(This was originally published on polytheist.com December 2014. As mentioned in previous posts I’m compiling all my writing here for posterity and for future reference.)
When we think of Greek mythology images of fantastic monsters and heroes often comes to mind. The stories are filled with hybrid beasts that haunt the lands as challengers to would be champions. We see these monsters as just that: monsters. An opposition, a narrative piece to add some excitement to tales of heroes. But what if monsters hold a greater significance? What do we gain by understanding their role in the heroes journey? Why do I feel a sympathy and even a reverence to monsters?
There is always a degree of kitsch when discussing Greek mythology. Many of us were introduced to the myths as children. Growing up in the 90’s I would watch the ultimate of camp: Hercules and Xena TV shows. Then there was the Disney production of Hercules and always my favourite of the sword and sandal Claymation classics like the original Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of Titans and Adventures of Hercules.
It’s really no wonder why people look at me funny when I explain my personal beliefs. Pretty much every telling of the heroes exploits has been camp trite that deviates from the narrative of myth with a production value a level above a 1970’s stag film.
Yet when reading actual myths there is a seriousness in it. A heroes journey to enlightenment can be called equivalent of stories like Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha.
Herakles is one of the most renown heroes of Greek myth. Unlike his Theban, Attic, Argive counterparts he is a universal hero, a stock hero of the Hellenic world. For example when we look at Italian and even Spanish Hellenic myths Herakles takes on roles over other city state heroes like Theseus. So in nations that had no nationalistic identity with a hero in the myth, Herakles was used as a replacement.
This is testament to the Story itself. The hero of the tale is insignificant to the archetype of the protagonist verses the monster. It may be a different hero but always the same monster.
But to avoid confusion let’s just focus on the labours of Herakles. Most people understand the twelve labours as being a means for Herakles to right a wrong and also to get recognition as a great hero. We can, and do, view these stories as just fun epic tales. But as a person studying and attempting to understand myth they often have a layered significance. For example we could view the labours as a celestial event of the sun moving through the sky during the year, each labour is the ancient understanding of the constellations the sun passes through. Herakles ultimate, fiery and horrible death is akin to other solar deities that die at winter solstice.
The shamanic role of Herakles is his loss of identity and attribute transferences when fighting each monster. Example is: we can’t imagine Herakles without his lion skin, but the skin itself belonged to his first labour of the Nemean Lion, a invulnerable monster often born from Typhon and Echidna, sent to Nemea to terrorise the land. In order to defeat the beast Herakles must challenge his own perceptions by working out a different method of killing and skinning the beast with its own claws. When he achieves his goals he dons the skin and uses it’s protective fur as armour. In a twisted sense he becomes the beast. Ordering it’s chaos into his own accord.
Herakles again does this when he defeats his second labour and uses the Hydra’s blood as poison for his arrows. Ultimately it’s this poison that defeats Herakles, as it’s the same poison used on his shirt to kill him. It’s toxin and his own funeral pyre burns his mortality away and allows him to ascended as a deity. The beast, and his accomplishments allow for his transcendence.
These themes are also found with Perseus. Perseus is given a task of killing Medusa, a sad and unfortunate monster. Perseus invades Medusa’s home, uses his mirrored shield to look at Medusa’s image and also use her own identity to kill her. When the task is done he steals her identity, by decapitating her, using her deathly stone gaze powers to defeat his foes. Again this theme as identity transference and ordering a beasts chaos to the will of the hero leads to the champions triumphs.
But not all Greek heroes do this. Let’s look at Bellerophon, the actual rider of Pegasus. Bellerophon performs a series of heroic tasks and defeats monsters like the Chimaera. However he does this with the aid of a monster, he does not kill Pegasus, he only tames it. That’s why when Bellerophon attempts to ascend to heaven he is rejected. He is not truly one with the beast, he only owns the beast but has not accepted the monsters identity into himself.
To return back to Theseus (or Herakles) we have a hero entering a space which is actually the antagonist. The path itself is the monster and teaches the hero to become something special, the creature or god at the end of the path are just an obstacle to finalise the heroes enlightenment. In this sense Theseus journeys into the deep unknown with his rewards being what experience he has in the travels. The identity transference takes on a completely different role as it’s not literally stealing the monster attributes that contributes to his transcendence, but becoming something internally through travelling. The initiation is entirely cerebral.
You can see these same themes in other heroes like Orpheus and Odysseus. They all venture into hades and undergo an experience of loss that will forever change their lives. Their knowledge and power may not be as carnal as skinning a lion or stealing a gorgon head, but it’s of the same value.
To end this piece I want to point out that the protagonist and antagonist are of equal measure. The heroes achievement are only made by their foes and by sacrificing part of themselves in order to steal their foes power the hero becomes greater, a god. Acknowledging this allows us to see the value in these monsters and that heroic worship should also include the rivals of these heroes.