Greek Demigod: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Demigod
  • 0:53 Heracles (Hercules)
  • 2:50 Perseus
  • 3:33 Achilles
  • 4:18 Theseus
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The stories of Greek mythology involved gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters. These legends often starred a demigod, or a hero born of a mortal and a divine being. In this lesson, learn the definition of a demigod and its most enduring mythological examples, then take a brief quiz.

Definition of a Demigod

A demigod is a term used in Greek mythology to describe a person with one divine parent and one human parent. The divine parent was not necessarily a major Olympian god but could be a lesser one, such as a nymph. These demigods were thought to have special abilities far beyond that of mere mortals. Consequently, many of the demigods of Greek myth were considered heroes in one way or another. Their stories have influenced countless generations of real historical figures and societies. For example, Alexander the Great believed he was a descendant of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. At a very young age, Alexander read Homer's epic poem the Iliad, which told the story of Achilles, a demigod discussed in more detail later. He became fascinated by the hero and kept a copy of the Iliad with him at all times throughout his life.

Heracles (Hercules)

Heracles (often referred to as Hercules, according to the Roman spelling) was said to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. He was often described as an enormous bearded man who wore a lion's hide and carried either a club or a bow as a weapon. While his strength was legendary, he had human flaws as well. He was not represented as extremely intelligent or patient, and he was prone to temper flares and irrational behavior. In fact, in one story, Heracles threatened to use his arrows to shoot the sun because he was too hot.

In one legend, Zeus's wife Hera sent two large snakes to kill Heracles. Strong from birth, the young Heracles strangled both snakes. Hera's revenge knew no boundaries. She waited until Heracles reached adulthood to seek vengeance again. This time, she sent a temporary madness that caused Heracles to kill his own children. When he had regained his sanity, he was overcome with grief. To atone for his crimes, he was sentenced to complete twelve labors. These tasks included:

  1. Killing the Nemean Lion, whose skin was impenetrable
  2. Defeating the Hydra, which was an enormous snake with many heads
  3. Capturing the golden Hind, or a deer
  4. Hunting the Erymanthian boar
  5. Cleaning the Augean stables in one day
  6. Killing the Stymphalian birds
  7. Capturing the bull of Crete
  8. Stealing the mares of Diomedes
  9. Obtaining the girdle of Hippolyta, who was the Amazon Queen
  10. Stealing the cattle of Geryon
  11. Stealing the apples of Herperides
  12. Capturing Cerberus, who was the guard dog of the underworld

Perseus

Perseus was the son of Zeus and a human woman called Danae. Perseus possessed both strength and intelligence. His most famous exploit involved killing Medusa, a monster often described as having writhing snakes for hair. She was so hideous to behold that one glance would turn a person to stone. Because he was the son of Zeus, Perseus received a great deal of help from the gods. Hermes gave him his winged sandals so he could fly, Zeus gave him a sword, Hades presented him with a cloak of invisibility, and Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus cleverly used the shield to view the monster's reflection and avoid gazing on her directly. He defeated Medusa by cutting off her head.

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