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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
A Dedication to the heroes and heroines of Vanni Land
20 May 2009
Worship by Raphael J. Zwi Werblowsky
Hero worship is the cult of real or imaginary persons of the past at their tombs or relics or at other cult places. This narrow and strict definition has, however, often been broadened to include such phenomena as honour and veneration, as well as worship proper.
Heroes and heroic literature: The term hero – derived from the Greek noun heros, the etymology of which is uncertain – has, in the course of time, acquired a variety of meanings: the main figure in a literary work; one who accomplishes remarkable deeds or whose life exhibits the qualities of extraordinary courage, valour, and fortitude; the main character in a tale or epic of the kind usually known as heroic literature; or a person worthy of veneration and honour. Because the use of the noun hero and the adjective heroic have been determined by their Greek origins, it may be useful to survey the terms briefly before considering their application by extension to other cultures and cultural phenomena.
In the Homeric poems the term hero signifies any free man of that early age described in the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is applied more specifically to the outstanding characters in those epics: superior beings who excelled in war and adventure and who prized virtues and values such as courage and loyalty. It is difficult to generalize about heroes and the heroic even in Greek culture because there is considerable variety in the treatment of the subject. Homeric heroes are frequently in touch with the gods who intervene in their affairs and determine their destinies. This is not the case with most of the heroes of the Greek tragedians. Some heroes are of divine parenthood on one side; this semidivine origin serves to account for the supernatural powers of many heroes. Altogether the supernatural plays a prominent role in many heroic tales (e.g: magic weapons, oral encounters with powerful sorcerers or witches, battles with dragons and monsters). Furthermore, the hero’s exploits are not necessarily confined to this world; his adventures may lead him to the underworld (the realm of the dead) or to the realm of the gods.
The idea that heroes lived in a bygone period, to which the teller of the heroic stories is looking back, gave rise to the notion of a heroic age. This notion is found in Hesiod’s Works and Days, in which a race of heroes intervenes between the third and the fourth of the four periods into which the history of the world is divided. Very possibly Hesiod’s account is an attempt to harmonize an ancient mythological tradition regarding four cosmic ages with the epic tradition of the poets that dealt with the heroic exploits of heroic beings in a heroic age. Something like a heroic age is also assumed by the epics and tales of other cultures.
The stories or cycles of stories describing the exploits of the heroes and great figures of the heroic age are usually subsumed under the heading heroic literature. This type of literature poses a great many problems, both as regards form (poetry, prose, epic) and literary and social history. Among the many questions that are still being discussed are the relation of heroic written literature to earlier oral traditions; the relation of the longer compositions to shorter units; the social background of this literary genre; and the historical realities reflected by the heroic traditions. Some specimens of heroic literature are demonstrably late or are deliberate imitations of earlier models: Virgil’s Aeneid uses the Homeric example to give an imaginary account of the origin of Rome, in keeping with the new Roman ideology that emerged during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14). According to some scholars, the heroic poem reflects a phase of culture and a social order dominated by a powerful warrior class of a feudal type. The warrior’s heroic exploits were celebrated in songs and lays (ballads) transmitted orally by wandering bards. According to this view, the heroic lay is the literary successor to the religious hymns and myths whose subjects were gods rather than human heroes; it can claim some basis of historical truth, even if this historical nucleus was transformed by and overlaid with imaginative and legendary elements.
Two preliminary questions should be mentioned briefly. The one concerns the possibility and the limitations of a large-scale comparative analysis of the heroic literatures of diverse cultures. Whether, for example, Greek and Roman epic or Old High German (e.g: Hildebrandslied) and Middle High German (e.g: Nibelungenlied) heroic sagas can be usefully compared and to what purpose is a moot point. The other concerns the fact that heroic literature exists at different levels, referred to by a variety of technical terms (myth, saga, legend, folktale), but there is no unanimity in the use of this terminology.
Nature and sacral status of the hero: The superhuman qualities of many heroes poses the question of their relationship to the gods, especially as the distinction between Gottermythologie (myths of gods) and Heldensage (heroic saga) is not so neat and rigid as suggested by some scholars. The Greek mythographer Euhemerus of Messina, who lived about 300 BC, maintained that the gods that were the objects of popular worship had originally been great conquerors, heroes or sages subsequently venerated by posterity. Euhemerus’ theory, although inadequate as an explanation of the myths and worship of all gods, has at least the merit of drawing attention to the fact of the veneration or even deification of the illustrious departed. This links hero worship with ancestor worship on the one hand and such phenomena as the deification (Greek apotheosis) and cult of the emperors at Rome on the other. The cult of many lesser or minor gods, unlike that of the great deities, has often been accounted for on lines similar to Euhemerus’ theory; even here, however, the problem is more complicated. Many scholars, although agreeing that the cult of ancestors and that of heroes were somehow related, have differed as to the nature of the connection. Ancestors – i.e., powerful departed souls whose hostility could be dangerous, whose favour could be beneficial, and who should therefore be propitiated – enjoyed a cult in the narrow circle of their family and descendants. A hero would be honoured by a wider circle than the family – e.g: by a city that he had founded or in which his remains had been buried. Some scholars have believed that the cult of the dead derived from that of heroes, whereas others have thought that the cult of kings led to that of illustrious ancestors, thence to that of the illustrious dead in general, and, finally, to the worship of purely legendary figures. The question became one of the divine or human origin of heroes; of whether they were the product of historic reality or of the imagination. Frequently the problem has been posed in terms of a clear-cut dichotomy: heroes are deified (or semideified) men, and their cult is that of the dead elevated to divine rank; or, conversely, they are ‘faded’ gods, and their cult is what was left after their demotion from the status of full divinity.
Another approach, relating the hero to cult and ritual, views heroes not as degraded gods but as personifications of ancient and at times forgotten rituals. This theory, popularized in its more extreme form by Lord Raglan in his Hero in 1936, holds that all traditional narratives, including myths and heroic legends, originate in ritual. Tales such as those of Troy or King Arthur are connected with ancient rites that have fallen out of use although the narrative has survived. This explanation of heroes in terms of ritual drama is the very opposite of hero worship as understood by the definition given at the beginning of this article.
Varieties of cultic forms
Ancient Greece. Hero worship is well attested in ancient Greece, though the actual facts may not always accord with the accounts and interpretations offered by the later Greek authors. The association of hero worship with the cult of the dead is confirmed by a number of technical ritual details. Thus, cults connected with heroes have a funerary and chthonic, or ‘underworld’, character, unlike the rites offered to the heavenly gods. The manner of slaughtering the sacrificial animal is different, and so is the word itself for sacrificing (thuein for the gods and enagizein for hero cults). The sacrifice for heroes and for the dead is not offered on a ‘high altar’; the low, round, and hollow altar is constructed so that the blood flows away into the earth. The whole carcass is burned, whereas a sacrifice to the gods is shared between them and the humans. On the other hand, these differences must not be pressed too much. Some Greek hero cults have no funerary character. There are gods with surnames of heroes. A temple precinct is defiled by the presence of a tomb but not by the tomb of a hero, and many traditions speak of the burial of heroes in sanctuaries. Many heroes prove there divine origin by the rituals or virtues associated with them. The patrons of rain, fertility, and healing cults are more often than not, archaic spirits with traditional cults that were subsequently personified, given an individual biography, or attached to the names and biographies of existing (legendary or historical) heroes. Heroic legends are often deliberately etiological in intent; i.e., they account for the origin and details of cultic centres, practices, and liturgies. Personification may also lead to identification in the course of literary traditions: Iphigeneia of Brauron, who protects women in labour, and the Iphigeneia sacrificed at Aulis by her father, Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, were surely not the same originally, though they were later identified.
It appears that heroes are as heterogeneous in their origins as in their developed qualities, and thus it is impossible to generalize about their cults. The English scholar L.R. Farnell – in his work Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality, published in 1920 – distinguished seven types of hero: priestly hero-gods of cultic origin (e.g: Trophonius, an architect in Greek legend whose oracle – which was consulted only by a means of peculiar ceremonies – was at the spot where he was swallowed up by the earth); sacral heroes or heroines associated with a god (e.g: Iphigeneia); secular figures who became fully divinized (e.g: Heracles); epic heroes like Hector and Achilles in Homer’s Iliad; fictious genealogical heroes like Ion, who was constructed to account for the origin of the Ionian people of ancient Greece; functional and cultural demons – often anonymous and generally of local importance only; and, occasionally, real men who were subsequently granted cults. The classification is far from satisfactory, yet it help to show the variety of types even within one culture and to emphasize the fact that not all heroic types are connected with worship. Thus, the heroes of Homer, although sufficiently close to the gods to have the latter intervene in their affairs, are not described as objects of a cult. On the other hand, the Greeks themselves developed ideas and legends associating heroic tales with cultic data. This pattern easily converged with the habit of considering the illustrious dead as a source of power and a potent force to be used for the benefit of the community. Hence, the relationship to the tomb, interred body, or relics as a centre from which radiated a certain power also developed. During the war between Sparta and Arcadia in the middle of the 6th century BC, the Spartans were told that they would be victorious if they could possess themselves of the body of Orestes, the hero who avenged the death of his father Agamemnon by killing his mother and her lover. Founders and colonizers of cities receive heroic honours in approved Greek fashion (i.e., animal sacrifices, athletic games, paeans). Pausanias, a Greek traveler in the 2nd century AD, still saw the tomb of Leonidas, the king of Sparta, as the site of a cult. Then, as now, popular sports champions would also be ‘idolized’. Euthymus of Locri won a boxing contest in Olympia in 484 BC; six centuries later Pausanias still saw his statue and could even relate a heroic legend to the effect that Euthymus had freed the city of Tenesa from a dreadful ghost and ultimately gained ‘a shrine and a cult’.
The concept of the hero and, thus also, that of hero worship was developed and transformed by the Greek poets, who increasingly moralized it. In the tragedies of Euripides, heroic honours are the reward of moral excellence; and these honours are mainly the institution of a cult. In fact, the heroic life epitomizes certain values without which life is not worth living. The hero prefers death to an unworthy life and accepts suffering, trials, and tribulations as long as these are compatible with his conception of fortitude and virtue. According to Plato, the struggles and sufferings of the heroic life are due to man’s desire for immortal glory. The ideal hero fears disgrace only. Because the heroic life usually ends with a heroic death, the hero is, almost by definition, a tragic hero. It is this tragic quality that, among other things, distinguishes the heroes of the great epics from those of folktales.
Primitive religions: The use of the terms hero and hero worship in cultural contexts other than the Greek tradition is somewhat problematic. The chief characters in many primitive myths cannot be described as heroes. Sometimes they are mythical figures (divine, semi-divine, human or animal) whose activities account for the origins of certain cosmic facts or cultural achievements or social institutions; they are often described as culture heroes, but neither are they heroes in the classical Greek sense nor do they enjoy cults and worship. In some instances the mythical ancestors are deemed to return on certain ritual occasions, but may be doubted whether the term hero worship is applicable here. Even when the myth tells of the origin of things and institutions through the death of a primordial mythical being, the terms hero and hero worship are, strictly speaking, inappropriate.
Shamanism and Chinese and Japanese religions: In some forms of religion, illustrious or powerful individuals may be identified after their death with powerful spirits or promoted to divine rank. Thus, many of the mighty spirits in some forms of Asian shamanism (a religion characterized by belief in a world of unseen gods, demons, and ancestral spirits response only to the priests called shamans) are identified with departed generals and warlords. In Chinese and Japanese religions, the differences between men, spirit powers, and gods are a matter of degree only; and thus worship of the ancestors and the illustrious departed easily merges with spirit cults and regular divine worship. Among the thousands of gods or divine beings, some are the personifications of natural forces, others are mythological deities, and others again are deified kings, heroes, scholars and benefactors. Because the celestial hierarchy is similar to that on earth, deserving individuals could be elevated to divine rank by imperial decree. One of the best known examples is the Chinese hero Kuan Ti, also known as Kuan Yu or Wu Ti, who after his death in the 3rd century AD advanced successively – throughout the T’ang, Sung, Ming, and Ch’ing dynasties – to ever higher honours. Thus, in 1594 he received the title ‘Faithful and Loyal Great Ti, God of War’. He is said to have had 1,600 state temples and thousands of local shrines in modern (pre-Communist) China. The 9th century statesman and scholar Sugawara Michizane (also known as Kanko) may be cited as a Japanese example.
Christianity, Islam and Buddhism: The Christian cult of saints, though shaped by a specifically Christian ideal of holiness, owes much to Greek forms of hero worship. The original Christian hero is the martyr, and his cult is centred on his tomb and his relics. On the more popular level, saints are considered to be a source radiating power and blessing; in more strictly Christian terms, they are an inspiring reminder of Christian life and a concrete point of contact with the person of the martyr who – somehow still connected with his tomb or relic, yet at the same time in heaven – can act as an intercessor with God. Later, the place of martyrs was taken by confessors (i.e., those who professed their faith but were not required to die a martyr’s death) and by saints whose lives exhibited heroic virtue in acts of penance, ascetic mortification, and charity. Whereas the souls of the ordinary departed are prayed for, those of the saints are prayed to. The cult of saints, and especially of tombs of holy men, is also known in popular Islam, though the orthodox disapproved of the practice as heavily as Protestants disapprove of the Catholic attitudes towards saints. The saint as a hero meriting worship is known also in Eastern religions. In Buddhism the ascetic and renouncer is the real victor and hero, for it is he that has overcome the world; the Buddha is the real cakravartin (world conqueror).
Modern Forms: In addition to the narrow definition of hero worship given at the beginning of this article, the term is also used in a wider sense to refer to attitudes of reverence, honour, and admiration – at times enthusiastic – toward individuals who have excelled in the virtues applauded in a given society. These may range from the most barbarous to the most refined or spiritualized. Heroes can be warriors, rulers, prodigies or sexual prowess, world redeemers, and saints. The study of heroes and of later interpretations of traditional heroic figures can provide a clue to the dominant values – and the changes in the values – of a group. Hiawatha, a legendary chief of the Onondaga tribe of North American Indians, functioned as the Iroquois symbol of civilization and human progress. Perhaps the most striking recent example of a hero cult is that which formed around ‘Che’ Guevara – the Cuban guerrilla leader – who became a kind of mythical symbol with which the revolutionary youth of the radical left wished to identify in ideal as well as in action.
Significance. Some writers, analyzing and comparing the types of heroes described in the various heroic traditions of the world, celebrated in legends, or venerated in cults, claim to find certain regularities or structures characteristic of the hero. These are said to exhibit a basic pattern of the heroes’ biographies (e.g: supernatural or marvellous birth, endangered childhood, prodigious feats in manhood, successful overcoming of dangers and trials, acquisition of a hidden treasure, winning a bride or liberating a captive damsel, heroic death) and to express something essential to man’s understanding of himself. If all important truths present themselves under the guise of the figures of religion and mythology, then the figure of the hero signifies man’s aspiration toward a fuller development of his spirit and transcendence of his incomplete state. The hero, according to this view, symbolizes man’s urge and struggle to transcend the limitations of his existence and to conquer a fuller and more total life. The heroic adventures are thus seen as symbolic representations of an essentially spiritual quest.