“The Pythian priestess then first called him Herakles, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.” — Library, Apollodorus, 2.4.12
At first pass, the thing which might seem most noteworthy, if one was wondering how to become immortal, would be the twelve years and ten labors. It has been suggested to me, and by me, on more than one occasion, that a series of initiatory degrees should exist based upon the labors of Herakles. Right now, however, I want to draw your attention to something else: “The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides.” The first incredible thing about this is Herakles as a name for this character. The first four letters stand out like a sore thumb: Hera. The remaining letters are a suffix derives from the word Kleos, which means, “glory.” Hera’s Glory. What a name for a god-to-be, especially this one.
And Alcmena bore two sons, to wit, Herakles, whom she had by Zeus and who was the elder by one night, and Iphicles, whom she had by Amphitryon. When the child was eight months old, Hera desired the destruction of the babe and sent two huge serpents to the bed. Alcmena called Amphitryon to her help, but Herakles arose and killed the serpents by strangling them with both his hands. — Ibid, 2.4.8
From this incident, until his apotheosis, Herakles is hounded by the goddess he is named for. Obviously, this makes for a great story, which is part of the reason that it is written in this way. Hera, I am sure, represented the dangers of marrying a strong woman, to the ancient Greeks. However, if we look at this from the Theological standpoint that the apparent malice of the gods stems from having a bit of them inside of us which we have yet to reconcile with, the story begins to take on a whole new dimension.
“There is a certain circular figure among the constellations, white in color, which some have called the Milky Way. Eratosthenes says that Juno, without realizing it, gave milk to the infant Mercury, but when she learned that he was the son of Maia, she thrust him away, and the whiteness of the flowing milk appears among the constellations.
Others have said that Hercules was given to Juno to nurse when she slept. When she awoke, it happened as described above. Others, again, say that Hercules was so greedy that he couldn’t hold in his mouth all the milk he had sucked, and the Milky Way spilled over from his mouth.” — Hyginus, Astronomica, 2.43
I say, with my tongue only slightly in my cheek, that if we take the second account as cannon, then it establishes Hera’s motive for deifying Herakles. Yet, truly, without Hera’s intervention, would Herakles ever have become a deity?
In Demophon, we have a second child to be nursed by a goddess.
Dêmophôn,who was born to well-girded Metaneira,was nourished in the palace, and he grew up like a daimôn, not eating grain, not sucking from the breast. But Demeter used to anoint him with ambrosia, as if he had been born of the goddess,and she would breathe down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom. — Ibid, Lines 134-138
One who is born on Earth must surely undergo a certain harrowing process to become a god. This is why the labors of Herakles are central to his apotheosis narrative. Yet, at what point in the story was he set on that path?
Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. — Library, Apollodorus, 2.4.12
So, let me get this straight. The babe that Hera suckled, he suddenly expressed the darkest manifestation of her primary quality, Fidelity, which, afflicted, becomes Jealousy. This sent him away from his home life, and on the quest which most authorities agree is the central feature in his apotheosis narrative. For certain, Hera couldn’t have been unaware that, if she had simply let the guy alone, he would have settled down into family life, done nothing of particular note (except for being a rad warrior) and have passed away into obscurity. He would have died and dwelt in the underworld, much to his father’s sorrow. That was clearly not what she wanted.
Being severed, or nearly severed, from family is a key feature in all apotheosis narratives, failed or otherwise, with the exception of Achilles. Herakles murdered his children, Psyche was betrayed by her sisters, Ariadne rejected her parents and fled with Theseus, Asklepios never knew his mother (she died in childbirth and he had to be cut out of her womb).
This brings me to a second, rather eerie similarity between the narratives of Herakles and Demophon: the fire, and specifically, what the fire is burning away.
Weeping, she spoke these winged words: “My child! Demophon! The stranger, this woman, is making you disappear in a mass of flames! This is making me weep in lamentation [goos]. This is giving me baneful anguish!”
So she spoke, weeping. And the resplendent goddess heard her. Demeter, she of the beautiful garlands in the hair, became angry at her [Metaneira]. She [Demeter] took her [Metaneira’s] philos little boy, who had been born to her mother in the palace, beyond her expectations, she took him in her immortal hands and put him down on the floor, away from her.
She had taken him out of the fire, very angry in her thûmos, and straightaway she spoke to well-girded Metaneira:
“Ignorant humans! Heedless, unable to recognize in advance the difference between future good fortune [aisa] and future bad. In your heedlessness, you have made a big mistake, a mistake without remedy. I swear by the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this: immortal and ageless for all days would I have made your philos little boy, and I would have given him tîmê that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos]. But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom. — Homeric Hymn to Demeter 247-263, translation by Gregory Nagy.
In both cases, fire is being used to separate the would-be deity from their mortal family. In the case of Herakles, fire consumes his children and nephews, severing him from his brother and wife. In the case of Demophon, the Metaneira says that the fire is causing her son to disappear from her.
Why are these goddesses trying to use fire to separate the person undergoing apotheosis from their family? I think it is because when your primary identity or sense of self resides with perishable things, who you are ceases to exist when those things cease to exist. In order to fully assure immortality, we must be certain that the part of our identity that is tied up in immortal and imperishable things can stand utterly on its own.
What do we understand from this so far?
- Most people’s sense of self resides entirely with perishable things.
- If we are touched by the divine, we have a chance to create a sense of self which depends upon imperishable things
- If we are touched by the divine, we are receiving an influx which is problematic until we’ve worked through it
In terms of describing an inner cosmology, we can think of the identity we have that is tied up in perishable things as our inner Alcides. The identity we have that is tied up primarily with imperishable things is our inner Herakles.
The question becomes, do we need to sever ourselves dramatically from the mundane world in order to know our inner divinity?
I don’t think so. I think that the destruction of the mundane or perishable persona is one way to develop the divine or immortal persona, but only because it is a sure-fire way of knowing the perishable from the imperishable. Another path to this could be cultivating non-reactive awareness with regard to the mundane world (which Buddhism teaches us can be a tool for cultivating compassionate behavior). Another option is just to engage in some good old fashioned self examination.
To me, whether Apotheosis is an actual aim or not, it is helpful for me to be able to identify what is Thenea, what is a deity, what is the energy of a deity that has gotten lodged in my aura, and what is my mythical persona (that part of me which exists in the world of the gods — whoever that may be).
When I think about the simple circle casting I developed, I wonder if it could be modified in some way, to assure that everything I saw within that circle, whether it took on the guise of a deity or not, was a projection of my psyche. Learning to recognize those ‘inner gods’ so to speak, would not only improve my discernment, but help me begin to sort my inner landscape from the outer one, and begin to better know my mythic self.
More on that technology later.