Yes, folks, you read the above subject line correctly: it’s not meant to be “mortals,” which many in the polytheist community would naturally associate with the theological distinctions preceding it in the above list, but instead “morals,” because there seems to be some continuing lack of understanding on this matter in certain sections of the modern pagan community.
On The Wild Hunt today, there was an excerpt from a recent post on Patheos.com by Drew Jacob on a conference about heroism and how to create heroes. The event sounds intriguing, and I support the notions behind it; I certainly won’t be attending, because I can’t get time off work, and the travel, accommodation, and conference admissions expenses of it would be prohibitive for someone in my current financial position.
But, as worthy as this event will be, and as laudable as its goals are, I think there is some missed points regarding heroism in the ancient world that need to be queried a bit for the general understanding of modern pagans and polytheists.
In Paganism, heroes are our bridge to the gods. The heroes of legend combine otherworldly traits with a very human set of weaknesses and faults. For all their imperfections, they show us that mortals can embody the highest ideals. All of us have the spark of heroism within us.
For many Pagans, our entire ethics is evolved from the heroic ideal: individuals who follow their ideals, who do not recognize false authority, and who put the quest for truth first.
While these ideas are rooted in ancient myth, today’s psychology suggests that they are quite real: there are ways to help people be more ready to act heroically when needed, ways to increase the level of heroic action in our society.
On the latter point, of course, I don’t really agree that the validation of psychology needs to be added to ancient myth or our religious concerns generally, as I’ve written recently. But, the other points before this need to be teased out a bit more.
It’s a very Protestant notion to think that an important aspect of one’s religion is the ethical or moral shaping that it gives to people. “Here endeth the lesson,” I think, is one of the phrases one should never hear in the context of a religious ritual or service–and that’s coming from me, who is not only the Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou, but a teacher in my day job!–and yet that’s how so much of the Protestant ritual life and the ethical reasoning that comes from it is enacted in the modern world. When I was doing my M.A., we studied liberation theology as well as other praxis-based theologies, and one of the most important contentions of these (which I’ve mentioned previously) is that the Christian church is not a school of ethics, it’s a place for the inculcation of eschatological hope. While we can ignore the particular Christian implications of “eschatological hope” there, and I think we can likewise substitute “religion” for “Christian church,” I think nonetheless that there is an important point being made in this statement about liberation theology and praxis-based theologies (of which, I’d argue, paganism and polytheism both ought to be in those categories).
As a result–and other modern pagans and polytheists have made this point elsewhere, and far better, than I could–we don’t look to our deities as moral exemplars for the most part. Act like Zeus and you’ll find yourself charged with rape very quickly; acting like Dionysos as he sometimes behaved amongst humans might get one charged with terrorism or incitement to murder; and if you think Hermes is a good moral exemplar, then you’ll soon find yourself in the dock for theft, if you’re lucky. (And I mean no offense to Zeus, Dionysos, or Hermes at all for these matters–those gods, and many others, are awesome and I shall always praise them!) This is the matter as it appears on the level of mythic narrative, of course, which is not the same as the cultic level, nor even the personal and one-to-one level of individual devotional relationships with deities, and that distinction does need to be made, while also affirming the importance of the narratological “truth” and importance of myths as quasi-theophanies, as others have written on other occasions as well. So, that’s fair enough.
However, many might say–including Drew Jacob, as n what was quoted above–that heroes are kind of that missing link, those moral exemplars, even though they were flawed and imperfect and profoundly human in their actions, their desires, and their mistakes. I can agree with that to a degree; it’s certainly true of Achilleus, and of Cú Chulainn, and of Odysseus, and any number of other famous heroes from a wide variety of polytheistic mythological cultures.
But what about Eunostos of Tanagra? He was a hero who had a sacred grove and was worshipped in Tanagra, and yet all we know about him while alive was that he was the unfortunate victim of a murder; apart from that, we don’t know how moral or immoral he was. And, in fact, after his death his spirit was so troubled and troublesome that it was a detriment to the community, and that’s how he got his hero cultus. There’s really not a lot of moral integrity or exemplary behavior to be found there, to be honest–which doesn’t mean we should withhold our esteem or honoring of Eunostos, by any means, but moral upstanding-ness isn’t why he’s a hero.
So, what about Archemoros (also known as Opheltes)? He was a baby who was killed by a snake, though there was a prophecy attached to it…and, the Seven Against Thebes sort of caused it, and were the first to honor him. He was poorly looked after, and paid the ultimate price for it…and, he was honored as a hero afterwards. He was not an obscure hero like Eunostos of Tanagra, though, who only had a local cult and slight bits of one elsewhere; he was celebrated by the ancient Greek world once every four years at the Nemean Games, one of the four great panhellenic athletic festivals (of which the Olympics was one). He was just a baby in the wrong place at the wrong time–there’s nothing moral or immoral about that.
And what about Melikertes/Palaimon? Another baby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but who was not only honored as a hero, but also as a god, and who got the Isthmian Games in Corinth celebrated in his honor once every four years. One can argue that he got a bit “grandfathered” into divinity through his cousin, Dionysos, but individual moral merit certainly didn’t come into the question at all.
And what about Demophoön, the child suckled by Demeter at Eleusis? Same thing again: he got a hero cult after his death, but his own merit or moral character had nothing to do with it.
Further examples could be attested that are not infants; but, I think these noteworthy cases (and there are other child and infant heroes attested as well) need to be taken into account because of how important and noticeable and influential they were.
Hero cultus, and the recognition of heroism, involves far more than some perception of the moral aptitudes of an individual, and even more than having done something important or noteworthy in their life. Sometimes, heroism is more a matter of dying right than living right, I think, in the cases above…and in the case of some other well-known heroes like Cú Chulainn and Achilles, to some extent, as well.
So, I think this needs to be kept in mind, as matters of polytheistic cultus (including hero cultus, as in the present case) get explained away by psychology or ethical and moral assumptions rather than by what was the actual reality on the ground was in phenomena that are just as deserving of the term “heroism” as any of the others that would be more palatable to those modern sensibilities.