Posted by: aediculaantinoi | October 2, 2013

Gods, Heroes, and Morals…

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 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.

Drew writes:

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.


  1. I think we’re encountering the same problem here as with the ever-contentious topic of “sacrifice” – namely, that we translate an ancient concept into an English word, and then carry over all our baggage associated with that word as if it had anything to do with the ancient concept. Worse here because unlike thusia/sacrifice, the Greek and English are very close (heros/hero).

    I think you’re right about “more a matter of dying right than living right”, since ultimately hero cultus was about the power they got after death, rather than anything they necessarily did in life. I for one absolutely do NOT look to the heroes any more than the gods as moral exemplars – including those I honor with modern cultus such as Jim Morrison, who in person I might have quite disliked (depending on how drunk he was).

    But I also think that again comes down to the difference between viewing your religion as primarily about honoring something more powerful than yourself, or viewing it as primarily about enhancing yourself. I’m obviously in the former category.

    • Indeed–just as the “big to-do” a few months ago, people see “hero” and think that superheroes are the same as ancient heroes, and just because Superman stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, that likewise Herakles stood for Truth, Justice, and the Theban Way (or something like that…!?!). It just doesn’t work out that way…and, as his own children, and those of Medea, were also honored as heroes in shrines in the ancient Greek world, that needs some explaining, since all they did was be kids of famous people and die by those same people.

      (The actual modern “hero worship” that people do to Justin Bieber and One Direction, interestingly, never got brought up in that pop culture discussion, and yet the same terms are used there…I wonder why that is, other than that Justin Bieber is a monumental douchebag, but anyway…!?!)

      I think some heroes have exemplary lives, but certainly not all of them, and it’s not a constitutive part of their heroism to have had them. All Antinoe did was re-found a city by following a drakon–while that’s kind of cool, it’s not necessarily heroic in the modern sense. The baby and child heroes I’ve mentioned above and in my previous paragraph didn’t have heroic lives by any stretch of the imagination (other than in the Otto Rank Myth of the Birth of the Hero sense, of everyone being a hero by nature of their birth due to the major biological change involved in the birth process, but I think we can disregard that as anything other than an interesting footnote in a Joseph Campbell interview, mostly!).

      We don’t even know with any certainty whether Antinous, one of many hero/gods of the ancient world, had an exemplary life. We assume he does based on certain things, and on our experiences with him (he’s just SOOOOOO NIIIIICE! it’s hard to imagine he’d not have been a joy to be around while alive, despite what some scholars opine based on his posthumous sculptures’ demeanor interpretations), but it’s quite impossible to tell or know that for certain about him as he was alive. Who knows? But, he seems to be pretty cool now, however he was before he died, so that’s good enough…

      Also, vigorous and affirming nods on the matter of all of these various cultuses being geared not toward self-improvement, but toward actually worshipping the gods and doing one’s religious duty toward those who have given us so many blessings (including ancestors, the land, etc.). If I am improved by doing such cultus, great, but that’s not why we’re doing it. I will happily admit to the fact that I do have the ulterior motive that is involved in most savior-cults: not of “being saved” in the afterlife, but of having a better and richer life now. My life is better and richer by having Antinoan cultus at the center of it, and I’d not trade that for anything; but, even though my life isn’t perfect, and may even be something which could be improved in certain practical ways by not doing Antinoan cultus and having that much more time, space, energy, and resources to devote to other things, why would I do that? I get a ton out of my relationship with him, and out of doing things in devotion to him, so I can’t honestly say I’m just doing it for his own sake, but that’s different than saying that I’m doing Antinoan cultus because it will turn me into a better human being. It has, I think, but I did it because I wanted to do it for him and to get his blessings, and now I continue to do it to thank him for all he’s done.

      This is a very major division between actual polytheists, I think, and the self-improvement pagans and polytheists who are out there. I’ve met some people recently who have said they want to be devoted to certain deities, to do certain things for them, and that they are polytheists, but then in the end they’ve made decisions that put at the center of their life their own spiritual process, not having a thing to do with devotion or service to deities, and in fact to a degree ignoring cues in those directions. Those sorts of individual aren’t really ones that I would want to consider colleagues or equals in polytheistic pursuits, and yet they also seem to want to demand that without having the actual work and results and devotional relationships to show for it, in some cases. Feck…

      [Also, in the same TWH post that I linked to above, another person who was involved in the big to-do a few months back (an “allergic pagan” who shall remain nameless on this blog forever hence), and who has innovated the terminology around “self-centered paganism” as an actual and viable (and even enviable) matter despite being rather like an atheist/humanist himself (which makes sense, as I suspect many more pagans and polytheists are who privilege their own process over that of devotion to deities), said that anyone who is talking about paganism in general is actually talking about themselves, really. Uh…no, not necessarily. There are historical realities that are not up for interpretation in many of those discussions. But, of course, he doesn’t realize the reflexivity of his own statement, I don’t think, that he’s actually talking about himself, because that’s the only thing he can talk about…and all that he thinks is useful to talk about. Sorry, but as wonderful as I happen to be, I’m not interested in plumbing the depths of my own arsehole, which I have conveniently mistaken for my own navel, and calling that “spiritual.” But, I suspect you probably agree on that as well…fancy that? 😉 ]

  2. Reblogged this on A Forest Door and commented:
    Important thoughts on hero cultus from PSVL. Check out my comment at the end.

  3. […] Sufenas (who recently had some reviews published in an online journal) has some heroic words to […]

  4. […] is controversial. Hero cultus is controversial. Tradition is controversial. Eclecticism is controversial. Syncretism is […]

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