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C Myths of Heroes
Nearly all cultures have produced myths about heroes. Some heroes, such as the Greek Achilles, have one mortal and one divine parent. Others are fully human but are blessed with godlike strength or beauty. Many myths about heroes concern significant phases of the hero's career, such as the circumstances of the hero's birth, a journey or quest, and the return home.
The birth and infancy of a mythological hero is often exceptional or even miraculous. In the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world, the births of many heroes followed similar patterns. For example, the Hebrew prophet Moses, the Greek hero Oedipus, and the Roman heroes Romulus and Remus were all exposed to the elements at birth and left to die, but miraculously survived. Other heroes were immediately able to care for themselves. In early infancy, the Greek hero Hercules strangled a pair of enormous serpents sent to kill him. The Irish C Chulainn, who later became a great warrior, also performed astonishing feats of strength as a child.
Most heroes set off on a quest or a journey of some kind. One of the earliest tales of a hero's journey is the Babylonian story known as the Gilgamesh epic, written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets in about 2000 bc. The hero, Gilgamesh, embarks on a quest for immortality. A goddess named Siduri guides him, and in the course of his adventures he must do combat with monsters and visit the world of the dead. At the end of the quest, Gilgamesh must accept mortality, which the gods allotted to human beings when they created them. In Greek and Roman mythology the stories of Jason (who sailed in quest of the Golden Fleece) and of Aeneas (who traveled from Troy to Italy to found Rome) likewise describe journeys or quests. Other narratives that may be interpreted as heroic journeys include the biblical story of the Hebrew prophet Moses, who led his people on a 40-year journey through the wilderness, and the Celtic tale of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail (see Arthurian Legend).
The most famous tale of a hero's return home is probably the ancient Greek story of Odysseus, recounted in the Odyssey by the poet Homer. When the story opens, Odysseus has been away for nearly 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War and then kept captive by the sea nymph Calypso. Back in his kingdom of Ithaca, suitors who want to marry his wife Penelope are devouring and wasting his property and plotting against his son. Zeus persuades Calypso to let Odysseus leave and return home, but the god Poseidon is angry with Odysseus and is determined to kill him. In the course of his journey, Odysseus is shipwrecked, held captive by Calypso, and nearly devoured by monsters; all his companions are killed. When he finally returns to Ithaca, penniless and without allies, he must plot the destruction of the suitors and persuade Penelope that he really is who he claims to be. Of course, he succeeds brilliantly.
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