“Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do”
The idea of the classic hero is present in almost every culture. The hero figure is often one with whom we, as ‘ordinary people’ have no direct personal relationship. Instead, we hear stories about their valiant pursuits and heroic feats, yet we never come face to face with these figures. Their personalities, interests, and lives are left to the imagination: and boy do we imagine. We create a persona around these figures and infuse them with stereotypical traits that we believe to be the dominant traits of a model person in whichever society that the hero figure stems from. In other words, the classic hero offers an outlet in societies for us to create the perfect human—someone who we can aspire to be or to look up to for guidance, but also someone who we ourselves can never be because we have put them on too high of a pedestal.
Another way of looking at the persistence of the classical hero archetype in our society is to consider that they act as a personality that humans can interact with, whereas they cannot physically interact with gods. Since most classic heroes are part god and part human, this is the closest that humans will ever get to divinity. Therefore, we as humans, who are always looking for something greater than us or for an explanation of the world around us, use the hero archetype as a way to feel closer to the beyond. Although we can most likely never obtain the greatness that these heroes have, they allow us to picture what it would be like to interact with the supernatural. In other words, the hero is a more tangible example of a divine figure.
One of the first examples of the classic hero can be found in Sumerian mythology in The Epic of Gilagmesh. Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, is described as: “perfect in splendour… / There is nobody among the king of teeming / humanity / Who can compare with him… / Gilgamesh (was) named from birth for fame. / Two-thirds of him was divine, and one-third mortal” (Gilgamesh, 51). Although Gilgamesh was not necessarily revered for the treatment of his subjects, the Sumerian society did not value these qualities as highly as they valued strength, masculinity, and courage in a leader. Therefore, since Gilgamesh is described as almost god-like in his strength and “splendour,” he can be qualified as a Sumerian hero. Furthermore, Gilgamesh’s god-like description puts him on a pedestal, above the ordinary humans. The third person narration of Gilgamesh’s appearance and personality traits is also rather impersonal, suggesting that most people are far removed from his authority. Instead, most people only know him as the great king and the hero who saves the city.
The Greeks and Romans also adopted the idea of heroism in their mythology. In both cultures, heroes, like Gilgamesh, were often part god and part human. This, in essence, puts these figures above ordinary people who have not been endowed with the godly gifts. Since these heroes are born with godly strength and courage, their greatness can be somewhat deterring for ordinary people because it offers a standard that they will never be able to reach no matter how hard they try. The story of Hercules, which has penetrated into western society through the Disney children’s film Hercules, can serve as an example of this unattainable greatness. In the Greek myth, as well as in the western film, Hercules is a demi-god with incredible strength who grows up on Earth without knowing his godly parents. Throughout the series of myths about Hercules as a heroic figure and in the film, Hercules haves humanity several times from demons and monsters. As a film targeted towards children, Hercules acts as a model or an inspiration to children, showing them that no matter how many times you are knocked down, you can “go the distance” (Hercules). In modern western society, we do not share the same mythic demons and monsters that are portrayed by the film, however, life is filled with obstacles that must be overcome in order to succeed. Therefore, by teaching children that they can follow their dreams and overcome obstacles, children are more likely to be inspired to never give up. The only problem with using the classical hero archetype to accomplish this goal is that heroes offer unattainable greatness, which, most likely, no ordinary person can achieve.
Mircea Eliade, a Romanian-born religious historian, suggests that rather than looking at mythic figures as heroes, we should find heroes in our own lives. These real-life people will have also achieved a level of greatness that most people cannot live up to, however, this greatness will be more attainable than that of a demi-god. Eliade suggests that George Washington can act as a suitable western hero (Segal, 54). Washington is revered by all Americans for his military pursuits and bravery against the British in the Revolutionary War. Also, as the first President of the United States and one of the instrumental figures in the installation of the United States Constitution, American society is practically modeled after his greatness. American culture even has several holidays commemorating his accomplishments. Therefore, if we are to expand the definition of a hero to include more relatable figures, we will be able to offer a more attainable goal for people to aspire to be.
Additionally, these new heroic figures should include women as well. The majority of heroic figures, both classical heroes and modern heroes are often men. In my opinion, I think that this is rather discouraging to women. If women only see men as the ones who are accomplishing great things, then females can never truly be inspired to do the same thing.