September 12, 1998

From Gerald R. Lucas

A Bit on the Epic Hero

The hero of epic poetry has a double role. He (there are no epical woman heroes as far as I know) is an individual person with an habitual virtue from which his exploits flow, and he is representative of the group to whom the exploit is important. Since the performance of the exploit is important because of the group rather than the person, the man may be destroyed, but the group may be saved.

The hero’s habitual virtue (arete) is specific to the kind of exploit; i.e., it depends on what he is good at and how he pursues and accomplishes this purpose. His goodness is not specific — it simply means that he is serious, and he will cope with the problem. The hero need not be responsible for the existence of his task, but only for its performance.

A related concept in epic poetry is aristeia (literally “moment of excellence”) or a hero’s finest moment in battle, like books 20–22 of the Iliad where Achilles routs the Trojan army and kills its champion Hector.

Some, if not all, of these will be applicable to the epic hero, both in primary and secondary epics.

The Hero’s Journey

The hero's journey, as popularized by Joseph Campbell, can be a useful framework for understanding the journeys and transformations of epic heroes. Campbell’s work highlights the common patterns and stages that many heroic figures undergo as they embark on their quests, face challenges and trials, and ultimately achieve their goals.

By examining the hero’s journey, we can gain a deeper understanding of the transformational nature of the heroic ideal. The hero’s journey often involves a call to adventure, a departure from the hero’s ordinary world, a series of trials and challenges, and a return to the hero's community or society with newfound wisdom and insight.

  1. Birth Myth — magical, divine conception; born through and by unusual circumstances (like a virgin birth); exposed to nature (like Achilles dip in the Styx) or a conflict with nature.
  2. Child Hero — urge to realize himself through useful exploits; demons, monsters, authority challenged.
  3. Education — apprenticeship or preparation; hero’s withdrawal from society to discover his identity or potential (internal quest); sometimes there is a teacher or guide.
  4. Trial and Quest — essence of life, immortality, home, etc.; suffering always accompanies the hero — usually the death of a friend or loved one.
  5. Death / Scapegoat — literal or metaphorical death; underworld experience and resurrection; often there is a dominant presence of a woman; promise of a new life; sacrifice of a king (Phoenix) who must avoid becoming a tyrant; positive and negative; the hero accepts the responsibility so that the individual members of the society do not have to.
  6. Descent — to the underworld; returns to the earth for more education; rite of passage; night journey and retrieval of parts of the self; pilgrimage to see lost family.
  7. Resurrection and Rebirth — apotheosis; a freedom, unity, and transcendence of humanity, time, and space; the hero loses himself to find himself.

Epic poetry illustrates many examples of heroes who undergo such journeys and transformations. For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus faces a series of challenges and obstacles on his journey home from the Trojan War, including encounters with mythical creatures, imprisonment by a cyclops, and temptation by the goddess Circe. Through these trials, Odysseus develops his cunning and resourcefulness, and he gains a deeper understanding of himself and his place in the world.

Overall, while the hero’s journey is not the only way to understand epic heroes or the heroic ideal, it can be a valuable tool for analyzing the transformations and character development that often occur within epic poetry.

The Education of Achilles, by James Barry.jpg

Otto Rank, in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, states that many ancient cultures ostensibly share similar legends about the birth and education of their national heroes.[1] This fact in itself does not seem too fascinating, but seeing that these civilized nations probably had no contact or sharing of cultural ideas, Lord Rank speculates on the reasons why these fledgling nations all have these stories. He suggests three likely explanations:

  1. The existence of elemental ideas, or a Jungian-like collective unconsciousness on the scale of all of humanity in which humans share similar ideas at similar stages in their development. Therefore, they produce similar stories based on these elemental ideas.
  2. The existence of an original community that developed in a favorable locality and eventually spread producing diverse social orders that kept the kernels of their foundational myths intact.
  3. Migration and borrowing of stories developed by a particular civilization to others that adopt them as their own. These stories are passed through an oral tradition in commerce and traffic or through early literary influences.

While these theories may or may not be correct, Rank writes that none address the origin of the birth of the hero.


  1. Rank, Otto (1914). The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. New York: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company.