There are 197 countries recognized by the United Nations or, in the case of 2 we included, the majority of the UN. I took a look at each country’s cultural history and pop culture to determine the most iconic hero to come from each nation. Sometimes the country does not have many fictional characters so they honor folks heroes. Whenever possible, I selected a character that appears more than once and that has been exported in some form of media to the rest of the world. This completes the first 50%.
There are many popular novelists in Ecuador. One popular sci-fi book is “I, Artificial” by Leonardo Wild, which was originally published in Germany so it has had some reach beyond its native country. Sally Montero is a young girl in Quito, Ecuador of the future where global warming is ruining the planet. Space colonization of the moon, Mars and some asteroids is in its infancy but she dreams of being able to escape Earth and truly be free, in space.
There are a lot of ancient Egyptian gods that continue to be reinterpreted in stories to this day. Among the most worshiped was Osiris, who died but was reborn and ruled the afterlife, fairly.
Álvaro Menén Desleal is a popular book and TV writer. One popular play by Desleal is Luz Negra (Black Light). It’s a conversation between two severed heads in the aftermath of an execution. The heads belong to Goter, a revolutionary, and Moter, a thief. The punishment of death was for their respective crimes of thinking and stealing. Strangers before death, they make friends under these unusual circumstances. But if they can converse, are they really dead? Endlessly sidetracked by the digressions of their colorful and absurd conversation, the two strive to know what kind of existence it is they are living.
Equatorial Guinea is a small nation with a rich history of oral legends and myths. Among the Fang tribe, one of the most popular is the story of Ngurangurane. He is the son of a great crocodile that terrorizes the people that raised him. He devises a plan to get the crocodile drunk and kill him, thus freeing his people.
The first novel printed in Eritrea’s native language, Tigrinya, was A Story of A Conscript by Gebreyesus Hailu and remains very important as a cultural touchstone in a country with many religions and languages. Tuquabo is conscripted into Eritrea’s army to fight the Italians in Libya, only to realize he is fighting to preserve the same type of colonial system he is battling.
Estonia is a country rich in fairy tales. One of the most popular is the tale of the Great Dragon of the North. It lays waste to a kingdom and the king says whoever can kill the dragon will have the hand of his daughter in marriage. Eventually, a nameless man who is full of courage goes on an epic quest, finds the ring and defeats the dragon.
Ethiopia had a fairly popular post apocalyptic sci-fi film come out last year that made its way around the world, called Crumbs. It follows Gagano, a scavenger who is sick of gathering Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan memorabilia, and his decision to make his way to the spaceship that’s been hovering in the sky for years.
Fiji is one of the few cultures in the world to have a serpent god that is not evil. Degei creates the world and helps raise the first humans and gives them a nice home.
The Finnish comics superhero Peräsmies literally means “Butt Man” and is a play off Teräsmies (“Steel man”) which is the Finnish name for Superman. The “official” English name of Peräsmies is “Phartman”. He’s a middle-aged, severely alcoholic homeless man living in a landfill, whose only superpower is the ability to fart supernaturally hard. He gained this power as a result of consuming a can of radioactive pea soup (the stereotypical flatulence-inducing dish in Finland).
Asterix gets the spot for France. There have been many comics and movies made about a powerful Gaul who resists the Roman invaders in the year 50. He has a magic potion made by druids that gives him super strength.
Dipoula, the Little Albino is a popular comic book character by Gabonese cartoonist Patrick Essono, also known as Pahe. Dipoula is an 8-year old orphan who has to struggle through life with the added difficulty of being an albino. He’s also been turned into a cartoon show.
Pateh is a character from 1986’s novel Chaff on the Wind by Gambian author Ebou Dibba. It also had a sequel. Pateh is a reckless Gambian man in a story set in World War 2 Gambia. Pateh seduces a woman and later runs away with her after she marries a wealthy white man. The story focuses on Pateh’s family and his relationship with his childhood friend Dinding.
Georgia likes comedies and romance. One of their most popular movies is Blue Mountains. It follows Soso, an author, a passive young man, who enters the Soviet-controlled bureaucracy of Georgia attempting to get his novel published only to be neglected and compartmentalized at every turn.
The German resistance to the Nazis genetically engineer Captain Berlin. Berlin is an assassin but hi attempt on the life of Hitler was unsuccessful, subsequently forcing him to go underground and adopt a new identity. Armed with his holy water-pistol he fights the terrors of the world. Captain Berlin was adapted into a movie directed by Jörg Buttgereit in 2009.
Kweku Ananse is a hero from older Ghanaian mythology that continues to be used today in comic books and video games. He is a spider-god.
Greek mythology may have brought us the first superheroes of all time and the most famous of the pantheon of gods was Herakles. He was the son of Zeus, who was the king of the gods, and Alkmene, a mortal woman. In Roman and later times, Herakles was known as Hercules. He had superhuman strength and was known for fighting ferocious animals and monsters.
Grenadaian author Tobias S. Buckell is a best-selling sci-fi novelist. One of his first books was Crystal Rain. While set on another planet, it mirrors life in Grenada. It’s about John deBrun, a fisherman in a remote steampunk village. There were other novels set the same universe. John is drawn into a battle against the Azteca in a world where humanity has forgotten how to use most of their technology.
The folk tale of Quetzal tells the story of a boy destined to be a strong and wise chief. When he dies he is turned into a gorgeous bird. When people today see this bird, they are reminded of their wonderful leader and culture.
There is very little in the way of the arts in Guinea. One popular novel is The Dark Child by Camara Laye. It is an autobiography but arguably the most popular story from Guinea. It tells the story of a boy who grew up in poverty but loves his family and even after getting a proper education in Paris, returns to the country he loves.
Mortu Nega was the first fictional movie to come from Guinea-Bissau by acclaimed director Flora Gomes. It is docufiction in that it is a fictional telling of a real story, following Diminga and her soldier husband as Guinea-Bissau fights for its independence in 1974.
The best-known story from Guyana is by author E.R. Braithwaite who wrote To Sir With Love, later made into a hit movie. It’s an autobiographical story of Braithwaite who was an oil worker who fought for England in World War 2 and then became an educator in a tough part of London.
In Haitian Vodou, Papa Legba is the loa (a type of spirit) who serves as the intermediary between the loa and humanity. He stands at a spiritual crossroads and can grant or deny permission to speak with the spirits of Guinee, and is believed to speak all human languages. In Haiti, he is the great speaker. He is frequently portrayed as an old man with a crutch.
The white cadejo is a large dog (as big as a cow) who travels at night to protect travelers.
Hungary has many popular writers and films. But Imre Kertész’s novel Fateless won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature so it achieved a lot of worldwide attention. It is a semi-autobiographical story of a 14-year old boy, Georg Koves, plucked from his home in Budapest by the Nazis and who survives the Holocaust.
The children’s television show Lazy Town is incredibly popular, licensed out to over 100 other countries. Sportacus is a local athletic hero who crosses over through the seasons while other kids come and go.
I’d love to say Mr. India, about a superhero music teacher, but honestly the Krrish movie series is a huge blockbuster and I bet there will be more movies beyond the latest, third movie in the franchise. It follows Krishna, the son of a scientist who has inherited his father’s late superhuman abilities and runs around as a superhero.
Rama, the special tactics police officer from The Raid and The Raid 2 is pretty damn popular and well known around the world. He’s a badass martial artist who tends to get put in missions where he’s in very dangerous situations filled with ruthless criminals.
Iran is incredibly rich in its history of mythology, literature and cinema. The movie The Separation or the epic poem/novel Shahnema (It tells both the mythical and historical story of Iran from creation until the Muslim conquest of the 7th century—the book’s existence allowed them to preserve their cultural identity from the Arabs) are very important. But for an actual iconic hero, I’m going with Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comics/movie Persepolis. It tells her story of growing up in middle class Iran and living through the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s when Muslim fundamentalists took power.
These days Iraq is beginning to nurture talented ballerinas and novelists. But in terms of art that has made its way outside of Iraq, their turn-of-the century poetry remains best known. Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi is one of the most prominent, noted for his defense of women’s rights. His poetry about nameless Bedouin wanderers and the intelligent women of the tribe are some of the best known.
Ireland has so much mythology and so many famous novels, poems, plays and movies that choosing an iconic one is very difficult. But worldwide, the leprechaun is probably the best known character from the country. A small fairy type of creature, it plays mischievous pranks, cobbles shoes, hides a pot of gold at the end of rainbows and, if caught, grants 3 wishes.
Dani Din is a kid who drank violet water created by scientist Professor Katros. It allows him to turn invisible and he goes on many adventures, battling everything from pirates to aliens to terrorists.
A country rich with Christian mythology, a love for comic books and for film. It could be argued that with over 800 issues of his comic, a movie, animated series, video game and more, that master thief Diabolik is among Italy’s most prolific and iconic protagonists. A masked thief, master of fighting and espionage, he wears masks to always conceal his identity and primarily steals from other criminals.
The Jamaican film The Harder They Come is the most popular film made in Jamaica and was hugely influential in bringing Reggae music into the mainstream. It’s a crime film following Ivanhoe Martin is a poor man who moves to the big city for opportunities but falls into a life of crime. Influenced by the movies, he ultimately aims his guns at police and dies in a hail of bullets like the characters in Spaghetti Westerns that he admired.
Ultraman. Super Sentai and Kamen Rider and Astro Boy are all very popular but Ultraman is arguably the most popular version of a superhero battling giant monsters. There are dozens of versions, all from space. He is solar powered and can only stay on Earth for a few minutes at a time but protects it against various alien monsters.
Jordan’s TV dramas have high production values and frequently challenge the Arab norms. One typical hero is Saladin, a Bedou leader, from the popular show Abwab al-Ghaim (Doors of Cloud) set during the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Not well known for its literature or history, the 1970s trilogy of historical novels called The Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin. The stories were adapted into an epic 10-episode series called Kazakh Kanate, following Zhanibek and Kerey who helped found a powerful Kanate (like a massive tribe) that evolved into what is today Kazakhstan.
Shujazz is a multi-platform media aimed at educating Kenyan youth. It’s won several international Emmys. Some of the comics they produce are very popular with the youth. It follows an anonymous pirate radio DJ who uses all sorts of media to educate people and improve their lives.
It’s a super small micronation consisting of an island and some atolls out in the Pacific Ocean so it doesn’t produce a lot of literature. They have adapted a Pacific Islander creation myth with Turtle and Spider gods that created the islands. They also have myths about spirits from Samoa and the Gilbert Islands coming to Kiribati and becoming half-spirit and half-human and eventually evolving into the first human settlers of their island.
Miloš Obili? is a popular war hero in the Kosovo Myth, a type of folklore passed on orally and through poetry about the actual Battle of Kosovo in 1389 where the people found back against Christendom and Turks, who they consider non-believers.
Kuwaiti soap operas are the most popular in the Gulf area and second most popular in Arab culture after Egypt. Ruqayya wa Sabika is an exemple, featuring Qumasha as a socially disadvantaged and marginalized woman, faced with difficult decisions.
Manas is both the hero and the name of the most popular Kyrgz story, an oral poem since the Kyrgz were nomadic and didn’t write things down. Manas battles Khitan and Oirat enemies, fathers children that continue his work, and ultimately unites his people and finds them a land to call home.
Laotian folklore pre-dates Buddhism and is a rich tradition in the country, influencing their festivals. The naga are protector spirits of the Mekong River and generally represent life and health, watching out for the people of Laos.
Latvia is sometimes known as the singing nation. Their most popular form of singing is the daina, which often feature pre-Christian themes and folklore. Several poems and songs are about Saule, the sun goddess who provides warmth, fertility and looks out for orphans.
Elias Khoury is a very popular and critically acclaimed Lebanese novelist. His book White Masks deals with a politician’s murder and an unnamed journalist, who investigates. A modern Arabic novel, it is set during the Civil War in Beirut that’s been going on, more or less, since 1958. While the journalist may be the protagonist, it has been argued that the story is really about the character of Beirut itself.
Thomas Mofolo’s 1939 novel Chaka is the most popular literature to come from this region and has been translated into other languages including English. It tells the story of Chaka, a fictionalized account of the Zulu conqueror who built a mighty empire during the first quarter of the 19th century.
Liberia’s greatest cultural output are their tribal masks. One popular mask is the Vai mask which represents Nafai, a type of playboy character who chases women and gets frisky. He goes wherever he wants and does whatever he wants.
A lot of literature has been heavily censored since 1969. But many scholars believe the famous Aesop, creator of Aesop’s fables, could have been from Libya. The fables are certainly similar to other fables from early Libya. There are so many but arguably the best known is the tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, that teaches slow and steady wins the race.
Such a tiny principality that it’s produced very little in terms of popular literature, they at least have some interesting mythology. The Wildmannli of Liechtenstein were the “Little People” or little wild men. These apparently primitive humans lived in mountain caves. Shy and seldom seen, they were so thickly covered with hair that the people of old Liechtenstein thought they looked much like little bears. The Wildmannli were noted for helping their bigger neighbors with their chores up in the mountain pastures and in the farms around Malbun and Steg. The little wild men would feed the animals and even clean out the stables. They were so reliable that the Liechtenstein peasants could leave work undone and be sure that the little wild men would do it for them. The only time they did not appear was during the Föhn, a hot dry wind, and bad weather.
Adam Mickiewicz is a famous poet from Lithuania who, in 1823, wrote a narrative poem about Grzyna, a mythical chieftain who rallies Polish forces against the Teutonic Knights. The name became very popular in Polish culture and the character remains one of their most adored and popular.
Superjhemp shows Luxembourg’s willingness to self-satirize, based on of the wave of national consciousness which came up in Luxembourg in the 1980s. Superjhemp is inspired by Superdupont, a French parody of Superman. He saves his country from characters like Filip Filoux and Jessica Jaguar and is really Charel Kuddel, a typical Luxembourg public servant.