Sometimes I wake up with an idea that won't go away. Today I woke up thinking about Herakles.
The first Labor of Herakles was the killing of the Lion of Nemea. There is a lot of stuff on the web about the Lion, about it's heritage and size and danger, but not a lot of speculation as to the source of the story. There is one page which says that all the myths are related to geographical elements, like the Goddess in the Moon. A quick look at those pages would make you slowly back away from the author with a fixed sick smile on your face. The man had some very interesting way of looking at patterns in the earth.
One thing that struck me about Nemea was the fact that much of what remains of the place that existed around the time of Herakles is associated with the Games. They seem to have been very important and like the modern Olympics many buildings, hotels and baths were constructed for them. So we have a stadium and tracks and such. Herakles was a massive man, strong and willful and generally considered to be a really nice guy, unlike his Roman counterpart Hercules, who was a violent drunk.
Many blues artists take names from previous or even contemporary artists so that when following their career one often comes into some confusion about which one the story is about. Voodoo queen Marie Levau seems to have lived an extraordinary time unless you understand that her name and legend were taken on by another woman even before she died. So Herakles is immortal in some ways because his legend lives on in the actions and deeds of others.
What the hell am I talking about? If we understand that everything has a source and that source can be both external and internal, we can start to see why a certain thing seems to be "special". Themes, archetypes, icons..... These are immortal in much the way Herakles and Marie Levau. They live on because we continue to give them life. They are living because they change, they take on new substance and discard unused substance. This form of life is acknowleged in the ancient times by bestowing Godhood on what had been a mortal.
Working backwards one can retrace certain steps and determine when or where a god became immortal, and perhaps, who that god was. Modern mythologists are quick to pronounce that Odin and crew were real people in a real migration into northern Europe, clashing with native tribes and then merging with the population. Individually we can see our life changing and evolving but it is difficult to peel the accumulated artifacts of a person and the core person.
Getting back to Herakles. Scraping off the Hercules parts we are left with an incredible strong person who risked his life to do certain things for the benefit of the people. When he killed the Lion of Nemea he was saving a nation really, or at least a good sized town. But who was the Lion? Why do I say "who"? Because the Lion became immortal, as did the various other monsters Herakles dealt with.
Years ago my daughter was watching Casablanca and Peter Lorie was huffing thru his lines, "Rick, Rick! You've got to save me!" and she asked "Why does that guy say his lines like a cartoon?" I asked her what she meant and she explained that he was saying his lines like that mad scientist in the cartoons, and I tried to explain that Peter Lorie was the source of those cartoons, but she found it very hard to see the chronology and insisted that he must have picked up his mannerisms from some early cartoon, because that character was so ubiquitous. And what if, in his youth perhaps, Peter Lorie has seen a play wherein some character who maybe even resembled him, said his lines with that whiney desperate voice? The actual character type might even be from Egyptian times, some now-nameless god or folk character who was the source for Peter Lorie. Now if you have a bug-eyed round headed person give that funny little laugh people are going to "see' him as a mad scientist, an evil doctor and the like. Could not the ancients have had a kind of Peter Lorie who became immortal?
The Lion of Nemea might have been an ancient athlete whose great prowess threatened the local hero, Herakles..... or someone who resembled Herakles. They meet at the games, there is a terrible turnover and Herakles defeats the Lion. Now this would be told again and again, like the Ali-Frasier fight, eventually devolving the Lion of Nemea into an actual lion, and so in the early images of the fight we see the two of them standing and clawing at one another like people, and then later we see them on all fours with the Lion acting much more like a real lion. Even today we have scenes wherein a person, usually a man, announces himself as the "son of a hurricane whose mother was the lightning!" or some such thing. So it was that the Lion of Nemea had a family tree of strange beasts and Herakles had an immortal father. Tiger Woods has a young son who is learning to play a very good game of golf. The son of the Tiger may be a Beast on the links someday.
We often find that our heroes and gods had mortal roots and then we become disappointed in them. Imagine the flurry if we found that Joshua bin Joseph moved to Greece, married to the ex-High Priestess of the Goddess...maybe had children, and died from complications he acquired thru a short period of time in which he was hanging from a cross and stabbed in the chest. Suppose his immortal father and mortal mother were both mortal.
Sometimes our legends, our ideals and our core source as a culture turns out to be mortal and, if extraordinary, still very real, very dead. George Washington did not have hand-carved wooden teeth, never threw a coin across a river, never stood up in a boat, never cut down a cherry tree and then admitted it. John Kennedy never slept with Marilyn Monroe and no one was ever healed by a tent-top preacher. But they should have and in our hearts, if not our minds, they did.
We have a collection of newspaper article titles. Dragons Come to Life. Witches Are Older, Smarter. Rams Crush the Vikings. Each gives us a mental image of immortal-like beings do extraordinary things. If such things were not committed to memory they would be told time after time and maybe someday we would have a story wherein these things happened as described, and if you investigated them you would find newspaper articles which seems to confirm that Witches were waging some kind of a war in the small town of Greenwich NY. Green-witch NY.
Paul Bunyan was or was not a real lumberjack who was strong and did great things and so people talked about him and the stories grew as did he. Or his story was a complete fiction which became confused with a real man or men.
Sometimes people get confused about chronology and myth. They get very "wise" in how things happened and tell stories about the devolution of a god into a folk hero into a concept. And sometimes the stories are designed to explain "why things happen", or to teach a lesson, like Aesop with his fox and the grapes, which could have been a greedy man down the street halting an effort because it was too hard and having his neighbors make fun of him, the foxy fool. Or Aesop saw a fox trying to get at some grapes on a vine. Sometimes, like Marie Levau, a person knowingly takes on immortality by deliberately aligning themselves with a myth, thus CEOs will declare in a resume that they earned a degree or medal which they did not in fact have. But if you embellish a story it is best to be sure you do so in such a way as to be consistent with the core value of the story.
Abraham was willing to slit the throat of his son for his god. Joshua bin Joseph was willing to die on the cross rather than attack his attackers. Nathan Hale announced that he regretted having but one life to lose for his country. Ronald Reagan was a great actor whose greatest role was that of President. Herakles killed the Lion of Nemea The United States of America is a democracy which saved the world in 1945 by vaporizing two cities. Charlie Manson was a mass murderer.