In 1898, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer developed a morphine substitute which they called ‘Heroin’. The name was inspired by the Greek word heros meaning hero. Instead of bravery and heroism, this Circean potion led many to doom and ruin. The ironic hero was born.
I remember my first contact with heroes and heroism. It was in a book, Alexandru Mitru’s ‘The Legends of Olympus’, one of the most popular teenage books in pre- and post-communist Romania. Published in 1960 in two volumes, it offered captivating digests of the major Greek myths and epic stories. The first volume entitled ‘The Gods’ was given to Greek divine mythology, while the second, ‘The Heroes’, was devoted to the epic heroes from Homer to Virgil. The Legends stimulated the imagination of generations of Romanians and made the large body of classical stories available to the general public. I grew up with the book in the way current teenagers grow up with Harry Potter – devouring and often returning to it to devour it again.
There are many awkward single concepts or ideas to which the Greco-Roman world could be reduced (and it has), but perhaps one of the least awkward is heroism. The figure of the hero permeates classical literature and informs many classical ideals. This is not to say that the human profile we today often associate with the hero and heroism was that which emerged in antiquity. The ancient Mediterranean world evolved a wide range of heroes, both triumphalist and tragic, heroes standing above the ruins they caused as well as supine and overcome by known and unknown forces.
The modern superhero is a decadent version of the classical heros devoid of existential depth and suspiciously loved by all the gods. This rarely happened in ancient myth – the hero carried a tragic flaw, more impairing than kryptonite, and a lesson for all.
On the other hand, ancient heroism didn’t have any patience for strength in weakness, for the kind of subversion of the centre by the anxiety in the margin. Heroism celebrated bravery, strength, wisdom, patience (to allow the other virtues to come to fruition) and the possibility of victory. That heroes failed was accepted – as an existential requirement –, but was not encouraged.
The myth of heroism proved to be one of the most resilient features of the ancient world. Culturally, the greatest challenge to it came from late-antique Christianity with its emphasis on weakness, humility, self-effacement and indifference to secular victory. If ancient Christians resisted to cast Jesus as an epic hero (contrary to the claims of theologian Dennis MacDonald, who saw Homer everywhere in the Gospels), the development of the cult of the saints has arguably been seen as a post-classical form of classical heroism. Saints’ lives were told as short stories of classically-inspired heroism. Many saints were almost (but not quite) cast as superheroes revealing their secret power to an astonished world. The most epic and heroic retelling of Jesus’ life is, interestingly, not of classical pedigree, but Germanic, which had its own recipe for heroism. The 9th-century Old Saxon poem ‘Heliand’ is the superhero movie of the ‘Dark Ages’, illuminated by a Viking-looking Jesus ruling over his thanes.
The heroes are back because they’ve never left. Every crisis has its heroes, every movement its champions. Some are embodiments of strength, others of meekness and quiet action, but capable of undermining the evil order of the world. Or they die trying.