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What Makes a Hero a HERO?
Both in the ancient world... and today?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
“I’m team Medea” I said offhandedly to a shocked crowd. Professor James Romm had just finished up a speech on “Anger and Madness: Seneca’s goals in On Anger and Medea” for our recent event for... and I was professing my dedication to the ancient Colchis princess while visiting her ancestral lands.
After all, she was smart - very smart - and the mythological hero Jason would not have been able to accomplish the tasks set upon him to win the Golden fleece without her.
Niece of the Sorceress Circe, Medea has quite the impressive resume when it comes to saving the day. Not only did she give Jason the essential potions and oils to win the initial tasks (as well as the clever trick on how to handle the soldiers from dragon teeth by throwing rocks), she is also credited with the following:
Curing the famed mythological Heroine Atalanta when she was seriously wounded
Killing the bronze robot Talos that guarded Crete
Ending a famine in Corinth
And declining Zeus’ advances (not an easy task to be sure)…
Now, of course her scorecard is... complicated. She may (or may not) have killed her brother in order to escape her father... and she is reported to have poisoned quite a few inconvenient kings and such along the way.
The issue with her children is what has earned her such a vicious reputation... It was Euripides who made her the woman scorned though, twisting the original story of the Corinthians killing her progeny by making Medea do it herself. In some versions, she only accidentally kills them in her attempts to make them immortal.
All is to say, that even in the Classics crowd, saying you are Pro-Medea draws a gasp and a raised eyebrow... but why would that be? She saved the day innumerable times with her abilities... and yet, she became the witch and Jason - who abandoned her and did plenty of scummy stuff himself - became the Hero.
Now, I don’t want to get into too many details on the merits and murders specific to Jason and Medea. There are so many variations on the myths that finding a satisfactory conclusion to either is a maddeningly impossible endeavor.
The bigger question is the one that underpins it all:
What makes a Hero a HERO? Both in the ancient world... and today?
As always, you can let me know your two cents in the comment section below, or by writing to me directly at email@example.com or responding to this email.
Now, onto today’s replies, Have we lost Ritual in our lives? Some incredibly insightful comments below... do they seem a bit Epicurean to you?
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom Kids
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Oh yes……sadly, we have indeed lost rituals in our lives. There is a pacing and timing that rituals give to life. A lot of ritual used to be found in religion, but even there so many have overturned the use of ritual. All those wonderful feast days are no longer celebrated, much less mentioned.
Now that we seem to view nature more technically and scientifically we no longer go through the rituals of determining the planting and harvesting seasons with rituals that tied together families and communities. Rituals are ways of building community and relationships.
Nowadays, we look at our phones to tell us the day and ask our devices how many days till Valentines or Christmas or whatever. When with rituals we had an inner sense of the time, a passage by the observance of large and small rituals year round. We still observe the seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer, but we no longer observe the seasons that were celebrated and kept time to our lives by ritual. I wish we could say it makes us sadder, but wiser. But the truth is, it just makes us sadder.
I would like to add a note on our fall rituals. Some people still make a point of going on nature hikes or bus tours to view the fall color. (Often described as "leaf-peepers" although that sounds horribly dismissive to my ears, ouch.)
But the rise of adult participation in Halloween parties and decorations makes me think that Halloween has replaced autumn hikes as the ritual of choice for fall. At least it is easy to plan for, since it falls on the same day of the year, lol.
Yours, Laura "Snows"
An avid reader and admirer of Classical Wisdom. Really appreciate the effort you put on the substack/website and I am constantly learning.
Now to answer your questions:
I think the West in its broad terms have lost rituals in the spiritual sense, but it remains a big part of the societies outside of the 'heavily secularized’ world. This is maybe by design or as a byproduct of our attempts to make sure that religion/spirituality are confined within the individual life, and Western civilization kind of succeeded at substituting ‘ritual’ with the word ‘routine’. We say ‘my morning routine’ now.
The way we bring it back is by recognizing the spiritual/communal aspects of rituals and the intention behind them. Our weekly family gathering may be a routine meeting, but if we elevate its goals within ourselves, we can turn it into a ritual...
And this is the main distinction for me between routine and ritual. The intention. Life becomes a lot more expansive if we think of our routine actions as rituals that enrich us, even that morning coffee, fill your cup with meaning, and let it enrich you. :)
Should we bring them back? As someone who took a long time to go from practicing rituals routinely to being a lot more intentional about them, rituals are an essential part of my life, and I can definitely not live without them. BRING THEM BACK!
Right now I’m doing my Friday morning ritual: Listening to Spotify’s ’New Releases’ playlist, before going to Friday prayer (being a Muslim), and having the whole family gather for lunch.
Thanks once again,
Sometimes I think ritual still plays a great role in our lives, only it doesn't have the level of religiosity of olden times.
The online world has replaced the oracle. We go online when we seek advice or authorization. The screen is our portal. Instead of going to a shrine, we go to a screen. We could even look at our personal data being harvested by the search applications we use as a form of sacrificial offering.
Day-to-day life today involves invoking menus on screens and engaging in ritualized dialogs with them that allow us to progress to other screens, always eventually reaching toward a goal. We ask machines for permissions as we use them to approach the source.
So dependent are we on the screen that we are disoriented and anxious whenever our access is taken away, even when it does not affect our immediate physical surroundings and well-being. Our sense of self is being affected. Search has replaced those parts of our conscious thought that perceive and evaluate things. What is replacing them? If we can just look something up, why bother to remember anything? Why reflect on anything?
We are also turning inward insofar as most of our ritual activity with the screen is not shared with others. But even with this inward turning, we are becoming very shallow.
The rituals of today are affecting us and we are becoming a different people from what we once were.
Stephen R. M.
May first there was a May pole (in the 1960's it was eliminated. Too Commie). God bless those old Catholics.
What made it memorable? A school mate took me into the swirl of ribbons and showed me how to intertwine the ribbons in the dance. She was maybe two years older than me.
I was born, when Truman was POTUS, into a Masonic family. Organizations like the Masons, Eastern Star, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Shriners, Scottish Rite, etc. were everywhere. So were Knights of Columbus, Rainbow Girls, Elks, Moose, various vets groups and of course, scouting. All such groups were loaded with rituals.
Besides the opprobrium foisted on all of these organizations over time, so too were destroyed their histories, purpose and good works in forming solid individuals and caring communities.
Before such cultural treasures can be replaced or replicated in some form, people need to learn the role they played and their importance when times were challenging.
As George Will once wrote, “the damp hand of melancholy we feel is the grinning ghost of lost community.”
I hate that feeling.
During a period of intense personal crisis about 12 years ago, I first read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, then the sayings of the Desert Fathers (Christian ascetics from the 4th to 6th centuries) and finally Flannery O'Connor's short stories; these three together convinced me of the importance of ritual within community and I became Catholic. This decision has brought about an abiding happiness and deep meaning to my life, without which I know I would have been dead by this point. I suppose it’s possible I could have found this feeling within other communities but ritual seems to have the effect of making the sacred much easier to grasp. I don’t understand the conscious choice to live without ritual as it makes much of our lives easier on so many levels and has been around from the beginning of our species.
The basis of civilization is the dinner table; when we lose this ritual, we lose civilization and this we are losing. Whether it is the ritual roast beef on Sunday, pasta during the week, or an afternoon tea, as long as people get together and chat on any subject and find joy in companionship, then one will find harmony and we will see more smiles rather than frowns and wrinkled-up faces. Rituals are disappearing in this world resulting in great loneliness and a loss of the human spirit in that ritual has a soul. Rituals explain things that language cannot quite explain, such as the ritual of mourning. When someone close to you dies, we really cannot understand it, no matter what kind of comfort we get from language, but ritual with others can carry one through a dark period. We are becoming very solipsistic, people depending more on digitality rather than presence. We are also becoming very autistic in that people are unable to communicate with others. One can see this on the different Zoom meetings in which people do not show their faces but rather hide behind a dark screen; yes, meetings are also ritualistic dealing with discourse—that is communication with the Other, a reflection of our own self. Many just remain in darkness.
No one person can bring back ritual but rather the many, and yes, we need it. Ritual disappears often with the delusional focus on ego or self rather than soul or community. We could start, though, by taking afternoon tea with others or having a special bottle of wine with something cooked from the heart, and what is a special body of wine? One consumed by those with whom you are dining at the dinner table. But do pair the wine well with preparation. Yes, ritual takes preparation and preparation takes focus as well as patience. If having dinner out or at home, do not look at the cell phone at all and then we have the beginning of bringing back ritual.
Herman, H San Francisco
[Anya’s Note: I read this very thoughtful article on death and finding ritual, which you might find interesting.]
Thank you for the email about ritual, and your thought provoking questions.
I think ritual can provide a sense of connection to something, be grounding, feel supportive and give a sense of structure and order, especially in a world that can feel chaotic. Like your example of rituals around grief. They can help move through that grief and support a sense of meaning at a time of sorrow. The familiarity of ritual can be comforting.
But as you say, some can be horrible, and harmful emotionally, psychologically or physically. It's when ritual becomes viewed as compulsory, a tradition which you ‘have’ to follow along with, without consideration of how that's affecting someone, that it becomes problematic. If that ritual isn’t providing anything constructive or positive in someone's life and just makes them feel obliged to do it, or a terrible person if they don’t, then I don't think we need it.
Take something like the 'ritual' of the hen party. Doesn’t matter what you think about them, they are a kind of ritual. They can be enjoyable for some, but for many brides to be they’ve become something that they feel obliged to do, but it can cause enormous amounts of stress, financially and otherwise (more so nowadays I think as in some places they've become this multi-day event that requires trips and activities that can be quite expensive), and I’ve heard stories of women actually dreading them, and not wanting one, but feeling they have to, it's the done thing and everyone expects it.
I think part of the problem may be in losing the essence or understanding in a very conscious way of what exactly the ritual is supposed to provide. How does it benefit someone, what can they gain from it that's supportive or helpful? If there's a questioning of that, then we can make better decisions of whether or not that ritual is appropriate. But often, ritual can just be followed without a truly conscious analysis of why it might be important, or not.
So I think there are positives to ritual, but it can descend into mandatory tradition, imposing it in an unhelpful way. So I’m a bit torn really, and am inclined to say we might be better off without them.
Excellent post. I highly recommend the book "Ritual" by Dimitris Xygalatas, related to your post.
Xygalatas shows that rituals are essentially pointless in that they do not have any impact on the physical world. However, there are undeniable effects for those who participate, and they are usually beneficial in providing social cohesion and individual purpose.
“Ceremony is a primordial part of human nature, one that helps us connect, find meaning and discover who we are,” writes Xygalatas. “It is only when we embrace our obsession with ritual that we will be able to harness its full potential in our lives.”
And a few points about the TV shows mentioned...
You have pointed out exactly the strength of HBO’s Rome, the reconstruction of the atmosphere of the time. It fails in other points, however. Cicero, e.g., is badly denigrated, as usual in our anti-conservative times. But judge for yourself ...
... and I, Claudius is a marvel of a mini series. The apolitical, unworldly scholar Claudius who finally has to accept a throne he did not want... and reigns with great success. If only the politicians of our days were like Claudius!
I, Claudius -- 45-some-odd years ago. Wow! Wait until you see Sejanus ...Picard will never be the same. And Sean Phillips ...delightful; enjoy her even more in Goodbye Mr Chips. You've chosen well.
If you haven’t subscribed already, make sure to do so before our next Podcast with Professors… coming out on Wednesday. We’ll delve into Plato’s Office and Law.