What do you think are some of the similarities that Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian peoples share in terms of why heroes might be very important to their cultures? Why do you think these cultures told stories about heroes and passed those legends down? And what about us? Do we still tell stories of heroism?
One of the first known poets and authors was the figure from ancient Greece known as Hesiod, who is believed to have lived around 750 B.C., or, possibly as recent as 650 B.C. Living in the time of Homer, author of The Odyssey and The Iliad, Hesiod wrote in his semi-famous Theogony that "we know how to speak many false things as though they were true." As one of the earliest purveyors of mythological tales, Hesiod knew from what he spoke.
We do not know, with great precision, anyway, the actual genesis of the concept of hero worship. What we do know is that the ancient Greeks were probably the first (although, the Hindus were right there with them) to devise an intricate system of mythology to explain the universe and to provide spiritually aimless mortals with a sense of divine presence. With Zeus at the top of the mythological organizational hierarchy, the Greeks, and later the Romans, were able to live comfortably secure in the notion that the world's events were beyond their ultimate control. If Hesiod is credited with being the possible originator of mythology, though, it was Homer who best and most enduringly put these concepts to paper (or parchment), and who created the novel, complete with the eminently heroic figure of Odysseus (or Ulysses) and a series of antagonists or anti-heroes whom Odysseus was forced to overcome, such as the giant, one-eyed Cyclops, and the beautiful but dangerous Sirens. True hero worship could, then, be said to have originated with The Odyssey.
In roughly the same period of time as Homer and Hesiod were writing, somebody -- probably an Assyrian -- in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) was authoring The Epic of Gilgamesh, a series of tablets on which was engraved a very long poem. Gilgamesh is essentially a mythological tale about an autocratic, abusive king who goes in search of immortality. As noted, the authorship of Gilgamesh is unknown, and it is equally important to note that the identity of Homer has also been brought into question [on this point, see "Author Says a Whole Culture -- not a Single 'Homer' -- Wrote 'Iliad,' 'Odyssey']. The point, though, is that the concept of hero worship goes back a seriously long way. In fact, not only was the fictional character Odysseus possibly the first heroic figure, but even Homer himself would be posthumously anointed such status, as when Egyptian Pharoah Ptolemy V Philopator constructed a statue, the Homereion, in the ancient port city of Alexandria. Such was the enduring appeal of hero worship.
All of this background is provided for a reason: The concept of hero worship has its antecedents in ancient civilizations and the reasons for the development of mythological figures is simply inseparable from the story of mankind. All we can do is speculate as to the reasons why hero worship came into existence, and why modern man continues to engage in hero worship today, even if modern-day heroes run the gamut from military veterans to famous athletes. Ancient civilizations conjured such myths, and we study them today precisely because of the history of mankind is a continuum with tales and histories (true and false) dutifully passed down from generation to generation as a way of retaining a sense of commonality among various groups or categories of people and of perpetuating those unifying themes. Modern-day hero worship exists because people continue to need idols upon whom to look for inspiration. We can't hit 50 home runs while batting .300 and winning Gold Gloves, so we cheer and look up to those who can. [The baseball metaphor is particularly interesting for the damage done to the image of the sport and to the reputations of once-idolized figures found to have cheated through the use of performance-enhancing substances.]
Similarly, civilizations worship figures who inspire them to greatness as a nation, an especially potent phenomenon when those figures exploit ancient or more recent grievances for political gain, as one could say has been the case with respect to the theocratic leadership of modern-day Iran, which idolizes the late Ayatollah Khomenei and his successor, current leader Khamenei, both of whom justify continued repression of the Iranian population on the basis of past injustices perpetrated against Iran by outside powers. In much of Latin America, the figure of late Venezuelan leader Simon Bolivar remains revered because of his legacy of opposing Spanish colonialism, which, to many indigenous peoples across the region was subsequently replaced by American hegemony. This is not just respect for a long-deceased leader; it is full-scale hero worship. Americans on the left-side of the political spectrum continue to revere the figure of the late Che Guevara for his opposition to U.S. influence in Latin America. The late American President John F. Kennedy has remained a heroic figure to many not just in the United States but around the world because of the promise of a better, more enlightened future that these individuals believe Kennedy represented. On the right, many American conservatives view the presidency of Ronald Reagan much the same way.
In short, hero worship exists for a variety of reasons, not least of all because of the need of many people for something or someone in which to believe. When formerly-revered figures fail in the public eye, they are said to have "feet of clay" after all, a reference to the new-found fallibility of such figures personified in the Bible by Nebuchadnezzar, who was said in the Book of Daniel to have an upper body of precious jewels and metals but feet of part iron and part clay, meaning a built-in weakness. Anyway, Alex Rodriguez is derided for having cheated while Derek Jeter marches inexorably towards the Hall of Fame.