1) Theseus was my first big hero, not least because in the version I read he was actually a small hero, a little guy who used his brain to turn his enemies’ strength against them. “Would you be kind enough to show me exactly how you bend a pine?” indeed! They deserved all they got. On mature reflection, mind, I did feel a bit sorry for the Minotaur, and went off Theseus big-time after he caddishly abandoned Ariadne on Naxos. In fact, the latter part of his career was much less glamorous than the beginning. If I were choosing a hero of the crafty type today I’d probably go for Odysseus (not that his behaviour on Greek islands was much better, from the fidelity point of view), but I keep Theseus on this list for old times’ sake. He probably should never have crossed Medea.
2) Medea is the ultimate bad girl of Greek mythology, but I think she’s had a very unfair press. We only ever see her passing through as a player in other people’s stories, but she deserves to have her own told (and it’s one of my long-held ambitions to tell it). She starts off as the daughter of Aeëtes, owner of the Golden Fleece - not an easy man to live with. Then the Argonauts arrive, and she helps Jason, er, fleece him. She's abandoned by Jason for another woman, despite having rejuvenated his father Aeson with a magic bath – the ingrate! Finally she marries Aegeus and becomes queen of Athens, only to be forced to flee yet again by that young upstart Theseus. Okay, the way the stories tell it she’s usually painted as the villain – sacrificing her brother, murdering her children, trying to poison Theseus, etc., but I admire her energy and her never-say-die attitude. Of all the women in Greek myth, Medea is the one with the highest quotient of that Hollywood-beloved quality, feistiness. Last seen flying a dragon-drawn chariot in the general direction of Asia Minor...
3) Gwion Bach/Taliesin. There was a toss-up for this spot between Gwion and Merlin, two rather similar figures, but I decided to plump for the boy from Borth, whose supposed grave is pictured above. I admire Little Gwion for making the best of a very unpromising beginning. As a child he was the servant of the witch Ceridwen, who left him to stir a broth designed to give wisdom to her own oafish son – a richer brew than Solomon ever swam salmon in. Inevitably he imbibed a few drops himself, realized he was in danger from his mistress, and ran away. Thus began a shape-shifting chase which ended with Ceridwen (in the form of a hen) eating Gwion (who’d been foolish enough to take the form of a grain of corn). For most witches’ apprentices that would have been the end. But Gwion managed to be reborn nine months later as Taliesin, in which form he went on to become a famous, if somewhat self-congratulatory, poet. Great stuff there from the boy Gwion.
4) Vasilisa the Beautiful, despite the sappy name, is another of my heroines. Not only did she manage to get on the right side of the Baba Yaga (who gave a her a lantern made from a human skull as a present – sweet!), but she kept house at the hut with chicken legs without having to wear her own fingers to the bone, by leaving the grunt work to a robot doll. Add to that the immolation of her unpleasant step-relations, and you have a heroine who’s more than just a pretty face.
5) Cúchulainn. Well, there’s much to admire about Cúchulainn, “the Irish Achilles”, but I like him best for his goofy aspects, such as the fact that he had to work as a watchdog for a year after he killed someone’s hound; or that the only way to stop him killing his own side when in his battle fury was to send 150 naked women out to meet him. As Lady Gregory describes the scene: “When the boy saw the women coming, there was shame on him, and he leaned down his head into the cushions of the chariot, and hid his face from them. And the wildness went out of him, and his feasting clothes were brought, and water for washing; and there was a great welcome before him.” Embarrassment is such a great way to keep unruly teens in line! Finally, there was the tragic fact that he had two contradictory geasa laid on him: one, never to eat dog, and the other never to refuse any meat offered him by a woman. Of course, the first time he was offered a burger made out of a West Highland terrier he knew he was a dead man. As a former fussy eater myself, I sympathise.