In history individuals have played a vital role for change and on account of their contribution become heroes. However, the nature and characteristics of heroes have differed from age to age.
Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey portrays the image of heroes with reference to the Trojan War.
In the Iliad he describes the role of Achilles, the warrior and on whose bravery the outcome of the war depended. He becomes frustrated and angry when the commander of the Greek army takes away an enslaved girl from him. Achilles refuses to fight in the war against the Trojans. He changes his mind only when his close friend is killed by Hector, the Trojan prince and commander of the Trojan army. Achilles challenges and combats Hector and avenges his slain cousin by killing him. According to Homer, Achilles’ heroic act results from vengefulness and is for his own person and not for his people.
The response of Hector to the pleadings of his wife is that he is a soldier and it is a question of his honour that he should fight and even sacrifice his person. Therefore both Achilles and Hector become heroes to preserve their self-respect and honour.
In the Odyssey Homer narrates the journey back home of Odysseus from Troy. He faces many ordeals and trials but also shows selfishness and hubris in his character. All three of these heroes of Homer are interested only in themselves. Hence, the concept of heroes during the time of ancient Greece can be seen as limited.
In Roman history the idea of the hero undergoes change.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas leaves Troy after its destruction. He carries his father on his shoulders and holds his son’s hand, symbolising past, present and future. After going through several ordeals and wandering from place to place, he finally reaches the site where he builds a city (Rome) for his people. Virgil holds him to be the real founder of the City of Rome which will become a great power.
The Roman heroes represent the family, tribe and nation and by these they are motivated to do great deeds. The Romans are famous for their conquests and their invincibility against enemies. The grandeur of the Roman Empire depends on its heroes who make sacrifices for the Empire.
The third image of the hero emerges in ancient India when – during the war between Kauravas and Pandavas – Arjunathe Pandava warrior refuses to fight the Kauravas because they count his relatives and teacher in their ranks. On his refusal, Lord Krishna, argues that he should fight because as a Kashatriya (one from the warrior caste), it is his duty to fight. Surrendering to this argument, he decides to fight and defeats his opponents.
Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, is concerned with his caste and fights to fulfill its rules.
With the passage of history the concept of hero changes further. In the ancient period the idea the nation and country is not fully developed. Therefore, the heroes are deriving their identity from their own selves and their family or tribe. The vision of the hero then expands with the emergence of new ideas and theories. Sometimes he emerges as a paragon of loyalty and faithfulness to his master or ruler, sometimes he sacrifices his life for the sake of religion and sometimes for a national cause. In all these instances societies have paid respect to heroes and celebrated their virtues of bravery and honour. They are models for the young generations that aspire to follow them.
However, in a democratic society, the status of the hero comes down because it is believed that an individual alone cannot cause change unless political, social and economic factors help him. Modern heroes are not as sacred as the ancient ones. Democratic values teach us that the people should not rely on heroes but depend on their own energy and capacity to change the course of history.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.