What Makes an Epic Hero?

In the chieftain / king / warrior society I mention in a previous posting, the hero is both constrained by the bonds of kinship and loyalty on which their society depends, while also standing outside and prepared to break such ties resulting in both internal and external strife as well as their own, inevitable, death.

Traditionally, the hero is presented as an outsider à la Colin Wilson and Albert Camus. With only partially acknowledged parental connections, the youthful hero is brought up as a stranger in a strange land, raised by foster parents, as is the case of King Arthur, raised by Sir Ector de Maris as his foster son. So too is Cú Chulainn, the product of a semi divine birth and raised at the court of Conor mac Nessa at Eamhain Macha. Oedipus too followed a similar path, unaware of his parents, with later fatal consequences. Beowulf too wandered far from his birthplace seeking both fame and recognition.

Contingent with this, the hero, not having a direct family connection, has no fixed name, often drawing their later name from their actions or their physicality. Born as Sétanta, the hero is later given the name Cú Chulainn on his slaughter of the wolfhound owned by the smith Culann.

Having no family essentially means that the hero must stand alone and be prepared to defend himself in a endless series of battles and combats. These must be undertaken in an effort to safeguard his reputation which is the only thing of value the hero possesses. Similarly, these battles and combats usually take place far away from where the hero was conceived, as is the case for Beowulf in his struggle against Grendel the monster and its mother. So do with Cú Chulainn who must travel to Alba (Scotland) from his native Ériu (Ireland) while Ulysses must travel the Aegean before he can return to claim his kingship in Greece.

Having no ties to the locality of their strife, the hero is not bound then by the bonds of the foreign society and is always an agent provocateur or an instrument of change.

Traditionally, in the chieftain / warrior society, weapons would be handed down from father to son but given that the hero comes from relative obscurity, there are no inherited weapons. Instead the hero takes them, as Arthur does with the sword from the stone and Cú Chulainn demands from his liege lord, Conor before accepting the infamous barbed spear, the gae bolga, from the warrior chieftainess, Scáthach. So too does Beowulf find his lethal weapon in the lair under the lake where the monsters live.

Once the hero has his name and his weapons comes the irrevocable – and voluntary – act which cuts the hero further adrift from the society in which he exists. This occurs when Cú Chulainn, hearing the prophecy that taking up arms on a certain day will lead to an early death but everlasting fame, chooses death. This voluntary separation from society is further compounded by the killing of his very own son, Conlaochand his beloved foster brother, Ferdia, both with the fearful gae bolga.  So too when Beowulf, having assumed the mantle of the king with its implicit responsibilities of safeguarding the people he leads, voluntarily chooses to go up alone against the dragon, despite the pleas of younger and more able warriors to defend their lands.  Arthur also separates himself from society by virtue of his incestuous relationship with his sister which later leads to both his own death and the destruction of the Round Table.

By choosing their own values over those of their society, the hero distances himself even further from his contemporise. Sétanta, aka Cú Chulainn, is an extreme example of this extreme isolation. When the other fighting men of the Ulaidh are laid low by an ancient curse, he alone is exempt from the crippling and debilitating effects of the curse although no reason for his immunity is ever provided.

A further theme common to all epic heroes is that the enemies they face invariably involve supernatural and alien forces while, at the same time the heroes appear invulnerable to human foes and their weapons.

Beowulf dispenses with weapons in his first encounter with the monster, tearing its very arm from its socket while Arthur is protected from mortal weapons by the magical properties of the sheath for Excalibur. Cú Chulainn assumes such a fearsome figure in his battle wrath that no enemies or weapons can touch him. Achilles, of course, is fully protected (with the exception of his heel) by the waters of the river Styx into which he is dunked. This invulnerability reinforces the idea that the enemies the heroes face are not of this world but represent the struggle of the individual, or outsider, to withstand the norms of conventional society.

Finally, the doom of the hero is inevitably brought about by their enforced breaking of those very bonds and taboos which hold the society in place. Cú Chulainn, having rejected the help of the Morrígna, the triple goddesses of war, is assailed by them and fearful of losing his reputation, breaks his totem of the hound by accepting roasted dog meat offered by the goddesses in the guise of old women. Arthur is killed by Mordred, the product of his incestuous relationship. Oedipus blinds himself and wanders in dark madness on discovering the secrets of his birth.

Rather than seeing the above as the inevitable triumph of malign fate over individual choice, the role of the outsider forces society to adjust to changes and reconsider its bonds in a world forever changed by the deeds of its heroes.

Influenced by Robert Thomas’s article, Myth, Legend and the Individual, published 1990 by the Libertarian Alliance. ISBN 0267-7113

Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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