Martyr Archetype

Learn all about the martyr archetype, including definition, characteristics, examples and how it relates to the Caregiver archetype.

What is the Martyr Archetype?

The martyr archetype is most easily summed up with one word – sacrifice. The martyr will give all they have in sacrifice to the needs of those around them, whatever the pain or cost to themselves.

Indeed, they will do so even though those around them may not actually want them to make the sacrifice in the first place and have not asked for it.

They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifices to advance the causes which they believe in. They may even secretly find some pleasure in their own suffering.

Martyr Archetype Characteristics & Traits

  • The archetypal martyr is skilled at spotting opportunities for action or seeing what needs to be done in any given situation to achieve the desired outcome for the good of the majority.
  • They can remain objective where the passions of others would overcome them, considering, assessing and balancing what is good and right in a situation and then acting to achieve those ends.
  • Where they act, they seek no direct reward or obligation.
  • The true archetypal martyr acts with freedom, selflessness, and lack of fear.
  • For some archetypal martyrs, it may be that the result of their sacrifice is less important than being noticed for making the sacrifice in the first place.
  • They enjoy being seen to suffer for the benefit of others and being acknowledged for having done so, especially where the recipients of their sacrifice are ungrateful.
  • They tend to enjoy playing the victim and do not shy away from telling people about their sacrifice and suffering.

Martyr Archetype Examples

Examples of the archetypal martyr from history include Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. 19-year-old Joan of Arc was martyred by being burned at the stake for heresy in 15th century France.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in the process of leading the Civil Rights Movement, dying for the cause of Equal Rights for all races. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated leading the fight for Indian independence.

In film and TV the martyr is a common archetype – the character who must sacrifice and/or die in order for the lead protagonist to go on and achieve their ultimate ends.

An example is the lead character of Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator, a man who ultimately sacrifices his life in order to free Rome of the tyranny of the patricidal Emperor Commodus.

Further Reading

Further reading on the martyr archetype includes:

  • The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By – Innocent, Orphan, Magician, Wanderer, Martyr, Warrior – by Carol S Pearson
  • Joan of Arc – by Helen Castor
  • Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi – by Stanley Wolpert
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