If someone in Ancient Greece were introduced to Joseph Campbell’s title – The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all of the visages might be expected to be those of women.
The word or, more precisely, the name Hero (Hērṓ) was considered feminine. The best-known example would be from the tragic story of Hero and Leander (Léandros). They lived on opposite sides of The Dardanelles strait and Hero would set a lamp in a tower window each night, essentially as a lighthouse for Leander‘s swim. This lasted for months until the light was extinguished in a storm and Leander drowned. Hero threw herself from the tower to her own death.
There is, of course, a male Hero – one of the sons of King Priam (Príamos) of Troy. This Hero is not distinguished in any detail by his own myth. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and considering Hero to be a unisex name, the Ancient Greek would still expect a veritable battalion of female faces with the above premise.
Words and their definitions evolve over time and across borders. When we borrow words from foreign languages we don’t always get all the nuance in the bargain. We should, however, try to be diligent in the use of our vocabulary. We set the meaning and context by our selections. This has ramifications outside of conversation and writing, too. Words are how we think.
Last week, I wrote a summary of the monomyth. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been devoting much of my thought to what makes a hero. The shortest answer is, “We do.” And, I think, we should be careful in our choices. In the current social climate we’re much more likely to hear the word hero applied to celebrities from the worlds of music or sports. If you ask several people what makes a hero, courage will rapidly rise near to the top of the list. It is true that the musician and the athlete must be brave to be successful; I’m not sure that’s any less true of all other profession requiring dedication.
When I was a child all of my heroes were fictional characters or persons who’d been dead long enough to have legends associated with them. In youth I think this is acceptable and natural. Early in my adulthood my emphasis and definition changed and I invented a puzzle for myself (and eventually others).
Name four real people, none of whom are related to you, that contributed to your identity – and be specific about how.
I didn’t know it at the time but, I believe now, this provides a wonderful definition of what a personal hero may be. A hero should be someone – male or female – who inspires us to be more. In the original puzzle I suggested that the four figures would represent a personal Mt. Rushmore. This was a handy way to refer to this mental exercise but it was an error. The answer to this puzzle should not be immutably etched in stone. Identity, exactly like definition, evolves.
My answer to my own puzzle was:
- Gene Roddenberry, for introducing the value of ideals
- Richard Scarry, for illustrating the necessity to look beyond and behind face value
- Carl Sagan, for demonstrating the interconnected nature of all subjects and disciplines
- Jim Henson, for the gift of purposeful whimsy
You might notice all of them are men. In my young adulthood I was interested in defining what sort of man I would be. As a writer, however, I am dedicated to presenting heroes of all genders and having each character be – as much as is possible in fiction – real people.
So, I’m adding two women to the Mt. Rushmore:
- Nancy Grace Augusta Wake ᴀᴄ, ɢᴍ – a British SOE agent and ally of the French Resistance during World War II. Known aliases: Heléne, Andrée, the White Mouse, and Witch.
- Hannah Callowhill Penn – the acting governor and proprietor of the Province of Pennsylvania at least a generation before the era of the Founding Fathers. She was the second wife of William Penn.