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Heroes and Heroines

Updated on May 5, 2010

Hero and heroine, in the original Greek sense of heros and heroine, are a deified person or a demigod (the offspring of a deity and a mortal). The term also referred to dead persons noted for their outstanding achievements or noble qualities. In the modern world, although the existence of live heroes is acknowledged, the appellation is more frequently applied to the honored dead. For example, a person cannot be represented in the American Hall of Fame until 25 years after his death.

A man can be a hero because of unusual bravery, nobility of action, moral and intellectual qualities, or contributions either to the improvement of man's lot or to a given society. There are heroes and heroines of thought (Socrates), science (Galileo), medicine (Florence Nightingale), statesmanship (Churchill), military prowess (Joan of Arc), art (Leonardo), and religion (Loyola). The hero stands out from ordinary men by his superiority in one or more spheres and is held up as the embodiment of certain ideals or values of the society or group that honors him. Inasmuch as values vary, hero status is relative to a particular society, time, or place, and a hero to one particular group or culture may sometimes be a villain to another.

The Hero in Ancient Greece. Hero worship, or the worship of the renowned dead, was an important aspect of ancient Greek religion. The burial places of heroes were places of worship, and heroification was an integral part of the belief in immortality. To the ancient Creeks, a hero was a man who lived and died as a mortal but who nevertheless was rendered immortal by his superhuman strength, courage, character, or ability. Examples of ancient Greek heroes are Miltiades among warriors, Lycurgus among lawgivers, Pindar among poets, Aeschylus among dramatists, and Plato among philosophers.

Homer, whose heroic ideal was the man who combined valor and wisdom, applied the word "hero" to men of superhuman courage and ability. The era of legendary Greek heroes such as Achilles was called the Heroic Age by Hesiod.

The Hero in History

Familiar great historical figures, like Caesar, Alexander, Columbus, Napoleon, and Lincoln, are often cited to support what is commonly called the heroic conception of history. Adherents of this concept attribute the great changes in civilization to the roles of such individuals. Its detractors claim that such geniuses appear only as the end result of the respective historical processes of which they are a part. Economic and other such deterministic interpretations of history generally conform to the latter view.

The Hero in Literature

In modern literary usage the term "hero" refers to the central character of a work- the protagonist, on whom attention is focused. He is not necessarily a hero in the exemplary sense applied in ancient Greece.

The warrior hero is generally the main subject of the earliest historical writings and of the epic. Heroic epic poetry extends over some 3,000 years and is found in a wide variety of cultures, from the Iliad and Odyssey of the ancient Greeks and the Mahdbhdrata and the Rdmdyana of ancient India, to the medieval Chanson de Roland and the Renaissance Faerie Queene.

The ideal heroic type in the Middle Ages was the knight, often in the service of the church. In the romance, the knight's heroic exploits were in the service of ladies, or heroines, who served as his inspiration. The earliest ideal medieval knight was the preux, the man of strength and courage, whose worth was measured almost exclusively by his military prowess. However, the civilizing influence of the church, the contact of the knights with the social refinements of Byzantium during the Crusades, and the development of courtesy (the code of knightly behavior) and courtly love in the 12th century led to the creation of the courtois. Thereafter the knight sought to impress his lady with his refined manners as well as with his prowess.

In the Italian Renaissance the knight developed into the ideal courtier type described by Castiglione in The Courtier (1528). This Renaissance hero, or "universal man," was a model of every virtue and refinement in addition to his military prowess. Imitated throughout Europe, Castiglione's hero was the forerunner of the modern gentleman. Another quite different ideal type described in Renaissance literature was the unflinchingly ruthless and realistic ruler described by Machiavelli in The Prince (1513).

To Thomas Carlyle the ideal hero, as described in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), was the kind of vigorous inspiring leader, who determines the course of history. Emerson's Representative Men (1850), and Nietzsche's superman are expressions of the modern cult of the individual as hero.

In modern literature, heroic poetry, with figures like Achilles or Aeneas, is all but extinct. However, heroic figures such as the cowboy, detective, and scientist do find their way into literature. The adventures and style of these heroes may differ from those of old, but they still conform essentially to the ideal type whose abilities and accomplishments transcend the capabilities of ordinary men.

The literary heroine has many attributes of the hero. Although she too may be characterized by superhuman courage, she is normally not expected to display physical prowess. She is more apt to be portrayed as a heroine by virtue of her nobility, fortitude, or strength of character.

The hero has his counterpart in the character of the antihero, who, in such picaresque novels as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes, is often the hero only in the sense that he is the central character. He is an antihero precisely because he lacks the various qualities of the hero. Among the numerous burlesque treatments of the hero in literature, two of the best known are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel. In modern literature, outstanding examples of antiheroes are found in the novels of Albert Camus.

Significance of the Hero

Heroization of men or women of extraordinary achievement, character, or ability, is an almost universal phenomenon. The precise qualities of the hero in a given time and place vary, but his basic exemplary function remains. The hero serves many social purposes. The society that heroizes him achieves, vicariously and collectively, the realization of its values. In some societies, his mythicization serves to explain natural phenomena, to induce religious zeal, or to inspire men to great undertakings. By his superhuman achievements, the hero wins the fame (and with it the immortality) that each man longs for.


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