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Heroes Prior to the Trojan War


Perseus and the Gorgon

King Acrisius of Argos receives a prophecy stating that the child of his daughter Danaë will kill him, so he locks Danaë in a cell of bronze. Nonetheless, Zeus impregnates her, raining down as a shower of gold. Acrisius then locks Danaë and her new son, Perseus, in a chest and sets it afloat on the Aegean. They are rescued and taken in by a fisherman named Pictys, who dwells on the island of Seriphus, ruled by King Polydectes.

When Perseus comes of age, Polydectes tells him that he would like to possess the head of Medusa, one of the three snake-haired Gorgon sisters, the sight of whose faces turns mortals to stone. Athena and Hermes provide Perseus with arms and armor, as well as winged sandals that give him the power of flight and a cap that makes him invisible. Perseus targets Medusa by her reflection in his shield (thereby avoiding looking at her face directly), decapitates her, and escapes her vengeful sisters.

On the way home, Perseus catches sight of the princess Andromeda chained to a crag of a seaside ledge. He learns that Andromeda’s father put her out as a sacrifice to a man-eating serpent that is ravaging his kingdom. Perseus waits for the beast, slays it, and makes off with the beautiful Andromeda as his bride.

Upon his return to Seriphus, Perseus finds his mother suffering persecution at the hands of Polydectes for refusing his marriage proposal. With the petrifying power of Medusa’s head, Perseus turns the king and his court to stone. With Andromeda and Danaë, he sets out to reconcile with his father, Acrisius, but finds that the king has long since been driven from his city. Later, participating in games in the north of Greece, Perseus inadvertently strikes a spectator with a stray discus throw. The spectator turns out to be Acrisius himself. He perishes from the blow, fulfilling the original prophecy.


Heracles and the Twelve Labors

The jealous Hera hates Heracles from the day of his birth because he is the product of an affair between Zeus and his mortal mistress Alcmena. Hera dispatches two monstrous snakes to the infant Heracles’ cradle, but he strangles them—the first act of the Greek hero possessed of the most brutal strength.

In his maturity, Heracles marries the princess Megara, who bears him three sons. In another fit of jealous rage, Hera infects Heracles with a frenzied homicidal madness that causes him to kill his wife and children. Just after the murders, Heracles comes to his senses and is horrified to find himself covered in the blood of his wife and offspring. Before Heracles can take his own life out of guilt, his friend Theseus of Athens convinces him that the guilt lies not with him but with the madness that afflicted him, and that therefore his life should be spared.

After Heracles makes a brief sojourn in Athens, the Oracle at Delphi instructs him to do the bidding of his cousin Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, as a form of penance. At this point, Heracles takes up his Twelve Labors, which Hera and Eurystheus design as impossible and likely fatal tasks.

The Twelve Labors
  1. Kill the lion of Nemea, a monster invulnerable to weapons.

    Heracles strangles the lion to death.

  2. Slay the Hydra, a nine-headed beast with powers of regeneration.

    Heracles chops off the Hydra’s heads and then sears its neck stumps, preventing the heads from growing back as usual.

  3. Bring home alive the sacred golden-horned stag of Artemis.

    Heracles hunts the elusive beast for one year before he captures it.

  4. Capture the giant boar of Mount Erymanthus.

    After a long chase, Heracles catches the exhausted boar in the snow.

  5. Clean the Augean stables in one day.

    Heracles reroutes two rivers to flow through the stables and wash them.

  6. Rid the people of Stymphalus of a flock of wild birds.

    With Athena’s help, Heracles drives the birds away and shoots them out of the sky.

  7. Seize the wild bull Poseidon bestowed on King Minos of Crete.

    Heracles tames the bull and sails back to Mycenae with it.

  8. Capture the flesh-eating horses of King Diomedes.

    Heracles slays Diomedes and masters his herd easily.

  9. Win the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

    Hera’s trickery forces Heracles to kill Hippolyta in the process.

  10. Capture the cattle of Geryon.

    On his way to the herd, Heracles sets up his famous pillars at Gibraltar and Ceuta.

  11. Steal the Golden apples of the Hesperides, the daughters of the Titan Atlas.

    The apples are too high to reach, so Heracles asks Atlas to get the apples and promises to hold up the sky while Atlas is away. Atlas gets the apples but betrays Heracles and refuses to take the sky back. However, Heracles asks Atlas to hold the sky momentarily while he positions a cushion on his shoulders. When Atlas takes the sky again, Heracles grabs the apples and leaves.

  12. Bring the three-headed dog Cerberus up from the underworld.

    Hades permits Heracles to take the beast but only if he uses bare hands. On his way out of the underworld, Heracles rescues the deceased hero Theseus as well.

Heracles participates in countless more adventures during his life, including the quest of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece and the liberation of the fire-giving Titan Prometheus from the rock where Zeus chained him. Heracles dies when his second wife, Deianeira, unwittingly clothes him in the poisoned robe of Nessus.


Theseus and the Minotaur

Poseidon sends King Minos of Knossos on Crete a handsome bull to sacrifice to the sea god. Minos, however, keeps the bull alive to admire its beauty, so Poseidon curses Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphae, with lust for the bull. Pasiphae commissions the brilliant inventor Daedalus to construct a cow costume that she uses to seduce the bull, which succeeds in impregnating the queen. Their foul offspring, the Minotaur—a beast with the torso of a man and the head of a bull—feeds on human flesh.

Minos orders Daedalus to design the Labyrinth, a giant maze, to contain the monster. After the Labyrinth is built, Minos forces Athens to send young men and women to sacrifice to the Minotaur each year. Theseus, an Athenian prince among the sacrifices one year, draws the affections of Ariadne, Minos’s daughter. Ariadne seeks Daedalus’s aid to help Theseus escape the Labyrinth alive. Daedalus provides her with a spool of thread that Theseus can trail behind him as he enters and then follow back to the exit. Theseus follows this advice, slays the Minotaur, and escapes Knossos with Ariadne in tow. However, he abandons her on Naxos, where the god Dionysus takes her as a lover.

When Theseus approaches Athens in his ship, he forgets that he told his father he would raise white sails if he survived the Minotaur. He inadvertently leaves black sails up, so his father, King Aegeus of Athens, believes his son dead when he sees the ship and leaps off the Acropolis to his death before the ship docks. Theseus succeeds his father as king. Later, he joins the Argonauts on their quest and befriends Heracles and Oedipus.

Meanwhile, Minos imprisons Daedalus in the Labyrinth with his son, Icarus, to punish the inventor for aiding Theseus’s escape. Daedalus, however, fashions wings made of wax and feathers so that he and Icarus can fly from their prison. Daedalus escapes, but Icarus flies too close to the sun and falls to his death when the wax on his wings melts.


Jason and the Golden Fleece

Jason is the son of King Aeson of Thessaly. When his uncle Pelius usurps the throne, the child Jason is smuggled from the city. As a young man, he returns to Thessaly to confront Pelius. On his way to Pelius’s palace, Jason meets an old woman—actually the goddess Hera in disguise—who begs to be carried across a river. Crossing the torrent, Jason loses a sandal. When he approaches Pelius to reclaim his throne, the king recalls a prophecy stating that a man wearing one sandal will be his demise.

Pelius sends Jason on a perilous quest for the legendary Golden Fleece and promises him the kingdom if he is successful. Jason assembles a team of the greatest heroes in Greece, including Heracles, Atalanta, Orpheus, Peleus, Theseus, and the brothers Castor and Pollux. Their ship is called the Argo, so the group is called the Argonauts. Finally, they land in Colchis, where King Aeëtes keeps the Golden Fleece.

Aeëtes requires Jason to yoke two fire-breathing bulls and plant in the Earth some magical dragon’s teeth, which turn into an army of hostile soldiers who try to destroy him. Jason accomplishes the tasks with the help of Aeëtes’s daughter Medea, a sorceress, who falls in love with him. Jason returns to Thessaly with Medea, whom he marries, and presents the Golden Fleece to Pelius. Later, Jason abandons Medea to marry Creusa, princess of Corinth. The enraged Medea murders her own children by Jason as revenge. Jason dies sleeping under the stern of the Argo, which falls on him and kills him.


Oedipus and the Curse of Thebes

Apollo warns Laius, the king of Thebes, that any son he begets will kill him. When his wife Jocasta bears a boy, Laius arranges for the infant to be exposed in the highlands with a spike through his foot—almost certain death. Shepherds, however, discover the baby and bring him to their childless master, Polybus of Corinth, who adopts the child and names him Oedipus, meaning “swollen foot.” When Oedipus grows into a young man, he visits the Oracle at Delphi to inquire about his heritage. The Oracle informs him that he will kill his father and have sexual intercourse with his mother.

Oedipus swears never to return to Corinth, but in his wanderings, he slays Laius when the two of them, strangers to each other, get in an argument at a crossroads. Oedipus then visits Thebes, a city tormented by the monstrous Sphinx, who poses a riddle to all who pass by, kills all who answer incorrectly, and refuses to leave until someone solves the riddle. Finally, Oedipus solves the riddle—“Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?”— by answering “man.” (A man crawls on four legs as a baby, walks upright on two legs as an adult, and walks on three legs—two legs and a cane—as an old man.) The riddle solved, the Sphinx throws herself to her death, and Oedipus marries Jocasta to become king of Thebes.

After the blind seer Tiresias reveals the secret of Oedipus’s parentage, Jocasta, who unknowingly bore four children in incest, hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes. He dies in exile, under the protection of his friend Theseus of Athens. Creon, Jocasta’s brother and the new king of Thebes, prohibits anyone from giving Oedipus’s son Polynices a proper burial. Oedipus’s daughter Antigone buries her brother despite the prohibition, and Creon condemns her to death for violating his edict.


Orpheus and Eurydice

The poet, musician, and Argonaut Orpheus enchants beasts, rocks, and plants by playing his lyre. When a snake lethally bites his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus descends to the underworld, where he convinces Hades to let Eurydice follow him back to Earth as long as he does not look at her during their ascent. Orpheus fails to keep his eyes from Eurydice, however, and loses her forever. He dies at the hands of several frenzied Maenads—women who celebrate drunken, orgiastic religious practices. The Maenads dismember him, and his severed head floats on the Aegean to the isle of Lesbos.