Depiction of epic heroes in modern times
S Taibang Nganba Meetei
I feel that a very important aspect of the epic stories has been lost in popular culture. That is the moral ambiguity in their heroes. There is a multitude of emotions other than admiration that reading an epic can bring out of us. The majesty of a heroic life can only be truly appreciated when we see the heroes at their lowest point, like Achilles when he learns of Patroclus' death and Khamba when he is beaten unconscious by his rival, Nongband.
In Aristotle's view, to experience tragic fictions benefits the development of human psychology. The artificial fear, pity, anger or sadness created through the viewing of a "tragic play" is similar to a vaccine. It helps us in dealing with real-life tragedies. He called this process as catharsis.
I will take the examples of the epic poems "Iliad" and "Khamba Thoibi" to elaborate on this.
(I): The characteristics of the Epic Hero:-
1. Modern heroes are depicted as perfect beings blessed with perfect moral values, which is not accurate. As time progress, the heroes in films are shown are always redeemable. The darker and more morbid aspects of epic poetry are known only by very few people.
In the bloody story of the Iliad, Achilles sees the women of the cities he conquered as loots to be ransacked and the man as enemies to be killed or be turned into slaves.
In a much lighter case, Khamba is shown to be instinctual and acts without thinking of the consequences. His breaking of the king's order of no man to ride boats at Loktak Lake when the princess Thoibi was fishing is one such case. Even if he was ignorant of the order. Him wearing the embroidered shirt of Chingkhuba, given to him by his daughter Thoibi in secret. This resulted in him hating Khamba and coming in between their love.
2. They are not perfect and their misgivings have to be rectified by fate, the Gods or even the plot.
Achilles, no matter how many wars he has fought or how many people he has killed, he is always in the shadow of his mother, the Goddess Thetis. And Goddess Athena had to protect his life multiple times in battles to avenge his best friend Patroclus. Khamba is always in the shadow of his elder sister, Khamnu who fills in as his mother figure. This relationship still continues even in the heights of his heroic moments. Lord Thangjing had to send a prophetic dream to Thoibi to save him from being lynched by his rival Nongband.
3. Epic heroes always have a noble lineage of great ancestors, be it kings or Gods to signify their superiority from the common men. A hero is a goal the masses should strive towards. So, it should not be easy to imitate. Achilles was born from a mortal king, Peleus and a Goddess mother, Thesis. He is the favourite of Athena, the Goddess of war and wisdom and was raised as the greatest warrior of Greek mythology. Even Alexander the Great was said to have modelled himself to be more like Achilles.
But Khamba is more of a local hero. Although he is the son of Puremba, a nobleman of the court of Moirang's king Chingkhu Telheiba. But he was separated from that life as an infant and grew up as a peasant orphan along with Khamnu. So, his early life is more similar to a peasant than a prince. This makes Khamba a lot more relatable then Achilles to the common man.
4. Just because they are heroes doesn't mean that they are always morally just. They can even end up becoming the villains of the story. Even heroes can fall from grace. This is shown when Achilles, after the death of Patroclus becomes a bloodthirsty murderer who only cared about venting his anger on the sons of Troy. He desecrates the body of Hector and sacrificed ten young Trojan men in front of the funeral Pyre of Patroclus. Both actions are considered to be high crimes by the Greek pantheons.
5. Tragic deaths
Achilles was always aware that he will die young. But he doesn't fight this fate but rather tries to come to terms with his death. This is a direct contradiction to what a modern hero is who mostly wins at the end of the story. But Khamba was never aware of his fate to die along with Thoibi, as prophesied by Lord Thangjing. He and Thoibi were born to play out a tragedy. And no matter how heroic Khamba is, he is fated to die a young death.
(II): Moral lessons in Epic Poems
1. As most epic poems of the past contain religious connotations, there are moral teachings throughout the poems.
(To be contd)