A different kind of hero

The ancient world had only one type of hero, the secular hero, although nobody in the ancient Mediterranean referred to their heroes as secular. Before the advent of Christianity, there had been no separation, in theory or in practice, between the secular and the religious. In Homer, gods and heroes fought side by side, and sometimes against each other. To be a hero in the ancient world was to be a bit of a god, a feature available to heroes by virtue of their pedigree or via election. In any case, the lines were blurry, as were most other ancient lines.

The European medieval hero, on the other hand, was a different breed. The collapse of the ancient world sounded the death knell of one kind of hero and the emergence of quite another. Actually two types. And the emergence was more like a mitotic division of a zygote into two types, the secular hero and the religious hero.

The secular hero inherited most of the DNA of the ancient hero. The warrior hero who fights for glory, riches or justice, although neither glory nor justice were concepts completely homologous to what the ancient world had made of them. But the ancestry was recognisable. An epic or a tragic figure, the medieval secular hero was powered by similar virtues that had animated an Achilles, an Aeneas or an Evander.

Against this type of anciently-derived hero, the medieval period launched its homebred, handmade type: the religious hero, the holy trooper, the saint. This figure was from another world and from another story altogether. Armed with spiritual gifts and fighting for a cause which the ancient mind would’ve been unable to comprehend, let alone endorse, the saint laid the framework for a different kind of heroism and a different kind of fight. A framework that is part of our own cultural DNA and the way the modern man and woman see heroism today, not as the ancients saw it, courage mixed with hybris or temperance washed with vainglory, but fortitude in meekness and self-sacrificial warfare in the service of the underdog. We’ve kept the heroism but forgotten the heroes.

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