Iron Age Hero Traits

Along with the rise of the hill forts circa 1000 BCE, and the emphasis on items both as weapons and ornamentation, the stratification of society, into chieftains or kings surrounded by nobles and warriors supported by priests or druids interceding for farmers, craft-workers and slaves, was firmly established. This hierarchy inevitably involved the notion of the hero or champion and was marked by a leader able to distribute gifts and largesse while, at the same time, host feasts and celebrations where warriors would vie with each other for the favour of their liege. Such restrained power necessitated the rise of the heroic warrior, the hero, to stand alone and unbeaten. No doubt the flowering of literature of the twelfth century French Romance and Mallory’s later Arthurian romances must all have stemmed from the Iron Age concept.

Not everyone would – or could – be a hero. While all young boys played fierce physical games with wooden sticks – a proto Hurley? – before weapons could be handled, a hero was always set apart. Never having recognised parents and a mysterious background, Arthur is fostered at an early age just as Oedipus is brought up in ignorance of his parents and Lancelot of Arthurian legend is raised by the shadowy Lady of the Lake while Cú Chulainn’s birth is similarly shrouded in mystery.

Not obvious parentage means the hero has no name and must acquire one through his own actions – Sétanta kills the forge hound and becomes Cú Chulainn, while later Celtic heroes, Finn and the Welsh, Gwion, gain their later names of brilliance and light. The significance of having no family means a concomitant feeling of standing alone – the hero can expect no aid in his quest for glory but at the same time no limits are placed on his ambitions for his name to live on, forever, on the lips of men.

Never accepted in his own country, the Iron Age hero must leave his comfort zone, undergoing training at the hands of learned druids or experienced warriors. Tests of physical prowess, – ability to jump or vault over a stick their own height, run barefoot through a forest without breaking a twig underfoot, defend against 9 men throwing spears, remove a thorn from his foot while running – must be passed, but the hero must also be erudite and knowledgeable about poetry. Strangers approaching the territory of a chieftain had to undergo single combat or compose a poem on the spot.

Cú Chulainn trained under the tutelage of the warrior woman, Scáthach, who presented the fearsome gae bolga to the hero, along with a warning of its consequent use. Beowulf sought out sea monsters before going on to defeating Grendel and its mother, Arthur trained under the venerable Sir Ector de Maris, all to achieve the fame they sought. Beowulf leaves for the court of Denmark; Tristan of Arthurian legend travels to Ireland from his native Cornwall.

Nowhere in the manuscripts is it ever suggested that Cú Chulainn is not from the kingdom of the Ulaidh (modern day Ulster in Northern Ireland) nevertheless, when all the fighting age men of the area are stricken with an ancient curse, Cú Chulainn alone is exempt. Like all his fellow outsiders, having no ties to hamper his actions, the hero inevitably becomes a force for disruption, change and catastrophe.

Heroes must claim their weapons forcibly or obtain them from supernatural forces – Lancelot receives his sword from the Lady of the lake, Beowulf discovers a sword in the lair beneath the lake, and Cú Chulainn smashes King Conor’s armoury before the king himself presented the nascent hero with his very own weapons while the youthful Arthur plucks the sword from the stone.cropped-img_0328_edited1.jpg

A tipping point occurs in all the lives of the heroes when the focus on honour and glory supersedes the needs or bonds of their society. Achilles rejects his mother’s help and chooses to die before the walls of Troy. Cú Chulainn hears the druid’s prophecy of bloody and glory but still chooses to seek the latter. This tipping point influences the remaining portion of the heroes’ life. Every further irrevocable action with the umbrella-like spear, the gae bolga, that Cú Chulainn accepts from the hands of Scáthach maintains or furthers the glorification of his name. Chulainn, in his killing fury, is just as prepared to slaughter his enemies as his compatriots once his battle fury descends upon him.

Mortal enemies of the heroes often involve demonic or supernatural forces as human weapons have little effect upon them, Achilles is dipped in the pool of immortality, Arthur is protected by the power of Excalibur and Cú Chulainn is unassailable when he is in his battle fury. The inevitable downfall of the hero is, therefore, always linked with the breaking of a vow or the forsaking of an oath. Arthur is killed at the hands of his illegitimate son, Cú Chulainn dies alone after breaking the taboos that ruled his life, Beowulf meets his demise by neglecting his role of kingship and acting as if he were still the hero.





What Makes an Epic Hero?

In the chieftain / king / warrior society I mention in a previous posting, the hero is both constrained by the bonds of kinship and loyalty on which their society depends, while also standing outside and prepared to break such ties resulting in both internal and external strife as well as their own, inevitable, death.

Traditionally, the hero is presented as an outsider à la Colin Wilson and Albert Camus. With only partially acknowledged parental connections, the youthful hero is brought up as a stranger in a strange land, raised by foster parents, as is the case of King Arthur, raised by Sir Ector de Maris as his foster son. So too is Cú Chulainn, the product of a semi divine birth and raised at the court of Conor mac Nessa at Eamhain Macha. Oedipus too followed a similar path, unaware of his parents, with later fatal consequences. Beowulf too wandered far from his birthplace seeking both fame and recognition.

Contingent with this, the hero, not having a direct family connection, has no fixed name, often drawing their later name from their actions or their physicality. Born as Sétanta, the hero is later given the name Cú Chulainn on his slaughter of the wolfhound owned by the smith Culann.

Having no family essentially means that the hero must stand alone and be prepared to defend himself in a endless series of battles and combats. These must be undertaken in an effort to safeguard his reputation which is the only thing of value the hero possesses. Similarly, these battles and combats usually take place far away from where the hero was conceived, as is the case for Beowulf in his struggle against Grendel the monster and its mother. So do with Cú Chulainn who must travel to Alba (Scotland) from his native Ériu (Ireland) while Ulysses must travel the Aegean before he can return to claim his kingship in Greece.

Having no ties to the locality of their strife, the hero is not bound then by the bonds of the foreign society and is always an agent provocateur or an instrument of change.

Traditionally, in the chieftain / warrior society, weapons would be handed down from father to son but given that the hero comes from relative obscurity, there are no inherited weapons. Instead the hero takes them, as Arthur does with the sword from the stone and Cú Chulainn demands from his liege lord, Conor before accepting the infamous barbed spear, the gae bolga, from the warrior chieftainess, Scáthach. So too does Beowulf find his lethal weapon in the lair under the lake where the monsters live.

Once the hero has his name and his weapons comes the irrevocable – and voluntary – act which cuts the hero further adrift from the society in which he exists. This occurs when Cú Chulainn, hearing the prophecy that taking up arms on a certain day will lead to an early death but everlasting fame, chooses death. This voluntary separation from society is further compounded by the killing of his very own son, Conlaochand his beloved foster brother, Ferdia, both with the fearful gae bolga.  So too when Beowulf, having assumed the mantle of the king with its implicit responsibilities of safeguarding the people he leads, voluntarily chooses to go up alone against the dragon, despite the pleas of younger and more able warriors to defend their lands.  Arthur also separates himself from society by virtue of his incestuous relationship with his sister which later leads to both his own death and the destruction of the Round Table.

By choosing their own values over those of their society, the hero distances himself even further from his contemporise. Sétanta, aka Cú Chulainn, is an extreme example of this extreme isolation. When the other fighting men of the Ulaidh are laid low by an ancient curse, he alone is exempt from the crippling and debilitating effects of the curse although no reason for his immunity is ever provided.

A further theme common to all epic heroes is that the enemies they face invariably involve supernatural and alien forces while, at the same time the heroes appear invulnerable to human foes and their weapons.

Beowulf dispenses with weapons in his first encounter with the monster, tearing its very arm from its socket while Arthur is protected from mortal weapons by the magical properties of the sheath for Excalibur. Cú Chulainn assumes such a fearsome figure in his battle wrath that no enemies or weapons can touch him. Achilles, of course, is fully protected (with the exception of his heel) by the waters of the river Styx into which he is dunked. This invulnerability reinforces the idea that the enemies the heroes face are not of this world but represent the struggle of the individual, or outsider, to withstand the norms of conventional society.

Finally, the doom of the hero is inevitably brought about by their enforced breaking of those very bonds and taboos which hold the society in place. Cú Chulainn, having rejected the help of the Morrígna, the triple goddesses of war, is assailed by them and fearful of losing his reputation, breaks his totem of the hound by accepting roasted dog meat offered by the goddesses in the guise of old women. Arthur is killed by Mordred, the product of his incestuous relationship. Oedipus blinds himself and wanders in dark madness on discovering the secrets of his birth.

Rather than seeing the above as the inevitable triumph of malign fate over individual choice, the role of the outsider forces society to adjust to changes and reconsider its bonds in a world forever changed by the deeds of its heroes.

Influenced by Robert Thomas’s article, Myth, Legend and the Individual, published 1990 by the Libertarian Alliance. ISBN 0267-7113