Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr. ” Although this statement leaves sparse room for argument, it does little to define who can really be called a martyr. Are the soldiers fighting in Iraq martyrs or is Osama Bin Laden, who once said that “I’m fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God”, a real martyr? Let’s try to find the answer by looking at changes in the definition of the word martyr from the time the word first existed.
It is a seemingly difficult task to define the word martyr by looking at the history, but I will try my best to make its meaning as clear as possible. The word martyr was originally taken from the Greek word martur. Martur literally means “a witness. ” This generated later forms of the word in Old French and Old English, eventually influenced by Christian traditions and used to refer to “those who performed special deeds in the name of this religion, specifically the sacrifice of life,” as these martyrs were “witnesses” on behalf of their faith.
In bible, martyr was described as the one who bears witness of the truth and suffers death in the cause of Christ. The bible also went on to say that Stephen was the first martyr. In 978 King of England was murdered by his stepmother. Miracles were reported at his grave and he was popularly regarded as a martyr. During the next few years the definition of the word underwent a sea-change. In 1340 a martyr was described as someone who dies in an evil cause, or in a cause perceived as opposed to right, usually with modifying word such as devil.
In 1661 a martyr was defined as a person who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings. This definition was formerly applied to Charles I by those members of the Anglican Church who regarded his execution in 1649 as an act of religious persecution. Then about one hundred years’ later in 1751 Richardson Clarissa replicated the 1340 definition of martyr when he quoted that, “He who perishes in needless dangers, is the Devil’s Martyr.
” In Roman Catholic liturgy, martyrs rank before all other saints. Ironically a martyr has also been described as a person who dies in an evil cause, or in a cause perceived as opposed to right. Later in 1834 “tolpuddle martyrs” was the name given to British farm laborers in Dorset, S England, who were sentenced to transportation for forming a trade union. There have also been a lot of quotes which make fun of the word. As in 1847 F. A. Kemble said, “She is a martyr to dyspepsia and bad cooking.
” Also as recently as in 1988 a scientist was quoted as saying, “A lot of famous names are cited as martyrs to the creative malady. ” At present, martyr can best be described as someone who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principles. Sarcastically, at the same time, it is also defined as a person who ostentatiously displays their distress to gain sympathy. One thing that can surely be said about a martyr is that a martyr is not a coward.
Subsequently, martyr can not be described as an invertebrate. Martyr doesn’t lack strength or vitality. Martyr doesn’t back down from the belief that he holds. All this can be said about the martyr because every time someone is described as a martyr some sort of bravery is associated with him or her. For example, Stephen was described as the first martyr in the bible because his belief in Jesus Christ was so strong that he died for it. Someone who can die for a belief is not a coward.
Also, the fact that a martyr is not a craven can further be cemented from the comment that R. Nelson said in 1974. Nelson said, “It was necessary to resist unto blood to acquire the glorious privilege of a Martyr. ” A martyr is someone who suffers pain and more often than not dies for the sake of his belief and principle. Martyr is also someone who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty for refusing to renounce his religion. But everyone who is given the title of a martyr doesn’t die for the sake of his belief.
For example, King of England was killed by his stepmother and later on he was regarded as a martyr. Also an Indian freedom fighter Shahed Bhagat Singh was also known as a martyr for fighting for his country. Also in 1834 martyrs was the title given to the British farmers for forming a trade union. En masse, a martyr is someone who dies or suffers pain either for the sake of his belief or religion or principle or country or for anything that he believes in.
So after having gone through all the different definitions of the martyr let me conclude that martyr is a simple but unique and one of its kind six letter word that can evoke the feelings of pain, respect, love, anger, hatred, death and virtually any other wave of reaction. A martyr is not a hero – read Bin Laden – neither is he a villain – read Stephen – but he is just a regular person like me and you. The only difference between us and a martyr is that a martyr wears his passion on his sleeves and goes to an extent of death in order to fulfill that passion.