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Ancient Greek Heroes vs. Modern Heroes

Introduction

           The word hero brings to mind different things to different people, since people tend to have different concepts of heroism. This is particularly the case with regard to the concept of heroes in ancient and modern societies. As times have changed, the definition of heroes has also changed, in keeping with the changes in the modern society. However, ancient and modern heroes do share some similarities, which act as the basis of heroism regardless of one’s perspective. In view of this, a hero can be described as a courageous person, who deliberately sets out to conquer obstacles for the benefit others or one who performs extra ordinary feats. The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast ancient Greek heroes with modern heroes, for the purpose of understanding both concepts of heroism.

Differences

           There a few differences between modern and ancient Greek heroes, one of them being the religious background of the ancient Greek heroes. In Greek mythology, heroes were usually religious figures, specifically demigods. They were usually born from liaisons between mortal and immortal parents. These heroes were favored by the gods, hence were able to accomplish supernatural tasks, which were beyond the abilities of normal men. Hercules’ mother for instance was a mortal, while his father Zeus was a Greek god, who disguised himself as her husband. As a result, Hercules was a demigod, and was able to accomplish extraordinary feats. Modern heroes on the other hand are ordinary people, who are able to accomplish extraordinary tasks. At the same time, they are not restricted to religious cults, thus modern heroes originate from various backgrounds. Firemen for instance are ordinary men who are constantly laying their lives on the line to save people’s lives. They are neither demigods nor religious figures, and yet they are appropriately classified as heroes (Gamm).  
           The other aspect that sets apart ancient Greek heroes from modern heroes is that after their death, they were usually immortalized, achieving the status of gods. Consequently, they continued to perform heroic deeds after their deaths owing to their immortal status. Hercules, after living a heroic life on earth ascended to Olympus, after which he attained immortality, living among the gods. In keeping with his godly status, he could still influence people’s lives, since he had attained supernatural powers upon death. Modern heroes on the other hand do not attain a godly immortal status, but they become immortal by virtue of their achievements. It is their lifetime achievements that become immortalized, rather than their status as human beings. In addition, modern heroes are usually remembered for their achievements during their lifetimes, rather than what they achieve after their deaths (Jalkotzy & Lemos 364).   
           Greek heroes also differ from modern heroes in that they were both feared and admired at the same time. Owing to their supernatural powers, they had the capacity to protect or destroy the people depending on the prevailing circumstances. This is clearly illustrated in the story of Medea, who was the daughter to the king of Colchis. As is the case in Greek mythology, she had supernatural powers, being the granddaughter of Helios the sun god. She was considered a heroine, since she used her supernatural powers to help Jason to get the Golden Fleece from her father’s kingdom. She ran away with Jason to Iolcus, after which she became his wife. However, when Jason decided to take a second wife, she killed the prospective bride as well as her own children with him. It is therefore apparent here that Greek heroes could use their power to destroy or to protect the people (Scott 56). This contrasts with the modern heroes, who are only acknowledged based on performing good deeds towards humanity. Modern heroes are objects of admiration rather than fear, and are not associated in any way with deeds that could harm humanity. In the case of Mahatma Gandhi for instance, he is remembered for his non-violent activism, which ensured that the well-being of humanity was safeguarded. In the modern concept of heroism, people performing deeds that harm the well-being of human beings cannot be considered heroes (Berman 142).

Similarities

           As previously noted, just as there are differences between modern and ancient Greek heroes, there are also similarities between them. One of the main similarities between modern heroes and ancient Greek heroes is that they both encounter great difficulties to accomplish their tasks. In addition, ancient Greek heroes also had to perform outstanding acts of bravery that were beyond human abilities. To illustrate this further is the example of Theseus, who was the son of king Aegeus of Athens. Though he had many adventures in which he killed many supernatural creatures, his most memorable heroic act was the killing of the Minotaur, a monster that was half-man, half bull. Every year, seven young girls and boys from Athens would be sacrificed to this monster, which was immortal. Theseus volunteered to be one of the young boys and girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, after which he killed the monster. This ended the yearly sacrifices of young boys and girls from Athens, making Theseus the hero of Athens (Miller 89).
           In the same way, modern heroes have to overcome insurmountable odds for the sake of other people, risking their lives in the process. A case point in modern heroism can be attributed to the Chilean mine rescuers. The collapse of a Chilean copper mine caused the entrapment of thirty three miners in the mine, leading to the formation a rescue mission to free them. Rescuing the trapped miners was a difficult mission, in that the rescuers involved could easily face the same fate as the miners. The rescuers risked their lives to rescue the trapped miners, and the mission which was supposed to take two days only took 22 hours. This showed selfless dedication on the part of the miners, and proves that like the ancient Greek heroes, modern heroes also have to face difficulties and risks for the sake of others.  They may not slay supernatural monsters like the Greek heroes, but their modern acts of bravery have the same outcomes (Jain).
           The other similarity between modern and ancient Greek heroes is that they often sacrificed their lives for the greater good of humanity. Many Greek heroes lost their lives in the course of their duties, but after accomplishing so much for the community. Achilles is one of the Greek heroes who lost his life in the course of duty, though he was such a valiant warrior. He was one of the greatest Greek warriors in the war against Troy, and was responsible for many glorious exploits of the Greek army. Like most of the Greek heroes, Achilles was a demigod, whose body was invulnerable except for the heel. He died from an arrow wound to the heel during the Trojan War (Garland 11).
           Similarly, many modern heroes have lost their lives in the course of duty, for the sake of other people. Considering the case of firemen for example, they are usually called upon not only to put out fires, but also to rescue people trapped in burning houses or buildings. They maybe called upon to engage in various dangerous acts in order to rescue people from such fires, feats that ordinary men would find daunting. Many firefighters have lost their lives in the process, facing the same fate as their ancient Greek counterparts. In view of this, it is apparent that like ancient Greek heroes, modern heroes also sacrifice their lives in their line of duty for other people’s sake (Berman 144).  
           Another similar trait of both modern and ancient Greek heroes is that not all their heroic deeds were meant for the good of the society. Some of them actually performed deeds that were for their own personal glory or revenge, rather that for the greater good of humanity. This text will again use the example of Achilles, the hero of Troy. At some point during the Trojan War, Achilles pulled out of the war after an argument with king Agamemnon, causing the Greek army to suffer many casualties. In desperation, his closest friend Patroclus took his armor, intending to fool the Trojans that he was Achilles (Roman & Roman 255).  
           Patroclus was however killed by the Trojan hero Hector, which caused Achilles to be enraged. In fury, Achilles sought out Hector and killed him for revenge, and later rejoined the Trojan War. In this case, though Hector was the enemy of the Greeks, he killed him for his personal revenge rather than for the good of the Greek army. In the same way, there are modern heroes who engage in heroic acts for their own glory. People who engage in mountain climbing for instance do it for their own glory rather than for the good of the society. Such deeds only serve to bring them personal glory, thus though they maybe heroic, they do not benefit their communities (Burgess 73).  

Conclusion

           It is clear from the text that there are more similarities than differences between modern and ancient Greek heroes. This could be explained by the fact that there are certain traits that characterize both modern and ancient heroes, such as bravery and selflessness. These traits form the basis of heroic acts, and may remained unchanged regardless of the changes in any given society. It is however important to note that the concept of modern heroes cannot be restricted to the illustrations discussed in the text. As discussed earlier in the text, the concept is changing daily, thus anyone can be a hero in his or her own way depending on the circumstances. True heroes in any given society are prompted by the needs of others rather than their own, which sets them apart in the society. Consequently, heroic deeds are not only assessed in terms of what has been done, but also the motive behind the deeds.

Works cited

 

Berman, Marshall. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. New York: Verso, 1983. Print. (Book)
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Littleton, C Scott. Gods, goddesses, and mythology, Volume 1. Lexington: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.
Miller, Dean A. The epic hero. New York: JHU Press, 2000.
Roman, Luke and Mónica Román. Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.