Where are the Heroes?
As we read Homers epic tale of war, death, and enthralling characters, we find great warriors each on a different pathway. Looking closer at three of these characters, Akhilleus, Agamemnon, and Hektor, we find that each of these warriors displays many heroic qualities and deeds, yet none ever achieves becoming a true hero.
What does it mean to achieve the status of a true hero? Many books and papers have been written on this subject but for the purpose of my argument let me condense it. For Akhilleus, Agamemnon, or Hektor to become a true hero they must have completed the Quest Cycle.
The basic aspects of the Hero Quest Cycle are, first the separation or departure. In this part of the cycle the hero must leave the comforts of home or the known world and begin on their journey into the unknown world. Then comes the initiation phase where our hero must face trials and overcome great challenges. Finally the hero quest is completed in the return cycle. In this completion stage the hero has his ultimate boon and return, usually a triumphant return.
In evaluating Agamemnon we find an impressive warlord, as Akhilleus states: “…first in rank of all the Akhaians.” (Pp. 27 ll. 105.) Agamemnon has left his known world on a quest of honor, to fight for his brother Menelaus, who has had his wife and treasures stolen by a guest. In coming to a place of trials Agamemnon hastily shows us that he is in serious lack of hero qualities. Agamemnon has taken a girl as a war prize, when her father, a priest of the God Apollo, comes humbly seeking to pay a fair ransom for her return Agamemnon is harsh and unyielding. Even after his fellow comrades try compelling him to take the father’s fair offer Agamemnon refuses, showing his vain selfish non-hero traits. In doing so Agamemnon angers the God Apollo and causes great death and destruction to his army as stated in the Iliad: “So he made a burning wind of plague rise in the army: rank and file sickened and died for the ill their chief had done.” (Pp. 25 ll. 12-13)
When Agamemnon was made aware of his disastrous choice rather than face it like a great hero and suffer a loss for his actions he turned on his greatest warrior Akhilleus and took his war prize. Throughout the Iliad Agamemnon’s actions never rise to the level of a hero and he fails miserably in the quest cycle, never defeating his trials or completing his journey.
With the great Akhilleus we find a similar beginning, he too leaves the comforts of home to fight for the honor of Menelaus. Akhilleus comes much closer to fulfilling the hero image. He is the child of an immortal mother, on a quest for glory and greatness.
Akhilleus has the greatest military prowess of any of the Achaean ranks and has the greatest fighting ability of all the warriors, Trojan or Achaean. He shows these qualities when he pulls the troops together to find out why the Gods are destroying them after Agamemnon’s actions with the priest. He also shows honor when the seer is afraid to tell them the cause of their anguish and Akhilleus states to the seer: “Courage. Tell what you know, what you have light to know. I swear by Apollo, the lord god to whom you pray when you uncover truth, never while I draw breath, while I have eyes to see, shall any man upon this beachhead dare to lay hands on you.” (Pp. 27 ll. 98-103)
Akhilleus quickly falters in the hero cycle when treated poorly by Agamemnon. After loosing his war prize to Agamemnon, Akhilleus becomes consumed with rage and retreats back to his ship with his troops the Myrmidons and refuses to fight for the Achaean cause against the Trojans. Akhilleus goes so far as to ask the gods to wreak havoc upon his fellow comrades to show them what a lousy leader Agamemnon is.
Akhilleus pouts until Hektor kills his best friend Patrocolus. The death of Patrocolus is another example of Akhilleus failing in his hero quest. If Akhilleus had been in battle rather than dressing Patrocolus in his armor and letting everyone think he had returned to the battle, his closest friend would not have died. Upon the death of his friend Akhilleus’ rage is turned back to the Trojans and he flings himself back into the war. He kills many Trojans and after a somewhat comical chase around the city slays Hektor then desecrates his body by dragging it behind his chariot excessively to vent his own hate and anger.
Akhilleus comes closer to the hero aspect of facing trials and learning about himself in the scene in which Priam comes to beg for the return of his slain son. He is overcome with grief and remorse, saddened and humbled by the ultimate devastation. This shows his human side his heroic side, but he ultimately dies in battle and never completes the hero’s quest.
Hektor, on the other hand, in action is the most heroic of the three. He shows himself to be compassionate yet a great warrior. We see the heroic stalwart side in his statement to his wife “Long ago I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always and to contend for honor, father’s and mine.” (Pp. 50 ll. 383-384) Sadly Hector is not on a quest so he never comes close to the heroic ideal. He is only defending his family, city, and honor. In the end Hektor dies a terrible death never achieving a journey or boon, but in my eyes he will always be the hero.
Homer. “The Iliad.” Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Western Literature in a World Context.
Vol. 1. Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, and John F. Crawford. New York: St. Martian’s, 1995. 19-156.