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What is a Martyr?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A martyr is someone who is willing to face death rather than renounce religious or personal beliefs. Many religions include a tradition of martyrdom, and martyrs are often held in high esteem since they represent the pinnacle of faithfulness to some people. The term is also used to describe people who die in political struggles, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, who was assassinated during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The term comes from the Greek martus, meaning “witness.” “Witness” is often used in a religious context to describe someone who testifies on behalf of his or her religion, in the hopes of converting or educating people about it. As one might imagine, in periods of religious suppression, witnessing would have been extremely dangerous, and as a result someone might be martyred because he or she refused to renounce an undesirable religious faith.

In Judaism, martyrdom is a very important concept, perhaps because the Jewish people have historically been subject to persecution by many cultures. To become a martyr is to personally affirm the Jewish faith and people; many martyrs also hope that their deaths serve a greater cause, perhaps paving the way to a wider acceptance of their religion. Martyrs are also important in Christian faith; many have been canonized as saints in recognition of their contribution to the body of Christian faith.

It is also possible to find martyrs in Islam and Buddhism, along with other religions. In religions which believe in reincarnation, some people use the term “martyr” to describe someone who willingly puts off higher incarnations because he or she wants to serve mankind. In all religions, martyrdom is closely tied with the concept of personal sacrifice for a greater good. This sense of personal sacrifice is also implied in discussions of non-religious martyrs like people who advocate for political and social change.

Some people also use the term “martyr” disparagingly, to describe someone who complains about his or her suffering at every opportunity. The term is also used to discuss people who complain about being in bad situations without doing anything about it. For example, someone who complains constantly to coworkers about dental pain may be called a martyr behind his or her back, with the implication that he or she should just go to the dentist and get the situation dealt with.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By BrickBack — On Mar 02, 2011

Subway11 - I agree that many people fall into this category because they do want the attention but after a while people get sick of hearing the complaints.

By subway11 — On Feb 28, 2011

I think that a modern day martyr is a person that really seeks the attention and adulation of others because of his or her suffering.

It is a person that complains about how much work they do so that other people will praise him or her for their hard work.

Instead this approach tends to backfire because many people see it as manipulative. People have choices in life and when you choose to be involved in an inequitable situation you really cannot blame anyone but yourself.

My sister is a little like this sometimes. She complains about all of the work that she has to do, but whenever her husband tries to help her with things she disparages him and says that she has to do it because she will do it best.

My feeling is if you don’t want the help then don’t complain. She also does not know how to say no to people and takes on a bit more than she can comfortably handle sometimes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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