The Archetype of the Martyr

The Martyr is a particularly potent archetypal figure in western culture, going back at least as far as Jesus, but probably much further. The Martyr is a specific type of Hero – who has “given all” for the “greater good.”

On one hand, with real-life examples, I suppose it gives a certain solace to the families and loved ones of the victims of tragedy, that the wrongful death of someone they love can be redeemed, converted into some sort of ideological triumph.

In fiction, what greater moral point can be made than to give an idea, a cause, a belief, greater value than life itself? The sacrifice is so big and courageous that it overcomes even the craven human instinct for self-preservation.

The challenging point for me is the intersection between these two worlds – the point where the fictional martyr-hero overlaps with real-life examples. We seem to be at a historical moment in which it’s very popular to tear down our cultural/historical heroes by pointing out their egregious flaws. Martin Luther King and JFK both had affairs (supposedly). A number of US Presidents were slaveowners. Even in our own time, the Pope and the Dalai Lama have each said problematic things about women’s rights and equality and gay marriage.

Martyrdom functions as a sort of cleansing, a purification – it’s relatively easy to disparage someone living with whose choices, opinions or actions one disagrees, but it’s harder to object to the dead – especially when that person died in the name of a great and worthy cause. Especially if they died young and full of potential. The less that is known about their complexity, faults, problems – the less thoroughly a martyr is publicly known, the more easily they can ascend to symbolic hero status.

Perhaps because a martyr can be such a potent and uncomplicated symbol (posthumously, of course), I find myself reflexively wary when martyrs are enlisted to any cause or argument.

I’ve written before here about “Narrative Violence” – basically the idea that the act of translating messy, complex, nonlinear human events into a simple story like a hero’s journey (or the death of a martyr) involves an ideological violence – if the events are by definition organic, like a tree, the limbs and branches must be pretty drastically twisted and pruned to get it to conform to the shape desired by the author/arborist.

Once a human becomes a martyr, their multi-dimensional, complex reality tends to disappear quickly into their symbolism, into the idea of them and what they stood for. And of course, what they stood for is open to interpretation – it’s a narrative which is highly subjective and can be shaped and manipulated by different people and forces for different purposes.

These symbols quickly become just another rhetorical device in whatever ongoing conflict is being discussed, argued or fought over. This martyred person is packaged with the story of their martyring and what they stood for, and deployed to evoke strong feelings, make political points, mobilize supporters, raise money, even provoke violence… at which point we have to wonder: how does this relate back to the human who once walked around this neighborhood, had family and friends and enemies and opinions and habits, pooped, etc.?

As quickly as activists can make a martyr of someone wrongfully killed by the police, people who disagree with them can turn around and make martyrs out of the police officers involved (who are usually still alive but instructed to avoid media attention as much as possible). The event that served as a flashpoint is quickly abstracted beyond recognition and becomes a mere intensifier of the emotions, opinions and biases that were usually there already.

Stories are powerful. Hero stories are powerful and popular because they work, they simplify to great effect, evoking deep emotions and provoking swift action. Martyred heroes are particularly potent symbols because the person at the origin of the story isn’t hanging around to complicate it with their messy and contradictory humanness.

Whatever side of whatever issue we may be on, we demand the world conform to our hero stories at our own peril. Few if any of us, while living, can meet heroic specifications for uncomplicated, courageous goodness and righteousness. If we need heroes to believe in, and only the martyred heroes really (posthumously) qualify, we’re on a very dangerous cultural trajectory indeed.

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