Having wanted to do a sequel to possibly my most favorite list, which is the top 10 terrifying mythical creatures (which you should check out if you like the topic), it was time to give us humans the spotlight. Now what defines greatness? In my book, doing something which no ordinary person can. Since almost every culture in the world has their own heroes, I will try to cover the best mythical heroes (also called ‘Culture Heroes’) of each one.
What better way to start this list, than from possibly the first hero? He pretty much predates all the other heroes on the list with the great work “The Epic Of Gilgamesh”, based on his exploits. He was the mighty King of Uruq (modern day Iraq), of which he raised its walls high. He was so powerful that the Gods literally created a hero, Enkidu just to kill him, but instead, he befriended him. Together they defeated the Bull of Heaven. Later on he goes on a quest for immortality, which takes him to the ends of the Earth, and where he meets long disappeared legendary characters. I won’t spoil further, I highly suggest you read it (its free!).
Sun Wukong is a famous Chinese hero whose legend is at least a thousand years old. He was also known as the ‘Monkey King’. He was a monkey born from a stone, who gained great supernatural powers by following the Taoist teachings. Being a bit mischievous, he rebelled against the heavens, and as punishment was imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha. Eventually, with another monk he goes to India to find lost Buddhist sutras, in exchange for his freedom once he completed the task. He had the power to travel half the distance of the Earth in one somersault, and his staff (which he carried around effortlessly) weighed around 8 ton. He could hold his own when fighting against the best warriors in the heavens, he could transform into 72 other animals, and finally he could split his hairs which formed clones of himself. Overall, he was an amazing mythical hero. His story is well told in one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, “The Journey to the West” (also available for free!).
Possibly my favorite mythical hero of all time, because he was a hero in the truest sense, as he actually died for his own people. Though the poem is in Old English, the story is actually set in Scandinavia, where King Hrothgar of the Danes has a mead hall, which is under attack by a monster called “Grendel” (who is described as a giant). The King calls on the help of a famous hero of the Geats (Modern day Sweden), Beowulf. He kills Grendel with his bare hands, and then after an intense fight with his mother, he kills her with a sword he found in her lair. After success, he returns home where he becomes King of the Geats. Many years later, his homeland is threatened from an attack from a Dragon. He goes into its lair to kill it, in which he succeeds but is also mortally wounded. He soon dies and is cremated. Truly a hero till the end. Read the online pdf here for free.
We obviously could not have a list of the greatest mythical heroes without mentioning the great Achilles of Myrmidon. Born out of a union of King Peleus of Myrmidon and the nymph Thetis, he was said to have been invulnerable except for his heel. When his mother told him that either he could have a long, uneventful life or a short, yet glorious one, he chose the latter and went to participate in the Trojan War with 50 ships, and a total of 2500 Myrmidon warriors. That’s where his story really begins, he is an amazingly agile and brutal warrior, taking down foes twice his size. Most importantly, he is in a constant state of uncontrollable rage. In revenge for killing Hector the prince of Troy, he is killed by an arrow to his heel by Hector’s brother Paris. If you want to read more about the Illiad, here is our top Greek classical books list. You can freely read the Illiad here.
Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican God, whose name means the “feathered serpent”. He was the Aztec God of wind and learning, and he was the central God who created mankind. He was born from his virgin mother, Chimalman who swallowed an emerald, which made her give birth to Quetzalcoatl. Interestingly Quetzalcoatl could possibly a real life figure, a priest-king who shared the same name. Possibly legend mixed in with reality. The God later on left his people because of the schemes of his enemy, Tezcatlipoca who tricked our hero by getting him drunk and then showing him a mirror with Tezcatlipoca’s ugly face. Quetzalcoatl thinking it was his own, banished himself and was never seen again. Later on it is said that when Cortés arrived to the Aztec shores, they confused his coming as the return of the God, though historians debate that this ever happened. Some Mormons also think that the God was actually Jesus.
This African spirit takes the shape of a spider, and is considered to have all knowledge of stories. Anansi tales were passed exclusively through oral tradition, and when European powers started enslaving Africans, they brought these stories with them into the New World. Anansi always prevailed over its oppressors using its cunning, and that became an inspiration for the slaves.
At one point, he had collected all the knowledge in the world into a pot. He decided to hide it in a safe place, so he tried to put it on top of a thorny tree. He kept on failing, and could not climb the tree with the pot in his hands. Then a child saw his struggle and laughed, saying “why don’t you just tie the pot on your back and climb using your hands?”. He becomes so annoyed that a child could correct him that he drops the pot, which shatters and a coming storm takes all the knowledge he had collected into the river. Soon, the knowledge was spread all over the world and everyone had a little. Anansi was angry but he consoled himself saying “What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?”.
Source – The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from the Ashanti
He is one of the main characters from the Hindu epic ‘Mahābhārata’. His mother was a princess who had been granted a wish that she could ask any God to give her a child. She asked the solar god Surya for this favor and was suddenly pregnant. Wanting to avoid a scandal as she was still unmarried, she had to abandon Karna. Later, he was found by a charioteer who brought him up and he eventually got trained in the art of war. He successfully conquered the whole world and united it under his ruler ship. He was also known as possibly the greatest warrior of his time, his skill being equal to two Maharatha warriors (legendary warriors who were experts in all forms of fighting and in all weapons of the time). You can read the Mahābhārata, here for free.
He was also known as the ‘Diarmuid of the Love Spot’. He was part of a small, semi-independent war band called the ‘Fianna’. He was around in the 2nd to 4th Century time frame in Ireland. He was extremely skilled as a warrior and his fellow warriors loved him. He was also blessed with looks and it was said that his love spot was magical and any woman who looked at him fell in love. He also single handedly killed 3,400 warriors. But he is most famous for his involvement in a love triangle between, Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna and Gráinne who was betrothed to Fionn and was his lover. Eventually the two of them eloped.
Rostam was the main hero of the Persian epic, Shahnameh. He was the strongest paladin (holy warrior) of Iran. After an expedition to Mazandaran (the land of demons) fails, Rostam starts his own expedition to liberate the men. There, he has to do seven labors, which he eventually does and defeats the magician king of Mazandaran. Rostam also has a tragic fight with Esfandiar (another legendary Iranian hero), whose lengthy fight ends when finally Rostam, blinds Esfandiar by a special arrow, which kills him. It is very similar to the fight between Achilles and Hector, and the fact that like Esfandiar’s eyes, Achilles weak point is his heels. Finally, the most tragic tale of Rostam is, when he accidentally kills his son in a duel. You can read the Shahnameh here.
Sigurd, who was also known as Siegfried, was a legendary Norse hero, and a major player in the Völsunga saga. He descended from Odin himself and was a member of the Danish royal family. He was raised by Regin the Blacksmith who forged a special sword for him, which Sigurd used to kill a dragon and take its treasure. After roasting and eating the heart of the dragon, he could understand the birds around him who told him that Regin would betray him. He returned and killed Regin. Later, he found a castle and awoke a warrior maiden named Brunhilde, who was cursed into a deep sleep by Odin. He promised to marry her when returned. On his journey, he drank some magic potion which made him forget her, and he married princess Gudrun instead. When Brunhilde learned of this, she had Sigurd killed, and then she killed herself. Truly a tragic tale of possibly the most flawed, – mythical heroes.
If you watch the history channel show, Vikings, Aslaug (Ragnar’s second wife), is the daughter of Sigurd. You can read the ‘Völsunga saga’ here.
Also I love historical things, creepy stuff, and videogames.
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