I have learned something really useful — my concept of the heroic is not the one the Greeks shared. I thought a hero was strong, brave and moral, a super Boy Scout. The Greeks saw the hero as strong, brave and dangerous, very understandable in a warrior culture. The Greeks respected both those who fought and those who talked, but the heroes were those who fought.
For example, Oedipus casually killed several people on the road and thought no more about it until the investigation years later. Also, it seemed to me that the gods did not play fair with him. Certainly his previous killings were not admirable, but he was condemned not for what he knowingly did, but for the fate he could not escape. Powell comments
To our minds, conditioned by two thousand years of Christian ethics, he may appear violent, hasty and overconfident, but the Greeks would not have seen that. In their eyes Oedipus had no moral fault: He wants to obey the will of the gods, as conveyed through Apollo’s instructions, and he wants to save his people. He applies his intelligence and courage to discover the truth for the benefit of the citizens he serves. He freely chooses a course leading to his own undeserved destruction.
Oedipus also applies his intelligence to arguing with prophecy, accusing the blind seer of plotting against him and threatening torture for a shepherd who (rightly) fears telling Oedipus what he will not want to hear. “Violent, hasty and overconfident,” he can’t escape his fate, despite his courage and intelligence. Perhaps that is the message here — no matter what your warrior skills, you cannot escape what the gods have in mind for you.
And what about the women? It appears that the threat of the female is that she can take on male characteristics. Medea aggressively pursues Jason and even more aggressively punishes him. The need to hurt him is greater than her need to protect her own children. Antigone presents a gentler image, but she is equally determined. Her sister protests that they can do nothing but submit, being women. She does not submit and one of the charges against her is of not acting like a woman. Medea is accused of worse: not acting like a Greek woman.
This book is a wonderful source and reference for classical myths. In addition to recounting the myths, Powell quotes extensively from the Greek and Roman authors who provide the source material. He compares accounts and provides useful family trees for the Thebans and others. I particularly enjoy his related Perspectives and illustrations from classic art. For Medea, for example, we have a description of Seneca’s Medea and a reproduction of Delacroix’s Médéé. The myths are still with us and so are intelligence, courage and undeserved fates.