AskDefine | Define heroism

Dictionary Definition

heroism n : the qualities of a hero or heroine; exceptional or heroic courage when facing danger (especially in battle); "he showed great heroism in battle"; "he received a medal for valor" [syn: gallantry, valor, valour, valorousness, valiance, valiancy]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. The qualities characteristic of a hero, as courage, bravery, fortitude, unselfishness, etc.; the display of such qualities.

Related terms


  • Croatian: heroizam, herojstvo
  • Czech: hrdinství
  • Danish: heltemod
  • French: héroïsme
  • Italian: eroismo
  • Kurdish:
  • Russian: героизм
  • Spanish: heroísmo

Extensive Definition

A hero (from Greek hērōs), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, the offspring of a mortal and a deity, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.
Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice, that is, heroism, for some greater good, originally of martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.
Stories of heroism may serve as moral examples. In classical antiquity, hero cults, veneration of deified heroes such as Heracles, Perseus, or Achilles, played an important role in Ancient Greek religion. Later emperors employed hero worship for their own apotheosis, that is, cult of personality.


The literal meaning of the word is "protector", "defender" or "guardian" and etymologically it is thought to be cognate with the name of the goddess Hera, the guardian of marriage; the postulated original forms of these words being *, hērwōs, and *, Hērwā, respectively. It is also thought to be a cognate of the Latin verb servo (original meaning: to preserve whole) and of the Avestan verb haurvaiti (to keep vigil over), although the original Proto-Indoeuropean root is unclear.

Classical hero cults

Hero cults could be of the utmost political importance. When Cleisthenes divided the Athenians into new demes for voting, he consulted Delphi about what heroes he should name each division after. According to Herodotus, the Spartans attributed their conquest of Arcadia to their theft of the bones of Orestes from the Arcadian town of Tegea.
Heroes in myth often had close but conflicted relationships with the gods. Thus Heracles's name means "the glory of Hera", even though he was tormented all his life by the queen of the gods. This was even more true in their cult appearances. Perhaps the most striking example is the Athenian king Erechtheus, whom Poseidon killed for choosing Athena over him as the city's patron god. When the Athenians worshiped Erechtheus on the Acropolis, they invoked him as Poseidon Erechtheus.
In the Hellenistic Greek East, dynastic leaders such as the Ptolemies or Seleucids were also proclaimed heroes. This was an influence on the later, Roman apotheosis of their emperors.


The classic hero often came with what Lord Raglan (a descendant of the FitzRoy Somerset, Lord Raglan) termed a "potted biography" made up of some two dozen common traditions that ignored the line between historical fact and mythology. For example, the circumstances of the hero's conception are unusual; an attempt is made by a powerful male at his birth to kill him; he is spirited away; reared by foster-parents in a far country. Routinely the hero meets a mysterious death, often at the top of a hill; his body is not buried; he leaves no successors; he has one or more holy sepulchres.
Most European indigenous religions feature heroes in some form.

The validity of the "hero" in historical studies

Philosopher Hegel gave a central role to the "hero", personalized by Napoleon, as the incarnation of a particular culture's Volksgeist, and thus of the general Zeitgeist. Thomas Carlyle's 1841 On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History also accorded a key function to heroes and great men in history. Carlyle centered history on the biography of a few central individuals such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or topplers of states. His history of great men, of geniuses good and evil, sought to organize change in the advent of greatness.
Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position were rare in the second part of the 20th century. Most philosophers of history contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one he used for his portraits. For example, Karl Marx argued that history was determined by the massive social forces at play in "class struggles", not by the individuals by whom these forces are played out. After Marx, Herbert Spencer wrote at the end of the 19th century: "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."
Thus, as Foucault pointed out in his analysis of the historical and political discourse, history was mainly the science of the sovereign, until its reversion by the "historical and political popular discourse".
The Annales School, led by Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel would contest the exaggeration of the role of individual subjects in history. Indeed, Braudel distinguished various time-scales, one accorded to the life of an individual, another accorded to the life of a few human generations, and the last one to civilizations, by which geography, economics and demography play a role considerably more decisive than that of individual subjects. Foucault's conception of an "archeology" or Althusser's work were attempts at linking together these various heterogeneous layers composing history.

Heroic myth

The concept of a story archetype of the standard "hero's quest" or monomyth pervasive across all cultures is somewhat controversial. Expounded mainly by Joseph Campbell, it illustrates several uniting themes of hero stories that despite vastly different peoples and beliefs hold similar ideas of what a hero represents.
Some argue that while there may be many stories that fit the monomyth, the belief in such a truly ubiquitous form may be due in part simply to neglecting those that do not and/or do.

Folk and fairy tales

Vladimir Propp, in his analysis of the Russian fairy tale, concluded that a fairy tale had only eight dramatis personae, of which one was the hero, and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian tales. The actions fell into a hero's sphere included
  1. departure on the quest
  2. reacting to the test of the donor
  3. marrying the princess
He distinguished between seekers and victim-heroes. A villain could initiate the issue by kidnapping the hero or driving him out; these were victim heroes. On the other hand, a villain could rob the hero, or kidnap someone close to him, or, without the villain's intervention, the hero could realize that he lacked something and set out to find it; these heroes are seekers. Victims may appear in tales with seeker heroes, but the tale does not follow them both.

Operatic hero

In opera and musical theatre, the hero/ heroine is often played by a tenor/soprano (more vulnerable characters are played by lyric voices while stronger characters are portrayed by spinto or dramatic voices.)

The modern fictional hero

"Hero" or "heroine" is sometimes used to simply describe the protagonist of a story, or the love interest, a usage which can conflict with the more-than-human expectations of heroism. William Makepeace Thackeray gave Vanity Fair the subtitle A Novel without a Hero. The larger-than-life hero is a more common feature of fantasy (particularly sword and sorcery and epic fantasy) than more realist works.
In modern movies, the hero is often simply an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end. In some movies (especially action movies), a hero may exhibit characteristics such as superhuman strength and endurance that sometimes makes him nearly invincible. Often a hero in these situations has a foil, the villain, typically a charismatic evildoer who represents, leads, or himself embodies the struggle the hero is up against. Post-modern fictional works have fomented the increased popularity of the anti-hero, who does not follow common conceptions of heroism.


It has been suggested in an article by Roma Chatterji that the hero or more generally protagonist is first and foremost a symbolic representation of the person who is experiencing the story while reading, listening or watching; thus the relevance of the hero to the individual relies a great deal on how much similarity there is between the two. The idea of "identifying" with the hero takes on a very real meaning, in that the hero/protagonist becomes our only key to becoming part of the story rather than remaining merely an observer. If the hero is one with which the observer can't identify very well, the story can seem inaccessible, distant or even insincere. Conversely, insomuch as the reader or viewer relates to and is therefore capable of becoming the hero, they can feel pangs of remorse at the hero's defeats, and relish in his or her triumphs.
The most compelling reason for the hero-as-self interpretation of stories and myths is the human inability to view the world from any perspective but a personal one. The almost universal notion of the hero or protagonist and its resulting hero identification allows us to experience stories in the only way we know how: as ourselves.
One potential drawback of the necessity of hero identification means that a hero is often more a combination of symbols than a representation of an actual person. In order to appeal to a wide range of individuals, the author often relegates the hero to a "type" of person which everyone already is or wishes themselves to be: a "good" person; a "brave" person; a "self-sacrificing" person. The most problematic result of this sort of design is the creation of a character so universal that we can all identify with somewhat, but none can identify with completely. In regard to the observer's personal interaction with the story, it can give the feeling of being "mostly involved," but never entirely.


Further reading

  • Craig, David, Back Home, Life Magazine-Special Issue, Volume 8, Number 6, 85-94.
heroism in Breton: Haroz
heroism in Bulgarian: Герой
heroism in Catalan: Heroi
heroism in Czech: Hrdina
heroism in Welsh: Arwr
heroism in Danish: Helt
heroism in German: Held
heroism in Modern Greek (1453-): Ήρωας
heroism in Spanish: Héroe
heroism in Esperanto: Heroo
heroism in French: Héros
heroism in Scottish Gaelic: Gaisgeach
heroism in Galician: Heroe
heroism in Indonesian: Pahlawan
heroism in Italian: Eroe
heroism in Hebrew: גיבור
heroism in Hungarian: Hős
heroism in Maltese: Eroj
heroism in Dutch: Held
heroism in Japanese: ヒーロー
heroism in Norwegian: Helt
heroism in Norwegian Nynorsk: Helt
heroism in Polish: Bohater
heroism in Portuguese: Herói
heroism in Russian: Герой
heroism in Simple English: Hero
heroism in Slovak: Hrdina
heroism in Finnish: Sankari
heroism in Swedish: Hjälte
heroism in Vietnamese: Anh hùng dân tộc
heroism in Chinese: 英雄

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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