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The Presence and Power of the Hero Theme in Cultural Myth
Today’s popular culture is bombarded with stories of heroic figures, perhaps now more so than ever before with the recent rise in popularity of comic book heroes. However, themes of the hero figure have been present in ancient myths since the beginning of oral traditions. The theme of this glorified hero character transcends cultural boundaries and flourishes among various people groups dating back thousands of years depicting protagonists with exceptional abilities. While there are common threads that are woven into the different hero myths, each culture develops a unique variant according to their specific social environment to serve their communities. The phenomenon of the hero myth can be seen as a reflection of the collective values of the culture that created them, and seems to serve as a moral guide and source of inspiration, among other things, to create well socialized citizens.
The outline of the monomyth, introduced by Joseph Campbell, explores the stages of the hero’s journey throughout the narrative divided into three acts: departure, initiation, and return. Within these myths the hero is called to a monumental task (departure) with a series of trials that ultimately transforms the hero’s character (initiation), resolving in the return of the newly transformed hero who now possesses wisdom from the journey (Campbell). It should be mentioned that Campbell’s template is broad and specific myths will at times deviate from the formula as each culture will emphasize different values within the narrative. Odysseus’ journey seems to loosely follow this storytelling formula as Homer’s Odyssey takes place during his epic journey home after the events of the Trojan War in Iliad which lasted 10 years, while also promoting the virtue of nationalism among its audience. The myth follows the the exploits of Odysseus on his long journey home among across the sea where he encounters many trials and confrontations from goddesses and demigods where he must rely on his military tactics to overcome his obstacles. Upon his return home, being presumed dead after being absent for 20 years, his military training is utilized again to kill all of his wife’s suitors and take back his family and home, creating a sort of “welcome home” celebration for Odysseus as finally is able to embrace his wife once again (23.212-356). Claudia Johnson and Vernon Johnson explain that, “the hero in ancient Greece was the successful military leader, for to lose in battle meant not only the death of men but also the death of cities, cultures, even civilization” (185). The Greeks highly valued military conquest and considered it honorable as they operated within an honor and shame culture.
The epic of Gilgamesh functions quite differently than that of the Odyssey. Unlike other myths, Gilgamesh was a historical figure around which much of the mythical exploits were built around. Though the Gilgamesh myth incorporates elements of creation themes as well as the great flood, Gilgamesh himself endures a good deal of heroic trials as he seeks Utnapishtim to find the answer to eternal life. His journey begins after the death of his close friend Enkidu as his mourning spurs his obsession to find and attain eternal life. After a long arduous journey Gilgamesh manages to attain a plant that restores youth, he is largely unsuccessful upon his return home as a snake ends up snatching the plant from him, leaving him in despair (XI.295-314). He is later confronted with the greatness of the city he had left and, coming to terms with his mortality, realizes that this enduring civilization is the closest to eternity he will come to (XI.315-329). Within the Mesopotamian culture, the Gilgamesh myth sets a more humanistic tone by focusing on the human characters with the universal themes of the human experience. Indeed, Andrew George confirms in his analysis that, “the main function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is” (xxxiii). From the western European culture, the Old English poem, Beowulf, depicts the heroic feats of the warrior, Beowulf. The Beowulf story is set in Scandinavia where the hero, Beowulf from Geats, comes to defend the mead hall of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, from the demon known as Grendel. Beowulf succeeds in killing Grendel in a fierce battle, calling for a celebration hosted by Hrothgar that is soon cut short by an attack from Grendel’s mother who is set on having revenge for her son. Beowulf is slays Grendel’s mother and later become the king of the Geats, ruling for fifty years ending in his final battle against a dragon, whom he defeats at the cost of his own life (2821-2830). The Beowulf myth contains a strong influence of a code of conduct of sorts and portrays the characteristics of strength, honor, and courage that a noble person should possess. Dr. J. Michael Stitt explains that, “in Germanic societies, such as the one in which Beowulf takes place, there were heroic codes which defined how a noble person should act” (Stitt, Beowulf and the Heroic Code). These, in addition to generosity, loyalty and hospitality, were held as a code of conduct with utmost importance within these warrior societies. These attributes are certainly personified in Beowulf as he willingly puts himself in the line of danger to protect and defend Hrothgar and the Danes from Grendel and his mother, while Hrothgar displays generosity and hospitality particularly in his celebration for Beowulf after his defeat of Grendel.
From another region of the world, hero themes within ancient Polynesian myths also flourished. The legends of Maui were very popular among the islands with many variants gaining popularity within their respective communities. The most popular story of Maui was his attempt to attain immortality on behalf of mankind. Maui’s selfless valiant fight against death is recorded among the legends of New Zealand. W.D. Westervelt notes that, “Maui did not lay aside his purpose, but according to the New Zealand story, ‘did not wish men to die but to live forever. Death appeared degrading and an insult to the dignity of man. Man ought to die like the moon, which dips in the life-giving waters of Kane and is renewed again, or like the sun, which daily sinks into the pit of night and with renewed strength rises in the morning’” (87). According to the myth, aided by his companions in the form of birds (in some versions, his brothers), Maui sets out to find Hine, the guardian of life, to extract the source of life from within her body. He instructs his companions not to laugh while he is inside of her or she will awaken and kill him. Unfortunately while he makes his way inside Hine, one of Maui’s companions cannot suppress his laughter and burst out in a loud shrill tone that wakes Hine as she closes her sharp teeth on Maui’s body, cutting him in half and killing him. Though there are minor variations from various communities, Maui ultimately gives his life in an effort to deliver mankind from death and bestow upon them the gift of immortality. It is clear that selfless acts such as these conveyed in Maui’s life are highly revered by those of the Polynesian cultures.
Another well-known hero myth can be seen in the Hebrew culture, particularly in the story of David and Goliath. This popular story tells the great conquest of the little shepherd boy, David, over the giant Philistine, Goliath, who threatened the Hebrews in battle. Goliath taunts the Hebrews with no one attempting to battle him until David accepts the challenge and, against all odds, is able to take down Goliath with his sling and a stone and continues to behead the giant in the name of the Israel. The text sums up the conclusion of the standoff thus: “so David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him” (English Standard Version, 1 Sam. 17:50). From the perspective of the Hebrew people, the story of David, who is an actual historical figure, represents the power of their mighty God, Yahweh, who is sovereign and powerful over all nations and can control the outcome of any event in order carry out his plans. While some can interpret this story with David as the hero, a more fitting interpretation within the Hebrew community is that the actual hero of the story is Yahweh who had anointed David to be his servant and future king for the Israelites prior to these events. This interpretation is made clear through David’s speech to the Philistines that the purpose of his victory is declare that, “all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam. 17:46). It is apparent within the Hebrew community that Yahweh is the supreme powerful hero as he is their creator and protector, deserving of their worship. Walter Brueggemann explains, “the purpose of David’s victory is not simply to save Israel or to defeat the Philistines. The purpose is the glorification of Yahweh in the eyes of the world…. In a quite general sense this is a ‘missionary speech,’ summoning Israel and the nations to fresh faith in Yahweh” (132). The David and Goliath story reflects the value of their worship of their God, Yahweh, and the implications of the reality of his presence to all the nations. In this way the Israelites are empowered by the presence and aid of Yahweh.
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