J'S ILLUSTRATED LECTURES
Illustrated Mythic Hero
Illustrated Greek Theater
Illustrated Greek Drama
Illustrated Parthenon Marbles
Illustrated Road to the Recovery of
Illustrated Greek History MENU
presented at the National Gallery of Art's 1997 Summer Teacher
Insititute on Mythology.
an illustrated lecture
by Dr. Janice Siegel
hero" is a particular breed of hero with particular traits. The
Greek hero Heracles (Latin Hercules) will stand as our model Mythic Hero
- since he exemplifies most of the associated traits - but we shall
consider other mythic heroes from an assortment of cultures in our
search to understand what exactly we mean by "heroic" in the
"mythic" sense. Artwork used to illustrate these myths and
heroes is deliberately drawn from a wide range of cultures, artists,
periods and media to reveal the viability and popularity of such myths
Most fanciers of
mythology are familiar with the old Pattern of the Hero, an attempt to
boil down the main events of a hero's life and career: for example, he
is said to be of elevated parentage, exposed as an infant, adopted by
poor foster family, has marvelous adventures, saves a princess from a
dreadful fate, marries her, and eventually meets with a mysterious
death...). This general pattern has been molded to fit various
methodological approaches and there is little distinction - on a
thematic level - to be made between patterns presented by Lord Raglan
(myth-ritualist), Otto Rank (Freudian), and Joseph Campbell (Jungian).
The pattern works well for the hero of folklore, but not for most mythic
heroes, for it doesn't necessarily include the single most important
contribution of the mythic hero: insight into our sacred beginnings from
which we have become alienated and with which we strive to reconnect.
Mythology opens a door, an access way to what lies beyond our profane
reality. The mythic hero can walk through that door and return to our
world once again, while we cannot. So we depend on him to take that
journey for us, and we hope to learn something about the cosmos and
ourselves as a result of it.
mythic hero must be able to cross the boundaries that separate our world
from that of the gods, to make accessible to mortals that wondrous but
forbidden world, the mythic hero must have a mythic passport, i.e.,
divine parentage (something the established "pattern" waters
down to include "royal parentage" ). This commingling of
divine and mortal will allow him to act beyond the ordinary limits of
humanity, an essential characteristic of the mythic hero. Divine
conceptions of mythic heroes may be accomplished in several ways. The
trickster-god motif is used by a god when he disguises himself as a
woman's husband in order to gain access to her sexually. She then has
intercourse with her real husband and eventually gives birth to twins of
different fathers. This is not an uncommon tale in classical mythology,
but it does not offer any great opportunity to artists, since an
illustration of the moment of such a heroic conception would show only
what appeared to be man and wife. Heracles, the model mythic hero for
today's talk, is the product of such a union between his mother, Alcmene
and Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon. Born Alcides, our mythic hero is
the son of Zeus and is therefore half-divine; his twin Iphicles is the
mortal offspring of Alcmene's husband, Amphytrion. Heracles' paternity
will be a never-ending source of pain during his life, for as the
bastard son of Zeus he will continually suffer in the throes of Hera's
Some versions of
Leda's story - another old chestnut - use the same trickster-god
format: that Zeus lay with her in the guise of her husband, followed by
her actual husband, and she then gave birth to two sets of twins, Helen
and Clytemnestra and Polydeuces (or Pollux) and Castor, the first of
each set being the divine child of Zeus and the other the mortal child
of Leda's husband Tyndareos. But another, more spectacular version of
this heroic conception has been popularized by artists ancient and
Leda and the Swan (marble), n.d. Heraklion, National Museum
Leda and the Swan, c. 1530. Berlin, Dahlem.
After Leonardo. Leda and the Swan, early 16th c.
Leonardo. Leda and the Swan, 16th c. Rome,
In this other
version of the story, Zeus comes upon Leda in the form of a swan, and
the children born of this union will be hatched from two eggs, each
bringing forth a set of single-sexed twins. There is a rich tradition of
hero shrines dedicated to the sons of Zeus, or Dioscuri (who eventually
come to share Polydeuces' divinity) and to Helen. Clytemnestra, of
course, will earn another form of immortality when she murders her
husband Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War. She will
thereafter stand as the paradigmatic vindictive wife (and as to whether
this is a just characterization or not is a completely different
Jupiter and Antiope, c. 1540 or 1560, Paris, Louvre
J.A. Jupiter and Antiope, 1715. Paris, Louvre
birthed a set of twins fathered by Zeus, this time in the form of a
satyr. Amphion and Zethus become city-founders of Thebes, whose walls
were made by stones moved by the music from Amphion's lyre, a gift of
Hermes. City-founding alone is enough to qualify one born of divine
parentage for mythic hero status.
Attic: Kalyx Krater with Danae, 490-480 BC. St.
Danae, c. 1513. Rome, Borghese.
The story of
Danae and her conception of the hero Perseus also offers a great
opportunity for artists. Locked away by her father because an oracle
claimed her offspring would cause his death, Zeus managed to find a way
in to Danae anyway, in the form of a golden shower (Discuss...).
Danae, 1545. Naples, Capodimonte
Danae and Jupiter, 1736. Stockholm University
What does it
take, then, to be a mythic hero in classical Greek mythology? Does one
need to embark on great adventures and be the dragon-slayer of great
renown? No, although many mythic heroes do engage in such activities.
This, however, is more of a folklore motif than qualification for mythic
hero status. We must be careful to separate our preconceived notions of
what makes a hero heroic from what the ancient cultures themselves
demanded. Our list of classical Greek heroes might include the
courageous Heracles, Perseus and Theseus, but a Greek's would also have
included city-founders, eponymous heroes (those who give their name to a
region or people) and others as well. This is an important distinction,
for few women would fit the paradigm of the "dragon-slayer",
yet there were actually as many female mythic heroes in the Greek
tradition as male. To paraphrase Tristram Coffin, it is certainly more
glamorous to grab a tiger by the tail than to pluck the feathers from a
dead duck, and women simply did not have the opportunity (with few
exceptions) to seek adventure in the manner of male heroes. Although the
events of his life did not qualify a hero for mythic status, the
circumstances of birth (as stated - divine parentage) and the reaction
to his death are the qualifying factors. As we shall see, some
form of immortality must be gained by the hero - in classical lore this
is usually manifested by the hero having achieved cult status after
death. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence (inscriptions) can be
very helpful here - for example, even today you can still travel to
Sparta and visit the Menelaion, a cult shrine dedicated to the worship
of both Menelaus and his wife Helen.
But yes, the
many classical Greek female mythic heroes tend to operate in a different
way than their male counterparts, partly because of biology and partly
because of social constraints. One of the premier differences might be
summed up this way: men travel to places to establish themselves
as heroes; women do it at home. Men found cities; women save
them. Sacrificial heroism is based on the true evidence that human
sacrifices were made to save cities, and the art and literature of
antiquity provides details of particular instances.
Giovanni Battista. Sacrifice of Iphigenia, c. 1750. J.B.
Speed Art Museum
In some versions
of her story, Ipheginia willingly goes to her death, sacrificing
herself in return for a Greek victory in the Trojan War. In other
versions, this child of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra is rescued at the
very last moment by Artemis and becomes her priestess in Tauris. Artemis
decreed that henceforth the clothing of women who die in childbirth
would be dedicated to Iphigenia, affording her the cult status necessary
for a hero to become mythic.
1st BC (Pompeii). House of the Dioscuri. Perseus Freeing
Perseus and Andromeda, 1555. London, Wallace Collection
to die to appease a sea monster that threatens to destroy her father's
kingdom, a monster conjured up by Poseidon in punishment for her
mother's rash claim of beauty beyond the gods'. She is, of course,
rescued and married to Perseus. Andromeda stands as a good example of
how a sacrificial heroine's actions generally gain our attention more
because she provides a man with an opportunity to strut his heroic stuff
(witness Perseus), rather than due to her own show of heroism.
between male and female heroism in classical mythology is most clearly
shown in the story of Alcestis. She willfully sacrifices her life for
what she considers a greater good, the life of her husband. At the end
of Euripides' play, Heracles rescues her from her doom. While she
is deemed heroic for submitting to Death, Heracles proves his
heroism by wrestling Death. In the end, female heroes are less
active and more reactive than their male counterparts, yet they were no
less effective or celebrated in antiquity.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
But it is the
male heroes who give us the sitting on the edge of your seat,
cliff-hanger, action-packed adventure stories we so like - in Heracles,
we have a figure who enjoys cult status after his death, but who also
earned his reputation by engaging in many glorious and wondrous
adventures. The twelve Labors of Heracles and his parerga (or
side-adventures) form the bulk of the Heraclean corpus. Again, his
connection with divinity is significant. Heracles becomes enslaved to
his Uncle Eurystheus, a favorite of Hera, in a rite of purification for
the murder of his first wife and child. It is Hera, of course, who is
said to have caused the madness that overcame Heracles and caused him to
kill his loved ones. The great hero, performing these labors at Hera's
instigation, will henceforth be known as Heracles, literally the
"Glory of Hera."
use of Heracles' labors in monumental sculpture proves its great
significance in antiquity. Perhaps most famous are the metopes of the
Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which we shall turn out attention to in a
moment. Another panhellenic shrine whose many buildings sport Heraclean
motifs is Delphi. Even on the Athenian Treasury (505 BC) the metopes
depicting Heracles' feats are outnumbered only by those depicting
Theseus, the great Athenian hero, local boy done good. (Theseus' story
was rewritten in the 6th century to be more Heraclean - to
universalize the Attic hero). Labors of Heracles are also depicted on
the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (1e BC); and the Heraclean
frieze from the proscenium of the Theater of Delphi was dedicated to
Nero, who identified himself with Heracles, and was visiting Delphi at
the time of its completion.
The first six of
Heracles' Labors all take place in the Peloponnese (southern Greece) and
are more folklorish than mythically heroic.
Archaic (Psiax). Attic Amphora w. Hercules Strangling the
Nemean Lion (from Vulci), c. 520 BC. Brescia, Museo Civico
wearing lion-skin (marble) Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi,
500 BC. Delphi
The first labor
- killing the Nemean Lion - is well-known for it is during this fight
that Heracles acquires his most famous attribute, the lionskin he wears
as a cloak. This labor stands as evidence of his great strength, for he
must strangle this lion whose skin cannot be penetrated by a weapon. In
fact, he must use the lion's own claws to skin it.
Black-figured amphora: Heracles Attacking the Lernean Hydra
with an Axe, early 5th century: Paris, Louvre
Rev. of Young Hercules Killing the Serpents: Hercules Killing
the Dragon (Hydra) (bronze), N.D. London, Victoria and
The second labor
depicts the dragon-slayer motif, typical of all folkheroes - the slaying
of the Hydra from Lerna.
Hercules and the Hydra (ink), circa 1507. British Royal
The remainder of
the first six labors all showcase some talent of Heracles. He shows his
great endurance and speed by chasing for a year the Cerynean Hind,
sacred to a virgin goddess (similar to the unicorn motif); he shows his
great strength by capturing the Erymanthian Boar; brain wins out over
brawn in his plan to clean the Augean stables - he simply re-routes a
river; and he uses his wit to rout the dreadful Stymphalian Birds by
making more noise than they do.
Hercules and Antaeus (bronze). N.D. Vienna Collections.
Lucas. Hercules and Antaeus, 1530. Vienna, Gemaldegalerie,
which proves the great strength of Heracles is his fight against the
giant Antaeus, who derived his strength from his Mother, Earth. Heracles
had only to hold him off the ground and wait for his strength to ebb.
Later ages (such as the Renaissance) tend to see Heracles' victory over
Antaeus as an allegorical victory of the sublime over the base.
THE THREAT OF LIMINALITY:
first six labors were meant to showcase the attributes of the hero, and
were limited to a circumscribed area of the mainland, the next six
involve far-ranging geographies and pit Heracles against metaphorical
threats to culture and humanity, very common themes in Greek mythology.
We must remember
that true mythologies - and therefore true mythic heroes - are the
products of pre-historical and pre-literate societies and are, besides
religious ritual, the only method of communication and instruction for
the community. Limena, or thresholds, work both ways, and heroic
victories over such forces underscore the double message: such behavior
will not be tolerated from without or from within. In other words, it
separates the kind of behavior that is acceptable and desirable from
that which is considered dangerous to the society or culture. Males and
females, for example, had very rigidly defined roles to play in Greek
society and aberrations such as, for example, Amazons, caused great
anxiety. Amazons are neither male nor female, civilized Greek nor true
barbarian. Not coincidentally, each of the most prominent Greek heroes
had a tumultuous encounter with an Amazon. Heracles went on a mission to
retrieve the Golden Belt of the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, and
killed her in a battle instigated by Hera (slide - on the left).
Attic: Kantharos with Heracles and Amazons, circa 490-480
Archaic (Exekias). Attic Neck Amphora with Achilles and
Penthesilea (from Vulci), c. 525 BC. London, British Museum
On the right,
you see Achilles fighting Penthesilea on the battlefield at Troy.
Theseus abducted the Amazon Queen Antiope, with whom he had a son
Hippolytus, destined for ill perhaps because of his mixed parentage. The
undeniable attraction felt for something at the same time inimical is
revealed through both Achilles and Theseus falling in love with Amazon
warriors they fight. It is said that Achilles (on the right) fell in
love with Penthesilea even as he thrust his sword deep into her body.
East pediment of Temple of Zeus, Olympia, 460 BC
constitute a similar threat to Greek society, and are similarly liminal
creatures. There have been various explanations as to why the centaurs
figure so prominently in the monumental sculpture of temples throughout
Greece. Just as Amazons are a "weird conflation of man and
woman", Centaurs are neither beast nor man, but have qualities of
both. As Dubois has discussed, both the Centaurs and Amazons were a
primarily single-sexed society, ambivalent to and downright hostile to
economically and socially necessary institutions such as marriage.
Another good argument can be made for their identification with
Persians, as the Greeks' quite unexpected and fortuitous victory over
the Persians ushered in the fifth century Golden Age of Greece, the era
to which most monumental sculpture belongs. They have also been rightly
perceived by Page Dubois as "anti-culture personified," the
most terrible of all threats to Greek thinking.
The most famous
Centaur story of Greek mythology is the Battle of the Lapiths and
Centaurs, or Centauromachy, as shown in this sculpture group from the
East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The Centaurs were
invited to the wedding of the local Lapith king. They cannot hold their
liquor (an example of a lack of control much disdained by the Greeks)
and drunken revelry quickly escalates into full-blown combat as one of
the lustful centaurs tries to abduct the Lapith bride. We note the
central position the god Apollo has, providing divine guidance to the
hero Theseus. These next slides show the same scene, but these are
metopes which originally graced the Athenian Parthenon:
Classical. Marble Metope 27, Parthenon. Centaurs versus
c. 440's BC, British Museum
Classical. Marble Metope 30, Parthenon. Centaurs versus
c. 440's BC, British Museum
like this one because the penultimate scene of the battle is frozen in
time. We do not know whether the Centaur or the Lapith (reaching for a
rock) will prevail in the next instant. These above metopes are
presently housed in the British Museum, but the photo below shows a
plaster replica of a metope in situ (in its original place on
the Parthenon in Athens).
Classical. In situ metope, Parthenon. Centaurs versus Lapiths,
c. 440 BC, Athens
has a run-in with a centaur. He kills the centaur Nessus:
Archaic (Nettos Painter). Amphora with Heracles Killing
Nessus, c. 620 BC. Athens National Museum #1002
amphora Heracles Killing Nessus, 610 BC, Athens National
evoked the ire of Heracles by trying to abduct his wife Deianara.
Nessus’ dying words convince Deianara that his blood has the power to
engender love for her in her husband, when in fact it is a deadly poison
that will burn off his skin. In fact, Heracles will later die by his
enemy's blood. Centaurs, those mysterious creatures of mythology,
continue to capture the imagination of artists even today:
Centauresse (bronze), 1889-90; cast 1970. Stanford
Traces of Centaures (gouache), 1943. Paris, Gallerie
Perhaps it is
our sublimated - and therefore potentially dangerous - desire to act
like animals, to strip off our veneer of civilization, that explains the
allure of these creatures of the deep forest, whom we also fear.
Whatever it is, mythic heroes have the strength of mind and body to deny
their power. Just as Amazons and Centaurs fail to fit into the paradigm
of Greek society, all other hybrid creatures, threatening monsters which
heroes must dispatch, fail to conform as well. They represent the same
liminal threat to order.
Chimera from Arezzo (bronze,
Etruscan), second quarter of 4th century B.C. Florence, Mus.
example, earns his reputation as mythic hero by killing the chimera, a
triform of lion, goat and serpent, while riding on the back of Pegasus,
the winged horse:
Attic fromVulci, The Siren Painter: Stamnos with Odysseus and
the Sirens, c. 480 BC. London, British Museum
resist the opportunity of hearing the song of the Sirens (half bird,
half woman); excited by the opportunity to hear their song filled with
knowledge of the future, Odysseus acknowledges their great power - and
his own inability either to fight his own nature or fend off their
temptation - by lashing himself to the mast. His men, of course, all
wear wax earplugs to protect them from being drawn in by the Siren's
Archaic. Sphinx of the Naxians (marble), c. 560 BC,
Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1828. London, National Gallery
The Sphinx is
another hybrid creature that strikes fear into the hearts of mortals. As
we recall from Sophocles' play, Oedipus is credited with answering the
Sphinx's riddle, upon which she slew herself. The slide on the left
gives us a good view of its triform body. This was a votive offering of
the very powerful island of Naxos, dedicated at Delphi. It is 2.3 meters
high (about 11 feet), originally displayed on a column 12 meters high
(four stories high). It has the head of a woman (with a typically
archaic smile - it dates to 560 BC), chest and wings of a bird, body of
a lion. On the right is Ingres' representation of Oedipus solving the
Riddle of the Sphinx. Click here
for Dr. J's Illustrated Oedipus and the Sphinx lecture.
The sphinx gives
us a good bridge to the next threat often faced by mythic heroes, for
the horror it generated was due to its indelicate habit of feasting on
those who could not answer its riddles correctly. Anthropophagy - the
eating of human beings - is a threat common to so many mythologies that
it perhaps defines the paramount fear of humankind in this...
dog-eat-dog world. One of Heracles’ twelve labors is to subdue the
mares of Diomedes, which subsist on human flesh. Heracles tames them by
feeding them their own master. Japanese mythology offers a roll call of
heroes who are said to have vanquished the dreaded Kumo, a man-eating
spider 120 feet in diameter in whose stomach the hero Raiko is said to
have found 1919 human skulls. Yegara-no-Heida, another Japanese hero, is
credited with downing Uwibami, a giant serpent whose habit it is to
swallow men on horseback.
interior of red-figured cylix, 440 - 430 B.C. London, British
where Theseus Killed the Minotaur,
Roman Mosaic, 4th century A.D. Vienna
Back in Crete,
the Minotaur, which Theseus is credited with killing, feeds on the flesh
of young Athenians provided in tribute. The Minotaur, by the way, also
stands as warning against illicit sex, for he is the monstrous product
of the unnatural union between a princess and a bull she lusts after.
THE THREAT OF ANTHROPOPHAGY
early (Orientalizing). Proto-Attic Amphora: Blinding of
Polyphemus (from Eleusis), c. 670 BC. Eleusis Museum
1st c. BC (Rome) The Odyssey Landscapes: The Attack of the
Laestrygonians, 50-30 BC. Rome, National Museum
And who can
forget Homer's Odysseus, who struck a victorious blow for Greeks and all
humanity by besting the anthropophagic Cyclops? But we can never relax -
the danger of cannibals is never completely gone, as Odysseus himself
finds out. In his very next adventure, Odysseus almost falls prey to the
same threat, when he and his men enter the Land of the Laestrygonians,
cannibals who falsely present a human - and humane - front.
Hercules and Cacus (stone), N.D. Florence, at Palazzo
On the way home
from one of his labors, Heracles, too, faces a cannibalistic killer in
Italy named Cacus who has much in common with Polyphemus the Cyclops,
nemesis of Odysseus. Both monsters are the offspring of gods (Cacus, son
of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge; Polyphemus, Poseidon god of the
sea); both are giants who live in caves that are man-traps; Cacus is
characterized as a cannibal by the men's faces which are nailed to his
door. He also lies in a pile of half-gnawed bones. Not far removed from
the horrors of the cannibalism of Odysseus' Cyclops and Laestrygonians
or Heracles' Cacus lies Suamoro, the evil ruler in the West African epic
Sundiata: he wears a robe and footwear made from human skin,
reigns from a throne whose seat is human skin, and surrounds himself
with the heads of the nine kings he has killed, depending on them to
gain access to the spirit world. In these stories we see similar
metaphors for threats to society, civilization, order, law and the
continued existence of humanity itself.
FIGHT AGAINST MORTALITY
mythic hero will reveal his connection with the "other side"
by ignoring the limits set on mortals by death or its sphere of
influence. In cultures round the world, this momentary defeat of death
is generally illustrated by a successful nekyia, or descent to the
underworld. Heracles visits the underworld several times, and it was
even the fulfillment of one of his labors: to bring back Hades'
three-headed watch dog Cerberus.
Archaic Ionian Hydria. Heracles Bringing Cerberus to
Eurystheus (from Cerveteri), c. 530 BC, Paris, Louvre.
one visit to the underworld he betrothed himself to the woman - Deianara
- who would eventually cause his own death. The underworld visits of
Odysseus and Aeneas are faithfully chronicled by their respective poets,
Homer and Virgil. These individuals learned important and useful
information there, information they would not otherwise have had access
to. This, too, is an example of mythic involvement. But the topos of
nekyia is not restricted to classical Greece or Rome.
In fact, we can
even look to the oldest hero myth on record, the Sumerian story of
Gilgamesh, for an example of a mythic hero who stares death in the face
- and bows to its great power and the fear it inspires. "Two-thirds
divine" as the text purports him to be, Gilgamesh fulfills the
basic requirements for heroic status. But distraught over the death of
his faithful companion Enkidu, and terrified by the prospect of death,
Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life, held
by the goddess Ur-shanabi. He becomes the first to successfully get past
the fearful Scorpion Men who guard the way to her dwelling (SLIDE).
Man (sandstone) from Tell-Halaf in Syria
appropriate that the Scorpion Man should have a double form, as it
stands as the guardian between two worlds. With the guidance of the
goddess Ur-shanabi herself, Gilgamesh successfully harvests the
life-giving plant that grows beneath the sea. It is stolen from him by a
serpent, however, and in the end he abandons the pursuit for eternal
life. The goddess’ words express the terrible truth of death:
"Nobody sees Death,/Nobody sees the face of Death,/Nobody hears the
voice of Death./Savage Death just cuts mankind down." In alternate
versions, Gilgamesh either gloomily accepts the idea of death as a
permanent end for all mortal creatures, or he revels in the knowledge
that he will live beyond his own time through the eternal fame of his
monumental achievement, the great walls of the city Uruk. Although he
reconciles himself to his mortal fate, perhaps the attraction of this
hero is his initial passion to fight against his destiny. His eventual
capitulation to the inevitable is a bitter pill to swallow - for him and
for us. But something good does come out of this - we may be destined to
die, but our passion to live only becomes stronger from the knowledge.
This is the kind of essential knowledge - essential for psychic health -
that we gain from the exploits of our mythic heroes.
Immortality - or
the shuffling off of this mortal coil - can also be achieved in ways
other than a descent to the Underworld. Odysseus faces this challenge at
every turn - and the suggestion to leave all his troubles behind him
becomes more appealing the farther in time and space he gets from his
goal, which for Odysseus is home. The Lotus-Eaters, Circe, and Calypso
all offer oblivion to Odysseus, a gift he rejects in favor of a familiar
love and a lost life. Forgetfulness, immortality, drug-induced euphoria
all offer the Easy Way Out we all wish we could take at some point or
another. The gods may have immortality, but the heroes learn that it is
only through action and achieving glory that life reveals itself to be
valuable. Gods cannot act - they can only meddle in the lives of
mortals. In fact, one could argue that the gods depend more on us for
their existence than we do on them for ours.
Monkey-Hero of Chinese Mythology. Illustration from children's
In the Chinese
myth of Sun Wukung, the Stone Monkey, the character of Sun represents
man and human nature, which is described as being prone to evil. Of
supernatural origins (his stone egg was fructified by the breath of the
wind), he was favored by the immortals and provided with extraordinary
powers and abilities. He earned the name Wukung (Discoverer of Secrets)
early in his career. Sun Wukung expresses his desire to achieve
immortality in three most emphatic ways: he caused himself to no longer
be subject to the Laws of Death by stealing down to the Underworld and
removing his name from the Register of the Living and the Dead, he
gained stewardship over the Garden of the Immortal Peaches and ate them,
and three, he stole the pills of immortality guarded by yet another
immortal. In a climactic battle seen in the above slide (left), Sun is
finally overpowered by the immortals: Lao Chun (founder of Taoist system
of philosophy) hurls his magic ring onto Sun's head, while Ehr-Lang
attacks and T'ien Kou (Celestial Dog) bites him in the leg. In the end,
Sun is captured and when the immortals sentence this similarly immortal
monkey to death, Sun threatens to destroy all Heaven. Buddha, summoned
by the chief god out of desperation, thoughtfully asks Sun why he wants
to possess the Kingdoms of heaven. Sun arrogantly replies, "Have I
not power enough to be the God of Heaven? My qualifications are
innumerable. I am invulnerable. I am immortal, I can change myself into
72 different forms, I can ride on the clouds of Heaven and pass through
the air at will, with one leap I can traverse 108,000 li (36 thousand
miles)." Buddha soulfully declares that Sun could not even jump out
of his hand. Not one whose ego would allow him to turn down a dare, Sun
jumps and easily reaches the farthest pillars of the created universe.
He signs them as proof of his visit, only to find upon his return that
these pillars were the Buddha’s own fingers, and that he indeed never
left Buddha's hand. In place of eternal incarceration, the vanquished
Sun chooses to embark on the journey to the mythical Western Paradise to
seek the sacred scrolls, a journey filled with dragons, cannibals and
mythic temptations, an allegorical dramatization of the introduction of
Buddhism into China.
Sun's desire to
appropriate the The Peaches of Immortality reminds us of Adam and Eve
being denied access to the Biblical Tree of Life after their Fall, as
well as Heracles’ labor to collect apples from the Garden of the
Classical. Temple of Zeus, Olympia. Metope of Atlas and
Heracles, 460 BC. Olympia Museum
16th c. (Florence). Farnese Hercules (bronze). National
Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The apples were
guarded by a dragon in a walled garden somewhere at the ends of the
earth, the exact location known only to the Titan Atlas, shown on the
right returning with the Apples in this fabulous metope from the Temple
of Zeus at Olympia. Heracles, the greatest of heroes, is barely able to
support the weight of the sky, while the goddess has only to raise her
left hand to relieve his burden. In contrast, note the confident posture
of the Renaissance hero on the right, shown alone with his prize,
leaning on his club, over which he has draped his lion skin.
THE UNHEROIC HERO
In a confusing
twist, Heracles and other mythic heroes often surprise us by performing
selfish and dastardly deeds, or acting in remarkably unheroic ways. How
do we account for this? A hero is not a do-gooder who runs around
looking for damsels to save. A hero is a semi-divine being, wondrous in
his attributes and abilities, who continually seeks ways to achieve the
glory he considers his due. Therefore, a hero is not necessarily a
paragon of virtue. Although often the savior of a damsel in distress,
the mythic hero just as often is "guilty of striking departures
from the morality of his society." We revel in the hero's exploits
because he is a mirror of ourselves - our great potentialities and the
great limitations set for us by nature, society and each other. Heracles'
glory is that he continually tries to overcome the limitations set on
him by Hera, by Eurystheus, by the very laws of the universe - and he
never gives up. As Waith puts it, "his exploits are strange
mixtures of beneficence and crime, of fabulous quests and shameful
betrayal, of triumph over wicked enemies and insensate slaughter of the
innocent, yet the career is always a testimony to the greatness of a man
who is almost a god - a greatness which has less to do with goodness as
it is usually understood than with the transforming energy of the divine
spark." In other words, we admire that quality of the mythic hero -
arete - that "embodies his conquering spirit, the energy that
permeates everything he does". Thus, the hero is "an odd
combination of terrifying excesses and superb self-mastery".
Mosaic, Roman Villa near Antioch: Heracles and Dionysus in a
Drinking Contest, 3rd century A.D. Princeton Art Museum
example, Heracles is shown engaged in a drinking contest with none other
than the god of the vine, Dionysus. Of course, for no mere mortal could
ever best Heracles in anything. Heracles' reputation for drinking was
also a favorite theme for playwrights, and not only comic ones -
Euripides portrays him as quite the drunken buffoon in Alcestis, as he
stumbles into the mourning household, loudly demanding to know why
everyone looks so sad. He does, of course, eventually act
"heroically" and save the damsel from death.
As we know,
after murdering his first wife and their children (the madness said to
have been caused by Hera), Heracles seeks purification and is told to
serve his uncle Eurystheus, who assigns the Twelve Labors. Later, the
unjustifiable murder of Iphitos, a clear violation of xenia, or
guest-host relations, causes Heracles to seek purification again. Denied
such by Apollo at his shrine at Delphi, Heracles oversteps his bounds
and tries to wrestle Apollo's sacred tripod from him. In punishment,
Heracles is sold into slavery for one year to Omphale, Queen of the
1724. Paris: Louvre
This painting by
Lemoyne shows the hero in a completely feminized state, apparently part
of his punishment (discuss slide). Such apparently unheroic behavior
does not cause us to lose faith in our mythic heroes who prove
themselves to be both wonderful and terrible. In fact, their faults are
simply magnifications of our own and highlight the limitations of those
of *us* born mortal, too.
mythic hero enjoys a victorious battle against death now and again, in
the end he must necessarily lose the war. Death is a necessity, for the
mythic hero must suffer the same limitations regarding mortality that we
do, or his appetites become vulgar excess, his pride hubris, his
single-mindedness of purpose, egotism. Just as important for mythic hero
status is the hero worship that follows after death. Classical Greek and
Roman heroes had this stage of their existence defined in terms of hero
cult, ritualistic religious worship of the hero after his death, and
Heracles certainly had more than his share of dedicated cults. But
Heracles is an unusual example of how a mythic hero can achieve
immortality, for he actually undergoes apotheosis, becoming a god. Other
classical mythic heroes to be so honored are Ino, who becomes Leucothoe,
and then the Roman Psyche, whose new mother-in-law, Venus, demanded that
her son Cupid not marry a mere mortal.
on the funeral pyre he himself builds represents man's almost frantic
desire to break free from the constraints of mortal existence, and his
eventual apotheosis shows the hero's ability to transcend his mortality,
but only with the help of the gods. Heracles' mortality - a mere
fraction of our own - is enough to drag him down - only with the help of
the divinity can he attain immortality, a theme constant in the mythic
foundations of many religions, and a solace to human beings in their
knowledge of their mortal limitations. In Heracles' case, he had thrown
himself on a funeral pyre to escape the torment of the centaur Nessus'
poison blood on his shirt, innocently provided by his wife Deianara, who
hoped only to preserve his love of her. After the body of Heracles was
burned on the fire, Zeus extinguished it and proclaimed that only the
mortal part of the hero had been consumed, while his immortal part was
going in a chariot to Mt. Olympos.
Giovanni Battista. Triumph of Hercules, c. 1761. Currier
Valley of the Muses, Mount Olympos, 1995. Greece
There he was
proclaimed the twelfth Olympian, reconciled with Hera and united in
marriage with her daughter Hebe, goddess of youthful beauty, who gave
him a drink of the gods' immortalizing nectar. Compare Tiepolo's
artistic rendering of this scene with a photograph of the real summit of
Mt. Olympos, on the right, a picture I took myself.
A mythic hero
from yet another tradition of a later age earned a similar sort of
immortality by destroying a poison-belching monster wreaking havoc on
yet another innocent community:
der Weden. St. George and the Dragon (wood), c. 1432.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
St. George and the Dragon, 1504/06. National Gallery of
Art, Washington, D.C.
In the story of
St. George and the Dragon, the real horror is that the townspeople have
resorted to sacrificing a few children a day to the greedy monster in
vain hopes of forestalling total destruction, reminiscent of the
Athenians paying tribute to Crete in the form of boys and girls to feed
the minotaur. Similarly, the Japanese hero Susanowo has to kill the
terrible eight-tailed dragon of Kosi, also used to feeding on human
children tearfully provided by the townspeople. Anyway, on his way to
join his legion, the Christian soldier St. George comes upon the scene
at the very moment that the king’s daughter, Cleodolinda, approaches
the feeding zone. There is hope that her heroic sacrifice will once and
for all satiate the beast. Although urged by her to stay at a safe
distance, St. George promises to deliver her "through the power of
Jesus Christ." His successful battle inspired the populace of
20,000 to be baptized at once. For his sanctity, St. George was beheaded
under the 303 AD edict of Diocletian, which outlawed and called for the
persecution of Christians. Worshipped in the East from that time, St.
George’s popularity only reached similar heights in Europe nearly 1000
years later during the time of the Crusades. Both of these
representations of this Christian myth are on display in the West Wing
of this gallery. On the left is a fifteenth century painting on wood by
van der Weyden, and on the right, Raphael's 1504 representation. Each
painting includes the essential details which allow us to see St. George
as not only an early Christian knight, but as mythic hero as well. All
the popular folklore elements are here - innocent princess to be saved,
horrible dragon to be slain, the fearlessness of the sacrificial
heroine, the hero on his trusty steed, and pieces of unsuccessful heroes
strewn about, but it is St. George's belief in a divine force from which
he derives his strength and ability, that elevates his feat and his
character into the realm of the mythic and grants him success where
those before him failed.
St. George and the Dragon
van Haarlem: Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon,
1588. London: National Gallery
Haarlem's representation of would-be dragon slayers (Cadmus eventually
kills it) picks up on the theme of the hero as victor where those before
have failed, although a bit more graphically than van der Weyden
(discuss slide). In terms of mythic heroes, canonization is equivalent
to hero cult, breeding the same ritualized worship: one only has to tour
Greece or any other country influenced by the East and see the sheer
number of shrines dedicated to the worship of Saint George to understand
his religious influence.
The bestowal of
mythic status can also work in reverse. Historical leaders have often
adopted heroic personae (and in the case of Augustus, a divine one). In
the desire to achieve prestige and power beyond that afforded mortal
men, with the final goal being immortality, Alexander the Great and
Napolean both had themselves depicted in official portraitures with the
attributes of semi-divine heroes. This is general practice among Chinese
political leaders even in the historic era. Our own George Washington, a
genuine American historical personage, soon gained mythic status in
terms of folklore: tales depicting him throwing a silver dollar across
the Potomac suggest supernatural strength, for example, and the cutting
down of the cherry tree story suggests a noble and elevated morality.
Washington was credited with achievements beyond our ken, an entering
into that mythic reality beyond our human existence. This, of course,
reflects well not only on George, but on our country and therefore on us
as well. The transformation of Washington's character may have started
with the idea that he was a better-than-average man, but it culminated
in the actual suggestion of apotheosis, as depicted by Constantine
Brumidi in the fresco which decorates the dome of the Rotunda of the
Capitol Building here in Washington. So there is no mistake about its
import, the painting is entitled The Apotheosis of George Washington,
in which GW takes his place among the immortal Olympians:
C. U.S. Capitol, Dome, The Apotheosis of George Washington,
1864. Washington D.C.
Flanked by the
figures Liberty and Victory, the deified president rises to the heavens,
encircled by thirteen maidens representing the original States,
suggesting divine approval of not only George, but of his vision of
America as well.
C. U.S. Capitol, Dome, The Apotheosis of George Washington,
1864. Washington D.C. (detail)
C. U.S. Capitol, Dome, The Apotheosis of George Washington,
1864. Washington, D.C. (detail)
around the perimeter combine classical gods with important figures in
American history: the goddess of agriculture, Ceres, rides a reaper
through fields of golden grain while the figure of Young America looks
on; the god of smiths, Hephaestus, stands among cannons and cannonballs;
messenger god Hermes offers a bag of gold to Robert Morris; Poseidon and
Aphrodite emerge from the sea, holding the Atlantic cable; and Athena
imparts wisdom to the greatest American inventors of that time
(Franklin, Morse, Fulton).
I conclude with
some words about the recent explosion of pop culture treatments of
classical mythology. Several mythology-based productions - the
enormously popular Hercules (not to mention Disney's version), Armand
Assante's Odysseus, the completely fictitious Xena, the Warrior
Princess, and the recently re-released Star Wars trilogy, purposely
modeled after the mythic hero and company - speak to our society's
yearning for a way to reconnect with that other, lost world. But we are
so removed from our mythic beginnings that we cannot conceive of a hero
who can walk among us - of one who can at one and the same time exist in
two worlds, the sacred and the profane, or if you prefer, the mythic and
the real. In a misguided mythic striving, we create SUPER
heroes, those who function ABOVE the level of humanity. Every
single 20th century American mythic superhero schizophrenically sports a
double identity - that of his hero and that of his "cover."
The arch criminals our superheroes fight are enemies of society no less
fearful than Heracles' Hydra or Theseus' Minotaur, but these modern
heroes must transform themselves before they can act. They peevishly
protect their alter-ego identities, for modern society threatens to
squelch their mythic power. Their human personae lack the power to act,
but provide the superhero with the access to a reality which
accepts/appreciates/needs mythically heroic behavior. Batman owes his
very existence to Bruce Wayne, Spiderman to Peter Parker, Wonder Woman
to Diana Prince. They all fear being exposed, for their power is in
their mystery, as well as in their abilities and moral codes. Which is
more attractive to you? Superman's ability to fly, see through solid
objects and run faster than a speeding bullet (a Freudian would see
these as wish-fulfillments) or his unwavering adherence to Truth,
Justice, and the American Way? All superheroes transcend our puny human
reality at will, and when we engage in their stories, for a while, at
least, we can too. It is this sense of wonder and mystery they bring to
our lives - and the glimpse it offers of a nobler, more profound
existence - that we most cherish. We recall the reason heroes exist in
the first place - to stand as models of courage and persistence in our
journey through life, a journey fraught with all manner of perils and
pitfalls, and as we engage in our own struggle, we remain determined in
our pursuit to continue the search for that missing mythos.
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