When looking for inspiration for our everyday lives, there are numerous examples of mythic heroes from the past. While digging through our collective history for heroic inspiration, it’s important to both appreciate the context of the culture that gave rise to the mythology as well as look for “universal” traits that transcend culture. This allows us to better understand the traditions specific to a society, while also showing us the common humanity we share. In addition, it gives us a glimpse of the hopes and fears of long-gone people. This provides a richer appreciation of the human condition over time.
A common criticism of mythology (especially that of the ancients) is that it’s no longer relevant, nor merely superstition. Indeed, if we focus too much on the supernatural or fantastical elements, we can lose sight of deeper meaning. Don’t mistake mythology for folklore. The monsters of myth are metaphors for our fears, while folklore is the fear that the monsters are actual flesh and blood.
Some argue that mythology is too tribal—too wrapped up in archaic ideologies and too specific to particular civilizations—to be of use to us today. In this instance, we should take note again of the title of Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is a reminder to look beneath the culture-specific “mask” of a heroic figure to reach the bedrock universality of heroic myth. The long-term existence of this common drive toward personal excellence and service to others is an argument for empathy and a source of hope for our collective future.
This article doesn’t contain an exhaustive list of historical heroes. It’s just an example of how to look for heroic inspiration. These are some of my favorite mythological figures, which I offer up as examples of how to spot the timeless aspects of heroism. As usual, I encourage you to take your own journey, explore the legends of old, and discover what grabs your attention.
Hercules, the Resourceful Human
The famous Greco-Roman demigod could do it all. He was basically the ancient world’s Superman. Hercules is probably best known for having super strength, but he was also known for clever problem-solving. He had to use a combination of all his skills during his famous twelve labors. Sure, there were times when he had to use sheer physical power, like when he killed the Nemean Lion with his bare hands. But when given the impossible task of cleaning a gigantic cow pen that hadn’t been mucked out in decades, Hercules diverted a river to wash it out in a single day. Who says you can’t be strong and smart?
However, the tale of Hercules is also cautionary. The impetus behind his labors wasn’t personal glory, but atonement for killing his own family. In some versions of his story, the demigod is tricked into the murderous deed by Hera, the wife of Zeus, because Hercules was a product of the chief god’s infidelity.
There is a deeper interpretation of the legend in which the hero is driven mad by his own self-absorbed delusions of grandeur. It’s a reminder to be wary of becoming too enamored of our own glory because we may forget the need to be humble and serve others. No matter how great our achievements, we are still prone to human fallibility. Therefore, never forget to stay self-aware and maintain perspective on the fact that you’re not the center of the universe.
Maui, the Altruistic Trickster
The Polynesian hero Maui was brought into the modern lore spotlight in Disney’s Moana. But long before his renewed fame, he was using his cunning to benefit the people. Like Prometheus, Maui is credited with stealing the secret of fire from the gods as a gift for humanity. But the Greek god has nothing on the Polynesian demigod!
Like a true trickster, Maui started out his quest with some mischief. To create an excuse to find the origin of fire, he extinguished all flames his people had gathered from nature. Then, he sought out the fire goddess Mahuika to ask her to relight the fires of humanity. As Mahuika was about to fulfill his request, Maui started to extinguish the fiery fingernails of the goddess. In her rage, she threw her last nail at the demigod. Maui dodged, and went to retrieve Mahuika’s nail, and used it to teach his people to make fire themselves.
Fortune Favors the Brave and Benevolent
Heroes are larger than life for good reason: they’re meant to get your attention through entertainment and teach a lasting lesson through memorable hyperbole. So, don’t feel inferior in light of their exploits or laugh at their outrageous stories. They’re mean to be taken as allegories for how to approach life with bravery and benevolence toward others. Take their tales as the inspiration they are meant to be, and take action in your own life to emulate their positive impact on the world!
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