A soldier, endowed with supernatural strength, fights epically in defence of the principles at the base of his national culture, becoming a symbol of hope against the barbaric evil-doers threatening established society. Am I referring to the adventures of Captain America, or to Hercules’ feats? A man of high social status, who’s also particularly popular among women, uses his incredibly sharp mind to get out of tricky situations and fight the “bad guys”. Is this the multifaceted Odysseus, or the ingenious Tony Stark? It can be surprisingly difficult to tell, once the descriptions become a little vague in context. These comparisons, while ironic, point to an interesting constant of our society: the need for heroes. As our culture developed its principles and features over the centuries, it has also always developed heroic embodiments of these principles for people to look up to, take example from, being inspired and even entertained by. As recently as this year, we have been hearing the word “heroes” a lot in the media, especially used as a way to inspire solidarity and hope, meaning that this need is still strongly present in our society, if articulated differently to serve the needs of modernity. To me, this suggests that heroism might be more important for our modern culture than we think, and that we owe that to the fundamental cultural role it has had in the past.
The heroes of epic poems and classical myth, such as Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas, are not only the archetype from which most heroic tropes come from, but they are also one of the first examples of the influence of heroic models on the moral and cultural development of a society. In fact, the mythology surrounding heroic figures often serves to promote the ideological principles that underlie its culture of origin. That is to say, the same way looking at the world of the X-Men can give insight into the modern attitude towards otherness, studying the heroes of the Iliad can help to understand the rules and norms of military practice in archaic Greek society. Achilles is the symbol of the good warrior and king, and as such is looked at as a model for honourable behaviour, to which real people and kings are held up to. Similarly, Aeneas and Superman’s journeys from “exiled princes” to defenders of the cultural values of their adoptive society or world, can be read as reflections on themes of migration and assimilation. In their role as cultural defenders, then, these heroes also become physical embodiments of the ideals their society aims to uphold: the Roman empire proudly traced their lineage (and their long-standing rivalry with Carthage) from the Trojan prince, just like the USA relied on the Man of Steel as a symbol of freedom and international power.
When taking a closer look at some of the rhetoric associated with heroes in today’s world, this recurrent function of promotion of social values emerges even more clearly. After all, we are constantly being pushed to recognise certain categories of regular people as “heroes”, usually as a result of the commitment to protecting the public that their profession supposedly entails. We are used to soldiers, firefighters and doctors being portrayed as heroic because their jobs have the aim of protecting and saving lives, even if this mythicizing rarely reflects the reality of the contribution they give to public security and the recognition they receive from institutions. That is to say, institutions of power and media nowadays prefer to emphasise the concept of heroism, rather than supporting it in practice, as this is obviously the most convenient approach for them. In my opinion, though, the most important reason for the long-lasting appeal of heroes is not the example they provide in terms of societal morals and values, but the way they can give hope. Having an example, a representation of heroism, be it in a comic book, a news article, or an epic poem, can be very effective in encouraging us to stand up for what we believe in. I personally don’t think this is just because we like to act by example. I like to think that it’s because heroes help us see past our fears, into the things that are worth fighting for. And to each person, hero or not, these can be different: honour to Achilles, his people to Aeneas; respect and human rights for an activist, a better life for a modern migrant. At the end of the day, you don’t have to be Superman to stand up for what you believe in, but it is remarkable how having someone like him to look up to can make you want to be better too. To me, that in itself is an act of heroism: trying every day to be better. And maybe that’s why we need heroes, in every time and place.
[Isabel Ferrari – she/her]