Western Culture: Heroes and Themes

Jesus is viewed as a god like figure although he can also be seen as a hero by western standards.  In the western culture a hero has to make sacrifices and go on a journey, physically and/or spiritually, to obtain his own meaning in life.  Most of the time a hero is set in his ways and has to alter his attitude to get to the end of his journey.

The figure of Achilles portrayed in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, is a typical type of Homeric and western hero.  He is a brave and fierce warrior who is stronger than everyone else in the Greek camp.  He has a big personality and is a natural born leader; therefore, he knows how to get what he wants usually.  To be better than the rest was a heroic striving during the ancient times, Greece was built with competitive natures always trying to get more than the next in line.  The poem even starts out with a competitive conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon over stuff that symbolizes status.  Towards the end of the book Achilles is still driven by anger but he no longer cares about the competition with Agamemnon, his anger has shifted solely towards vengeance for Patrocles’s death.  It is Achilles personal journey to confront mortality and make the decisions to change the course of his life. He rejects everything that the community values and is solely driven by his anger which ends up making the choice for him because he can only focus on killing Hector no matter what the consequences may be, he knows that if he kills Hector he will die soon after but he does not care.

A hero needs to be remembered and from a Greek standpoint Achilles was sacrificing himself for Greece.  He is seen as the first western hero to search for the meaning of life.  Achilles shield even depicts what he is giving up for revenge and vengeance by fighting Hector.  It displays the simple acts of everyday life in Greece and what Achilles will never have.  He has no compassion when he is fighting Hector in the last book of the epic, he wants to kill Hector, he needs to to give meaning for what he gave up.  At the end Priam tries to get Achilles to have some compassion because Hector was the only meaningful thing in Priam’s life and Achilles took that away from him, he brings back a human quality to Achilles character.  Achilles asks Priam to sit and share a meal with him, the point of the feast is to deal with both their losses and try to move past it.

Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey represents the epitome of how a mortal human is supposed to act.  He has had a hard life with not only fighting in the Trojan war for ten years but for the next ten being shuffled around from one place to another because he had displease Poseidon, the god of earthquakes and the ocean.  With having to suffer through twenty years, Odysseus made it through all of the obstacles in his path through courage, intellect, and cunning; he is a natural leader just like Achilles.  He spends his time wandering trying to get back home to his wife Penelope, which is his motivation to keep going.  He is regarded as a hero by all who know him, the comrades who fought with him, even the suitors of his wife know the power and strength Odysseus holds, they just delude themselves into believing that he will never return to Ithaca. Odysseus has to face a multitude of trials and tribulations but comes through it in determination and self-assurance in his actions.

The ability to trick and deceive is something about humans that is greater than the gods and is the noblest condition of humanity. On Odysseus’s many adventures during the ten years following the Trojan War, he will have to rely on his skill in the art of trickery and deception to get out of many of the situations presented; the power of word is Odysseus’s greatest weapon.  Odysseus was also able to use this when trying to escape from the Cyclops cave, although it is also a hindrance to him when with Odysseus’s nature he cannot resist giving Polyphemus his name that Polyphemus is then able to curse Odysseus with.  Although the power of word also helps Odysseus when he meets with the princess, he is able to flatter her so that she would help him.

The greatest virtue of humanity is pride and greatness; this holds true in all aspects for Odysseus. Odysseus does not want immortality because if he were immortal everything that he has gone through and all of the honor he has earned for his bravery would be a waste. He wants to be remembered and be remembered for all of the accomplishments he has made.  He wants to be made immortal through his memory. There is nothing to being immortal because death defines whom a person is, in being immortal; there are no risks to take or accomplishments to make.  On Calypso’s island Odysseus was held for seven years living the life only gods knew. A hero needs to be remembered which is why Odysseus gave up immortality with Calypso because he would be forgotten by time.  You have to be able to risk something to be a hero. Even though death brings suffering, Achilles explains when Odysseus visits the underworld; you are forever immortal for you actions while you were living.

As for the character of Oedipus, he has a very strong sense of honor and wants to do what is right.  His heroic spirit comes out through his personal integrity and intellect.  Even though his intellect and stubborn determination leads to his downfall, those qualities should be respected and honored. Even though it is an immensely tragic story the main character has determination and strength of character to do what is right which are exceptional characteristics for a hero to have.  The great strength of Oedipus’s character is his morality, always trying to do the right thing for everyone around him. His intellect can solve the Sphinx’s riddle, but Oedipus does not even know who he is.  Oedipus is so confident in his own intellectual level that he can solve all problems when in reality he needed to solve his own.  He cannot escape his own fate.

Even though women were supposed to be subservient to men, Lysistrata can be seen as a hero in her own right.  She stands up for what she believes in even though she is going against men.  She says that women are an important asset to the community and should be listened to since they are the only ones that can reproduce and without them there would no community to defend in the first place.  Even though the play Lysistrata is a comedy it has serious undertones about the Peloponnesian war and how it is affecting everyone on the home front.  Lysistrata is trying to protect her homeland with whatever means she can.

The portrayal of a western hero can also be seen in the moral view as Socrates is in Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Socrates stands up against his fellow men questioning the state and trying to get the people around him to do the same thing.  He is willing to challenge not just the state but himself as well, which makes him a moral character in his own right.  He admits that even he has faults but he is willing to reflect upon them and change them for the betterment of all.  Socrates tries to pursue honesty and the truth, his own moral code is not restricted by the laws of the state and his own ethics far exceed any rules they may surpass on society.  Socrates portrays himself as a western hero because he can challenge his own ideas and reflect on how to make them better, he is challenging everything about the world in which he knows.  He is trying to make the world as a whole better.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is wandering around trying to find his way home just like Odysseus.  For Aeneas he will never really make it home, just to the place that Rome will eventually be established.  His whole journey consists of him trying to transform himself from a Trojan hero into a Roman one.  Aeneas has to establish what the characteristics of a Roman hero are such as loyalty, honor, and fides: duty to friends, family, gods, and the state.  He also has to separate himself from the Greeks, for example he will not lie like the Greeks do. Aeneas has to overcome a great deal of trials of tribulations to reach his goal and make a great deal of sacrifices on his journey.  The underworld is used in book six as a representation of the transformation of Aeneas from a Trojan hero to a Roman one.  Aeneas’s motivation in the end is to get revenge on Turnus, just like the second book of the Iliad, Aeneas also has a shield scene but on his shield are all the great Roman things that have yet to come.  In the very center is the Battle of Actum, celebrating Augustus in his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra.  It was a battle for civilization, Apollo ended up winning over the Egyptian gods, it was a triumph of Romaness.  Aeneas then accepts his fate and takes on the responsibility of becoming a Roman hero.  Aeneas is prepared to concede and not to kill Turnus because he is pathetically pleading for his life, the Roman way is to spare those that give in.  Aeneas sees Pallus’s belt though and cannot resist killing him for his betrayal.  Aeneas becomes heroically Roman and eliminates all of the people in his way from founding Rome.  The book also shows the costs of Romaness because of all the sacrifices Aeneas had to make on the way, he looses many people close to him and ends up alone on he journey struggling to find meaning for it: his wife, his father, Dido his lover, and Pallus his friend.

Trimalchio like Socrates stands up for what he believes in and what he thinks is right even if his beliefs may go against the conventional laws of the time.  He was ahead of his time in the fact that he wanted to free all of his slaves and treat them as human beings even when it was an exceedingly common thing for people to own slaves.  He is a hero in his own inventive ideas that were not like what the rest of the state thought.

Augustine spends his whole life struggling with the meaning of life and what is important.  He mostly struggles with the power of passion, especially sexual passion, which threatens the organized way of life; all the problems faced go back to the original sin, the human craving is natural.  Augustine takes a spiritual journey to try and find out the meaning of life, it is a heroic journey of return.

Jesus can be seen as a western hero because he has to make a great deal of sacrifices while on a spiritual journey to relate to everyone around him what he thinks is morally right.  He suffers a great deal, like the typical heroic figure he is mostly going through his life alone, he has to make the journey himself.  Of course he gets some help along the way but mostly it is a personal experience.  Jesus however was not trying to make a name for himself as other heroes tried to do, he was doing it for the sole purpose of trying to make the world a better place for everyone to live in.

The Old Testament has a great deal of thematic significance with the divine.  In the first creation story begins in chaos, no one cared what was before god, He was always there, and no one knew what God’s motivation was for creating humanity.  Humanity used the story to try and describe the world as it was and explain why they were there.  He created everything by separating things, “let there be” the power of the word was the most dominant thing in the world.  In western tradition the word is a dominant thing.  Man was meant to be in control of everything else.  God is represented as being a separate entity not able to relate with the humanity that He created.

The second creation story uses a more direct impact on western culture and explaining the world in which we live.  The universe has always been there and Eden was created for humans to live in.  Woman was created from the rib of man; giving man the power over women.  The text implies equality, as both man and woman become one flesh.  God gave man the power to name the animals; if you name it you control it.  Humans were created in the image of God although God also gave man free will.  With that it was in human nature to make mistakes and the serpent is representative of human imperfection in their decisions.  God gave humans an opportunity to disobey Him and made consequences for their actions.  In this creation story God is more relatable to humans and actually goes and interacts with them on the same level.  He is easier to understand in this context rather than being anthropomorphic God is given some human type qualities.

The Iliad puts an emphasis on mortality and the limited chance one has to accomplish something in their life. For Achilles revenge is a driving force and his anger is dominant throughout the epic. In the battle between Hector and Achilles, Hera helps Achilles defeat Hector; the gods are on the side of the hero.  Hector even realizes that the gods are no longer with him.  The Iliad displays the tragic vision of life: born, live, then die, a short time span in which to make your self known. Living forever gives your life no meaning and takes away morality because you can just do things over again, like the gods.  The gods are contrasted with humans throughout the epic.  The gods intercede constantly during the Trojan War altering events; it is almost a game to them.  They play in the lives of humans without any consequences for their actions and with little regard to human mortality.

The Odyssey on the other hand is a moral text of retribution.  It is an epic tale of morality about good and bad guys, the gods in the text see that justice is fulfilled. Athena makes sure that Odysseus kills all of the suitors and does not let any of them escape, they violated hubris and Athena is making sure they al pay for it.  The gods have the power over the characters in the Odyssey; Odysseus’s life is all but controlled by the will of the gods.  In this text it is the gods that decide what happens in the human realm.

In the play the Oresteia the main theme is justice and suffering in the world. Another tragic vision is displayed throughout the text: nothing really good does happen. The gods are involved in human justice; Athena is involved in the trial.  Esculus thinks that the gods care about humanity, although the Greeks are not supposed to model morality on the gods.   Male figures are shown to be more important and portrayed as being good.  Athena takes on more masculine qualities – dressed as a warrior, did not have a mother, has no loves and is a virgin goddess, denies being female; therefore she is innately a goof figure in the play, representing what is right.  Clytemnestra persuaded Agamemnon while the typical role of the female is subordinate to the male who are supposed to be the ones persuading.  Persuasion is a tool of the male and is seen as being evil if a women tries to use it.

The main issue in Antigone is divine law versus the state law.  Creon represents the values that the state upholds but it opposes the divine law of Antigone trying to bury her brother.  It is not really for Creon to decide the burial; it would be for the gods to judge the individual.  Antigone uses the gods as a defense mechanism to justify what she as the individual thinks is the right thing to do.

Medea is another play of women having persuasive power over male figures (logos).  Unlike the typical woman of the time Medea choose her own husband, displayed free will, acted in a masculine way, and is seen as being dangerous and unlike Greek women.  The text shows an unjust world to the Greeks because even though Medea killed a great deal of people including her own sons she was able to escape and go unpunished for her crimes, the gods even help her to escape.  She killed innocent people yet in the end was able to fly off in a chariot free.  The woman’s job was to take care of the males in the house, the worst thing she could do was to kill her sons, yet the gods do not punish her for her actions.

Aeneas is governed by fate throughout the Aeneid, he cannot escape fate and has to learn to accept it.  He has to fulfill his destiny for future generations and the establishment of Rome.  Fate is seen as being above the gods, no matter what Juno tried to do to stop Aeneas on his journey all her attempts fail.  Aeneas’s success is inevitable this is made clear when he is able to travel through the underworld and see some of his future Roman descendants and on the shield of all the great things the Roman Empire will accomplish.  Fate in the end overcomes even the gods as Jupiter puts Juno in her place, she has to step aside and let destiny transpire.

Augustine in his Confessions contrasts his previously sinful life to the supremacy of God.  Augustine says God is always there and He makes it possible for us to find Him.  His whole point in the book is to tell everyone of his journey to find God.  It is a celebration of God’s grace because He is always there in everything that we do.

The New Testament takes on similar kinds of themes as the rest of the western works of the past.  Just like in the second creation story God seems to be more present and easy for humans to be able to relate to.  There is a major focus on the redemption from sin just like what Augustine was trying to convey in his Confessions.

 

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~ by wolfangel87 on November 18, 2010.

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