Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Helper

Siegfried at Regin's forge.

Joseph Campbell identifies, as a standard feature of hero legends, a guide or helper figure who appears near the outset of the hero’s quest to advise him or her.

For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.i 
In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require. The higher mythologies develop the role in the great figure of the guide, the teacher, the ferryman, the conductor of souls to the afterworld.ii

He cites Theseus’s Ariadne, Dante’s Beatrice, or Faust’s Gretchen.

This figure, says Campbell, represents “the benign, protecting power of destiny”; “all the forces of the unconscious,” “Mother Nature herself.”iii But these seem only awkward circumlocutions to avoid using the word “God.” Nature does not have a will or an intent, nor is there any “destiny,” without some divine will to make it so.

Very well; God is present in the hero quest. In the Samson legend, his birth is even announced by an angel, who designates him as a hero. In the story of Moses, Yahweh God himself is the helper figure.

Moses and the burning bush. Bouts the Elder.

But so what? Have we learned anything? After all, if God exists, everything comes from God, or if you prefer euphemisms, “destiny” or “Mother Nature.” And God is always with us, in principle; especially, proverbially, in times of trial. So why the need in these legends for a particular figure simply to assert God’s presence? It seems there must be more to it than this.

But first, is Campbell correct that a helper figure is a standard feature of these legends? Surely he is. Have we not already seen such helper figures?

Recall the aged priest St. Gerebernus who accompanies St, Dymphna when she flees her father King Damon; and the secondary, less commonly remarked, figure of the court fool.iv

We have seen as well that these two are remarkably similar to Lear’s two companions in his wanderings, the fool and Kent: the one an artist, that is, an actor, comedian, musician, and juggler; and the other apparently a religious figure, surprisingly monotheist in a pagan milieu.

There is also such a figure, easily missed, perhaps, in Hamlet; although there seems to be only one of the two: Yorick, who was a mentor to Hamlet in his youth.

“I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.” (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1)

Yorick is, yet again, a court jester. And he is a guide, surely, to Hamlet in his assumed role as feigned madman. “A whoreson mad fellow,” as one of the gravediggers describes him.

Young Hamlet with Yorick. 1868.

Interesting: three legends, three court jesters.

There seems to be no clear parallel of Father Gerebernus in Hamlet; no religious guide. The ghost of Hamlet’s father might seem to qualify; but it is unclear whether he is a helpful guide or a demon and the ultimate source of the problem. The latter seems more likely. What about Yorick, now dead and so having a solid connection with the spiritual world, serving both functions? He might because of this circumstance combine both figures. Hamlet does appeal to him for supernatural aid, as one might commend oneself to Saint Dymphna or Saint Gerebernus:
Now get you to my ladyʼs chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. (Act 5, Scene 1)

But so far this is all Shakespeare. Are there similar guides in the hero legends?

Indeed, we seem to find the same two figures in the world’s first known epic, the story of Gilgamesh. Assuming that Utnapishtim, the immortal old man who lives beyond the sea of death, is more the goal of the quest than a helper at the threshold, Gilgamesh comes upon two guides in seeking him: first Siduri, the “gentle girl who sits by the sea”; then Urshanabi, the ferryman who “rows the seas of death.”v Both give directions, help, and advice.

And Siduri is apparently an artist, just as are the court fools we find in Shakespeare. 
She crafted the first gold bowl
while peeking at the sun
through a slit across her face veil.
Urshanabi is a priestly figure, a psychopomp (guide of souls to the afterlife), the one who ferries souls across the sea of death. “He is one who plays with deadly snakes,” says Siduri. As Gerberinus serves as confessor for Dymphna, so Urshanabi scolds Gilgamesh for impiously breaking sacred columns and handling sacred stones.

We seem to find the same two in some of the Greek hero legends. Heroes are typically guided and aided by the twin figures Athena and Hermes. According to Apollodorus:

With Hermes and Athena as his guides Perseus sought out the daughters of Phorkys who told him where to find the Nymphai (Nymphs) who kept certain treasures of the gods‒winged sandals, the kibisis (a sack), and the helmet of Hades … He [Perseus] also received from Hermes a sickle made of adamant … [After his quest was complete:] Perseus gave the sandals, kibisis, and helmet back to Hermes, and the Gorgonʼs head to Athena. Hermes returned the aforementioned articles to the
Athene helps Perseus kill Medusa

When he completed his quest, according to Ovid, “he built three turf altars to three gods, the left to Mercurius [Hermes], the middle Joveʼs [Zeusʼ], the right the warrior queenʼs [Athenaʼs], and sacrificed a cow to Minerva [Athena], to the wing-foot god [Hermes] a calf and to the king of heaven [Zeus] a bull.”vii These three seem neatly to correspond to Urshanabi, Utnapishtim, and Siduri.

Athena is, like Siduri, an artist, patroness of the arts. Ovid in particular makes this plain, in describing a weaving contest between her and Arachne. The piece she weaves goes far beyond mere craft:

…. There, shades of purple, dyed in Tyrian bronze vessels, are woven into the cloth, and also lighter colours, shading off gradually. The threads that touch seem the same, but the extremes are distant, as when, often, after a rainstorm, the expanse of the sky, struck by the sunlight, is stained by a rainbow in one vast arch, in which a thousand separate colours shine, but the eye itself still cannot see the transitions. There, are inserted lasting threads of gold, and an ancient tale is spun in the web. 
Pallas Athene depicts the hill of Mars, and the court of the Aeropagus, in Cecrops’s Athens, and the old dispute between Neptune and herself, as to who had the right to the city and its name. There the twelve gods sit in great majesty, on their high thrones, with Jupiter in the middle. She weaves the gods with their familiar attributes. The image of Jupiter is a royal one. There she portrays the Ocean god, standing and striking the rough stone, with his long trident, and seawater flowing from the centre of the shattered rock, a token of his claim to the city. She gives herself a shield, a sharp pointed spear, and a helmet for her head, while the aegis protects her breast. She shows an olive-tree with pale trunk, thick with fruit, born from the earth at a blow from her spear, the gods marvelling: and Victory crowns the work. 
Then she adds four scenes of contest in the four corners, each with miniature figures, in their own clear colours, so that her rival might learn, from the examples quoted, what prize she might expect, for her outrageous daring. One corner shows Thracian Mount Rhodope and Mount Haemus, now icy peaks, once mortal beings who ascribed the names of the highest gods to themselves. A second corner shows the miserable fate of the queen of the Pygmies: how Juno, having overcome her in a contest, ordered her to become a crane and make war on her own people. Also she pictures Antigone, whom Queen Juno turned into a bird for having dared to compete with Jupiter’s great consort: neither her father Laomedon, nor her city Ilium were of any use to her, but taking wing as a white stork she applauds herself with clattering beak. The only corner left shows Cinyras, bereaved: and he is seen weeping as he clasps the stone steps of the temple that were once his daughters’ limbs. Minerva surrounded the outer edges with the olive wreaths of peace (this was the last part) and so ended her work with emblems of her own tree.viii
It is, in short, a masterpiece.

The weaving contest: Velasquez.

Hermes, in turn, is the Greek cognate to Urshanabi: Hermes Psychopompos, the figure who guides souls to the spirit world.

Both Hermes and Athena guide and help Herakles as well. In his quest for Cerberus, Hermes leads Herakles to the underworld. Athena guides him back. The Temple of Zeus at Olympia featured twelve metopes showing the twelve labours of Herakles. Athena is shown in four of them. She gave Herakles the noisemakers with which he startled the Stymphalian birds. She helped him support the sky when he sought the apples of the Hesperides. She intervened to end his killing spree during his madness.ix Both perform similar services for Odysseus.

Athena is divine patron of the arts, of military valour, and of wisdom. These fields do not obviously intersect. But interestingly, they are three fields Aristotle cited as typically populated by the melancholy: artists, heroes, and philosophers.x This may reveal Athena’s true interests and her true character.

In the Völsunga Saga, Siegfried/Sigurd again has two helpers and guides in overcoming the dragon Fafnir. The first is Regin, a smith, who “had all wisdom and deftness of hand. … he has the ability to work iron as well as silver and gold and he makes many beautiful and useful things”xi—an artist. Regin crafts Siegfried’s invincible sword, then gives him vital advice on how to proceed. The second helper is the god Odin, who appears as an old man to amend and complete Fafnir’s advice. Odin is cognate to the Greek Hermes. 

Then said Regin, “Make thee a hole, and sit down therein, and whenas the worm comes to the water, smite him into the heart, and so do him to death, and win thee great fame thereby.”
But Sigurd said, “What will betide me if I be before the blood of the worm?” 
Says Regin, “Of what avail to counsel thee if thou art still afeard of everything? Little art thou like thy kin in stoutness of heart.”
Then Sigurd rides right over the heath; but Regin gets him gone, sore afeard. 
But Sigurd fell to digging him a pit, and whiles he was at that work, there came to him an old man with a long beard [Odin], and asked what he wrought there, and he told him. 
Then answered the old man and said, “Thou doest after sorry counsel: rather dig thee many pits, and let the blood run therein; but sit thee down in one thereof, and so thrust the worm’s heart through.”xii

Siegfried is able to kill Fafnir, following this advice.

Siegfried kills Fafnir.

The artist figure gives his advice first, then retreats. The psychopomp figure next appears, with more complete knowledge. Just as with Siduri and Urshanabi.

This may be another reason why the Fool mysteriously disappears before the end of King Lear. His artistic vision only goes so far: it is Kent, the religious figure, who treads the complete path.

In Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Launcelot’s grail quest begin when he is unjustly accused of infidelity by his wife Guinevere. The trauma drives him instantly insane. Again here, we see the common pre-modern understanding that madness comes from trauma, and specifically from an experience of emotional betrayal.

She [Guinevere] said: False traitor knight that thou art, look thou never abide in my court, and avoid my chamber, and not so hardy, thou false traitor knight that thou art, that ever thou come in my sight. Alas, said Sir Launcelot; and therewith he took such an heartly sorrow at her words that he fell down to the floor in a swoon. And therewithal Queen Guenever departed. And when Sir Launcelot awoke of his swoon, he leapt out at a bay window into a garden, and there with thorns he was all to-scratched in his visage and his body; and so he ran forth he wist not whither, and was wild wood as ever was man; and so her an two year, and never man might have grace to know him.xiii
Now turn we unto Queen Guenever and to the fair Lady Elaine, that when Dame Elaine heard the queen so to rebuke Sir Launcelot, and also she saw how he swooned, and how he leaped out at a bay window, then she said unto Queen Guenever: Madam, ye are greatly to blame for Sir Launcelot, for now have ye lost him, for I saw and heard by his countenance that he is mad for ever. … Alas, madam, ye do great sin, and to yourself great dishonour, for yehave a lord of your own, and therefore it is your part to love him.xiv

After two years of wandering, Sir Launcelot, still mad, happens upon a tree in which are hanging two swords and two shields. “Upon a tree, there hung a white shield, and two swords hung thereby, and two spears leaned there by a tree.”

What can it mean?

Launcelot takes one of the swords, and with it strikes one of the shields, making a loud noise. A dwarf appears and wrestles him for the sword. Then a knight all in red appears, and fights him for it.

Once Launcelot falls, however, they prove themselves helpers, not enemies. The dwarf says to the knight, 
Sir, …, it is not worship to hurt him, for he is a man out of his wit; and doubt ye not he hath been a man of great worship, and for some heartly sorrow that he hath taken, he is fallen mad; and me beseemeth, said the dwarf, he resembleth much unto Sir Launcelot.
The knight responds:
…Whatsomever he be, said that knight, harm will I none do him.xv
So they put him on a litter, take him to the knight’s castle, and nurse him back to health. He slowly recovers, and eventually rises to do battle with a great boar. The boar can no doubt be taken as a guardian figure; the hero quest has begun. Here as elsewhere, the hero quest is presented as the proper and healthful response to the experience of mental illness generally. Launcelot goes on from this to eventually find the grail.

So, have we met our two helper figures? Two swords, two shields, two helper figures, the dwarf and the red knight?

Not so fast. Launcelot, after all, struck only one of the shields with only one of the swords; he was, then, summoning only one of the helpers. There is an implication here of more to come. And more comes. In vanquishing the boar, he receives terrible wounds, and again passes out. He is found by a holy hermit, who again nurses him back to health.

And here, surely, we have our Gerberinus, our religious figure.

This suggests that the red knight and the dwarf, who respond to the first shield, are collectively the artist figure, aka the court jester. Not an obvious connection to make, perhaps; but dwarves were often employed as court jesters. Once healed by the hermit, Launcelot stumbles into a city and is adopted, being still somewhat mad, as a court jester by the local king. As the sign of his office, he is invested with a red cloak.
And then Sir Castor sent for the fool–that was Sir Launcelot. And when he was come afore Sir Castor, he gave Sir Launcelot a robe of scarlet and all that longed unto him.

This seems to retroactively identify the red knight—as a court jester.

Athena helps Herakles

Here too, as elsewhere, the artist appears first, the dwarf and red knight, then the psychopomp, the hermit, takes over.

For Jason and the Argonauts, there is an obvious helper figure in Phineus; a prophet, someone with spiritual second sight: “Phineus who above all men endured most bitter woes because of the gift of prophecy which Letoʼs son had granted him aforetime.”xvi Phineas gives the Argonauts detailed directions to Colchis and the Golden Fleece, outlining the dangers they will face on the way, and how to overcome them. He is their guide, then, for the entire trip.

There is nothing here to clearly identify Phineas as an artistic type; except that he is not on good terms with the gods, having revealed too many of their secrets to mankind. That sounds more like the rebellious artist than the priest. Like Siduri, the primordial artist in the Gilgamesh tale, he lives on the shore of the sea; he does not cross over. He does not go with the Argonauts on their journey, but describes their destination from afar. He paints the picture, as it were.

And there is here a second guide and helper: Medea. She is, explicitly, a priestess, a priestess of Hecate. Her advice and help is vital once Jason has reached the far side of that great sea, the other side.

Tiresias: Fuseli

If we then consider Oedipus Rex, we find a figure very similar to Phineas there, an old man with second sight, who guides Oedipus on his quest—in this case, unhappily. It is Tiresias, the all-purpose prophet of Greek legend. Also like Phineus, he is blind—blind, that is, to the physical world, the better to see without distraction the invisible spiritual world.

And in the Oedipus cycle, again, there is a second helper figure: Antigone. She is not formally a priestess, but, like Kent, she is conspicuous for her religious sentiments. When her brother Polynices dies, she violates the law to mourn for him, arguing that the divine law supercedes human law. “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living,” she explains to her sister. “In that world I shall abide for ever.”xvii To her, it seems, the spirit world is the real world. She ministers to her brother, and then also to her father, Oedipus.

So why are these helper figures here? Because, surely, they indicate the two reliable aids and supports for the abused and the depressed: the two great spiritual disciplines, the two great guides for the perplexed: religion and art. Modern psychiatry and psychology are not included, of course. They did not yet exist. Should they be? Have they offered anything better?

The Gilgamesh epic calls Siduri, the archetypal artist, “The girl who gives men lifesaving drinks”; “whose drinks refresh the soul.”xviii That, surely, aptly describes the proper effect of art. She warns Gilgamesh that, in undertaking the hero quest, he is “staring at the sun.” An interesting image; particularly since the epic has at this point just described Siduri, the artist, as one who has “peeked at the sun” in order to fashion her golden bowls. Artists, then, are those who have seen the transcendent, and reflect or reveal it in their work. They live on the shore of the eternal sea; and so are authorities for those of us who undertake hero quests. Every work of art is a glimpse of eternity.

Ushanabi, the religious figure, on the other hand, has actually himself crossed over to the other side of that sea. In principle, he is the greater and the later guide.

Here we plainly have suggestions for the treatment of depression.

iCampbell, op. cit., p. 69.

ii Ibid., p. 72.


ivone account that includes the court jester is given at

vEpic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 10, Kenneth Sublett, trans.

viApollodorus, Library, 2. 37 & 46, Aldrich, trans.

viiOvid, Metamorphoses Book 4, ll. 740 ff Melville, trans.

viiiIbid., Book 4, ll. 70-102 Kline trans.


x“Through what is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts turn out to be melancholics (μελαγχολικοι)?” “Many other heroes seem to have been similarly afflicted, and among men of recent times Empedocles, Plato, and Socrates, and numerous other well-known men, and also most of the poets.” Problem XXX.

xiVölsunga Saga, Chapter 14, William Morris trans.

xiiVölsunga Saga, Chapter 18.

xiiiMalory, Morte d’Arthur, Book 11, Ch. 8.

xivIbid., Ch. 9.


xviApollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2. 179 - 434 RC Seaton trans.

xviiSophocles, Antigone.

xviiiEpic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 10.

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