The Hero as a Reflection of Culture

The Hero as a Reflection of Culture

Belen Lowrey

Sabiduría: The Honors College Journal: Vol.1:1 (2009)


In works of literature, a hero is a man to be admired and emulated. For this reason, the hero always demonstrates the embodiment of the ideals of the creating culture. Historical events and social conditions of different cultures cause different attributes to become valued in leaders. These cultural values are reflected in both the actions of a hero and in the heroic motivations. This paper focuses on the heroes of the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and The Song of Roland and examines how historical events and cultural circumstances shaped the portrayal of the heroes in these works.


Every culture has heroes. In works of literature, is an individual to be admired and emulated, and because of this he is the embodiment of the greatest virtues of the culture that created him. The ideals of every culture were shaped by the social conditions of the time and therefore different attributes became valued. To different degrees, the hero in a work is a result of not only the culture from which the hero comes, but also the culture of the author. Cultural values are reflected in both the actions of a hero and his motivations. As heroes, Achilles, Aeneas, Beowulf, and Roland reflect the values of the societies that created them.

One of the oldest works of ancient literature is Homer‟s Iliad. Homer‟s works are dated to between 900 and 750 B.C. (Krieger, Jantzen and Neill 106). Although the events of the Iliad take place during the Greek Bronze Age, the culture portrayed in Homer‟s works is that of Greek Dark Age (Redfield 99). The Dark Age was a result of the struggles that took place after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization (between 1200 and 1100 B.C.). The exact cause of the sudden decline of the Mycenaean civilization is unknown. Historians generally agree that it was a result of invasions, possibly from the Dorian Greeks (Krieger, Jantzen and Neill 106). The abrupt collapse of this civilization caused social instability, creating the necessity for defense. As James Redfield explains in his book Nature and Culture in the Iliad,

When the background condition of life is a condition of war – when men feel themselves free to steal from anyone with whom they are not acquainted and to plunder and exterminate any town against which they have a grievance – men must place great trust in those close to them. Thus, combat generates a tight-knit community. (99)

The times about which Homer wrote were filled with strife, generating the need for a strong, defensive community.

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