The heroic ideal pervades classical and modern culture, assuming many different forms over the centuries, and yet owing much of its influence to ancient Greek and Roman literature. In Western culture, the story of the hero and his perilous quests has appeared in countless tales of daring and adventure. It is a story that has been told and retold many times throughout history, and yet it remains largely about superiority and dominance—a tale in which the central male character is able to overcome the dangers of the natural world through his bravery and skill. The concept of the hero is unarguably central to our culture and has become deeply entrenched in Western thought, passing on the traditional values of society to each new generation.
The Concept of Heroism
The word ‘hero’ comes from the Homeric word ἥρως (hḗrōs), a skilful warrior who excels in ἀρετή (aretḗ), ‘bravery, valour or courage’. The Homeric concept of heroism is deeply connected with the idea of military prowess and accomplishment as well as with expectations of bodily perfection. In the Iliad, particular emphasis is placed on depicting the physical body as a vessel of heroism. The many vivid and graphic descriptions of wounds and carnage found in the epic poem serve to draw the reader’s attention to human anatomy. Great importance is given to preserving the body and its beauty against being marred.
In Ancient Greek myth, heroes are depicted as human beings endowed with superhuman abilities and who are descended from immortal gods. They are portrayed as noble and virtuous characters who are, on the surface, the embodiment of perfection, but who nonetheless exhibit a fatal flaw that mars this impeccable exterior. We can see this in the Iliad where Achilles is depicted as a tragic hero whose overwhelming stubbornness and pride ultimately bring about his own downfall. It can be argued that Achilles’s fatal flaw is that of hubris, excessive pride and overconfidence. This is what prevents Achilles from making amends with Agamemnon when he steals Briseis from him, refusing to accept his offer of recompense for the humiliations he inflicted upon him. This then spurs the series of events that eventually lead to the hero’s demise.
Homer seems to suggest that Achilles’s faults are miscalculations, acted out of ignorance rather than from wilful or conscious wickedness. Achilles is unable to recognize the consequences of his actions, and thus he is made all the more human in the eyes of the reader, his faults synonymous with those of ordinary mortals. The tragic hero goes through a reversal of fortune as a result of his fatal flaw since this leads him to overstep divine bounds. He is ultimately punished by the gods with ἄτη (átē), a kind of delusion leading to his downfall. In Homer, ἄτη is an intrusion of the divine, initiating the hero’s descent into the godless abyss of his inevitable self-destruction.
In Greek literature, the tragic hero’s moral fault is interpreted as a ἁμαρτία (hamartíā), a defect which invites punishment or retribution from the divine. It is derived from the Ancient Greek verb ἁμαρτάνω (hamartánō), literally translating to ‘to fail in one’s purpose’. This notion can be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics, a highly influential work of criticism in which Aristotle proposes the notion of ἁμαρτία in response to Plato’s argument against tragedy, which states that this is morally reprehensible. Plato argues this in light of the tendency of morally innocent characters to suffer adverse and unfortunate fates, which calls into question the justice of the gods. In response to this, Aristotle states that the hero’s tragic flaw is an action that is performed out of ignorance rather than one born out of the moral failings of the hero. In this way, by allowing the morally innocent hero to experience misfortune, and thus making him similar to the reader himself, the tragic plot is made all the more effective and allows the reader to relate to the character whose suffering appears excessive and undeserved. Homer’s Achilles, who values his own honour above all else and who experiences misfortune that is greatly disproportionate to his faults, allows the reader to contemplate more complex questions than ones simply relating to the moral nature of his character.
The Homeric warrior represents an elevated depiction of human nature, his immense strength and heightened wisdom serving as tools to elicit wonder and awe in those who idolise him. The epic poets of the classical age portrayed such heroes as the ideal version of masculinity, providing a model for young men and soldiers to imitate. However, for all the hero’s near perfect and godlike qualities, he is nonetheless human and therefore subject to the same defects as ordinary mortals. In this way, placing these heroes as models of moral excellence can be problematic. Their desire for excellence induces in them bouts of extreme anger and makes them liable to experience intense passion and recklessness. In the Iliad, Achilles’s godlike passion is what causes his implacable anger at Agamemnon, which is unparalleled in its intensity.
As a mortal, the hero of the Iliad, like all heroes, is not exempt from the ultimate pain of death, a certainty that distinguishes heroes from the immortal gods. The elevation of the status of heroes to one that harbours a likeness to the gods, and which is above normal human limitations, is what characterizes the challenges and ordeals that the hero must inevitably face. The perils of the human condition in Achilles ultimately culminate in the warrior’s violent death in battle, a vivid and brutal scene depicted in gruesome detail.
It is made evident throughout the Iliad that the hero’s tendency towards excess will ultimately lead him to self-destruction. We see this with the character of Hector when his fury threatens to overwhelm him as he urges his men to burn the Achaean ships. Here he is compared to an animal, foaming at the lips and raging like a wild boar. This descent of the hero into reckless abandonment and bestial fury is rendered all the more pathetic in light of his earlier aspirations of becoming akin to a god. The reader of the Iliad is made aware that this yearning for godliness is but a delusion; the lives of mortals are mere pawns in the hands of the gods and their games. If the hero is to succeed, he must accept his fate as a mortal and recognize his inevitable death as a result of his human weaknesses.
The veil of heroism is cast over these models of ideal human behaviour, offering consolation to those ordinary mortals who idolise the brilliance of such heroic figures. Yet this brilliance is but a shroud covering the surface veneer of the heroic experience. Ancient Greek tales such as the Iliad and the Odyssey seek to go beyond this supposed heroic excellence, revealing the disparate world view that lies beneath its exterior. In this way, the ordeals that the hero must face and conquer may become a means by which man’s eternal struggle for self-validation can be explored, the stories that narrate his heroic experience being all that remain of his futile quest for immortality.
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Bouchard, Larry D., Tragic Method and Tragic Theology: Evil in Contemporary Drama and Religious Thought (London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).
Kohen, Ari, Untangling Heroism: Classical Philosophy and the Concept of the Hero (London: Routledge, 2014).
Fowler, Robert, The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).