The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hoursby Gregory Nagy
The ancient Greeks’ concept of “the hero” was very different from what we understand by the term today. In 24 installments, based on the Harvard course Gregory Nagy has taught and refined since the 1970s, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explores civilization’s roots in Classical literature, a lineage that continues to challenge and inspire us.
From the book:
By force of its prestige, the Iliad sets the standard for the definition of the word epic: an expansive poem of enormous scope, composed in an old-fashioned and superbly elevated style of language, concerning the wondrous deeds of heroes. That these deeds were meant to arouse a sense of wonder or marvel is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, especially in a time when even such words as wonderful or marvelous have lost much of their evocative power. Nor is it any easier to grasp the ancient Greek concept of hero (the English word is descended from the Greek), going beyond the word's ordinary levels of meaning in casual contemporary usage.
Who, then, were these heroes? In ancient Greek traditions, heroes were humans, male or female, of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves. A prime example is Achilles. The greatest hero of the Iliad, Achilles was the son of Thetis, a sea-goddess known for her far-reaching cosmic powers.
It is clear in the epic, however, that the father of Achilles is mortal, and that this greatest of heroes must therefore be mortal as well. So, too, with all the ancient Greek heroes: even though they are all descended in some way or another from the gods, however many generations removed, heroes are mortals, subject to death. No matter how many immortals you find in a family tree, the intrusion of even a single mortal will make all successive descendants mortal. Mortality, not immortality, is the dominant gene.
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Read an Excerpt
When Mortals Become ‘Equal’ to Immortals: Death of a Hero, Death of a Bridegroom
The Meaning of Daimon
The key word for this hour is daimon (plural daimones), which I translate for the moment simply as ‘superhuman force’. This word is used to refer to an unspecified god or hero intervening in human life. The word daimon is to be contrasted with theos ‘god’, which is used to refer to a specified god.
In this connection, we may compare the words polytheism and monotheism. Also henotheism. The term henotheism refers to the worshipping of one divinity at a time. I think of the one-at-a-time mentality of henotheism as serial monotheism.
On the ritual occasion of a wedding in ancient Greek society, what happens at the climactic moment of the wedding is the equating of mortal humans with the immortal gods. That is what we saw in Hour 4 when we were reading Song 44 of Sappho, about the Wedding of Hector and Andromache. In that song, the bridegroom and the bride are said to be theoeikeloi ‘looking just like the gods [theoi]’ (line 34). Now, as we will see here in Hour 5, the climactic moment of the ritual occasion of fighting in war is likewise signaled by the equating of mortal humans with immortal gods.
Meet the Author
Gregory Nagy is Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C.
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