Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology II, Hēraklēs as an ‘Indo-European’ hero

2019.08.02 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the posting for 2019.07.26, I argued that the role of the Greek hero Hēraklēs as a boxer was cognate with the role of the Scandinavian hero Starkaðr as, likewise, a boxer. In using the term “cognate,” I was saying, in effect, that the myths about Hēraklēs as transmitted in the Greek language and the myths about Starkaðr / “Starcatherus” as originally transmitted in the various Old Norse languages and as later mediated in Latin paraphrases derive from an “Indo-European” system of mythmaking—just as the Greek and the Old Norse languages derive from a common language known to linguists as “Indo-European.” In this posting for 2019.08.02, I will start to widen the perspective while continuing to compare details I find in Greek myths about the hero Hēraklēs and in latinized Old Norse myths about the Scandinavian hero Starcatherus. At the start, the widening of the comparative perspective will seem slight, but the results, I hope, will lead to a significantly wider perspective in postings that will follow. My ultimate conclusion, as we will see, is that the figure of Hēraklēs is an ‘Indo-European’ hero. The more we compare him with his Scandinavian counterpart Starcatherus, the more evident this conclusion will become. Here, then, is how I will start to widen the lens for now: in this posting, I will view Hēraklēs as not only a boxer but also, simultaneously, as a wrestler. Such a view finds its expression in the ancient Greek athletic event known as the pankration, informally translatable as ‘maximum force’—and worth comparing with a combat sport known today as mixed martial arts.

Two athletes competing in the pankration. Panathenaic amphora, Athens (332–331 BCE).
Two athletes competing in the pankration. Panathenaic amphora, Athens (332–331 BCE). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. In the posting Classical Inquiries 2019.07.19, I had already considered a myth about the athleticism of Hēraklēs in the role of a wrestler, and then, in the next posting, Classical Inquiries 2019.07.26, I considered another myth, about his role as a boxer. Both these specific myths can be linked with a general myth reported by Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the first century BCE. I highlighted this myth in Classical Inquiries 2019.07.12 (at II§1).

§2. Diodorus (4.14.1–2) says that one of the greatest of all the achievements of Hēraklēs was his founding of the Olympics, that is, of the Olympic festival at Olympia. Further, as Diodorus also says here (4.14.2), Hēraklēs not only founded this major festival: he also competed and won in every athletic event on the prototypical occasion of the first Olympics. Just as in the later narrative of Diodorus (4.17.4) about the prototypical athletic victory of Hēraklēs in his wrestling match with Antaios, this previous narrative of his (again, 4.14.1–2) glorifies Hēraklēs as a culture hero who builds the very foundations of Greek civilization.

§3. But now we turn to a much more complicated myth or set of myths, mediated by Pausanias, who lived in the second century CE. In a lengthy narrative, Pausanias (5.7.6–5.9.6) sets out to collect a wide variety of lore tracing the evolution of the athletic events at the festival of the Olympics from the very beginnings all the way to his own present time, and, in terms of this narrative, Hēraklēs was not the original founder of the Olympics. Rather, as we will see, he had a more specialized role. Moreover, as we will also see, there existed not one but two different heroes named Hēraklēs, separated from each other by many generations, and each one of the two had specialized roles in the evolution of the Olympics.

§3a. According to the narrative recorded by Pausanias (5.7.6), the first Hēraklēs came from Mount Ida in Crete, and he competed in the footrace at Olympia, winning in rivalry with his four brothers; the five brothers were together called the Dactyls of Ida.

§3b. Then, as we read further in Pausanias (5.8.3), many generations later, a second Hēraklēs—this one came from Thebes (5.8.8)—competed in the Olympics. This Hēraklēs was the winner in two athletic events, wrestling and the pankration (5.8.4). As for the athletic event of boxing, the winner was the hero Pollux (Polydeukēs), while his twin brother Castor (Kastōr) was the winner in the footrace.

§4. As we see from the myths reported by Pausanias, the hero Hēraklēs of Thebes is pictured as a champion of the pankration, an early form of combat sport that is not yet as specialized as wrestling, which excludes punching, or as boxing, which includes the wearing of leather straps for the protection of wrists and knuckles.

§5. Here I return to §3b in the previous posting. I see a remarkable parallel in the picturing of the pugil ‘fist-fighter’ Hama in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus (5.17), who is described in this context as preferring lucta ‘wrestling’ to the use of weapons when he engages in mortal combat with Starcatherus. So also Starcatherus, described as the pugil ‘fist-fighter’ of Sweden in the map of Olaus Magnus, can be seen as a comparable champion in an early form of combat sport that closely resembles the athletic skills featured in the Olympic event of the pankration. Once again we see a fusion of boxing and wrestling.

§6. In a myth about the prototypical athletic competitions in the Pythian Games at Delphi, as we read in scholion “a” at lines 38–43 of the hypothesis for Pindar’s Pythian Odes, the hero Telamon is the winner in wrestling, while Hēraklēs wins only in the pankration. Such a mythological focusing on Hēraklēs as a champion of the pankration is relevant, I think, to the stratagem that this hero uses in killing the Nemean Lion: since this beast is impervious to weapons, the hero chokes it to death, as we read in Diodorus of Sicily (4.11.3–4). The hero’s choke-hold, as described in this myth, is an athletic maneuver that typifies the pankration. By contrast with the regulations of wrestling, the pankration was relatively unregulated, allowing for not only punching and kicking but even choking.

Hēraklēs and the Nemean Lion. Attic white-ground black-figured oinochoe (ca. 520–500 BCE).
Hēraklēs and the Nemean Lion. Attic white-ground black-figured oinochoe (ca. 520–500 BCE). Image via Wikimedia Commons.



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