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Why has Herakles Left for the East?

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Symbolic motifs can help us trace the movements of peoples and ideas, as illustrated by the case of Herakles, who traveled from Greece to Japan.


In the last few posts, we have traced the diffusion of mythological and artistic motifs into Western culture from the Near Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, areas generally identified as the epicenter for the emergence of cities, writing, and agriculture.

Of course, in this day and age the word Western must be read with invisible scare quotes. A study of classical history quickly reveals that so-called Western civilization is deeply indebted to cultures that the Greeks would have considered Oriental.

One of the great thrills of intellectual history is discovering the degree to which cultural zones that one had previously considered to be independent show a remarkable degree of inter-penetration. Most cultures show a surprising degree of receptiveness to foreign elements, making the study of religious symbols enormously valuable. Mythological motifs are extremely robust and may persist without significant modification for millennia, long after languages like Latin or Sanskrit have evolved out of existence. By watching how symbolic motifs pass from culture to culture, we gain important evidence for the movements of peoples and ideas.

Swedish Buddha

Buddha, c. Seventh Century CE
Found in a bog in Sweden

For the mythologist, then, symbols are like the half-sovereign coin that Leopold Bloom marks in James Joyce’s Ulysses, before spending it out into the sea of commerce, keeping watch for its return.

One of the key cultural boundaries that looms large in popular imagination is that separating the East and the West. We have overwhelming evidence for extensive contact between the Occident and the Orient extending far back into antiquity. Roman coins have been found in Vietnam, and the earliest iconic representations of Buddhism were in an essentially classical Greek style. This beautiful little Buddha Statue, carved in North India in the sixth or seventh century CE, was found in a bog near Helgö in Sweden, giving a sense of the range of the Scandinavian seamen of the Middle Ages.

If one takes the epicenter of Occidental culture to be classical Greece, and the epicenter of the great civilizations of the Orient to be India, then countless channels of connection are immediately evident. One must begin with the fact, universally accepted by linguists since the nineteenth century, that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit all descend from a single lost language, referred to as Proto-Indo European. Many archaeologists currently follow a version of a theory first postulated by Maija Gimbutas, the famous historian of goddess-cultures, that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were a nomadic people who originally came out of the Steppes of Russia east of the Black Sea (1).



The philologist M. L. West has analyzed symbols appearing in the philosophy, poetry, and literature of various Indo-European cultures to partially reconstruct the religious belief system of the Proto-Indo-European people, before it broke apart as the population spread into different Asian and European groups (2). To give but one example of the kind of light such analysis may shed on symbols, let’s consider an enigmatic symbol commonly found in Tantric Buddhism to this day, the vajra, as it is known is Sansrkit, or dorje in Tibetan.

The word vajra refers to thunderbolts, diamonds, or an indestructible quintessence. The iconographic symbol that is also called a vajra is prominently featured in contemplative Buddhist art as a representation of the active qualities of Buddha’s wisdom. As the title of the well-known Vajracchedika Sutra suggests, the vajra is akin to a “diamond that cuts through illusions.” But what is the origin of this odd implement?

The vajra first appears as the magical weapon or implement of the storm god Indra in one of the oldest surviving Indo-European texts, the Hindu scripture Rg Veda. For example, one Vedic hymn to Indra begins “Let me now sing the heroic deeds of Indra, the first that the thunderbolt-wielder performed. [“thunderbolt” = vajra] He killed the dragon and pierced an opening for the waters; he split open the bellies of mountains.” (3)

Through comparative analysis, West finds that many prominent Indo-European storm gods wield a similar special thunder-weapon, including Zeus with his thunderbolts, Thor with his storm-hammer Mjölnir, and the Avestin god Mithra with his demon-slaying vazra. (4)

A symbol like the vajra is all-but-incomprehensible until it is traced back to its root as a celestial weapon that penetrates and releases. Then its gradual symbolic evolution, by which it sheds its original aitiological value, becomes self-evident.

Gandharvan Buddha

Greco-Buddhist Bodhisattva, 2nd-3rd Century
Art Institute of Chicago
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

The relationship between classical Greek philosophy and the Upanishadic and Buddhist religious material appearing in India at the same time is a topic of monumental importance for intellectual history, and it deserves its own consideration in future posts. For now we will simply note that the doctrines of an endless round of retributive reincarnation broken by a combination of asceticism and contemplative practice appeared in both Greece and India, without antecedent and at the same time. (5)

All of this came to mind this morning when I stumbled upon an interesting article on the Tocharian language, an Indo-European language of western China. I was astonished to read that the Tocharian people have been attested in sources as diverse as the Roman author Plutarch, the Alexandrian author Ptolemy, and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang (6). All of this suggests to my mind that if a great civilization on the order of China or Rome had ever blossomed in Central Asia, one that persisted and gave lasting shape to the dense zone of interaction that has been in flux for thousands of years, we would not currently think of so-called “eastern” and “western” thought as somehow fundamentally different.

It was a truism among many comparative scholars in the twentieth century, including Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, that the westerner studies eastern religions at great peril, as the religious idioms of the east are intended to produce experiences that the western ego has not evolved to assimilate. I think a historical difficulty in drawing a meaningful line between east and west should pose a serious challenge to this view. I argued in a similar vein in “Nondualism as First Philosophy” that at this point in history, western philosophers can ignore Asian philosophy only to their detriment.

This fact was once pointed out to an acquaintance of mine by no less an authority than the Dalai Lama. My scholar friend asked His Holiness if he should be concerned about studying “eastern religions” as a westerner. His Holiness, with characteristic insight, replied Buddhism is actually closer to European culture than to Tibetan culture. European culture and Buddhism both derive from a common Indo-European source. When Buddhism came to Tibet, it entered a Sino-Burmese linguistic zone of a completely different character, and the native Bon religion had no resemblance to Buddhism whatsoever.

Let’s close with a look at this marvelous image from Wikimedia commons, which illustrates the process of modification by which the Greek hero Herakles, armed with his iconic club, was gradually modified as he passed eastward through Central Asia and China to Japan, where he is now known as Shukongoshin, and may be seen in Buddhist temples to this day.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, click image for source

On the left is a Greek statue of Herakles from the Louvre, and moving rightward (and eastward, geographically), we see a Greco-Bactrian coin showing Herkles, a Greco-Buddhist depiction of the protector-god Vajrapani, and the Japanese Shukongoshin on the right.

Update: After completing this post I learned of this excellent article Heracles in the East by I-Tien Hsing, translated by William G. Cromwell. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the eastward journey and transformation of Heracles. (April 6, 2012)


(1) q.v, for example, Anthony DW. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language; How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
(2) West ML. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford University Press. 2007.
(3) Rig Veda, I. 42, from Doniger W. The Rig Veda. Penguin Classics. 1981. p 149
(4) West, 2007, pp. 251 ff.
(5) Two important works treating this question are:
McEvilley T. The Shape of Ancient Thought; Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. Allworth Press. 2002.
West ML. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford University Press. 2001.
(6) Narain AK, “Indo-Europeans in Inner Asia”. in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge University Press. 1990. pp 151-176.

Further Reading

Indo-European Languages
Greco-Buddhist Art


Written by Mesocosm

January 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

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