The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 1: 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.
Perhaps the real difference between Hellene and Amazon lies in the distinction between tame, that is socialized being and one who is "wild". Anyone who has raised children,or even dogs, will recognize that in the infant animal there are traits of a "wild phenomenon", which can be subdued by touching with the hands, petting, cajoling and finally threatening. Children and most domesticated animals respond well to this pacification if it is done in the period of early development, and wild animals can be dealt with in the same manner if the treatment is started early enough, although the results are never completely assured. Certain types of human criminal "psychopaths" seem not to have been influenced by these processes; in wartime men are "taught" to unlearn their peaceful training, which may not be recoverable later in the normal social world. Perhaps the Amazons represent nothing more than the way "wild" humans at a different level of development would appear to highly socialized Greek men.
l0) The Cattle of the Sun God, which were stolen by a monster named Geryon who fled with them to the remote western part of the Mediterranean Basin, refers to a western movement of colonization, which threatened the beef-industry of the East, much as the Australian sheep market has threatened the European and American lamb and mutton packers. If this is the meaning of this story, we must tie it to the thrust of Western expansion, which we generally date relatively late in the second millennium B.C. But on the other hand there are Indic myths of the cattle of the sun being stolen, but these are always sheep whose fleecy coats are identified with the rainclouds which must be returned if the country is to prosper agriculturally. The transfer from sheep to oxen is strange, but after the meaning of sheep (as rainclouds) vanished, the name of any prevalent herd-animal could easily be substituted. An interesting parallel is found in the myth of Helios the Sun God, the son of Hyperion and Thea, who each day rides his chariot across heaven and in the night is transported back again in a golden bowl.
Homer notes in Odyssey Book 11 that the sun-god has cattle and sheep in Trinacria, later renamed Sicily, which would certainly be a western frontier for the early Greek colonists. If archaeologists find many sheep bones and few ox bones in the western fringes of civilization, we can assume that the original meaning of the Vedic myth lay behind the Greek story, and that the desiccation which Rhys Carpenter has posited for the second half of the second millennium B.C. was the driving idea behind this myth: Someone had to go and get the rain back. If Heracles is one of the "Dorians" who went north into Hungary to escape the drought, and his people came back later with rainfall (in Herodotos' words) as "the return of the descendants of Heracles", then he would be a natural person about whom to center a story telling why the rainclouds went to the west. If climatologists find that the rainfall in Spain was plentiful through all this period, then Heracles may be assumed to be a "rainmaker". Identification of his name with the Pillars of Hercules shows that he was thought of as going all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in his search.
ll) The Apples of the Hesperides are fruit which Heracles found while on the previous adventure in the far West. If pollen indicating the presence of Seville Oranges or some similar fruit can be identified for this period, then we would have to look no further in the unravelling of this myth. In any case some exotic fruit seems to be involved, and it is either brought to Greece before it rots by fast shipping, or the plant has been successfully transplanted.
l2) In the final Labor, Heracles descends to the underworld to capture the three headed dog Cerberus; or in the Homeric variant of the tale, he tries to conquer Hades or Death himself This story is analogous to the less aggressive descent of Odysseus into the underworld, and furthermore to the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, which in its earlier Babylonian fragments points to a date before the second millennium B.C. (A full, if old summary of the provenance and detailed contents of the Gilgamesh material is to be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. s.v.Gilgamesh, by the American Semiticist Morris Jastrow.) Here again what seems to be typically Greek, is clearly connected with the thought and history of a much earlier period in the NearEast. The fact that the Greek stories are so well known known to us all, while the NearEastern stories are fragmentary and obscure, makes it difficult see exactly what sections Greek mythology derived from the myth-histories of the eastern peoples.
A detailed inquiry into the parallels which exist between the Greek and Sumerian stories is beyond the scope of this chapter; the important thing to note is the existence of clearly parallel storylines, the Greek myth being the derivative version. All in all, the stories associated with the name of Heracles contain materials for the identification of a new type of semi-social man who is quite different from his late neolithic ancestors. He performs heroic deeds which pave the way for the requirements of civilizing man, opening up large tracts of land for profitable use. But he works alone, he is a singular figure and only for a short time takes on the apprentice Hylas, who soon disappears. The broad scope of these stories, as well as their regular development in later Greek mythologizing culture, places them at the center of any serious search for fact in myth.
A hero of quite different dimensions is the master archer Philoctetes. He has one special ability, he wields the bow that never misses its mark, and his ability with this remarkable weapon, which would make him a supreme hunter in a age which lived by hunting, makes him the object of illwill and hostility in an age which devotes itself to warfare. Needing his bow, but being unwilling to accept the pure and direct mind of the master hunter who owns it, the Greek leaders are unable to give Philoctetes recognition for his talents. On the other hand he cannot recognize their the legitimacy of their military purpose, which is foreign to the world from which his skills in archery emerged.
Isolation and tragedy are his reward in the original story, although Sophocles characteristically gives his play an ending worthy of the social aspirations of the Athenian 5th century, and has him willingly return to the world of men and the Trojan War.Heracles gave his bow and arrows to Poias on his death, they passed in turn to Poias' son Philoctetes who was one of the Greek warriors who sailed against Troy. On the way there, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, the wound festered, he screamed out in such pain that the superstitious Greeks shanghaied him on Lemnos where he lived for years, sick and lonely, living by the bow which could never miss its mark. Later it was revealed at Troy that the city could be taken only with the bow of Heracles, now the Greeks realized they had to reclaim Philoctetes, or kill him and get his bow, in order to conclude the long and costly war. But the story has other dimensions. The man who possesses and wields the unerring bow, is a hunting virtuoso in a primitive hunting world. Philoctetes uses the bow to hunt and provide his food for all those years at Lemnos, this is probably the original scope of the unerring-hunter tale. But it is now injected as an episode in the life of a military archer, which is what the Greeks expect Philoctetes to become. For some reason, circumstantially ascribed to his bad foot, Philoctetes cannot be drawn into the military expedition against Troy, his excellence remains entirely with his weapon and never involves social action in an organized army.
When it is revealed that the Greeks cannot win the war without the weapon, they send someone (Odysseus is just the man for such a job) to get it done at any cost. Sophocles creates a sophisticated story of honor and duty, finalized with an apocalyptic vision of the hero's patron "saint" as Heracles gives him instructions, and Philoctetes returns voluntarily with the bow, behaving as a as a good Greek soldier should. One suspects that the original of the story was less pleasing, that the soldiers killed the man and thus got the bow, thinking that they too would be able to use it unerringly. (The missing sequel would have been the efforts of Greek archers to bend the bow which only Philoctetes can use, in the manner of the story of Robin Hood's bow, but in a country not populated by a youth skilled in archery, such a sequence would pass unnoticed.) Archery in fact was more an Eastern than a Greek skill. To become a great archer is a life's work, the archery tradition in Japan makes this clear, and the remarkable account by Herrigel on the difficulties of learning bowmanship shows that only a dedicated and talented man, with more than a little monomania, can become a great archer. There was just such a Greek myth about Philoctetes, but it focused on his weapon rather than his skill. But when an effort is made to "hire" Philoctetes into the army, to use his proven skills at archery for a common goal, and no longer for the private and personal purpose that the hunter and archer have developed, it is doomed to failure. Philoctetes has powers that cannot be used socially, and for this reason they had to be rid of him. Needing the bow, they went back to him and probably murdered him; in Sophocles Fifth Century version an arrangement is made by which Philoctetes goes back to men and the world of Troy, just as the Elizabethan Prospero must also finally return to the world of men.
Early men of great power, inventors of new techniques and devices, as characters on the stage of man's early dramatization, seem to have great difficulty in accepting concerted social interaction. Heracles is the model for a man of great effectiveness, so long as he works by himself or with one companion, and Philoctetes inherits along with the bow this same social disability. Achilles' grandeur lies in the fact that he works alone and only for his own honor, this is his heroic mark and in social terms this is his fatal flaw. The earliest levels of Greek myth point again and again to a period before the regularized socialization of Man begins, and the tragedy of many of these early figures, especially in their death scenes, lies in their unwillingness or inability to involve themselves in social behavior. Note that the Classical Japanese samurai, who have many of the same traits of independence and individuality,were legally dispersed as a warrior class in the sixteenth century as the country progressed into a more unified, federally controlled state. They converted themselves quickly into leaders in the arts and crafts, and finally socialize under an entirely different professional guise. The Greek individual heroes, like Achilles, Heracles and Philoctetes, eventually disappear from the scene, and are replaced by willing social partners in the mould of the wily, venal Odysseus.
It seems that in the course of the development of a civilization, there comes a time when powerful individualists are no longer needed, when society assumes that it can get the same impressive results from the group-effort of many less gifted persons. The ants experimented with this problem three hundred million years ago, they developed societal goals so far as to completely eliminate individuality and even individual sexuality. They seem to have been correct for themselves in evolutionary terms, but whether this is also true for our breed remains to be seen.
A Greek wit remarked that there is a curious contradiction in the use of the Greek word 'bios' (which means both "bow" and also as a separate homonym, "life"), since the bow is the instrument which represents and at the same time destroys life. The weapon is a great advantage to humankind, but at the same time a deadly threat to life, situations of this kind are familiar to men of the twentieth century, the atomic energy which our society has pioneered can offer the greatest benefit to mankind, since it produces energy without the cumulative combustive pollution of wood, coal or oil, yet it presents the greatest possible threat to the survival of mankind. This is our modern "bow". It is worth noting that Robert Oppenheimer, the one member of the original pioneering group at Los Alamos who had serious doubts about the use and misuse of atomic energy, was singled out during the infamous MacCarthy period as "suspect", not on the count of a snakebitten foot, but because he may have carried a Communist card many years before. He was shanghaied, as was Philoctetes, not to Lemnos but to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where certain political powers felt he would be rendered harmless. He fulfilled administrative duties there to consume his time, and died many years later, unheard and largely unknown. The society took his weapon away from him, they used it for their purposes, and they silenced this one serious opponent of unbridled use of atomic energy by an act of ostracism rather than by death. Some situations which confront men do not change a great deal through the centuries, apparently the critical and lethal weapon is still usable without the consent or advice of its owner. We have progressed greatly in the size and destructiveness of the weaponry, but not in our understanding of its control or proper use.
A striking example of the opposition of one individual to coercive social commands is the story of Antigone. In Sophocles' version, from which most of our portrayal of Antigone's character comes, the issue is between what one owes the "state", represented by Creon the king, as against what one owes the older structures of clan and family religion. There is more to the story than this skeletal outline, but the basic problem is simple and central: Does the state have the final say in this new world of social imperatives, or are there moral and personal roots which go back into the ancestral past? The drama of Antigone in its most elemental form, demonstrates the inability of a woman who is schooled in the traditional values inherited from her past, to comprehend, let alone obey, the orders which society presses on her through the agency of the King.
This is only part of the gist of Sophocles' drama, but it is probably an original part of the ancient myth, since this same inability to socialize is found in almost all the genuinely early hero-myths. The insistence of the Greeks in the 5th c. B.C. on the absolute value of social behavior may well be a last act in the difficult drama of the earlier Greek people in accepting any form of social enforcement. Even in the Greeks of the later Classical Period there remains a wild streak of intransigent individuality, which makes the process of democratic cooperation always difficult and often impossible. Each of the mythic figures which we have been examining has a striking and distinguished personal history, each reveals details which stem from centuries or possibly millennia of advancing human experience in the eastern Mediterranean world. But all show the same inability or at least unwillingness to act in social concert with others, their minds are entirely oriented to what they are doing and not what the others want. Hence they fail in what socialized and civilized men and women consider the core of civilized behavior. Yet there is something grand and independent which we recognize in their lives, since individuality is still prized among us, especially as vast social forces seem about to swallow up our remaining personal identities.
The real problem is certainly not a conflict between individual and social action as such, but an understanding of what each can do especially well in its own sphere. In our day when committees and think-tanks tend to be the socially approved modes of generating new ideas, we might well remember the effectiveness of thought and action which individuals have shown in the past. It is usually when the force of a social experiment is new, or on the other hand when times are especially desperate, that society tends to force one pattern onto us as mandatory. This is exactly what was happening in the first two millennia before Christ, and it is the inability of some ancient men of great force and ability to adjust to the new social ways that is so insistently recorded in the curious chronicles of Greek mythology.
As times went on, the Romans started to "create" myths of their own, to suit their own social needs. These are largely based on the form and general style of the Greek mythologists, with whom the Romans were well acquainted. If they could not read the large full-scale version of Greek mythology in the Greek of Apollonius they could read an abridged version more conveniently in the Latin of Julius Hyginus. The myths which they constructed should be considered "myths-of-the-second-level", or pseudo-myths. As examples of this phenomenon, one can note these: Aeneas is the sort of fabrication which every people develops for its own honor. It seems possible that the whole Aeneas myth was generated out of the archaic Latin word "trossulus" a cavalryman of the early period. The word has no known affinities and may be of Etruscan origin, but since "trossulus" would be interpreted by any Roman as a "little Trojan, descendant of Troy", or even more specifically "descendant of Tros (the fourth generation in the formal family tree of Troy, viz. Zeus, Dardanus, Erichthonius, and Tros), this would provide a convenient point of departure for a noble legend following the influx of Greek literature into Rome in the third century B.C. This view is by no means accepted by Classical scholars, however the fabrication of quasi-archaic figures is well known to Americans, who have acculturated a largely reshaped Santa Claus, a wholly new Paul Bunyan whose cycle dates only from the l920's, as well as a long series of Western style gunfighters who have only the slimmest connections with history.
There is a certain advantage in fabricating one's own national heroes, since they have an uncanny way of fitting the society perfectly. The one Roman who fits the pattern of the Greek hero tales is Romulus, and then only in one single matter, the confrontation of the pasturing and the farming ways of life. When Romulus built a wall for his city, Remus jumped over it with a sneer, to be immediately killed by his brother, who was not held guilty. We have here in a late form the old confrontation of the settling field-tender, who marks off land for cultivation, as against the free-roaming pasturer of flocks. The story is identical with that of Cain and Abel, and it is a foregone conclusion that the herdsman must die, which signifies that civilization must be allowed to go forward. Many of the young Greek hunters of myth faced death for similar reasons, since as hunters they crossed cultivated land (probably unbeknownst to themselves) and thus were a threat to agriculture.
For a very brief period in the middle of the l9th century the same confrontation was found among the Western settlers in the United States; the cattlemen detested the dirt farmers, and exactly the same kind of bloody antagonism prevailed as the earlier peoples had known. The cattlemen received a secure place in the society only because of the useful transportability of live meat by the newly developed rail lines to distant markets in the East, as well as increasing American consumption of meat, while agriculture proceeded at its own pace. A double-headed market can ensure compatibility between these two opposed groups. If we can reliably date Romulus as 8th c. B.C., then Cain and Abel would fall into a proper place some centuries earlier; this tells us something about the date of the advent of serious cultivation of the land for crops in the Mediterranean area.
At an early date there was a separate Latin divinity named Saturnus, "he who sows (seed for grain)" from the verb ''serere, satus'. Roman tradition states, in a virtually Euhemeristic tone, that he was an early king at Rome who introduced agriculture and was hence elevated to deity-status. (The later identification with Cronos is merely a part of the Greco-Roman equivalent identification of deities, a process which often obscures important, original details.) Here again we have a newly fabricated "doer-deity", with real social meaning for his society; he does not however have a historical pedigree going back into the time of the earlier cultures from which the Roman benefited. The socialization of man does not take place in a moment or in a thousand years. Despite the difficulties of early heroes in adapting to group behavior, the process of socialization goes on unrelentingly, since larger frameworks of social action are needed for larger populations and their daily support.
A transitional stage between the hero as isolated individual and the new hero as part of a societal effort, is to be seen in a curious inter-stage, which serves as bridge between the two patterns. We find as adjunct to lone hero, the hero-pair, consisting of the hero, a man of great power and experience, and an apprentice and companion, usually a younger man who is clearly in a subordinate position. This inter-stage marks the transition of the hero as individual to becoming group-member, it is clearly transitional and short-lived as a social phenomenon. Achilles relationship to Patroclos is typical of this kind of association. Patroclos is tent-mate, householding assistant, and a general purpose companion, but when he dies wearing the master's ill-suited armor, the full depth of Achilles' tragic feeling for him emerges. This is no mere apprentice to the trade, it may be a relationship which contains seeds of love and even homosexuality. But paramount is the fact that it is the kind of pair relationship which joins two unequals, as Aristotle will remark of a class of friends at a later time in the Nichomachean Ethics. There is no competition for honor or glory, so the two can be companions in a real sense, and useful to each other in dangerous situations.
The origin of this uneven-pair system apparently goes back in history as far as the story of Gilgamesh, whose friend and companion Eabani is fated to die, to the hero's great grief. Achilles and Patroclos fulfill similar roles, and in the Greek cycles of myth there are many examples of such relationships, including the popular story of the twins heroes Castor and Polydeukes. They are nearly equal, Polydeukes however is immortal and Castor perishes; the story that Zeus gave the mourning twins alternate days in Hades as a special favor may well be a later addition. At Rome Castor is the more popular figure, and Pollux (Polydeuces) is clearly subordinate. The story of Hylas fits into this hero-friend classification well. On the Argonautic expedition, Heracles took along the young Hylas, who was sent to fetch water for the sailors when stranded temporarily off the coast of Mysia (Asia Minor). The nymphs of the fountain at which he was drawing water fell in love with him, and sucked him down into their world. Heracles was stricken with grief, and only left the area when, at his behest, the natives instituted a ritual springtime sacrifice to Hylas, who thus appears retrospectively in the light of a vegetative annual-cycle deity. Hylas fulfills the basic conditions of companion to a hero: He is young, subservient, handsome, devoted, helpful, and at the proper moment he dies, leaving the hero free to go on his road of achievement alone, as was proper. This unequal but friendly working relationship between two men would seem to be one of the primitive stages of social development. Not only do the two men work and fight beside each other, but a sincere emotional atmosphere develops between them, so that the survivor mourns long and hard for his lost friend.
Humans seem to find it much easier to develop working relationships in pairs than to participate in the more complicated group activities, although the history of civilization in the West has relied on group efforts in the main. Even today the ancient two-man team persists, we still find it widespread in the modern world. Carpenters seem to get a great deal more work done if they have a helper, cement finishers generally work in pairs, and in the army and police force the two man "buddy system" is found useful. The single-combat, with one man fighting against another as portrayed in Homeric scenes, is a much older structure, which seems to have intellectually influenced a great deal of Greek military strategics in the historical period. By the time of the developing tactics of the Punic Wars we have genuine group tactics on both sides, and the modern concept of field-warfare is borne.
When Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics outlines friendship in its various forms, he speaks of something which we often fail to identify, the friendship between unequals as contrasted to the friendship between equals. The working relationships which we have been discussing are all friendships between unequals, and although these sound unegalitarian to modern ears, their function may be more basic than friendships between equals. By admitting an inequality between two men, competition and edging for position are avoided. Societies which establish formalized ranking and pecking orders tend to be more peaceful than those in which each must fight for his own place in the sun. When a poster is put up in a factory announcing that "The Boss may not always be right, but he is the Boss", or when Japanese businessmen bow automatically to superiors in the organization as they pass in the hall, inequality is tacitly stated while harmony is strengthened. Strongly individualistic persons find this hard to accept, but we must remember that the development of mega-civilizations has never been a friend to the individual as individual, but only as a small part of the social mega-structure. Social relations between one generation and the next, between the young and the older generation, or between fathers and sons, is strained in Greek mythology, often to a point near murder, or to murder.
Paris, the son of Priam and seducer of Helen, was exposed as a child to die in the woods, because of a prophecy that he would destroy the city of Troy. Brought up by shepherds, he did in an indirect manner cause the fall of Troy as the result of his affaire with Helen. It is interesting to note that Paris has the same start in life as Oedipous, each is exposed to die because of a threatening oracle, but each lives, and causes some major social cataclysm. Fathers and sons seem to have a strange tension in ancient Greece, which often results in murder. The death of Odysseus is a case in point: Telegonos (the name is revealing, "he who is born far away") is his son by Circe, he has come to Ithaca to present himself to his father, and kills him by sheer error. The improbability of the story is less important than the fact that a son kills his father, which has coherent social meaning, since it is a regular theme in Greek mythology. The locus classicus for this kind of familial tension is found in the angry dialogue between Admetus and his father in the Alcestis of Euripides, which involves not only the logical arguments about who should, or should not die for whom, but also the brutal hostility of a son to his begetter. The audience must have been shocked and at the same time entranced by seeing acted out this double-sided argument in which now the son, and now the father, seems to have justice on his side.
This was no radically new idea, just a new recreation on the stage of a very old story which the Greeks had heard in the myths many times before. Kings do not ordinarily expose their children unless there is a special reason (for example the curse on Laius' house for kidnapping) and only then would exposure of his son seem a way of expiating guilt by lex talionis. Behind this action lies the socially approved pattern of death by exposure, since it does not incur blood guilt as,in effect, no blood is shed. (Perhaps this is conceived as similar to our legal categories of causation of death, which can be seen as homicide, second degree murder or first degree murder. If Greek ideas of what was acceptable causation of death seem forced to us, think how utterly inexplicable our legal classifications of violent death would have been to them.) In summary, Laius expiates child-stealing by sacrificing his own child, but he cannot do this in a self-incriminatory way, so he chooses the socially acceptable mode in exposing the infant, which does not incur blood-guilt.
From the very beginning of his identity some million or more years ago, Man was clearly a social animal, his hunting habits, his system of protection for the group, and his provisions for rearing the young were highly social, and without this trait he would not have survived. But in the smaller group of family, extended family, or tribe, social behavior is clearer and more understandable than when the social group begins to involve men and women in the thousands and the tens of thousands. These larger numbers appear for the first time, so far as our information goes, in a relatively recent period, starting some twelve thousand years ago, and it is only from that time that we can date what we pridefully call "civilization". But if civilization has its rewards, it also has its difficulties, the first of which is the submerging of the individual's will in the will of the group. This is still a problem which is by no means ironed out in our twentieth century, so we can imagine how difficult adjustment to such new sets of standards must have been when they first appeared.
It is the thesis of this study that the Greek myths document, although often in a somewhat cloaked manner, the early confrontations of "heroes" with societies. The heroes are still the only imaginable worthies which the society can think of appreciating, they stand out as admirable figures in Greek mythology. But they all have a fatal flaw of some kind, and what is more revealing, they all meet a tragic doom and end their lives in despair or violent death. This key, which has generally been overlooked, marks the difficulty of adapting to new social environments, especially when the hero is trained and tested in the old ways which date from an earlier, pre-mega-social stage of development. The fact that the myths are able to combine praise for great heroism, while at the same time chronicling the heroes' tragedies, points to their basic seriousness and truthfulness.
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