The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

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by Gregory Nagy

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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… See more details below


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.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement - Francesca Wade
[Nagy’s] analysis is fascinating, often ingenious… This book is a valuable synthesis of research finessed over thirty years… Complemented by a free online sourcebook, edited by Nagy, containing translations of all the ancient texts discussed, like an ancient hero it will provide a lasting legacy beyond the hora of its publication.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
There’s a vital subject at the heart of the book—more vital perhaps now than ever, since the concept of the ‘hero’ has been so overused and distorted in the 21st century that it scarcely has any meaning anymore, applying equally to Armed Services employees working in an accounting office in Qatar and elementary school teachers doing what they’d be fired if they didn’t do. Nagy exuberantly reminds his readers that heroes—mortal strivers against fate, against monsters, and, as we’ll see, against death itself—form the heart of Greek literature, the vital counterweight to the gaudy gods and goddesses who so often steal the limelight. He surveys the incredible feast of Greek literature from Homer and Hesiod to the tragedians (his extended analysis of Euripides’ Hippolytus, for instance, is a wondrous highlight of the book’s final marches) and overlays on top of that feast a neat but thin conceit of ‘hours’ characterized by certain ancient Greek concepts like Kleos, Memnemai, Akhos, Penthos, and Aphthito. The comprehensiveness of his coverage allows him to bring in every variation on the Greek hero, from the wily Theseus to the brawny Hercules to the ‘monolithic’ Achilles to the valiantly conflicted Oedipus, and that same sweep puts him in a perfect position to spot the linking factors and expound on them.
Choice - P. Nieto
This volume is a summation of the insights of a scholar who has devoted his life to these materials, and who has a deep, learned, and personal vision of the ancient Greek psyche, its values, and its manifestations in song and prose. The result is a stimulating tour of ancient Greek literature.
From the book

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.

The Hindu - M. S. Nagarajan
Backed by formidable learning and a vast ecumenical sweep embellished with details—yet written in a winningly readable informal style—The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offers to us penetrating considerations of the ways in which Greek classics continue to make themselves felt in our lives even today.
Times Higher Education - Barbara Graziosi
The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is Gregory Nagy’s MOOC book. The massive open online course is one of the most significant developments in higher education in years and Nagy is one of the foremost Homerists of his generation, so the book deserves attention both as an academic publication and as a pedagogical experiment. Scholars already familiar with Nagy’s work will not find radically new insights here. What they will appreciate is a systematic and exceptionally lucid statement of the research he has carried out over the past four decades… One of the greatest achievements of Nagy’s research is that it powerfully illuminates the relationship between myth and cult.

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Harvard University Press
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Hour 5.

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.

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