the mess.
For his sixth labor Heracles was to drive away the enormous number of birds that were plaguing the people of Stymphalus. Athena helped drive the birds from their thickets and Heracles slew these flesh-eating birds with arrows.
The seventh labor involved capturing a maddened Cretan bull that Poseidon had given King Minos. Heracles mastered the animal and brought it back to Eurystheus.
His eighth labor was to capture the man-eating mares of Diomedes, which he could only accomplish by first killing their guardians and fighting off an army. He then served the horses' flesh to Diomedes. At this time he also rescued Queen Alcestis by fighting off Death when she was scheduled to die in her husband's place.
The ninth labor was to fetch the splendid girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta greeted Heracles cordially and agreed to part with the girdle. Hera, however, spread the rumor that the hero was going to abduct Hippolyta, so the Amazons seized their weapons. Thinking that the queen was behind the assault, Heracles killed her and many of the Amazons.
The tenth labor required stealing the cattle of Geryon, a triple-bodied monster on a Western isle. On his journey the hero set up the Pillars of Heracles to commemorate the trip. These were two enormous rocks, one of which was Gibraltar. Heracles slew Geryon, and after numerous difficulties he got the cattle home.
The eleventh labor consisted of getting the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. These were in a fabulous land far to the west, and they were guarded by goddesses. On his way Heracles met the gigantic bandit Antaeus, who forced strangers to wrestle with him and who gained great strength from contact with the ground. Heracles strangled him by holding him in the air. Finally the hero reached Atlas, the father of the Hesperides, who was holding up the sky. Atlas agreed to get the apples if Heracles would hold up the heavens in his place, and Heracles consented. Having fetched the golden apples Atlas decided to let Heracles hold up the sky forever. Heracles was dismayed and said he needed a cushion to ease the load, whereupon the stupid Atlas took back the burden and Heracles picked up the apples and sauntered off.
His twelfth labor involved bringing back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld. Hermes guided him into the netherworld, where Heracles rescued his friend Theseus from the Chair of Oblivion. He obtained permission to take Cerberus home, provided he used only his hands. Heracles attacked the monstrous dog, driving the wind from it, and forcibly led it back to Eurystheus, who bid him return the beast to Hades. With that deed his servitude to Eurystheus ended and his penitence for the murders of his wife and children was complete. In addition Heracles had earned the status of a demi-god, for he had fulfilled the requirement of Zeus.
Most heroes would have settled down after that, but not Heracles. King Eurytus was offering his daughter Tole to the man who could beat him in an archery contest. When Heracles won, Eurytus did not keep his word, and the hero vowed to get even. Moreover, Eurytus' eldest son, Iphitus, asked Heracles to help him find some stolen cattle. Enraged, Heracles slew Iphitus, and once again he had to consult the oracle at Delphi to learn how he might purge this crime. But this time the Delphic priestess refused to answer, so Heracles seized her tripod and threatened to set up his own oracle. Apollo became furious at this and would have fought with Heracles if Zeus hadn't intervened. Zeus made Heracles return the tripod and ordered that the priestess deliver an answer. She then told Heracles he had to be sold into slavery for three years and that his wages were to be paid to King Eurytus, the father of the murdered man.
Heracles submitted to his fate and was sold anonymously at auction to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who set the brawny hero to women's tasks. Nevertheless, Heracles fathered three sons on Omphale, rid her kingdom of bandits, captured a band of evil spirits, killed two murderous kings who forced strangers to work for them, and slew a gigantic serpent that was devastating the land. By this time Omphale had guessed the identity of her slave and she released him.
The hero was never one to forgive injuries. When King Laomedon refused to reward him for the rescue of his daughter Hesione, Heracles attacked Troy, killed Laomedon, and married Hesione off to his comrade Telamon. After receiving bad treatment from the inhabitants of the island of Cos, he sacked the place and slaughtered its king. Nor had he forgotten that King Augeas had never paid him for cleaning the stables. While laying Augeas' kingdom to waste, Heracles had to fight the Molionids, Poseidon's sons with one body, two heads, four arms, and four legs. No one managed to insult, cheat, or battle with Heracles and live.
His biggest grudge, however, was against King Eurytus, who had refused him his daughter Iole as the prize in an archery contest. Heracles had married Deianeira, and after accidentally killing her brother-in-law he was forced to flee. At a river crossing Heracles put his wife on the back of the Centaur Nessus. In midstream Nessus tried to violate Deianeira, so Heracles shot him with an arrow. But before Nessus died he gave Deianeira his blood as a love-charm to win Heracles' affection. At length Heracles set forth against Eurytus and killed him and his sons, taking the lovely Iole captive. Now Deianeira, realizing that Heracles loved Iole, soaked a shirt of his in Nessus' blood to win his love. And when Heracles put on the shirt he began to suffer a lingering, agonizing death, for of course Nessus had tricked Deianeira and achieved his revenge on the man who had slain him. Writhing with pain, Heracles grabbed a man and flung him into the sea. Then he began uprooting pines to build a funeral pyre for himself, and when it was completed he climbed upon it and ordered that fire be set to it. As the flames reached his body Heracles vanished in an apotheosis of lightning. And he was received into Olympus as the son of Zeus. There he married Hebe, the cupbearer, and enjoyed the life of the gods.
In Perseus, Bellerophon, and Heracles we have three heroes renowned for monster-killing. Perseus slew the Gorgon Medusa; Bellerophon killed the Chimaera; and Heracles destroyed several monsters, including the Hydra. Yet each is distinct. Perseus is both elegant and impulsive, a man of loyalty to his family and friends, a dangerous foe to those who cross him, and a person blessed by the gods to perform one great deed. Bellerophon is violent and reckless, a killer who has the good luck to tame Pegasus and thereby achieve all his successes. But the source of his triumphs is also the means of his downfall, for Pegasus throws him in attempting to reach Olympus. Heracles, too, is violent and reckless, but he has the grace to repent his wicked acts and to expiate them through arduous work. Lacking in real intelligence, Heracles must earn his heroism through sheer strength and skill. He is masculinity gone wild, begetting about eighty sons on various women, killing monsters, tyrants, and ordinary men alike, mastering savage creatures, and paying for his crimes with years of service.
One feature common to these stories is that each hero is obligated to some king when he performs his greatest acts. Perseus, Bellerophon, and Heracles gain their heroic laurels from necessity, because they are pledged to it and because their sense of honor demands it. Honor is naturally the driving force behind heroism, but it can also lead a man to rash criminal acts. Bellerophon ascending Olympus and Heracles killing Iphitus are examples of heroes violating the limits of human decency through pride. The Greeks were always aware of this double side to the hero, for it recurs many times in their myths.