Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

The concept of a hero has evolved significantly over time, transitioning from the divine beings of ancient mythology to the complex, flawed characters of modern literature. This evolution reflects broader cultural shifts, as societies have moved from a belief in divine intervention to a focus on individual agency and self-determination. This essay will explore the historical development of the hero concept, tracing its evolution from the mythic heroes of ancient Greece to the modern anti-heroes of contemporary literature. Through this analysis, we will examine how the changing understanding of heroism reflects the cultural and social contexts in which it emerged.

The Classical Hero: Born from Mythology

The classical hero, as we know it today, has its roots firmly planted in the rich tapestry of ancient mythology. The stories of these mythological heroes have been passed down through generations, each retelling adding new layers of meaning and interpretation. In this section, we will delve into the world of classical mythology and explore the origins of the classical hero.

The Greek Pantheon: A World of Heroes

The Greek pantheon, with its intricate web of gods, goddesses, and mortals, provided the perfect backdrop for the emergence of the classical hero. From the mighty Zeus, king of the gods, to the cunning Odysseus, the Greeks had a wealth of heroes to look up to and emulate.

The Twelve Labors of Heracles

Heracles, or Hercules to the Romans, was perhaps the most famous of all Greek heroes. His exploits, as recounted in the Twelve Labors, remain a testament to his strength, courage, and determination. These labors, which included tasks such as slaying the Nemean lion and capturing the Hydra, served as a blueprint for the quests and trials that would become synonymous with the classical hero.

The Trojan War: A Legacy of Honor and Glory

The Trojan War, as chronicled in Homer’s Iliad, was a pivotal event in the evolution of the classical hero. The war, fought between the Greeks and the Trojans, saw the rise of heroes such as Achilles and Hector. Their courage, strength, and cunning on the battlefield set the standard for heroism in ancient Greece.

The Odyssey: A Journey of Self-Discovery

The Odyssey, also penned by Homer, is the story of Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy. Along the way, he faces countless challenges, both physical and mental, and encounters a variety of mythological creatures. The epic nature of Odysseus’ journey and his unwavering determination to return home make him a quintessential example of the classical hero.

The Roman Adaptation: Heroes for a New Era

As the Greek pantheon became intertwined with Roman culture, the myths and legends of the classical hero were adapted and reinterpreted for a new audience. Roman heroes, such as Aeneas and Romulus, continued the legacy of their Greek counterparts while also incorporating elements of Roman society and values.

The Aeneid: A New Hero for a New Empire

Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas and his journey to Italy, where he would eventually found the city of Rome. Aeneas embodies many of the qualities associated with the classical hero, including bravery, wisdom, and a strong sense of duty. His story served as a foundational myth for the Roman Empire, reinforcing the idea of Rome as a city built on the back of great heroes.

In conclusion, the classical hero, as we know it today, has its roots firmly planted in the rich tapestry of ancient mythology. From the mighty Heracles to the cunning Odysseus, the heroes of classical mythology continue to inspire and captivate us to this day. Their stories, full of adventure, triumph, and tragedy, serve as a reminder of the enduring power of the human spirit and the importance of heroism in our lives.

The Golden Age of Heroes

Heroes as gods and goddesses

In the early mythological period, heroes were often depicted as gods and goddesses. These divine figures embodied the idealized qualities of courage, strength, and wisdom. They were often the offspring of other gods and goddesses, and their stories often revolved around their exploits in battles against the forces of chaos and darkness. Examples of such heroes include Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, who were all descendants of the gods and achieved great feats through their supernatural powers.

Mortal heroes with divine ancestry

Alongside the divine heroes, there were also mortal heroes who had divine ancestry. These heroes were often the offspring of a god and a mortal, and they possessed some of the powers and qualities of their divine ancestors. Examples of such heroes include Achilles, who was the son of the goddess Thetis, and Jason, who was the grandson of the goddess Alcmene. These heroes were often revered by their people and seen as the rightful leaders of their communities.

The rise of hero cults

As the cult of heroes began to rise, mortal heroes were often worshipped as if they were gods themselves. Hero cults were established in their honor, and their tombs became the centers of religious pilgrimages. These cults often involved the offering of sacrifices and the performance of rituals to honor the hero and seek their favor. The cult of heroes served as a means for people to connect with the divine and to seek protection and guidance from the hero’s spirit.

The Hero’s Journey

The Monomyth Theory

The monomyth theory, proposed by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” suggests that the hero’s journey is a common narrative structure found in myths and stories from around the world. According to Campbell, the hero’s journey consists of a series of stages that are universal across cultures and time periods.

The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

Campbell identified 12 stages in the hero’s journey, which can be broadly categorized into three parts: departure, initiation, and return. The 12 stages are as follows:

  1. The Call to Adventure: The hero receives a call or invitation to embark on a journey or quest.
  2. Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the call, often due to fear or reluctance.
  3. Supernatural Aid: The hero encounters a mentor or guide who provides assistance and guidance.
  4. Crossing the Threshold: The hero enters the unknown world of the adventure, leaving their familiar world behind.
  5. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces challenges, encounters allies, and confronts enemies.
  6. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero prepares for the most dangerous part of the journey, often involving a physical or emotional ordeal.
  7. The Ordeal: The hero faces their greatest challenge, often involving death or rebirth.
  8. Reward: The hero receives a reward for their efforts, such as wisdom, power, or treasure.
  9. The Road Back: The hero begins the journey back to the familiar world, often encountering additional challenges along the way.
  10. Resurrection: The hero experiences a final test or ordeal before emerging transformed and victorious.
  11. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the familiar world with a newfound understanding or gift to share with others.
  12. The Ultimate Boon: The hero achieves their ultimate goal or reward, often involving the transformation of the world or themselves.

The Role of the Mentor and the Threshold

Throughout the hero’s journey, the hero is often guided by a mentor or guide who provides wisdom and support. The mentor figure represents the hero’s connection to the past and tradition, as well as their own potential for growth and transformation.

The threshold is a symbolic boundary that marks the hero’s entry into the unknown world of the adventure. It represents a crossing over from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the mundane to the mythic. The threshold is often associated with danger and risk, but it is also a point of transformation and growth for the hero.

The Medieval Hero: The Knight Errant

The Knight Errant, also known as the Medieval Hero, emerged during the High Middle Ages in Europe. This type of hero was prominent in medieval literature, particularly in works of chivalry and romance. The Knight Errant was characterized by his devotion to chivalry, bravery, and loyalty to his lord and lady.

Key takeaway: The classical hero concept has its roots firmly planted in the rich tapestry of ancient mythology. From the mighty Heracles to the cunning Odysseus, the heroes of classical mythology continue to inspire and captivate us to this day. Their stories, full of adventure, triumph, and tragedy, serve as a reminder of the enduring power of the human spirit and the importance of heroism in our lives.

Characteristics of the Knight Errant

  1. Chivalry: The Knight Errant embodied the code of chivalry, which was a set of moral and ethical principles that governed the behavior of medieval knights. Chivalry emphasized bravery, honor, and loyalty to one’s lord and lady.
  2. Bravery: The Knight Errant was renowned for his courage and bravery. He was willing to risk his life to defend his lord and lady, as well as the weak and defenseless.
  3. Loyalty: The Knight Errant was deeply committed to his lord and lady, and was willing to do anything to serve them. This included going on quests, rescuing damsels in distress, and fighting for justice.

Examples of the Knight Errant

Some famous examples of the Knight Errant include:

  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sir Gawain is a Knight Errant who embarks on a quest to find the Green Knight, a mysterious knight who has chopped off the head of his lord and lady’s Christmas guest.
  2. Sir Lancelot: Sir Lancelot is a Knight Errant who is one of King Arthur’s most trusted knights. He is known for his bravery and loyalty, as well as his love affair with King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere.
  3. Robin Hood: Robin Hood is a legendary Knight Errant who robs from the rich to give to the poor. He is known for his bravery, his loyalty to his band of merry men, and his love for Maid Marian.

Significance of the Knight Errant

The Knight Errant represented the ideal of the perfect medieval knight. He embodied the values of chivalry, bravery, and loyalty, and was revered by medieval society. The Knight Errant also played a significant role in shaping the modern concept of the hero, as his characteristics and actions have influenced the way we think about heroism today.

The Code of Chivalry

  • The Importance of Honor and Loyalty
    • Medieval society placed great emphasis on the concept of honor, which was seen as a combination of one’s reputation, morality, and personal integrity.
    • Loyalty was also highly valued, as it demonstrated a person’s commitment to their lord, country, or cause.
  • The Chivalric Virtues
    • Chivalry was a code of conduct that emphasized bravery, courtesy, and selflessness.
    • Knights were expected to be brave in battle, courteous in their interactions with others, and selfless in their service to their lord and community.
  • The Role of the Knight in Society
    • In feudal Europe, knights were members of the warrior class and held a position of power and influence.
    • They were expected to defend their lord’s land and people, uphold justice, and provide leadership in times of crisis.
    • Knights were also expected to be patrons of the arts and culture, and to promote the well-being of their communities through charitable deeds and acts of generosity.

The Quest for Glory

In the medieval period, the hero concept was heavily influenced by the knight errant, who embarked on a quest for glory and honor. This notion of a quest was deeply ingrained in the medieval culture, where knights were expected to demonstrate their bravery and valor through acts of chivalry.

  • The holy grail and other quest objects: The quest for the holy grail was one of the most significant quests in medieval literature, and it served as a symbol of the ultimate reward for the knight’s efforts. The grail represented purity, divinity, and spiritual enlightenment, and the knight’s pursuit of it was seen as a metaphor for the pursuit of virtue and moral excellence. However, the quest for the holy grail was not the only quest that knights embarked on. Other quest objects included the rescue of damsels in distress, the retrieval of stolen treasure, and the defeat of monstrous beasts.
  • The importance of bravery and valor: The knight errant was expected to demonstrate bravery and valor in all his quests. This meant facing danger and adversity head-on, and demonstrating physical prowess and martial skills. The knight’s bravery was also closely tied to his sense of honor and code of conduct, which required him to uphold chivalric values such as loyalty, courtesy, and generosity.
  • The role of courtly love: The knight errant’s quest was not only for glory and honor but also for love. The concept of courtly love, which emphasized romantic love and devotion to a lady, played a significant role in the knight’s quest. The knight’s love for his lady was seen as a driving force behind his bravery and valor, and his quests were often motivated by a desire to win her favor or protect her honor.

Overall, the quest for glory was a central aspect of the medieval hero concept, and it reflected the values and ideals of the medieval society. The knight errant’s pursuit of the holy grail, bravery, and courtly love embodied the spirit of the medieval hero, and his legacy continues to influence modern notions of heroism.

The Modern Hero: The Protagonist

In modern literature, the hero concept has evolved to encompass a broader range of protagonists, reflecting the changing values and beliefs of society. The modern hero is often more complex and flawed than their mythological counterparts, reflecting the complexity and flaws of modern society.

The Anti-Hero

One of the most significant changes in the modern hero concept is the emergence of the anti-hero. The anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks traditional heroic qualities such as courage, nobility, or selflessness. Instead, they are often selfish, flawed, and morally ambiguous. This reflects the complexity of modern society, where the line between good and evil is often blurred.

The Byronic Hero

Another significant development in the modern hero concept is the emergence of the Byronic hero. The Byronic hero is a flawed protagonist who embodies many of the traditional heroic qualities, but also has a dark side. They are often rebellious, brooding, and anti-social, reflecting the disillusionment and discontent of modern society.

The Flat Character

In contrast to the complex and multifaceted heroes of mythology and modern literature, the flat character is a simple and one-dimensional protagonist. They are often stock characters, such as the lovable rogue or the damsel in distress, and lack the depth and complexity of the modern hero.

The Protagonist as Everyman

Finally, the modern hero concept has also evolved to include the protagonist as everyman. This type of hero is not necessarily a hero at all, but rather an ordinary person who faces extraordinary circumstances. They may lack traditional heroic qualities, but they are often relatable and embody the hopes and fears of modern society.

Overall, the modern hero concept has evolved to reflect the changing values and beliefs of modern society. The traditional heroic qualities of courage, nobility, and selflessness are still present, but they are often combined with flaws, complexities, and moral ambiguities. The modern hero is a reflection of modern society, and their evolution reflects the changing values and beliefs of our times.

The Rise of the Individual

The decline of chivalry and feudalism played a significant role in the emergence of the individual as the central figure in the modern hero narrative. With the decline of these social and political systems, the hero’s journey shifted from one of service to a higher power to one of self-discovery and personal growth.

This shift was reflected in the changing attitudes towards the hero’s role in society. While in the past, the hero was often a symbol of the greater good, in modern literature, the hero is more often a flawed individual, struggling to find their place in the world.

Additionally, the rise of individualism and the increasing emphasis on personal autonomy and self-expression in modern society has led to a greater focus on the hero’s inner journey. The modern hero is not just a figure of action, but also a figure of introspection, searching for meaning and purpose in their life.

The modern hero’s journey is also marked by a greater emphasis on the hero’s relationships with others. The hero is no longer a lone figure, but rather someone who interacts with a variety of characters, including friends, family, and enemies. These relationships provide opportunities for the hero to learn and grow, and often play a significant role in the hero’s ultimate transformation.

Overall, the rise of the individual in modern society has led to a significant shift in the hero narrative. The modern hero is no longer a symbol of the greater good, but rather a flawed individual on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. This shift has been reflected in the changing attitudes towards the hero’s role in society, the emphasis on introspection, and the focus on the hero’s relationships with others.

The Anti-Hero

  • The rejection of traditional heroic values:
    • A shift away from the idealized and perfect hero
    • Emphasis on the flaws and imperfections of the hero
  • The flawed and morally ambiguous hero:
    • Characters who challenge conventional notions of heroism
    • Protagonists who are neither entirely good nor evil
  • The emergence of the “modern” hero:
    • The anti-hero as a reflection of contemporary society
    • The evolving definition of heroism in modern literature and media

The Postmodern Hero: The Deconstruction of the Hero

In the realm of contemporary literature and film, the postmodern era has witnessed a significant shift in the portrayal of the hero. The postmodern approach to storytelling has led to a deconstruction of the traditional hero archetype, blurring the lines between good and evil, and challenging the notion of absolute truth. This shift can be attributed to several factors, including the influence of postmodernism’s core tenets, such as skepticism, intertextuality, and the breakdown of grand narratives.

One of the key aspects of the postmodern hero is the deconstruction of the idealized, perfect hero often found in classical literature. Postmodern storytelling tends to highlight the flaws, vulnerabilities, and moral ambiguities of the hero, leading to a more nuanced and relatable portrayal. This can be seen in works such as William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” where the character of Ralph is depicted as a flawed leader struggling with his own darker impulses.

Another aspect of the postmodern hero is the subversion of the classic hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” In postmodern stories, the hero’s journey may be fragmented, circular, or non-linear, challenging the idea of a singular, linear path to heroism. This can be seen in films like “Pulp Fiction” by Quentin Tarantino, where the story is told out of chronological order, and the hero’s journey is not a straightforward progression.

The postmodern hero often engages in morally ambiguous actions, blurring the lines between good and evil. This reflects the postmodern skepticism towards absolute truth and the rejection of clear-cut moral absolutes. In works like “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the heroes are depicted as troubled, morally ambiguous figures grappling with their own dark pasts and the ethical implications of their actions.

Intertextuality, or the understanding of texts as a web of references to other texts, is another key feature of postmodern storytelling. The postmodern hero often references or subverts the heroes of previous narratives, calling into question the stability of the hero archetype. For example, in “The Matrix” by the Wachowski Brothers, the protagonist Neo is a modern-day hero who embodies the qualities of previous heroes, such as Christ and the one from ancient prophecy. However, he also subverts these archetypes by questioning the nature of reality and the role of the hero.

In conclusion, the postmodern hero represents a significant departure from the traditional hero archetype. Through the deconstruction of the idealized hero, the subversion of the hero’s journey, the embrace of moral ambiguity, and the use of intertextuality, postmodern storytelling challenges the established norms and expectations surrounding the hero concept. This evolution reflects the broader cultural shifts and intellectual movements of the late 20th century, as society grappled with the dismantling of grand narratives and the fragmentation of truth.

The Death of the Hero

  • The critique of grand narratives
    • The idea of grand narratives, or all-encompassing stories that attempt to explain the world and human experience, has been challenged by postmodern thought. These narratives, including the hero myth, have been criticized for oversimplifying complex issues and promoting a single, dominant perspective.
  • The rejection of the hero as a unifying myth
    • The hero myth, as a unifying narrative that ties together individual and collective experiences, has been rejected by postmodern thinkers. This rejection stems from the belief that there is no universal truth or experience that can be applied to all people and situations.
  • The decline of the hero in contemporary culture
    • The decline of the hero in contemporary culture can be seen in the changing values and beliefs of society. With the rise of individualism and the rejection of grand narratives, the hero myth has lost its prominence as a cultural symbol. Additionally, the proliferation of media and the fragmentation of cultural experiences have contributed to the decline of the hero in contemporary culture.

The New Hero

The evolution of the hero concept in the postmodern era has led to the emergence of new heroic archetypes, as well as the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture. In this subsection, we will explore the various manifestations of the new hero and their significance in the postmodern world.

The New Hero: A Multifaceted Character

The postmodern hero is a multifaceted character who challenges traditional notions of heroism. This new archetype can take many forms, including the reluctant hero, the flawed hero, and the hero with a hidden agenda. These heroes often struggle with their own morality and the consequences of their actions, reflecting the complexity and ambiguity of the postmodern world.

The Anti-Hero: A Subversion of the Heroic Ideal

The anti-hero is another prominent figure in postmodern popular culture. This character subverts traditional heroic ideals by embracing qualities such as nihilism, cynicism, and rebellion. The anti-hero often challenges authority and societal norms, questioning the values and beliefs of the mainstream culture. Examples of anti-heroes in film and literature include Tony Soprano from “The Sopranos” and Walter White from “Breaking Bad”.

The Role of the Hero in the Postmodern World

In the postmodern world, the role of the hero has become more ambiguous and multifaceted. While traditional heroes embodied clear-cut ideals and values, the new heroes of the postmodern era reflect the complexity and diversity of contemporary society. The postmodern hero often grapples with moral ambiguity and the blurred lines between right and wrong. This reflects the increasing skepticism and cynicism towards authority and established norms in the postmodern era.

Overall, the emergence of new heroic archetypes and the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture reflect the deconstruction of the hero concept in the postmodern era. These characters challenge traditional notions of heroism and embody the complexity and ambiguity of the contemporary world.


1. What is the definition of a hero?

The definition of a hero has changed over time, but generally, a hero is a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

2. How has the concept of hero changed throughout history?

The concept of hero has evolved significantly throughout history. In ancient times, heroes were often gods or mythical figures, while in modern times, heroes are more likely to be real people who have made significant contributions to society.

3. What are some examples of heroes from ancient mythology?

Examples of heroes from ancient mythology include Hercules, Achilles, and Perseus. These heroes were often associated with specific traits such as strength, bravery, and cunning.

4. How have the roles of heroes changed in modern society?

In modern society, the role of a hero has become more complex and nuanced. Heroes are no longer simply admired for their physical strength or bravery, but also for their intelligence, creativity, and compassion. Additionally, modern heroes are often ordinary people who have made a difference in their communities or the world at large.

5. How does popular culture influence our perception of heroes?

Popular culture, including movies, television shows, and comic books, has a significant impact on our perception of heroes. These media often portray heroes with specific traits and abilities, which can shape our understanding of what it means to be a hero.

6. What are some examples of modern-day heroes?

Examples of modern-day heroes include medical professionals, first responders, and activists. These individuals have put their lives on the line to help others and have made significant contributions to society.

7. Can anyone be a hero?

Yes, anyone can be a hero. Heroism is not limited to physical strength or bravery, but can also include intelligence, creativity, and compassion. Anyone who makes a positive impact on the world or their community can be considered a hero.

What makes a hero? – Matthew Winkler

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