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Sir Galahad, a hero of Arthurian legend, detail of a painting by George Frederic Watts

A hero (heroine for a female) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hḗrōs), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.[1] A demigod is the son or daughter from one immortal and one mortal parent, an example would be Heracles, son of the mortal queen Alcmene and the god Zeus.[2] Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity. This definition originally referred to martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.

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. Politicians, ancient and modern, have employed hero worship for their own apotheosis (i.e., cult of personality). Stories of the anti-hero also play a major role in Greek mythology and much of literature. The anti-hero is a protagonist whose qualities are the last expected from a person in certain situations; an anti-hero often lacks the typical characteristics of heroism, such as nobility, bravery, and fortitude. The favorite type of anti-hero is a characterless individual.[2]


Coined in English 1387, the word hero comes from the Greek "ἥρως" (heroes), "hero, warrior",[3] literally "protector" or "defender"[4] the postulated original forms of these words being *ἥρϝως, hērwōs, and *ἭρFα, Hērwā, respectively. It is also thought to be a cognate of the Latin verb servo (original meaning: to preserve whole) and of the Avestan verb haurvaiti (to keep vigil over), although the original Proto-Indoeuropean root is unclear.

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'."

Classical hero cults

Hera suckling Herakles BM VaseF107

Hera suckling Heracles as an infant.

Template:Refimprove section 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.

In the Hellenistic Greek East, dynastic leaders such as the Ptolemies or Seleucids were also proclaimed heroes.


The classic hero often came with what Lord Raglan (a descendant of the FitzRoy Somerset, Lord Raglan) termed a "potted biography" made up of some two dozen common traditions that ignored the line between historical fact and mythology. For example, the circumstances of the hero's conception are unusual; an attempt is made by a powerful male at his birth to kill him; he is spirited away; reared by foster-parents in a far country. Routinely the hero meets a mysterious death, often at the top of a hill; his body is not buried; he leaves no successors; he has one or more holy sepulchres.

The validity of the hero in historical studies

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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, of geniuses good and evil, sought to organize change in the advent of greatness.

Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position were rare in the second part of the 20th century. Most philosophers of history contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one he 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."[5]

Raoul Wallenberg

The Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II.[6][7]

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".

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. Foucault's conception of an "archeology" (not to be confused with the anthropological discipline of archaeology) or Louis Althusser's work were attempts at linking together these various heterogeneous layers composing history.[clarification needed]

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[8]

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[9]

Within the frameworks of developing counterfactual history, attempts are made to examine some hypothetical scenarios of historical development. And 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[10]

Heroic myth


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

The concept of a story archetype of the standard "hero's quest" or monomyth pervasive across all cultures is somewhat controversial. Expounded mainly by Joseph Campbell in 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. Examples of this formula can be found in modern stories such as The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Star Wars. [11]

Folk and fairy tales

Vasnetsov samolet

Ivan Tsarevich, a hero of Russian folklore.

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,[12]: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)

He 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.[12]:36


Christianity traditionally has emphasized humility as its main form of heroics. To illustrate 'that no virtue can possibly be perfectly acquired or continue without the grace of discretion', St John Cassian relates the story of a monk, 'Heron', who in pride and vanity was persuaded by a demon to assume that he was invincible from bodily harm. The demon advised Heron that this miracle would be proved if he threw himself into a deep well - however upon doing so, Heron was severely injured and shortly thereafter died and was nearly refused burial as a suicide by his abbot.[13]

The modern fictional hero

The word "hero" or "heroine" is sometimes used simply to describe the protagonist of a story, 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.[14] The larger-than-life hero is a more common feature of fantasy (particularly sword and sorcery and epic fantasy) than more realist works.[15]

In modern movies, the hero is often simply an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end. In some movies (especially action movies), a hero may exhibit characteristics such as superhuman strength and endurance that sometimes makes him nearly invincible. Often a hero in these situations has a foil, the villain, typically a charismatic evildoer who represents, leads, or himself embodies the struggle the hero is up against. Post-modern fictional works have fomented the increased popularity of the antihero, who does not follow common conceptions of heroism. Examples of modern heroes are Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Superman.

Hero as self

Template:Refimprove section It has been suggested in an article by Roma Chatterji[16] 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.

Psychology of heroism

Social psychology has begun paying attention to heroes and heroism. A work by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo[17] points 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.[18]

See also


  1. See Heroes, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, 'A Greek-English Lexicon', at Perseus and Plato, 'Cratylus'
  2. 2.0 2.1 “Hero.” Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought. London: Bloomsbury Publishing LTD, 1993. Credo Reference. Web. 17 September 2012.
  3. ἥρως, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  4. Hero: Online Etymology Dictionary, entry "Hero"
  5. Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 34.
  6. "The Library of Congress: Bill Summary & Status 112th Congress (2011 - 2012) H.R. 3001". 
  7. "Holocaust Hero Honored on Postage Stamp". United States Postal Service. 1996. 
  8. Hook, S. 1955[1943]. The Hero in History. A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  9. Grinin, Leonid 2010. The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution & History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (pp. 95–136)[1]
  10. 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]
  11. "Heroes of History - The Heroic Monomyth". Oracle Thinkquest. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  13. St John Cassian, Conferences, Ch 2.5.
  14. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p 34, ISBN 0-691-01298-9
  15. L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p 5 ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  16. 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. 
  17. 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.
  18. Pat Barcaly. The evolution of charitable behaviour and the power of reputation. In Template:Cite doi

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