Heroes were an important part of Greek mythology. The race of heroes included both mythological half-human, half-god figures (usually the result of a divine-human coupling) and historical figures who were raised to divine status after their death. In part, the heroes served as more approachable figures than the gods and ideals to which mortals could aspire. In this aspect, the Greek hero cult might be compared to the Christian cult of the saints, the latter of which was likely influenced by the former.
The hero cult seems to have taken hold around the 8th century BCE, although aspects of the phenomenon have been discovered as early as the 10th century BCE. Worship of heroes in ancient Greece varied from simple offerings as to a dead relative to the same level of worship paid to a god.
In Greek mythology, the deities are presented as a large multi-generational family. Their oldest members created the world as we know it. The generation of the gods most contemporary (and relevant) to ancient Greek religion are described as having appeared in person to the Greeks during the "age of heroes," understood to be a reference to the archaic Greek dark ages (ca. 1200 BC to 800 BC) that preceded the Greek classical civilization. They provided the struggling ancestors of the Greeks with a limited number of miracles, taught them a selection of useful skills, taught them the methods of worshipping the gods, rewarded virtue and punished vice, and fathered children by humans. These half-human, half divine children are collectively known as "the heroes," and until the establishment of democracy their descendents claimed the right to rule on the basis of their divine ancestry and presumed divinely inherited ability to rule well.
Some of the most popular of the Greek heroes were:
- Heracles – the greatest of Greek heroes and almost a god, known for his superhuman strength
- Perseus – beheaded Medusa and inspired the film Clash of the Titans
- Jason - of Argonauts fame
- Theseus – king of Athens who killed the Minotaur with a magic sword
- Oedipus – accidentally killed his father and slept with his mother
- Achilles – hero of The Iliad
- Odysseus – hero of The Odyssey
- "hero-cult." Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion (Oxford UP, 2003), pp. 257-58.
- "Greek Mythology: The Age of Heroes." Wikipedia, 2004.