Myth and the Evolution of Heroes
What is a hero? What comes to your mind when someone speaks of heroes and or heroines or Super Heroes and Heroines for that matter? Well lets see, Webster defines a super hero as a benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers and a hero as a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for their courage and outstanding achievements, and is typically identified as a person of noble qualities. A person who people will sympathize with. A man of the people.
Or, the people’s champion if you will.
These character types are often used in media and education and can be applied to almost any story, be it in literature, theatre, film, television series, games, or whatever. In classical mythology we find some of the first of many accounts of these Hero’s. In all actuality they could be called the first super hero’s. Although they did not have the superpowers that we come to expect from modern day super hero’s they still make the cut. And in many ways the heroes of legend could be what you would expect from (and I do use this loosely) real superheroes.
See the births, backgrounds, and life’s of these characters are a bit more on the adult side of the movie store so to speak. They tend to reflect that of real people and real life. Not the real life that is watered down and boxed and fed to kids but the hard life and reality that we all come to realize is reality the more we grow up. Their stories are that of struggle, humility, sacrifices, and all that trial and tribulation that you have come to know and loathe through out the years.
But at the same time they stick with the layout that, as though given to them of Russian scholar Vladimir Propp. See Propp broke down almost all myth with the publication of “Morphology of the Folk tale”. In this publication he depicted that all folk tales follow what is essentially a predefined course of action for almost all stories. Oddly enough this is still relevant to this day. A summary of which is the following: The hero usually has a birth that is very out of the normal. And from the moment of his birth he usually undergoes and over comes a threat to his life as a small child.
As he grows up he usually under goes an extreme task and or an extreme amount of small tasks that for some reason or another he feels or is expected of him to prove his worth. Or these tasks maybe forces upon the hero by the antagonist. Usually these task are almost impossible and the hero then begins to meet friends and ally’s that aid him on his quest. These quests usually involve all type of thrills chills and of course the possibility of death for our hero. (Come on what epic story would be complete with out that? Also these quests always come with some sort of taboos that the hero must not do. They usually exist in the form of challenges that conflict’s with the up bringing of the character. Upon the over coming of that challenge the hero usually grows up, if their a kid you start to see where the hero is growing up. This concept is generally really popular with the long running cartoon stories of kids and helps the viewer learn right along side our protagonist. The viewer then grows with them and grows up with the character themselves learning life lessons.
This is a good and bad thing. Because of this in modern society we have generations of children raised by stories as such. For some odd reason I guess lazy parents have taken these stories as alternatives to raising their children themselves. Ultimately death is the ultimate conquest that the hero will end up facing. This usually comes in the form of some journey to the underworld or realm of the dead or whatever they choose to call it. In some instances the hero actually dies and is resurrected.
I know of a few stories where the hero dies and is resurrected numerous times symbolic of the conquest over death or maybe just the mocking of it to show off the heroes might. That not even death can stop them. From this point the hero then usually reaches a point of enlightenment or transcends into a higher being. This is a rough summary of Propp’s outline but most stories and heroes of legend commit to it. For example one of the most notable of extraordinary births is Perseus. Zeus got a hold of his mother while she was locked up in an underground chamber.
After his birth his mother raised him there for four years in secret. After Acrisius discovered the birth of the child he put him and his mother in their coffin for an old sea man’s burial. They set a float until they landed on the island of Seriphos and were discovered by the old fisherman Dictys. Even when the hero’s are young or in some cases in there infancy they under go tribulation. Like Oedipus who’s name means “swollen-footed”. This is cause his feet were tied together when he was a baby so that he may never walk.
He was to fulfill a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus brought disaster on his city and family. So he was supposed to be casted out into the wilderness and left to die. Fortune favors the young hero and he is eventually taken in and cared for until he comes of age and has Propp’s states must under go labors to prove his worth. The growing pains of Heracles’ 12 labors are probably the most famous in all of classical myth. The labors of the character’s journey are what transform the protagonist from joe-shmo to our loveable and courage’s hero.
The meat and potatoes of the story, for it is here where they evolve into the hero. Cause their actions usually start from seemingly mundane but upon the completion of their mission they gain the praise of the people. In most cased because they end up saving a city, or a massive amount of people from destruction. Or a young woman of noble birth that resides, as say a princess of a powerful city. In some really basic stories after the completion of this the hero becomes king or just saves the day and wins the girl and then lives happily ever after.
In others the end of the labors are signified by the defeat of the antagonist. Like the killing of Hector by Achilles. Some of my favorites are when upon the conclusion of the finale the hero dies. I know that sound kind of bad but the ending is more real because in these versions just as in real life there isn’t always a happy ending. Usually is these epics the hero is transformed into a legend and revered because of his ultimate sacrifice. Best example of this is Oedipus. He had worked his way into the Gods favor and upon his death Colonus was blessed.
And through his death he was made into a hero once again. This motif is all to familiar to Christians for it is capstone for their believe structure. Theses allegories of myth show us how heroes come to be and through Propp’s illustration of all folktale template we see the underlying structure of all stories. And the evolution of all heroes.
Works Cited Morford, Mark P. O and Roberet Lenardon. Classical Mythology 8th ed. New York: Oxford 2007. “Vladimir Propp” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. July 07, 2010. .