Must be Monday. New podcast! Just click on the fancy logo below.
"What is the terror of death? That we die, our work incomplete. What is the joy of life? To die, knowing that our task is done."
At least according to Agent Scully
of The X-Files
, most people want to live forever
. Of course, that is not the case in reality
. For some the inevitability
of death is just the way things are
. For the Death Seeker
, on the other hand, death can't come soon enough. In many modern societies, Death Seekers
are very rare, and in many they are regarded as mentally unstable, but sometimes, the Death Seeker
can become a role model.
For this society, what is best in life
is to die knowing that one has done so for the right cause. In extreme cases, to die for one's beliefs is seen as the only truly worthwhile thing one can
do with one's life, and living a long, happy, and healthy life to a ripe old age and dying peacefully
is seen as undesirable, dishonorable, or a burden. Children are encouraged to grow up to be a Death Seeker
. Soldiers who died in suicidal attacks, victims of cannibalism or Human Sacrifice
practices, women who suffered Death by Childbirth
, and sometimes even executed prisoners, are remembered as heroes.
In some cases, the optimum death is an Obi-Wan Moment
on a battlefield, for others it is a long and painful death, so one can not merely die, but suffer
for one's beliefs. This can sometimes lead to a culture of Nightmare Fetishists
which may appear to be Always Chaotic Evil
to outsiders squicked
by their rituals; See Blue and Orange Morality
In fiction, expect the leadership of this culture to be revealed as Hypocrites
, who refuse to "go down with the ship" because they're "too important to the cause". Alternately, the leader may be a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds
or Omnicidal Maniac
For characters who might find the ideals of such a culture to their liking, see: The Atoner
, Blood Knight
, Death Equals Redemption
, Death Seeker
, Glory Seeker
, Honor Before Reason
, Martyr Without a Cause
, Proud Warrior Race Guy
, Who Wants to Live Forever?
For those who might find the idea abhorrent, see Living Forever Is Awesome
, Lovable Coward
, Immortality Seeker
According to Science
Magazine, being willing to die in battle for ones country, or comrades, is a form of in-group Martyrdom Culture known as Parochial Altruism
and is regulated by hormone-inducing stressful situations.
Please exercise caution in writing examples, especially in the Real Life
section, as it has the potential to develop into edit wars.
Anime and Manga
- In Double Arts, the Sisters are an order of teenaged girls trained as sympathetic healers of a deadly disease. They have a heightened resistance to the disease, but because they absorb the symptoms of their patients, they are shunned by society and few of them live to be twenty years old...and yet they go about their work cheerfully and willingly, and many of them openly consider it to be an honor. This freaks the male lead out severely, particularly as he gets to know and love one of the Sisters.
- Noted in Persepolis.
- This developed more accidentally over time than being the premeditated intention of the writers, but the mainstream superhero communities in both the Marvel and DC universes is this. Heroes are expected to do anything and everything to save a civilian — not civilians in general, a civilian — before themselves, even when the civilian is not innocent or even evil. Particularly true in the Marvel universe, as threats tend to be more personal, less apocalyptic, and rarely result in mass civilian deaths there, so letting civilians die is usually cause for great personal shame rather than being seen as an unavoidable tragedy. (And yet Marvel civilians are far bigger nasty suspicious Ungrateful Bastards than DC civilians. Go figure.)
- In the DC Universe, the denizens of Apokalypse all ultimately desire to die for the glory of Dark Seid. Though it's made clear that life under Darkseid is so miserable their deaths would be just as meaningless as their lives.
- Lampshaded in 300: "...Taught that death on the battlefield is the greatest honor he could achieve..."
- In Conan The Barbarian 1982, Thulsa Doom demonstrates his power by calmly ordering one of his worshippers to leap to her death. "Come to me, my child."
- An old martial arts movie where a student at a martial arts school bows before the masters and a visiting champion. The champion proceeds to kill the student, and two younger students silently remove the body. It is explained that to die in the process of creating such a great master is an honor that students would compete to obtain.
- In Monty Pythons Life Of Brian: the Judean People's Front "crack suicide squad." They attack by killing themselves.
Otto: That showed them, huh?
Brian: You silly sods!
- Indirectly inverted in the famous opening (and entirely fictitious) speech of Patton:
"I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."
- The Sword Cult/Cult of Steel in Richard Adams' Horseclans novels has this attitude as part of its code of honor.
- In Clan Of The Cave Bear, at the once-every-seven-years Clan Meeting, the young hunters attack a tamed Cave Bear, which fights back. (Think bear baiting but with people instead of dogs.) To be selected to participate in the ritual is an honor, to be wounded by the bear is a greater honor, and to die at the paws of the bear the greatest honor of all.
- In the Forgotten Realms novels this became a big problem for new god of the dead Kelemvor when he tried to be more rewarding of heroism as people starting committing heroic suicide with alarming regularity and effective death cults started popping up. The experience was sufficiently troubling that Kelemvor eventually changed his alignment from Neutral Good to Lawful Neutral and after he couldn't be bothered to really care.
- Averted, strangely enough, with the Mandalorians. They're fine with dying in battle, but are rather pragmatic about it. They revere those who live long enough to raise families and pass on their ways. Their Battle Cry translates to "Today is a good day for someone else to die!"
- In The Lost Fleet series, after spending a century locked in a Forever War, both sides are churning through troops so fast that they actively promote Honor Before Reason mindsets, lacking the time and will for any proper military training.
- The Kandilkari in Star Trek: Stargazer are an extreme example. Picard is rather disconcerted by the one under his command, and his desperation to sacrifice himself for the good of the ship, even if such a sacrifice is not remotely warranted.
- To a lesser extent, the Race in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series. While they don't actively seek to die, they will gladly do so, as they believe that, after death, they will eternally serve the spirits of the past emperors. That's the only thing they find in common with the Japanese (or Nipponese, as they call them). However, they have no problem surrendering to the enemy in battle if surrounded, as dying needlessly serves no purpose. Not only do they not go the name-rank-serial-number route, they will often actively assist the captors to the detriment of the Race. This is because anyone who has captured them is automatically their "Superior Sir" and thus must be obeyed.
- The Yuuzhan Vong of the New Jedi Order combine this with the Combat Sadomasochist for a truly terrifying result; culturally obsessed with pain and death, the highest honor they can imagine is to suffer and die nobly- and they want to make sure everybody else does too. Needless to say, there's more than a bit of ritualized Body Horror, Blood Knight tendencies and sacrifice of sentient beings going around here. According to their religion, the gods gave mortals three great gifts- life, pain, and death. Three guesses as to which of these is the most valued, and which the least.
- Most of the Boarderlanders in Wheel of Time seem to take this mentality,particularly those living in Shienar and the few remaining Malkeri.
- The Discworld franchise gives us Cohen the Barbarian, an uncharacteristically unsubtle parody of Thud and Blunder heroic fantasy in general and Conan the Barbarian in particular. Apparently his tribe believed something very like this, but he didn't buy into it and came to much the same conclusion as George Patton did in the quote a bit further up the page. This informed his entire approach to the adventuring business, and is precisely why he's one of the very, very few examples of the Barbarian Hero archetype on the Discworld to still be at it in his eighties.
- Klingons and the Jem'Hadar from Star Trek. The first lot are (of course) your Viking IN SPACE, and the other lot were genetically engineered and conditioned from birth to be violent and drug addicts.
- The Jem'Hadar aren't really a good example. They don't seek to die in battle, they already consider themselves dead in the service of their Physical Gods, the Founders, (there is NO OTHER DEATH for a Jem'Hadar). They know the Founders consider them to be disposable soldiers and regard themselves as such as well. The only reason they even try to survive a battle is so that the Founders will have the benefit of veteran soldiers (living as long as 14 years is enough to earn "Honored Elder" status for a Jem'Haddar). Their Battle Cry actually seems to be an inverse of the Klingons' own: Where the Klingons say "Today is a good day to die!", the Jem'hadar say "Victory is Life!" They want to win the battle so they can live to serve their gods some more.
- The "Kamikaze Scotsmen" sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus.
- The (admittedly heterogeneous) hunter subculture in Supernatural seems to have elements of this—it's rarely good that people die in the line of duty, but winding up in a sanitarium like Travis is apparently worse, providing the 'sad' of Dean's "it always ends bloody or sad." This also means that the better class of hunters are outrageously willing to sacrifice their lives, and contributes heavily to the show's high mortality rate.
- Examples being the Harvelle's self-immolation delaying tactic and Bobby's choice to, when choosing what part of himself to stab with a demon-killing knife in the one second he had control, choosing right through the gut into his spine, instead of the thigh like a sane person. He spent the rest of the season paraplegic.
- The Winchesters are apparently especially firm in this belief, as well as prone to martyrdom, but in addition to that the show has a whole subtextual line looking back to Sam's first death, which was being stabbed In the Back by a man whose life he had just spared. It was stupid and achieved nothing as such, but he died honorably in the context of living on his own terms, and compared to all the other deaths in his family it was, in retrospect, a pretty good one. No being a ghost, no being dragged or jumping into Hell, no compromise with evil or loss of self...
- The Khanate of Orion in Task Force Games' Starfire game.
- Also the Rigellians, who regard ramming their ships into enemies as a perfectly valid combat tactic.
- As the Quotes Page will attest, the Imperium of Man is one of the darker, more borderline-Nihilistic examples of this in fiction.
- By attest, we mean it takes up the entire page.
- BattleTech's Clan Warriors who live past 35 are considered to be cowards. Also dying in glorious battle is the easiest way for a warrior's genes to be passed onto the next generation with how their Designer Baby eugenics program is set up.
- Averted with those who have proven they're too Bad Ass to die however.
- The Covenant in Halo and Halo 2 display this at times, complete with hypocritical leadership.
- By Halo 3 the Elites have changed sides as they find the Humans they were previously fighting against more to their liking.
- Among the Elites, there is the position of Arbiter, a rank which disgraced Elite commanders can be given to go on suicide missions and die as the will of the Prophets. The irony should not be lost that the last Arbiter appointed ended up leading the Elites in rebellion against the Prophets. And is still alive and kickin'..
- The Shofixti from Star Control. Each of their ships is described as having a "Glory Device" strapped onto it. At the beginning of Star Control II, you are told that rather than be enslaved by the Ur-Quan they blew up their sun, wiping out their entire planet, race, and a good chunk of the Ur-Quan fleet. Then it turns out those were the nicer Ur-Quan they just killed, and their less pleasant cousins no longer have obstacles in the way.
- The only Shofixti you can find in the game are Captain Tanaka (or his brother Captain Katana if you kill Tanaka), who broke the activation switch for the Glory Device in his excitement, and a dozen Shofixti females in Human Popsicle state. In the Ur-Quan Masters version, the Shofixti have a clear Japanese accent, which only serves to reinforce their kamikaze status.
- A strange and vaguely disturbing example from early Command & Conquer games; when the AI was losing, it would often sell off all it's buildings because sold buildings would generate handful of soldiers (Presumably the guards), and have the massed infantry charge your base. These charges were not usually effective, but it's disturbing to watch the GDI hand everyone a gun, sell their infrastructure, and order an ineffective last-ditch charge rather than retreat or surrender. This made more sense out of NOD, being fanatics and all.
- The Qunari of Dragon Age seem to have this as part of their hats due to their devotion to The Qun. It's stated by Sten that the one of the few things that they do celebrate is when one of them dies a "heroic" death.
- The name of the Warrior Caste segment of the Polaris, in Escape Velocity Nova, translates to "Fallen Leaves". They are taught to consider themselves already dead in the service of their people. They seek no personal glory in death, instead they dedicate their lives to protecting the lives and values of their people.
- In Final Fantasy X, the summoners and guardians who give their lives to destroy Sin and bring about the Calm (an era of peace) are lauded as heroes; in fact, the pilgrimages that the summoners and their parties take are practically treated as races. Too bad the whole process only perpetuates a cycle; the Calm doesn't last for very long until Sin returns again as Yu Yevon simply uses the guardian who was sacrificed for the destruction ritual to recreate the beast, who is an armour of sorts for Yu Yevon himself. Only the Al Bhed seem to oppose this culture, and are ostracised from society as a result.
- By the time 12,000 years have passed since Asura's death, his former comrades have turned the worldview into this, with simple townsfolk praying to the Mantra-collecting devices and begging to be slain by the Seven Deities in their everlasting fight against the Gohma.
- The Asura's Wrath example is a really extreme and very cruel example of this, as it's not just towns folk, but the entire Human race (Aside from one little girl that befriends Asura and shares his vengeful viewpoint on the whole situation) wants this to happen to them.
- Humanity, according to the Tarka, suffers from this in Sword Of The Stars.
- Probably every religion you've heard of contains radicals who believe this. Those which didn't have this, you haven't heard of, because they were successfully converted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes or his local counterpart. Fundamentalist Islam is notorious these days, but the ancient Romans had their own variety of suicide bombing (like most things Roman, commoners need not apply). Even Jesus Christ stated that "he who would save his life will lose it, and he who would lose his life for My sake will save it," and St. John's Gospel (verse 15:13) states that "[n]o one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" — which is meant to foreshadow the Crucifixion, but has obvious military applications as well.
- There were always two varieties of martyrdom in Christianity: the type in which one didn't resist the enemies of the Faith, and the type in which one did. Most of the controversy about this course of action in the modern English-speaking world derives from a translation in the King James Version which was correct in its day, but is less so now.
- On the other hand, "true-church" Protestants who took the New Testament at its word were especially eager to give up their lives in the service of pacifism, and "martyrdom stories" would be the primary accounts of their church's development, with each church leader seeking to outdo the last in outrageous acts of asceticism.
- Of course, the people torturing them were other Protestants and The Spanish Inquisition who claimed, in turn, that torture would have a cleansing effect if they recanted, not a punitive one.
- Protestants as well as Catholics got in on this, especially but not exclusively during the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some Protestant clergy in 17th-century England taught that any soldier who died in battle was assured of Heaven — a doctrine rather evocative of our next example.
- There is a saying, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," and it originates from the fact that the intense persecution at the hands of the Romans only made the Church grow faster. Considering the fact that Christian martyrs were often tortured and given several chances to recant their testimony, it's no surprise that they'd win many converts- you have to be thoroughly convinced that you're right in order to choose death rather than recanting, despite excruciating pain.
- In the third and fourth centuries after Constantine I changed the Christians from the fringe to the mainstream and consequently lost their traditional means of displaying the extent of their faith, there was some difficulty. The response included statements like, "let no man say, brethren, that in our times there are no combats for martyrs. For our peace has its martyrs also." Referring to the invention of ascetic monasticism as a major religious practice. (Which required a kick in the pants every few centuries on the whole 'ascetic' thing, because a counterculture subsides into an institution every time it survives long enough.)
- Probably the most curious case (at least according to some sources) of early Christian Martyrdom Culture was the small African sect called the circumcellions. These guys figured that a martyr's death is the best thing that can happen to them, so they attacked travellers with clubs in hope they'll get pissed and kill them.
- The Vikings famously believed that the only way into the Warrior's Heaven of Valhalla was to die in combat. (An honorable execution would do in a pinch.) If you died in bed, of age or illness, you went straight to Hel.
- This created occasional problems for those heroes of legend who were just too damn good to die, no matter how many battles they charged into screaming their heads off. For example, the Saga of Starkodder, takes him through many a battle, and he always somehow manages to survive. Eventually, when he's getting old and infirm, he starts to be afraid that he'll die in bed and thus make his lifetime of heroism moot. So he tracks down a worthy youth - the Prince of Sweden, as I recall - and offers him a little 'deal'... he'll let the prince behead him, so he can have a worthy death, and if the prince can leap between his head and his body before either hit the ground, Starkodder's legendary invincibility will be transferred to him. The prince takes him up on the offer, but after cutting off the head, he recants in the last second and leaps back instead, realizing that Starkodder's hugely muscular body would crush him if it fell on him - and that Starkodder had thus aimed to murder his executioner post-mortem. Sure enough, when the headless corpse falls over, it leaves a crater of impact - and the head, filled with bloodthirst even in its last seconds, bites the grass as it lands.
- Actually, this was a problem in Real Life as well. Charging the enemy lines stark naked with a giant axe screaming bloody murder was a surprisingly safe and reliable profession in Viking times; when the Norse civil wars ended in the 10th century AD, one of the challenges Scandinavian society faced was what to do with all those unemployed berserkers. And that's all you need to know about early medieval Europe.
- In order to deal with this problem, some Vikings interpreted the conditions for entering Valhalla simply as dying with your sword. Therefore, handing an aged hero a sword in his deathbed was seen as an acceptable solution to this dilemma. On the other hand, throught the evidence are uncertain, it's told that the elderly would commit suicide by jumping off cliffs to show the Gods they did not fear death.
- To straighten the record about martyrdom in Islam, those who died in battle in service of God is automatically granted a place at the third highest level of heaven. The problem is deciding whether suicide bombers are considered martyrs (contrary to popular western perception, the majority of Muslims doesn't approve suicide bombing) as well those who blindly charge towards the enemy.
- Also, Islam condemns suicide and murder, so the only death in service of God is likely to be one purely in defense. Including defense of one's property and country, obviously, given Muhammad actively prosecuted a war in his lifetime.
- The additional problem with Islamic suicide bombings being that while the majority of all the world's Muslims don't support them, localized regional majorities do. So while Muslims everywhere might think suicide bombers are terrorists, various Muslim groups, mostly in regions like the Middle East and the parts of Western Europe affected by Mid Eastern religious geopolitics, actively consider the bombers to be freedom fighters.
- Traditional Japanese culture idolizes martyred heroes who were ready to strive for their goal, regardless of the cost. In fact, when Japanese commanders in World War II resorted to the Kamikaze suicide attacks to inflict some meaningful damage against the Allies, even they were surprised at how many eager volunteers they had.
- This also made them especially nasty on the defensive. In several of the island campaigns Japanese garrisons would launch massive bayonet charges when defeat seemed certain, and very few Japanese soldiers surrendered.
- And those that did still had a good chance of being shot by the Americans. Not so surprising when you look at how WW 2 American propaganda depicts the Japanese. You have to look twice to see it is not Germany Anti-Russian a.k.a. subhuman propaganda.
- Not just the propaganda. The Japanese used the tactic of faked surrenders—a soldier comes up to the Americans with his hands up, then pulls a grenade out of his pants. This not only lets him take a few Americans with him; it encourages the Americans to be trigger-happy about surrendering Japanese who might not be actually surrendering. Which in turn helps discourage Japanese from surrendering. The Japanese are not the only people to use fake surrenders for exactly this reason.
- This is why America believed it would happen when the Emperor called for every last citizen to die fighting before offering surrender, and consequently dropped the Bomb because taking Okinawa had been bloodbath enough.
- " . . . be resolved that duty is heavier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather." — First Precept of the Imperial Rescript to Japanese Soldiers and Sailors.
- The "It is a good day to die" motto associated with Klingons actually comes from a Native American tribe. They, or possibly a different tribe, also had a custom of nailing down their capes to the ground so as to be literally incapable of running from the enemy. And in the North-Eastern tribes, it was apparently an honor to be captured by your enemies, so as to show off your capacity for resisting torture. (In fact, the Iroquois started to convert to Catholicism after they captured a number of Jesuit priests when they overran the Hurons, and were very impressed with how uncomplainingly they endured being tortured to death.)
- Lakota Dog Soldiers pinned the ends of their breechclouts to the ground and faced their enemies. Given that the average Native American combat was not about fighting to the death, someone who did that was supremely badass.
- In Maya religion, the sun was escorted through the sky by soldiers who died in battle, mothers who died in childbirth, and sacrificial victims.
- The Aztecs started out as this, but you know... it's so much fun when the other guy sacrifices his life.
- They did have a lot of volunteer sacrifices from among their own. Tezcatlipoca's year-kings are especially noteworthy; it was all about the honor with sacrifice. Even war-captives were considered honorable martyrs, especially the ones who contributed to the sun not dying. Of course, once they got the empire it became a lot about politics and the honor thing became probably, in some cases, half lip-service because what they were primarily doing was asserting dominance via human tithe.
- The only Spartans who were given tombstones were men who died in battle, and women who died in childbirth.
- Which, you know, is kind of progressive, in a way. At least they acknowledged that child birth is less than fun and honored those who were just trying to bring more little warriors into their supermuscled culture.
- Eugenics program. They also gave women athletic training so they'd have better babies and survive more of them. Of course, none of that is going to help in the long run if you have limited sexual opportunities even after marriage, high mortality, and a dozen ways to lose your citizenship and not one to gain it.
- In Irish culture, fasting and hunger striking has used as a tool of political redress since the time of the Brehon Laws in the 7th-8th century. The most famous recent example is the 1981 deaths by starvation of Bobby Sands and nine other prison inmates, in protest of British abuses in Northern Ireland. W.B. Yeats describes it thus:
For there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom, that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another's threshold till he die,
The Common People, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King's.
- Friedrich Nietzsche offered the existence of these types of culture as evidence that "the will to power" was stronger than "the will to live". In death martyrs gain more respect and status than they could in life.
- Richard Dawkins suggested that martyrdom was a highly effective means to spread memetic viruses.
- Hardline Communist/Fascist cultures tend to play up the mythology of its martyrs, what with the whole song-and-dance about man laying down his life for the good of the state being very good for propaganda. China had Lei Fung (whose life is likely completely fabricated a la 1984), Cuba had Che Guevara. Nazi Germany had Herbert Norkus and Horst Wessel, the USSR had Pavlik Morozov, etc. To what extent the rank and file citizens believed in the propaganda is not as well known.
- The Roman empire, or at least one of its more famous poets, had a bit of this going on as well. The Patton quote alludes to the Latin phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori", which translates loosely to "It is sweet and right to die for your country" and comes from one of Horace's more famous works.
- Seen It a Million Times where terrorist groups, street gangs, religious cults, etc. are depicted this way.
- There was a story on the History Channel about the way a number of ancient cultures saw it as an honor to be chosen as a human sacrifice, as in many cases the victim was seen as the earthly representative of a Physical God, a person whose suffering would be highly regarded by the gods, and it was pretty much guaranteed that the gods would take measures to make sure you got a Died Happily Ever After ending.
- The idea that "you are what you eat" may stem from similar roots. In some cannibalistic societies, a great warrior or other person who had "lived their life well" was seen as providing a potential spiritual or physical benefit to those who ate their flesh. So to be cannibalized is a compliment; to die and be discarded would be the worst of insults.