Defining The Hero

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Joseph Campbell

Lindos,  Rhodes

Hercules, Perseus, Theseus – these were the myths for which I searched the libraries as a 10-year-old.  Magnificent heroes, blessed with superhuman strength and unfaltering courage, forged their destinies through journeys fraught with danger and treachery.  As time passed, I chose new stories to take their place.  Ones that were more in line with what I considered credible and more suitable for my reality.  While I still enjoyed the hero myths, I lost that singular childhood enthusiasm.  When I grew older, I became less sure of their relevance in my life. Indeed, the word “mythology” has the implication that what has been written is so fantastic that it simply cannot be true. That being the case, what significance can be given to these narratives?  The real question is, do we still need heroes?

The heroic story is not only limited to Greek mythology; rather there are common elements through all mythologies that speak to the need for a hero, a model, someone who can be emulated, someone who makes us proud to be human.  Their journeys are more about overcoming an internal conflict than achieving an external victory.  The quest pattern begins with a journey over land or sea into the unknown.  The hero confronts danger to bring back a person, object or knowledge. Gilgamesh  overcame despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life. Jason led the Argonauts on an expedition in search of the Golden Fleece to secure his kingship. Hercules performed twelve labours and achieved immortality.

Our modern world still holds these same qualities is high regard.  We pursue a “Golden Fleece”, the symbol of authority, to establish our position within society.   We identify with Gilgamesh  in our search for the meaning of life.  We live in a finite existence, yet we recognize the possibility of the infinite, of immortality.

We need hero myths to remind us we are on a personal quest that celebrates the life that has been granted.  Joseph Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”  

We travel the path of heroes.




55 thoughts on “Defining The Hero

  1. Thank you for that wonderful comment of Joseph Campbell – so affirming and so encouraging…
    wonderful post Rebecca…
    We struggle on, wondering if what we’re doing really has any value, and wow – a thought like that makes sense of it all and gives us hope, and the stamina to keep on keeping on !!! …

    • I so very much agree with you, Valerie. I think the “struggle” is the human experience, beginning with the need to understand our place within our existence. We are part of a timeline where we will never know the beginning or end, only a life span, some shorter and others longer. I think that mythology links us to others past, present and future. For me, that is hope. You probably have heard this before, but in my readings I came across this thought by Carl Jung:

      “We can keep from a child all knowledge of earlier myths, but we cannot take from him the need for mythology.”

      Thank you for your visit -you made my day. :)

    • I feel the same way. Time is like distance. We may be on the opposite sides of the world, but we are travelling the same pathway. When I look into the faces of my grand parents and great-grandparents though the distance of photography, I feel that same connection. Every family has stories, legends, even myths. It gives that special sense of belonging.

  2. Modern hero worship annoys me. Why do people need to follow someone perceived to be greater? Your post has given me new facets to think about. I think we need to regain the motivation to be our own personal heros. I don’t mean narcissism or the glorification of the self, but taking control of the discovery of our unique life path. Thought-provoking post, as usual, Rebecca. Thank you.

    • Oh, LaVagabonde, well said. You have brought up something that I have given a great deal of thought over the past couple of weeks. How do we choose our heroes? Does someone decide or is it a collective decision? Is it an idea? An event? Must the motivation be for the betterment of society or can it be for personal gain. Is a “hero” still a hero if he or she fails in their quest?

      Your question on why we give more value to another person’s life over our own – ah, that is the most important question of all. Now you have me thinking!!! :)

      • And I think that is what is is all about. The willingness to risk everything, without any assurance of success. The quest must evoke powerful emotions to generate that type of commitment.

  3. Hi, dear Rebecca,
    gratulations! I like your new design. A couple of month ago a started to change my webside and choose this theme as well.
    Indeed, if we are not too neurotic we are all heroes. Actually I love the feeling of being a hero ;-)
    With lots and lots of love from the other side of our world
    the Fab Four of Cley

    • Thank you, Klausbernd – I didn’t know whether the new design would work or not. I continue to learn about WordPress and still haven’t figured it all out. And that is a good thing.

      I quite agree – I like being a hero, too! The other day, I was considering the “importance of being important.” It really is all about belonging, isn’t it? The more I progress along my personal timeline, the more I realize that my “importance” is based on the love and companionship of family and friends. And that is all that matters, in the end. :) :)

      Many hugs coming across the way to my dear Fab Four of Cley.

      • Dear Rebecca,
        you realy made me think with your answer. Thank you! You are right feeling like a hero or feeling impotant is a question of relationship to other people. It this “belonging to” …
        With many HUGS and lots of love
        the Fab Four of Cley
        I was just amazed seeing that Vancouver is situated about 49 degrees N and Cley’s coordinates are nearly 53 degrees N. I wasn’t aware that we live further north than you do. I always thought you live further north than we do.
        So I send big HUGS down south ;-)

      • I am receiving those hugs! After living in northern Manitoba and then in northern Alberta, we found our way to Vancouver, which has, as you know, a much warmer climate. But every once in a while, I have that feeling of nostalgia for the northern wilderness, with its minus 45 below temperatures. Nevertheless, I do not regret having turned in my mukluks for an umbrella. :)

        Hugs and lots of love coming back to the Fab Four of Cley

      • Dear Rebecca,
        I can well understand your longing for the northern climate. I was partly risen in the very north of Sweden with similar temperatures and for a long time I dreamt of ice, snow, and low temperatures when I lived much further south.
        Big HUGs and have a great weekend
        the Fab Four of Cley
        In Cley we have a big village fete right now and I am off. We play Merry Old England …

      • Dear Rebecca,
        this village fete was GREAT, like in a Victorian novel: Lots of folks, sunshine, rural sports like wellington throwing, games like treasure hunt and cath the rat and throwing wet sponges to people who looked through a whole in the wall. I ate lots of yummy icecream, bought too many antiquarian books and scrutinised modern art.
        You see your wishes work :-)
        Lots of love xxx

      • Good Morning, dear Rebecca,
        in Crabpot Bookshop we always find some treasures for our library. It’s amazing that in such a small village – under 500 inhabitants – we have such an exclusive antiquarian bookshop.
        Our Cley Windmill is very famous, on every tea mug, tea towel and T-shirts. It belonged to the singer James Blunt who became famous and for month number one in the American charts with “Back To Bedlam”.
        Thank you very much for this link :-)
        We all wish you a happy week and sending you fairy dust and hugs
        the Fab Four of Cley

  4. A great post and an intelligent interpretation of a vast study. Much has been written about this subject–just finished the one you gave me. Thank you.

  5. The hero figure really incites some thinking. Mostly fantasy. I truly wonder if a bigger-than-life hero even exists. I think not. In the hearts of goodness, the best of the human condition, there lives heroic actions but they are singular and interspersed with other common human traits. Who would I consider a hero? Viktor Frankl but perhaps not for the reasons one might think but rather the way in which he did think. And in changing his thinking, his attitude about life, after living the unthinkable, he changes the lives and minds of millions. The simplest act of heroic kindness in the stranger who dives into a lake to save a dog, who goes to a burning car to pull the unconscious driver out, the pilot that navigates a plane to save lives, etc. collectively–for me–take the place of the bigger-than-life hero and sustain me in believing in the goodness that lives in the hearts of humankind. Thank you for letting us talk freely here.

    • Well said. Just the mention of Viktor Frankl brought tears to my eyes. I agree wholeheartedly “In the hearts of goodness, the best of the human condition, there lives heroic actions but they are singular…..” As I reread the myths, what comes to mind is the struggle to respond with compassion rather than anger. We are defined by our decisions and by our reactions. I especially like this thought by Viktor Frankl on “right action and in right conduct.”

      “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

    • Thanks Cindy. I’ve really enjoyed going back to mythology. And have become reacquainted with some interesting people like Carl Jung. I read this book years ago and now will be going back to it again.

      “Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.” C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

  6. A few months ago I heard a brief interview with the actress Kathleen Turner, and she had a couple of amusing quotes I wrote down:
    “Courage becomes necessary due to a lack of planning”
    “Heroes are the result of f***ups”
    For me, simple awareness of the greater world beyond ones own narrow little space is the key to avoiding accidents and disasters. Granted there are circumstances beyond an individuals control, the trick is to pay attention to what is happening around us and have a willingness to let go of the notion that what I am doing is more important than the larger perspective. We live in a society that is increasingly self oriented with less and less consideration for others and society as a whole. A slippery slope, and dangerous. Expect more heroes… the ones who are paying attention to something greater than themselves, and willing to take actions countering the self absorbed ignore-ance of those around them.
    I’ve been a “hero” more than a few times, and every time it was the result of the inattention, neglect or ‘la-de-da’ of others.
    It’s nothing I seek, relish or look forward to.

    • Thank you for adding depth and breadth to this dialogue. I agree!! The “hero” title may be appealing, but the task/quest/journey, is rarely embraced with enthusiasm. And when you are in the midst of the action, you ask yourself “how did I come to this?” The hero has to face difficult circumstances – it is not an easy assignment. As I was reading you comments, I thought of Frodo’s and Gandalf’s dialogue in J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR.

      “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
      “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

      ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

  7. Most interesting your latest chosen subject, filling us with the aspirations of youth and our early literature choices of adventure and heroism, especially in our present world of anti-heros, with ever more of the kind being exposed on a near daily basis here in Canada as well as the rest of our turmoiled world. What a pleasant change and a breath of fresh air so to speak, once more delving in those stories.

    I especially appreciate your Joseph Campbell’s words “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” Truly powerful words!.


    • Thank you, Jean-Jacques. A few years ago, I picked up a book of poetry, after many years of filling my mind with the routine of daily life. It was like awakening to a time long forgotten, when I took this phrase as my motto through university days.

      “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
      Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
      Forever and forever when I move.
      How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
      To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
      As though to breathe were life!”

      Alfred Tennyson

      As you know, poetry and mythology have a strong bond, so it did not come as a surprise to me that I picked up a book on mythology. I feel like I’m on an exciting adventure. Don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way….

      • The pleasure and the excitement that emphasizes the ‘raison d’être of being on the way, and not to make an end, thus to avoid that dull pause, (thank you brilliant and memorable poet Tennyson) would suggest depriving one of discovering what and who we are, which to achieve demands adventure. With a modicum of hindsight, being dead would have been the alternative. Bravo Rebecca, you are an honourable of a choice club!

      • Thank you, Jean-Jacques. My poem for today was “Another Place – a state of mind.”

        “In time I’ll reach
        Another place,
        But for the while
        I reason find
        a musing space,

  8. Truly valuable comments, my thoughts were enlarged by so many good thoughts. I live with people of advanced age, many of whom live daily with much pain without complaint. In my view, they are heroes of a special kind.

    • I agree – aging is not for the fainthearted, especially when health is fragile or compromised. This was my quote that embraced on my last birthday!

      “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” William Shakespeare

    • I am delighted that you stopped by – thank you for your encouraging comments. The templates are quite extraordinary and creative. I am enjoying going back to the myths and seeing how they are still relevant to our “modern” experience. :)

    • There are many things that I don’t understand about WordPress, but one thing I do know is that your presence and comments are always a joy! Thank you.

  9. I wonder if we like to believe in heroic figures because we don’t see ourselves as capable as we actually are. And maybe the enjoyment through fantasy of superheroes as a teenager or adult is a bit like when we were very little and we looked up to those very capable adults around us achieving things in life we felt we couldn’t. A source of subconscious comfort, that someone out there is capable of great things? It’s one of those subjects that can be easily overlooked, as to why we are attracted so much to it that kind of belief. Very interesting and thought provoking!

    I’ve not really seen myself as a hero worshipper in any form, but it has been there in my life, probably subtle and less obvious hero characters. But one that stands out, and has travelled with me for most of my life, is Dr Who. I’m not sure how the Doctor compares to those great mythical characters Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, but he’s certainly my fantasy hero – a kind of time travelling Einstein. If the Doctor had been real, I would have loved him to take me on fast forward time trip, so I could have missed out my last 4 years of school. I loathed school, and all the problems I had at that time, I would have been ecstatic if that had be possible!! :D Not sure my parents would have been so thrilled though! ;)

    • What a wonderful discussion on “defining the hero.” What I’ve read is that heroes make us proud of our humanity. That we are traveling the same world as those who have been blessed with some form of greatness. I agree – it is a source of sub conscious comfort that allows us to believe that our life, and indeed of those around us, has meaning. Greatness comes from acceptance of living itself. And speaking of Dr. Who!!!

      “Some people live more in 20 years than others do in 80. It’s not the time that matters, it’s the person.”
      — The Doctor, Season 3, Episode 6

      Sorry for the late response – I have been away from blogging for a couple of weeks on work and family projects. Thank you for your thoughts – they add so much to the conversation! :)

  10. Wonderful reflections on the importance of the heroes of mythology. While the details of their journeys may seem ‘other worldly,’ they are notable for the way they strive to be their best and to tell us messages about life. I learn so much from reading the stories! (PS I’m glad I found this other blog of yours, R!).

    • I agree wholeheartedly – these stories do tell us messages about life. As you know, I just returned from the Scottish Highlands (hence, my late response). When I was in Orkney Islands, I was reminded of the importance of the storyteller. It is how we connect over time and space.

      “In Scotland, when people congregate, they tend to argue and discuss and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories.”
      George Mackay Brown, poet and novelist and native of Orkney.

      BTW, I took over 500 photos when I was in the Orkney Islands. When I returned home, I found that I lost the camera memory chip. Alas, no photos. Perhaps it was the universe telling me to return…. :)

  11. Wonderful quote by Campbell and great summary of the Hero’s Journey and their stages.
    And the photos are mesmerizing. Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you, Aquileana :D

    • Thank you for your comments. I have really enjoyed your posts on mythology – great detail that added depth and breadth to my understanding. In our busy lives, we forget the influence of mythology in our lives. I am enjoying revisiting the stories and seeing them through fresh eyes. I look forward to our ongoing dialogue on this topic.

  12. I think is bad to over idolize someone, we are human and we are not perfect. Maybe that what makes a hero, someone that is happy with their imperfections or maybe someone that is completely free from restrictions and society. A Hero can mean so many things it can be a family member, a coworker, an inventor, a professor, it all depend who you ask. Now yo got me thinking :). thanks for that

    • How very well said, Doris! There are so many definitions for the word hero, but I believe that heroes are ordinary people who embrace the joy of who they are. Yesterday, I was able to pick up the audio book by Joseph Campbell – “The Hero’s Journey” which I’m looking forward to reading. He said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Thank you for your comments and visit!!! :)

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