In Qissat al-amīr Hamza, one of the heroes is said to perform ‘the feats of ‘Antar’ when he shows great bravery, an expression that was already current in the tenth century. It well illustrates how already at an early date ‘Antar had become the hero par excellence of Arab imagination, a status that has not changed even to the present day. He is the Arab Hercules, whose strength and valour have become proverbial. He is the personification of Arab manly virtue, murūwa, stoically enduring hardship, generous, protector of the helpless and a paragon of knightly skill, furūsiyya.
Sīrat ‘Antar (or ‘Antara) ibn Shaddād, which recounts his heroic deeds, has long been popular with Arab audiences. As Hamilton, relying on Burkhardt, says, ‘To the Arabs, it is their standard work, which excites in them the wildest emotions.’ The many place names in Arabia, the Middle East and North Africa that refer to him are another indication of his widespread and continuous popularity.
The figure of ‘Antar, the legendary hero of the sīra, has its historic base in the figure of the pre-Islamic bedouin poet whose name, rightly or not, is connected with one of the Mu‘allaqāt. Little is known about this historical Antar, who is also known as ‘Antar ibn Mu‘āwiya ibn Shaddād, but he, whoever he was, evolved into the legendary black warrior of popular story-telling, and the two became inextricably merged in popular imagination. His adventures, like those of Abū Zayd al-Hilālī, Baybars and ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, the son of Dhāt al-Himma, evoked a glorious Arab past that audiences could identify with and often preferred to the more fantastic stories of, for instance, the Arabian Nights or Sīrat Sayfibn Dhī Yazan.