Depiction of epic heroes in modern times

S Taibang Nganba Meetei *

 Khamba Thoibi Museum and Ibudhou Thangjing gi Laishang  at Ngakhalawai, Moirang :: August 13 2019
Khamba Thoibi Museum and Ibudhou Thangjing gi Laishang at Ngakhalawai, Moirang in August 2019 :: Pix - Shanker Khangembam

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. For Achilles, it is his rage and the consequences it brought him like the death of Patroclus. For Khamba, it was testing the love of Thoibi, the consequence of which was their deaths.

2. In both the stories, the reasons for the hero's demise are caused by the choices they make and are not just determined by the Gods. In Achilles' case, he was told that he could live a long life and be forgotten in exchange for a heroic death where his name would be remembered forever. But, Homer makes it clear from the start that Achilles will die a glorious death.

In the case of Khamba, his testing of Thoibi's love cause her to unknowingly kill him, and in her despair, kills herself, fulfill¬ing Lord Thanjing's prophecy of them living out the tragedy of life and death.

(III): Involvement of the Gods

1. The Gods do not always work towards the happiness of th§ heroes. They have their own agenda. The destiny that the Gods have in store for us may not be the same as the one wanted. So, one should not solely rely on the Gods but work towards personal growth. We must not be cynical when life takes a rough road but try to overcome it and make the best of what we have.

The twenty years long Trojan War where Achilles died only happened because of the vanity of Goddesses. Paris, prince of Troy judged that the Goddess Aphrodite was more beautiful than the Goddesses Hera and Athena. And from then on, the two Goddesses did everything in their power to see Troy fall. Zeus causes the greek soldiers to suffer enormous casualties because of his former Lover.

Thesis wanted to avenge her son's wounded pride. He even killed Patroclus because he killed her son Sarpedon even though it was Zeus himself that had given him the courage to do so.

In the case of Khamba, Lord Thanjing had decided even before he was born that he and Thoibi were to live out the tragedy of life. So, Khamba's skill in wrestling, Thang-Ta, archery or even his strength to subdue a powerful bull that was said to be superhuman could not save him.

In conclusion, a reawakening of the appreciation of Epic Poems is needed in modern society to experience catharsis and spread the value of striving towards a lofty goal. Through them, we will acquire the tools required to avoid or deal with the pitfalls of life.

* S Taibang Nganba Meetei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on December 09 2020.

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