Unlike many ancient cultures, Greek mythology and fairy tales are full of heroes and villains. There is barely an old Greek tale or belief without glorification or condemnation of characters with supernatural attributes or defiant traits. Most of these myths and fairy tales are handed down to generations with the emphasis on culture and value preservation. Most religious practices in Modern Greek and affiliate communities today also feature elements of these ancient cultures. In this context, highlighting of heroes seems to dominate with each being presented to serve diverse and at times shared purposes as seen in Greek literature on mythology and fairy tales (Bremmer 2014, p. 12). This discussion will: compare and contrast the portrayal of heroes and villains; highlight emerging themes, motifs, and use of symbolism; and review the cultural background for Greek mythology and fairy tale. The legendary stories of Hercules (as the hero) and Arakhne (as a villain) in Greek mythology and fairy tales will be referred to as the basis for this discussion (Hamilton 2017, p. 8). Hercules and Arakhne are portrayed in high contrast; this is, however, attributable to the diverse cultural backgrounds their characters are created.
As the epitome of Greek hero characterization, Hercules has all the desirable attributes that everyone would desire from humble in society to the mightiest of kings in myth and lore. One of the critical qualities featured in Hercules' character is his ability to engage and interact closely with gods. Being the son of a Zeus (a Greek god), Hercules embarks on a path that no mortal being could undertake, from slaying powerful creatures to overthrowing kings, his successes are due to the cord he shares with Zeus and Hera (a Greek goddess) after sucking from her breast like a baby. Unlike Hercules, Arakhne is characterized as a skilful but proud villain whose negative relationship with Athena (a Greek goddess) leads to her destruction. Arakhnes pride is portrayed as an undesirable attribute with the view of discouraging the same in the Greek society (Tsanava 2015, p. 5). Her woes start when she boasts of her weaving prowess, she later dares to challenge Athena the goddess to a weaving contest. This distinct portrayal of the hero and villain in the above instances a direct result of the relationship they have with divine beings whereby, heroes tend to have a harmonious relationship while villains result to offending the gods.
The portrayal of heroes and villains in Greek mythology and folklore is similar in the sense that it can be categorized into two broad categories, the early life where the hero enjoys their superior capabilities and villain social acceptance, and the later life stage where the two commonly face a tragic ending. In the stories of Hercules for instance, the hero faces significant challenges in his early life like being abandoned soon after birth and living to accomplish difficult tasks and journeys that are a threat to his life (Ruck 2016, p. 7). During this time, Hercules uses his unique capabilities to overcome the challenges and receive glorification and adoration. Similar to Hercules' early life and before bearing the villain title, Arakhne's grows up as weaver with skills getting better every day only to become the most adored and comparable to the deity Athena's (Sare-Agturk 2014, p. 22). A sharp contrast between the characterization of these hero and villains late life is how their story concludes. Like most heroes in Greek mythology, Hercules dies a heroic death and further attains a place in Olympus among the gods only to be reborn again in a later phase. Arakhne, on the other hand, enjoys the most of her late-life enjoying her fame and recognition as the finest (Sare-Agturk 2014, p. 22). However, her tale ends sadly. Athena turns her into a spider.
Themes and Key Motifs/Symbolism
There are fundamental themes and motifs in Greek Mythology and Folklore, especially in legendary tales where heroes and villains get featured in detail. The same is also applicable to the stories of Hercules and Villain as introduced above. Gods and Goddesses are one of the most common and central themes as may be seen in the tales of Hercules and Arakhne. For instance, and as a possible sub-theme, gods/goddesses are often portrayed as embodying human emotions (Sare-Agturk 2014, p. 22). In Greek mythological tales, Hercules is the son of Zeus (a male god) and Alcmene Heracles (a mortal woman), which is a suggestion that gods had the same humanly feelings of attraction to the members of the opposite sex. The same is also true in Arakhne's folk tales where Athena is seemingly provoked and angered by Arakhne's pride as the average human would be (Tsanava 2015, p. 5). The emotional stretch expressed by Athena is similar to Hera's (the wife of Zeus in mythology) who attempts to kill Hercules as a toddler since he was a product of her husband's adulterous relationship with Heracles.
Retribution for good deeds and rewarding for goodness is another crucial theme in Hercules' and Arakhne's folk tales. In the story of Hercules, the hero is rewarded by Zeus for his faithfulness and recognition. The reward also includes recognition that the god's blood flows within him. Also, he is made king and ruler of many territories for sticking to his life purpose of serving his people and creating adoration for Zeus, the king of gods (Hamilton 2017, p. 8). The theme is also evident in the tale of Arakhne, the villain. In return for her weaving dexterity, people come from all over the world to see her works and bring value for her works (Ruck 2016, p. 3). Goodness seems to have had a place in the hearts of Greeks and within the general society at large. However, the villain's pride and arrogance results in the untimely end of her life.
The hero's quest is a central motif in Greek mythology where the hero has to live a pre-determined fate or destiny. In the story of Hercules for instance, the hero gets forewarned by a witch of the pain he would experience after losing a sexual partner and having to live in conquest and a life full of strife. The witch's predictions are right as Hercules leads a long battle-filled life as a king and mortal being who is ordained by the gods. Hercules also lives up to expectations that he would take up his father's traits, Zeus that is, who is believed to be a ruler of gods in Greek mythology (Mikellidou 2015, p. 4). In a seemingly ordinary way of representation, Arakhne also seems to suffer the villain's path that often leads to destruction, untimely death or shame. In Greek folklore, Arakhne is said to have been forewarned by Athena who had taken the form of a senior woman (Tsanava, 2015, p. 5). However, Arakhne's defiance and arrogance seem to have reached irredeemable limits and thus compelling Athena to reveal herself and accept her challenge.
Art is also highly symbolized in Greek mythology and folk stories. This symbolization is evident where the ancient Greek seems to have placed a high price in artistry. The most prominent in this case is the artistic works of Arakhne as told about her weaving in Greek fairy tales. The same goes for Hercules who was highly decorative in field battles, archery and sword fighting (Garcia et al. 2014, p. 12). Athena, a goddess, is also adored for her artistic works in weaving as retold in the stories of Arakhne.
The Cultural Background
The ancient Greek civilizations as depicted in the legendary stories of Hercules and Arakhne in Greek mythology had a vibrant culture. The ancient Greeks studied the environment and relied on beliefs to interpret natural phenomena and give value to their ways of life (Tsanava, 2015, p. 5). Idolatry features significantly in Greek mythology. This adoration of gods emerges in the widespread worshiping of gods. For instance, they had a god attached to every aspect of life be it war, love, peace, and reproduction (Bremmer 2014, p. 11). The portrayal of heroes and villains in Greek mythology is an indication of the value placed by the then society on warfare. To a similar extent, divine beings are often associated with the outcome of war or battle as seen in the contest between Athena and Arakhne or Hercules and his enemies in life (Sare-Agturk 2014, p. 22).
The culture from which Greek mythology originated is however different from that in which it was and is re-written. This aspect is evident in the level of seriousness and value placed on a divine being. The origin of Greek mythology had a social and cultural significance in the sense that it was meant to encourage certain practices and condemn others. For instance, the legend of Hercules according to most scholars originated to inspire bravery and courage among young soldiers, while that of Arakhne was to promote respect for the gods and discourage specific behaviours like arrogance and pride ((Mikellidou 2015, p. 5). These aspects are different from the cultures in which the Greek mythology was re-writing. Rewriting of Greek mythology was ideally to promote the diverse cultures handed down generations. This rewriting includes illustrating great works of art, belief systems, socially desirable values and social norms in the ancient society without necessarily promoting their adoption (Mikellidou 2015, p. 350). This observation is also evident where such mythology is studied and rewritten in an academic context or for narration.
In Greek Mythology, heroes like Hercules in this discussion, are featured from a more positive perspective. They, for instance, possess supernatural attributes or desirable traits. This observation is different from the presentation of villains because they often bear characters that are less desirable in the society. However, both heroes and villains end up having a tragic ending owing to their essential characteristics. This observation is correct for both Hercules and Arakhne who exist in a society that glorified gods and superior beings in an almost similar extent. Also, heroes unlike villains, are portrayed as having superhuman abilities while villains have an almost insatiable desire for praise and material things. Reference to gods and goddesses also forms a primary theme in Greek mythology and fairy tales. Another major issue is the fact that right behaviour gets rewarded with good and bad with retribution. All along, the hero's quest forms the first motif while art is most symbolized. Idolatry and warfare are the key cultural aspects identifiable in Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks seem to have placed a high value on divine beings while the latter civilizations seem to have only put fundamental interest in the literary devices and rich literature from the past.
Bremmer, J.N., 2014. Interpretations of Greek Mythology (Routledge Revivals). Routledge.
Garcia, Francisco Javier Gonzalez. "The Legendary Tradition about the Tower of Hercules (A Coruna, Spain)." Folklore 125, no. 3 (2014): 306-321.
Hamilton, E., 2017. Mythology: Timeless tales of gods and heroes. Hachette UK.
Mikellidou, K., 2015. Euripides Heracles: The Katabasis-Motif Revisited. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 55(2), pp. 5-7: 329-352.
Ruck, C.A., 2016. The Myth of the Lernaean Hydra. In The Cnidaria, Past, Present, and Future (pp. 795-803). Springer International Publishing.
SARE-AGTURK, T., 2014. Arakhne's loom. Luxurious textile production in ancient western Anatolia. Olba Journal, 22.
Tsanava, R., 2015. Myth-Model of the Substitute Sacrifice and the Classic Epos. Journal Phasis-Greek and Roman Studies, 8(15), p.5.
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