“The man’s a war-hero.”
Is he though?
We hear men — and sometimes women — called “heroes” today. From soldiers to single moms, even the nobody working the nine-to-five grind might be called a hero:
There goes my hero,Foo Fighters
But what does it mean to be a hero?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the hero as “a person, especially a man, who is admired by many people for doing something brave or good.”
This seems to capture the emotional association we hold to the term, but it is hopelessly subjective. Is being a single mother “brave?” In some regards, perhaps, but “bravery” in that sense means something completely different than what people are trying to convey of the men who stormed Normandy beach. Similarly, the man who works his boring day-job to keep society functioning is probably doing “good,” but it isn’t the kind of good that we normally associate with heroism. Some people may want us to admire these “ordinary heroes” as a way of lowering the bar for admiration, or perhaps out of some latent envy or resentment for the truly heroic, or maybe just to try to encourage those working class heroes to keep on grinding.
Unlike many words that have lost their base, “hero” doesn’t seem over-used. I think this is because people still have a strong intuitive sense of the feeling conveyed by the term. They know a “hero” when they see it, and for all the rhetoric, the nobodies that politicians try to flatter and lionize — the single moms and two-job dads, the plumbers and college grads — aren’t heroes. They might have other positive qualities, but “hero” rings false, like calling a woman a “dog mom” because they have a pet. She may have a dog, but she isn’t a mom.
Real moms understand the weight of that difference.
So what is a hero?
The etymology of “hero” ties it to the Greek Goddess Hera, who was the wife of Zeus and the God of seasons. Connected also with her is the word hora, which is the root of the English word “hour.”
This is critical to understand.
Interestingly, the word hora also forms the root for another Greek word for “beautiful”: horaia. This conveys an association between beauty and timeliness, which one finds mirrored across all of ancient Greek thought and elsewhere. Timeliness, seasonality, proportionality, and beauty.
Does this mean that the “hero” is timely?
In fact, according to Dr. Greg Nagy, there are three qualities which set the hero apart:
- The hero is unseasonal
- The hero is extreme
- The hero is antagonistic towards a deity who is most like them
The hero is one who seems to have been “born in the wrong time,” (perhaps “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d”) or who is generally at odds with society’s norms and values.
But this, by itself, is not enough to make one a hero. These prerequisites make someone eligible to be a hero, but are not themselves sufficient.
The hero must make some kind of journey.
Joseph Campbell’s famous “hero’s journey” is a useful tool for understanding literature and film, but is also helpful in understanding what a hero is. To start with, let’s look at a few depictions of this theory:
Closer inspection reveals that almost none of these diagrams are exactly the same. Some place the same event in different places, others add and omit entire steps. In fact, it seems that the only thing they have in common is their circular shape. The hero returns to where he started.
This fact conveys a deeper meaning to the etymological relation to “time” and “timeliness.” The hero is not timely (as Nagy argued, the hero is actually untimely), but completes a cycle nonetheless, a cycle which is somehow related to timeliness. His “seasonality” is one of completion, not alignment.
But completion of what, exactly? If you get through a work-day and make it home, does that make one a hero?
The hero’s task corresponds with his “untimeliness,” which I am putting in quotes because the term implies that the hero is somehow out-of-step with time itself, when in reality, it is his circumstances and setting which have somehow fallen out-of-step. The hero lives in a time and place where things are not right, when some force — be it a monster or a foreign army or some element of nature — threaten the balance and stability of the world. This imbalance is a force of nemesis: heavenly vengeance for sin, for straying from the proper balance of things. It is not the hero who is actually unseasonal, though they appear to be such to their society, because the entire society is — in one manner or another — unseasonal.
The heroic journey, then, is one which brings the society back to seasonality. Ideally, this includes fending off the force of nemesis which threatens that society. And in doing so, the hero himself becomes seasonal in the eyes of his own society.
But the journey is not complete without one crucial step: death.
To complete the cycle and to truly become seasonal — to become heroic — one must pass through the final season of life: death. A living person cannot be a hero in the original sense of the term. In fact, the heroic task — of bringing their world back to the proper balance and seasonality — may be impossible without their death, because the manner of death is often what makes the hero’s efforts successful.
To understand this, one must understand the way in which the hero accomplishes both of his tasks: (1) to fend off some force of nemesis, and (2) to re-align his society. The heroic warrior is one who successfully fights off the danger, but how does he right his society?
The short answer is that he, alone, doesn’t.
The hero embodies the qualities which his society lacks, even while fighting the force which would destroy his society for lacking those qualities (this is how the hero is antagonistic towards the God who he is most like, to which Professor Nagy alluded). Ideally, the hero dies in this encounter, like Beowulf fighting the dragon, or Pheidippides completing his run to Athens from Marathon. In dying (1) before his time and (2) fighting off nemesis (i.e., the Gods themselves), the hero becomes an inspiring and erotic figure which re-molds the values and aspirations of his society, who now seeks to emulate the hero.
It is the poet then who, using the hero, completes the second task of righting society’s imbalance, thus making the “hero” seasonal again… or, rather, making society seasonal in a manner aligned with and worthy of its own heroes. It is also the poet who not only takes the hero from “untimely” to “timely,” but can make them truly “timeless.”
In short, the hero is the man who takes arms against the forces of retribution which threaten to punish his society. His strength comes from an out-of-sync likeness to the very force which threatens his society, and an unlikeness to that society. His premature death is wondrous and inspires emulation in others, which brings his society back to the proper balance of seasonality.
The hero is like the sun. He shines like a brilliant light with tremendous power, but it is a power that makes the plants grow. He brings the vitality and fertility of the seasons themselves (Hera) to the land. And like the sun, the hero is beautiful, not merely as a specimen of life, symmetry and balance, but more importantly as the bringer of life, symmetry and balance. Literally and metaphorically, the hero is the one who makes the grass grow.
But unlike the sun, the hero’s light does cannot be seen without some medium — a poet — to shine his untimely brilliance upon a dark and barren world. This, and the fact that the hero must usually be dead to be a hero, is often why the stories of heroes are stories of bygone ages. When Homer sang of the Trojan War, he was speaking of battles fought generations past:
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
Many strong souls untimely sent to HellHomer, Iliad
Who were heroes…
The “heroic” generation — the “Golden Age” — is always in the past. But that is not because the past was better than the present. It may well have been worse. The “Golden Age” (a concept which comes from Hesiod’s Works and Days) is not some distant past, but is the past in every age… which is to say, the Golden Age is every age. The generation of heroes is every generation.
We just won’t hear about today’s heroes until the time is right: when the season of our present age passes into the next. And perhaps that, above all, is what makes the hero untimely.