While I was putting together this piece on the heroes of Greater Greece (an exercise in the sort of regionally specific polytheism that my Thracian Adversary will be presenting on at the Conference) I kept running across references to Herakles the slayer of lions, who has strangely been on my mind a bit of late.
None of the information was new to me, though it was interesting to more precisely locate a quote I’d read a bunch of times on how Italy was the first country to worship Herakles as a full-fledged god instead of just one of the heroes or hemitheoi. (Which makes me wonder if they’d omitted reference to the specific polis where this cult flourished the times I’d read it before or if I only noticed it now because of the intense research I’ve been doing.)
However, something kind of profound stood out for me – most of the legends concerning Herakles’ wanderings through Sicily and Southern Italy involve 1) him guiding the cattle of Geryon or 2) his involvement in the mysteries of Persephone, with these sometimes combined. (There are other legends associated with his presence in Rome and Northern Italy, mostly of a political nature.)
Fuck, I’m slow sometimes.
I mean, you realize what that makes him … right?
Herakles is a boukolos or more appropriately (considering his role in founding cults, festivals and mysteries in the region) an archiboukolos or “chief cowherder.”
This title, associated with Dionysiac thiasoi from at least the 6th century BCE (and quite possibly earlier: pure UPG here, but I think it’s interesting that the Messenger role in Greek tragedy, which is often tasked with providing information that triggers peripeteia and the anagnorisis scene, is very often a cowherder) evolved into something like the Christian episkopos during the Hellenistic and Roman eras – though with a greater fluidity of meaning. (Even when we Dionysians have structure it’s a fluid structure which is what has allowed us to thrive for so long.) While in some places an archiboukolos oversaw all of the Dionysian communities in a region and maintained contact with their colleagues in other regions there were also instances where their authority was limited to a single temple, one which they financially supported at great personal expense. In some cases their influence extended beyond the spiritual, as when Isidoros led his initiates in guerrilla warfare against occupying forces in Roman Egypt. On the other hand, on the honorific inscription for Pompeiia Agrippinilla three archiboukoloi are mentioned and they aren’t even close to holding the highest position in that association.
Which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t honor him as a predecessor, being that I’m the archiboukolos of the thiasos of the Starry Bull.
I think I need to.
Especially since the country came to be called Italy after Hera sent an oistros or gadfly to madden the herd (italus being a word for bull) with its frenzied sting, sending the hero off on a winding, rambling search for them through the Mezzogiorno, a task he can only complete by paying homage to Persephone.
It’s the same fucking myth, over and over and over again. The players may change – but the core elements are always there, always the same.
Nietzsche was only partly right.