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Posts Tagged ‘comparative religion

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

The Lion, the Bull, and the Birth of Tragedy

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Image (C) Barnaby Thieme.

Please click the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.

This remarkable statue group depicting a bull wracked by two lions is one of the most powerful works of art I have ever seen. Perhaps ten feet across, it once occupied the central pediment of the Hekatompedon temple, the predecessor of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens.

This temple was built in the late sixth century BCE during the Archaic period of Greek history, which saw a great influx of political and cultural influences from the Near East. It was during this time that Greece adopted the polis city-state model of political organization from the Fertile Crescent, where it had been in use since the first cities were built around 3200 BCE.

Greek art, literature, and religion were transformed by the wave of ideas coming from the Near East. Archaic statues and vase paintings show a marked Mesopotamian influence. One of the earliest and most important literary sources for Greek religion, Hesiod’s Theogony, dates to this period, and shows the clear influence of the Babylonian epic Enuma elish, which we looked at in an earlier post on the Assyrian Tree of Life motif.

This pediment sculpture group is itself Oriental in subject and style. As with the Tree of Life, this group features an axial primary subject, a bull, flanked by a pair of heraldic figures, in this case lions, in a typically Mesopotamian style. Animal battles were a popular subject of art throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Although it came to Greece through Mesopotamia, the lion-bull motif predates Sumerian civilization by tens of thousands of years. It is one of the oldest mythological symbols in the world, possibly as old as the Great Goddess motif of the Stone Age. It can be found in numerous cultures in a clear line of historical transmission. It passed from culture to culture during periods of contact, with each new group expressing the symbol with its own emphasis. It is a symbol of great complexity and range, and we can only begin to trace its history here.

The basic sense of the bull brought down by beasts of prey is an image of the fundamental forces of life and death in a terrible, intense struggle. As an image of the conflict that provides the sustenance of life, the lion and the bull are bound together as a single symbol.

In Ancient Greece, the bull is the sacrificial animal par excellence. The bull sacrifice played a prominent role in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was created in the same historical period as this statue group, and, as noted earlier, also shows a deep influence from the Near East.


Cyprus, 13th century BCE, British Museum
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Theogony contains the earliest-known version of the Prometheus myth. In Hesiod’s telling, the tragic god enraged Zeus by establishing the ritual of the bull sacrifice such that the humans receive the flesh of the animal, while the gods receive only the fat and the bones. When Zeus learns of this betrayal, he proscribes a terrible punishment: “[W]ith anger ever in his mind, he would not give to the ash-trees the power of untiring fire for mortal men who live on the earth.” (1) That is to say, the ash tree keeps the fires of heaven locked within itself, so that wood must be burned for its vital essence to be released.

Taken as a primitive scientific account, there is little merit to this hypothesis, but when interpreted symbolically, we immediately find several themes in common with the Tree of Life motif we considered earlier. In both groups, we have an image of the source of life, the “fire within the tree,” or the nourishing flesh, depicted on the central axis, flanked by fierce figures, and released by the action of the symmetrical pairs on either side.

If the bull is taken as the life-giving principle, the lion must be interpreted as the dynamic force that activates its release. On the cosmological plane, we have an image of the circle of life in its mystery and terror; life devouring itself and begetting life, like an Ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail. On the psychological or spiritual plane, we have an image of the axis mundi, the illuminated life-center of all things, and that is experienced by consciousness in terms of pairs of opposites. The central axis is outside of time, like the holy mountain in Black Elk’s vision. The lions are symbolic of the action of time, always eating away at the life principle.

It is simply astonishing to see how far this motif has spread in space and time. Note that Hesiod took the trouble in his brief work to specify that the tree of heavenly fire is an ash tree, reminding us at once of the ash tree Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Norse mythology, which itself immediately evokes the motif of life-giving sacrifice. It was from the World-Tree that Odin hung for nine days and nights, pierced by his own spear, in search of the waters of wisdom at the tree’s roots, as the Prose Edda tells us:

I know that I hung  on a high windy tree
  for nine long nights;
pierced by a spear  -Odin’s pledge-
  given myself to myself.
No one can tell  about that tree,
  from what deep roots it rises. (2)

We can thus connect the Norse motif with the story of Prometheus, who was likewise bound in agony, and speculate that both motifs may share a common origin in an unknown Proto-Indo-European antecedent, a tale told before the Dorian Greeks and Germanic tribes differentiated. And can this passage be read without calling to mind the Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment, or Christ upon the Cross?


British Museum, Public Domain.
Click to Enlarge.

If we follow the flowering tree of Indo-European culture deeper toward its roots, we will also find a clear link to the great god Shiva of Hinduism, who not only symbolizes devouring time, but is invariably paired with Nandi the bull, his yana, or vehicle. It will not surprise us, then, to learn that Shiva’s consort Parvati is paired with a lion. In their combined aspect, as the god Ardhanarishvara, Shiva and Parvati are united as a single image, flanked by a bull on one side and a lion on the other. In this nineteenth century painting from the British Museum, Ardhanarishvara is aligned with an axial tree, and the waters of immortality overflow from the god’s crown. And is it my imagination, or is this tree clearly a Ficus religiosa, or Bodhi Tree?

The Sumerians were the first to fix our zodiac in the heavens, and they assigned to Leo the house that the sun must traverse during the summer solstice. The bull, representing the principle of the sacrifice that gives life, is associated with spring, and so Taurus rules the house which the sun traverses in the vernal equinox, when the world returns to life. (3)

In the symbolic language of Sumer, the lion is the great solar animal. Just as the light of the sun never varies, the lion exemplifies the clear light of awareness of eternity. The bull represents the lunar principle, which, waxing and waning in a constant cycle, exemplifies consciousness in the field of time. While the lion-consciousness is eternal and unchanging, the bull-consciousness, like the light of the moon, follows an eternal cycle of death and resurrection.

The bull god is closely associated with death and resurrection throughout its long career. In one of our earliest extant religious poems, the Sumerian lament “The Wild Bull Who Has Lain Down and Died,” we find the goddess Inanna, equivalent to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, both of whom are paired with a lion, lamenting the death of her husband Dumuzi, represented in this poem as a bull:

The slain wild bull
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more!

Dumuzi, the slain wild bull,
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more! (4)

As we can readily see by now, the scope of the lion-bull motif is so vast that one cannot quickly take its measure. However, by situating it within its field of transmission, and by looking at its direct points of contact with adjacent images, the symbol begins to speak for itself. It is no mere sign of death, but an image of sacrifice and release, and of the tragedy that waters the roots of the great heaven-tree. By contemplating this image, our perspective on the cosmic struggle can be elevated to a higher vantage point, in which the participants of the deadly conflict at the heart of life become participants of the cycle, integrated symbolically into a partless whole, and the scene is raised from brutal tragedy to holy mystery.

By virtue of this profound resonance, this sculpture group earned its stature as the primary image of the great temple of Athens that presided before the Parthenon was built. Its evocative power comes through directly by its force as a work of art, apart from its mythological implications. These pictures can only give a rough sense of its potency, and if you find yourself in Athens, I strongly encourage a trip to the Acropolis Museum, where it may be viewed. It is a most extraordinary museum.


(c) Bradshaw Foundation, click for more information

The lion-bull symbol is far older than Sumer, and probably came to the Fertile Crescent through the Anatolian religious culture that existed in the early millennia of agriculture in the Taurus Mountains. The ancient urban center of Çatalhöyük, for example, is crowded with bull-horn altars, and is famous for its statue of an enthroned fertility-type goddess flanked by lions.

In its earlier, matriarchal inflection, we often find the Great Goddess in this aspect, at the heart of these triadic images, instead of the World Tree. As symbols of the life-giving power of nature, the tree and the Great Mother are roughly equivalent, and they have been used as synonymous motifs in religious art for tens of thousands of years.

In the earliest-known religious sanctuary that features representational art, the Chauvet caves of France, first utilized around 30,000 BCE in the Aurignacian period of the Paleolithic, we find a substantially comparable mythological motif presented as the central figure of the Salle du Fond, the deepest and most remote chamber in the complex. If the journey into the cave represents a shamanic journey of initiation, as many experts on Paleolithic art believe (5), then this image depicts the central mystery recognized by the earliest-known symbolic religious culture.

On a great stalactite descending from the center of the cave, we find a charcoal drawing depicting the pubic triangle of a classic stone age Venus-type goddess, flanked on either side by a lion and a bison.

Notes and References

(1) Hesiod. Trans. by M. L. West. Theogony; Works and Days. Oxford University Press. 1988. p. 20.
(2) Hávamál, fr. Terry P. Poems of the Elder Edda. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1990. p. 31.
(3) The vernal equinox and summer solstice are no longer marked by these houses, of course, because the axis of the earth’s rotation itself turns in a cycle, producing a shift in the alignment of the constellations known as the precession of the equinoxes.
(4) Jacobson T. The Harps That Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. p. 47.
(5) This hypothesis is represented, for example, by Jean Clottes, lead researcher of the Chauvet Cave. See, for example: Clottes J, and Lewis-Williams D. The Shamans of Prehistory. Harry N. Abrams Publishers. 1998.

Written by Mesocosm

December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm