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Epic Hero Definition

Protagonists come in many varieties. Some are relatable and easy to identify with. Others are constantly struggling and easy to sympathize with. An archetypal protagonist is the "epic hero", a main character with impressive superhuman capabilities who completes awe-inspiring deeds such as taking on a battle with superhuman foes. It was the Greeks who first defined the protagonist known as an epic hero. These heroes of a tragedy must evoke in the audience a sense of heroism through legendary, awe-inspiring lore. An epic hero must be someone whose fortune is brought about by his own admired characteristics. Many of the famous epic poetry, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, contain these larger-than-life heroes and their deeds. King Arthur, Beowulf, Siegfried, Gilgamesh, and Rama are all examples of epic heroes.



What are the Characteristics of an Epic Hero?

The Seven Traits of an Epic Hero

All epic heroes or epic characters have the same epic hero qualities. According to the epic literary definitions, these characteristics are as follows:

  1. Noble Birth: Usually a king, prince, demi-god, or god-like nobleman of some capacity.
  2. Superhuman Abilities: The skilled warrior has the potential for greatness based on their attributes, e.g. cunning, bravery, humility, wisdom, virtue, making them seem to have superhuman abilities and superhuman strength.
  3. Vast Traveler: Known for making travels to another world or going on a perilous journey to exotic locations by choice or chance, usually to battle against evil.
  4. Unmatched Warrior: Typically has a reputation for being a larger than life figure, even prior to the beginning of the story.
  5. Cultural Legend: Before an epic hero can be universally known, he must first be a legend in his culture.
  6. Humility: The hero performs great deeds for their own sake rather than glory and they demonstrate humility. Heroes that boast, or exhibit hubris may be punished and humbled.
  7. Battles Supernatural Creatures: The superhuman foes and obstacles he faces are usually supernatural beings, e.g. Grendel, Poseidon, or a cyclops.

Epic Hero Examples

Most epic heroes are larger-than-life, possess heroic qualities, and embody the values of their culture. Here are some examples of epic heroes:

  • Beowulf: The protagonist of the Old English epic poem "Beowulf." He is a warrior who fights against monsters and becomes a king.
  • Odysseus: The central figure of Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey." He is a Greek hero who faces many challenges on his journey home from the Trojan War and has all the traits of an epic hero.
  • Gilgamesh: The protagonist of the Mesopotamian epic poem "Epic of Gilgamesh." He is a powerful king who embarks on a quest for eternal life.
  • Achilles: From Homer's epic poem "The Iliad", the hero Achilles is known for his incredible strength and is considered the greatest warrior of his time.
  • Arjuna: From the Hindu epic "Mahabharata", he is a skilled archer and warrior who must face a moral dilemma before a great battle.
  • King Arthur: This legend was the king of Britain who appears in many medieval tales and romances. He is known for his bravery, his sense of justice, and his wise leadership.

These are just a few examples of epic heroes from different cultures and time periods.


Why Teach Students About Epic Heroes?

Epic heroes are often taught in literature and history classes for a variety of reasons. Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Cultural Significance: Epic heroes often come from ancient cultures and societies that are no longer in existence. Studying epic heroes allows us to gain insight into these cultures and the values they held dear.
  • Literary Analysis: Epic heroes are often the protagonists of epic poems or narratives, which are significant literary works in their own right. By studying epic heroes, we can learn about literary techniques such as metaphor, symbolism, and characterization.
  • Moral Lessons: Epic heroes often embody certain virtues such as courage, loyalty, and perseverance. By studying their stories, we can learn valuable moral lessons and apply them to our own lives.
  • Historical Context: Many epic heroes are based on real historical figures or events. Studying them can give us a better understanding of the historical context in which they lived.

Overall, the study of epic heroes can help us gain a deeper understanding of literature, history, and the human condition.


How to Teach Students About Epic Heroes

1

Introduce the Concept of Epic Heroes

Start by defining what an epic hero is and provide some epic hero examples from literature or mythology. Explain the traits of an epic hero that make a hero "epic," such as strength, courage, intelligence, and noble qualities.

2

Read and Analyze Epic Poems or Stories

Choose an epic poem or story such as Beowulf, The Iliad, or The Odyssey, and read it with your students. Encourage them to take notes and analyze the story as they read. Discuss the themes, characters, and plot of the epic, and how they relate to the hero's journey.

3

Analyze the Hero's Journey

The hero's journey is a common theme in epic literature. Discuss the stages of the hero's journey, such as the call to adventure, the initiation, the challenges faced, and the return home. Have students identify these stages in the epic story they read.

4

Compare and Contrast Epic Heroes

Have students compare and contrast different epic heroes from different stories. This can be done through group discussions, class debates, or individual essays. Encourage them to analyze the similarities and differences between the heroes and their journeys.

5

Create your Own Epic Hero

Ask students to create their own epic hero, complete with their own journey, challenges, and character traits. Have them present their hero to the class and explain why they chose certain qualities and characteristics.


Overall, teaching about epic heroes can be a fun and interactive way to engage students with literature and mythology. By analyzing epic poems and stories and creating their own heroes, students can develop critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of the hero's journey. Check out our sample lesson below!


Example Epic Hero Lesson Plan

Overview of the Lesson

What is an epic hero and how do I know who they are? Teach students the literary device and ask them to think deeply about their attributes and how they affect the work as a whole.

Time: 45 Minutes

Grade Level: 8-12

Lesson Specific Essential Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of someone who has an extensive reputation?
  2. Can you distinguish an epic hero from a typical character in a work of literature?
  3. What do we learn from the virtues of an epic hero?

Objectives

Students will be able to define epic hero, list epic heroes from works of literature, film, or television, and take away the effects of an epic hero on plot.

What students should know and be able to do before starting this lesson: Students should be able to list heroes and villains from popular works of literature or movies and television.

Instructional Materials/Resources/Tools

  • Before: Epic Hero Activator Worksheet
  • During: Elements of an Epic Hero Template
  • Example/After: Odysseus Epic Hero
  • Access to Storyboard That

Instructional Tips/Strategies/Suggestions for Teacher

Be specific when asking students to create a storyboard that shows the qualities of an Epic Hero. Make sure that students include an explanation of each attribute as well as a quote that backs up their claim. If they are doing this as a project, having the students download their storyboards to a PowerPoint is a perfect way for them to present an explanation of each cell.

Lesson Details/Procedure

Lesson Opening

Activator: Students will be given Epic Hero Activator Worksheet and instructed to fill in the boxes to the best of their ability. If students cannot fill in Box 3 (List Epic Heroes) then tell them that they may leave it blank. After five minutes ask students to compare lists with someone sitting near them. Then ask each pair to say one hero or villain out loud and make a list on the board. Once that is complete, ask them why they know the lists on the board are heroes or villains? As a class, come up with definitions for each and a list of attributes they possess.

During the Lesson

Teaching the term: Next, ask all students if anyone had prior knowledge and knew what an epic hero is or if anyone has a guess or list of this type of character. If they did, write down on the board what they give for an answer. If no one knows, begin to front-load the term. After giving students the definition, ask them to think of characters from movie, TV, and literature that they think would fall in this category and make a list. Repeat with a think, pair, share and make a list of characters and a list of attributes.

Lesson Closing

Defining the term: After students have come up with a list of attributes that they believe an epic hero possesses, go over definition and characteristics of a hero. Ask students to fill out and keep track of the attributes that make the protagonist of your work an epic hero by writing in the answers to Elements of an Epic Hero Template.

Lesson Extension

After students have finished reading the novel/play, reinforce this lesson by asking them to complete their storyboard that shows each attribute using a scene and quote from the text. This lesson extension coupled with a slide show presentation will help students master the concept of the epic hero.

Add a Presentation

Have students attach their storyboard to a paper that requires students to give an in-depth explanation of the deeper meaning of their element throughout the novel. Or, couple this assignment with a presentation; see our article on how to present a storyboard.

Assessment

Students can be assessed after their final storyboard project is completed and presented.

Related Activities

Check out these epic hero activities from our guides on Greek Mythology: The 12 Labors of Hercules, Divergent, and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.




How to Identify Archetypal Patterns in Epic Hero Stories

1

Understand Archetypal Patterns

Introduce the concept of archetypal patterns to students, explaining that they are recurring themes, symbols, or narrative structures that appear across different stories and cultures. Discuss the significance of archetypes in understanding the deeper meanings and universal elements of epic hero stories.

2

Study Epic Hero Characteristics

Teach students about the characteristics of an epic hero, such as extraordinary abilities, noble qualities, and a transformative journey. Help them recognize these key traits that define an epic hero and differentiate them from other types of heroes.

3

Identify Hero's Call to Adventure

Guide students to identify the hero's call to adventure, which marks the beginning of the epic hero's journey. Help them recognize the moment when the hero is summoned or motivated to embark on a quest or undertake a significant task.

4

Analyze Mentorship and Supernatural Aid

Explore the presence of mentorship and supernatural aid in epic hero stories. Help students identify the wise mentor figures who guide and assist the hero throughout their journey. Discuss the role of supernatural elements or assistance that aid the hero in overcoming challenges.

5

Examine Challenges and Ordeals

Guide students to examine the challenges and ordeals the epic hero faces on their journey. Help them recognize the trials, conflicts, and obstacles that the hero must overcome to achieve their goal or fulfill their quest. Discuss the significance of these challenges in the hero's growth and development.

6

Evaluate the Hero's Transformation and Return

Encourage students to evaluate the hero's transformation and return. Help them analyze how the hero undergoes personal growth, acquires new knowledge or skills, and returns to their community or ordinary life with a greater understanding or a boon to share. Discuss the impact of the hero's journey on their character and the world around them.

Frequently Asked Questions about Epic Heroes

What is an epic hero?

The epic hero meaning is a character in literature or mythology who is larger than life and possesses heroic qualities such as courage, strength, wisdom, and cunning. Epic heroes are often the central figures in an epic hero story or an epic poem, and are typically portrayed as being on a quest or journey to accomplish a great feat or to save their people.

What makes an epic hero a hero?

What makes an epic hero a hero is their ability to demonstrate extraordinary feats of bravery, wisdom, and strength in the face of great adversity. The epic hero archetype embodies the virtues of their culture, serve as role models for others, and often exhibit a strong sense of honor and self-sacrifice.

What are the 9 characteristics of an epic hero?

The nine epic hero characteristics are:

  1. The epic hero at any heroic age is a leader in some way.
  2. Oftentimes the epic hero is a demi-god or has a weapon that has godlike powers.
  3. Epic heroes take on a test of courage, skill, and strength.
  4. Willingness to take on challenges that no one else is willing to take on.
  5. Epic heroes must prove themselves by taking on a foe or challenge that is greater than the hero.
  6. Epic heroes show excellence, courage, and strength.
  7. These heroes have a great deal of cultural abilities and qualities.
  8. Engages in a final battle with the antagonist/supernatural creatures.
  9. Epic heroes have a fatal flaw of some sort that show their humility and relatability.

What is the difference between a hero and an epic hero?

The difference between a hero and an epic hero is that epic heroes are larger-than-life figures who embody the virtues of their culture and serve as a symbol of that culture's ideals. While a hero may also possess admirable qualities, they are often more relatable and human than an epic hero, who is typically portrayed as almost godlike in their abilities and accomplishments.

What is an example of an epic hero?

Perhaps the most well known on the epic heroes list is Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey." Odysseus is a noble and courageous warrior who embarks on a long and perilous journey home after fighting in the Trojan War. He faces many obstacles, including battles with mythical creatures and the wrath of the gods, but ultimately succeeds in returning to his homeland and reclaiming his throne. Odysseus embodies the qualities of bravery, cunning, and wisdom that are highly valued in ancient Greek culture, making him a classic example of an epic hero.

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