As they did for so many things, the Greeks had a word for it-heros, the superior man, embodiment of composite ideals--first used in connection with the deified dead. The heros, or hero, had and has a reputation directly related to the social and political structure of his society. No one knows just when and why he comes. The gift of heaven, he is a force sent by destiny.
Different ages and cultures vary the heroic personality, but all heroes are true to their age. Whatever their situation, the motives they urge are elementary, the morality they advocate is obvious. History is not very effective without people, and people are ineffective without leaders. The search for heroes is inherent in human nature. Pre-literate societies allow men, heroes, and gods to stand on a footing of tolerable equality. In remote areas of the world men are still deified in their own lifetime. The idea of aloofness in super-human power comes late in history.
To the historian the hero is one who shapes the course of events; to the philosopher, one who alters the thinking of his times; to the folklorist, one who evokes legends and songs. Messiah, emancipator, founding father, preserver, creative genius: these are all related terms for one whose influence or personality captivates the people. The personification of predominating ideals, the hero emerges at a moment when men's emotions are deeply stirred, and appeals to both the imagination and the reason.
The flux of history is often compared to the course of a river. Like a stream, history moves in one direction for a time, then angles off in another. It gains momentum, washes away old banks, and makes unpredictable turns. This provides the hero with his golden moment. If he can convince others that he caused the turn, he will be a public idol.
Yet that public creates the hero only in the sense that a knight is made by the king when he gives the accolade. The reason for the accolade is independent of the king, and existed before the man became a knight. So a hero is created by public recognition of his worth; but the merit is independent of the recognition. Always susceptible to legend, a hero becomes superhistorical in myth.
His essential qualities are hard to identify and isolate. Each hero is emphatically himself. Many who temporarily qualify-political favorites, matinee idols, sports champions--disappear soon like a flash flood. While they last, however, they benefit from the maxim, "Winner take all." We quote and misquote them with equal ease. Erudite scholars find no indication that they said or did many things attributed to them. But they should have said and done them. That is enough.
In classical times heroes were god-men; in the Middle Ages they were God's men; in the Renaissance universal men; in the eighteenth century enlightened gentlemen; in the nineteenth century self-made men. In our own time we are seeing the common man become heroic.
All cultures invent, in some form or other, an Olympus like that of the imaginative Greeks. To this realm went certain human beings adjudged worthy of immortality. Such a one was Heracles, or, as the Romans called him, Hercules. Celebrated in sculpture by such artists as Myron, Scopas, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, and Lysippus, and worshipped in sacred shrines dotting the Hellenic world, this Heracles was actually a petty ruler in Tiryns, subject to the order of a superior king at Argos. To his known exploits the Greeks added mythical stories over the years. Finally he emerged as the embodiment of the Greek Happy Warrior, whose strength of will, social mission, friendship, and morality won universal praise. He became, as Socrates pointed out in the Gorgias, a figure that served the psychological needs of the Greeks.
When Athens rose to power she craved a hero of her own, more closely tied to her destiny than was Heracles; so Theseus was elevated. Previously he had ranked with, but not above, other heroes of pre-Trojan War days. In the Iliad he was a fighter and seducer, strong in battle "for rich-haired Helen's sake." Now the Athenians made him Ionian in spirit, fond of dancing and music. He became more circumspect in his love affairs. City officials deleted from Hesiod's works verses referring to Theseus' passion for Aegle. Pisistratus embarked on a deliberate campaign to glorify Theseus. In this he was followed by Cimon, who brought Theseus' bones to Athens from Scyros, buried them in the heart of the city, and formally established his cult. His popularity grew until it rivalled that of Heracles.
In time Theseus came to represent democratic Athens and its brilliant intellectual flowering. He figured prominently in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As the people matured, so did he, becoming more deliberate, lofty, and selfless. In contemplating him Athenians found courage and faith. Thucydides called him "a king of equal insight and power." On Hadrian's Arch was inscribed Athens, formerly the city of Theseus. The Athenians did not respect him because he was Theseus; he was Theseus because they respected him.
While Rome held sway many of the old gods declined, but new ones, and new religions, took hold. A pagan Olympus was supplanted by a Christian Heaven, where saints dwelt in glory ever. lasting. It is well to remember that in Christ's time, Messiahs could be found preaching on many street corners; but by the second century, with the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, the method of Christian veneration had crystallized, and gained acceptance in a sizable portion of Europe.
The many saints' legends, which can be seen working in the same terms as primitive mythology, provide a primary source for studying the process of hero making. Saints perform generally the same heroic offices as did classical gods. They render the services of intercession and prediction, and provide the focus for relic worship and canonization. The last of these processes became an effective instrument for socializing the saintly idea and perpetuating the group values of the Church. In short, heroes got haloes.
Since the flowering of the saint, there has been a succession of occidental paragons. For the most part the modern hero has lost his ritualistic setting. The nearest contemporary approach is the awarding of military medals or special honors. While such secularized heroism does not appeal to as many as did the saintly heroism of the Middle Ages, it does dignify human action. The heroic ideal is still being met. Contemporary America is not so sophisticated, nor is the history of the United States so short that we can defy it. Ours, too, is the land of the hero.