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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: January 2014

Three - Humour in the City


Heroes Ridiculed

Painters enjoyed mocking heroes. Heroes have grandeur, and are stronger, far more courageous, noble, and beautiful than common men. They are looked up to as models of virtue and often have their own cult in the form of heroa. However much heroes were revered, the democratic atmosphere of Athens tended to bring everyone to the same level. Maybe this was a consequence of their fear of hybris, or maybe this was brought about by a more healthy need for balance within the city following the old precept of the golden mean, the ‘nothing too much’ (meden agan). Maybe it was the sheer pleasure of a socially lowly artisan in bringing down a superior being, be he superior politically, in wealth, in nobility, or virtue.


‘No city is so barbarous or so strange in its speech that it does not know the fame of the hero Peleus’ writes Pindar (Isth. Od. 6.25). Not only was he the celebrated father of the great Achilles, but he was a famed hero in his own right, a great one among the first generation of heroes. While a guest at Iolcus in Thessaly, the king’s wife fell in love with him. He refused her advances, and, as in many other similar stories, Astydamia told her husband Acastus that Peleus had tried to seduce her. He decided to take Peleus on a hunt on Mount Pelion. During the night, he hid Peleus’s sword and abandoned the hero fast asleep. According to the textual tradition, Peleus was about to be massacred by the vicious beasts roaming the Thessalian wilderness or even by the wild Centaurs. But Chiron, the wisest of Centaurs, brought the hero his sword and thus saved him from certain death.

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