The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 2 of 9

The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 2 of 9


Menelaus – Mitra (The Lawful Sovereign)

Just as Mitra and Varuna form a divine pair who alternate as sovereigns, so Menelaus is Agamemnon's younger brother, both kings in their own right. Agamemnon is older than Menelaus, as Varuna is the older First King, and Mitra the younger Second King. Although Varuna represents a more “youthful,” creative and violent power, while Mitra represents a power more august and peaceful (Mitra and Yudhisthira sometimes portrayed with a character reminiscent of a placid and wise old Brahmin), in the epic tradition it is still always the Varuna hero who is older while the Mitra type is younger. Varuna's position as the First King and Mitra's as Second King outweigh the youthfulness or agedness reflected in their personalities. Like his Vedic counterpart Yudhishthira, Menelaus too is a king, but he is known to be more peaceable than his brother. We find that “Menelaus was a man of an athletic figure; he spoke little, but what he said was always impressive [cf. Rig Veda 3.LIX.1: “Mitra speaking stirs men”]; he was brave and courageous, but milder than Agamemnon, intelligent and hospitable.” (Smith, A Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology, and Geography). Yudhishthira becomes King succeeding Pandu, but his more restrained character is shown in the fact that he does not kill many prominent warriors, until he is called on to avenge Draupadi at the end of the war. Menelaus killed only 8 named men in the war, and Yudhishthira killed even fewer. As the ideal Brahmin and embodiment of dharma, Yudhishthira does not desire revenge but undertakes it as a matter of duty in the key moment. He is able to use his special ability of staying calm and unprovoked to confront the Kaurava general Shalya. In the climactic moment of the war he throws his spear, blessed by Shiva, into Shalya. The spear kills him, triggering a full retreat that effectively ends the war.

Despite Menelaus' restrained character, he is still a skilled warrior, and he features in the scene which parallels that of the death of Shalya: the throwing of the spear in an attempt to end the war. Menelaus seeks out Paris to take his revenge for the theft of his wife and in order to end the war, and so Hector suggests that Paris should fight him in single combat so that the war can be finished. When they face off, Menelaus throws his spear at Paris. It goes through his shield, but Paris is rescued by Aphrodite before he can be killed. Triangulating this scene further are the Celtic cases: Lugh, who (usually) takes the Mitra role in the Irish epic, comes in late to the action just in time to throw his spear (or sling-stone) into Balor's eye, effectively ending the war. His Welsh counterpart, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, even more identical to Menelaus in several ways, seeks revenge on his wife Blodeuwedd's lover Gronw Pebr. Lleu throws his spear at Gronw and it goes through the stone slab that he hides behind, just as Menelaus' spear had gone through Paris' shield, however in this case Gronw is killed rather than rescued. Crucially, the Vedic Yudhishthira is known as one so skilled with a spear that he can throw it through solid stone as if it was paper, exactly as Lleu actually does. When he kills Shalya, he too is first pierced in the chest by a spear and then Bhima, instead of him, destroys the shield of Shalya, before Yudhishthira pierces Shalya in return with the spear blessed by Shiva. It is said that Shalya “pierced the heroic Yudhishthira of terrible might in the chest with shaft possessed of the splendour of fire or the sun. Deeply pierced, O king, that bull of Kuru's race.” And of Bhima: “the illustrious Bhima cut off with ten arrows the unrivaled shield of the advancing hero” (The Mahabharata, Book 9: Shalya Parva: Section 17). Menelaus does complete the circuit as well – in the end he kills Helen's second foreign husband Deiphobus after the death of Paris.

In the Iliad, Aphrodite and Helen are somewhat shadows of each other (though one is a Love goddess and one theoretically a Dawn goddess). Aphrodite is the one who helps set off the war by conspiring to help Paris steal Helen, and it is Aphrodite who is there at the spear throwing face-off to save Paris. The two goddesses are somehow combined into one in the Welsh figure Blodeuwedd – both adulterous lover stolen from the Lawful Sovereign, and conspiring, deceiving goddess of Love in one. Irish Lugh also has a wife who cheats on him. Her lover is Cermait, who Lugh kills in revenge. This suggests that the theme was quite well-established and firmly attached to the Lawful Sovereign.

While Menelaus at first desires to kill Helen for her betrayal, the softening of his heart and the mercy he ultimately shows her further demonstrate that he possesses the qualities of the merciful Lawful Sovereign, in meaningful contrast to Agamemnon. Similarly, Yudhishthira attempts more than once to negotiate peace and avoid war. Menelaus does as well, saying at the duel with Paris, “I propose that the Greeks and Trojans part in peace” (Iliad, Book 3, line 99). Additionally, the Vedic Mitra was the god who was seen as uniquely in possession of the ability to marshal the people (“yātayati” - to join, to unite, to cause to fight, to cause to be returned, to requite, to reward or punish, from “yāt” - to keep peace, to marshal, to animate, to impel men to exertion (Sanskrit Dictionary)), the only god with this trait, (MacDonell, Arthur Anthony. A Vedic Reader. pp. 78–83, 118–119, 134.), just as Menelaus marshals the people by the Oath of Tyndareus in order to pursue his cause of war.

As Yudhishthira is the only Pandava to finish the Himalaya pilgrimage and attain Paradise in the end of the epic, so Menelaus is one of only two of the Greek heroes who were thought to attain divinization (the other being Diomedes, discussed later). It had even been Athena's plan that Menelaus would not die in the war, which she ensures when she directs Pandarus' arrow away from his vitals. According to the Odyssey, it was prophesied that the gods would take Menelaus and Helen to Elysium after a happy life together. Additionally, Yudhishthira and Lugh are both said to be held back for a long time by their own generals in order to protect them. Yudhishthira, being the king, had become the target of the Kaurava forces, who wished to cut the head off their foes' army. Lugh's men fear this very same thing, and so he stays out of the fight until the climactic spear throwing moment.

Just as Yudhishthira is the one who loses the dice game resulting in him losing the wife and the kingdom, which leads to the war, so it is Menelaus who loses his wife which leads to the war. And again there is a larger circuit of correspondences here: Dumezil argues that the Germanic myth of the death of Baldr depicts this same dice game scene in a different permutation (Gods of the Ancient Northmen), and again it leads ultimately to the events of war (here Ragnarok). If so, then the Welsh version seems to miraculously tie the Germanic and Greek versions together. Just before the spear throwing scene in which Lleu kills Gronw, as mentioned we have the adultery of Blodeuwedd with Gronw. This leads to a scene astonishingly similar to the death of Baldr (the substitution of Baldr for Lleu is explained by the fact that Baldr's analog Aryaman is a god who develops out of Mitra as his cup bearer and remains closely tied to him, an extension of his divine power or aspect of him). Lleu is under a magical tynged, a protection from being killed, so that Blodeuwedd, conspiring with Gronw, decides she must ask him just how his death could ever be accomplished. Lleu guilelessly explains to her that he “can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat and with a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass” (Mabinogion, Math fab Mathonwy). Like Baldr, he is invincible until the malicious one finds out his sole vulnerability. Blodeuwedd passes this information on to Gronw and directs him how to accomplish the murder, which he attempts with a thrown spear. This does not set off a war exactly, but Lleu does in fact marshal all of his kingdom's forces to pursue Gronw. This may be because the Welsh Lleu and his story seem to be extracted and separated from the events of the main war of Welsh myth, and then compressed down to a shorter series of events, unlike in the other branches, including the Irish, where this scene is more integrated into the war myth. And yet the Welsh version proves the key to uniting all these branches together and glimpsing the essence of the Lawful Sovereign's story.

Lleu Llaw Gyffes' myth is so identical in every part to the story of Menelaus that it begins to seem like it may have been a direct borrowing by the Welsh from the Iliad (though the problem of there being no Iliad translations in the common languages of Northwestern Europe until after the writing down of the tales that became the Mabinogion at the very least detracts from this possibility. The Latin prose versions which are known to have existed during the medieval period, Dictys and Dares, either leave out the spear duel scene entirely, or leave out a multitude of other important details such as Menelaus' spear going through Paris' shield). Gronw “The Radiant” comes to Lleu's kingdom while Lleu is visiting his maternal grandfather Math fab Mathonwy; Paris of astonishing beauty comes to Menelaus' kingdom while Menelaus is about to leave for the funeral of his maternal grandfather Catreus. Gronw is there on a hunting expedition; Paris is there on a pretended diplomatic expedition. The goddess Blodeuwedd commits adultery and conspires with Gronw; Paris conspires with the goddess Aphrodite in order to adulterously steal Helen (Blodeuwedd combining both female figures in one). Lleu marshals all of his kingdom to pursue Gronw and Blodeuwedd (“Then they called together the whole of Gwynedd, and set forth to Ardudwy” (Mabinogion, Math fab Mathonwy)); Menelaus marshals all of the allied kingdoms to pursue Paris and Helen. Lleu is under a magical protection against death (a “tynged,” which is a kind of spoken fate pronounced over him); Menelaus is under a prophecy that the gods won't allow him to die yet and will take him to Elysium at the end of his life, which Athena ensures, as well as a truce (In the Iliad, the “duel” and the “wounding” scenes are switched in order compared to the Welsh). Blodeuwedd guides Gronw in how to throw the spear to kill Lleu; Athena guides Pandarus to shoot the arrow at Menelaus. Lleu is struck in the abdomen by the spear, breaking the magical tynged, undergoes a symbolic death, and is revived by his implied father and god of magical illusion and intellect, Gwydion; Menelaus is struck in the abdomen by the arrow, breaking the standing truce, and is aided by his older brother, Agamemnon, and protected from death by a goddess of magical illusion and intellect, Athena. Lleu has to be healed of this wound by physicians (“and there were brought unto him good physicians that were in Gwynedd”); Menelaus is healed of this wound by the physician Machaon. When Lleu comes to confront him, Gronw in fear begs his attendants to stand in for him and receive the blow; when he and Menelaus arrive at the duel, it is said that Paris first becomes “sick at heart” and then “shrank back in the ranks” (Iliad, Book 3, line 32). Lleu and Gronw finally face off (in a formal confrontation) in order to put their dispute to rest: he throws his spear through a slab of stone that Gronw hides behind, killing him; Menelaus and Paris finally face off (in a formal duel) in order to put their dispute to rest: he throws his spear through Paris' shield and Paris has to be rescued by Aphrodite before he is killed. Gwydion is merciful in not killing Blodeuwedd, but curses her with the form of an owl instead; when Menelaus confronts Helen later, he shows her mercy, and kills her second foreign husband Deiphobus (perhaps a kind of double of Paris), completing the circuit.

Pandarus, who shoots Menelaus, here plays the role Dumezil marks as the Vedic god Bhaga, which is precisely the role of Hothr in the death of Baldr, a role one way or another absorbed into Gronw (due to the compression of the story), the thrower of the dart. Athena, disguised as Pandarus' comrade, and with deception and desire to sow conflict in mind, tells him he should shoot Menelaus and win glory: “Aim a swift arrow at Menelaus, win glory and renown among the Trojans, and please Prince Paris most of all.” (Iliad, Book IV, line 94). In the same way Hothr is guided by Loki to cast the dart at Baldr, and Gronw is instructed by Blodeuwedd in throwing the spear at Lleu. Hence Athena here plays both sides for a moment, actually slipping into the Loki role and then turning around and guiding the “bitter dart” away from its deadly path and more safely into Menelaus' abdomen.

The argument against simple borrowing in all of this (outside of the noted unavailability of Iliad translations) is the question of whether a borrower would have copied so many of these small details, buried in the narrative and sometimes switched in order as they are, while also making the other changes that are evident. The other question would be whether such a borrower would have been able to accurately recognize Menelaus and Lleu as the same divine archetype to begin with, and understand exactly which elements were essential to the myth of his archetype. The question should be investigated further, yet when the correspondences to other branches are considered, it appears very likely that we are dealing with a large web of consistent parallels suggesting a deep ancient shared tradition.

Menelaus is also most prominently tied to the central oath of the epic, The Oath of Tyndareus. All the suitors of Helen make an oath that they will come to the aid of the one who wins her hand, if need be. Thus it is this oath which Menelaus (along with Agamemnon) invokes in order to compel the others to join him in the attack on Troy. Mitra is associated primarily with oaths and so it would only be fitting for Menelaus to be the beneficiary of the central oath which ignites the epic. Furthermore, Menelaus binds a seer named Proteus in Egypt, with a chain. This allows Menelaus to learn that the gods are angry about the fall of Troy and to appease them with an offering. There is a similarity between this tale and the role of Mitra as the god of binding (by oaths and contracts), which is illustrated most vividly in the account of the binding of Fenrir by Tyr and the Aesir. We can also say that Pandarus attacking Menelaus to break the truce is fitting, since Menelaus, as Mitra, himself symbolizes the truce oath, and his wounding is symbolically identical to the breaking of a truce. In the scene of the duel, as Menelaus enters, the soldiers say “let solemn oaths bring friendship between us” – “Mitra” sometimes having the meaning of “friend” – and then Menelaus gives a speech ending with “let my hand strike him down, so that future generations shall shudder at harming a host who shows them friendship” (Iliad, Book 3, line 354). After Menelaus' wounding Agamemnon comments on “the Trojans, who in wounding you have trampled their solemn oaths underfoot...Yet an oath over clasped hands, with the blood of lambs, and offerings of pure wine, is a thing not so easily annulled. Though Zeus delays punishment, he will punish fully in the end: the oath-breakers will pay with their lives, and their wives and children too” after which Menelaus tells him to “be calm” (Iliad, Book 4, line 155, 184). This is a near-perfect example of the dynamic interaction of Varuna and Mitra.

At times we might be tempted to suspect a movement toward combining the Mitra and Varuna aspects into one god in the Celtic Lleu/Lugh, in tales such as the Irish Fate of the Children of Tuireann, with Lugh's fearsome justice. Indeed, as we will see, Lugh conflicts with the Thunderer Tuireann just as Agamemnon (Varuna) conflicts with the Thunderer Achilles. There may be some grain of truth to this perspective, with a general inheritance of certain “Varuna” powers by all “Mitra” gods; however, viewing Lugh as actually being both gods is a fairly convoluted approach, and it is not necessary to adopt this view. We must recognize that Vedic Mitra too had the potentiality of wielding the fearsome power of Justice, and it is well understood in Vedic studies that Mitra and Varuna were often indistinguishable and freely shared prerogatives: as is stated of Yudhisthhira in the Mahabharata, “When I think of his wrath, O Sanjaya, and consider how just it is, I am filled with alarm” (Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva Section XXII). And in the Iranic Avesta it is said that Mithra catches the evil or lying man with his long arms, no matter where he goes (Avesta, Mitra Yasht, line 104), just as Lugh is prominently called “of the long arm.”

Menelaus' oft-repeated epithets are “red-haired Menelaus” and “beloved of Ares.” The early morning, with which Mitra was identified before he became god of the whole daylit sky, can be said to be “red-haired” due to the sunrise. Ares was identified with Roman Mars who was further identified with Germanic Tyr, which we still see in Tuesday being called Martis in Latin, Mardi in French, etc. This is a last curious connection between Mitra, via Tyr, and Menelaus.

The fact that these two brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaus, so well embody the same contrast of wrathful king and peaceable king (who is still capable of just vengeance) that we find in Varuna and Mitra, reinforces the overall case for each parallel.

Lawful Sovereign: Mitra (Menelaus, Mitra/Yudhishthira, Lugh/Leu)

-Is Second King

-Is peaceable and merciful though still a skilled warrior

-Loses his wife to another man which starts the war, sometimes while visiting his maternal grandfather

-Marshals the united armies to regain her or the kingdom

-May be held out of the fight for a time for his protection

-Is protected by a divine or magical fate against death

-Is wounded in the abdomen, requiring healing by physicians

-When wounded, is aided by a god of magical illusion and intellect and an older brother or father

-Attempts to take revenge on his wife's lover

-Throws the spear to end the war or to attempt to end it

-Throws the spear through a stone slab or shield

-Kills his wife's lover either with this spear or at a later time

-Shows mercy to his wife by sparing her life

-Survives the war and goes to Paradise as an Immortal
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