heroes and explorers: tales of the greek heroes

I remember first reading Tales of the Greek Heroes in middle school. I think the main purpose was to give us enough of an understanding of the Greek gods and classical heroes to be able to recognize references we would encounter as we continued our educational journeys through the literary canon. Green’s version of the Greek myths provides an enjoyable and easy read, with a focus on the masculine gods and heroes, including Zeus, Hermes, Apollo, Prometheus, Dionysus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason & the Argonauts, and a significant portion of the stories centering around Heracles. We learned about how Prometheus taught man all the “arts and crafts of life”, including how to make fire. We learned that as punishment for man, Zeus made the first woman, Pandora, who opened a golden box thereby unleashing “all the evil” upon mankind. We learned that everyone should be kind to strangers, wanderers and beggars, because they might be Zeus and Hermes in disguise testing mankind before flooding the earth. We learned that although Zeus had an immortal and jealous wife, Hera, he regularly took human or animal form, and then seduced and impregnated human women. And we learned that at one’s birth, three daughters of Zeus, the Fates, spun the thread of each of our lives determining not the details of our lives, but the conditions and parameters in which we would make our future choices.

Because Heracles appears in more than half of Green’s stories, we get to know him throughout his life, from birth, through youth, to the trials and adventures of adulthood, and finally to his death and raising to Olympus. We watch him face challenges, confront enemies, work with friends, and make the day-to-day choices of a man, albeit with super-strength, and in this way amongst the various characters cataloged in the Tales, Heracles provides the richest portrait of masculinity in both its ideals and its foibles. So, I’ll come back to Heracles shortly, but first a slight detour…

A few months ago, political theorist Danielle Allen was speaking on the PBS News Hour about her new book Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. The book is a personal story exploring the consequences of U.S. drug policy and mass incarceration, particularly on young, African-American men. During the interview she stated:

I think of it as a degree-of-difficulty question. Michael is absolutely responsible for his own choices, but we have to consider the degree of difficulty that pertains to the choice set given to particular young people. And young men ages, again, 10 to 14 in the middle of a city, man, the choice set that we as a society have created for them is just horrible.[1]

There are two things I held onto from Allen’s statement: the idea of choice sets and the idea of degree-of-difficulty. I started to wonder, how do the choice sets we give to some young men affect the choice sets given to other young men? How do certain types of privilege radically alter the degree-of-difficulty perceived to be associated with certain potential choices? What are the choice sets we provided young men like those affluent, predominantly white, boys with whom I went to private school? How did those choice sets create paths for how they could later leverage the power, privilege and opportunity they were born into? And finally, how did their choices — both large-scale and day-to-day behavioral choices — then also impact the choice sets available to others and the degrees-of-difficulty associated with various elements in those choice sets?

Choice theory is a complex notion in economics about which I can claim no expertise and some might balk at the move I am about to make, but I want to share a definition of “choice set” I came across on Monash University’s website in their “Marketing Dictionary”.[2]  I chose this definition first because it is relatively simple for anyone to understand; most of us have been consumers and had to make a choice amongst different brands. And second, because it highlights a couple key attributes of the choice process, specifically awareness and rejection.

Choice Set
The final set of brands from which a consumer makes a purchase choice after some brands in the awareness set have been considered and rejected.

Awareness Set
The brands of which a consumer is aware; normally, the awareness set will be less than the total set of brands.

First, we rarely make choices amongst the TOTAL set of potential choices. Instead, we make choices amongst a smaller set of options – those of which we are aware. For example, if you asked my 8-year-old self, I might have told you, that women could be waitresses, teachers, ballerinas, stay-at-home moms, secretaries in the army, nurses, computer programmers, or astronauts. I probably wouldn’t have included something like civil engineer or prostitute simply because, at 8 years-old, I wasn’t aware that those careers existed.

And then amongst those choices we are aware of, we reject some, disqualifying them based on various criteria. One likely class of criteria might include things like cost, distance required to travel, hours of training required, i.e. factors we (or if we are kids, maybe our guardians) consider consciously or unconsciously when calculating the ‘degree-of-difficulty’ associated with each choice. Think for example about what it takes to become a professional ballerina or an astronaut. Most of us either pretty quickly reject those options or if we do decide to pursue them discover increasing levels of difficulties associated with making those choices and end up essentially being forced to ‘reject’ them from our actual choice set.

As much of the anthropological literature from the past century has shown, society reproduces itself through its stories, myths and tales. Stories, then, are also a key mechanism for how society makes us aware of the choices available to us, and the potential challenges we will face if we make those choices, as well as the potential consequences. And this is where I return to Heracles, and in particular the following passage from “The Choice of Heracles” story in Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes. Heracles has been sent to Mount Cithaeron to tend cattle, where he “increased in strength and skill, and at last he drew near to manhood,” (p89).

As [Heracles] sat along on the middle of the hillside one day, wondering if he was fated to be a cow-herd all his life, or whether it would not be better to become a wild robber of the mountains, he saw two lovely maidens coming towards him. One of them was dressed in simple white, and had modest down-cast eyes and a calm gentle face from which seemed to shine both goodness and wisdom; but the other wore bright colors, and came striding along glancing boldly about her — now admiring herself, and now looking to others for admiration. She was decked with rich jewels, and her face was artfully touched with paint and powder.

As they drew near to Heracles the second, as if anxious to forestall her companion, pushed eagerly ahead and spoke to him:
‘Dear Heracles’ she said, ‘I see that you have reached the age when you must choose what kind of life yours is to be, So I have come to urge you to take me as your friend and let me guide you on your way. I promise that if you do I will lead you by the easiest and most delightful paths. You shall taste every pleasure, and no troubles or toils shall come near you. Your life shall be passed in the pursuit and enjoyment of pleasant things, with no labour of body or mind, except to please yourself without any thought for the cares of others.’

She pauses, and Heracles asked: ‘Lady, tell me your name.’ 

Then she answered softly: ‘Heracles, those who love me call me Happiness, but my enemies, it is true, have another name which I do not care to mention.’

Meanwhile the modest maiden had come up, and now she spoke:
‘I too, noble Heracles, am come to offer you a way of life. I know of what a worthy line you come, that you are descended from Perseus the Gorgon-slayer, and are yourself the son of Zeus. I know how well you have learned all the accomplishments necessary for the path which I trust that you will take, in my company. Follow me, and you will do great deeds and leave a name which will never be forgotten. But you cannot win what is glorious and excellent in the world without care and labour: the gods give no real good, no true happiness to men on earth on any other terms. If you would bring happiness to others and be remembered in Greece, you must strive for the service of Greece — as you well may with your strength and your skill, if you do but use them rightly. As for my companion, who is called Vice and Folly and other such names, do not be misled by her; there is no pleasure and no happiness like those which you earn by strife and labour with the sweat of your brow.’

‘Do not believe this foolish girl, who is called Virtue!’ interrupted Vice hastily. ‘My way to happiness is short and pleasant; hers is hard, and long, and the end is doubtful.’

‘Come, Heracles,’ said Virtue quietly, ‘choose which of us you will follow. Her path leads through easy worthless pleasures that grow stale and horrible and yet are craved after more and more. But follow me through toil and suffering to the great heritage Zeus has planned for you.’[3]


Heracles’ Expanded Awareness Choice Set:

Initial options: Cow-herd Wild robber of the mountains
Additional options Virtue and Vice make Heracles aware of: Toil and suffering on behalf of Greece, but you might get rewarded with the glory of the gods at the end Effortless enjoyment of every pleasure life has to offer

Obviously, it is not my intention to compare this macro-level, simplistic fiction to the very serious, complicated, and (to be blunt) inhumane choice sets with which we, as a society, have been presenting Danielle Allen’s brother, Michael, and other boys growing up in similar circumstances.[4] My intention in considering Heracles’ “what do I want to be when I grow up” choice set is to ask: if you were presented with Heracles’ choice set, which would you choose? Do you remember, when you were coming of age, ever being so straightforwardly presented with such a clear and simple set of choices? Do you feel like you had a fair amount of agency and intentionality in making the choices you made? Or did it feel more like you were guided along, little by little, step by step, towards one particular “choice”, whether by the random chaos of the universe or perhaps by the only semi-intentional actions, statements and counsel of others? Would you ask, “aren’t there any other choices?” How many possible other choices were you not even aware of because of who and where you were born to? How many were rejected from the choice set, not because of anything you did or didn’t do, but by someone else just because of who they imagined you were? How difficult would it have been to select one of the choices that society — parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, career counselors, admissions officers, peers, neighbors, etc. — did not believe was “right” for you?

In Heracles’ story, he chose Virtue’s path of toil and suffering without any hesitation. One might say, he was, after all, born to be a hero —his mother was the grand-daughter of the hero Gorgon-slayer Perseus and his father was Zeus —so, was there ever really a choice here? Some would even go so far to argue, that really, there isn’t ever a real choice. Maybe degrees and variations, but not choice. For example, if I understood the recently aired final episode of the second season of the HBO hit Westworld, neither the choice set, nor the external factors would in fact matter, because humans are a very simple algorithm, one which cannot change, one which only has the false perception of choice. You can run millions of permutations, in the end, when it comes to the important choices, to the life-defining choices, a human will always make the same choice.

In many ways, Green’s retelling of Heracles appears to be an example of this hypothesis. Whether strangling serpents, hunting lions, killing a hydra, hunting a hind, capturing Apollo’s boar, wrestling Death, wedding and bedding snake-maidens, bringing Cerberus back from hell, battling giants, etc., Heracles is seemingly driven by the same simple impulse — to “surpass all others in strength and mighty deed” (p78). However, such a theory of humanity, implies that not only are heroes born, but so are cow herds, wild mountain robbers, and hedonists. And no amount of offering any of them choices, no matter the difficulty, toil and suffering associated with those choices, is going to make any difference.

So why even pretend that there is a real choice set when it comes to our lives?

Why pretend that each of us has a choice between even the four simple options presented to Heracles? Aren’t some of us just born to be heroes, some to be hedonists, some to be robbers, and some to be cow-herds? And can’t you tell who is who based in large part on who our parents were and where we were born?

Hasn’t this been precisely one of the justifications we make as a society (consciously or not) for offering whole swaths of the population such a limited set of choices to begin with? For not investing in their education, for not investing in their neighborhoods, for not investing in “those kids”? Doesn’t this choice —to believe innate qualities given at birth defines our choice set — relieve us of the difficulties and costs associated with ensuring that all of the country’s citizens are both aware of the many potential life-choices they could make and also can access the resources to succeed once they make a choice?

And while we’re here considering why we don’t all have equitable awareness of and access to all of life’s career options, can we also maybe reimagine what a hero does to achieve the glory of gods so more of us can imagine ourselves making that virtuous choice? Something more than wandering the earth hunting, beating and killing people, monsters and beasts while seducing the occasional maiden on the side? I can’t hold up the sky for Atlas, shoot lasers out of my eyes, or build a multi-billion-dollar flying suit; I’m just not qualified to be a hero, so cow-herd, mountain robber, or hedonist it is, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Greek myths, Marvel, DC and so many of the rest of our TV and film heroes, but given the direction our planet is headed in, we might need more of the people who became cow-herds or farmers to be heralded for the toil, suffering and virtue they are pursuing on all of our behalf in the fight to transform our society, economy and relationship to the bio-sphere (see for example, Kisilu Musya).[5]


Title: Tales of The Greek Heroes
Author: Roger Lancelyn Green
Genre: Mythology
Category: Captains and Explorers
Publish Date/Information:  First 1958 | Reprint 1985
Puffin Books



[1] Danielle Allen, PBS News Hour 19 December 2017, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/in-cuz-the-story-of-a-cousins-tragic-fate-and-justice-system-in-crisis

[2] https://www.monash.edu/business/marketing/marketing-dictionary/c/choice-set

[3] Roger Lancelyn Green, Tales of The Greek Heroes (Puffin Books, 1985, original © 1958), p90-91

[4] In addition to Allen’s Cuz, When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele and So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo are great starting points to developing an awareness of the choice sets available particularly to black and brown boys in the U.S. and the role systemic white hegemony has had on creating and maintaining those choice sets.

[5] http://thankyoufortherain.com/