The salt and pepper of any religion, mythology or folklore is represented by legendary figures, known to us, mortals, as heroes; and with all the fascinating legends and myths, it’s really hard to choose just five of them, which is why there will probably be an epic sequel to this.
Heracles or Hercules (meaning glory of Hera) is probably the best known hero. In Greek myths, he was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Many stories surround him in a magnificent aura, but the most popular is that of the The Twelve labors of Heracles. Naming just some of them sheds light on how big his tasks were (killing the Lernaean Hydra, capturing the dreaded hell hound Cerber, and probably the best known, getting the Apples of Hesperides). Both respected and celebrated by the Greeks and Romans, he’s still a model of courage, bravery, and even wits (despite that’s not the best thing he’s known for). Alas, he did die, killed by Nessus who tricked his wife into giving him a poisonous blood soaked tunic. That wasn’t as bad as you’d think though, as after that, he became a god and joined his father in Olympus.
The legend of Gilgamesh is the oldest one around. This epic tale has been told for thousands of years, and hasn’t lost anything of its charm (as a legend it’s actually considered the precursor of Heracles and other folk heroes by some). He was the fifth king of Uruk, and his mother was a goddess, and he is considered to be 2/3 god and 1/3 human. The epic of Gilgamesh is centered around his relationship as a distracted and disheartened king with his brave and wild friend Enkidu, who undertakes dangerous quests with Gilgamesh. Being credited by historians as perhaps the first literary work, it later shows the king changing for the better and searching immortality after the death of Enkidu. These Sumerian legends have been around for thousands of years, and they’ll be here for thousands more; and there’s a good reason for that.
More than 1000 years ago, a man who’s name has been lost in history put pen to paper and transcribed an epic that had already been circulating for about two centuries. Thus, he became the author of the oldest piece of English literature extant today. The epic poem with the same name describes his adventures in which he goes in this area to prove his strength in almost impossible situations, against all sort of demons and malicious gods. Just naming all his accomplishments would take to long. Still, after many fights, when he becomes king, he is cursed because he took a piece of treasure he wasn’t supposed to, and has to fight a dragon. He manages to kill the dragon in what may just be the best known fight in all literature, but dies from the wounds. After he is cremated, Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff overlooking the sea, where sailors are able to see his barrow. The dragon’s treasure is buried with him, rather than distributed to his people, as was Beowulf’s wish, because of the curse associated with the hoard.
We stray a bit from these early times and go nearer to our days; actually, let’s say we go less further. Robin hood is an archetypal figure in English folklore – we all know him, we all love him. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, what more can you want? Along with his “seven score” group of fellow outlawed yeomen (known as Merry Men), he brought havoc to the rich tirans from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. There are many versions to this. In some he is known as Robin of Loxley, a nobleman who was unfairly robbed of his riches and now seeks justice; in some he fights against the Sheriff of Nottingham, a despotic figure, or against Prince John, based on the historical John of England. Still, one thing’s fore sure: despite the fact that it hasn’t been yet proven that he did or didn’t exist, he’s one of the most loved characters throughout England and the world.
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Despite the fact that gods aren’t really all that loved in mythologies, due to the fact that they abuse the powers and people can’t relate to them, Thor is without a single doubt one of the most cherished and respected figures in Norse mythology, and mythology in general. With his red hair and red beard, the god of thunder was loved because he was the protector against evil (and didn’t require sacrifices). The Norse believed that thunders appeared because he would throw his hammer (Mjollnir). He also wears a magical belt (Megingjard) which doubles his already fantastic strength. In the day of Ragnarok (meaning “Doom of the Gods”; the day when cosmos will end in Norse mythology with an enormous battle in which virtually every creature will take place) Thor will fight Jormungand, the serpent which is so big that it surrounds the entire world. The fight will be epic, Thor will kill the beast but die shortly after due to the wounds, leaving his hammer to his son.
Copyright 2008 ZME Science
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