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A martyr is a person who suffers death or some other great misfortune as a result of acting on or refusing to deny his or her principles or beliefs.

  • The word 'martyr' was originally used of Christians who would not renounce their religious beliefs and were put to death by non-Christians - e.g., the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who was stoned to death by a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem (see Acts of the Apostles chs. 6 & 7). Some Christian martyrs, however, have been put to death by fellow Christians - e.g., the Oxford Martyrs, i.e., the Anglican bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who were tried for heresy in 1555 during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, and burnt at the stake in Oxford - their deaths are commemorated by the Martyrs' Memorial in St. Giles' in Oxford.
  • The word 'martyr' applies equally well to those who are members of other religious faiths and suffer death or some other great misfortune because of their beliefs - e.g., the Jewish martyrs who in the second century BCE resisted their Seleucid rulers' policy of Hellenisation and were executed for, e.g., observing the Sabbath, having their male children circumcised, or refusing to eat pork; or the Shia Muslim martyr Hussein ibn Ali, who died at the battle of Karbala in 680 CE and whose death is mourned by Shias every year on the day of Ashura (see further Sunni - Shia). .
  • The word 'martyr' is also used of those who die or endure great suffering for a social or political cause, e.g., the Scottish Martyrs, who are commemorated by the Political Martyrs' Monument in Old Calton Cemetery on Calton Hill in Edinburgh - they were imprisoned for campaigning for parliamentary reform and transported to Australia in 1794-95; the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of six farmworkers from Tolpuddle in Dorset who in 1834 were sentenced to be transported to Australia for 7 years for trying to form a trade uunion; or the three Manchester Martyrs, who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland, and were executed in 1867 for killing a policeman during an attempt to rescue two members of the Brotherhood who had been arrested.
  • 'Martyr' is sometimes used, in an extended sense, of a person who suffers greatly from ill health or some other misfortune - without any suggestion that these sufferings result from commitment to religious beliefs or devotion to a political cause. The preposition 'to' is used to indicate the cause of the individual's suffering, as in 'In summer he's a martyr to hay fever' or 'She's a martyr to her children'.

The word 'martyr' may also be used as a verb. 'To martyr' means 'to put to death as a martyr, or to make a martyr of'. The word for the suffering and/or death of a martyr is 'martyrdom': thus we may say that 'Many early Christians chose martyrdom rather than acknowledge the divinity of the Roman emperor' or 'The martyrdom of St. Sebastian is depicted in the well-known painting by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo which hangs in the National Gallery'.

A martyrology may be either an official list of martyrs or a historical account of the life of a martyr. Martyrology is the study of martyrs and their lives.

A martyry is a shrine or chapel which has been built to honour the memory of a martyr.

The English noun 'martyr' comes from the Greek noun μάρτυς (martus, genitive μάρτυρος (marturos)), which means 'witness' - there is a related verb μαρτυρέω (martureo, 'I bear witness or testify'). The extension of μάρτυς to mean 'martyr' in our sense seems to have occurred in New Testament times, i.e., the first century CE: a person who suffers or dies for his or her beliefs bears witness to them in a very conspicuous and emphatic way. The Arabic words for 'martyr', (ﺷﻬﻴﺪ, shaheed) and martyrdom (ﺷﻬﺎﺩﮥ, shahada; ﺍﺳﺘﺸﻬﺎﺩ, istishhad) have a similar etymology, since they are related to the verb ﺷﻬﺪ (shahida), which means 'to witness, testify, or give evidence'.