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Jeffrey Rusten-The Dawn And Twilight Of The Mythical Heroes


Athena counseling Diomedes shortly before he enters the battle. Schlossbrücke, Berlin.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are excerpts from the introduction of Philostratus’ ‘Heroicus’ written at the time of the Roman Severan dynasty, under the patronage of Empress Julia Domna, who also commissioned him to write the ‘Life of Apollonius of Tyana’. Here, in this introduction by Jeffrey Rusten in the 2014 Loeb edition dedicated to the ‘Heroicus’, the ‘Gymnasticus’ (that we will present soon as it is also an exciting text) and his ‘Discourses’, we discover the multi-layered role of the mythical heroes.


The Greek word ‘heros’ (plural, heroes) is found already in Mycenaean Greek, and especially in Homer. Etymologically, a connection with Hera is likely, and the word occurs in Mycenaean Greek in an apparently religious sense. But in Homer it is used of warriors, without any religious significance whatsoever. Hesiod uses the word in the same way, for the warriors of the Iliad, together with preceding generations who fought at Thebes (and sailed the Argo as well), are also called ‘heroes’ by Hesiod, and one can speak of the ‘heroic verses’ of Homer/

Hero cult in a religious sense can be documented archeologically. In the Argolid (especially in Mycenae), Attica, Messenia, Phocis, Boeocia, and elsewhere, beginning in the eighth century B.C., graves of the Mycenaean period centuries before were uncovered and instead of being cleared away were venerated with votive offerings and animal sacrifices. It seems that these are not a continuation of a Mycenaean cult of the dead after so long and interval; rather it was the strangeness of the newly discovered burials, their revelation of a society so different from geometric Greece, that evoked a religious response.

 Palamedes by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

The first appearance of these holy remains in literature suggests that they were not originally identified as ‘heroes’, or connected with epic poetry. In the ‘Works and Days’, Hesiod describes four ages of men, of descending quality-gold, silver, bronze, and iron-and interpolated between the last tow still another age of ‘heroes’, those who fought at Thebes and Troy and were removed by Zeus to everlasting happiness on the island of the blessed. But of these men of the golden age he says (121-26):

But now that the earth has covered this race

They are spirits (daimones), by the counsel of Zeus the Great,

Of good on earth, and guardians of mortals…

Givers of wealth: this is their honor, worthy of kings.”

Sarcophagus with scenes of the myth of Protesilaus and Laodamia.
The frontal panel.
Marble. Late 2nd century CE.
Naples, Santa Chiara Church.

To the next generation of silver (which is more violent, and accordingly shorter lived), Hesiod allots a complementary fate (140-42):

“But now that the earth has covered this race,

They are called the blessed mortals beneath the earth,

Second in rank, but nevertheless, honors also attends them.”

Whereas the first group is called ‘spirits upon the earth’, to distinguish them from gods, the second is ‘beneath the earth’, to distinguish them from the fist. But they represent two sides of the same belief: That the unknow dead of the distant past retain the power, on earth or under it, to guard or punish men of a later day.

By the sixth century, however, the word ‘heros’ itself is first used to describe the formerly living recipient of a religious cult. Heraclitus of Ephesus uses it to criticize men who pray:

” And they pray to these images as if they were chatting with houses,

not recognizing what gods or even heroes are like.” (VS. 22 B5, translated by Kahn, 1979)

The same author speaks (as Hesiod did of the golden age) of ‘guardians’ (fýlax), wakeful over the living and the dead. Pindar gives a definition of its religious sense in his account of life after death for selected mortals (fragment 133):

“For those from whom Persephone accepts requital for her ancient grief, she surrenders up their souls again to the upper sun in the ninth year. From these are nurtured haughty kings and men swift in strength and greatest in wisdom; and they are called by men ‘holy heroes’ for the rest of time.”

He could also categorize the possible subject of a victory ode by asking:

“Hymns that rule the lyre,

What god, what hero, and what man shall we celebrate?”

‘Gods and heroes’ is now a standard expression to include greater and lesser divinities, and from this age onward the ‘heros’ has his full religious significance and becomes a pervasive and highly productive force in Greek religion and society.

Coinage of Thebai, Thessaly. Veiled head of Demeter, wearing wreath of grain ears / ΘHBAIΩИ, Protesilaos, wearing armor and short chiton, holding sword in right hand and shield in left, stepping off the prow of a galley; waves visible to the lower right. Early 3rd century BC


And here is a wee-bit more with a quote from Maximus of Tyre:

Not all ‘daimones’ perform all functions, however; now too, as in life, each is given a different job. It is here that we see the role of that susceptibility to the emotions that marks them off from God. \they do not want to rid themselves entirely of the natures that were theirs when they lived on earth. Asclepius continues to heal the sick, Herakles to perform mighty deeds, Dionysus to lead the revels, Amphilochus to give oracles, the Dioscuri to sail the seas, Minos to dispense justice, and Achilles to wield his weapons. Achilles dwells on an island on the Black Sea opposite the mouth of the Ister, where he has a temple and altars…According to the people of Troy, Hector remains on the site of his former home, and can be seen sweeping over the plain, flashing with light. I, myself have never seen either Hector or Achilles, but I have seen the Dioscuri, in the form of bright stars, righting a ship in a storm. I have seen Asclepius, and that not in a dream. I have seen Herakles, in walking reality.” (‘Orations’, 9,7, Trapp 1997, also found with Taylor, XXVII)

An Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias. A scene on an Attic amphora depicts the ancient Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a game to while away the hours at Troy. 
Jeffrey Rusten-The Dawn And Twilight Of The Mythical Heroes

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