Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 27. Transformations of Myth: The Poet, Society, and the Sacred

So, as has been noted, we should be skeptical of the historicity of the vitae, but we might also be skeptical of their fictional “mythicality”—seemingly mythical, folkloric elements may not be pure fiction. Perhaps there was an Aesop; perhaps the Delphians refused him room and board; perhaps he made a public nuisance of himself; perhaps he was brought to trial, and goaded his captors into an extreme punishment. A man like Diogenes could easily goad an unsympathetic court into voting an exile. From all accounts, an Aesop (if he existed) or Archilochus might have been equally capable of this.

So we are left with a skepticism that turns back against itself. Was Juvenal exiled, or was that story the creation of enthusiastic scholiasts who had to fit the great satirist to the mythical pattern?—which is certainly a possibility. Or did his actual life fit the mythical pattern because the mythical pattern itself reflects social realities? This seems equally possible. Was Tyrtaeus an obscure, mild-mannered poet who lived an uneventful life, or was he really the lame Athenian given to the Spartans as a joke, who became a successful general? One is skeptical of such a neat folktale, but perhaps a historical figure lies behind the story, and perhaps the story has some validity. We do know that the Spartans “imported” poets. If the neatness was not there, something somehow related to that story may have nevertheless happened.

It is striking that Platonic Socrates versified Aesop and composed a hymn to Apollo while he awaited death; perhaps these are a brilliant student’s inventions, graceful literary mirrorings of the mythical realities inherent in Socrates’ execution. But then one remembers that Seneca apparently modeled his death on Socrates’ (only to have Thrasea copy his own death); perhaps the historical Socrates did think of himself as the new Aesop. Or perhaps the Platonic death of Socrates is largely myth; then a myth has passed into history (Seneca’s death, historical, was modeled on the myth, replicates pure myth). So refractions of myth scatter influentially throughout history.

It is also striking that the Roman versifier of Aesop offended with his didactic, just satire, and was severely punished by an oppressive political leader—perhaps by exile.

This survey, then, would agree with theorists such as Durkheim that myth and folklore often encapsulate historical, social realities. They are not just fanciful neuroses, or a disease of language, or naïve nature speculations. At the same time, of course, myth can supplant history. A great poet’s audience, his or her disciples, later commentators would apply a preexistent standard heroic life to her or him, in whole or in part—poets must be consecrated by the gods, they must be the best, yet they must suffer expulsion, perhaps die unjustly far from home. The myth, minus the explicit divine apparatus, is based on society’s treatment of past poets. History will continue to replicate the myth.

If myth can reflect persistent social patterns, people see their contemporary realities in terms of past history, which, if one goes back far enough, is sacral history. And history does replicate itself. Aesop died once (perhaps only in story) at Delphi; a successor died in 399 BC Athens; and another fabulist suffered again at the hands of Sejanus and Nero.

If we go back even further, we find, behind Aesop and Archilochus and Heracles—warrior-poets tormented by ambivalently inimical gods and helped by others—the archetype formed by Starkaðr and Suibhne, the warrior-poet of Indo-European epic, sacrificing and sacrificed, harried and saved by tutelary and pernicious deities. And behind Starkaðr, the Odinic hero, we have Odin, god of mantic poetic possession and berserker war fury, gaining poetic knowledge by sacrificing himself to himself, suffering a primeval triple death on the world tree to ensure cyclical continuity for the earth.

However, other details do not fit quite as well, especially details connected with the “exclusion of the best” theme. In actuality, by Burkert’s account, the best would never be excluded, and the excluded one would never really be willing to die. The guilty, if anxiety-cleansed, group thinks of the scapegoat as “voluntary” and as “the best” to assuage their guilt and trauma.

Yet, while the “voluntary” victim would soothe the guilt of the community, how would the “best” victim lessen it? (Also, if the predator kills the lame and sick, does it not just kill the laggard? There would be no conscious exclusion on the part of the group—no choosing, adorning of victim. The victim is simply slow.)

In the case of Aesop at Delphi, the pattern seems nearly opposite: a morally corrupt group excluding their intellectual better. This is a standard pattern, more like Burkert’s first pattern. Aesop’s exclusion as filth is actually society’s self-exclusion from any kind of justification.

A modification of Burkert’s prehistoric scenario would lessen the problem somewhat: we have the group cornered by a predator or predators. The group chooses its strongest individual or individuals, and sends him or them forth to kill the predators. Sometimes the champion dies; if he survives, he becomes the tribal leader.

And there would be an intellectual aspect to the best also, for the person who is intelligent enough to wield a weapon cleverly or outsmart a predator (by noose, trap, and so on) would survive the confrontation more consistently than even a stronger rival who was less intelligent. However, this champion would still be subjected to considerable danger, and when he came to realize that his role was not safe to perform time after time, he would send a servant, a substitute, a military specialist, the king’s general—to represent him. Thus Starkaðr, Śiśupāla, Suibhne, Aesop, and Phaedrus’ catamite.

Burkert collects a number of stories involving the scapegoat that present the war scenario. Codrus, whose country, Attica, is threatened by the Dorian invasion, saves it by going out to meet the enemy. [6] P. Decius Mus performs the devotio, dedicating himself and the enemy forces to death, then throws himself recklessly into enemy lines; his presence at first spreads panic among the enemy, but when he falls, “from that moment there was no doubt that the Latin cohorts were thrown into complete confusion and had emptied the battlefield to scatter far and wide in flight.” [7] In the devotio, while the general devotes himself in legend, and Macrobius can say, “Dictators and generals only can perform devotio,” [8] in practice the general could, and generally would, call on a lesser soldier to be devoted (Livy 8.10.11). Bremmer observes that Decius and other generals who devoted themselves were legendary, not historical, and that there is a similar contrast between legendary regal scapegoats and practical lowly scapegoats in Greece. [9] This suggests a curious pattern: the general is therapōn of the king; but the general chooses his own therapōn. Thus, Achilles is therapōn of Agamemnon, but in turn sends Patroclus to be his therapōn in battle. In fact, the Iliad might be seen as a drama of therapōn relationships gone perverse. Achilles withdraws from his relationship with Agamemnon; and Patroclus becomes Achilles’ double almost against Achilles’ will; after Patroclus dies, Achilles reassumes his proper therapōn relationship, but at the cost of his eventual death.

The pattern that emerges is that one army threatens another, causing anxiety. The scapegoat, the fatal gift, is sent to the enemy, bringing them destruction.

Thus society is ambivalent in its attitudes toward warriors; they are considered expendable, and sent to danger; when they return victorious, they are crowned, are accounted the best. Significantly, the warrior volunteers—but such volition does not seem forced, as his type is willing to take risks (the pronounced anti-social tendencies in his personality, as when Phaedrus’ champion steals the general’s property, would seem to fit this type of personality). Thus, Suibhne, Starkaðr, Śiśupāla (and Aesop), general-champions, therapon tes for the king, fit closely into this scenario.

Yet they are primarily regarded as warriors; one must relate their poetic vocations to this phenomenon. As has been shown, satirists especially are specialists in aggression, mechanisms of physical and verbal attack; they are specialists in the madness that unleashes aggression, verbal and physical. But they are also clever, and thus suited for championship of the group against the less intelligent carnivore or enemy champion (one remembers the small David felling the monstrous Goliath with a cast of the sling). Thus Odysseus polutropos, Aesop as cleverest of all, consummate riddlewarrior, will serve well as champions for society and the king.

Such a scenario for poet-warrior as scapegoat may perhaps underemphasize the other aspect of the pharmakos’ ambiguity—his leastness. Yet, the ambiguity of the warrior in society is inescapable—he is seen as least, expendable—Phaedrus’ catamite is a criminal, anti-social. This does not solve the problem completely, for a lame warrior is not fitted for battle (unless his lameness has caused him to develop his wits abnormally to outsmart an opponent).

Girard has been an influential interpreter of the scapegoat; his most widely known book, Violence and the Sacred, [21] is stimulating, enlightening, annoying, and difficult by turns. Yet Girard offers insight into elements of the poet-as-scapegoat complex. His view is that sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of the scapegoat, came about as a psychic mechanism to stop the violence of vengeful feuding. This symbolic act of violence, which defines the sacred, has the power to deflect destructive impulses onto a harmless object—a marginal member of society, a person who is lame, a slave, an outsider, a criminal; or onto an animal. Thus, when a well-developed law system is instituted in a society, in which a murderer is punished for his own crime and in which the victim’s family will not take the law into their own hands, sacrifice, and the sacred, will become unnecessary and fall into disuse. Thus, our present society lacks sacrifice, and it also lacks an understanding and experience of archaic sacrality. We also have not faced the extent to which the sacred is generated by violence, though in an attempt to stem violence. The sacrifice was then originally a ritual murder, which soon made use of the surrogate victim. A member of a tribe kills a man from another tribe; the other tribe mobilizes for war. The first tribe does not want to give up an important chief in recompense, to satisfy the opposing tribe; so a surrogate, a marginal, entirely innocent man or woman is sacrificed instead. This detail, which at first seems entirely unjust and unlikely, is supported by precise anthropological parallels. The Chukchi Indians, for example, when a member of their tribe has committed a murder against a member of another tribe, kill not the offender, but a member of his family. [22]

The Germanic myths of the sacrificed poet offer material very susceptible to a Girardian interpretation. While Kvasir is not killed to effect reconciliation in the war of the Aesir and Vanir, he is nevertheless a poet who is the living emblem of that reconciliation, and his death perpetuates the beneficial effects of that reconciliation in the ability of Odin to rule the totality of society with the requisite omniscience. Furthermore, in a parallel drama of human sacrifice, Kvasir’s blood-mead effects peace between the murderous dwarves who have killed him and the family of the giant they later drown. Here the magical value of the dead poet-being is explicit weregild; by it, peace is effected between enemies. And the death of Kvasir also unites the three levels of society, since Odin’s kingly knowledge comes from it.


[ back ] 1. In the context of this discussion I am using a fairly standard definition of myth, as traditional story, often supernatural. In other contexts, one might emphasize other definitions or aspects of myth. A sampling of introductory treatments of myth: Eliade1963a; Detienne1986; Puhvel1987; Edmunds1990; Graf1993; Buxton1994; Bremmer1987; Gantz1993; Calame2003.

[ back ] 2. There is even the interesting tradition, discussed above in ch. 15, of Socrates as “best warrior.”

[ back ] 3. This continues the discussion of Burkert found at the end of ch. 18.

[ back ] 4. Burkert 1979:71.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Kees Bolle’s treatment of freedom in sacrifice (1983:61–63).

[ back ] 6. Burkert 1979:62. Codrus is a king, but also a warrior, see 1979:170n13; see above, ch. 1.

[ back ] 7. Livy 8.9.12 (trans. Radice): inde iam haud dubie consternatae cohortes Latinorum fugam ac uastitatem late fecerunt. Burkert 1979:63. Gehrts begins Das Märchen und das Opfer with an analysis of Decius’ devotio (1967:9–19).

[ back ] 8. Saturnalia 3.9.9: dictatores imperatoresque soli possunt devovere.

[ back ] 9. Bremmer 1983b:304n37.

[ back ] 10. ANET 347; Burkert 1979:60–61. The importance of Asia Minor in the figures we have studied (Hipponax, Aesop, Marsyas) is worth noting. See above, ch. 1, on Codrus; ch. 17, on DoDera and Patroclus.

[ back ] 11. Kausika Sutra 14, 22f.; Oldenberg 1923:496ff.; Frazer 1911 pt. VI, 9:192f.; Burkert 1979:60n7 (further bibliography), 10.

[ back ] 12. For the theme of the oracle demanding an unlikely general in wartime, see above, on Tyrtaeus, ch. 11.

[ back ] 13. Perhaps symbolic of the warrior’s battle fury.

[ back ] 14. Parthenius 9 = Andriscus FGH 500 F 1; Plutarch On the Virtues of Women (254b–f); Aristotle fr. 559; Burkert 1979:72–73. There seems to be a connection with the Roman story of Tarpeia, which however is inverted, see Livy 1.11; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.38–40; Plutarch Romulus 17; Propertius 4.4; Burkert 1979:76–77. Interestingly, there is a variant in which Tarpeia is the enemy’s daughter, captured by Romulus (Plutarch Romulus 17); this would be closer to Polycrite. For another dangerous female war gift, cf. Gullveig (‘Gold Drunk’), “sent by the Vanir to corrupt the Aesir” (Puhvel 1987:211), comparable perhaps both to Tarpeia, but also to Mada, who represents drunkenness and female sexuality (see above, ch. 19, on Kvasir’s mead).

[ back ] 15. See Joannes Lydus On the Months 3.29; 4.36; Roscher 1884–1937 s.v. Mamurius; Frazer 1911 9:229–231. For Mamurius being driven to the Oscans, see Propertius 4.2.61–64, where the expelled Mamurius is in Oscan, enemy, territory; see Roscher and Frazer 1911 9:231n1. If Mamurius is expelled to the inimical Oscans, it would lead us to interpret the ritual as associated with war, not as a fertility rite with the old-year king departing (as Frazer interprets it). Then we would not need to explain Mars as a god of “fertility” in connection with Mamurius, as does Frazer; the god’s connection with the rite as a god of war becomes natural. However, Mamurius’ connection with the calendrical crisis at the end of the year is still present. Perhaps this crisis was seen as a martial crisis. We remember that supposedly, on the first day of the Thargelia, Troy was sacked, the battles of Marathon and Plataea took place, and Alexander defeated Darius; see above, ch. 15 (Socrates).

[ back ] 16. See Gebhard 1926:77–78, with further bibliography.

[ back ] 17. See above, ch. 24. For the use of champions in battle, see the battle of the Horatii and Curiatii in the conflict of Rome and Alba Longa (Livy 1.24–26), cf. Dumézil 1942. It is significant that the surviving Horatius is a classic example of murderous battle fury; he kills his sister in a rage immediately following the battle, and must undergo purification to be reintegrated into Roman society. Cf. above, ch. 17, on warrior-poet Dubthach Chafertongue; ch. 1—Androgeus is sent against the bull of Marathon to be killed.

[ back ] 18. See Iliad II 701; Cypria fr. 17 (Allen 1919 5:123; West 2003b:76); Herodotus 9.116; Palatine Anthology 7.385; Hyginus Fables 103 (here, the oracle is common knowledge); Gantz 1993:592-593. Protesilaus also receives a brief resurrection.

[ back ] 19. However, cf. Starkaðr’s enmity with common people. Still, there is some ambiguity in that relationship, as Starkaðr approves of weapon smiths and honest farmers; Starkaðr also has very ambiguous relations with the king. Yet perhaps the enmity is a crucial element of the poet’s involvement with a person or class; his critique helps and improves (as when his satirical attack reclaims Ingel from decadent kingship).

[ back ] 20. For Aglauros, see ch. 1.

[ back ] 21. Girard 1977, see also 1987b, 1986, and 1987a.

[ back ] 22. Girard 1977:25.

[ back ] 23. Girard 1977:18.

[ back ] 24. Cf. Burkert 1983:9.

[ back ] 25. As a counterbalance, one may compare a good phenomenology of religion, such as van der Leeuw’s Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1967). Cf. also Jensen 1963, who argues that human sacrifice is universally a characteristic of the cults of relatively advanced agricultural peoples.

[ back ] 26. Which again highlights the importance of the warrior-hero studied by Dumézil in his series of treatments of Starkaðr et al.

[ back ] 27. Girard notes the importance of the fool as double of the king (1977:12); cf., for the holy fool, 253. Tamun, though, is killed without effecting a peace between armies, see above, ch. 17.

[ back ] 28. Girard 1977:111. The concept of warrior-victim as double of the king again suggests Gehrts’s work, see Gehrts 1967, Ward 1982b and above ch. 19.

[ back ] 29. One would ordinarily think of Odin as the wisest—thus it is tempting to see Kvasir/Mímir as representatives of Odin. Notice that Odin drinks Kvasir in the previous myth to gain his knowledge.

[ back ] 30. 1977:25, 257.

[ back ] 31. According to Plutarch Cicero 49 (885), when Antony saw Cicero’s head and hands, he cried out that the proscriptions would be terminated immediately.

[ back ] 32. 1977:27, cf. Girard 1986:63ff.; see above, ch. 2, Aesop’s “voluntary” death.

[ back ] 33. 1977:254; cf. 44 (tragedy as stichomythia, protagonists trading insults, until the final violence), 98 (verbal violence is a preface to sacrifice; a ritualization of the conflict that sacrifice ends).

[ back ] 34. 1977:98.

[ back ] 35. 1977:98.

[ back ] 36. 1977:133, 159. “During the sacrificial crisis, all men are endowed with the spirit of prophecy.”

[ back ] 37. 1977:154.

[ back ] 38. See 1977:252.

[ back ] 39. 1977:251; ch. 2.

[ back ] 40. See 1977:257.

[ back ] 41. There is much more in Girard that would repay detailed study, but this short treatment shows the richness of his book, and that the data we have surveyed on the excluded, sacrificed poet have relevance to his theory.