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"Heroism" and "Heroic" redirect here. For the film, see Heroism (film). For the racehorse, see Heroic (horse).
"Heroine" redirects here. It is not to be confused with Heroin. For other uses, see Heroine (disambiguation).
Sir Galahad, a hero of Arthurian legend, detail of a painting by George Frederic Watts

A hero (masculine or gender-neutral) or heroine (feminine) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hḗrōs) is a person or character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage, bravery or self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good; a man or woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities.


The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), "hero, warrior", particularly one such as Heracles with divine ancestry or later given divine honors.[1] literally "protector" or "defender".[2] 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.[3]

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'."

The word can be used as a gender-neutral term for both males and females[4] because it has no gender-specific suffix in English.

Classical heroes[edit]

Hera suckling Heracles as an infant.
See also: Greek hero cult

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.[5] Homer had, and continues to have, great impact in western society, and thus, for example, Hector figures as one of the Nine Worthies noted by Jacques de Longuyon, a 14th-century French writer. 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.

When Cleisthenes divided the ancient Athenians into new demes for voting, he consulted the Oracle of Delphi about what heroes he should name each division after. According to Herodotus, the Spartans attributed their conquest of Arcadia to their theft of the bones of Orestes from the Arcadian town of Tegea.

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.

Stories of heroism may serve as moral examples. In classical antiquity, cults that venerated deified heroes such as Heracles, Perseus, and Achilles played an important role in Ancient Greek religion.[citation needed] Political leaders, both ancient and modern, have employed hero worship for their own apotheosis.[citation needed] For example, in the Hellenistic Greek East, dynastic leaders such as the Ptolemies or Seleucids were also proclaimed heroes.[citation needed] Alexander the Great has been considered, extemporaneously, one of the classical heroes.[6] More recent exemplars are Marlborough, Wolfe, Nelson, Wellington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill and winners of the Victoria Cross, Purple Heart or other military awards for valour and distinction.[7][8][9][10]

Heroic myth and monomyth[edit]

The four heroes from the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West

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.[11] Alan Dundes offered the following list of ten figures who best matched the archetype:

  1. Oedipus (22)
  2. Theseus (20)
  3. Jesus (19)
  4. Romulus (17)
  5. Hercules (17)
  6. Perseus (16)
  7. Zeus (15)
  8. Jason (15)
  9. Robin Hood (13)
  10. Apollo (11)

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.[12] 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."[13]

Slavic fairy tales[edit]

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,[14]:p. 80 and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian folklore. The actions that fall into such a hero's sphere include:

  1. Departure on a quest
  2. Reacting to the test of a donor
  3. 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.[14]:36

The hero in historical studies[edit]

Further information: Philosophy of history and Great man theory

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.[15] 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";[16] 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."[17] 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.

The Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II.[18][19]

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.[18]

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.

Among noticeable events in the studies of the role of the hero and Great man in history one should mention Sydney Hook's book The Hero in History.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

The modern fictional hero[edit]

The word "hero" or "heroine" is sometimes used mistakenly to describe the protagonist of a story,[citation needed] or the love interest, 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.[23] The larger-than-life hero is a more common feature of fantasy (particularly sword and sorcery and epic fantasy) than more realist works.[24]

Psychology of heroism[edit]

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.[25]

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.[26]

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;[27] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ἥρως, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". etymonline.com. 
  3. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 526.
  4. ^ "Hero". Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 115.
  6. ^ "Les Voeux du Paon, par JACQUES DE LONGUYON". Gallica. 
  7. ^ Lee 2005, pp. 3–4
  8. ^ Bell 1859, title
  9. ^ Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (2009)
  10. ^ Sneed B. Collard, Thomas Jefferson: Let Freedom Ring! (American Heroes) (2008)
  11. ^ Lord Raglan. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama by Lord Raglan, Dover Publications, 1936
  12. ^ Clinton Bennett In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images Continuum, 2001, p. 206, ISBN 0-8264-4916-6
  13. ^ Joseph Campbell. 'T'he Masks of God: Occidental Mythology Penguin, reprinted, ISBN 0-14-004306-3
  14. ^ a b Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  15. ^ smh.com.au: "Everyday heroes", 26 Dec 2002
  16. ^ gg.ca: "Decorations for Bravery Ceremony", 2 Feb 2010
  17. ^ Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 34.
  18. ^ a b "The Library of Congress: Bill Summary & Status 112th Congress (2011 - 2012) H.R. 3001". 
  19. ^ "Holocaust Hero Honored on Postage Stamp". United States Postal Service. 1996. 
  20. ^ Hook, S. 1955[1943]. The Hero in History. A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  21. ^ Grinin, Leonid 2010. The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution & History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (pp. 95–136)[1]
  22. ^ Thompson. W. The Lead Economy Sequence in World Politics (From Sung China to the United States): Selected Counterfactuals. Journal of Globalization Studies. Vol. 1, num. 1. 2010. PP. 6–28 [2]
  23. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p 34, ISBN 0-691-01298-9
  24. ^ L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p 5 ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  25. ^ Franco, Z., Blau, K. & Zimbardo, P. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 99-113.
  26. ^ Pat Barcaly. The evolution of charitable behaviour and the power of reputation. In Roberts, S. C. (2011). Roberts, S. Craig, ed. "Applied Evolutionary Psychology". Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199586073.001.0001. ISBN 9780199586073. 
  27. ^ Chatterji, Roma (January 1986). "The Voyage of the Hero: The Self and the Other in One Narrative Tradition of Purulia". Contributions to Indian Sociology (19): 95–114. 

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