It can be said that throughout eternity, people have been obsessed with heroes. There are a number of psychological reasons for this and the numerous reasons may vary from individual to individual, but often the desire to honor and worship a hero is based on the fact that the hero holds traits that people hold dear or wish they could embody. Of all the heroes in history, Heracules remains probably the most famous and the most popular. A motivating factor for this center on the fact that Heracules has a certain power that most people wish they could embody: strength.
The reason for this is that strength is often associated with power and, to a lesser extent it is associated with the ability to make people fearful. That is to say, if a person has a tremendous amount of power and strength, people will not harass the person. Furthermore, the person will develop traits that are enviable and this will attract others who will want to be near the person. Strength is, ultimately, more powerful on a psychological level than it is on a physical one.
The Heracules myth has repeatedly reinvented itself time and time again throughout popular culture. In great part, this concept of strength mixed with tortured nobility in the form of laborious tasks are re-imagined time and time again in various forms of entertainment mediums. Comic books, for example, have borrowed many of the traits present in Greek myths in order to create godlike heroes that would be more acceptable to the modern world. In a way, characters such as Superman and Spiderman are modern day variants on the Heracules myth.
Granted, there are also tremendous differences between these modern comic book heroes and the heroes of ancient Greece and an examination of the similarities between Heracules and those two aforementioned heroes would be well worth undertaking. The classic literary hero has his beginnings in Greek mythology. Originally he was not a man but a god. Later he became a half-man/half-god, or demigod (Hercules, for example). With the birth of prose literature in Europe came a new kind of hero, a human with extraordinary abilities.
This new hero became a role model, exemplary of what is best in the people he represented. This is the character we call the “classic” literary hero. (Anon) Here exist certain important psychological motivations that have provided people with the impetus to keep the myth of Heracules alive for centuries. The hero becomes a role model that typifies all the traits that people hold dear, but are not able to actually perform. The reason for this lack of ability to perform the virtuous and noble deeds of the noted heroes of mythology is because myth is exactly that: a myth.
In the realm of mythology or pop culture entertainment, the heroes are created on paper and present an idealized version of the traits real people lack, but hold a great desire to aspire. In the medium of entertaining narratives, a reader will be attracted to the great traits of the noble hero because the virtues that the hero embodies captivate the reader’s attention. This attention is further captivated when the hero must put his great virtues and traits on the line when faced with a series of overwhelming obstacles and tasks.
The Twelve Labors of Heracules, for example, are greatly symbolic of the manner in which the average person must deal with strife and adversity. By watching Heracules overcome these obstacles, there is identification with the hero present and this identification is what helps allow the character to maintain popularity for ages. Much of this identification also includes the reader’s desire to have the same venerable traits that the hero possesses.
In a way, the hero represents the reader’s fantasies and desires to be more than the average or common person; or, the powers that the hero possesses can also symbolize the desires for a method of defeating whatever obstacle the person may be facing in his or her current life. Much of this can be seen in the underlying psychology of the classic body building magazine advertisements of years past. There is always a below the surface theme present of a scrawny weakling who is able to augment his strength in order to beat up the bully, win the girl and be the envy of every man.
Because the desire for strength remains such an important desire in the hearts of many people, the legend of Heracules remains a popular myth that endures for centuries. Even those individuals who are not very familiar with Greek mythology and legends will have a certain familiarity with Heracules having seen the character portrayed in a number of films, cartoons and storybooks. Of course, the perception people have of Heracules is drawn from pop culture interpretations of the character as opposed to the distinct understanding of the myth of the Twelve Labors of Heracules.
When one reads and understands the actual adventures that Heracules performed, then one will discover that the character was not the entirely noble hero that most assume him to be. Heracules did not perform the Twelve Labors out of any desire to promote a greater good or to make the world a better place. He did so for one reason: to save himself from punishment. In the myth, Heracules is forced to perform the Twelve Labors as a means of gaining atonement for having murdered his family.
This is hardly a noble hero as he has slain (in cold blood) those who were not threat to him. Such a violent action shows a “hero” who is selfish and unhinged and feels to remorse or pity for his actions. Changing schools of thought in literature have affected the portrayal of heroes over the years. Romanticism brought about the development of the popular hero out of the idea of the classic hero. The advent of realism in the middle of the nineteenth century drastically altered the idea of the romantic hero.
Reversals and distortions of the character type have occurred at times throughout history, most notably in mid-twentieth century America with the advent of the anti-hero. Even today, while many refer to the main character in any literary work as a “hero,” the character type remains more than a mere protagonist. He/She (for gender often seems not to have much to do with it) is still a representative of a people or class of people, and this hero’s metaphoric significance may be as important to the story he/she inhabits as his/her words and actions. (Anon)
In a way, this is similar to the origin of Spiderman in the sense that Spiderman was responsible (albeit inadvertently) for the death of his Uncle Ben. As the original origin of Spiderman points out, Peter Parker was nerd who was picked on by bullies in High School. After being bit by a radioactive spider and developing the proportionate strength of a spider, Parker creates an alter ego for the sole purpose of enriching himself. There was no attempt to use his powers for altruistic purposes. Parker’s initial forays under his Spiderman guise were born out of ego.
This great ego is what led to his defiant refusal to stop an escaping thief. This was an immature and spiteful act designed to lash out at authority figures for which Parker had no respect because they have repeatedly failed to protect him from the bullies that tormented him in life. Ultimately, such actions would backfire on Parker as the thief would later go on to murder Parker’s Uncle Ben. This would lead to a great feeling of guilt on Parker’s psyche and drive him to become a superhero as a way of atoning for his misdeeds and guilt.