Many of the sons of the gods in Greek mythology became great heroes and kings. Their stories are among the most famous of the era.
These were the demi-gods, characters with one divine parent and one human parent. Many of the most well-known demi-gods were sons of Zeus and one of his many mortal lovers.
The demi-gods were not believed to be immortal, although paths to immortality were often open to them. The most heroic and influential demi-gods were the focus of hero cults or were even made gods in their own right.
Because so many myths, both wide-spread and local, involved the children born to the gods, it is impossible to say how many demi-gods may have existed in Greek mythology. Some of the most famous, however, were recognized throughout the region.
The first great demi-god of Greek mythology was the hero Perseus. Although he was not the first child Zeus had with a mortal, he was the first to become famous as a divine hero.
His mother was a mortal princess named Danae. Although her father tried to keep her from having a child, having been told that her son would one day kill him, Zeus entered her locked chamber as a shower of gold.
The story of Perseus in many ways set the later standard for demi-gods and heroes in mythology. Although he was the rightful heir to a kingdom, he was exiled and had to undertake a great quest to prove himself.
In the case of Perseus, this quest was to find and kill Medusa, the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal.
In this, too, Perseus established a precedent for other demi-gods. He was helped in his mission by his half siblings, Athena and Hermes.
Returning from his quest, Perseus rescued Princess Andromeda of Aethiopia from a sea monster. He married the princess and, unusually for one of the demi-gods, had a happy and prosperous life.
After accidentally causing his grandfather’s death, Perseus gave up his claim to Tiryns and took the lesser city of Mycenae. He built it into a thriving, powerful state that became central to Greek culture.
Like many of the well-known demi-gods, Perseus was later regarded as a nearly immortal figure himself. A constellation in his image was one form of immortality, but the early demi-god also had a devoted hero cult that saw him as an intermediary between the gods and mankind.
Perseus and Andromeda became the ancestors of many well-known figures in Greek mythology and history. Arguably their most famous descendant was also the Greek world’s most beloved demi-god.
Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus. Even in infancy, Zeus’s son distinguished himself with exceptional courage and strength.
The demi-god’s story would be marred, however, by the hatred his stepmother had for him. Constantly jealous of her husband’s infidelities, Hera harassed Heracles over the entire course of his life.
She caused her stepson to go mad so that he killed many members of his family, including his wife and young children. She then partnered with his cousin, the king of Tiryns, to assign Heracles a series of grueling tasks to atone for his crimes.
The Twelve Labors of Heracles are among the most famous legends of the ancient world. With the strength only available to a demi-god, he accomplished seemingly impossible feats of power and endurance.
Unlike his great-grandfather, however, Heracles had many adventures beyond the quests that earned him fame. After completing his twelve labors, Heracles embarked on a lifetime of heroic adventures.
He sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, battled centaurs, and sacked the city of Troy. He freed the Titan Prometheus, served the queen of Lydia, and fought wars on behalf of many Greek states.
Heracles was a larger-than-life figure. More than any other mortal demi-god, he was recognized as divine.
The story of Heracles soon expanded to reflect this. While many demi-gods had hero cults in the ancient world, Heracles was believed to have been given full godhood and joined the pantheon of Olympus after the death of his mortal body.
The Dioscuri are unique among the demi-gods in that it is never clear whether or not they were truly the sons of Zeus.
According to legend, Zeus took on the form of a swan to seduce Leda, the queen of Sparta. She gave birth to four eggs which hatched into her four children.
Her sons, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), were called the Dioscuri, or “the Twins.” Her daughters Helen and Clytemnestra, both became important queens.
Two of Leda’s children were the offspring of Zeus, while the other two were the wholly mortal children of her husband. No two writers seemed to agree, however, on which of her children were demi-gods.
It is most commonly assumed that Helen was the daughter of Zeus and that one of the Dioscuri, likely Polydeuces, was a demi-god.
The Dioscuri are most famous for playing relatively minor roles in well-known myths. They sailed on the Argo with Jason and once rescued their sister Helen from abduction.
Historians believe, however, that the twins once played a more central role in Greek mythology. In fact, they were likely among the deities brought into the region by the first Greek-speaking people to settle there.
The legends said that the brothers quarreled with two of their cousins. Their feud ultimately led to the Trojan War because they were so intent on their fight that they left their sister Helen alone with Paris, giving the Trojan prince a chance to run away with her.
Castor was gravely injured in the fight, although Polydeuces was saved by Zeus’s intervention. He begged his father to save his dying brother.
Zeus gave Polydeuces the option of sharing his demi-god status with his mortal brother. Rather than having the chance to become an Olympian himself, he and Castor would alternate between states of eternal life and death.
Polydeuces chose to share his immortality with his twin. The two alternated between living among the Olympian gods and existing in the Underworld.
They were honored with a place in the stars, as well. The constellation Dioscuri, later called Gemini, centered around two particularly bright stars.
Unlike many demi-gods, Theseus was not a son of Zeus. His father was Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Typically, when a mortal woman had both human and divine lovers she would give birth to twins. One would be mortal and the other would be a demi-god.
In the case of Theseus, however, a single demi-god had two fathers. His mother was impregnated first by King Aegeus of Athens, then by the sea god.
Theseus was this both a demi-god and the rightful heir to his mortal father’s kingdom. It is likely that his dual parentage was the result of two different mythological traditions being combined.
While Theseus worked on behalf of Athens and became one of its great founding kings there were also times that he proved himself as a demi-god. His great strength and courage could be attributed to his divine lineage.
In one story, King Minos refused to believe that Theseus was actually the son of Poseidon. He threw a ring into the sea and ordered the young man to fetch it, since a son of the sea god would have no trouble retrieving something from the ocean floor.
Theseus dove into the water and was greeted by Amphitrite and her nymphs. They not only gave him the ring, but also crowned him to prove his divinity.
His semi-divine status caused some problems for Theseus, however.
His friend Pirithous was one of Zeus’s sons. The two decided that as demi-gods, they had the right to marry daughters of Zeus.
Theseus chose Helen, who was still a young girl at the time. He abducted her, planning on holding her until she was old enough to marry, but she was saved by the Dioscuri.
Pirithous was more ambitious, however. He decided that he wanted to marry Persephone, even though she was already the wife of Hades.
Theseus and Pirithous foolishly went to the Underworld. Theseus soon found himself immobilized when he sat on a rock there.
Pirithous suffered a much worse fate. Because he planned to attack a goddess, one who was married to a powerful god at that, he was led away by the Furies and could never leave the underworld.
Theseus was eventually rescued by Heracles and apologized to Persephone for his role in the plan.
According to some sources, Theseus was a great hero but not a popular king. He was eventually killed and, unlike many other demi-gods, there is no legend that says that he was welcomed among the gods afterward.
Achilles was not the son of a major god, but his status as a demi-god is a famous part of his mythology.
His father was a human, but his mother was the sea-nymph Thetis. While many nymphs’ children were entirely mortal at birth, Achilles was a demi-god.
The earliest accounts of Achilles, including the Iliad, make note of his exceptional skill and heroism. They do not give him any particularly supernatural qualities, however.
In later eras this changed. It was believed that Thetis, knowing that her son’s human nature was vulnerable, attempted to make him entirely divine.
In some versions of the story she held her baby over a fire to burn away his mortal half. In another, she dipped him in the River Styx.
In both stories, Thetis held her young son by his heel. She was interrupted by her husband, who feared that she was harming the baby, so she was unable to complete the process and make the heel invulnerable.
This later addition to the story was used to justify some of the hero’s feats during the Trojan War. In situations where another man would have been gravely injured, Achilles escaped entirely unharmed.
His invulnerability would fail when the city of Troy was finally breached, however. In an act of cowardice, Paris fired an arrow at the great Greek hero when his back was turned.
The shot struck lower than Paris had intended and hit Achilles in the ankle, the only part of his body that could be injured. He died as a result of the arrow wound.
Achilles had one of the most widespread and active hero cults in the ancient world. He was renowned as a paragon of strength, honor, and bravery.
Another hero of the Trojan War was also the son of a goddess. While Achilles fought for Greece, however, Aeneas allied with Troy.
The legends said that Zeus grew frustrated with Aphrodite for constantly making him fall in love with mortal women. In addition to the problems his infidelities caused with Hera, it was heartbreaking to see his lovers and children die at the end of their mortal lives.
He decided to give Aphrodite a taste of what it felt like. He made her fall in love with Anchises, a cousin of the Trojan king.
When Aphrodite had their son, Achilles, she left the baby to be raised by nymphs. She told them to take him to his father when he was five years old.
Although he was not involved in his youth, Aphrodite was incredibly protective of her son. During the Trojan War, she intervened on his behalf several times.
Thanks in large part to the interventions of his mother and Apollo, Aeneas survived the Trojan War. Even Poseidon, who was allied with the Greeks, saved him from an attack because he acknowledged that he would one day be a great king.
The Greek myths implied that Aeneas, although he was from a junior branch of the family, would inherit Troy after the war. Later cultures, however, made him the king of an entirely different region.
The Romans claimed that Aeneas sailed west after the fall of Troy in search of a new home. He eventually landed in Italy.
Aeneas soon established dominance in the area and became the ruler of its tribes. He became the first king of what would later be Rome.
Not all demi-gods were warriors.
Asclepius was a son of Apollo. Unlike most children of the gods, his father played an active role in his upbringing.
His mother was killed, according to most sources because she was unfaithful to her divine lover, so Apollo took custody of the baby. Rather than hand him off to nymphs or his mortal kin, Apollo reared the boy himself.
Apollo taught Asclepius about his healing powers. He was then sent to the centaur Chiron when he was old enough to begin his formal education, where he learned even more about medicine.
Asclepius devoted himself to the healing arts. He conducted tests and observed the world around him until he learned even more than Chiron could teach him.
Asclepius became the first true physician. He traveled the world to learn more, heal people, and teach others what he had discovered.
He became so skilled that Hades reportedly feared that the Underworld would become depopulated because people would not die anymore. Rumors even began to spread that he had learned the secrets to resurrecting the dead.
This was beyond the power that any mortal should have, so Zeus saw no choice but to smite the doctor. When Apollo learned of this, he was so furious that he killed the Cyclopes to get back at Zeus.
Apollo eventually earned forgiveness for this and petitioned Zeus to make his son fully divine. Asclepius had pushed the limits of human knowledge, but as a god he could continue doing good for the world.
Zeus agreed and Asclepius was resurrected as a god. He was the patron of physicians and medicine and people visited his temples to be healed of diseases and injuries.
Some demi-gods did not have to wait until their mortal half was killed to be made immortal.
Dionysus was one of the major Olympians, but he was technically a demi-god. His mother was a mortal woman named Semele.
Most Greek myths did not elaborate on how Dionysus came to be accepted as a god without a mortal death. The many myths of his birth and early life all provide different possibilities.
Semele was killed while she was still pregnant with Dionysus. Zeus saved the baby and sewed him into his own thigh until he was grown enough to be born.
It is possible that this birth from Zeus conferred full immortality to the godling.
Some legends claimed that Dionysus was born more than once. The child carried by Semele was the reincarnation of an earlier Dionysus who had been born to Persephone.
In this version of the story, Dionysus was not a true demi-god. Although he was born to a human woman, his essence was fully divine.
In a later legend, Dionysus had to prove himself to his father to earn his place among the gods. Zeus sent him on a military expedition to India and Dionysus received full godhood on his triumphal return.
Dionysus was a later addition to the pantheon, and his popularity disrupted the tradition of there being twelve major Olympians. Some people claimed that Hestia, who was never as prominent as many of the other gods, willingly gave up her position of importance to elevate her nephew.
Doubts over his divinity were a constant theme in the stories of Dionysus’s early life, however. Just as the mythology provided no clear reason why he was seen as fully divine, the people he encountered in his wanderings often refused to believe that he was a god.
This is, of course, not a complete list of the demi-gods in Greek mythology. Minor characters, local legends, and disputed claims meant that there were likely hundreds of mythological figures who were believed to be partially divine.
The Amazons, for example, were said to be the daughters of Ares. The legendary warrior women gained their fighting prowess and bloodthirstiness from their father.
Bellerophon was originally an entirely human character, but was said by later writers to be a son of Poseidon. In his case, divine ancestry was added to his story to justify his heroism.
Many of the most famous demi-gods came from a long line of semi-divine mortals. Ajax and Achilles, for example, were both descended from Aeacus, one of Zeus’s sons.
Several founding kings were given divine ancestry, largely to justify their power. Among the most famous was King Minos, who was a son of Zeus and Europa.
Other demi-gods were immediately made minor deities. Plutus, the son of Demeter and Iasion, was a minor agricultural deity who personified the wealth of the land.
While there were dozens of demi-gods in the Greek world, they were not all seen as equal. The most famous were those who accomplished such great feats that they were in some way immortalized, either as constellations, through hero cults, or by being given full godhood after death.