Pheres: The Greek Hero We Need Today
When reading about the heroes of Ancient Greece, we are often told to remember that things were different back then and we have to avoid judging their behaviours by our own standards. However, we should not ignore that if you ask children today to name you five heroes from Ancient Greece, I am pretty sure that Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus, Jason and Theseus would feature. I propose that this is not a good thing because all of these men, despite their heroic qualities of monster-slaying, bravery and physical strength, are, at their core, bad role models for our young people. Their stories are littered with rage, revenge, murders of innocents, infidelity and animal slaughter. Why are they still the most revered heroes by children? Is it time for a re-write?
Fairy stories have certainly had their core messages revealed over the recent decades thanks to feminist readings of the texts. The ideas that passive princesses just sit around being beautiful waiting to be rescued and then married without choice to the first knights that save them from a tower have been exposed as patriarchal propaganda, designed to remind young girls that a man is what a woman needs. The modern re-telling of these fairy stories have allowed writers to promote the idea that a female can take the strong lead and that a man is definitely not all a woman needs to be happy. This message has even reached Hollywood, where movies like Frozen and Shrek have taken the traditional fairy tale template and torn it up. But if we look at the popular films in the cinema today, I am not sure the core message has changed enough. Men need to be big, brutal and brave. Heracles seems still to be driving the male archetype.
What could be done with someone like Heracles in a revisionist re-writing? Well, how about talking about all of the creatures that were just minding their own business until Heracles came along and slaughtered them – he was an extinction-level event for several species. Is Heracles, with the Nemean lion-skin draped over his shoulders, the role model for the great white hunter, photographed with his dead beast? And what could we write about all of his rage issues that often end with someone innocent dying? Heracles is surely not an aspirational figure.
What about Odysseus, the man who wanted his cake and ate it whilst he expected poor, lonely Penelope to wait? He also played his part in a genocide and his creation of the Trojan horse should prompt the question, just because you can do something, should you? Odysseus becomes Death, destroyer of the Trojan world. Should we celebrate someone whose ingenuity leads to the death of many, the enslavement of women and the murder of children?
What about Jason, who uses women to get what he wants and abandons the mother of his children for a step up the ladder? Was he anything more than a marauder on the make, a son of the Empire stealing items of value from races that were not a threat to him or his home? Was he just a pirate?
What about Theseus, who dumps his female helper on an island and then is so carried away with his own brilliance that he forgets to keep his promise to his father, resulting in the death of King Aegeus (who out of grief commits suicide)? Where was his empathy for the Minotaur, who had been shut in that awful labyrinth from birth? Did he even try to talk and reason with him?
Arrogance. Greed. Violence. Murder. Disloyalty. Temper. The list could continue, but I think you get the point.
But what about Achilles, the greatest warrior of them all? If we could revise his popular image, I think that it should focus on the words that he spoke to Odysseus in the underworld, “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man, Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive, than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” We need a modern Achilles to teach us not about the glory of war or the pain of losing a loved one in battle or how to hold a grudge out of principle, but about the importance of being alive and appreciating it – because you are a long time dead. These words of Achilles should be the first story that we know about him, framing his deeds and fate and from them we can learn that the glory of life is not what you do in it, but that life itself is the glory. This is a truly heroic message that teaches our children not to chase fame and money, but to enjoy the existence they have. It teaches us not to look for confrontation to build a reputation, but to avoid conflict and to keep hold of this precious life for as long as possible. And his words teach us that in the end, there are no winners, all flesh is grass. Spartans carried home on their shields were deprived of the gift and Achilles reminds us, there is no glory in death; this is echoed by Epicurus when he reminds us that when we die, we no longer exist, so basking in a glorious death is impossible.
So, once we have revised all of our Greek heroes and demoted them to villains, who could replace them in our top five?
I propose Pheres, father of Admetus.
When Admetus is told that he is going to die, Apollo gives him a way out – all his has to do is find someone who will die in his place. Admetus goes to his parents, who should naturally want to sacrifice themselves for their son – and if Pheres is a true Greek hero, this should be a no-brainer. But, in my opinion, it is at this moment where Pheres becomes the hero that our children need to hear about today. It is easy for them to turn on the TV and see countless protagonists fighting, sacrificing and dying. But how many of them ever said anything like this:
“Don’t die on my behalf, and I won’t die on yours! As I see it, we shall be dead for a long time, while life is short and very sweet. Remember that if you love life, so do all men”
This is a quote from Alcestis by Euripides, and whilst in the play Alcestis points out the cowardice of Pheres (and his wife), I have to agree with what Pheres has said. Life is sweet and life is short. Appreciate it and savour it.
It is a message of peace too – no-one wants to die, so why expedite the process for anyone? Your life to you is no more important than their life is to them and if we all lived with this in the forefront of our thoughts, no-one would harm anyone.
So, for preaching a message of love, peace and contentment, I propose Pheres as the Greek hero we need for our modern times.
Who would you add to the list and why?