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CLAS 110: Sample Student Essay


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The Mediation of the Ancient Hero for the Modern Audience
by Michael St. Denis

History is replete with stories and myths revolving around a central, often godlike figure, the hero. The story-telling tradition, however, is one that extends far beyond the written record. In many cultures heroic stories have been told since time immemorial. With the advent of the written record the capacity to contrast ancient and modern heroes has been made easier. In examining the development of the heroic figure through the written record, one is afforded a glimpse of the society in which the story developed, or was adapted, and an idea of how the story-teller was able to create a hero by presenting an individual (almost always male) who personified the virtues of that society. Through the examination of the traits considered virtuous, exemplified in the heroes in the Iliad and Beowulf, one can gain insight into Greek and Anglo-Saxon society and the values which they deemed important. In order for the heroes of ancient Greece and Norse myth to appeal to a modern audience there have, necessarily, been alterations in the heroes' character and motivation so that the average individual can successfully relate to them. This ultimately leads to the bastardisation of the ancient heroic ideal and is readily discernible in pop culture icons such as Xena and Hercules.

In order to understand the motivation for altering ancient heroes for a modern context one must first understand what heroism was in an ancient context and how this ideal is no longer applicable. Examination of the Iliad and Beowulf presents the reader with the heroic ideal of bygone days. By today's standards the heroes of these works, Achilles and Beowulf, would be considered arrogant, juvenile, super-sensitive and obsessed with material gain for the purposes of display. These characteristics are more pronounced in the character of Achilles than in Beowulf. This is in part due to the Christian influence present in Beowulf emphasizing those traits that we find more palatable in a hero: humility, compassion, self sacrifice and generosity. Another prominent aspect of these two works which make them less accessible to most readers is the fatalistic attitude which pervades these stories and influences the actions of both Achilles and Beowulf.

The fatalistic attitude present in both the Iliad and Beowulf is largely due to the conditions under which the ancient Greeks and Anglo-Saxons lived. Life for the average person at the time of the writing of these epics was exceedingly difficult. The period of time in which the composition of the Iliad is believed to have taken place, c. late 8th century B.C.E., had just emerged from the Geometric Period of Greek history (Porter, 1998). This period and the one which preceded it marked a span of nearly 200 years during which time the region saw the collapse of the Bronze Age and rise of the Iron. This transition is marked throughout Greece, Egypt and the Near East by the destruction of cities, war, large population movements, invasion of lands by various groups and, possibly, agricultural collapse (Mazar, 1990).

Much the same can be said as to the period, the 8th century C.E., in which Beowulf was written. The author of the epic was living in a time of major transition. Europe was still feeling the effects of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Various groups were vying for control in the resulting power vacuum. The world also saw the development of the feudal system and the expansion of Christianity. Conditions were similar for the average individual, the peasant farmer, as during the Greek Geometric Period. Of particular note is the fact that northern Europe was beginning to be effected by Christianisation. As a result, what arises in the writing of Beowulf is an epic with its roots in Norse myth and society with the grafting of Christian aspects. One sees Beowulf acting as an ancient hero should but his motivation and character are muted somewhat, compared to that of Achilleus, as a result of the author's attempt to introduce Christian content and fuse Christian ideals within a largely pagan context. This influence is most readably discernible when dealing with the role of the divine. Whereas in the Iliad Homer portrays the intervention of the gods on various occasions, in Beowulf there is only the intervention of the one god, the Lord: "...through the power of the Lord" (p. 49) and "...strength given him by God, and trusted the Almighty for grace..." (p. 57).

Another aspect illustrating the influence of Christianity centres around the issue of payment for heroic deeds. As in the Iliad, Beowulf is presented with valuable goods in payment for his actions (see below) yet there is also the aspect of divine reward: "May God reward you with good fortune, as he has done up to now." (p. 49) This notion in the Iliad exists but is predicated upon the physical presence of a god whereas in Beowulf the concept is more abstract. God does not necessarily appear in order for Beowulf to be fortunate. This is illustrated in the passages concerning the fight between Beowulf and Grendel's mother: "For God brought about the victory. Once Beowulf had struggled to his feet, the holy and omniscient ruler of the sky easily settled the issue in favour of the right." (p. 63). The next section of the epic (23) open with Beowulf noticing the sword which he eventually uses to kill Grendel's mother. The implication: God was responsible for Beowulf noticing the sword. This intervention, however, was independent of the physical manifestation of the Lord. In the Iliad what would be more likely to occur would be Athena or Apollo handing Achilleus the sword as opposed to having him simply notice it. Although major differences exist, largely due to the Christian influence, Beowulf does uphold many aspects of the tradition heroic figure as seen in the Iliad. These Aspects are more easily understood when considering the times in which these stories were written.

The ancient Greek people of the Geometric Period were largely illiterate peasant farmers ruled by a small elite. The Iliad itself, intended to be experienced aurally, was likely written for the elite and not only supported but helped justify their position and value system. Descriptions of the main characters such as Achilleus, Agamemnon and Odysseus portray them, usually, in glowing terms or emphasises their position in society. These characters, who are all elite, all kings, are proclaimed as "divinely born", "powerful", "lord of men", "brilliant" or "resourceful". Even Agamemnon, whom the reader is lead to dislike and is portrayed negatively after his claiming of Briseis from Achilleus, a profoundly dishonourable act, is eventually redeemed somewhat in Book 19 through his reconciliation with Achilleus. The terms used to describe the characters are for the most part interchangeable, giving the characters an almost generic quality. Interestingly this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to the oral tradition but is also reflected in the art forms of the time as well. It is also during the period when the Iliad that the kouros, a stereotyped nude male statue form depicting a youth in the prime in his life and perfect physical form first appears. One could almost argue that the generic quality of the statues leads to their interpretation as the depiction of heroes. These aspects acquire more meaning when one examines the depiction of the only commoner in the Iliad, Thersites, and the only individual described not only as ugly but less intelligent than the nobles:

...he knew within his head many words, but disorderly; vain, and without decency...This was the ugliest man...bandy-legged...lame of one foot...shoulders stooped and drawn together...skull went up to a point with the wool grown sparsely upon it... (2.213-219)

It can be concluded that the hero of Greek myth was not only physically perfect, an excellent fighter but also a leader of men. Although it is easily argued that this ideal is still maintained for today's hero (one would be hard pressed to identify with a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean Claude Van Damn play side kick to the likes to Tom Hanks) many aspects of the ancient hero would be considered non-heroic by the modern audience.

Another contentious aspect for the modern audience when reading the Iliad or Beowulf is the fatalistic attitude which pervades both epics. During such tumultuous periods it is hardly surprising that fatalistic attitudes developed. This attitude is reflected in both the Iliad and Beowulf through the constant acknowledgment of impending death and destruction. In the description of Heorot we are presented with "the greatest banqueting hall ever known" (p. 28). Yet at the same time the reader is also presented with the ultimate fate of the building as well: "...to endure terrible and leaping flames when in the course of time a deadly feud between Hrothgar and his son-in-law should be kindled by an act of violence" (p. 29). In addition, Beowulf comments, in gruesome terms, about the prospect of his death. Prior to the battle with Grendel he tells Hrothgar: "...if death claims me, there will be no need for you to go to the expense of funeral rites, because Grendel will be in possession of my bloodstained corpse and will carry it off to devour" (p. 37).

Achilleus too is quite aware of his impending death and the circumstances surrounding it. His mother tells him: "...your lifetime is to be short, of no length. / Now it has befallen that your life must be brief and bitter / beyond all men's" (1.416-8). The opening lines of the Iliad establish the tone for the entire poem: "[Achilleus' anger]...put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, / hurled in their multitude to the house of Hades strong souls / of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting / of dogs, of all birds..." (1.2-5). In Glaukos' recounting of his genealogy to Diomedes we are presented, again, with the fatalistic attitude towards life:

"As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies." (6.146-50)

In addition, throughout the poem we are given description of the fortification of Troy, "strong-walled Ilion" yet we know that the city will be sacked and its inhabitants slaughtered or taken away.

One of the major difficulties a modern audience would have with the ancient hero is his sense of honour. As a result of the Christianising of European culture after the fall of the Roman Empire there has been a shift in attitude regarding the idea of establishing a legacy. Conventional dogma proposes the concept of a heaven and that the death of the body is not the death of the individual per se. With death comes the release of the soul and its eternal existence in heaven. There is no longer the same drive to establish an earthly legacy because death is not viewed so much as an ending, as in the Greek and Anglo-Saxon conceptualisation, but more of a transition. Thus arises the difficulty the modern audience has in understanding the heroes' motivation when it comes to the establishment of a legacy. Throughout both the Iliad and Beowulf we are presented with instances which illustrate the heroes' preoccupation with establishing a legacy, largely through the collection of material items, indicating what they had accomplished. The listing of the prizes given to honour Beowulf for defeating Grendel illustrates this:

... embroidered banner of gold, a helmet and corselet, in reward for his victory. ... jewel-studded sword of honour presented to the hero. Beowulf drank from a ceremonial cup...for the gifts were so costly that in accepting them he need feel no shame before the fighting-men...the king...now delivered the horses and weapons...thus the...prince repaid Beowulf for his combat with Grendel. (p. 50-1)

The acquisition of material goods as a result of one's deeds acted to establish the hero's honour. Agamemnon's taking of Briseis, one of Achilleus' possessions acquired in battle, was the motivating reason for Achilleus' wrath because it reduced his honour, the acquisition of which was the very reason for his fighting at Troy. In addition, the fact that Agamemnon took prizes disproportionate to his share in the fighting also dishonours Achilleus:

"I...did not come here for the sake of the Trojan / Spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing. ...but for your sake...we follow , to do you favour ...to win your honour and Menelaos'. And now my prize you threaten in person to strip from me, for whom I laboured much...Never...do I have a prize that is equal to your prize." (1.152-164)

The prospect of a hero being motivated to fight solely as a result of his desire to make a name for himself and to establish a legacy is contrary to the very concept of contemporary heroism. Today the belief is that a hero must fight for what is "right" and "good", which also usually requires the defending or rescuing of the weak from impossible obstacles and insurmountable forces. This usually implies self-sacrifice and the expectation that all the hero will receive upon completion of the heroic act is a pat on the back and the adoration of those who know him to be a hero. The ancient hero by contrast fought for honour, which was measured in his accumulated wealth. The expectation was that upon completion of his heroic act, be it the killing of a monster or the sacking of a city, the hero would be appropriately rewarded. In this manner the hero gained kleos and upon his death there would be tangible evidence for the honour he acquired throughout his life.

"...If I die in battle...dispatch to Hygelac the treasures which you gave me. For when the lord of the Geats gazes upon the gold and treasure, he will understand that I have found a good and prosperous patron and prospered accordingly." (p. 62)

Finally, the prospect of acquiring treasures, suggested by Athena, prompt Achilleus not to attack Agamemnon for dishonouring him. "Some day three times over such shining gifts shall be given you by reason of this outrage." (1.213-4)

The final aspect of ancient heroism that the modern audience would have difficulty with was that of divine intervention in the affairs of mortals considered to be heroes. The simple fact that the hero does not accomplish his goal independently reduces somewhat our esteem of a modern hero. Pop. culture heroes must overcome phenomenal obstacles through their own devices to be considered heroic. What the contemporary audience often fails to recognize is that divine intervention is not as a result of the god's or goddess' desire to make a person a hero but because that person is already a hero. In most tales concerning the birth of a hero there is some form of divine intervention involved, usually a result of one of the parents of the hero being a god. In order for divine intervention to occur the individual must already be a hero or have the potential to become one. In both the Iliad and Beowulf there are examples of divine intervention: Hector's killing of Patroklos with the aid of Apollo; Achilleus' killing of Hektor with the aid of Athena; Beowulf's killing of Grendel as a result of "God [giving] luck of battle to the Geats" (p. 43).

For the modern audience these concepts are foreign to the notion of heroism. Xena and Hercules provide excellent conventional examples of how the ancient hero has been bastardised to appeal to the modern audience. These shows compare well with Beowulf and, especially, the Iliad due to the fact that both television shows take place in the Golden Age of Greece (Hercules before and Xena after) the fall of Troy (Xena homepage). These shows allow one to compare more closely the difference in the heroic ideal because the settings of the Xena and Hercules are contemporaneous with that of the Iliad.

In broad terms of the physical appearance of the hero both Xena and Hercules fit the stereotypical, superficial model of a hero as established in the Iliad. They both appear young, roughly in their thirties, and are both what would, conventionally, be considered beautiful. The first glaringly obvious departure from the ancient ideal is the fact that Xena is a female hero. This would have appalled the civilized Greek audience who viewed women as, essentially, chattel. The women who do appear in Greek myth as fighters are, in the case of Penthesileia, not Greek and only there to be slaughtered and likely comment on the desperation of the Trojans after the death of Hektor.

One aspect of Xena that mediates, somewhat, her being a female hero is the homosexual undertones commonly displayed in the interaction between her and Gabrielle. If indeed Xena is a lesbian, which can be considered a foregone conclusion by anyone who has watched several episodes, this has the effect of imposing a degree of masculinity on her. Whether this is to allay the insecurities of the contemporary male audience and allow them to make the claim that Xena can only be a female hero capable of defeating men in armed combat as a result of her acquiring so many masculine stereotypes that her gender is lost in the grey area between masculinity and femininity is something to be debated. Even in the era of political correctness and the drive to view women as equal the contemporary audience is allowed to make the claim that she is not a "true" (i.e. stereotypical) woman. As such the male viewer can feel less threatened by allowing Xena an "excuse" to be a hero. This patriarchal attitude has its roots in Greek society and is one example of the mediation that has occurred in translating the ancient hero into a modern context when considering the influence of sexist attitudes in a politically correct era.

Another aspect which attempts to appeal to the modern audience is the fact that both Xena and Hercules are capable of some degree of problem solving. In an era were we believe we are more civilized than the Greeks or the Anglo-Saxons, violence is usually disdained. This disdain does not preclude the use of force but only acts to make it one of the last options to exploit when attempting to resolve a situation. To the Greeks, however, this concept would be viewed as ludicrous and an attempt at a collective desire to view ourselves as more "evolved" than past cultures. This attitude is readily discernible in both Xena and Hercules.

Unlike the heroes of the Iliad and Beowulf, they have ability to resolve situations without relying solely on fighting. Xena's strategizing to extricate herself, Gabrielle (her side-kick) and a small Greek military contingent from a fortress, vastly outnumbered and surrounded by The Horde, illustrates that she is capable of more than simply wielding a sword, something Achilleus never demonstrates. Hercules also displays some ability at problem solving by managing to use a giant lightning-rod to open a portal to escape limbo when imprisoned there by the Hera.

Another aspect which greatly impacts the modern hero is the lack of the fatalistic attitude seen in Achilleus and Beowulf. This comes as a direct result of the era in which we live. Unlike the Greeks or the Anglo-Saxons we do not exist in a period of turmoil. We are not faced with recovering from the collapse of empires, constant warfare or early and gruesome deaths. As a result death has become a much more distant concept. This change in attitude is readably discernible in the character of both Xena and Hercules.

In neither Xena nor Hercules are seen the fatalistic attitude and gruesome demise of so many people. In fact, death seems to be no more than a minor inconvenience for any character. Xena manages to kill her nemesis, Callisto, by drowning her in quicksand, trapping her in an inescapable cave, throwing her into lava, and stabbing her with the Hinde's-blood dagger (Xena homepage). Whether Callisto survives her most recent death remains to be seen. In addition Xena travels to various realms of the dead on a semi-regular basis in order to bring back or chat with the deceased. Death is not conceptualised in the same way in Xena as in the Iliad. Whereas death in the Iliad is a final and absolute, death in Xena is an inconvenience and a relatively easy obstacle to overcome. The death of Iolaus in a recent episode of Hercules will like also pose only a minor problem to either character prior to some adventure which will culminate in the retrieval of Iolaus from the land of the dead.

Another aspect which departs from the ancient ideal and of particular note in the depiction of the heroes of Xena and Hercules is that they fight, not for honour in material form, but because it is the "right" thing to do. In the case of Xena, a part of her past was dedicated to fighting for material gain and resembled more closely the ancient concept of the hero. Xena refers to this part of her life as "evil" and "a dark period" which she hopes never to return to (Xena biography). This aspect reflects more the conventional, Christian influence on the concept of heroism. Through the actions of Hercules, Xena realises the "evil" of her ways and swears to atone for her deeds by fighting oppression, corruption and other evils of society readily identifiable by the modern audience.

Divine intervention in Hercules and Xena also occurs but in a much different manner. Rarely, if ever, are the gods Aphrodite, Apollo or Athena seen. In both shows the most common god to appear is Ares. Ares manipulates situations and is involved in fighting but never intervenes directly in a situation where Xena or Hercules battle an adversary of equal skill. Both of these heroes are left to their own devices in order to overcome their foe. In this manner the audience is not faced with the dilemma of attempting to decide who actually won the battle. When Ares or other gods do intervene it is to stop masses of lesser characters who the audience already knows that Xena or Hercules could defeat of their own accord. Were Ares, Zeus or Hera, to aid Xena or Hercules defeat an enemy equaling either of them the average viewer would likely interpret the hero as being cheated out of his or her victory. A conventional interpretation of such an action would cause the hero to lose standing to some degree as a result of the viewer seeing him or her as deficient in some way and incapable of living up to the title of hero. This was clearly not the case for the hero of Greek or Anglo-Saxon time who would interpret the intervention of the god as a result of the fact that the individual was already proven a hero. This intervention would not diminish the honour of the hero but have the opposite effect. The involvement of the gods in the affairs of specific mortals would act to underscore that the fact that individual was already and hero and had come to the attention of the gods through past deeds. In this way we again see a departure from the classical heroic ideal.

Through Xena and Hercules the modern audience is presented two stories contemporaneous with the Iliad. What ultimately occurs is the mediation of the ancient hero to incorporate aspects of modern society and its values. Xena and Hercules both continue the tradition of physically perfect hero as seen in the Iliad. Even though Xena is female the fact of her many male stereotypes and, likely, homosexuality do not pose a great threat to the patriarchal attitudes established in the Greek period. These attitudes are maintained today and by providing Xena an "excuse" for her abilities it withdraws her to some degree from membership of the stereotypical woman and makes her not only less threatening to the modern male audience but adds a degree of appeal as well. Not only is seen a mediation with the ancient Greek concept of the male hero but the mediation with political correctness, attempts at gender equality and social trends set two thousand years ago. Through these aspects the role of the hero is maintained but modified for the contemporary audience.


Works Cited


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