The ancient Greeks’ concept of “the hero” was very different from what we understand by the term today, Gregory Nagy argues—and it is only through analyzing their historical contexts that we can truly understand Achilles, Odysseus, Oedipus, and Herakles.
In Greek tradition, a hero was a human, male or female, of the remote past, who was endowed with superhuman abilities by virtue of being descended from an immortal god. Despite their mortality, heroes, like the gods, were objects of cult worship. Nagy examines this distinctively religious notion of the hero in its many dimensions, in texts spanning the eighth to fourth centuries bce: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; and dialogues of Plato. All works are presented in English translation, with attention to the subtleties of the original Greek, and are often further illuminated by illustrations taken from Athenian vase paintings.
The fifth-century bce historian Herodotus said that to read Homer is to be a civilized person. In twenty-four installments, based on the Harvard University course Nagy has taught and refined since the late 1970s, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offers an exploration of civilization’s roots in the Homeric epics and other Classical literature, a lineage that continues to challenge and inspire us today.
[Nagy’s] analysis is fascinating, often ingenious… This book is a valuable synthesis of research finessed over thirty years… Complemented by a free online sourcebook, edited by Nagy, containing translations of all the ancient texts discussed, like an ancient hero it will provide a lasting legacy beyond the hora of its publication.
[Nagy] has managed to become an éminence grise without ever quite ceasing to be an enfant terrible… Nagy is a passionate close reader… Like the Iliad, Nagy’s book is an ambitious work in twenty-four installments, developed over a long period of oral performance, alluding to and reworking earlier versions (themselves fluid), before finally taking on a more lasting form.
Nagy’s zest for Homeric texts is boundless.
The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is Gregory Nagy’s MOOC book. The massive open online course is one of the most significant developments in higher education in years and Nagy is one of the foremost Homerists of his generation, so the book deserves attention both as an academic publication and as a pedagogical experiment. Scholars already familiar with Nagy’s work will not find radically new insights here. What they will appreciate is a systematic and exceptionally lucid statement of the research he has carried out over the past four decades… One of the greatest achievements of Nagy’s research is that it powerfully illuminates the relationship between myth and cult.
There’s a vital subject at the heart of the book—more vital perhaps now than ever, since the concept of the ‘hero’ has been so overused and distorted in the 21st century that it scarcely has any meaning anymore, applying equally to Armed Services employees working in an accounting office in Qatar and elementary school teachers doing what they’d be fired if they didn’t do. Nagy exuberantly reminds his readers that heroes—mortal strivers against fate, against monsters, and, as we’ll see, against death itself—form the heart of Greek literature, the vital counterweight to the gaudy gods and goddesses who so often steal the limelight. He surveys the incredible feast of Greek literature from Homer and Hesiod to the tragedians (his extended analysis of Euripides’ Hippolytus, for instance, is a wondrous highlight of the book’s final marches) and overlays on top of that feast a neat but thin conceit of ‘hours’ characterized by certain ancient Greek concepts like Kleos, Memnemai, Akhos, Penthos, and Aphthito. The comprehensiveness of his coverage allows him to bring in every variation on the Greek hero, from the wily Theseus to the brawny Hercules to the ‘monolithic’ Achilles to the valiantly conflicted Oedipus, and that same sweep puts him in a perfect position to spot the linking factors and expound on them.
Backed by formidable learning and a vast ecumenical sweep embellished with details—yet written in a winningly readable informal style—The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offers to us penetrating considerations of the ways in which Greek classics continue to make themselves felt in our lives even today.
This volume is a summation of the insights of a scholar who has devoted his life to these materials, and who has a deep, learned, and personal vision of the ancient Greek psyche, its values, and its manifestations in song and prose. The result is a stimulating tour of ancient Greek literature.
By force of its prestige, the Iliad sets the standard for the definition of the word epic: an expansive poem of enormous scope, composed in an old-fashioned and superbly elevated style of language, concerning the wondrous deeds of heroes. That these deeds were meant to arouse a sense of wonder or marvel is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, especially in a time when even such words as wonderful or marvelous have lost much of their evocative power. Nor is it any easier to grasp the ancient Greek concept of hero (the English word is descended from the Greek), going beyond the word's ordinary levels of meaning in casual contemporary usage.
Who, then, were these heroes? In ancient Greek traditions, heroes were humans, male or female, of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves. A prime example is Achilles. The greatest hero of the Iliad, Achilles was the son of Thetis, a sea-goddess known for her far-reaching cosmic powers.
It is clear in the epic, however, that the father of Achilles is mortal, and that this greatest of heroes must therefore be mortal as well. So, too, with all the ancient Greek heroes: even though they are all descended in some way or another from the gods, however many generations removed, heroes are mortals, subject to death. No matter how many immortals you find in a family tree, the intrusion of even a single mortal will make all successive descendants mortal. Mortality, not immortality, is the dominant gene.
- 752 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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