Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology VIII, Some rough patches along the way toward a prototyping of Hēraklēs

2019.09.13 | By Gregory Nagy

Previously, at TC VII §7, I observed that the leveling-out and the smoothing-over of differences in the various different roles of Hēraklēs in various different tellings of ancient myths about this hero could lead not only to a sense of uniqueness but even to a kind of certainty about absolute uniqueness. And this kind of certainty, I went on to observe, could in turn lead to a prototyping of this hero as an absolute model. But now we will see that there were some rough patches along the way toward such a leveling-out and smoothing-over in the process of modeling Hēraklēs as a hero. For an example, I will concentrate here on the role of Hēraklēs as a warrior in the service of a king.

17th century engraving by Pietro Aquila, “Hercules at the Crossroads.” After a fresco by Annibale Carracci, in the Camerino Farnese, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Annibale Carracci, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” ca. 1595–1597. Fresco in the Camerino Farnese, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. By speaking of rough patches along the way toward a leveling-out and smoothing-over of differences in various different versions of myths about Hēraklēs as hero, I am playfully making a metaphorical reference to a myth about the hero himself in the making. This myth tells us that Hēraklēs the hero must have made himself a hero by having to choose between two alternatives at a crossroads: shall I choose an easy way of life by taking the smooth pathway offered by a beautiful and wanton goddess named Eudaimoniā, who is ‘good fortune’ personified, or shall I choose a hard way of life by taking the rough pathway offered by an equally beautiful but demure goddess named Aretē, who is ‘striving’ personified? The myth is attributed to the Greek thinker Prodicus of Keos, who flourished in the fifth century BCE, and it is attested in a paraphrase created by a near-contemporary of Prodicus, Xenophon of Athens, in that author’s Memorabilia (2.1.21–34). The two words eudaimoniā and aretē, which I have just now translated as ‘good fortune’ and ‘striving’, are usually rendered instead as ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’. The translation ‘vice’ has to do with the fact that the personified Eudaimoniā herself is quoted as saying (2.1.26–27) that her detractors call her Kakiā, which is ‘baseness’ or even ‘vice’ personified. In such a negativized context, Hēraklēs is being confronted with a choice between ‘Vice’ and ‘Virtue’. The personifications that get reflected by way of such translations are beautifully attested in the visual arts of the Renaissance, as we see in the compelling though somewhat misleading image that I have chosen to illustrate this essay. Here we see Hercules/Hēraklēs at a climactic moment in his youth, where he is confronted with such a life-changing choice between Vice and Virtue. But the alternative translations that I have chosen, ‘good fortune’ and ‘striving’ respectively, are more true-to-life for the hero, as I will argue.

§2. Before such an argument gets underway, however, I propose to extend my playful metaphor one step further. The choice facing Hēraklēs, between an easy way and a hard way of living out his life, is somewhat like the choice facing those of us today who apply the methods of comparative mythology, myself included, in our attempts to reconstruct Hēraklēs backward in time. If we try to reconstruct Hēraklēs all the way back to some proto-hero who existed in a proto-Indo-European world, then we are forced to ignore details that stand in the way of envisioning such a prototype. What results from the ignoring of such details is comparable to what I described in TC VII as a process of prototyping in myth itself, where myth creates its own prototypes by selectively ignoring some of its own variants. Such prototyping, I should add incidentally, can happen not only in comparative mythology but even in comparative linguistics. In any case, to avoid possible misunderstandings, I have tended to avoid in my more recent writings the term “proto-Indo-European.” Though it is difficult, I find that I can think things through more clearly by saying simply “Indo-European”—provided, as I indicated in TC V §3, that I can reconstruct forward after reconstructing backward.

§3. So, my playful metaphor has a serious side to it. There is a note of caution to be read into the metaphor itself—caution about the uncertainties as well as certainties of reconstructing backward in time. The proto-forms that we think we have recovered by way of such reconstructing are not realities in and of themselves. Rather, they are merely models of what may have been realities at a remote time that cannot be pinpointed absolutely, only relatively.

§4. In any case, to my mind, it is too easy to go only backward in time when we are engaged in reconstructing by way of comparing cognate models such as the Greek hero Hēraklēs and, say, the Germanic hero Starkaðr. If we go only backward, granted, we can reconstruct a vaguely prototypical Strong Man, great warrior and great athlete, but we lose a multitude of details along the way—along that smooth way. The hard way, by contrast, is to follow up on the backward-reconstructions and to proceed from there by reconstructing forward in time, facing the rough patches that lie ahead. The hardships of such a mode of reconstruction are most clearly exemplified by (1) multiple different local versions of given myths or even by (2) newer myths that aim at neutralizing such localized differences.

§5. We have already seen both kinds of rough patches. In TC V §§4–8, for example, we saw myths showing Hēraklēs engaged in two different kinds of service to two different kinds of kings. The hero’s service to Eurystheus, who is king of Mycenae and thus over-king of the Mycenaean Empire, is sanctioned by Zeus himself, whereas the same hero’s service to the more localized figure of Augeias, king of Elis, gets to be invalidated by the over-king Eurystheus. Or again, in another myth, we saw that Hēraklēs supports the kingship of Eurystheus by serving as generalissimo of a mighty army combined with a mighty navy—I referred to these armed forces as an “armada” in TC IV §1.1.3. But then, in contrast with such service to kings, we saw in TC V §9 that Hēraklēs is also capable of raising an army and leading it against the kingdom of Elis, where he then succeeds in killing the local king Augeias and installing the prince Phyleus, son of Augeias, as the new king. In all these actions, Hēraklēs fulfills his heroic role as kingmaker.

§6. A comparable figure is the Scandinavian hero Starkaðr in Germanic traditions of mythmaking. Here is a warrior who, as we saw from previous essays, could serve the king of the Swedes in some myths and, in other myths, the king of the Danes. He could be in the service of kings by way of fighting as a generalissimo in massive wars or as an athletic pugil ‘fistfighter’ in single combat. Like his Greek counterpart, this Scandinavian warrior could even undo a kingship by killing a king, as we will see in an essay still to come. But the point I need to make for now is already evident: like Hēraklēs, Starkaðr is a kingmaker.

§7. And yet, although he is a kingmaker, this Scandinavian hero Starkaðr never becomes king in his own right. Here too we see a striking parallelism with the Greek kingmaker Hēraklēs, who likewise never becomes king. A most fitting way to describe such heroes, in comparative terms, would be to invoke the Latin word dux ‘leader’ as opposed to another Latin word, rēx ‘king’ (more on such wordings in Nagy 1979/1999 3§8 p. 48n3).

§8. Having surveyed some rough patches in reconstructing the heroic role of Hēraklēs, I return to my point of departure in this brief essay, where I introduced a myth attributed to Prodicus and paraphrased by Xenophon in that author’s Memorabilia (2.1.21–34). As I will now argue, this myth actually confronts, by way of its symbolism, the existence of rough patches in the making of myths about the life of this hero. The life of Hēraklēs, in terms of the myth, matches closely the life that is advocated for this hero by the demure goddess named Aretē, who is ‘striving’ personified. As we saw at the beginning, at §1, I translated this word aretē as ‘striving’, not as ‘virtue’—which is a later philosophical interpretation that we see represented in the image I used as illustration for my essay here. When I say ‘striving’, I mean more specifically ‘striving to achieve a goal’, or, even more specifically, ‘striving to win a prize’. This  interpretation derives from my commentary, published in SCIO (Nagy 2017), on the contexts of the verb arnusthai at Iliad 18.121 and at Odyssey 1.5. On the basis of my comments on these Homeric contexts, I propose that the noun aretḗ and the verb árnusthai are related forms, and that the meanings of these forms have to do with the basic idea of ‘striving [to achieve a goal, to win a prize]’. In the diction of Homeric poetry, this verb has as its direct object various different heroic goals, among which are kléos ‘glory’, kûdos ‘glory’, tīmḗ ‘honor’, aéthlia ‘prizes [to be won]’, and nóstos ‘homecoming’. On the Indo-European etymological connectedness of the verb árnusthai with the noun aretḗ, I recommend an incisive essay on aretḗ by Laura Massetti (2018.11.15), who supports my interpretation of árnusthai in the sense of ‘strive [to achieve a goal, to win a prize]’ at Iliad 18.121 and at Odyssey 1.5.

§9. And here I need to add one further comment that is relevant to the proposed etymology of aretḗ in the sense of ‘striving’. I find that the Homeric use of the noun aéthlia ‘prizes [to be won]’ as the direct object of árnusthai in the sense of ‘strive to win a prize’ is particularly revealing in the context of Iliad 22.160: here we see Hector racing ahead of Achilles, who is racing after him, eager to catch up with him and to kill him. Then, in the next verse, 22.161, the master Narrator says ruefully that the prize that both heroes were racing after was not something material, such as the prizes that are won in athletic races. Rather, the prize that the heroes were racing after was the psūkhē ‘life’ of Hector. If Achilles outraces Hector, which is what will happen, he will win as his prize the life that he takes away from his mortal enemy. If Hector had outraced Achilles, which is what did not happen, then he would have won as his own prize the life that Achilles wants to take away from him. Similarly, Odysseus at Odyssey 1.5 is described as ‘striving to win as a prize’—the verb again is arnusthai—his own psūkhē ‘life’. And, as the description continues in the same verse, Odyssey 1.5, we see that Odysseus will win this prize only if he wins as a prize also a nostos ‘homecoming’ for himself as well as for his comrades. For more about the two direct objects of the verb arnusthai here at Odyssey 1.5, both psūkhē ‘life’ and nostos ‘homecoming’, I refer again to my comments in SCIO (Nagy 2017).

§10. The metaphor of athleticism that is built into the picturing of a race for life in Iliad 22.160–161 is relevant, as we will see, to the idea of aretē as ‘striving to win a prize’ in the myth told by Prodicus about the Choice of Hēraklēs. Just as the metaphor of a race for life conveys the idea that the ordeal of ‘striving’, expressed by the verb arnusthai, is an experience shared by warriors and athletes, so also the myth of Prodicus about the Choice conveys the same idea: that the ordeal of ‘striving’, this time expressed by the noun aretē, is to be experienced by the hero Hēraklēs both as warrior and as athlete. It is said explicitly in the myth that Aretē requires the hero’s engagement with both warfare and athletics (Memorabilia 2.1.28),

§11. I have yet to highlight something most remarkable about the myth of Prodicus as retold by Xenophon in the Memorabilia (2.1.21–34). I find that the heroic life of Hēraklēs, when all is said and done by the time we have finished reading the attested myths about him, is accurately predicted only if we combine the wording for the blandishments of ‘good fortune’, personified as Eudaimoniā, with the wording for the challenges of ‘striving [for a noble goal]’, personified as Aretē. True, Hēraklēs will have performed in the end all the good things that Aretē requires if our hero chooses a life of striving for noble goals. But the difficulty is, Hēraklēs also experiences lapses, which correspond to the bad things that can happen when you heed the blandishments of good fortune.

§12. So, it seems as if Hēraklēs never really made a choice between the two goddesses personified as Striving and Good Fortune. Rather, he traveled both the hard way and the easy way that these goddesses predicted. True, in the myth as told by Prodicus by way of Xenophon’s Memorabilia (again, 2.1.21–34), Aretē requires the hero’s engagement with both warfare and athletics (2.1.28), and it is said over and over again, especially about warfare, that such engagement comes with countless ordeals described as ponos or ‘laboring’ (2.1.28, 30–33). And this is in fact exactly how Hēraklēs will win for himself the honor that he deserves (2.1.28, 31–33). Even more, this is in fact exactly how Hēraklēs will win for himself the glory that is conferred on him by the praise that comes from poetry and songmaking (2.1.31, 33). But the difficulty is, once again, that Hēraklēs also experiences lapses, which correspond to the bad things that can happen when you heed the blandishments of good fortune. These lapses, as I call them, are the ‘sins’ of the Indo-European hero, and I will delve into the mythology of such ‘sinning’ in the essay that follows.



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