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Martyrdom Culture

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In today's prosperous developed countries where personal happiness is espoused as one of the highest goals in life, most ordinary people want to live a long time so they can enjoy life to the fullest, and then have a peaceful death surrounded by their family. A brave few in the military and emergency services might be called on to make a Heroic Sacrifice if the greater good requires it, but even then the goal is to accomplish their mission with as few losses as possible, and those who die in such a way are solemnly honored by their comrades and loved ones who wish they could have made it back alive. However, there are other cultures who see choosing death as a way to prove your commitment to some ideal, which is not merely a regrettable sacrifice, but a chance that any self-respecting person would seize upon.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_1'); })In extreme cases, to die for one's beliefs is seen as the only truly worthwhile thing one can do with their life, and living a long, happy, and healthy life to a ripe old age and dying peacefully is seen as disappointing or shameful. Children are encouraged to grow up to be a Doomed Moral Victor. 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. If they're asked to give a Rousing Speech, it will be "Go Ye Heroes, Go and Die".
In some cases, the optimum death is an Obi-Wan Moment on a battlefield, while 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; but who aren't necessarily evil in their own values system.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_2'); })In fiction, if members of this culture are antagonists often expect the leadership of this culture to be revealed as a Hypocrite, who refuse to sacrifice himself because he's "too important to the cause". Alternately, the leader may be a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds or Omnicidal Maniac. If members of this culture are protagonists then the leaders are more likely to be generals fighting against an evil empire who encourage their men to give it their all and not fear the possibility of death.
A protagonist example may be a Byronic Hero or Dark Messiah who is willing to endure intense suffering and pain for his beliefs and may well be expecting to die by the end of his mission.
Other characters who might find the ideals of such a culture to their liking, are: 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?, and Doomed Moral Victor.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_3'); })For those who might find the idea abhorrent, see Living Forever Is Awesome, Lovable Coward, Brilliant, but Lazy, and 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.
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Film: Inglorious Basterds
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Starbound: The Avian Rite of Ascension, whereby an Avian tries to prove their devotion to Kluex and reclaim their wings by leaping from the temple's summit, is the greatest mark of faith a devotee can earn, and their remains will be interred with the highest honors. Also, being chosen as a live sacrifice to stem Kluex's wrath is considered another great honor. (Interestingly, the chosen have the option to refuse, though at the cost of being banished and declared no longer an Avian.)
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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. This applies especially to mages, who they treat with more suspicion than any other faction. A qunari mage who gets even a taste of freedom is considered "corrupted", and must die by their master's hand or their own. The Arishok treats a mage's ritual suicide as the only choice, and the suggestion that it may have been difficult as an insult.
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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.
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Attack on Titan:
The military does not focus upon victory but encourages soldiers to die as bravely and in as useful a fashion as possible. Many of the characters, similarly, seem obsessed with finding a way to die in as useful and meaningful way as possible. Eren goes out of his way to call bullshit on this as often as he can.
Because the antagonists are Not So Different, this occurs in the Warriors' side as well. Eldians are subjected to propaganda that frames military service as "redemption" for the sins of their ancestors, encouraging them to sacrifice themselves fighting for their oppressors. The Warrior Program in particular involves children as young as 5 years old enduring brutal training in hopes of receiving the greatest "honor" of being selected as a Warrior. Warrior candidate Falco Grice points out that becoming a Warrior really just means being cursed to die after 13 years....if being put on the front lines of every battle doesn't kill them first. His opinion is considered heresy, and potentially punishable by his entire family being executed for Treason.
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Parodied in one episode of Rick and Morty. Rick introduces Morty to an alien member of one such culture, who has hired Rick to kill him in an honorable manner so that he might go to their heaven. While at lunch before the deed is done, Morty comments that it must be nice to have proof of an afterlife. The alien, who has never received such proof, is freaked out, and runs out into the street, where he is hit by a car and taken to hell, while screaming about how they were right all along.
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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.
It's implied/stated that this is a result of their loss of the Force- without it they can't sense that they're alive, so the only way to validate their lives is with horrific pain and death. Fun guys.
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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 Harvelles' 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, go 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...
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In Monty Python's Life of Brian: the Judean People's Front "crack suicide squad." They attack by killing themselves.
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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.
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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.
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In The Machineries of Empire, the Kel culture values total obedience, even if this obedience gets them killed. They're perfectly willing - even encouraged to - throw their lives away for the Hexarchate, their symbol is sometimes called the "suicide hawk" and the first formation they discovered was the one that causes self-immolation.
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The Dwarves in The Order of the Stick are eventually revealed to be this. Thor and Hel made an arrangement that Hel gets the soul of any dwarf who doesn't die in battle, and Thor gets those that do. Thor, patron god of the dwarves, then goes and tells the dwarves about such agreement, and they all become a martyrdom culture. Hel is understandably not happy about this.
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In the DC Universe, the denizens of Apokalips all ultimately desire to die for the glory of Darkseid. Though it's made clear that life under Darkseid is so miserable, that their deaths would be just as meaningless as their lives.
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In the WarCraft universe, the Orcs are this to a tee. And it's starting to rub off on the other races of the Horde as well. LOK'TAR OGAR! ("Victory or death!")
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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.)
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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. Human Popsicle turned ''extremely Reluctant Hero Captain John "Black Jack" Geary eventually manages to instill some discipline and tactical sense into his subordinates, and ends up being almost solely responsible for ending the war.
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The War Boys in Mad Max: Fury Road. Most of them appear to be dying of radiation poisoning anyway, and are convinced that their leader, Immortan Joe, will give them immortality in Valhalla. Several are shown launching suicide attacks.
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Skyward: The Defiants glorify soldiers and honorable death to an absurd degree. The reasons are obvious, of course, considering they are constantly under threat from the Krell, but there is a counter-cultural revolution brewing that is very worried about the fact that they are basically a military dictatorship.
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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.
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It's mentioned in Halo: The Cole Protocol that when one of Thel 'Vadam's ancestors finally reclaimed his keep from usurpers, he didn't free his jailed loyalists, but executed them for the crime of not committing suicide.
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Klingons from Star Trek. They're essentially Vikings IN SPACE, with glorious death in battle being their aspiration. Their battle cry "Today is a good day to die!" reflects this.
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Desconstructed in Silence with the Jesuit priests who are tortured by the Japanese into renouncing their faith. Since they were raised to believe martyrdom is the highest honor a Christian can aspire to, they are prepared to die rather than commit apostasy. However, martyrdom is intended to be done on behalf of others and the priests have to confront the fact their flock is suffering when they are martyring themselves on their shepherd's behalf, something they cannot bear.
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In What Might Have Been, one of the reasons why Pink Diamond was so reluctant to reveal herself was because she knew that her court would mindlessly throw themselves against Homeworld's forces out of blind loyalty as their Diamond, something that drastically contradicts the Crystal Gem's philosophy of free-will and independence. This is something Garnet (being half Ruby, who were created to be nothing but disposable red shirts) could relate with.
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In Lexx, the League of 20,000 Planets is a martyrdom culture revolving around His Divine Shadow. His Divine Shadow has spent generations to make humans worship him to the point that they will kill themselves on his orders. This is because he's actually an Insect who realized the best way to defeat humanity was to have them defeat themselves.
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In Blasphemous, the people of the land of Cvstodia are defined by two things: their unwavering faith in the Miracle, and their obsession with expressing that faith through physical and spiritual suffering. Nearly every living soul in Cvstodia is engaged in some form of penitent behavior, ranging from vows of silence and barefoot pilgrimages all the way up to extreme self-mutilation. Unfortunately for the faithful of Cvstodia, the power of the Miracle is very real, and those who pray fervently enough will often find their prayers granted, usually in the most unpleasant manner possible. And if one's prayers are for eternal torment as punishment for one's sins, well, Be Careful What You Wish For....
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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 badass to die and manage to win a Bloodname, however. At that point it's possible to keep going as long as you're able to fight, with a few noteworthy examples managing to survive into their 80s and 90s.
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Most of the Boarderlanders in The Wheel of Time seem to take this mentality,particularly those living in Shienar and the few remaining Malkeri.
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Indirectly inverted in the famous (and entirely fictitious) opening speech of Patton:
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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.
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The Elder Scrolls
The Nords, a Proud Warrior Race native to the harsh northern clime of Skyrim who seek to enter Sovngarde, a Valhalla expy, when they die. It should tell you something about any culture when "May you die with a sword in your hands" is a perfectly normal way to say goodbye to someone.
The other Proud Warrior Race of the series, the Orcs, are even worse about it. For Nords, dying in battle is simply a nice thing to have happen to you, maybe even preferable to other forms of death. For Orcs, it's the only acceptable form of death and all others are endlessly shameful, especially in the eyes of their deity, the Daedric Prince Malacath. One random encounter in Skyrim is the "Old Orc", who says he is too old to rule a clan or marry and have children, so he is wandering around actively looking for someone strong enough to kill him in a real fight. Sometimes you can find him near two dead sabre cats, who are no pushovers themselves, but evidently still weren't strong enough to take him down.
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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.
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On the plane of Amonkhet in Magic: The Gathering, the denizens of Naktamun believe that, as everyone who dies on their world rises as a mindless zombie, their only hope for salvation is to train ceaselessly and undergo five deadly trials — Solidarity, Knowledge, Strength, Ambition and Zeal — with the final trial ending in the deaths of all who partake. The worthies who reach the final trial become Exalted, and it is believed they will rise again to a new paradise of a world when the God-Pharaoh returns. Unfortunately, they learn the hard way that their faith is a Path of Inspiration.
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Not by default, but several Traditions in Mage: The Ascension quickly turn into this when The End of the World as We Know It swings around, the Order of Hermes in particular making a Tradition-wide Heroic Sacrifice.
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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.
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Doctor Who: The Sontarans are a clone race of trigger-happy alien soldiers who consider death in battle the highest honour imaginable ("Wonderful..."). This is so ingrained in them that when the Tenth Doctor gives General Staal his Don't Make Me Destroy You bit, Staal refuses to surrender and dares him to blow them all up.
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Parodied in "A Good Day to Die" in Galavant. It's a good day to die - as good as any other day, that is, and if we could postpone the battle to another day, that'd work out all right too.
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The Avengers (2012): Implied with the Chitauri in a deleted scene.
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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.
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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.
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Chronicles of the Kencyrath: The Kencyrath are a warrior people who have spent the past thirty millennia fighting a losing war against Perimal Darkling, falling back to a new world after each one is inevitably lost. They have come to deeply resent the god that first altered them to better fight this war, then abandoned them to do so without its aid—but, due to their strict code of honor, they are obligated to keep fighting. Kencyrs have come to believe that death followed by cremation to free the soul is the only way to escape their despised god with honor intact. Additionally, with their traditional judges separated from the rest of the Kencyrath, there is often no way to resolve situations where both options are somewhat dishonorable. For most Kencyrs, the only available solution is to chose the lesser evil and then commit suicide. "An honorable death wipes away all stains."
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Cyrano de Bergerac: This trope is deconstructed because the play shows it to his logical extreme: self-destruction. All the Gascons sincerely believe that to die for one's beliefs is the only truly worthwhile thing one can do with one's life. A man who is convinced he is going to die young in battle doesn’t want to be friendly with others or compromise to make something of his life. He will throw his life for a minor reason, act to others like a Jerkass at best or a Sociopathic Hero at worst. Who is the most popular among the Gascons? Cyrano, the guy who burns his bridges and resists every chance of glory or love he has. Who is the most unpopular? De Guiche, the guy who dares to live like he has a future and compromises to get power.
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In Babylon 5, it is revealed that a traditional way to resolve political disputes in Minbari culture is for the leader of one of the factions to burn themselves alive to show how convinced they are of their own righteousness. (As this is traditionally done using an energy beam from the ceiling, it provides a Cerebus Retcon explanation for the many previous scenes involving Minbari standing in shafts of light.)
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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."
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The following is a list of statements referring to the current page from other pages.

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Knight In Shining Tropes
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