IF I SEEK US
Modern Myth Articles
How could rational man be so readily deceived by priestly frauds? How was it possible for them to believe in myths as if they were realities? - John Trenchard, 18th century English deist
The Localization of the Warrior-Hero
By way of background, the following are notes on the evolution of the warrior-hero myth. They are based on a section of my article, "Mother Goddess and Warrior Hero," in AEON I:5.
In the natural evolution of myth, no tendency was more common than that by which originally cosmic figures were brought down to earth and their attributes, habitations, and life events affixed to a local landscape. Every temple, sacred city, and kingdom, built as a representation of a cosmic dwelling, soon came to be remembered as the place where creation began. In the same way, every local prominence became a figure of the cosmic mountain, every river, fount or spring a symbol of the ethereal stream. It was through this universal process that the crucial distinction between symbol and thing symbolized eventually broke down. For it was in the nature of ancient representations that the symbol bore the name and shared in the numen of the archetype.
The myths take us back to the age of "beginnings," and the symbol eventually becomes a vital part of the collective memory: soon it is as if the localized emblem had itself emerged in the creation. In Egypt, every city preserved a myth identifying itself with the place where the primeval sun stood in the beginning, when the god produced his own "resting place" or luminous habitation in the sky, "giving birth to himself" through the first activity of the goddess and hero.
By the progressive merging of emblem and archetype, the god's worshippers, in effect, altered the location of the primeval events, and once-cosmic powers devolved into the "ancestors" of the local tribe or city. (Clearly, the gods became "ancestors" because, with the blending of archetype and symbol, their home could no longer be distinguished from the terrestrial habitation; once such a process had begun, it was inevitable that the primeval companions or children of the sun would become "ancestors" of the nations telling the stories.
Assimilation can only lead to pervasive confusion. While the hand- formed symbol, the city built by men, comes to enjoy an elevated stature and cosmic significance in the eyes of its inhabitants, the gods themselves are profoundly diminished as later chroniclers, seeking to preserve the local traditions, are compelled to adapt them to a familiar landscape. This ambiguity will be found, in varying degrees, in all religious and mythological systems. At one turn the gods rule the heavens, and at the next they live as men, occupying identifiable places and leaving identifiable "monuments" to their lives and activities. And the singular principle that can be counted on in all cases is this: the processes of localization and assimilation continue to advance with time so that the confusion grows increasingly severe.
Wherever these processes have operated freely, given sufficient time, the warrior hero and mother goddess will have lost their cosmic character altogether. The vast majority of the heroic figures to which the modern researcher has access (such as the Greek Heracles, Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus and Oedipus), though still bigger than life, appear as extraordinary "humans" accomplishing their marvelous feats on earth, usually in identifiable locations, with an abundance of local "testaments" to their activity. The symbols have, in effect, redefined the archetype, creating massive contradictions between the different accounts.
What does a Heracles, or a Helen of Troy, have in common with the archetypal male and female powers identified in the Egyptian creation legend? The answer is, in the most radical sense, everything. While local geography, culture and history have profoundly altered the portrait, there would simply be no subject without the prototype. The best efforts of modern scholars have failed to explain such figures because these miracle-working "humans" are the folk-tale and literary echoes of a wholly alien celestial order.
Taking the most obvious distinction between earlier and later versions, there is the matter of scale. While the archetypal warrior-hero bears aloft the central sun and the all-encompassing land of the gods, it is obviously not possible for such an idea to be retained in the localized traditions, where the central sun has become an ancestral king, and the cosmic dwelling a terrestrial temple, palace or city. Yet the theme is not obliterated in the later chronicles, but re-focused. For the warrior-hero will still be found "supporting" the king, often as a slave, servant or priest (a theme endlessly repeated in the tales of Heracles, for example). What is not generally recognized, however, is the generic link to the older tradition of the heaven-sustaining hero as the servant or priest of the sun god Saturn, the celestial prototype of kings. In the archaic tradition the three meanings— upholder, servant and priest—are synonymous.
Similarly, one notes the repeated associations of the folk-tale warrior-hero with channels or flows of water, either irrigating or flooding an ancestral land or dwelling, or draining off enclosed floodwaters or swamps. In virtually all later instances, the chroniclers will point to a particular place in which the feat of the hero was accomplished. Due to the re-focusing involved in such localization, few modern commentators will recognize that the prototype was the heaven-supporting giant—in Egypt, the god Shu— who personifies the ethereal fount and celestial waterway. Yet the proof of the connection is readily at hand. For in the instance of the Egyptian Shu we possess at once the vivid cosmic portrait set forth in the world's oldest ritual texts, and later localized portraits of Greek, Roman and Christian times. Here we can observe in the clearest of terms the transition from the original cosmic power Shu to the Heracles-like hero of later times.
At the Qes sanctuary of the XXth nome of Lower Egypt a black granite shrine from the Ptolemaic period (later transported to Al- 'Arish) recorded the story of "Shu and Geb when they reigned as kings upon earth." In this late tale, it is the god Shu who, in the style of Heracles, "excavated" the lake of the sanctuary and in the time of Ra (often recalled as a terrestrial ruler in later accounts) constructed the king's palace that it might endure "like the Mountain of Fire-Light." It is said that Shu, as a great warrior, rose to the throne of Atum or Ra and (apparently single- handedly, in Heracles fashion) slaughtered "all the enemies of his father" and destroyed "the sons of rebellion." He then became a builder in the service of his father, for there were "hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries which the Majesty of Ra had called into being in all the names, and which the majesty of Shu had built." Thus, it was Shu who, according to this late chronicle, "irrigated the towns, and the settlements and the names, and he erected the walls of Egypt and built temples in the Land of the South and the Land of the North."
Could anyone familiar with the myth of Heracles deny the similarity? Localization and assimilation have led to rampant duplications of the story of creation, so that a later chronicler, traveling from city to city in Egypt, might indeed have pieced together a story of countless "labors" of Shu, creating a fabulous pastiche of local myth. It is not surprising, therefore, that Greek "histories" declare that Heracles himself sojourned in Egypt, serving as "general" under Osiris and achieving feats virtually identical to those of Shu.
Though Shu and Heracles are in fact the same figure, we have the advantage in Shu's case of very ancient testimony illuminating the original cosmic personality (to which the later echoes can be systematically traced). And of course Shu is not the only instance of the warrior-hero in Egypt, so additional ground will have to be covered if we are to establish the clearest possible profile of the prehistoric god.
Similarly, the mother goddess must be followed from a set of originally unified concepts to the fragmented expressions of later times, in which the goddess appears alternately as mother, daughter or spouse of a great god or king, an enchanting maiden or fairy goddess, a harlot, hag or witch.
In all of this we will find that what have long been viewed as separate and irreconcilable threads of ancient lore acquire entirely new meanings when viewed under the illumination of the polar configuration.
FROM THE FOOTNOTES:
Through assimilation, as noted above, every local symbolic sanctuary shared in the history of the celestial prototype, which was shouted into existence by the sun god and given form by Shu. Of course the connection of Shu and Heracles has already been noted by others. See K. H. Brugsch, Dictionnaire Geographique de l 'ancienne Egypte (Leipzig, 1880), p. 851.