I’ve been listening to the Odyssey at work, as one does. I’ve not read it from cover to cover since I was eight or nine – yes, it’s perfectly normal. The book was lying about the place, nobody told me that it wasn’t suitable for children, so I picked it up and read it. Although I dropped Greco-Roman mythology as soon as I discovered that there were other kinds, some of its lessons stuck with me. One of the main ones is about how varied the Greek concept of “hero” used to be.
Achilles was heroic for being able and willing to kick alllllll the ass. Odysseus was heroic for being cunning. They were both special, both admired by a whole load of people, but they were hardly similar. A whole load of other people around them were considered special for all kinds of other characteristics: strength, bravery, honesty, steadfastness, loyalty, craftsmanship, etc. Even people who seemed to be at a clear disadvantage could be special. Someone could be special for their athleticism, but they better not feel too superior to someone with a physical disability. The latter person may excel at poetry, politics, or some kickass craft that made them just as special, but in a different way. People were valued for what they could do better than other people, and their help was sought in situations where those skills were deemed useful. That’s what I got from the stories, anyway – maybe people looked at Odysseus and found him lacking for not being honest enough, or looked at Achilles and deemed him a blockhead, and the poets just left that bit out. As a child, however, I was struck by how totally different people could still be special and valued for what they could contribute, rather than being measured against a fixed standard and found wanting.
Even more interestingly, all the “superpowers” the heroes have seemed to let them down at least once. Achilles had his heel, Odysseus had an uncanny penchant for taunting one-eyed giants… They were special people, but they were also all fallible, and when they were upset they cried. A lot. Hell, if you ever want to get plastered to a Greek myth, take a swing every time someone cries.
Then there’s “300,” and the myriad of copycat movies it spawned. In these modern versions, Greek heroism is very narrow, very prescriptive, and very focused on working them abs. Heroes go out, kick as much ass as they can find, and flex a lot in the process. Nobody cries, obvs; in fact, having the emotional range of a teaspoon is pretty much the only way to be A Man (anger is, of course, not a feeling, because reasons). I find this mangling of very clearly told stories fascinating. The ideal of the Greek hero we end up with is so vastly different from the one we can gleam from the most cursory examination of actual Greek myths that it’s a whole ‘nuvver animal. I wonder how the “300” aficionados would take it if they discovered that their Greek heroes cuddled same-sex friends, wept over each other’s shoulders, and totally lost their shit in grief.
The current representations of Greek heroes speak about us, our culture, our relationship with what makes people special. Greek poets may have provided the backbone of the stories, but it is us, or at the very least our media culture, who are turning them into what they are now. It is definitely us eating them up and hailing them as The Way To Be.
I’m reminded of that glorious article about Kirk Drift, and its TL/DR version. Modern Kirk is a misogynistic uber-jerk oozing toxic masculinity, and has nothing to do with the actual Kirk in the actual episodes of the actual show. We’ve collectively made this new Kirk out of our warped vision of the old one, much as we’ve made our new Old Greek heroes. And these revisited heroes all kinda suck, which doesn’t say much about us.