Apparently breastfeeding is sufficient to make one a shero these days. (And, just for clarification female heroes are heroines, not sheroes.)
Before I have the mommy brigade up in arms let me just say that while there’s nothing wrong if you can’t, I think it’s optimal for mothers to breastfeed as this not only provides the child with nutrition, minimizes its exposure to harmful chemicals but also provides the pair with some truly essential bonding at that early stage.
So I applaud this woman’s desire to breastfeed regardless of the pain and obstacles involved. That demonstrates strength of character and commitment, which are virtues all of us should strive to cultivate.
Likewise I agree with her comparison of giving birth to war, which is straight out of the ancient Greek epigraphic tradition. Epigraphic as in what’s inscribed on tombstones – giving birth was a tremendously dangerous enterprise back then, with a staggering mortality rate for both mother and child. Anyone who walks away from such an intimate brush with death is a badass in my book. Perhaps not a warrior, per se, since one of the defining characteristics of a warrior is that they are a person who not only can but has taken human life and I detest how this word has gotten watered down to the point where anything that requires discipline, fortitude, bravery, etc. is described as a “warrior’s path” – but you know, pushing something that large out of such a small orifice is indeed a praise-worthy accomplishment. (I should know – I was rather constipated last week.)
So, mad respect to mothers and all but come on – nor does letting a baby suckle from your tit automatically make you a hero. By definition there is something extraordinary about heroes and doing a thing that the majority of women throughout history have done and which is furthermore common to all mammals isn’t very extra ordinary. In fact it’s kind of the antithesis of that.
And if we’re going by the ancient Greek understanding of the ἥρως it’s even more inappropriate since in order to receive hero cultus you pretty much had to be dead first. (Alexander the Great tried to get his men to pay him heroic honors while still respiring and they found an efficient solution to that little theological dilemma.) Death alone, however, does not make one a hero.
Heroes did things such as found cities, slay monsters, or have divine parentage or favor, as well as associations with fertility, protection and the underworld. More important than what this person may or may not have done in life, however, was their ability to act posthumously. I summarized the Hellenic conception in my piece on hero cultus for Jim Morrison in the following way:
For the ancients a hero was predominantly a dead person who continued to influence things on earth from beyond the grave in stark contrast to the majority of the deceased who resided as impotent and ignorant shades of their former selves in the underworld. Without first being fed on the blood of sacrificial victims, Teiresias informs Odysseus in the Homeric Nekyia, they cannot even recognize their fellows let alone what transpires in the world above. The hero, on the other hand, was one of the mighty dead who sent disease, blighted the crops, destroyed livestock and afflicted their families and members of the community with other violent punishments if neglected. Conversely if a proper shrine was built and tended for them with sacrifices, games and similar appropriate honors regularly bequeathed to them then the hero could be a powerful ally to the community, promoting fertility and health and offering prophetic guidance and protection from outsiders. In fact the assistance of the heroic dead was considered so vital to the wellbeing of a community that wars were fought over possession of the hero’s remains and the rights to conduct his or her festivals.
Information on these beings and their veneration is easily attainable. For instance you can read the complete text of Flavius Philostratus’ Heroikos, Sarah Hitch’s Hero Cult in Apollonius Rhodius and Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours all from Harvard’s Center of Hellenic Studies. For free. So really, there’s no excuse for not knowing who and what these beings are. And if one doesn’t want to be limited by the standard understanding why employ the terminology at all? Trying to appropriate the cachet of this word without fulfilling any of the requirements is just going to cast one in a poor light. I mean what would you think of me if I started describing myself as a mother because I crapped out a log last week?
So why do I care if someone else thinks that giving birth and breastfeeding qualify them for heroic status? Because doing so muddies the waters and if that’s permitted to happen people won’t be able to recognize heroes any longer and thus will be deprived of engagement with them – and that can have potentially serious consequences.
Polytheism, for me, isn’t just about the veneration of multiple deities. Gods are great and I’m all about the restoration of their worship in the modern era but even in their vast plenitude they are only a portion of what constitutes the category of “divinities.” Using the standard Hellenic model as an example, preceding the Gods are immense cosmological powers and alongside them are other races or families, such as the Titans, Giants, Cyclopes, etc. Then you’ve got Nymphs and other Spirits associated with the heavens, the earth and bodies of water. Then you’ve got daimones and Heroes and ancestors and tons of other entities ranging in power and influence. Even things like winds, dreams, money and virtues are possessed of intelligence and agency in a properly polytheistic worldview.
And yet a lot of people who come into polytheism tend to focus on the Gods to the exclusion of all other types of beings. Which I’m not knocking entirely because hey, that puts them ahead of the majority of neopagans – but by doing so they are missing out on some really vital elements of religion.
You see, one of the things that makes the Gods so great is their bigness. Take Dionysos, for instance. He’s been bopping around the globe more or less without interruption since the second millennium BCE, even well after Christian domination brought an end to the worship of the Olympian Gods on the state level. He’s got epithets in the triple digits, each with their own set of associations, attributes, functions, myths, etc. Indeed some of these are so complex and contradictory that it almost feels at times as if you’re dealing with an entire pantheon of Dionysoses. Today there are thousands of people across the globe who are having intimate and unique experiences with him – sometimes simultaneously with others. Because Dionysos tore me apart and put me back together again, he knows me in ways that no other entity can and yet after twenty years I still don’t know even the tiniest fraction of who he is. I especially don’t know who he is or what he reveals of himself when he’s off dancing with other Dionysians. And because of his bigness when he looks at the world or even at me he cannot help but see the big picture. No matter how dear to him I may be (and he has taken very good care of me) I cannot be his primary focus or concern. He’s got all of his other Bakchai and Bakchoi to look after, as well as his role in maintaining natural order and the obligations he has to the other Gods and Spirits – not to mention the fact that he’s an innate schemer and so he’s no doubt pursuing a multitude of interests and agendas of his own. So even if he might want to do me a solid he may not be able to because of conflicting loyalties or duties.
Smaller, less powerful beings often do not have as many of these limitations. Their sphere of influence is diminished accordingly but on the other hand if you’re the only one paying them cultus they’ll likely have the time, motivation and freedom to reciprocate. Plus I think a mature polytheism necessitates engagement with these beings as an extension of hospitality.
Using Dionysos as an example – when we bring him into ritual with us he is essentially our guest. After all, his homes are on Mount Parnassos, Mount Olympos, Mount Nysa and in the underworld as well as all of the temples that have been consecrated to him over the centuries. Even when we give over space in our homes to him by setting up shrines we are still, by default, the owners and maintainers of that property. Setting up a fully functioning temple is an entirely different matter as I’m sure my Thracian Adversary can attest. (And I owe this whole analogy I’m making to a conversation we had a couple days ago amid copious amounts of alcohol so if I’m butchering it hopefully he will chime in.) Therefore as host it is proper that we should demonstrate generosity and devotion as we feast and celebrate him.
But with ancestors and land-spirits the situation is reversed – we are coming into their territory as suppliants. In the case of the ancestors we have our whole existence through them – we owe them for the flesh that adorns our bones, the blood that flows through our veins, the traits and culture, the fortune and luck that has been handed down through their line. In the case of the land-spirits they are the place where we build our homes, the soil that produces the food we eat, the water that nourishes and cleanses us and when we go out to the woods or down by the shore of the river or deep beneath the earth in a cave – in these particular places that are unlike any other place on earth – it is them that we are visiting, and we should ever remain mindful of that. As suppliants we should treat our hosts properly and request of them what we desire instead of just greedily taking it. And I think it is proper for a guest to ask a favor of their host for that enhances their stature and gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their power. And when applied to spirits, approaching them in such a fashion keeps us mindful of the pervasiveness of their dominion.
So when want is created in our lives we should look to who presides over that area and approach them for assistance. Accepting such then produces debt and obligation on our part and as we go about repaying that we are bound to them in a more intimate relationship. This, of course, applies to Gods as well as the various types of Spirits but since we owe our existence more directly to the ancestors and spirits we should probably start with them first and work our way up the chain of divinity.
As an example, consider this story about the second prophet of the Bacchic Orphic tradition, Melampos:
Bias wooed Pero, daughter of Neleus. But as there were many suitors for his daughter’s hand, Neleus said that he would give her to him who should bring him the kine of Phylakos. These were in Phylake, and they were guarded by a dog which neither man nor beast could come near. Unable to steal these kine, Bias invited his brother to help him. Melampos promised to do so, and foretold that he should be detected in the act of stealing them, and that he should get the kine after being kept in bondage for a year. After making this promise he repaired to Phylake and, just as he had foretold, he was detected in the theft and kept a prisoner in a cell. When the year was nearly up, he heard the worms in the hidden part of the roof, one of them asking how much of the beam had been already gnawed through, and others answering that very little of it was left. At once he bade them transfer him to another cell, and not long after that had been done the cell fell in. Phylakos marvelled, and perceiving that he was an excellent soothsayer, he released him and invited him to say how his son Iphiklos might get children. Melampos promised to tell him, provided he got the kine. And having sacrificed two bulls and cut them in pieces he summoned the birds; and when a vulture came, he learned from it that once, when Phylakos was gelding rams, he laid down the knife, still bloody, beside Iphiklos, and that when the child was frightened and ran away, he stuck the knife on the sacred oak, and the bark encompassed the knife and hid it. He said, therefore, that if the knife were found, and he scraped off the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos to drink for ten days, he would beget a son. Having learned these things from the vulture, Melampos found the knife, scraped the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos for ten days to drink, and a son Podarces was born to him. But he drove the kine to Pylos, and having received the daughter of Neleus he gave her to his brother. For a time he continued to dwell in Messene, but when Dionysos drove the women of Argos mad, he healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom, and settled down there with Bias. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 1.9.12)
Why would you go to Zeus the cosmic king, ruler of all Gods and men when it’s the tree itself that was harmed and required placation?
Of course, this brings up another area where I think contemporary polytheist practice tends to be deficient – it’s not just the over-emphasis on the Gods but devotion as the default ritual setting.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with honoring and celebrating the Gods and Spirits – far, far, far, far, far from it!
It’s just not the only category of ritual.
The Greeks and Romans had tons of rituals that touched on practically every area of their lives. We can get a sense of the diversity of these ritual actions from this sketch of deisidaimonia by Theophrastos:
He is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what God or Goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.
Few of these could be described as devotional in any kind of meaningful sense and many blur the line between magic and religion – and yet in their totality they constituted a full and dynamic engagement with the holy powers through mindfulness and ritual. As it should be.
So, to bring it back around – if you don’t even know what a hero is how are you going to be able to figure out how to honor them properly? And if you can’t you’re either going to neglect or offend them which will end up compromising your quality of life.
Personally I feel Areios Didymos goes a little too far, but only a little when he writes:
It is the Stoic view that every wrong act is an impious act. For to do something against the wish of a God is proof of impiety. As the Gods have an affinity with virtue and its deeds, but are alienated from vice and those things which are produced by it, and as a wrong act is an activation in accord with vice, every wrong act is revealed as displeasing to the Gods. Furthermore enmity is disharmony and discord in matters of life, just as friendship is harmony and concord. But the worthless are in disharmony with the Gods in matters of life. Hence, every stupid person is an enemy of the Gods. Furthermore if all believe that those opposed to them are their enemies, and the worthless person is hostile to the worthwhile, and God is worthwhile, then the worthless person is an enemy of the Gods. (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 3.684)