A hero (masculine or gender-neutral) or heroine (feminine) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hḗrōs) is a person or main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery or military strength, often sacrificing his or her own personal concerns for some greater good.
The concept of the hero was first founded in classical literature. It is the main or revered character in heroic epic poetry celebrated through ancient legends of a people; often striving for military conquest and living by a continually flawed personal honor code. The definition of a hero has changed throughout time, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines a hero as "a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities." Examples of heroes range from mythological figures, such as Gilgamesh and Achilles, to historical figures, such as George Washington and Gandhi, to modern societal heroes, such as police and firefighters.
The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), "hero, warrior", particularly one such as Heracles with divine ancestry or later given divine honors. (literally "protector" or "defender") Before the decipherment of Linear B the original form of the word was assumed to be *ἥρωϝ-, hērōw-; R. S. P. Beekes has proposed a Pre-Greek origin.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the Indo-European root is *ser meaning "to protect". According to Eric Partridge in Origins, the Greek word Hērōs "is akin to" the Latin seruāre, meaning to safeguard. Partridge concludes, "The basic sense of both Hera and hero would therefore be 'protector'."
A classical hero is considered to be a "warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor" and asserts his or her greatness by "the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill". Each classical hero's life focuses on fighting, which occurs in war or during an epic quest. Classical heroes are commonly semi-divine and extraordinarily gifted, like Achilles, or, alternatively, are like Beowulf, evolving into heroic characters through their perilous circumstances. While these heroes are incredibly resourceful and skilled, they are often foolhardy, court disaster, risk their followers' lives for trivial matters, and behave arrogantly in a childlike manner. During classical times, people regarded heroes with the highest esteem and utmost importance, explaining their prominence within epic literature. The appearance of these mortal figures marks a revolution of audiences and writers turning away from immortal gods to mortal men, whose heroic moments of glory survive in the memory of their descendants, extending their legacy.
Hector was a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan War, which is known primarily through Homer's The Iliad. Hector acted as leader of the Trojans and their allies in the defense of Troy, "killing 31,000 Greek fighters," offers Hyginus. Hector was known not only for his courage but also for his noble and courtly nature. Indeed, Homer places Hector as peace-loving, thoughtful as well as bold, a good son, husband and father, and without darker motives. However, his familial values conflict greatly with his heroic aspirations in The Iliad, as he cannot be both the protector of Troy and a father to his child. Hector is ultimately betrayed by the gods when Athena appears disguised as his ally Deiphobus and convinces him to take on Achilles, leading to his death at the hands of a superior warrior.
Achilles was a Greek Hero who was considered the most formidable military fighter in the entire Trojan War and the central character of The Iliad. He was the child of Thetis and Peleus, making him a demi-god. He wielded superhuman strength on the battlefield and was blessed with a close relationship to the Gods. Achilles famously refuses to fight after his dishonoring at the hands of Agamemnon, and only returns to the war due to unadulterated rage after Hector kills his close friend Patroclus. Achilles was known for uncontrollable rage that defined many of his bloodthirsty actions, such as defiling Hector's corpse by dragging it around the city of Troy. Achilles plays a tragic role in The Iliad brought about by constant de-humanization throughout the epic, having his menis (wrath) overpower his philos (love).
Heroes in myth often had close but conflicted relationships with the gods. Thus Heracles's name means "the glory of Hera", even though he was tormented all his life by Hera, the Queen of the Gods. Perhaps the most striking example is the Athenian king Erechtheus, whom Poseidon killed for choosing Athena over him as the city's patron god. When the Athenians worshiped Erechtheus on the Acropolis, they invoked him as Poseidon Erechtheus.
Fate, or destiny, plays a massive role in the stories of classical heroes. The classical hero's heroic significance stems from battlefield conquests, an inherently dangerous action. The gods in Greek Mythology, when interacting with the heroes, often foreshadow the hero's eventual death on the battlefield. Countless heroes and gods go to great lengths to alter their pre-destined fate, but with no success, as no immortal can change their prescribed outcomes by the three Fates. The most prominent example of this is found in Oedipus the King. After learning that his son, Oedipus, will end up killing him, the King of Thebes, Laius, takes huge steps to assure his son's death by removing him from the kingdom. But, Oedipus slays his father without an afterthought when he unknowingly encounters him in a dispute on the road many years later. The lack of recognition enabled Oedipus to slay his father, ironically further binding his father to his fate.
Stories of heroism may serve as moral examples. However, classical heroes often didn't embody the Christian notion of an upstanding, perfectly moral hero. For example, Achilles character-issues of hateful rage lead to merciless slaughter and his overwhelming pride lead to him only joining the Trojan War because he didn't want his soldiers to win all of the glory. Classical heroes, regardless of their morality, were placed in religion. In classical antiquity, cults that venerated deified heroes such as Heracles, Perseus, and Achilles played an important role in Ancient Greek religion. These ancient Greek hero cults worshipped heroes from oral epic tradition, with these heroes often bestowing blessings, especially healing ones, on individuals.
Heroic myth and monomyth
The concept of the "Mythic Hero Archetype" was first developed by Lord Raglan in his 1936 book, The Hero, A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. It is a set of 22 common traits that he said were shared by many heroes in various cultures, myths and religions throughout history and around the world. Raglan argued that the higher the score, the more likely the figure is mythical.
The concept of a story archetype of the standard monomythical "hero's quest" that was reputed to be pervasive across all cultures is somewhat controversial. Expounded mainly by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it illustrates several uniting themes of hero stories that hold similar ideas of what a hero represents, despite vastly different cultures and beliefs. The monomyth or Hero's Journey consists of three separate stages including the Departure, Initiation, and Return. Within these stages there are several archetypes that the hero or heroine may follow including the call to adventure (which they may initially refuse), supernatural aid, proceeding down a road of trials, achieving a realization about themselves (or an apotheosis), and attaining the freedom to live through their quest or journey. Campbell offered examples of stories with similar themes such as Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus. In his 1968 book, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Campbell writes "It is clear that, whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles."
Slavic fairy tales
Vladimir Propp, in his analysis of the Russian fairy tale, concluded that a fairy tale had only eight dramatis personæ, of which one was the hero,:p. 80 and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian folklore. The actions that fall into such a hero's sphere include:
- Departure on a quest
- Reacting to the test of a donor
- Marrying a princess (or similar figure)
Propp distinguished between seekers and victim-heroes. A villain could initiate the issue by kidnapping the hero or driving him out; these were victim-heroes. On the other hand, an antagonist could rob the hero, or kidnap someone close to him, or, without the villain's intervention, the hero could realize that he lacked something and set out to find it; these heroes are seekers. Victims may appear in tales with seeker heroes, but the tale does not follow them both.:36
The hero in historical studies
No history can be written without consideration of the lengthy list of recipients of national medals for bravery, populated by firefighters, policemen and policewomen, ambulance medics and ordinary have-a-go heroes. These persons risked their lives to try to save or protect the lives of others: for example, the Canadian Cross of Valour (C.V.) "recognizes acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril"; one recipient is David Gordon Cheverie.
The philosopher Hegel gave a central role to the "hero", personalized by Napoleon, as the incarnation of a particular culture's Volksgeist, and thus of the general Zeitgeist. Thomas Carlyle's 1841 On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History also accorded a key function to heroes and great men in history. Carlyle centered history on the biography of a few central individuals such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or topplers of states. His history of great men included geniuses good and, perhaps for the first time in historical study, evil.
Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position were rare in the second part of the 20th century. Most in the philosophy of history school contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one that Carlyle used for his portraits. For example, Karl Marx argued that history was determined by the massive social forces at play in "class struggles", not by the individuals by whom these forces are played out. After Marx, Herbert Spencer wrote at the end of the 19th century: "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him." As Michel Foucault pointed out in his analysis of societal communication and debate, history was mainly the "science of the sovereign", until its inversion by the "historical and political popular discourse", but these intellectuals attempt to relieve themselves of responsibility for their own actions, so that they can be considered unreliable sources at best.
A modern example of the typical hero is the person of Raoul Wallenberg. Born 4 August 1912, an heir of a prominent Swedish banking family, Wallenberg studied architecture at the University of Michigan in the 1930s. In 1944, he was appointed a Swedish special diplomatic envoy to Hungary. With disregard to his safety, Wallenberg went to Hungary and proceeded to save tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps, primarily by issuing them falsified Swedish passports. Wallenberg is credited with saving 70,000 lives when, by boldly threatening a Nazi general, he prevented the bombing of a Jewish ghetto. Wallenberg disappeared while on a trip to the Soviet zone and was rumored to have been arrested there. According to documents released in 1991, he died in a Soviet prison on July 17, 1947. Wallenberg was honored by President Ronald Reagan when he approved a special Act of Congress, making Wallenberg an honorary American citizen. He was honoured again in 1996 by the issue of a US postage stamp.
The Annales School, led by Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, would contest the exaggeration of the role of individual subjects in history. Indeed, Braudel distinguished various time scales, one accorded to the life of an individual, another accorded to the life of a few human generations, and the last one to civilizations, in which geography, economics and demography play a role considerably more decisive than that of individual subjects.
In the epoch of globalization an individual can still change the development of the country and of the whole world so this gives reasons to some scholars to suggest returning to the problem of the role of the hero in history from the viewpoint of modern historical knowledge and using up-to-date methods of historical analysis.
Within the frameworks of developing counterfactual history, attempts are made to examine some hypothetical scenarios of historical development. The hero attracts much attention because most of those scenarios are based on the suppositions: what would have happened if this or that historical individual had or had not been alive.
The modern fictional hero
The word "hero" or "heroine", in modern times, is sometimes used mistakenly to describe the Protagonist or the love interest of a story, a usage which can conflict with the superhuman expectations of heroism. William Makepeace Thackeray gave Vanity Fair the subtitle A Novel without a Hero, and imagined a world in which no sympathetic character was to be found. Vanity Fair is a satirical representation of the absence of truly moral heroes in the modern world. The story focuses on the characters Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharpe (the latter as the clearly defined anti-hero), with the plot focused on the eventual marriage of these two characters to rich men, revealing character flaws as the story progresses. Even the most sympathetic characters, like Captain Dobbin, are susceptible to weakness, as he is often narcissistic and melancholy.
The larger-than-life hero is a more common feature of Fantasy (particularly in comic-books and epic fantasy) than more realist works. However, these larger-than life figures remain extraordinarily prevalent in society. The Superhero genre is a multibillion-dollar industry that includes comic books, movies, toys and video games. Superheroes usually possess extraordinary talents and powers that no living human could ever emulate. The superhero stories often pit a super villain against the hero, with the hero fighting the crime caused by the super villain. Examples of long-running superheroes include Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man.
Psychology of heroism
Social psychology has begun paying attention to heroes and heroism. Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo point out differences between heroism and altruism, and they offer evidence that observers' perceptions of unjustified risk plays a role, above and beyond risk type, in determining the ascription of heroic status.
An evolutionary psychology explanation for heroic risk-taking is that it is a costly signal demonstrating the ability of the hero. It can be seen as one form of altruism for which there are also several other evolutionary explanations.
Roma Chatterji has suggested that the hero or more generally protagonist is first and foremost a symbolic representation of the person who is experiencing the story while reading, listening or watching; thus the relevance of the hero to the individual relies a great deal on how much similarity there is between the two. One reason for the hero-as-self interpretation of stories and myths is the human inability to view the world from any perspective but a personal one.
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- The British Hero - online exhibition from screenonline, a website of the British Film Institute, looking at British heroes of film and television.
- Listen to BBC Radio 4's In Our Time programme on Heroism
- "The Role of Heroes in Children's Lives" by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD
- 10% - What Makes A Hero directed by Yoav Shamir