1. The battle within the individual between the greater good of the community and personal desires is just about as old as time itself; the decision that Gilgamesh made to leave his kingdom unattended while he pursued the gift of eternal life for his friend, Enkidu, could have had disastrous consequences, but he decided to do it anyway. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest works of literature that we still have today, and the same battles rage within us today. Many of the myths and tales that we have read show this to be true as well. In particular, the greed of Paris when tempted by Helen, the desire of King Menelaus for revenge and the desire of King Agamemnon for personal prestige brought tragedy on themselves and others in Homer’s Iliad, the telling of the Trojan War.
According to all accounts, Helen was the most beautiful woman on the planet – even more beautiful than Aphrodite, at least in the opinion of Paris. While the resulting jealousy on Aphrodite’s part allegedly had a lot to do with the next decade of death for the Greeks and Trojans, the decisions that the major players made also were primary factors. First was Paris’ decision to take Helen away with him. Despite the fact that he had to know that war would ensue, the lust that Paris felt for Helen overwhelmed the other factors in the decision, and he spirited her away at the end of a diplomatic mission. King Menelaus, Helen’s (much older) husband, obviously took exception at what he viewed at the theft of his wife, and raised and army throughout the Argive lands to go and get his wife back. While one could argue that Menelaus would no longer have commanded the respect of his people if he had not gone after his wife, the fact remains that it was his choice to gather the other Achaean kings for war, and it was his decision to chase Helen across the Aegean Sea.
Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother, also put personal desires over the good of others. When he had to give the young woman Khryseis back to her father, in order to appease the gods and get the winds going so that the Argive ships could head to Troy, he insists on getting the woman whom Achilles had claimed from their prior war, Briseis, as compensation, feeling that a king should not have to give up any privileges just to appease the gods. Achilles is so angry about this, though, that he refuses to fight on the Greek side well into the war, which means that there were many more casualties than there might have been otherwise. Agamenon’s selfishness extends the tragedy of Troy much longer than it needed to be extended.
2. A true hero must have an actual quest, and that quest must both be worthwhile and must allow the hero to prove himself or herself. The hero must show courage in accomplishing the quest as well. Odysseus, the central character in Homer’s Odyssey, thinks that he will be able to make his way back from Troy to Ithaca simply, but his refusal to acknowledge Poseidon’s role in helping the Greeks carry the battle means that he will spend the next 20 years fighting against Poseidon to cross the sea back to his home. Odysseus faces and passes many tests along the way, such as avoiding the trap at the island of the Sirens, evading the snare of Circe, defeating the Cyclops, and overcoming the loss of the Aeolian winds. Also, Odysseus grows in character over the course of the story, going from the brash braggart boasting from the ramparts of Troy to the proud yet humble man who, upon finally arriving on the shores of Ithaca, takes on the trappings of a beggar in order to return to his former splendor on the throne.
Lancelot had many heroic qualities, but he ultimately failed to meet the definition of a hero. He was brave, and he did complete many quests, but his ethical failing that results from his affair with Queen Guinevere keeps him from possessing the true title. An actual hero would have remained true to his king, no matter what the temptations; while heroes do exhibit flaws throughout literature, they ultimately overcome them. Instead, Lancelot is drawn into intrigue with Mordred to overthrow Arthur, and it is this treachery that keeps Lancelot from holding the title of a true hero.
Many heroes in modern popular culture come from the world of sport. For many baseball fans, as well as former addicts, the professional baseball player Josh Hamilton fits the definition of a hero. He has great talents (which is often another sign of a hero), but his quest is internal rather than external – to overcome the demons of addiction to alcohol and painkillers. In 2004, he faced the loss of any opportunity to play baseball as a career, but he finally decided to set drugs aside and return to the game that he can play just about as well as anyone else on the planet. The closer he gets to completing his internal quest, the better he will be able to play. For those who follow his career with interest, watching him take up the mantle of hero, that he had almost cast aside while falling prey to his addiction, will either confirm his status as a hero, or mark him as a failure who threw opportunity after opportunity away.
3. Most of the ancient creation myths have several commonalities, and the same is true for the Hebrew, Greek and Seneca stories of the origin of the universe. For example, all three stories begin with an emptiness or void that is waiting to be filled. In the Seneca and Hebrew myths, all that is in the darkness is water; in the Greek and Seneca myths, birds are the only creatures that exist before the creation of the world. In the Hebrew myth, the spirit of God is hovering above the waters, instead of a bird. In the Seneca myth, there is a heaven already; in the Hebrew myth, the existence of a heaven is implied by the fact that God felt the necessity to talk in order to bring items into creation – the implication is that there is an audience to hear the things that God has to say.
The purpose of creation is the most intriguing in the Seneca myth. The daughter of the mighty chieftain (the ruler of heaven) was sick, and the only way to cure her was to send her through a hole dug near a massive tree, sending her into the void below. The waterfowl below saw her falling and caught her, but wearied from her burden. Conspiring with the turtle and the toad, they created land, and the woman soon conceived a child. That woman’s daughter would give birth to the twins who would start life spreading on the planet, before one slew the other. This is similar to the Hebrew myth in a couple of ways. First, there would be a pair of brothers who would come into conflict, and one would kill the other. Also, the idea of conception without sexual union is part of the Hebrew story, but not until much later, when, according to the New Testament, Jesus was conceived without sexual union. The Greek myth also features a pair of brothers bringing forth people and animals onto the planet, as Prometheus made people and Epimetheus created the animals.
Both the Hebrew and Greek myths contain the element of there being a transgression that would damage the fellowship between the gods and their creations. The decision of Adam and Eve to try the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ended their stay in the Garden of Eden. Two similar events happened in the Greek creation myth, as Prometheus decided to give man the gift of fire, which led to Prometheus’ eternal punishment. Zeus also gave Pandora the gift of curiosity, as well as a box that she was never to open. When she opened the box, all of the evils in the world spilled out of it, leaving only Hope behind. Both myths explain how evil enter the world; in the Seneca myth, the possibility for evil is already present in the boys.