The Hero Inside Us All
What is a hero? Well, it depends on who you ask. More importantly, it depends on the culture of the person whom you ask.
For thousands of years humankind has been forming myths about these agents of change as foundational characters that embody the values and motivations of the societies that created them. Greek and Romans myths typically showcase their heroes as demigods or gods. Most indigenous myths in the America’s typically reveal heroes as animals like birds or snakes who were responsible for the development of humankind through the discovery, or in some cases, theft of fire from supernatural beings.
But what, if any one thing, do these heroes have in common? Researchers like Joseph Campbell claimed to discover this through his work as professor of literature, comparative mythology and religion in his book Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ theory and academic research focuses on finding similarities between ‘culture heroes’ to devise a universal narrative of transformation. However, modern folklore academics cite his work as source biased because he only chooses certain stories from which to analyze and formulate his hero’s journey. Campbell acknowledges in his work that while he is aware there are differences between cultures he was intent on consciously focusing on the similarities.
Accompanying many heroes in world mythology is the ‘trickster’ character. In certain cultures this figure helps the protagonist hero achieve a goal. In other occasions it serves as a a catalyst to either balance or subvert cosmic forces, social structures, or as in the case of Maui, to foil his plan to master death. This journey towards immortality has been a concurrent theme across most cultures, not just in their hero myths, but also in their myths of life, death, and the afterlife.
Today, mainstream narratives tend to simplify the hero figure based on the binary framework of the good guy archetype (imagine Superman or Iron Man) battling the bad guy antagonist (think Lex Luger or Thanos). There is great value in studying the heritage of world cultures through their myths, oral traditions, and storytelling as an opportunity to gain a more multi-dimensional understanding of these figures. As we study the depths and widths of these ‘culture heroes’ and their differences, the greater chance we can understand others, form more peaceful societies, and hopefully find the real hero in ourselves.