Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
A close up of the artistic cover of the Hero With A Thousand Faces. Hundreds of real people, like a mosaic, paint the picture of a hero.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces has inspired millions of people by combining modern psychology with Joseph Campbell’s lifetime understanding of comparative mythology. Campbell outlines the the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that is shared by all the world’s mythic traditions. This image of common people make the portrait of the famous ancient Greek bronze statue The Artemesium Bronze statue of Poseidon. Credit.

What is a hero?

Jason and the argonauts battling skeleton warriors

Read the classic heroic myth, Jason and the Argonauts, re-imagined by Scott Stoll, or the illustrated kid’s version.

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I often hear something like this: “The only people who achieve great things are the ones who take risks and reach for the impossible.” Is that true? Is that what it means to be a hero? Society seems to convince us that we all must be a hero and shoot for the moon. But what if we aim for that moon and miss, are we failures? And another definition of a hero is someone who lives their dream despite all odds. But the pitfall of a dream is that our imagination is limited. What if there is something greater than our dream? What if we dream to be an actor, but what if we could change the world as a philanthropist?

An example of a tragic hero

A simple definition of a hero is the main character in an adventure. We can examine the tale of Jason and the Argonauts as an example of what it means to be a hero; however, it seems the ancient definition of a hero is quite different. Like most ancient Greek epic poems, the story of Jason and the Argonauts comes to a tragic ending. Although Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece is a success when he returns he is unable to claim his rightful throne. A series of poor decisions and catastrophes befall Jason. Finally, while mourning his loses underneath the aging Argo, he is struck dead by a rotting timber.

It is quite unlike our modern stories, where the hero always succeeds and lives happily ever after, at least until the sequel. Furthermore, it is easy to question whether Jason was a hero because his adventures are motivated for very selfish reasons. Unlike the other Argonauts, Jason never assists anyone unless he has something to gain, and he had frequent helpless, depressive moods and the characteristics of a modern-day bully. Rarely did Jason even have the wit or prowess to achieve a task without divine intervention. Citation

So, if Jason is not a hero, then what is? Jason’s wife, Medea, may have been the true hero in the story. She was the most developed character in the Argonautica with emotions from joy to sorrow, and clear motivations to aid others while facing deathly peril to herself. Medea rescues Jason many times with her great skills as both a witch and a mediator. Without her aid, Jason would never have won the Golden Fleece. So, perhaps, Medea is the true hero of our story; however, her story also ends unhappily.

The Greeks loved tragedy and many of their heroes suffer terrible fates. It makes me wonder where the concept of living happily ever after entered modern culture. It seems that the hero in modern stories, particularly movies, is always victorious. Perhaps, we hold ourselves to much higher standards.

Hercules, stripped of his armor, fighting the Nemean lion.
Hercules, stripped of his armor, fighting the Nemean lion. Hercules is the most famous member of the Argonauts and perhaps the most famous hero of all time. And, like all heroes, he was given many challenges to overcome to reach his goal. In this case, it was the Twelve Labours of Heracles, a penance for killing his wife and children during a temporary bought of insanity. Original artwork courtesy of Yaroslav Radeckiy

Definition of a hero

We will define a hero as someone that always strives for the greater good. Although we prefer the hero to have a happy ending, we acknowledge that the greatest heroes are the ones that prioritize the greater good over their own life. The hero is not someone without fear. In fact, the most memorable heroes are those that face the challenges despite their fear — that’s the definition of bravery. And one does not need to succeed to be a labeled a hero, but merely be true of heart and true of deed.

What a hero is not: A hero does not achieve great things using selfish motivations. Nor is a hero foolish or lucky, despite what good they may achieve. Nor does a hero achieve their goal by accident or misfortune. For example, if a warrior is injured on the battlefield, we can’t say that person is a hero without knowing the backstory and motivation of that person.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the gods of ancient myth don’t intervene to give our lives great purpose and meaning — that is left to us to explore — that is what makes life bitter-sweet. Therefore, in my opinion, a hero is both confused and afraid, but the hero is willing to test their dreams. And if they succeed to live their dreams, they stand as an example to the world of what is possible, and no matter what the dream is, even if it is to sweep the streets, the world is a better place.

Do you want to be a hero?

As a side note about my own hero’s journey, I admit that sometimes I wonder if I try to lead an unrealistic life because I succumbed to the myth — or is that misconception? — that we are all born unique and great and destined to live extraordinary lives that benefit the world. A great lesson that I learned on my journey around the world and meeting thousands of people living lives full of different rules, ideas and mythology is that the only characteristic that made me heroic was that I was actually doing it. As foolhardy as it seemed, I actually rode a bicycle around the world seeking the meaning of life. But this is a quality that we all have — we can all get up and live our dream. But most don’t. I think that it what our stories and myths are for — to remind us that we all have the hero inside.

What would it take for you to become a hero?

There is no right or wrong answer. We all travel our own path. Maybe you don’t feel the need to be a hero. I’d be interested to hear your ideas. Please leave a comment below.

(By the way, our comments are brand new. We tried a few systems, like Facebook comments, and unfortunately, a lot of our comments were lost. I won’t be using any more third-party plugins for this!)

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