This list does not presume to be a complete or systematic classification. Its descriptions are not mutually exclusive since figures of myth tend to accumulate diverse traits. Yet one of these patterns may be prominent in the best-known versions of a given heroic myth.

1) A culture-hero overcomes natural hostile forces or personified enemies of civilization. The mythmaking center claims to be, of course, the cradle of civilization.

2) The hero of a community has saved it from a terrible bane or from starvation. Continued worship guarantees continued protection against a recurrence of that misfortune.

3) A lowly individual (occasionally, one of high status) either takes upon himself the guilt of an entire community or is burdened with it by others . This scapegoat is punished and expelled, and in the process becomes holy and is then honored as a hero who will protect the community.

4) A hero takes upon himself the sufferings of a community; while he cannot be liberated from such a burden, he liberates men from a comparable plight.

5) A hero journeys to distant and mysterious places and ultimately descends to the realm of death. Defying all malignant forces that conspire to prevent his return, he ascends, in a symbolic resurrection, and is honored.

6) A hero may be a benefactor of a particular society, or a benefactor of all men. In exchange for his gift and the hardship he may have endured to obtain it, men offer him worship.

7) A man has the special power of letting his mind travel to distant places and bring, upon returning, some special knowledge that he is able to communicate to ordinary men. He can prophesy the future. (Some call this the function of a shaman.) Another man, or sometimes the same, has the authority to compose poetry performed in communal solemn ceremonies. His tomb is the object of worship.

8) A young virgin's life is offered to propitiate an angry deity or otherwise to ensure the salvation of a group--the city, the army, the family. This sacrificial victim, who may be a willing one, is usually a woman, but occasionally a young man has the same role.

9) A hero comes from afar or goes very far to find a special place where he will found a city or mark the site of a temple or an oracle. To do so he must overcome great dangers.

10) A hero is torn to pieces, and this, paradoxically, consolidates his city or guarantees social integrity and order.

11) Two heroes, or a hero and a "villain," fight, and one kills the other. A god and a hero or a god and a monster may be examples of this antagonism as well. The victor takes upon himself the attributes of his dead enemy. The conquered enemy may, curiously, also become a savior and be worshipped.

In the ancient Greek tradition and in others it is possible to perceive a basic contrast between heroes whose power is physical, heroes of strength, and heroes who achieve extraordinary deeds because they possess cunning, the power of the mind.  In English such a contrast may be expressed as brawn vs. brain. Typically, Herakles is a hero of brawn, of brute force, while Odysseus is one of brain.  Yet there are no perfect types: Herakles achieves a number of his famous labors with clever stratagems, and Odysseus in some episodes of the epic overpowers his opponents thanks to his  strength.

This polar opposition, however, is useful, since it is embedded in the myths themselves.


The construction of a heroic figure often includes some or all of the following narratives:

1) The birth of the hero, usually extraordinary (he may be the son of a god), sometimes preceded by prophecies which may be ominous.  Example: Perseus.

2) His childhood, including perhaps his education by a divine or semidivine trainer of heroes (such as Cheiron, who taught both Jason and Achilles).

3) His initiation, i.e. the tests he must pass to become an adult, endowed with his full powers.  Sometimes this tale includes the recognition by his father or a father figure.  (Example: Theseus). In some cases the initiation of a hero is defined as his first sexual experience, the loss of innocence (Jason).

4) Heroic deeds and the tales that represent them are diverse and unpredictable; some examples of this variety are listed in part A) of this page.

5) His achievements may include the conquest of death, symbolized perhaps by a descent to the underworld or a perilous journey to the beyond, differently represented.  Odysseus, Heracles, Aeneas, visit the underworld.

6) Some heroes transgress the frontiers of their own identity, appearing as feminine instead of, or at the same time as masculine.  The prophet Teiresias is a striking example of such gender ambiguity.

7) A hero may take a consort and engender sons who will continue his lineage.  Occasionally a hero makes love to a goddess (cf. Anchises).

8) Heroes may commit excesses, striving to surpass the boundaries of their mortal nature, and/or defy the authority of a god or goddess.  In ancient Greek this is called hybris. Prometheus (though actually, a god) illustrates hybris and its consequences.

9) The death of heroes tends to be extraordinary: it may be a "beautiful death" on the battlefield, a degrading end such as a sacrifice in which the hero himself becomes the victim or, sometimes, a mysterious disappearance. It is uncommon for a Greek hero to ascend to the heavens (in what is known as an "apotheosis") and become immortal, but in most cases the death of a hero ensues in his glory (in worship or in song), or in the creation of a prophetic site, an oracle (cf. Orpheus, Amphiaraus).