Throughout this exhibition, you will see many heroes and gods depicted in both mythic and everyday activities. Four of the most prominent heroes are highlighted. Each hero is characterized by very different qualities important to Greek ideals: Herakles, the strong hero-god; Helen, the eternal beauty; Achilles, the hot-tempered warrior; and Odysseus, the cunning traveler. Not only were these heroes all admired for their traits, but they were also worshiped in religious cults and emulated in the day-to-day activities of the Greeks.
How are all these figures related? To find out, download a copy of this Greek mythology family tree.
Achilles [uh-kil-eez] is the renowned Greek hero of the Trojan War and the central character of Homer's Iliad. Achilles was admired for his god-like skills as a warrior and for his struggle with mortality. He is a complex hero, known both for his rage, which leads him to battle against the Trojan Hector, and for his compassion, which causes him to make peace with Hector’s father Priam. Ultimately, Achilles died before Troy fell, but his fame was such that many communities claimed to be the burial place of the hero. Achilles can often be recognized by the armor and weapons that he carries.
Helen [hel-uh n] was also known as Helen of Sparta or Helen of Troy. Renowned for her beauty, Helen was abducted at a young age by the Athenian hero Theseus, but was rescued by her heroic brothers, Castor and Polydeuces. The wife of King Menelaos of Sparta, Helen is most famous for her role in the Trojan War, as her abduction by Paris brought about the war. Renowned for her beauty and wisdom, Helen became a model for young brides.
Herakles [hair-uh-kleez] known as Hercules by the Romans, was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes, known for his extraordinary strength, courage, and ingenuity. He used his great strength in many adventures, including his famous twelve labors in which he defeated dangerous monsters like the Hydra. Although he was not as clever a hero as Odysseus, Herakles used his wits on several occasions. For instance he tricked Atlas into taking the sky back onto his shoulders! Herakles was one of the few heroes elevated to godhood after his death. His attributes are the lion skin and the club.
Odysseus [oh-dis-ee-uhs] also known as Ulysses, was the king of Ithaca and the son of mortal parents. He is the main character of Homer’s Odyssey and a prominent character in the Iliad. While a skilled warrior, Odysseus was renowned by all Greeks for his cunning and resourcefulness. While there are myths concerning other aspects of his life, Odysseus is most famous for the ten eventful years he took to return home after the ten-year Trojan War, as described in the Odyssey, and his famous Trojan horse trick, which brought an end to the war. Some of his most famous accomplishments include his escape from the cyclops Polyphemos and his meeting with the witch Circe, who turned his crew into pigs. His main attribute is the conical polos hat or other traveling clothing.
There are several other characters, both enemies and allies, who are highlighted within the exhibition. These figures represent qualities that make them excellent foils for the heroes of Greek myth. Some examples of these figures are:
Amazons [am-uh-zon] were members of a legendary nation of female warriors in Greek mythology. Led by the daughters of the war god Ares, including Penthesilea [pen-thes-y-ley-a] and Hippolyta [hip-po-lee-ta], the Amazons were renowned for their skill in battle. In Greek society, where women spent most of their time outside of the public eye, the Amazons represented non-Greek qualities.
Athena [uh-thee-nuh] was worshiped as the goddess of wisdom, fertility, the useful arts (pottery, weaving, etc.), and prudent warfare. A benevolent goddess, she was the patron goddess of the city-state of Athens, and would often help heroes such as Herakles and Odysseus.
Polyphemos [pol-uh-fee-muhs] was a son of Poseidon. This giant Cyclops imprisoned Odysseus and his companions in a cave until Odysseus blinded him and escaped. Beyond his cruelty, Polyphemos and the other Cyclopes were feared for their non-Greek qualities, as they rejected aspects of “civilization” such as farming.
Sphinx [sfingks] was a monster, usually represented as having the torso of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Seated on a rock outside of the city-state of Thebes, she posed a riddle to travelers, killing them when they answered incorrectly, as all did before the Greek hero Oedipus. When he answered her riddle correctly, the Sphinx killed herself.