Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE term 'hero' these days is commonly used of large numbers of people: those engaged in dangerous work (soldiers, firemen), those engaged in demanding work (nurses, teachers) and those simply doing a conscientious job, whatever that job is. Ancient Greeks might have had some sympathy with this - though not while the 'heroes' were alive.

'Hero' derives from the Greek herbs. The epic poet Homer (8th century BC) used it only of the living, and it meant, broadly, 'warrior'. In later Greek literature, however, a heron was someone who had been of significance to the local community but was now dead. There was no need for the person to have been a warrior or even male, let alone to have lived in a heroic age.

This status was for the most part bestowed on those who were associated with outstanding local benefactions. They were patrons or saviours of their city, or had founded it in the first place; they had come to the aid of people in danger or sickness; or they had been responsible for the foundation of a new cult. Often an oracle was linked with the award, commanding that so-and-so be given heroic status. The result was that the heron, who was usually envisaged in the full flower of youth, received cult worship. …

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