Dr. Jose P. Rizal

The "heroic" life: until recently, this was the stuff of legend, epic poetry and philosophers' focus. Most certainly it was in the center of the ancients' view of Life. "Life," here, is purposely capitalized; it is the view of a world-universe-sacred-and-profane existence that does not separate the mythic from the mundane. One might call that a "religious" mindset - and the naming would be correct. In the ancient world, religion and life were more often than not one-and-the-same. As was the concept of "heroism": a person's acts were defined as heroic - or not - based upon one's religious/philosophic approach to Life. In the Western tradition, that approach changed over the centuries of ancient civilization: from the primal heroism of the ancient Greeks, as exemplified in Homer's epic poem The Iliad, through the Stoic conception of the Romans found in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, to end up with the early Christian mystic interpretation of heroism, as found in such writings as "The Passion of Saint Perpetua." It will be the purpose of this brief essay to examine how the ancient concept of the heroic life changed through time and in those three works - and to see what threads of thought, if any, persisted. Always to be bravest and to be preeminent above others. In the conception of Homer's pre-"Golden Age" Greeks, who lived before the intellectual refinements of men the likes of Plato could give their religious beliefs philosophic
One of the subjects most common in the literature of all times is that of the hero and his heroic deeds. It seems that heroes have been there for ever and ever, and they appear in all known forms of literature.

Heroes first appeared in myths of various kinds, and in many cases the course of their life seems to represent daily or seasonal changes; in such cases they either symbolize the sun, or the growth and death of vegetation.

In other myths, heroes represent the peoples they lead, historical events of wanderings and wars. Other kinds of heroes’ actions symbolize changes in the ideas and social conditions of the societies they belong to.

There are real, historical heroes, who have actually lived as such; there are mythical heroes who have been nothing but symbols; and there are clearly fictional heroes who feature only in literature of later days. The question is, what makes a hero?

Many times we call a hero a person who is known to have done some exceptional deeds while showing physical prowess, great courage, overcoming enormous obstacles and saving people’s lives. Many times such heroism is a one-time event, after which the so-called hero goes back to a quiet, unassuming way of life.

Is a hero, then, always made, not born? But then, why would one person do suddenly what seems to be out of character, and why would others not do the same thing in the same conditions? There seem to be some questions about the subject that are not easily answered.

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The concepts of “hero” and “heroism” seem to have existed in all cultures on earth, in many forms and varieties; but the word itself has probably appeared first in ancient Greece, where it was combined in the name of one of the greatest heroes of all times: Heracles.

According to Robert Graves, who was an authority on Greek culture, the name is derived from that of the great goddess Hera and it means “Hera’s Glory.” Heracles, then, lived, acted and died in the name and for the glory of that goddess.

Hera was a Sky and Mother goddess, and as such, in charge of the changing seasons on earth. These changes are symbolized in mythology by the life and death of the hero, who is, in this case, Heracles. In his book The White Goddess, Graves describes the course of that life and death according to the yearly change of seasons; but the most important feature of that life is that the hero dies not just to glorify his Mother goddess but to save his people — the tribe of which he is chief — from all their yearly sins and all possible punishments. The Hero, then, is characterized not only as a brave fighter but also as a victim.

The character of Heracles actually arose in the land of Greece among its pre-Greek inhabitants, the Pelasgians. But many other mythological heroes around the world were comparable to Heracles. In Egypt, we are told about such heroes as Sum, who was supposed to have lived there ten thousand years before the Trojan wars, thus pushing the hero’s historical existence back into prehistory, i.e. into pre-writing times.

In the ‘Pantheon’ website of “Heroes” more non-European heroes are mentioned. In the African tribe of the Hottentots, for instance, there was a hero named Heitsi-eibib, who was the son of a cow. That animal is one of the most prominent figures of the Mother Goddess and was sacred to Hera.

Heitsi-eibib was a superb fighter who defeated the monstrous Ga-gorib. The Hottentot hero was killed on numerous occasions and was then resurrected in the typical way of the seasonal hero.

Another heroic figure found on that site is the Japanese Yamato Take, who was the son of a king and was accredited with slaying the dangerous serpent of Omi. Similar deeds were performed by many heroes, including Heracles. According to Graves, again, this is a conventional part of the feats of the seasonal Hero.

The last of the mythological heroes was Jesus, who is connected with the Sun in his character, as shown by the date of his birth on December 25th, just a few days after the astronomical “birth” of the sun in December 21st.

It is interesting to note that Jesus’ heroism was not apparent in his physical prowess but in doing miracles. But his death in agony on the cross presents him as a classic hero. Jesus was a classic victim and, like Heracles, he went up after his death to heaven, to become a proper deity.

Not all mythological heroes are seasonal, some represent a national character rather than a natural one. The Old Testament Israelite hero Samson, whose Hebrew name Shimshon plainly connects him with the sun, shemesh, was one such national hero. All his life he fought against the Philistines, Israel’s worst enemy, and he died by bringing the Philistine’s temple down on his and their heads. It was said that in his death he killed more of the Israelites’ enemies than in the whole of his life.

Another national hero was the Irish Cu-Chulainn, who is said to have fought endless battles in defense of his people and land. He was wounded and finally killed, sacrificing himself to the welfare of his people.

One of the most famous Greek heroes was the Athenian Theseus, who sailed from his city to Crete to fight against the Minotaur and save his young countrymen and women, who were supposed to be sacrificed to that monster. Another national hero was the Welsh leader Arthur, known from medieval times as King Arthur, who led his people in revolt against the English conquerors. He was supposedly deposed and killed by Mordred, son of his sister Morgan, who was said to have been a witch and may represent the Death Goddess.

All these national heroes possessed the three main characteristics of heroism: they performed outstanding deeds; they risked their very being for the sake of others rather than for their own glory; and they were all victims, even though one of them had managed to save himself. That last feature, which is a remnant of the myth of the life, death and resurrection of the seasonal son and lover of the Great Goddess, is most important for the sake of identifying a true hero, in my view.

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In ancient literature, heroes came in all shapes and forms. Some of them were divine in nature, like Prometheus, who had given fire to humanity and was punished severely. Others were plain humans like the Israelite King Saul, who distinguished himself in battle when leading his people against the Philistines.

Some heroes came in the shape of animals, as they are mentioned in tales from Africa and America, and others were completely non-living, like the copper giant Talus from the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. About the latter it was told that, on their travels, the Argonauts met and clashed with him, as he was defending his island from their attack. He was a victim to Medea’s skill, who made a hole in his foot thus causing his “life essence” to drain away.

One kind of hero does not exist in ancient mythology, and that is a female one. The reason is, theoretically, that the hero is subjected body and soul to the Mother Goddess of his tribe. His character must have sprung from times when women were revered but did not die for the sake of their people. On the contrary: for the tribe’s well-being, the source of life and fertility would rather exist as long as possible. (Following the same idea, killing female infants, as is sometimes done by the overcrowded Chinese or Indian cultures, is the most effective birth control there is).

Only one heroine must be mentioned here: the Princess Medea of Colchis (the one mentioned above). Having fallen in love with Jason, leader of the Argonauts, who had come to her country in search of the Golden Fleece, she helped him to get it in defiance of her father, King Aeetes’s edict. Medea, like a true heroine, risks her life and position to help her lover rather than her own nation.

Back in Greece, Medea found herself slighted by her husband, who was looking for a new, younger wife. In revenge, she killed the children she had had with Jason and fled from Athens. In her story, Medea fulfilled the three basic characteristics of the hero: she performs outstanding deeds, risks her very life and position, and becomes a victim at the end.

There is, however, more to that story than heroic deeds. Medea was said to have been the niece of Circe, who belonged to an earlier society under the Goddess’s rule. Medea, who allied herself with the patriarchal Greeks, betrayed that heritage, to which she later returned in her revenge against Jason and his family.

There is no mention of Medea’s death, who was said to have gone to heaven to become a deity there; that is to say, she was actually identified with the Goddess herself. Here we may find not an individual act of heroism, but a symbolic struggle between different cultures.

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It may be noticed that Medea’s deeds in her story are performed not for the sake of her own tribe or for humanity, but in the name of Love, i.e., for the sake of individual happiness. This tendency is typical of the next stage in literary heroism, in which females take great part. Such heroism appears not in myth but in its literary development, in the shape of legends and fairy tales, where more emphasis is put on the individual than the tribal or national, and the symbolism does not refer to general aspects of life but to psychology. The most prominent in such fairy tales are those collected by the Brothers Grimm.

Although seeking for a kind of individual happiness, the heroines standing out in the Brother Grimm’s stories still fulfill the definition of working for others rather than for themselves. One such heroine is the little girl who goes in search for her missing brothers, who have been turned into crows or swans, and risks her life in order to save them and bring them back home. Another story is that of Beauty, who saves her father from the Beast by sacrificing her own life to it. Both girls are victims not of their own actions but of their thoughtless relatives.


Such individualism is the mark of modern life and literature, which carries no symbolism but expresses itself in pure realism (although with some exaggeration). Such realism is the mark of 19th century literature, particularly that of the Romantic era. “Romantic” must be distinguished from the modern romance novel, which strives to emulate the mood of the Romantic era but is too sentimental to be of real literary value.

Without any intention of symbolism, much of this literature reverts back to elements of the heroic myth. In this literature, both men and women take the part as heroes, which, in modern literary criticism, have assumed the title of “protagonists” instead. Not all “heroes,” though, in the sense of protagonists, are worthy of the title Heroes in the old mythological sense.

Of the few that are, one most prominent is Jean Valjean, hero of the French novel Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. This protagonist does fulfill the three characteristics demanded of the ancient heroes: he performs outstanding deeds, he risks his life again and again for the sake of others, and he is definitely a victim of the society he is living in.

The story of Jean Valjean begins when he steals bread for his little siblings, an act which lands him in jail. He risks both the name and position he had acquired through his own efforts by saving the life of a coachman at the risk of his own; he saves Marius’ life and again risks his own; and, in the end, he gives himself up to his eternal enemy, Inspector Javert, the policeman who had made capturing him his life’s work. It is quite clear that very few heroes in modern literature can compete with Jean Valjean for the title of “hero” in both action and attitude.

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Writers of a later, futuristic literature, have seen a future of social equality between the genders, and in their works they tend to use both genders in the role of heroes. One such author is Robert Heinlein, whose heroines act selflessly in the framework of modern community, particularly in the series of books including The Number of the Beast, The Cat who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Traveling in space, fighting monsters of all kinds and risking their lives for the sake of their friends and partners, these heroines act side by side with their fellow heroes. A similar writer of science fiction, who makes use of such heroines, is Anne McCaffrey. In her Dragon series alone we may find three or four special heroines, who particularly act for the sake of the community, saving it from disaster and annihilation.

Non-living heroes also appear in later literature, in the form of dolls or robots. Hans Christian Andersen tells the story of a tin soldier, who risks and finally loses his existence for the sake of a pretty dancing doll, with whom he has fallen in love and who is threatened by a rat. The soldier appears particularly as a victim, because the haughty dancing doll never cast her eye on him, either in his “life” or at his death.

A more modern hero is the robot Giskard, created by Isaac Asimov as he appears in his book Robots and Empire; he gives up his telepathic ability and thus his very essence in order to help humanity gain control over its destiny.

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In the 1950s, a new genre of literature appeared, where the “protagonist” is the opposite of the hero; in fact, he is called the “anti-hero.” The precursor in this genre was Look Back in Anger, by John Osborn.

The anti-hero is a literary character that lacks all the typical heroic features: he is neither strong nor brave; he is both egoistic and egotistic; if he is able to fight, he does so only for his own sake and certainly not for others. He is altogether an inferior character who purports to represent “life as it is,” although there is no proof that such people are more true to life than those who might be considered “heroes.”

From this inferior character, the step is a short one to that of the complete villain, and it seems that some readers or cinema-goers prefer to identify themselves with a strong villain rather than with a hero in its ancient sense, who seems weak just because he has too many scruples.

Perhaps, though, judgment is still out about the validity of such an approach to an idea that is as old as humanity itself, and proper “heroes” and “heroines” may still exist, even in our present corrupt and cynical society.