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The Problem of Choice in Greek Mythology


The concept of the hero as portrayed in Greek myth is treated as an interaction of the self realized human being with the gods that takes on elements of a competitive struggle. The hero archetype is pictured as manifesting in an elitist sense in those who qualify to enter the competition. Qualifications include a history of transcendental disinterested service in the interests of providing man with increased cosmological scope. Reference is made to a panoply of heroes, chief among them Prometheus who dared to disobey the power hierarchy and bring the light of divine knowledge to mankind. The element of chaos is presented as a disorganized field in which the hero must battle in his self imposed task to increase the amount of order in the cosmos.


The highest virtue in Greek society was arête: manliness, the courage of a man, excellence, especially that revealed in a contest or agon. This competitive spirit man took from the gods themselves. Greek myth reflects that from the very beginning of the creation there was a permanent competition or struggle between the new deities against the zoomorphic, phytomorphic and mixantropomorphic deities of the ancient times.[1]

The Olympic gods, joined later by heroes, were engaged in a constant fight against ancient chaos. Their victories increased the harmony and order in the universe. It was the competition between new and old gods for leading positions in the universe and the hierarchies of an increasingly harmonious structure. Though often it looked like an internecine war, the end was not to destroy the older deities, but rather to remove them toward the periphery of the divine ruling world. In addition to the well known battles of the Olympians with the Titans, such as those in the dynasty of Cronus which even now develop our sense of times and timing, we see reflections of this ongoing war in the fate of such chthonic gods as the wise nymph Metis, prominent in the ancient times but later disappearing from view after being swallowed by Zeus. Again in the fate of the silverfooted Thetis, humiliated by her forced marriage with the mortal Pelius but being the niece of Eurynoma, the wife of Ophionus, who were rulers of Olympus before Rhea and Cronus.

The visible significance of these important past deities diminishes, though it is still present as they continue to help the Olympians, deploying strategic delay tactics as for example in the breeding of Hephaestus for nine years or in the hiding of the son of Semele and Zeus, who was Dionysus. It is well to remember that all the struggles of the gods manifest as present wisdom in the mind of Father Zeus.

The power of the chthonic gods was not to be forgotten, not only because they were often the ancestors of new gods and heroes, but also because of their more powerful ancient energies, which the new gods needed in order to subdue their own chthonic, ancestors. Thus, with the help of the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, the wielder of lightning bolts Zeus was able to defeat Cronus and other Titans; and with the help of Metis – to save his brothers and sisters from being gobbled up by the terrible amorphous ogre, the Father of all Time.

After being swallowed by Zeus, Metis is later forgotten even though she was the mother of Athena. Most of us have been led to concede that Athena enjoyed a parthenogenic conception, springing fully armed from her father’s head. We must be careful about the mythological histories that we weave into our soulstuff since many myths and legends are subject to variations, but it is conventionally held that together with the heroes the gods defeated the Giants. As order slowly evolved from chaos, Zeus started to rule the universe in a more orderly way, together with the other eleven gods from their dwelling place on Mount Olympus. However, chaos, and consequently the potentiality for new battles, did not vanish, as the defeated old gods were always present in the darkness of Tartaras. And sounding ever in the background like a recurrent leitmotif from a tragic chorus was the prophecy of Prometheus about the son stronger than Zeus who would come into the world and make all things new.

Reflecting the struggle for universal order, polis as the higher form of society has also won the social competition with the former anarchical state. The formation of polis with its own patronizing deity, such as Athena in Athens, Zeus in Olympia, Apollo in Delphi as well as the cult of the hero protectors (Theseus, Asclepius and Oedipus) symbolized the now permanent presence of the organizing and structuring work of the divine Logos in socium.

After the defeat of the chthonic gods, the Olympic gods continue to compete among themselves, each of them confirming his own place in the universal structure and often including humans in this competition, whose fourth generation after such conflict, according to Hesiod, was the generation of heroes or demigods. The ambivalent nature of cosmic law could be seen in the competitions between the gods themselves. This ambivalence would lead us to speculate as to the nature of law at its various hierarchical levels. It would appear that before the principles of law were accepted by the polis, they had the quality of emergence, which is to say that the principle or hyparxis[2] at the level of manifestation is generated rather than fixed. This is of course the distinguishing feature of common law as compared to the more rigid character of the sophisticated laws of the Greek polis emulated by the Romans. In the mythic struggle each victory is taken as a precedent, and so as in Anglo common law, law itself evolves.

The Iliad portrays not only the war between Greeks and Trojans helped by the gods: Hera, Athena, and Poseidon on the side of Greeks, while Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares are on the side of Trojans. The scenario involves more than the competition which ensues between the gods themselves, the Iliad is the magnificent picture of a gigantic battle taking place at once on all levels of the universal hierarchy.[3]

Demigods not only struggled side by side with the gods; they competed with the gods themselves, accepting courageously the resulting pains (Daedalus, Arachne, Latona), or sometimes even success (the redemption of Prometheus). Such competition was not unusual, since the border between gods and mortals was obviously penetrable. In the view of the ancient Greeks the gods and mortals did not exist in two completely isolated spheres, but were seen as a descending celestial hierarchy with a diminishing amount of divinity at each lower level. There was a constant interaction between the Olympian heavens and the Greek earth.

The gods were immortal in the same sense as the Christian today considers the soul to be immortal, however, they could be killed or put out of action. Their murders had to be punished as Hercules was punished for his crimes, and oftentimes had to serve mankind. Eros was the force which subdued equally both gods and mortals. The beauty of the mortal women won the competition for the heart of Zeus on various occasions, so that divine intemperance became the cause of the appearance of many great heroes. We picture Leda caressing the Swan, Danae in the bliss of the Golden rain, Europa on the back of the beautiful white bull… The immortal goddesses even less could resist the beauty of mortal youths. Myth tells us about the mortal lover of Merope, one of the seven Pleiades and mother of the sly Sisyphus who outwitted the Lord of Tarturus; Aphrodite loving the Trojan Anhisus gave birth to Eneias; beautiful Eos married the Trojan Titan; Selena embracing her beloved Endymion every night and giving him 50 daughters in spite of his sleep, Adonis for whose love Aphrodite herself had to compete with Persephone. Antinoes, Hyasintus, Odyssius—the whole generation of heroes whom the gods created by falling in love with mortals who loved them in return.[4]

Being the descendant of gods, either patrilineally or from the distaff side, our hero obviously has been created to bring and confirm the will of the gods among mortals. In the accomplishment of this task, the hero always challenges his divine ancestors; his competition with them takes the form of disobedience. Why do the gods encourage him to break their own laws, at the same time trying to defeat him creating enormous obstacles for him when he is trying to do what seems to him to be their divine order? Why can’t he stop competing with the gods and know that he can never win this competition just as he cannot become a god during his life? Why does he continue in his Sisyphyne labor even though he sees it as punishment with no hope of reward? In order to answer these questions we have to examine the nature of the hero as well as the ontological nature of his rivalry with the gods.

The inevitability of man’s competition with the gods is connected with his double nature which began from the moment when Prometheus gave him the divine spark with the ability to reflect the universe. He then possessed the option to rise to a paradigm above nature. In the cosmic beginning of the creation the elements of the contradiction already preexisted the laws of future nature, contradictions which were not to be found in matter but in the teleological causes of matter’s manifestation. Even the urstoff, the first stirrings of the cohesive causes which are moving toward a physical state, contains this contradiction or state of contrariety which is inherent to the spiritual Self of man.[5] This Self of man, which is independent from the autonomous laws of nature, is charged with contradictory possibilities which have the potential to affect matter which still exist in the realms beyond matter, the realm of spirit, or else the realms of physical probability which are as yet not matter.[6]

The creation of the nonphysical man, the superior Self (cf. the biblical Son of Man elaborated in both Testaments), anteceded the laws of mere physical nature, so that the spirit of the Self is a discovery of what is already there. The mirror-like liver of Prometheus, metaphorizing his spiritual essence, is consumed by the vulture-like jealousy of the gods; but then upon the redemption of Prometheus by the hero Heracles the higher spiritual essence, now beyond manifest matter, and even beyond matter in the potential etheric matrix of the quantum vacuum, is again restored to man as a domain which offers itself to his will.

This spiritual essence of man is precisely represented in the image of the Greek hero, whose divine origin is emphasized in myth. With the birth of the hero the world becomes effulgent. His creative competitive spirit, which now has a choice in the very way in which matter will reveal itself, begins to exercise its divine nature.

The hero is one, who outgrowing the competition for the common goods of the fashionable world, sees in them no value. He ascends to higher levels of evolution in which he does not need any more competition as the instrument for continuing development. He becomes more autonomous from society at the same time serving its evolution by undertaking the divine task of the transfiguration of material. He knows that to win the crown is only an illusory goal, but the inner sense and real goal of the agon is contrary to the nature of competition.[7] This ultimate goal is not to fix one’s energies on the crown of victory, but to give rather than to take. The dialectic of the competition in this case is such that at its highest point the competition turns into its opposite: the hero has been competing for the crown, but after receiving it, he gives it away, being indifferent toward it. It seems to be paradoxical, but is so only if we think that the major goal of the competition is the visible one, which is the award. But if we take the improvement of a man in the course of the competition as the major goal of the competition, then the competition itself, including a crown for a winner, should be seen as a symbiotic process in which the godman participates while he achieves the higher levels of his evolution.

The development of this new, indifferent attitude toward the crown does not appear automatically, but has to be developed and often is developed in the process of the competition which gradually changes its nature from physical to intellectual, then to ethical. But as the ethical means that the ideal actually lies in the endeavor to give instead of to take, how then can the concepts of giving and winning coexist? They could: by winning but then giving away to others the results of your labor. This is the way the hero serves others through the third element of a triangle.[8]

In competition with the gods the hero is able to go beyond the limits of traditional life, of what is well known. He transgresses the borders assigned to man by the gods and enters the forbidden zone of the unknown where uncountable calamities increase with every step he takes. But he still accomplishes the increasingly serious tasks, challenging now not only the laws of nature but social and even the divine order. The conventions of traditional ethics, it seems, do not work the hero; his individuality is often seen by the society as insupportable. Of course one might agree that heroes are not perfect, but they belong to the higher level of a terrestrial hierarchy where the laws of existence are not the same as for ordinary man. Heroes have different essences behind their transcendental progress and its failures. The Self of a hero holds the moral dimension of society as relative and seeks a higher ethic which in a sense is beyond good and evil. This does not mean that the hero despises the mores, rather he embraces them, but he ever seeks to go beyond their scope.[9] The epistemologically real good is his very existence, his ability to hear and follow instead of conventional laws his own deep intuitions leading him to the higher goals.

What are these higher goals? In order to answer this question we have to examine the nature of the hero as well as the ontological nature of his rivalry with the gods. The first significant feature we see in the image of a hero is his ability to hear and talk to gods. We should say that from a certain moment he feels the permanent presence, the breathing of the gods, as if they are very close to him with their advice on what actions he should choose. The hero individuates divine presence in himself, so that taking the gods out of the mythological context there is a process beyond animism and the gods of nature into a metaphysical and ontological context. Of course there is always the return from metaphysics to the manifestation in nature which is amplified by the heroic consciousness. Unusual is the choice hero makes. Traditionally we think that the better choice is that which avoids problems, a choice leading toward a more prosperous and safe future, to the increase of well being. The usual or vulgar understanding is that those whom the gods love the most should live easier, better.[10]

In Greek myth we see the opposite: demigods whom the gods love most, have much more hardship in their lives than the ordinary ones. Why do they have less power, wealth, leisure time, pleasures than many ordinary others? The great deeds of heroes are not rewarded by a termination of their hardships. Heroes themselves don’t care about their awards after all they have seen and done. What value could earthly belongings and social status have after a being has passed through the absolute privation of chaos?

The hero often knows from prophecies that it is not a crown but suffering that will be the prize for his noble actions, but it doesn’t stop him. He acts as if he were already immortal though he knows that it is not so. Achilles knows that he will die if he avenges his friend’s death. Medea knows that Jason will leave her but goes through crime and toward suffering following her sense of divine love and confirming in this way that the law of Aphrodite is above all others, as very being itself is within Her law. Jason died under his Argo in despair, Heracles was burnt, Agamemnon murdered, Odysseus barely returned home and then lived in mourning for his lost friends.

Then why do heroes choose what is most difficult, most dangerous? Not for the crown even if it seems like this at the beginning. Even when they know that there would be no gains but many losses at the end of the road, they still choose the same one. It is as if the gods try a hero. It is as if they say, “If you choose what seems for others impossible and useless, if you can lose fear and go through all obstacles, you will deserve to compete with us, to be one of us.”

The hero does more than the ordinary man. He leaves the ordinary life for a more active and less predictable one and surmounts all obstacles with increasing energy. The life of hero is that of labors: pilgrimage, discovery, campaign, battle. Heroes of all legends are seen at home only for the time needed to heal their wounds and restore their energy for new undertakings. How much would they achieve if they do not go to other lands?

The hero penetrates ever more deeply into the zone of primordial chaos where he is able to survive and become stronger, contributing increasingly toward divine order. But only the hero has this capacity; pretenders and villains ruin themselves and those who surround them. They are overwhelmed by chaos. In the European fairy story, which is a sort of myth, all comers may try to win the sad princess’s hand by making her laugh, but the penalty for failure is death.

The hero’s chthonic ancestry and prophetic abilities sometimes are emphasized, as in the case of Theseus. These attributes are in addition to his wisdom and strength which he inherits and which capacitate him to deal with chthonic forces. With the increase of the resistance of matter on the plane of the manifestation of matter, so do the difficulties of his tasks increase. Often his own abilities have to be augmented by a feminine double, a sister soul. Jason is sent by the gods to the Priestess of the Golden Fleece who is Medea, Odysseus is sent to Calypso and to Athena herself. Even Agamemnon did not abduct a simple Trojan, but the sibyl Cassandra. The appearance at a certain moment of the ideal feminine in the life of the hero is also the sign that he is entering the higher circle of being where these doubles exist, the threshold of the ascent into Oneness.

Approaching hubris, Odysseus sees himself as almost equal to Poseidon, and so does Oedipus when trying to outsmart the gods in his investigation. What they are doing seems to be wrong from the point of view of ordinary morality, but at the same time it is obvious that there is a higher reason behind the event which compels them to disobey divine law (the sign to do so is usually brought by the gods through an oracle). It is in a sense assigned to them to go through “fire and waters”.

Oedipus is the link in a chain of evil deeds. He inherited the curse from his ancestors along with his brilliant mind and great air. He would inevitably transfer this curse to his children, and this almost happened, but he was able to stop it at least for one of his children, Ismene, so that she was able to renew the lineage of Oedipus. Oedipus did what would be impossible for simpler person. All his accidental crimes paradoxically became the cause of his ascent. He did not hesitate to dive into the underground of his soul, to the antique chaos seething there. The hardships following his sins gave him the power to see the future and analyze the past. Oedipus in Colonus is the saint, the wise soul which has risen from both the Dionisian and Appolonian streams which flow toward Sophia. He had a choice not to know, but had he elected to remain in blissful ignorance his curse would have continued to exist. In this sense the step into the chaos of sin is for the hero, as the gods know that the hero will be able to come out of it with a more highly refined soul than before.

The hero’s destiny is to fight with the monsters of chaos but not without paying for it. Prometheus is punished by Zeus. Apollo killed Python to establish the new gods instead of the old chthonic gods but the deed was still murder and he had to spend nine years in the underworld for his sin. Monsters do not necessarily symbolize the evil forces attacking people, and when the hero defends the people the monsters do not invade, but they lurk ever close to any man divided between universal forces. The borderline monsters are the representation of a chaos which permanently surrounds the realm of man both inside and outside, encircling him and narrowing his territory.[11] It is Jason and not the dragon that is the reason for the appearance of chthonic monsters growing up from the earth out of the dragon’s teeth, and it was necessary for him to reveal and destroy them in order to obtain the divine symbol. He woke the sleeping wild forces in order to destroy them, otherwise they would have continued to exist as dangerous potential and keep people forever in the tight frame of their realm. This world of monsters is also used as a source of dynamic energy, which has to be transformed in the process of the transfiguration of the world.

The ordinary man does not have the power to attack the monster; he fears to go into an unknown zone, calling it prohibited and creating many rules and morals to justify his inactivity and prevent those like him from diving into the chthonic waters. This is right, as most would inevitably be destroyed, not having enough power to compete with either gods or monsters.

But why then does the hero continue to go to this prohibited zone again and again? He follows his inner call as this is the only way for the superior man (as the Chinese say, who is also the transcendental Son of Man) to exist. And if he did not continue in his attempts, the surrounding circle would be more and more narrow, entropy would increase and the cosmic spheres of nous and of logos for all human kind would be diminished.

Thus, the hero, following the example of the Olympic gods, goes through the terror of antique chaos in order to conquer more space. The gods, or the divine in man, is what makes him restless in his competition with the ancient forces and causes him to spread himself over the earth. Odysseus, Perseus, Oedipus, Hercules, Socrates, all remain as universal heroes.

To possess the golden fleece, for Jason, the descendant of chthonic deities, means to outgrow these very deities and move toward his new divine Self. The fleece symbolizes his wish to increase the divine light within himself. However, as he gains power, the resistance of matter (since light is a form of matter) increases proportionately. With each step toward the golden goal he increases the density and the resistance of matter, and this is why Jason’s power has to be doubled by his spiritual counterpart, Medea.

On the surface of events it looks like the hero acts for himself, but in reality by his deeds he continues to abet the strength of the new gods, competing in this sense with them for a place in the continually evolving hierarchical spiral of divinity and thus transforming ancient chaos into the divine order at the risk to his life and sanity.

Being the resemblance of the macrocosm, the hero is doing the same creative job as the Logos in the universe, turning inner chaos into cosmic order. This is why he has to be able to step into Dionysian chaos, to face its presence in his own soul. Chaos is dangerous and only rarely do those appear who are able to face it and not be absorbed by its powerful energies. This is why the hero is a tragic figure, and why he has to pay a very high price for his deeds. Any movement starts from the destruction of a previous inner structure, allowing the Dionysian waters to flood into the soul. If the aspiring hero has enough Apollonian power, he will rebuild himself, raising the level of his own nature. But if he fails it is often because has overestimated himself, and in a sense has insulted the gods by offering to compete with them. This is the very essence of hubris. If it is impossible for him to accomplish the task he has undertaken, then he will be inevitably smashed by Dionysian power and will fall lower than he was before, at the same time bringing down the general level of being. This is why the deed is presented to the hero by the gods (who are ever essentially benign) at the moment of his highest potential to accomplish it.

And it is because of the high quality of the love which the gods offer that the divine zone of action is prohibited to ordinary man. But the hero cannot refuse the call, which only he can hear, because only by responding to the gods, and by accepting the challenge to interact and to compete with them can his spiritual part continue to grow. Only by diving into the darkness of ancient chaos and building into it the Apollonian light can man create his divine Self and thus successfully engage with the gods in this highest form of human creativity – Self creation.


[1] Proclus makes the distinction between junior gods such as Apollo and senior gods such as Rhea or Hera.

[2] The Greek term, hyparxis may be translated as principle, particularly a foundational belief which is inherent to a concept. Eg. The democratic belief in the equal status of souls. Hyparxis also carries the sense of making a new beginning and by so doing establishing a new essence. Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Clarendon, Oxford, 1889, p. 831.

[3] Trojans Hector and Euphorbus kill Patroclus with the assistance of Apollo. Likewise, angry with Agamemnon for taking Briseis, Achilles appeals to his mother, the Goddess Thetis to ask Zeus to aid the Trojans against the Acheans. As Achilles prepares to enter the battle in order to avenge the death of Patroclus, his mother, Thetis, and Hephaestus make a new shield and arms for Achilles. Achilles’s valiant effort against the river Xanthus portrays a battle between gods in which Achilles barely survives. Although Zeus would intervene in order to keep the gods from interfering in the Trojan War, still, this would not keep them from entering into the battle. Hera woos Zeus in order to take his attention off the war. While she holds his attention, Poseidon would assist the failing Greek army to drive the Trojan forces back. In this instance, the gods are seen as scheming, even against the head deity, Zeus himself. Their interactions with humans would definitely affect their lives and the outcomes of their various situations. Zeus’ eventual response to Hera’s ruse would lead to his trying to restore equality to the situation and so causing Poseidon to withdraw. This would result in the Trojans advancing against the Greeks and burning their ships. In the Iliad, Zeus appears to control events, as the final outcome between Troy and the Achaeans seems to lie with Zeus himself, although all Olympians were understood to be subordinate to the Fates).

[4] There are catalogs of heroes in Hesiod, Theogonia 240-1022; also Apollonius of Rhodes I 23-233.

[5] The word Self is capitalized here as a universal. In a sense, the Self is the whole realized man as compared to the ego which is only self interested. Thus Toynbee’s “disinterested service” is the labor of a man who is representative of mankind itself and man’s place in the cosmos and has no egocentric interest. “The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.” See Jung, C. G., Mysterium Coniunctionis, Bollingen, Princeton, N. J. 1963, p. 544 – 546.

[6] The simplified model is a troika of matter in distinct states. Starting at the top there is matter as a mere metaphysical consideration in an unfixed time dimension. In the middle are the physical probabilities for the manifestation of matter which are held in the quantum ether. At base is matter as a visible substance. See Beattie, A. and Spavieri G., British Idealism and Quantum Mechanics, University of St. Petersburg, Proceedings of the Summer Conference, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2003, p.80.

[7] Here the crown metaphor is that of the bay or olive wreath rather than the crown mentioned by John of Patmos as revealed by the Son of Man. (Revelation 3, 11) which is similar to the vision of neo-Platonic Oneness elaborated by Plotinus, (Third Ennead VII, 13) and elsewhere in the Enneads.

[8] In the Protestant tradition this winning and giving falls under the head of stewardship. What is given by Heaven as the result of total devotion to the work ethic is only held to be administered to others. Andrew Carnegie the steel tycoon held this view, setting up trust funds for deserving charities which are as of this writing (2005) still accessible.

[9] Jesus, who without difficulty can be seen as the archetypal hero, puts it succinctly: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven:” (Matthew, 5, 17, King James Version). The question remains for the hero as to the time when heaven and earth are past. There is also the question as to position in the kingdom of heaven and its value. See Beattie, A. and Castle L., The Medea Principle, Philosophical Congress, Department of Philosophy, University of St. Petersburg, Russia, 2003. However, what is essential here is the attitude, there is no derision of a humanity which has not been able to achieve the heroic paradigm.

[10] It is quite usual in native American cultures for a devotee to pray for money.

[11] It is not accidentally that the creatures which the heroes fight with are terrifying unattractive monsters – their hideous chaotic nature and inconstancy is apparent in their images. Eccentricity is a sign of belonging to spheres not synchronized by divine harmony, so that they are excluded from cosmos. They live as forces in the depth of chaos which, however, does not exclude them from man’s subconscious which to the unrealized man is taboo space, indecent and counter productive.


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