The characteristics of a western archetypal hero

Written by ann trent
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  • Introduction

    The characteristics of a western archetypal hero

    The hero is one of the most common archetypes (meaning common cultural figures or roles) that has appeared in literature, film and other forms of popular culture. Although all cultures have some version of the hero, Western heroes have some very specific characteristics that come from the cultural and social norms of the society.

    Western culture has taken traditional characteristics of the hero and added new elements. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

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    Definiton of a Hero

    The hero is one of the most familiar archetypes in all cultures. A hero is an individual who, because of some dramatic event, has to go on a quest or adventure in order to restore order or regain position in society. In the traditional archetypes, the hero often has supernatural help, a special weapon and unusual circumstances of birth. Examples of these elements include the traditional birth stories of religious figures such as the Buddha or Jesus Christ. In more contemporary times, the story of Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings" and Superman fit some of these elements.

    Religious figures, such as the Buddha, share characteristics of the archetypal hero. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

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    The Quest

    One of the primary ways that he hero myth is used in Western culture is in the "hero-quest." In hero quest myths, stories and films, the hero undertakes a quest for some object or knowledge and encounters many tests and difficulties along the way. Famous examples of this are the "grail-quest" stories in Arthurian legends and the Perseus myth. In Western traditions, the hero is often a distinguished individual who, through his or her own skills, overcomes evil and gains the desired position or object.

    The Holy Grail quest in Arthurian legends is a clear example of a hero-quest. ( Images)

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    One of the central cultural characteristics of the Western world is the valuing of individualism over community. While in Eastern cultures the family, tribe and unit were of central importance, the West privileges the individual and individual achievement. With this focus on the individual, the hero myth in particular has become preeminent in Western culture, and Western heroes are particularly individualist, often to the point of ignoring or challenging community. American heroes in particular have an "individual against society" position, in which community or society is the enemy, not the object that the hero seeks to bring to order or rejoin. The American cowboy is an example of a highly individual hero.

    The American figure of the cowboy is a highly individualist Western hero. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

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    Traditional hero archetypes often involve supernatural help, while Western culture values reason and science, and therefore often eliminate supernatural events from hero myths. Western heroes often succeed through their own intelligence, skill or power. Characters such as Batman and Iron Man, popular comic book and film franchise characters, fight crime through use of their minds and technology, not supernatural means.

    Batman is an example of a Western hero who does not use supernatural powers. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

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    Gender and Heroes

    In traditional societies, the hero is usually a man. In Western culture, female heroines have become common in popular culture, particularly in television and film. Heroes such as "Ripley" from the Alien movie franchise and television characters such as Xena, Warrior Princess demonstrate the move from exclusively male to include female heroes. These female characters often demonstrate traditionally "male" characteristics such as strength, reason and lack of emotion.

    Lucy Lawless played the television heroine Xena, Warrior Princess. (Getty Images/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

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