To be a hero “projects a kind of spurious solidity” that it actually refers to a single cognitive image to the point that every hero shares universal traits all across cultures. The word has come to mean differently in relation to its use. For instance, the word hero could refer to an individual who intervenes in some critical situation in an unusual manner and in an extraordinary fashion to save someone or something from risk and harm. In another instance, the word has become associated as a military virtue which renders heroism an award or a degree of honor. In these categories, a hero simply means a kind of ideal that is striven for or imitated by the people that surround him or her (Miller 1).
However, there is a kind of heroism that is most known not only in the world of literary art but also of world history that received a more scholarly attention. This category of heroes is the epic heroes. They are first known in Homer’s epic where the poet portrays them as individuals with extraordinary fleet just like that of Achilles and Diomedes. Furthermore, the hero cult invented by Homer consists of a powerful image of heroic ideal of a physically perfect young man dying for fame and achieving a good death in the process (Miller 4).
This image that originated from Homer has become the model for other epics like that of Virgil’s Aeneas. It is even said that this model has persisted and unchanged even after Christianization of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, even after the Byzantine world, this so called tradition has irregularly emerged among literary epics (Miller 9).
Given this tradition and model, there are a number of traits and conventions that are common from one hero to another. Miller has outlined these traits as follows. First, the hero is supposed to have a divine parentage. The best example for this would be the heroes that are born out of the blood of Zeus such as Achilles and Hercules. As a matter of fact, Aeneas himself shares this royal blood because he is a son of the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (Miller 71).
Second, the youth of the hero involves a separation from childhood and female-nurturing world. For instance, Aeneas did not grow up with his mother but only with Anchises. Beowulf’s mother was not even described nor mentioned as a significant figure in his growth. Sundjata’s mother died even before he could fulfill his fleet and mission. Furthermore, the passage from childhood to adulthood is “heroically” overleaped. This means that the physical prowess of the hero is achieved immediately and in an eccelerated pace when it is supposed to be in a gradual pace. When the hero has reached their physical maturity, there is no more development that is necessary (Miller 85).
Third, the hero is engendered in an extraordinary pregnancy which is close to a mythic or a folktale version. For instance, the birth of Sundjata is predetermined by the oracle that the King is going to marry a Buffalo woman that would be the rightful mother of the future King. Aeneas, on one hand, though his childhood is not indicated in the epic poem, is born from a womb of a goddess. After birth, he hero is also observed to have an abnormal growth and superhuman strengths (Miller 85).
Fourth, the hero experiences a different kind of fosterage where he is taken away from his real family (Miller 96). In this case, the hero will then live for quite sometime in the care of a substitute mother or father. In the case of Beowulf, he lived with King Hrothgar for some time to fulfill his fleets and missions. As a matter of fact, it is described that when he left Denmark, he was so close to Hrothgar that he treated him as his own father already. Sundjata, in his own part, did not grow up with a father figure because he and his mother chose to exile to avoid the harm that his step-mother would bring upon him. Aeneas grew up away from the nurture and care of his mother Aphrodite. It is also observed by Miller that the hero’s maternal relationship decreases as he is on his way to asserting his powers. It becomes obvious that the main inspiration of the hero is to replace his father and proclaim his own place and identity. In this sense, the hero’s paternal relationship solidifies in his quest for identity and fame (Miller 97).
Fifth, the hero for the most part accepts his death as an inescapable portion of his life. He knows all long that his death waits soon enough because he believes that the war-god Ares will kill those who kill. However, not all deaths for the epic hero are acceptable. For him, the best of all deaths is a great battle death. “Well sung! and the good death—the proper or fitting death—for the hero is violent, for he is the incarnation of deadly force.” It is supposed to be as violent as a sword death which is especially sought for by the hero (Miller 121). For instance, the last scene of Aeneid is battle between Aeneas and Turnus where Aeneas was able to slay the opponent. In another instance, Beowulf as a King was killed when he confronted a dragon that was vexing the populace of his kingdom. Even in old age, he was there to battle it out for the sake of his friends and family and eventually achieved a good and noble death.
Finally, this death of the hero is for the earnest hope and purpose of dying and living for fame and glory (Miller 131). As a matter of fact, it is observed that not only their deaths were for the purpose of fame and glory but the totality of their actions and attitudes. For one, Sundjata’s main fleet was to free the Malinke village from the oppression of Sumanguru, the Sosso King. Because he was in exile, he received a call his original country and confronted the tyrant with his army. They were able to defeat him in the Battle of Kirina. Because of this he was appointed as their great King who restored their land and save them from their bondage (Lange 518). Second, Aeneas saves his fellow Trojans from the seizure of Troy by the Greeks. He was prophesied to found a new land for the Trojans. Even when during his fleet, he was confronted with as many trials as possible. He still persisted in making the oracle happen both for the reason of fame and glory, and the fulfillment of his father’s wishes. “And for Anchises’ sake old Daunus save!/ Or, if thy vow’d revenge pursue my death, / Give to my friends my body void of breath!/ The Latians chiefs have seen me beg my life; / Thine is the conquest, thine to royal wife:/ Against a yielded man, ‘t is mean ignoble strife (Virgil 301).” Third, Beowul traveled from one part of the plant to another to fight the monster Grendel not only to bring peace to Denmark but also to assert identity and power to himself. As a matter of fact, it can be gleaned from the facts of the story that he did that because King Horthgar’s ascendants had ties with the family of Beowulf most specifically his father, Ecgtheow (Raffel and Creed).
The three epic heroes that is going to be analyzed in this paper would be as mentioned in the earlier paragraphs are Sundjata, Beowulf, and Aeneas. At the onset, it is observed that there three epic heroes and epic stories are written at different eras, by different poets of different countries, and of different cultures. For instance, the tale of Sundjata came from an African tradition written during the 1235 AD. Aeneas came from a Roman tradition written after the Trojan. Lastly, Beowulf is written in an Anglo-Saxon tradition, set in Denmark which is estimated to be in the late 15th century. This alone could bring about the controversy on how epic heroes can share common themes when they were written at different eras. If this is the case, there should not be parallelism in the attributes of the epic heroes. However, as outlined by Miller, it seems that the three heroes share the commonality.
This I think is explained by the fact that common to all epic stories and epic heroes, even when they are written at different contexts and time-frame, is the struggle for patriarchy (Komar 117). As already mentioned above, as the journey of the epic hero progresses, his patriarchal ties become stronger, while his matriarchal ties diminish. His journey is said to elaborate and fortify patriarchy (Komar 117). Because patriarchy is pretty much the same across time and culture, this is reflected in the portrayal of every epic hero across cultures. The idea of a domineering and a successful man that die for honor and glory prevails from one culture to another. Moreover, there is also the idea of a father as a role model rather than the mother. In this case, there is an implied dominance of a father over the mother when it comes to the nurture and care of the epic hero. The main goal is to succeed the father in his throne or his reputation. Even sometimes, the goal is to fulfill the father’s wishes.
For instance, all the three heroes prevail as a great man in their respective countries and kingdom because of their ability to save people from either bondage or danger. In this case, the image that they always portray is one that is patriarchal in nature. This is the image that every man during their age aspires to because they wanted to mold themselves with the existing stereotype of what a man should be wholly dictated by patriarchy. Honor and glory are likewise the standard for men in whom they aspire in every little thing that they do. Moreover, all the three heroes aspire to either replace their father or become their father. Their quest is dedicated to this aspiration. Aeneas, even when his father was already dead when he embarks for his adventures, still sought the guide of his father as he still went into the underworld to meet him. Even when his mother is one of the most influential person during that period, it is evident that is his father whom he aspires to be. In the case of Sundjata, even when he was with his mother all his life, he still aspires to be the warrior that his father was. Eventually, the death of his mother brought him to his patriarchal ties that develop his heroism.
All of these lead us to a conclusion that all epic heroes share a common theme even when they are written and contextualized at different periods of time and in different cultures because epic heroism is mold in patriarchy. All epic heroes are mold in a patriarchal image and standard of a man. That man which is physically string almost superhuman in character that sought a good death not only for other people but for fame and glory.
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