Heroism and the Arete of the Sexes

Bill White

To look for a woman to excel beyond the human state to the level of heroism is to misunderstand both the nature of the hero and the differing arete, or excellence, of woman and man. The path to transcendence for the female is to be found in complete devotion to and unity with the excellence of her male partner and thus the arete of the female is not heroics, but reflection of the heroism of her excellent male.

This examination begins with the roles of male and female in Indo-European tradition. The female represents the generative principles and the male the body that gives that generation action and form. The idea of the daimon in Greek myths is the ideal of the feminine – it is the ideal of the thing which is created as well as the creator of the thing. But it is in the psyche – the individual soul of the thing – that the male principle finds its ideal, and where the transformation to the heroic can take place.

A hero must first have the prerequisite material form – the consecrated blood which can be activated by initiation – to aspire to his more than human state. The divine blood is what prepares the material form for its higher state – just as certain ritual or material was necessary in the creation of objects for sacramental use.

Once possessed of the necessary material form, the hero then must activate it through initiation. Often, this involves a mystery. At times it involves a public rite. While most histories of the ancient period refer to a specific initiation, it is also within the power of the hero to initiate himself through action, when priestly intervention is not available. This is due to the role of the king as a bridge between the mundane and divine worlds that predominated in Indo-European and European society until he usurpation of the Catholic Church during the Guelph-Ghibelline crisis.

This initiation is what allows the hero to then face the “conquest of death”, which is the unity of the hero with the feminine daimon of the victory , whether reflected in the Greek Nike or the Nordic valkyrie. Aeneas has the Sibyl to guide him through the Underworld, and Odysseus has the protective spirit of the Athena, the valkyrie of the Mediterranean, to assist his efforts, just as Irish warriors had the Morrigans (a rather different use of the goddesses of battle), and lesser Nordic men had their fylgyas.

Once united with his Nike, the hero has taken his place above the merely mortal – he has entered that [which] Nietzsche more atheistically described as the Superman”. In this hyper-attenuated state, the hero is then ready to embody and perhaps ascend to the divine. This manifestation of divinity is what grants an eternal aspect to the hero’s deeds.

With this in mind, it is clear that it is impossible for a female to ascend to a state of heroism, except insofar as her devotion to the male may allow her to rise up with him.

In this, we can explain the failure of Antigone, who, while standing for a transcendent value – proper respect for the dead – is unable to succeed because she cannot unite with her male counterpart, Creon, to empower his decisions. In a complementary manner, Creon’s failure to be righteous makes him unable to control the daimon of Antigone. The result is mutual destruction.

The female in Greek myth can represent another force as well – the embodiment of the daemonic and chthonic forces which were conquered by the Indo-European invaders. Clytemnestra, in her unity with the tainted blood of Aigesthus, represents this type. Aegisthus is both cursed and the product of an unnatural union – by uniting with him, Clytemnestra soils her own divinity and commits the crime for which Orestes must punish her.

Ultimately, it is figures such as Penelope, who, for a decade, loyally devotes herself to her husband and his return, that display the arete of the female in its full. The kind of devotion that leads woman to voluntarily jump on their husband’s funeral pyres in suttee is he ultimate expression of the arete that Penelope, through her weaving and unweaving, manifests for her Odysseus.

So, while not finding heroism in the female per se, one finds a parallel virtue appropriate to the different arete of the generative force.