The Tragedy of Greek Heroes: Part One

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One of the themes my Romance Novel series explores is the Tragic Greek Hero. In one line my Hero laments, “It was best not to think about life as a mortal. Because heroes never got happy endings.”

I wanted to take the time today to expand on this a little bit. So often we are told that heroes get happy endings: They slay the dragon, save the damsel, live happily ever after. Happy endings are certainly expected in Romance Novels (and spoiler, my stories all have happy endings) but for Greek heroes that often wasn’t the case.

For my Heroes of Olympus series, I have a growing list of Greek Heroes for reference and next to each name I write if they are alive or considered dead based on mythology. Most are dead, some get turned into animals, but that’s just Tuesday in the Greek world.

All of these tragic endings came in the 5th century with the rise of the popular Tragic Play and writers such as Euripides and Sophocles.

Both Euripides and Sophocles took famous Greek heroes and basically wrote angsty fanfiction about them, which classicists now consider cannon.

But it wasn’t until Aristotle called out the components of the tragic hero in his Poetics, that the term began to be associated with a certain Character type.

In his Poetics Aristotle describes the tragic hero thus, “A man not re-eminently virtuous and just whose misfortune, however is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement.”

Now, the idea of the tragic hero (or heroine) as a character is one all writers in all forms of media are familiar with.

So let’s look at a few of the big Heroic names in Ancient Greek mythology and how their stories ended in tragedy. SPOILERS below for those of you who aren’t familiar with Greek Mythology and Literature.

Jason: For the most part, the story and Jason and his Argonauts is an exciting one, full of side quests and victories. Together, Jason along with Greece’s most beloved heroes (Heracles among them) set out on a epic quest to find the Golden Fleece in order to inherit his throne. He successfully finds the Fleece and marries the sorceress Medea.  It is after that tale where things take a tragic twist. According to the popular play Medea written by Euripides, Jason decides to leave Medea and their two sons in order to marry the Princess of Corinth. In a rage, Medea kills Jason’s new bride and her father with poison and then, to hurt Jason even more, she proceeds to murder their two children. The play ends with Medea escaping to Athens, leaving Jason in tragedy. (Metamorphosis, Ovid & Medea, Euripides)

Heracles : Hercules has many myths about him and his quests.  Most don’t know that Heracles was among the heroes with Jason and the Argonauts. It was during this quest that his best friend (and beloved) Hylas was kidnapped by  Nymphs, forcing Hercules to leave Jason in order to find him. As far as we know, he was unsuccessful. Hylas either is drowned by the Nymphs or decides to stay with them, leaving Heracles forever. Later, Heracles marries Megara and starts a family with her. All seems like a happy ending when Hera strikes him with madness that results in him slaughtering his his children.(Madness of Heracles, Euripedes)

Yikes. This truth came as quite a shock for this girl who grew up loving the iconic couple of Disney’s Hercules and Megara. So here is a picture of Young Ryan Gosling to give you all a reprieve.

heracles and jason
Life is too short for tragedy. So here is Young Hercules (Ryan Gosling) and Young Jason.

Theseus: Most may know Theseus as the man who defeated the Minotaur. Some also know Theseus as the first king of Athens, but after this his stories seem to trickle off. Theseus continues to have a number of adventures before suffering a tragic (and unheroic end.) In one story, he and his best friend Pirithous went to the Underworld to save Persephone and found themselves stuck. Heracles eventually finds them and manages to free Theseus but not Pirithous. When Theseus returns to Athens he finds it ruled by another man, Menestheus. Theseus ran away to island of Scyros, which is ruled by a supporter of Menetheus. After all his great victories Theseus would be pushed off a cliff to his death. (Ovid and Plutarch)

Achilles : Achilles is one of the first tragic heroes. His story involves a inescapable fate and the death of his beloved due to his own pride. It is the thing Romance novels are made of. The greatest of all heroes and the strongest fighter in Troy. Legend states that his mother dipped him in the river Styx, blessing his body with invulnerability. All except his heel, which did not touch the what. The tragedy of Achilles is how his pride made him sulk in his tent while the war raged on. Forcing his best friend (and beloved) Patroclus take up his armor and die in battle. Achilles, rejoins the war only to die from a fatal injury to his heel.  (The Iliad, Homer & Achilleis, Aeschylus)

Ajax: The tale of Ajax is one of the saddest  and one of my favorites. We first hear about Ajax from the Iliad where he is considered the strongest of the warriors. But in Sophocles’ tragic play Ajax, we see a different side of this hero. After the death of his best friend, Achilles, Ajax is driven into a deep grief when Achilles’ armor is gifted to Odysseus. This grief turns into a blind rage as he plans to kill Menelaus and Agamemnon. Driven in madness Ajax slaughters livestock, thinking the cows are the two Kings. When he comes out to his sense and realizes what he has done, and is so distraught by his dishonorable actions he kills himself. (The Iliad, Homer & Sophocles)

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Vase showing the suicide of Ajax.

In the Heroes of Olympus series, the deaths of these great heroes spurs the Gods to grant immortality to men and women who prove themselves worthy. While the romance reader in me loves a good tragic hero, I also love happy endings. So you can be assured my stories have all the acting and emotion beats of a Greek epic, without the tragedy.

Follow my blog for more posts on Greek heroes and my Work-In-Progress series. Thanks for reading, and if I forgot a ancient hero who you love please leave a comment!

_It was best not to think about life as a mortal. Because heroes never got happy endings._

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