What Is the Definition of an Epic Hero?

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An epic hero is a character originally found in epic poems and ancient mythology. They're often the main character of the story and traditionally male, although the number of female epic heroes is growing. These characters perform great acts of courage and strength as they navigate obstacles on a quest to find their purpose.


Characteristics of an Epic Hero

Epic heroes have distinct characteristics that help readers distinguish them from other types of heroes. There is some debate about the number of characteristics they share. Some experts identify as few as five traits, while others recognize as many as seven or ten. However, there are certain characteristics they all agree are part of the epic hero. 


First, the epic hero is from a noble birth (sometimes the child of a god) and are not commoners in their societies. He has the ability to complete great feats of strength, and he often demonstrates this during his quest. Despite his station in life and great capability, the epic hero generally does not boast about his accomplishments. This may be due, in part, to the fact that he typically receives supernatural help on his journey.


The Hero's Journey

It's difficult to ignore the similarities between epic heroes because they all follow predictable plots in their stories. They typically start as ordinary people who must go on an adventure and return as a changed man. The hero's journey is evident in all of the major epic poems from classical literature to contemporary tales.


There are three distinct parts to this journey. First, he must leave home, a decision that often takes some encouragement from a mentor or supernatural force. Then he navigates through unfamiliar territory, facing dangers and challenges along the way. In the end, he returns to his home and the people he left behind.


Steps of the Hero's Journey

Literature professor Joseph Campbell identified 17 steps the hero takes in his journey. Within the departure, he hears a call to take on a task, refuses the call and eventually accepts it. In the next stage, the hero goes through a series of tests, including a temptation. After successfully avoiding this temptation, he confronts his doubts and realizes his purpose. This gives him courage for facing his most difficult challenge.


The final stage in the journey takes the hero home. In some cases, he may not want to return to his ordinary life. However, he often receives supernatural help to escape, especially if he must return with a valuable object. After returning home, the hero learns how to balance his old life with his new knowledge of the world and himself.


Examples of Epic Heroes in Classical Literature

Some of the best known examples of epic heroes come from classical literature. Achilles in Homer's

The Iliad and Odysseus in The Odyssey demonstrate bravery and strength as they face obstacles and overcome them. The title character in the Sumerian epic, The Epic of Gilgamesh, completed a quest before building a wall to protect his people. King Arthur and Beowulf are examples of epic heroes from British literature.



Examples of Epic Heroes in Contemporary Stories

Epic heroes are also evident in contemporary literature and film. Luke Skywalker in the original

Star Wars movie goes through all of the stages of a hero's journey as he battles Darth Vader. Another famous example is Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.