The Heroes and Heroic Deeds
The world we live in is the natural frame or reference for our views, since our lives are passed in close physical association with others, and we work closely with other people as the normal function of urban living, which is now almost synonymous with the idea of civilization. It is natural for us to see other human beings, whether in the past or present, as social animals, Aristotle put it just that way, and for him, living in Greece in the fourth century B.C., the term was perfectly well suited. But as we roll back the curtain of Greek history into Homer's time, and into the myths which themselves reach into remote prehistory, we find a considerable list of important personages (called Heroes) who do remarkable deeds, and are in every way worthy of admiration, except for one thing: They have almost no capacity for integrated social behavior. When Diomedes in the Iliad says,"This I learned from my father, always to seek after super-excellence (arete), and to be superior to others... ", he a speaks of a world in which the individual is still the protagonist on the human stage. He works alone, wins fame alone, and usually dies tragically, without the comfort of family or solace of progeny.
What we call Civilized Man's history dates only from the period of the retreat of the last glacial cold, after which time by crossbreeding and selecting certain strains of grasses, which were eventually to become the grains as we know them, he made possible a greatly expanded human population is needed, which in turn depends on a greatly expanded food supply. In order to manage this, large numbers of people were need to plant, tend, harvest and finally store the relatively non-perishable grains, thereby extending life through the non-growing winter months in a secure manner. Whether the grains were evolved in response to larger population, or the population increased because of the availability of the grains, is not clear, and this may ultimately be something of an academic distinction. We know that both things happened about the same time, and neither would have occurred without the other. The major discovery of this period was certainly the realization that concerted, social behavior, probably with a great deal of organized control from a ruling class, ushered in the larger social groups which we know as the ancient kingdoms of the Near East and the Indus Valley. Without social interaction none of what we call "Major Civilization" would have been possible.
On the other hand, ninety nine percent of man's known history was passed in the hunter-gatherer stage, iin small social units of family, extended family and tribe. Within this pattern, the individual hunter who works alone has a sure niche of identity. To expect that old patterns going back hundreds of thousands of years should immediately fall into line with new social demands, and all this in half a dozen millennia, is unreasonable. One of the important messages which we can read in the Greek myths, is that most of the great heroes had a such a strong preference for working alone that they were virtually unable to engage in regular social interaction with their peers. In fact, heroes can never have peers, since they believe that they are unique and live their lives in this spirit. To us they may seem uncooperative, egotistical, and fatally flawed by a sense of overweening pride, but we should remember that our world on the other hand produces many persons flawed by having no sense of their own value or personal identity. We and the early Greek heroes are a world apart, actually polar opposites, and this often makes it difficult for us to see what they were doing or from what historical level they were emerging. In the following pages we can examine some of the more important Greek heroes in the matrix of their myth-histories, not viewing the sagas literarily and humanistically in relation to our world, but as documentary statements coming from a remote past.
In Homer's epic, Achilles has grandeur of manner, he is complete and entire in his absolute confidence, he has a great-spirit (as the Greek term 'megalo-psychos implies), but he is essentially a lone warrior who is not able to work closely with a well knit military campaign. As every student reading Homer immediately notices, Achilles does not play the game right; when crossed, he withdraws and lets his fellows fend for themselves, he is (in our terms) a poor sport, sulky and impossibly ego-centric. If everyone in the Greek army behaved like Achilles there would have been no victory over Troy, let alone even the possibility of a campaign. Achilles stands as the representative of an earlier genre of hero, who works singlehandedly against great odds, finally achieving hero-status by his superb and concentrated fighting skill.
Greek mythology is populated by many such heroes, Heracles is another great example, better documented than Achilles in the wide range of his endeavors. These "left-over heroes" from an earlier stage of history still dominate the Greek idea of excellence, but they do not fit into the new social world forming after the deterioration of the Minoan-Mycenean civilization. In that new world the clever man wins out, he is often unadmirable in the eyes of later generations, he has like Odysseus "seen many cities, and known the minds of men", he is a socially aware operator who will lead toward the world which Greece was about to forge. In Homer's story about the campaign at Troy, Achilles is a throwback to a state of human existence which had probably become extinct a thousand years before. For that reason he is tragic in spirit, since he is condemned to early death not by his mother's incomplete immersion in holy water, but by the steady development of a new kind of society.
The story about Achilles' heel is odd, certainly more is involved than the mother dipping him in protecting waters by the heel. In the tradition of the Japanese Judo Revival Points, massaging the heel is performed to revive tired legs, perhaps we had here a similar process, which was misunderstood by people who had no idea of its meaning.
But even the personal nature of Achilles is unclear to he. In Homer's war narrative Achilles is fierce and devoted to warfare like a samurai, yet he is said to have been as being disguised as a girl by his mother to avoid the Trojan war. We must remember his gentle affection and human connection with Patroclos, which probably had homosexual overtones, as Bayle had already suggested in l702. in his Dictionaire Biographique et Critique. While sulking in his tent after his argument with Agamemnon, he plays music on the lyre, which recalls the uses of the samurai who not only fought to perfection but also painted and composed song and poetry. A brief look at the history of the l7th century samurai Miyamoto Mushashi arranges the possibilities of a warrior's life: painting, poetry, calligraphy, design, sculpture, as well as the long list of the victims of his sword and mind. The range of the warrior tradition was no longer clear in Homer's time, he gives us only the outlines of Achilles, and none of the inner details about the kind of mind which directs the body to the highest levels, whether of fighting, or any other human activity. But even so enough of the Greek samurai comes through to gives us a chilling dash of admiration.
The complete warrior knows that he must expect death at every moment (without expecting or thinking about it), he must have no regard for himself or any other person, and he will always seem cold, passionless and faceless to the world. In this removal from connections lies one of the sources of his power; the other lies in eternal practice with the body, the weapon and with the mind. Only when Achilles forgets this rule of no-caring-ness, as he return to the fight to avenge his one friend Patroclos whom he does really love, does he become vincible.
Hector, his opposite in the Trojan ranks, and also his opposite in the way he is cast in life, is warm, caring, loving, even tolerant of an idiotic dandyish Alexandros, deeply understanding of Helen, and dear to his family. Having all the human virtues which we think good, he has a weight of responsibilities which unfit him for the role of a first-class warrior, and it is clear that he must die in battle. But caring or not caring seems to make little difference, neither hero is fated to have a long life and die a patriarch at home. Tragedy surrounds the Homeric hero, who is tragic because he is obsolescent in social terms.
The samurai felt this same sadness when they were formally disbanded in the l7th century, their days had run out and there was no longer a place for them in the world they had known.In the story of Ajax, we trace a superior and proven warrior disintegrating into suicidal schizophrenia over the issue of the inheritance of the famous arms of Achilles. The administrators of the society refuse his claim, but since he has no understanding of the society's priorities or of the way they work, giving now this and holding back that for the good of the many perhaps, his sense of self falls apart. Since there is no other identity than this "sense of self", which is the sole premise on which Ajax operates, when that identity is violated, there is no other course than death.
The schizophrenia suffered by Ajax when he was denied the arms of Achilles, indicates a general social appreciation of arms as technology at a time when the availability of such equipment was scarce. We know that bronze was being cast in the Near East and in parts of Europe before the fourth millennium B.C., and that iron technology was being developed, if rare, a thousand years later. Hence this story must go back to a much earlier period, perhaps the first few generations after the development of usable metal arms. By 700 B.C. arms were sufficiently cheap for the poet-soldier Archilochos to joke about scrapping a nice new shield in his hasty retreat, something which Ajax would never have considered.
Ajax slaughtered a flock of sheep, thinking them his enemies, then took his own life. The presence of sheep may suggest a date for this episode, and either a locale in inner Asia Minor whence sheep seem to have spread, or a place to which sheep were already being imported. Jason's Argonautic expedition after the "Golden Fleece" is discussed elsewhere as a first effort to bring sheep for breeding from the Eastern Euxine area to Greece, and should be of a date somewhat earlier than Ajax's period.Heracles is the fullest source for information about the man of strength and courage who antedates regularized socialization, his "Labors" are important marks for man's future development, but they are outlined as actions which one man performs alone. Only in the friendship with his apprentice Hylas, who will be discussed later, does he work with another man, and even then his friend is doomed to death and early disappearance from the story.
Heracles does not deal with other men, he cannot even understand the strategem by which his wife Deianeira uses a poisoned cloak to burn and destroy him. Even that poison came from the blood of a Centaur, a man-horse warrior of another age which Heracles still could not understand. Heracles had tamed the wild horses, but he had not foreseen the social 'poison' that horse-warriors could bring to to the world, and even finally to him. Heracles is a central figure for Euhemeristic interpretation. Described and portrayed in art as a massive man with a growth of beard, wearing a lion's or other animal's skin, and carrying a club as his regular weapon, his date must be pushed back to a pre-Minoan-Mycenean culture, of the type which existed from Greece northwards into central Europe at an early period. Perhaps the views of Rhys Carpenter about desiccation of the Aegean area, and subsequent flight of the Hellenes into the better- watered northlands, may contain some truth. Were this view eventually found workable, then Heracles would represent the physical and social type of barbarized Hellene whose people had spent some three centuries in the wooded north as they reverted to neolithic culture, finally returning when the drought was over, to their homeland in Greece in the ninth century B.C. with the physical characteristics of a Heracles-type. Attractive as this view seems, in order to be accepted, it will have to be be supported by carbon dating of successive campfires going north and finally returning to Greece. Confirmation of this view must wait until the Balkan countries are in a position to undertake research of this sort.
In literary texts Heracles is described as going through various stages of insanity, Euripedes' extant and very odd play, the Heracles Mad, explores his insane state of mind. But recall that erratic social behavior, especially in the case of an adoptive neolithic with three centuries of forest living behind him, may be at the root of this "dislocation". Behavior which would have been well suited to survival in the forests, would be out of place in a land which was again increasing in population and developing fast-growing social patterns. The Labors of Heracles (Gr. ' athloi' or 'ponoi') are listed as an even dozen. This number may have significance, since dozen-counting was practiced in the Near East in some areas. We can assume that the final listing of Heracles' Labors was late, since it matches Homer's listing of his books by the dozen, twenty four in all in each epic, but we cannot be sure at what period of redaction this ennumeration took place. Babylonian counting was sexagesimal, since sixty is conveniently the common divisor for twelves, tens, and threehundred and sixty, all of which have strangely persisted to the present day as minutes, seconds, hours, and degrees, but it difficult to state exactly when these numbers entered into the Greek tradition.
The Greeks' inability to deal with numbers effectively, since they never developed a good cipher system, makes us suspect that any odd numbers that they used must have been borrowed from Near Eastern sources, probably along with the Phoenician letters which appeared somewhere in the ninth century. Looking at the "Labors" in the traditional order, we find a wide range of feats which must obviously have been performed by many men over a long period of time. Heracles' name has an etymological connection with Hera, the meaning of which is not clear; perhaps his name ('Hera' + 'cleos' "fame") may have violated some ancient sacral copyright. However Hera is his enemy throughout life, ostensibly because of his birth from Alkmene by Zeus. She persecutes him with serpents when he is an infant, with murderous madness when he is adult, perhaps as some mark of an ancient cult-rivalry which we are not aware of.
l) The story of the Nemean Lion,which Heracles strangles and then rips open with its own claws in order to remove the skin from the body, must be a very early myth. Learning to make flaked flintstone implements, man developed the kind of edged tool necessary to open up an animal which he had clubbed to death with a stick or a broken off antelope-bone shillelagh. Anthropologists have discovered that the only animal a man can rip open for food after killing it is a rabbit, everything bigger resists the action of his nails, fingers and teeth. The man who sees that the cat's claws are first-rate slitters must be living in early old stone age culture, since later flaked and sharpened stone gives him his own tools, with an excellent cutting edge. Middens and stoneworking fields show that slitting stones were common and used everywhere in Europe in neolithic times.
2) The next encounter was with the Hydra, a watersnake equipped with numerous heads. We may be dealing with a story describing the octopus, which confuses legs and heads in the whirl of activity. But soon a crab appears to aid the Hydra against Heracles, his legs are of course genetically coded for regrowth upon loss, and this feature enters the story. Fighting the hydra and the crab, which is probably not a freshwater animal, Heracles must be in a very wet, perhaps brackish area, one suspects a location somewhere in the Euphrates valley near the extensive marshlands where the river empties into the sea. Clearing wetlands of any dangerous animals (the exact kind is less important than their presence in the face of increasing population and land-use), would be an early activity, perhaps derived from the experience of NearEastern history at the time time when the Euphrates valley was being drained and productively irrigated. Placing the story in Greece loses the point, since very few Greek locations were suitable for such water-life, and those were so small in area that they could be ignored without loss. The fifth millennium B.C. might be a good rough date for this sort of feat, presumably with an eastern locale.
3)The Erymanthian Boar might be a a denizen of deep forest and possibly middling highlands, either in Asia Minor or Europe. Driving the boar into the snow where its short legs sink it in deep snowdrifts, Heracles may be reflecting the Carpenter-theory sojourn in Hungary or Southern Germany, where such a scene could easily have occurred. Were this possible, it would point to a wide geographical distribution of Heraclean mythologizing, which can be interpreted as the conflation of many "Heracles-type" adventures which are not necessarily referable to one single actor. At the present time large and aggressive boars are still found in the marshes of the lower Euphrates valley, and the story could have its origin there; but the detail of driving it into deep snow points to a second-level development in the Central European hill country.
4) The Stag of Ceryneia seems to fall into the same class as the boar, it would be the inhabitant of densely forested areas, again suggesting a northern locale. One difficulty, of course, is that we do not know exactly which animals inhabited which forests at remote periods, although again further scientific study of plant pollens and animal bones in identifiable age-levels could be of critical use in such arguments. We can consider the possibilities now, but for proof we will need more detailed study.
5) The Birds of Lake Stymphalos (said to be in Arcadia which is centrally located in the Peleponnese) are harder to understand. They were supposed to be man-eating birds, but we know now that the largest avian predators have no ability to carry off anything larger than a small lamb, and this with some difficulty. Perhaps the birds were vultures feeding on dead flesh and occasionally eating dead human remains, so that hunters chancing on such a scene would naturally assume the birds had killed the men. Annual migration patterns of birds are quite stable in time, we should consider whether these birds were storks, cranes or some other large birds migrating from European summer grounds to North Africa for winter, as they still do. Heracles would have had no purpose in killing these birds, but if we could identify the migratory patterns, we should be able to place the scene of his action fairly well. Raptor patterns of annual migration at the present time go in two paths: Some cross the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, others go clear around the eastern end of the water. Apparently there is a strong aversion to flying over open stretches of sea, either from fear, or because of loss of typical landmarks which are their migratory "map". We would seem to be dealing in this myth with the eastern migratory flight, which would place the scene in which Heracles is involved either at the Bosporos, or possibly east of the Euxine Sea, perhaps in Colchis. Again, only ornithological experts with historical background can contribute useful material here.
6) The episode of the cleaning of the Augean Stables, on the other hand, has clear relevance to an important stage of developing civilization. The vast herds of King Augeas (said to be of Elis in Greece), had accumulated such piles of manure, that their disposal presented an insurmountable problem. The story tells that Heracles was requested to clear out the stables in one day, but the time factor may be merely a reflection of the fact, that when Heracles diverted a portion of a river through the stables, the manure went out quickly, perhaps in one day, in a fast-moving, liquid slurry. Water is still one of the practical ways of cleaning barn manure, in a pre-machinery time it would have seemed the magic barn cleaning machine.The story implies that animal breeding was so far advanced that disposal of manure was beginning to be a problem. Herds of hundreds of horses and cows would make people wonder where the manure might go, but herds of thousands would make disposal a real problem. Manure fulfils a special role in farming, since the complicated blends of enzymes which are required to break down grasses in ruminants' multifold stomachs, when spread on the fields make possible a more intensive and productive farming enterprise than can be envisioned without animal excrement. The double cycle which involves animal breeding along with plant cultivation was certainly the foundation of the prosperity and larger population potential of the Mesopotamian valley area, and the myth of Heracles and the stables embraces both aspects, since the river conveniently floods the manure out of the barns and right onto the fields. We may assume that we are dealing with a complicated and well-organized flood-cleansing system, which used animal manure and plant culture to the fullest potential. Strangely, the concoctor of this myth saw only the cleaning of the stables as worthy of comment, he makes no mention of where the river waters went, or what use they finally served. This is a good example of a Greek myth which contains procedures far more sophisticated than the story teller knows.
9) Heracles expedition against the Amazons is located in the same mythic plane as his struggles against various monsters, which have led some scholars to believe that the Amazons are as fictitious as the other beasts. Since we have found grains of truth in many of the other labors, we will approach the Amazons as reality to start with. First, they are associated with the north shore of the Black or Euxine Sea, where we know about Greek activity from an early period. Achilles, Theseus, Priam and others have already been reaching into the Euxine Basin, and the conflicts which arose from eastward expansion must have been the original cause of the trouble at Troy.
It is possible that western peoples meeting primitive tribes on the southern plains of Russia, where warlike behavior may have been coupled with long hair and what seemed to the Greeks traditional female dress, could effect a sexual mis-identification. Killing one of these barbarians, the victor would soon see that there were no breasts, but rather than yield to fact, he could fabricate the story that they burned their breasts off for easier fighting, or if they were right-handed archers, they removed only the right breast. But the difference between male and female genitals is clear, therefore his seems an obtuse interpretation.
One of the most basic human identifications is the discrimination between the sexes, yet it must be remembered that even in our time clever transvestites can fool the observant eye. On the other hand, if we assume the existence of a thorough-going matriarchy, coupled with female aggressiveness extended even to warfare, then patriarchal Western people would surely see this as a totally different and threatening type of social organization, to be wiped out not because these women were inherently dangerous, but because they represented such a basically different social structure. The Bohemian queen Vlasta in the 8th c. A.D. waged a fully staged war against the King, in the l6th century Spanish explorers found women warriors in Brazil, which is why they named the central river the Amazon. Women in the l9th century were active warriors in Dahomey in Africa, and women have been effective soldiers in the modern army of Israel.
Since Womens' Lib. in the United States, the levels of female violence have risen gradually, including several murders of seeming rapists by karate-skilled females. Our myths of the naturally gentle sex have probably been generated by the domination which men have been able to exercise over women for millennia, although hormonal factors must also be at work. We are probably as much in the dark in such matters of sexual identification as was Heracles when he faced his first Amazonic Lady of Scythia. But the interesting point to make in closing, is that despite the long and even history of "pacification" of women in the Western world, the story of Heracles and the Amazons documents, although in puzzling manner, the possible existence of wild and untamed warrior women at an early, pre-Hellenic date.