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In modern times the word hero can be used to describe many different people. For example, a scientist that develops a cure for AIDs would be thought of to be heroic. Or perhaps one might deem teachers heroic for shaping the youth of tomorrow. Although these jobs are noble, they would not be deemed heroic by the Greeks. Today’s definition of a hero is comparatively broad to that of which the Greek’s would have considered the term of hero to describe. More accurately, a hero is someone who puts themselves in a position of death in order to obtain a morally just cause. This idea of self sacrifice is what makes a hero. In Greek literature, especially in poetry, there are several examples of heroes and heroines. I will specifically discuss Achilles of Homer’s Iliad, as well as Antigone in Sophocles Antigone, and why their character is of heroic stature.
In early Greek literature, such as Homer’s Iliad, a hero was more parallel to the concept of a warrior. In book I of The Iliad, Achilles is not just portrayed as a warrior, but is in fact introduced as “godlike” (Homer, 107). Achilles is an exemplum of one of the defining characteristics of epic poems in that he possesses godlike qualities, such as superhuman strength. In epic poems, the intervention and presence of the Greek gods is a persisting trait. Achilles is born of both mortal and immortal persons, his father a militant mortal Peleus and his mother the sea nymph Thetis. Due to these qualities and over the course of the poem, Achilles proves himself to be the most capable warrior of all.
Moreover, Achilles also proves himself a hero by surmising to the idea of self sacrifice. It has always been known that if Achilles kills Hector during the Greek and Trojan War, he will at some point be put to death by the gods. As described in book IX, “My mother Thetis, a moving silver grace, tells me two fates sweep me on my death. If I stay here and fight, I’ll never return home, but my glory will be undying forever. If I return home… my glory is lost but my life will be long,” (Homer, 141). Therefore Achilles does have the option of going home and living a long life. However, it is the death of Patroclus, Achilles best friend, that sways him to fight even though a sure death will come. This choice is namely why Achilles is a hero.
Another central theme to a Greek hero is that he is unable to be destroyed by any other man and therefore a central theme of self- destructiveness exists (Whitman).