By Tara Boyd
Defining what it means to be a hero has been a source of controversy for centuries. What began as men of legend has come to describe those who are brave.
But what is it that sets these men and women apart from society? In October 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came under fire for refusing to name James Zadroga (a New York City Police Department detective who worked at Ground Zero) a hero and listing him as an official victim of 9/11 after autopsy results revealed his death was unrelated to his work on the site.
The decision came down to an individual's definition of hero, and science ruled him out as a hero, Bloomberg said in The New York Times.
The idea, proposed by Bloomberg that each individual defines hero differently was reflected in a 1996 study by sociologist Douglas V. Porpora. The study found that 40 percent of the adults interviewed identified personal heroes, ranging from family members and teachers to public figures like Harry Truman and Princess Diana. However, the participants did not agree what qualities make on a hero.Merriam Webster's definition of the term hero can be broken down into three categorie:
- a mythological or legendary figure, later expanded to include principal male characters in dramatic works*
- one admired for his great courage or noble qualities
- an "object of extreme admiration and devotion." *A female exhibiting these qualities is referred to as a heroine, a term coined in the 1650s. A further examination of these components can be found below.
The word hero derives from the Greek term "heros" meaning demi-god. A demi-god is one who possesses more power than a mortal being but is not quite a god. The word was first used in the 14th century to describe men of superhuman strength or physical courage, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
The oldest definition of the word implies that heroes transcend the mediocre with "exceptional acts" and therefore, mythological and legendary characters are the "most perfect examples" of heroes, argued sociologist Orrin E. Klapp in "Heroes, Villains and Fools, as Agents of Social Control."
In 1934, Lord Raglan, a British soldier and scholar, examined the lives of Greek and Jewish heroes, what he called the "heroes of tradition," and found 22 common incidents weaved throughout their stories. Some examples included the hero's father being a king, the audience knowing little of the hero's childhood and the hero's uneventful reign as king. Raglan then evaluated individual stories of heroes and scored them on the number of these common occurrences their individual story contained.
The related themes of these stories, Raglan argued, shows that although these men may have existed as real men once, their stories have been changed over time to fit a mold. Their stories were rewritten for the sake of art, Raglan added. It is this transformation from ordinary man to a man of legend that makes these heroes mythological and legendary.Courageous and noble acts
The definition of hero expanded from the mythological in the 1660s to include men who prove their great bravery in any field from war to politics to humanitarian efforts, whether mythological or not, according to an etymology dictionary.
This definition of the word includes the everyday people society defines as heroes. The Oxford English Dictionary elaborated on this concept, defining a hero as "a man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connection with any pursuit, work, or enterprise."
The news media still uses this definition today when naming heroes in the news, on air and in print.
Chesley B. "Sulley" Sullenberger was identified as a hero after he landed a commercial flight on the Hudson River in 2009. By the Oxford English definition, passengers and other pilots praised Sullenberger in the media for landing the plane safely because he performed a brave feat in his field of expertise.
On a grander scale, many began calling the men and women who helped at Ground Zero heroes.
"Prior to 9/11, America had few heroes. After 9/11, Americans elevated numerous groups to the status of heroes. Among these were firefighters, police officers, and, for a time, mail carriers," wrote Kevin Alexander Boon in "Heroes, Metanarratives and the Paradox of Masculinity in Contemporary Western Culture."
Boon claimed that people called these workers heroes because there was a "perceived need for heroes" since the nation's safety was at risk. The definition, however, suggests that their noble qualities and brave acts would lead people to call them heroes.
Objects of admiration
The final portion of the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of a hero brings into account the public and how they perceive a hero through hero-worship, a term that dates back to 1774. These are the heroes that society admires to the point of extreme devotion, turning them into objects or idols of admiration.
"One seeks to stand with one's heroes rather than be one's heroes in actuality, and heroes thus are one mechanism we use to tell ourselves what it is we stand for," Porpora wrote.
Klapp likened it to the admiration the public gives to athletes and entertainers whom they feel best represent society's ideals. Their fame arises seemingly from nowhere and before anyone can comprehend why, they are admired by the masses. People "select certain individuals as collective ideals," and call them heroes, Klapp wrote in the article, "Hero Worship in America."
Klapp cited such pop culture icons of the time as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Al Capone as celebrities who in some represented what society wanted most from Lindbergh's bravery in flight to Capone's fearless attitude. Today this may be likened to society's admiration for celebrities like George Clooney and his humanitarian efforts and J.K Rowling for inspiring an entire generation to read. Tiger Woods was considered a hero by many until he fell from grace with his marriage's scandal.
"The hero is properly conceived as a symbol rather than a real person," Klapp argued. The public sometimes forgets this and that's when scandals like Wood's cheating reveal the blind devotion people have in celebrities and heroes.
While recognizing heroes as men above their own status, the public still tries to learn more about their heroes and connect with them as human beings.
"There is an effort to become familiar with the hero and at the same time to put him upon a pedestal," Klapp wrote.
Once placed upon the pedestal, a hero becomes a constant subject of gossip, which leads back to the first part of the definition – a mythological figure. They lose their human qualities and become part of a legend.Slideshow: Who is your hero? Created by Tara Boyd and Leila O'Hara