Hero Cult – a constant element in history? Our interview with LaBGC and Harald Haarmann

Von Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik, 27. Mai 2021. Anbei mein Interview mit den Autoren Harald Haarmann und LaBGC zu ihrem Buch The Hero Cult, 2021.

In the preface to your book about the Heroes you mention David Giles saying: “The history of fame is about nothing less than the history of Western civilization. It is also about the history of the individual, and therefore it is about the history of human psychology, too” (Giles 2000: 12). How can this close connection between heroism and Western civilization be explained?

In conventional handbooks of world history you find clichés about how Western civilization originated. The great civilizations of antiquity, that is Greek and Roman civilizations, are identified as the sources from which European cultures inherited technological innovations, civic institutions and literary genres that mark the standards of advanced culture. It is common-place to interpret these as foundations of Western civilization.

         Heroism is known to have been an iconic value of self-identification which the Greeks celebrated and which they instrumentalized, in their self-representation, to form a public image. The earliest manifestation of the hero cult are found in the epic poetry of the archaic era (8th century BCE), above all in Homer’s Iliad. The spirit of the epic literature provides a mirror image of Greek mythology which abounds with stories about heroes in action. The celebration of heroism is all-present in the picture-friezes on the walls of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, addressed by Joan Connelly as the “West’s most iconic building” (2014).

         Heroes strive for fame, and this mentality became widely popular, with the tradition of epic themes influencing the European literary tradition since antiquity into modern times. The choice of fame-seeking as priority for one’s aspirations is an attitude that has become an imprint in the minds of Europeans ever since the values of Greek antiquity entered the canon of the western European tradition of civilized life-ways.

         In the epic literature, the Trojan War is in focus, and heroes gain fame as valiant warriors. This embedding of heroism in the action frame of warfare and militant conflict left a permanent mark on the European mind. The mentality of the warrior set priorities for an individual’s aspirations, favoring boundless egoism, ruthless competition and aggressive power struggle, with the consequence that communal interests were marginalized and values of the common good became neglected. 

         Fame-seeking and competitive heroism shaped the zeitgeist of colonialism and nationalism, with ample manifestation in colonial wars and knock-out mentality in entrepreneurship. The concept of Western civilization experienced its extension, to become the well-known model of Euro-American civilization.

How did the warrior caste emerge which then spread the cult of heroes?

The hero cult has deep roots, reaching far beyond the history of Greek civilization and into the period when the ancestors of the Greeks still roamed the Eurasian steppe. These ancestors were nomads, with their languages and cultures of Indo-European affiliation. Their communities were clan-based, with a rigid social hierarchy. The most influential social group were the warriors, organized as a caste. The warrior caste originated from the tasks of horse-riding shepherds who took care of the security of the clan’s herds. These warriors were engaged in conquering and defending pasture lands and water places for their clan.

         The origins of the formation of a warrior caste date to the sixth millennium BCE and predate the Indo-European out-migrations from the steppe region. As a result of several out-migrations, with population transfer from the late fifth millennium to the early third millennium BCE, the hero cult spread, firmly anchored in the cultural baggage of the migrants.

Which are the most important findings by Gimbutas in this field?

Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) has provided the key concepts and has laid the foundations for an understanding of the conditions how the hero cult spread and persisted. In her germinal work, she elaborated and documented the two gravitational centers where divergent models of society emerged.

         The one is Old Europe (the Danube civilization, respectively) with its egalitarian social structures, leaving no one behind, and activities centered on the build-up of communal infrastructure and extended trade relations. The other is the clan system with lifeways among nomadic herdsmen in the steppe. This clan system was characterized by social hierarchy, with women subordinate, favoring the emergence of an elite whose members controlled the movements of herds and people.

         It is obvious that an institution such as the warrior caste could not originate under the auspices of the egalitarian social order in Old Europe. Rather, the preconditions for such an elite group to make its appearance lie with the nomadic steppe culture. The warrior caste and the hero cult were alien to those people who lived in Old Europe before the advent of the migrants from the steppe, ancestors of the Greeks.

         It began in the northeast, outside of Old Europe, among Indo-European cattle nomads keen to get access to the crafts of the south, where metal was smelted and forged, and even gold processed. A promise for power and wealth. The first wave of immigration from the steppe gradually arrived in small groups. They settled, for example, in Varna, in present-day Bulgaria. Nothing unusual for the buzzing city, where many came to learn and eventually stayed. But in contrast to the immigrants from other parts of Old Europe, those from the steppes had been raised in entirely different structures. And the newcomers took control over the trade center.

         Was their striving for power, fame and wealth obvious? Probably. But how could people recognize that immediately as a threat, for whom power and wealth represented no value at all? Who had no chiefs but chose as spokesmen for the municipal council women and men who worked with integrity and reliability, with prudence and foresight for the good of all, authorities who were held in high esteem. 

         The second wave rolled in from the steppe. Not in a considered approach like the first, but demanding and displacing. In the course of several generations, the Indo-Europeans gained the upper hand in the fusion process. The egalitarian order oriented to the common good was gradually replaced by patriarchal hierarchical structures. Quite a few women and men and children emigrated to areas where no Indo-Europeans had yet penetrated — as can be read from the findings and the language.

         The third wave of immigration from the steppes became deadly. For people who did not want to be displaced, as for their peaceful culture. Marija Gimbutas, asked in 1989 about her excavations in Old Europe: “Weapons, weapons weapons! It’s just incredible how many thousands of pounds of these daggers and swords were found from the Bronze Age. This was a cruel period and the beginning of what it is today — you turn on the television, and it’s war, war, war, whatever channel.“ 

         In the course of interaction between non-Indo-European ancient Europeans and migrants with their Indo-European affiliation, an amalgam gained profile, in which cultural patterns of the Old European heritage fused with the patriarchal social structures imposed by the newcomers. One context where processes of transformation can be observed is the spread of the hero cult. The heroes seek the patronage of divinities, and these are figures among the pre-Greek goddesses.

         We, the authors of this study on the hero cult, are proud that we can present our research work at this time, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Marija Gimbutas’ birthday.

What about the interaction between heroes and divinities?

Investigations of Indo-European mythologies have provided insights that the warriors venerated their own patron divinity, the figure of a horse goddess. This original tradition of a female divinity as patron of the warriors can be identified for living-conditions in the Indo-European homeland, and it persisted into Celtic culture, with Epona as patron. This goddess also took care of the souls of brave warriors who had died in combat.

         Also in the context of Greek civilization, the protagonists of patronage are goddesses. Among the pictures on Attic vases, there are scenes with the goddess Hera suckling the hero Herakles or with Athena introducing the same Herakles to Zeus on Mount Olympos. In the picture friezes of the Parthenon Herakles and Athena are depicted side by side fighting the giants that threaten Athens.

         Research in the fields of historical linguistics and history of religion have yielded insights about the origins of the Greek goddesses who play the role as patrons for heroes. Both Hera and Athena are pre-Greek goddesses which means that their names are unrelated to Indo-European root-words and that their cults date back to the pre-Greek era. Both these goddesses had been venerated by the ancient Europeans, inhabitants of Greece before the advent of Helladic tribes whose identity transformed to become Greek.

How important is the female element in this respect?

Since the typical patron of the warriors is a female divinity (as the horse goddess among the nomads in the steppe) it seems conclusive that also in a changing cultural environment the patronage would remain female-oriented despite a change in individual personality (that is from the nomadic horse goddess to the patrons in the migrants’ new homeland, Hellas).

         Perhaps it was the general perception of the protective instinct in the female psychology, mobilized in the context of taking care of children and family members, that might have become an incentive in the search for patronage. The figure of the caring goddess is typical of the mythologies both among the ancient Europeans and the Indo-Europeans. For instance, Persephone in Greek mythology, although abducted into the Underworld by Hades, finds an important role in her new environment which is not her prison. On the contrary, Persephone assumes the responsibility to take care of the souls of the deceased. And in this function, she is venerated by the Greeks, both by women and men. The peculiar sound structure of the name Persephone points to pre-Greek origin.

         No wonder that the choice for patrons to protect the heroes were goddesses.

Why do you think Odysseus is a deviant figure?

It starts with the name which is non-Greek. The formal shape of the name is not uniform, there are various variants based on stems with either -d- or -l-: Odysseus, Olysseus, Olytteus, Oliseus, Oulixeus. According to the methods of historical linguistics such variation points to pre-origins of the name.

         Shipbuilding and seafaring had been unknown to the Greeks when they migrated to their new homeland  from the steppe. The name of the hero is pre-Greek, so is the domain of his activities. The ancient Europeans had built ships and had sailed the sea at a time when the nomads still lived in the steppe, that is long before the migrations started.

         The narratives about Odysseus and his maritime adventures most probably originated at the time when the people of Old Europe were engaged in maritime trade with people along the Aegean coast and along the western coast of the Black Sea. The adventures of Odysseus continued to be told when the ancestors of the Greeks arrived. Obviously, the newcomers liked the stories, adapted the themes and integrated them into their own repertory of epic narrative.

         When comparing the characteristic features of the heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the contrasts are large-scale. The heroes in the Iliad are valiant warriors, ready to engage in fierce combat with sword and spear while, in the Odyssey, the protagonist is not depicted as going out to war but his activities are peaceful. Odyssey’s assets are his prudence and his considerate action whereby avoiding open conflict. The bellicose attitude of the heroes in the Iliad reflects the spirit of hero cult ideology of Indo-European coinage. In the case of Odysseus, the hero’s attitude is in concord with the standards of peaceful interaction in Old European communal life.

         What has been handed down to us as the uniform tradition of the Greek epic genre is not uniform at all but rather multicultural, reflecting themes from two different trails of narratives: Old European and Indo-European.

How did the hero survive today in our culture of war and aggression?

It is perhaps exactly because wars have always been on the agenda of world history, since the predominance of the Indo-European non-egalitarian social structure with its patriarchal hierarchy. Aggression is continuously reproducing itself so that the figure of the hero as warrior has persisted into our times, and so has the drive of bellicose fame-seeking.

         Equally persisting is the counterpart of the warlike hero, the profit-oriented businessman who engages in merciless competition, carrying out tactical manoeuvres of aggressive takeover of competitor’s enterprises, the career-hungry politician who embarks on a trail of relentless power play, knocking out opponents to pave his way to the top,   the adventurer who enters the jungle of entertainment and show-business, who does not hesitate to master-mind intrigues for getting rivals out of the way for him to become a star.

         It is worth mentioning that there is also the other kind of hero whose actions are not determined by selfish fame-seeking but are imbued with a spirit of solidarity and partnership, in a drive to serve communal interests, to enhance life-conditions in the name of the common good. This kind of heroism has deeper roots, reaching back to the times when the commonwealth of Old Europe was once flourishing. That was a time when what had proven itself useful over thousands of years for community-life had reached a climax in the civilization of Old Europe, when each and everyone was an important asset for the functioning of the organic whole.

         Knowing the differences between the social structures of Old Europe and the hierarchical system of Indo-European coinage allows us to understand how the hero cult changed civilization.