Story Pattern of the Greek Hero

Myths from many lands illustrate the archetypal pattern of the hero, in which a hero’s life follows a predictable pattern of types of events. These include an unusual birth, early tests, a heroic quest (with heroic tests), and a return and a reward. This pattern is drawn from the work of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell discovered that the story of a typical hero follows a predictable pattern across the mythologies of many different cultures.

Campbell’s Story Pattern of the Hero applies to the Greek hero to some extent, but Greek heroes differ in one, crucial respect: the last stage. Greek heroes, contrary to heroes from other cultures, usually have an unhappy later life and a violent or unhappy death.

In setting forth our own Story Pattern of the Greek Hero, we will concentrate especially on the heroes’ unhappy later lives (after they have completed their heroic journeys) and their unhappy deaths because they differentiate Greek myths from the myths of most other cultures.

Story Pattern of the Greek Hero

I. Unusual Birth – usually has one divine parent & one mortal parent

  • sometimes the god (if Zeus) changes his shape
  • sometimes there is both a divine and a human father (both slept with the mother on same night)

II. Early Tests – must prove heroic nature while still young

III. Heroic Journey – motivated by a noble cause

  • often because his family has been deprived of rightful power
  • often imposed by a wicked king
  • often includes a descent to Hades & return
  • in psychological terms this often means facing his own death

IV. Heroic Tests

  • must pass series of difficult tests; often part of heroic journey
  • includes performing difficult and dangerous acts that greatly benefit his people
  • sometimes imposed by a wicked king
  • sometimes includes killing a monster or dragon
  • often wins princess bride as a reward

V. Unhappy Later Life and Violent or Unhappy Death

  • this aspect is peculiarly Greek
  • different from heroes of other cultures, e.g. our own

Note: variations are important

  • most heroes don’t follow the pattern fully
  • it is interesting to note that each Greek hero is unique and not all of them fit into every aspect of this general pattern
  • but all Greek heroes (except, perhaps, for Perseus) do have an unhappy later life and violent or unhappy death
  • Heracles is perhaps the best example of this pattern


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Mythology Unbound: An Online Textbook for Classical Mythology Copyright © by Jessica Mellenthin and Susan O. Shapiro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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