The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles I :
Stone mace – Corded Ware culture
illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
The Stories of The House of Melampous, The House of Tantalos, The House of Kadmos and The House of Volsungby Thomas Sefton
About this Essay
This paper looks at ancient Greek and ancient Germanic culture and at some of the cultural features that they share in common. They share the Shield Poem, they share the lyre, they share the idea of profound knowledge acquired by intimate contact with serpents. But by far the most important thing they share is what I call the Greco-Germanic Family Cycle. This is a very exactly defined literary form, it is identical in both cultures, it is an integral part of both cultures, and the most fundamental principles of both cultures are found in it. The things that we find in both the Greek and the Germanic examples of the Greco-Germanic Family Cycle form go back to a time when the people who eventually became Greek and the people who eventually became Germanic shared the same culture and the same literature. That is a very long time ago, we will look at how long ago in Part III.
The form is briefly this: A foreigner comes from a long distance away and founds a dynasty, the story follows the generations of this dynasty until the second-to-last generation. The story’s principal character is found in that second-to-last generation, and he makes a choice regarding the God that the story is about. This choice is the center of the whole immense story. It is not a climax, it does not necessarily resolve the plot, and it is made regardless of any consideration of good or evil. Its purpose is to tell the listener who the God is. This God and the choice regarding this God were common to both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Germanic peoples, and this is by far the oldest God and the oldest moral concept of which we have any knowledge.
Civilization was founded, not by revealing truth and knowledge, but by denying it. Civilization was founded by restricting any recognition of truth and knowledge to certain well-guarded areas, by keeping truth and knowledge strictly under the control of fanatical guards, and by never allowing Truth and Knowledge to follow their natural paths under the open sky or allowing them to speak with their own clear voice. That is why so few words spoken before the fifth century BC have survived— anywhere in the world— and one of the few places, anywhere in the world, where such words have survived in any quantity and in any diversity, is Europe.
There is an immense body of stories that have survived from the mists of pre-historic Europe. They were all regarded as history, and all of them could either loosely or accurately be called literature. We can hear this literature popping up in various very diverse places, and so we know that it is extremely old. We can hear the Keltic story of Lancelot and Guenever or of Tristan and Iseult and then hear it again in Persia in the story of Ramin and Vis. We can meet the Greek Achileus and then meet him again in the Keltic Cuchulainn and yet again in the Vedic Hanuman. We can learn of the siege of Troy in the Iliad, then hear the story of a similar siege in the Vedic Ramayana. The Greeks were part of North-West Indian culture during the first and second centuries BC, but we know there is a much older connection here, which strong Greek influence would have brought out. The connections between the Kelts, the Greeks, the Persians and the Vedic peoples are very old indeed. To a large extent then, these stories will go back to a time when the people who became the Kelts and the people who formed the Vedic tradition and the people who became the Persians and the people who became the Greeks shared a common culture and a common literature.
But the ancient literature that appears in both Greece and Northern Europe is not all so well recognized. The Shield Poem has been recognized for a long time, though it is fairly trivial. Somebody made you a present of a shield painted with an elaborate narrative scene, and you, or someone commissioned by you, described this painted narrative in verse. The result was a Shield Poem, and we have examples of these in both Greece and Northern Europe. (Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica 1982: 220-253 and Iliad: XVIII, 478-608 and Hollander 1978: 32-37, 39, 42-48 and Egil’s Saga:78) But there was another body of literature that is very far from trivial, that can be found in both Greece and Northern Europe, that has hitherto never been recognized, and that clearly goes back to the time when the people who became the Greeks and the people who became Germanic shared a common culture and a common literature.
I call them Greco-Germanic Family Cycles, because all the examples we know of are either Greek or Germanic. But I suspect that if we still had literature from the Central European Kelts, we might find other examples there.
There are four Greco-Germanic Family Cycles still in existence. As I say, there may be more, but these four are all that I am aware of. Unlike most other ancient literature that we know of, all these stories are about a God. Furthermore, whether they are from Greece or from Northern Europe, they are about the same God. If the story is Germanic, the God is called Odin, and if the story is Greek he is called Apollo. Odin and Apollo are not necessarily the same outside these stories, but within the Family Cycles they are exactly the same. They are the same God. And as we shall eventually see, this God goes back to the Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture, and the stories show us this God as he actually exists in the reality we experience every day. Each story is about this God interacting with some other Divine Force, these stories are not about people but about the interaction of Divine Forces.
All four of the Family Cycles have the same plot: A foreigner comes from a long distance away and founds a dynasty, and the story follows this dynasty through the generations. Until the second-to-last generation. In the second-to-last generation we always find the story’s principal character, and the principal character always makes a choice, and the choice he makes is always the center of the whole enormous story. The choice is never a climax. It doesn’t come at the end of the story, and it doesn’t necessarily resolve the plot. That is not its purpose. The choice the principle character makes is about the God that the story is about, and it tells us who that God is.
First is the Greek story of the House of Tantalos.It is also called the story of the House of Pelops or the House of Atreus, but Tantalos does the thing that starts the events of the story rolling and he begins the plot repetition that defines the story.Pelops is the foreigner who founds the dynasty, Orestes is the principal character who makes the choice that is the center of the story, and Apollo is the God the story is about.Apollo is in conflict with the Divine Furies of guilt and vengeance.Next is the Greek story of the House of Kadmos.Its principal character is Oidipous, and his decision is about Apollo.Though Dionysos is very important here, I don’t think Apollo is in conflict with him.Apollo and Dionysos rather seem to be two sides of the same principle; their conflict would in that case be with their opposite, unconsciousness.Next is the Germanic story of the House of Volsung.Its principle character is Sigurd, it is about Odin, and Odin is in conflict with a Hoard of Treasure and a Ring, and the Hoard of Treasure and the Ring are everything that is Good and Desirable and Fulfilling—and so they are the opposite of Odin.And last is the Greek story of the House of Melampous.The principal character is Alkmaeon, the God is Apollo, and Apollo is in conflict with a Robe and a Necklace, and the Robe and the Necklace are everything that is Good and Desirable and Fulfilling— and so they are the opposite of Apollo.
But by far the most important thing about these stories is the choice that the principal character makes about the God.It is not necessarily easy for us to comprehend this choice, but the choice of Oidipous in Greece is exactly the same as the choice of Sigurd in Northern Europe. And like the God, the choice made about the God goes back beyond the Bronze Age, and to the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker cultures.
These stories are always about Divine Principles, Gods, interacting with one another.The people in these stories react to these Principles, and the main character, who always comes from the cycle’s second-to-last generation, chooses and affirms the Principle the story calls Odin or Apollo.There is no real climax, and when the main character chooses, he does not do Right and triumph over Wrong. On the contrary, he chooses regardless of any consideration of Good or Evil, Right or Wrong.
The House of Tantalos
Tantalos was a mortal man, but he was also a son of Zeus. He had day-to-day contact with the Olympian Gods and ate at the same table with them, and they in turn sometimes dined with him as his guests. For some reason that is no longer remembered, he killed his own son, Pelops, and mixed the dead flesh into the meal he served the Gods. Zeus restored Pelops to life and contrived an eternal punishment for Tantalos. Zeus had dispensed justice and that was the end of the matter as far as the Olympian Gods were concerned, but vaguer powers had been disturbed as well, powers that seem to flicker just at the edge of the mind’s vision. And these older, darker powers were not so easily put to rest.
Pelops became king after Tantalos’ death. Military pressure forced Pelops to leave Anatolia, and he moved with his followers to Greece. There he eventually came to rule the whole Peloponnese, and disturbed things further through various murders and a broken oath. (Sophokles, Electra, 509-510 Euripides, Orestes, 990 & 1545-1547) One of his especially brutal murders caused a famine all across the Peloponnese. (Apollodoros, III, 12, 6)
The son of Pelops was Atreus and the son of Atreus was Agamemnon. Atreus was king at Mycenae in his time as Agamemnon would be in his. Atreus had a brother, Thyestes. Atreus and Thyestes had quarreled over the throne. Atreus’ wife Aerope, became the lover of Thyestes and managed to trick her husband into surrendering the throne to Thyestes. But the Mycenaean people were given a sign from Zeus and so refused to accept this arrangement, and Atreus was able to forcibly recover the throne. (Euripides, Electra: 718-732 ) Atreus pretended to forgive his brother and held a feast in his honor. Thyestes ate the meat unsuspiciously; he didn’t know that his son’s cooked hand was at the bottom of his plate. Atreus waited until Thyestes had struck the hand before telling him he had been eating his own son. (Apollodoros, Epitome: II, 10-13).
When Atreus died, Agamemnon became King of Mycenae and High King of the Akhaians, and it came to pass that he led the expedition against Troy. The Goddess Artemis did not favor the expedition and/or Agamemnon had killed an animal she had loved, or he had insulted her, and so she stilled all favorable winds and the army could not sail.The ships of those days could not tack well and so could not sail against the wind.
The seer, Kalchas, proclaimed that the Goddess’ price for a fair wind would be the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. That would have been why Agamemnon’s opinion of Kalchas was so black in the Iliad, and that was why he was not calm when Kalchas told him what he must do to end the plague in the army at Troy. (Iliad: I, 105-107) Agamemnon hesitated for agonizing months while the army grew mutinous. Finally he gave in, he paid the price.
Klytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Iphigenia’s mother, was not consulted in the matter. Further, Agamemnon tricked her into bringing Iphigenia to the sacrifice herself; Klytemnestra thought that her daughter was to be married to Achilleus. Iphigenia was sacrificed, the expedition went forward, and while Agamemnon was at Troy, Aegisthos, the son of Thyestes, became Klytemnestra’s lover.
Now we come to Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra. Klytemnestra not only murders Orestes’ father, but either tries to murder Orestes as well or merely drives him from the home where grew up, deprives him of his birthright and replaces both him and his father with her boyfriend. Aegisthes and Klytemnestra then seize the throne, over the objections of their subjects. But Orestes is only ten years old when he loses his throne, and his subjects cannot help him.
Agamemnon captured Troy and took Kassandra, the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy. She was his concubine and part of his share of the war booty. When Agamemnon returned with Kassandra to Mycenae, Aegisthos and Klytemnestra killed them both. Kassandra was there unwillingly, and she was completely innocent. Notice the plot repetitions that define the story as an entity. Sons are eaten and Agamemnon, Klytemnestra and Aegisthos repeat the same pattern as Atreus, Aeropa and Thyestes.
There are many variations of what happens next, but the essential points are the same in all versions. In all cases Aegisthos and Klytemnestra act as a team in murdering Agamemnon and Kassandra, and in all cases Agamemnon is not fought but murdered off-guard and unarmed. Klytemnestra not only murders Orestes’ father but either tries to murder Orestes as well or merely drives him from the home where he grew up, deprives him of his birthright and replaces both him and his father with her boyfriend. Aegisthos and Klytemnestra then seize the throne, over the objections of their subjects. But unlike Atreus, Orestes is only ten years old when he loses his throne, and there is nothing his subjects can do to help him.
Now Aegisthes has had vengeance on the son of his enemy, now he settles back to enjoy the wealth and power he has won. Now Klytemnestra tries to make a public compact with the powers of Fate and vengeance that have brought all this to pass. She on her part will be content with the wealth and position she has already won and the situation she has brought about, though it is “filth” and “hard to endure.” The powers on their part are to leave the house and kill no one else. The forces that have been destroying the House of Tantalos shall rest now, now that she is content personally. (Aeschylos, Agamemnon:1568-1573)
This is not an attempt at black humor, she expects to be taken seriously. She has no idea that she is being blasphemous; it never occurs to her that anything could be higher or more precious than her personal life.
Klytemnestra can rarely be accused of sincerity, but she is moderately sincere at this point. She says that she is content with the property and position that she has just gained and wants nothing further. (Aeschylos, Agamemnon: 1568-1576) She has in fact gained everything that was available, but we can believe that she is ready to slow down. She and Aegisthos get into a confrontation with some of her late husband’s subjects and she acts with restraint. And more importantly she does not, according to Aeschylos, try to murder her eleven-year-old son when it would be to her advantage to do so. We are told that hybris, the inability to stop at the proper time, is the flaw that leads to the downfall of tragic characters. Klytemnestra did not fall into hybris; she was willing to act with restraint. Theoretically, moderation should bring the dark powers to rest before they kill her, and that is what she is hoping for. Moderation will not bring the powers to rest, certainly not her rather moderate sort. But something else will.
If we have trouble figuring out who the good guys are here, that is because there aren’t any. Whatever else this is, it is not a conflict between Good and Evil. Klytemnestra either tried to murder her eleven-year-old son, or else she threw him out of her life, out of his home, deprived him of his throne and his birthright and replaced him with her boyfriend. On the other hand, Agamemnon had told Klytemnestra to bring their daughter to him so the daughter could be married to Achilleus, then he sacrificed the daughter to Artemis. Further, having been away from her for ten years, he showed up with a Trojan princess on his arm. The foolishness of allowing the children of a murdered man to grow up was proverbial, (Herodotos: I, 155) and if she were to get rid of Agamemnon and take the man she loved, she had only one way of doing it. She had a choice to make, like everyone else in the story did. Like all the other Family Cycles, this is a story about a God who is older than the Bronze Age. And in the stories of the House of Volsung and the House of Melampous, we will see this God in conflict with a Hoard of Treasure and a Ring and a Robe and a Necklace, and we will see that these things are everything that is Good and Desirable and Fulfilling and that they are thus the opposite of this Ancient God. Klytemnestra did not choose this God, she chose his opposite. She didn’t choose Evil, she chose to feel good about herself and get what she wanted, and she chose not to recognize anything more. She was not evil, she was mediocre, and she was completely unaware that there was anything higher or more precious than her personal life. She chose the same side of things that everyone in her family chose—apart from Orestes.
Orestes was in an agony of indecision. There were no judges then, no police, there was no king to enforce justice, he was the king. Justice for a murdered man was customarily in the hands of his children, and no one could help Orestes’ father now but Orestes. If he did nothing the murderers would be left free to feel smug. But mothers are about the same now as they were then, even rotten ones, and the other half of his conflict is impossible not to understand. Orestes asked Apollo through the oracle at Delphi what he should do. Apollo ordered him, in the strongest possible terms, to kill.
Klytemnestra may well have seen this as a question of Good and Evil; she claimed that she was justified in what she had done. Orestes knew quite well that he was not justified. He did not have the option of choosing Right over Wrong, he had the option of choosing to accept or not to accept the Ancient God. In this Greek version of the story, the Ancient God is called Apollo. Klytemnestra had prayed that the Furies might rest now that she was satisfied. Klytemnestra felt self-satisfied and self-righteous, she “felt good about herself.” That was because she was insane, and because she was the opposite of Apollo. Orestes felt agony and madness and guilt, that was because his mind was clear. Orestes did not ask the Furies to rest. He would avenge his father and if the consequence was death or a lifetime of horror, then so be it. He said, “Let me kill her, and let me die.” "ἒπειτ᾿ ἐγὼ νοσφίσας ὀλοίμαν." (Aeschylos, The Libation Bearers, 438)
In the Iliad, Achilleus affirmed his intention to avenge Patroklos, though it would mean his own certain death. He said, “My soul does not command me to go on living unless Hektor dies by my spear… Now I will go to find Hektor, the murderer of he whom I loved most. I accept the Ker and the time of its coming, whenever Zeus and the other immortal Gods will to bring it to pass“ “ἐπεὶ οὐδ᾿ ἐμὲ θυμὸς ἅνωγε ζὼειν οὐδ᾿ ἄνδρεσσι μετέμμεναι, αἲ κε μὴ Ἔκτωρ πρῶτος ἐμῷ ὑπὸ δουρὶ τυπεὶς ἀπὸ θυμὸν ὀλέσσῂ, ....νῠν δ᾿ εἶμ᾿, ὄφρα φίλης κεφαλῆς ὀλετῆρα κιχείω, Ἕκτορα· κῆρα δ᾿ ἐγὼ τότε δέξομαι, ὁππότε κεν δὴ Ζεὺς ἐθέλῃ τελέσαι ἠδ᾿ ἀθάνατοι Θεοὶ ἄλλοι.”(Iliad, XVIII, 90-92 & 114-116) The Ker was the spirit that brought death, it is the Greek equivalent of the Valkyrie. Achilleus accepted the Ker, Orestes accepted the Furies. Orestes accepted his guilt and his death, if that was what his act and his Fate would bring.
As Orestes was about to strike the blow, he wavered. Klytemnestra saw that and she reminded him of what they had been when he had been a little boy, what they had done together, as she secretly sent a servant for a weapon. Orestes had a companion who reminded him that Apollo had ordered him to do this, and if he faltered Apollo would be his enemy. He struck. His sister Electra, recognizably Klytemnestra’s daughter, said, “If you have the strength, strike again!”!” παῖσον, εἰ σθένεις, διπλῆν. (Sophokles, Electra, 1415)
Agamemnon went through months of agony before he could bring himself to kill his daughter, when he was told of the will of Artemis he could not stop his tears. Orestes went through years of agony before and after he killed his mother. Klytemnestra killed her husband and tried to kill her son and she didn't mind a bit. She was concerned only that her personal situation be satisfactory, and she was aware of nothing else. She had no reason to hesitate and nothing to overcome, that which touched Agamemnon and Orestes was simply foreign to her.
Orestes had killed his mother, he had violated something in Nature. Notions of right and wrong didn’t matter, the fact that God had told him to kill didn’t matter, his guilt was so black that no one dared touch him. The rest of his life was a conflict between the balance with which he had acted and the unanswerable Furies of vengeance and guilt. He quieted them to a degree through a unique ritual based on logic rather than song; we call it a “trial.” Other rituals and actions followed, months and years passed. Finally, in time, he quieted the Furies not only for himself, but for the rest of his family.
Klytemnestra had asked the Furies of Vengeance to rest, once she was personally satisfied. Orestes would not dream of such blasphemy. He accepted the Furies, and he accepted the Ancient God, and he gave both the respect they were due. His sister Electra was like her mother in many ways, and she was potentially just as violent, in one version Orestes stopped her from blinding her sister Iphigenia. (Hyginus, Fabulae: 122) If the forces that had killed the rest of the family had not been laid to rest, Orestes and Electra would certainly have come into conflict.
All Greco-Germanic Family Cycles feature a foreigner who comes from a long distance away and founds a dynasty, and that foreigner here is Pelops from Anatolia. The story’s principle character who makes the story’s choice is Orestes, and in contrast to the story’s other characters, Orestes chooses to accept his Fate, and he chooses to accept the God that is the center of the story. Our Greek version of the story calls this God, “Apollo.” Orestes is the story’s principle character, and as the story is in the Family Cycle form, he is part of the story’s second-to-last generation. Orestes’ son Tisamenos grew up to be a fine man and a great king. (Pausanias: II, 18, 6-9) Tisamenos had to fight wars with both the Dorians and the Ionians, but he did not have to fight his own family. The evil that had begun with Tantalos and Pelops was over.
The House of Melampous
The next Greco-Germanic Family Cycle we will look at is that of the House of Melampous. The foreigner who comes from a long way away and founds a dynasty is Amythaeon. Amythaeon went from Northern Greece to the West Peloponnese, but the Peloponnesians would have considered someone from the North, who spoke a northern dialect, to be a foreigner. The God of the story is called Apollo, and the principal character, who makes a choice in the second-to-last generation, is Alkmaeon. This story is fragmentary, and I will have to piece it together from a great many diverse sources.
Amythaon migrated from Thessaly to the Western Peloponnese and made a home there. After his son Melampous grew up, the family servants discovered a hollow oak near the home that large numbers of snakes used as a den. The servants then killed the snakes, but Melampous cremated the dead snakes honorably and reared those of their children which had survived. One day when these young snakes had grown, they crawled onto his shoulders while he slept, and they cleaned the inside of his ears with their tongues. As he slept, he suddenly became terribly frightened for no reason that he could understand. He started awake, still terrified, but in the midst of his fear he found he could understand the language of the birds, and from then on the birds told him what would come to pass. (Apollodoros: I, 9, 12) Sigurd will also have intimate contact with a serpent and suddenly he will understand the birds. (Volsungasaga: 19 & 20) Apparently quite a few Greeks acquired foresight this way, (Frazer's note in Apollodoros: Vol. I: pp. 86-87) and as we will see Apollo became the Oracle at Delphi only after merging with a serpent. Further, there is an alternative version for the Melampous story wherein Melampous kills a huge serpent that has just killed his servants, just as Kadmos did. Melampous then honors the serpent by burying it and rears its young, who lick his ears, etc. (Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica: pp. 262-263) Either way, Apollo appeared soon after Melampous' encounter with the serpents, he met Melampous by a river and added to the power of prophecy. that the serpents had given him. (Apollodoros: I, 9, 12)
In the Germanic countries it was in fact fairly common to acquire knowledge by eating serpent's flesh; it was also common in Greece, one either ate or had one's ears cleaned. The association between the eating of serpent's flesh and the acquiring of wisdom was known in various cultures, we can see something like it in Genesis, but it seems to be especially characteristic of both Greece and Germany. (Frazer, Vol. II, 1980: 146-147 and Blecher & Blecher, 1993: 354-355.)
Melampous did a number of things, but his most notable achievement was to cure the mad daughters of Proitos, king of Tiryes. For this service, he demanded and got a third of Proitos' kingdom in the Argolid and an additional third for his brother. Melampous cured the daughters by chasing them many miles over the countryside, shouting and dancing "a fearful dance, full of God," “τινος ἐνθέου χορείας” (Apollodoros, II, 2, 2). One daughter died and the other two were cured. Melampous, who "became a friend of Apollo," “φίλος ἐγένετο Ἀπ λλωνος,” was said to be the first Greek to cure with drugs and purification (katharmos). (Diodorus Siculus, VI, 8, 9). Herodotos credited Melampous with the introduction of Dionysian rite, Dionysian rite not Dionysian madness, (Herodotos: II, 49) and Melampous was said to have invented the practice of mixing water with one's wine. (Athenaeus: II, 45, C-D) Melampous was"best loved" φίλτατος” by Apollo, (Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica: 260-261) and he founded a Sacred precinct and an altar to Apollon. ( Bakchylides, Lyra Graeca, Vol. III 1980: 214-215) Note the usual connection between Dionysos and Apollo.
We have only a few bits of information about a few of the people in the generations after Melampous, I won't list these people since there are contradictory statements about who is descended from whom and even about the number of generations. More than one is stated to be a prophet with foresight, (Odyssey: XV, 252 and Apollodoros: III, 6, 2) others have names that would suggest it, (Odyssey: XV, 242) others do purifications, one establishes a shrine to Dionysos, (Pausanias, I, 43, 4) and the latest of the obscure figures, Oikles, was killed on Herakles' expedition to Troy. If he had foresight he would have known that he would not return if he went, and he must have had a very compelling reason to go. (Apollodoros: II, 6, 4) That pattern will be repeated in the next generation.
The son of Oikles was Amphiaraos, "loved by Zeus and Apollon.” (Odyssey: XV, 245-246) Amphiaraos was king of the Argolid territory that Melampous had won several generations earlier. And it was to the Argolid that Oidipous' son Polynakes went to seek help to gain the kingship of Thebes, applying to the Argive king, Adrastos. Adrastos said he would help, but he felt that the expedition must also include Amphiaraos and tried to enlist Amphiaraos' support. Amphiaraos was a prophet like his ancestors, and he knew that he and most of the others who agreed to go on the expedition would never return and he would have nothing to do with it.
I will talk about the Theban House of Kadmos more fully later. Right now, I will only say a little about its founder, Kadmos, who lived a few generations before Amphiaraos. Kadmos had the blood of both Zeus and Poseidaon in him, he killed one of the children of the God, Ares, and after doing penance, he was given another of Ares’ children to be his wife. The wedding was stellar, all the Gods attended, and the new couple were given a Robe and a Necklace as wedding presents. The Robe and the Necklace were everything that is Good and Desirable and Fulfilling, so they were the opposite of the Ancient God that is here called Apollo. And because they were everything that is Good and Desirable and Fulfilling, they did great evil.
Amphiaraos and Adrastos had formerly warred and as a peace settlement they had vowed that Eriphyle, Amphiaraos' wife and Adrastos' sister, would decide any future dispute between them. Polynakes had brought the Robe and the Necklace with him from Thebes. He gave the Necklace of Aphrodite, one of the most precious objects on earth, to Eriphyle and she took it, and the decreed that Amphiaraos had to go and fight. (Apollodoros: III, 6, 2) Amphiaraos commanded his sons to war on Thebes when they grew up, as it would still be unconquered and he would need to be avenged, and to kill their mother then as well. And he rode to his death. (Apollodoros: III, 6, 7)
Ten years passed and the sons of the seven leaders of the first Theban expedition mounted an expedition of their own to avenge their fathers. They were told by an oracle that the expedition would succeed if Amphiaraos' son Alkmaion led it. He did, and it did.
He had not taken his father's commands to heart and was reluctant to go to Thebes, but Eriphyle herself had persuaded him and his brother to go. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 2) Now that he was home he learned that Thersandros, son of Polynakes, had given his mother the Robe and that this was why she was so eager to have him fight. He went mad with anger. Then Apollon at Delphi told him he should kill his mother, and he did. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 5) The Furies play a relatively small part here. He had not been minded to avenge his father on his mother or on the Thebans, it was his mother's greed that had driven him to murder.
The Furies attacked him as they had attacked Orestes. He was finally purified by a man named Phegeus, he stayed with Phegeus and married Phegeus' daughter, Arsinoe, and he gave Arsinoe the Necklace and the Robe. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 5)
But the purification began to wear off, and the country around became infertile. He wandered further and was finally purified by the River-God Achelous. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 5) He lived there on a delta of the River which had formed since his mother's murder and which had not existed before then, (Pausanias: VIII, 24, 8) and he married the River's daughter, Kallirroe.
Kallirroe was greedy for the Necklace and the Robe, and she said she would leave him if he did not get them for her. Against his will, he went off on the adventure. He tried to get the Necklace and Robe back from Phegeus by a ruse, but he was detected and killed. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 5 and Pausanias, VIII, 24, 10)
In some versions of the story, Alkmaeon's sons kill Phegeus and so the Necklace and the Robe kill yet again. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 6) In other versions Alkmaion remains unavenged; (Pausanias: VI, 17, 6) we will recall that he had not been enthusiastic about avenging his own father. In either case Aphrodite's Necklace and Athena's Robe were dedicated to Apollon at Delphi, and they could do no more harm. (Apollodoros: III, 7, 6-7 and Pausanias: VIII, 24, 10)
This story is too fragmentary to understand in any depth, but it is clearly a Family Cycle. The foreigner who comes from a long distance away and founds the dynasty is Amythaeon, and he comes from Thessaly. As fragmented as the story is, we can make out some plot repetition, which defines the story as an entity. The Gods Dionysos and Apollo are both very important in the story, though we cannot see how they are related. The principal character who makes the choice comes in the second-to-last generation, and his name is Alkmaeon. If we had Sophokles’ lost tragedy, Alkmaeon, we would understand this choice much better. And of course, the choice is about a God, and as this is a Greek story, the God is named Apollo. Serpents as agents of knowledge are very prominent in this story, as they will be in the House of Kadmos and in the House of Volsung, which I will tell below.
The House of Kadmos
Here is the story of the House of Kadmos: The foreigner who comes from a long way away and founds a dynasty is Kadmos, who is a Canaanite. This is a Greek story, and the Gods of this immensely old story are called Dionysos and Apollo. Dionysos rips people to shreds and continues to do so throughout the story, Apollo controls the characters of the story and determines the patterns they will follow. Dionysos and Apollo seem to me to be two sides of the same principle. The principal character who comes in the second-to-last generation and who makes the choice that is the center of the story is Oidipous, and the Greeks who told this version of the story called the God that Oidipous chose, Apollo.
The Goddess Leto came from the North Country. She was very moderate and clear-minded, and suffered little from the hatreds and vanities that other Goddesses were subject to. Her name meant Purity. But she was a shape-changer, and she was known to take the form of a wolf. She was closely associated with Lykia, the country of the Wolf People, and it was in her wolf shape that she came to the Aegean island of Delos and gave birth to the God Apollo. Not all the Olympian Gods had strong animal associations, but Apollo did. Apollo was a wolf, and sometimes took the shape of a wolf. Anything important that was associated with wolves, was called, “Apollo.”
But the Greeks called all sorts of Divine Principles “Apollo.” He was also the name given to Knowledge, Order and Consciousness. He was Lord of Knowledge and Light, and all of Time and Fate was clearly visible to him. There was an oracle at the place called Delphi, and it was guarded by an enormous serpent. He killed the serpent, and Delphi became his, and from there forever after he gave knowledge of Time and Fate to all who asked. (Apollodoros: I, 4, 1 & Homeric Hymn III, To Apollo: 300-302) But the serpent had been Sacred, and Apollo had to become the servant of a mortal for eight years to purify himself of the killing. (Apollodoros: III, 10, 4 & Plutarch, Moralia: 293, B-C & 421, C)) But this was far from a simple case of a hero slaying a monster, he did not in fact eliminate the older power but merged with it.
Io was the first priestess of Hera at Argos, and Zeus became enamored of her with the usual result. Io was caught between the lust of Zeus and the jealousy of Zeus’ wife, the goddess Hera. Io was transformed into a cow, and in that form she was driven all over the world by unimaginable torments. But her pain ceased at last and she found peace and rest in Egypt. There she bore Zeus’ son, Epaphos, who became ruler of Egypt. Epaphos had a daughter, Libya. Poseidon became enamored of her and she bore him twin sons, Agnor and Belos. Agnor left Egypt for the land of the Canaanites, and there founded the city of Tyre. He had one daughter, Europa, and three sons, Phoenix, Kilix and Kadmos. Zeus became enamored of Europa. He appeared to her on the seashore in the form of a white bull. He seemed gentle and beautiful and she climbed on his back. He swam out to sea with her, and she disappeared into the horizon and never returned.
Her father told his sons to go into the horizon and return either with Europa or not at all. They obeyed, each taking a separate direction. After years of wandering, Kadmos and the band of Tryians who followed him came to Delphi and asked Apollon’s oracle how they could find Europa. The God answered that they would never find her, that they should drive a cow before them and wherever the cow dropped from exhaustion, they should cease their wanderings and found a city in that place.
The cow dropped, and that is where Kadmos founded the city of Thebes in Boeotia. But as soon as he had arrived there, some of his followers went to a nearby spring to fetch water. They never returned. The place was Sacred to Ares, the War God, and an enormous serpent, the child of Ares, lived there. But Kadmos had the blood of Poseidaon and of Zeus in him, and he killed the snake with a huge boulder.
Kadmos had killed a Sacred monster, the child of Ares, the War God. Kadmos had to serve the War God for eight years to atone for his guilt. (Apollodoros: III, 4, 2) It was said that he had killed the monster as Apollo was supposed to have done, but as we shall see Kadmos’ serpent was no deader than Apollo’s. Kadmos had merged with it.
Kadmos then married Harmonia, the mortal daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Harmonia, like the serpent Kadmos had killed, was one of Ares’ children. All the Gods attended their wedding. They lived well and for a long time, and at the end of their lives they changed into serpents and went to the Blessed Islands to live forever. According to one account, all the descendants of Kadmos and Harmonia bore a visible serpent-mark on their bodies. (Graves, Vol. II, 1980: Ch. 106, pp. 18-19) Funny little mark, perhaps it wasn’t even visible. There certainly didn’t seem to be any harm in it.
Kadmos and Harmonia had four daughters and a son. The daughters were Semele, Agave, Ino and Autonoe. Semele burned alive in Kadmos’ palace when it was struck by the God’s lightning. But this was the same Semele who was the mother of Dionysos, and Dionysos brought her back from the dead and made her immortal. Agave went insane and tore her son’s head off. The Gods might have been merciful and allowed her to remain mad and unknowing. They were not; she became lucid again. Ino tried unsuccessfully to kill her stepson. Her plots were exposed and in the end her husband murdered one of her sons and tried to kill the other. She took her living son in her arms and leaped into the sea to their deaths. The profane part of her died, and she became a kindly Sea Goddess. Antonoe was not directly involved in any catastrophe, or if she was it has been forgotten. She only had to gather up her son’s fresh bones, as he had been eaten alive by his dogs.
Kadmos’ grandson Pentheus (Euripides, Bacchae: 44 and Apollodoros: III, 5, 2) became king of Thebes at a very young age, but it was he whom his mother Agave tore apart. Kadmos’ son Polydoros then took over the kingship, but he too seems to have died young because we hear of two different regents, Nykteus and Lykos, holding the throne for Polydoros’ son, Labdakos, who was still too young to rule after Polydoros’ death. (Pausanias: II, 6, 2) Labdakos became king, and he was torn apart by the followers of Dionysos just as Pentheus had been. (Apollodoros: III, 5, 5) It would be Dionysos’ Fate to be torn apart as well. He had a close connection with Apollon and Delphi, and we will recall that Dionysos too was a Kadmian. Before Labdakos was killed, he had a son named Laios.
Laios became king of Thebes in his time and married Iokaste. The God at Delphi warned him three times not to have a child, because it was Fated for that child to kill him. (Sophokles, Oidipous the King: 711-714, 853-854 and Aeschylos, Seven Against Thebes: 745-749) He and Iokaste could not refrain and a son was born. Laios gave the baby to a shepherd who was to expose it on a mountain top in winter. The shepherd did not obey, he gave the baby to a Korinthian shepherd. And in the end the baby was raised by the king of Korinth, who called him Oidipous. Oidipous became a man. He was at a party, and a man who had drunk too much told him that the king of Korinth was not his father. Oidipous went to Delphi to ask the God whether this was true. Apollon did not answer his question, but told him it would be his Fate to kill his father and marry his mother. (Sophokles, Oidipous the King: 788-794)
Horror was not the word for what Oidipous felt. Naturally he had no thought of ever going back home to Korinth. He had to go somewhere and he took the road east, towards Thebes.
A monster had appeared in Thebes, or rather it had appeared on a mountain nearby, and it killed whoever tried to enter or leave the city. According to most versions this was a monstrous, female beast, according to one version it was a band of robbers led by a woman. In either case it was female and murderous and it appeared suddenly. Laios was traveling towards Delphi to ask the God what he could do about the monster. He and Oidipous met at a place called “the split.” It was a place where three roads joined, such places were considered sinister and were associated with the witch-Goddess, Hekate. Laios was violent and impatient, Oidipous was the same way. There was a question of who would pass first. Oidipous was struck, and when it ended Laios was dead and his servants were dead or running. Oidipous continued on to Thebes. He met the Monster and killed it with ease, with suspicious ease. The lone survivor of Laios’ servants was ashamed to admit that he and the king’s whole party had been defeated by a single man. When he returned he told the Thebans that their king had been killed by a band of robbers, so no one even thought of connecting the killing with Oidipous. By acclamation, the Thebans gave the vacant throne to he who had rid them of the monster, and when the lone servant saw who it was who would be the new king he made himself extremely scarce. The Thebans gave Iokaste to the new king as his wife; this was customary. Oidipous and Iokaste lived together as man and wife, completely unconscious of who they were.
Clearly the descendants of Kadmos were not dealing with the Furies, this was something quite different. In the first place, Apollon, Consciousness, was at war with the Furies of guilt in the Orestea. But this serpent power was something he had merged with. The people in the Orestea were caught up in guilt and vengeance and what could be called “crimes against nature.” The Furies were not absent in the House of Kadmos, neither were crimes against nature. But among the Kadmians, these things are quite clearly a result rather than a cause, and for the cause we need not look farther than Delphi. We will recall that it was Apollon who had guided Kadmos to his encounter with the serpent in the first place. It was Apollon who deliberately refused to answer Oidipous’ question and instead told him something that sent him on the road east rather than back to Korinth. And it was Apollon who drew Laios onto the same road headed towards Delphi and to the Split. Apollon did not do anything arbitrarily or willfully, he was part of Fate and part of Nature. Something Holy followed the lives of the Kadmians. Some of them had already been destroyed, and more would be destroyed in the generation after Oidipous. Something Holy touched the Kadmians and some of them became pure, amid the ruins of their blasted lives.
Oidipous met Death on the road to Thebes. It came in the form of a monster called the Sphinx. “Sphinx” means “Strangler,” Aeschylos called it the “Ker,” the death spirit (Aeschylos, Seven Against Thebes: 777). The Greek Ker was equivalent to the Norse Valkyrie; that would explain why Oidipous’ monster was female. It had appeared to travelers and asked them the riddle of life. None knew the answer, all were overcome by Death. Oidipous found the answer and overcame the monster, he thereby became a hero and a savior and a king. But in fact his victory was an illusion, in fact his people were not saved and neither was he. The real monster still awaited him.
In one version of the story the truth came out almost immediately, but Sophokles tells us that Oidipous and Iokaste lived happily together for fifteen years and had four children. Now the fifteen years of peace were a memory, and there was something in the air. The crops began to die in the fields, the herds dwindled, the unborn children died in their mother’s wombs. The whole countryside was being permeated by sterility. Oidipous was the king and the protector of his people, he vowed that whatever it was that was so terribly wrong, he would use all the power he had to make it right. He went to Delphi and asked Apollon what was causing the plague. The God said that a murderer lived in Thebes, the man who had killed King Laios, and that when the pollution of this man’s presence was removed, the plague would end. The God said further that the pollution would be found if it was sought, but if it was not sought it would remain unknown, τὸ δὲ ϛητούμενον ἀλωτόν, ἐκφεύγειν δὲ ταμελούμενον (Sophokles, Oidipous the King: 110-111).
Oidipous was the king, and the people were his children. He would use his enormous potency to fight this evil that was killing his people, and he would destroy it as utterly as he had destroyed the Sphinx. He would find the truth, whatever the cost might be, he held nothing back, he spared nothing and no one.
And he did not spare himself. The seer Teiresias warned him in the beginning that he should stop, that what he would find was too painful to be looked at. He did not stop. Then Teiresias told him in detail exactly what he would find if he insisted on looking.
Oidipous became angry. Teiresias was a liar, conspiracies were everywhere, but Oidipous went on. The stories began to unravel and Oidipous began to see what he was going to find in the end. Then Iokaste began to see it too. She begged him to stop, there was no profit and no joy in the truth, it would not do anything to enhance their personal lives. They should go on living thoughtlessly, unconsciously, day to day. There is no profit in consciousness; the truth will bring only pain and horror.
He could have stopped when Teiresias warned him, he could stop now. There was still room for doubt, no one wanted to know but him. If he stopped now the matter would be forgotten.
He could easily have chosen not to go on. Iokaste was right, he had everything to gain by stopping, now. But he chose to accept his Nature as it was, not as he might want it to be, not as it might seem Good or Evil, and not as it might Good or Desirable or Fulfilling, and so he must know. He chose knowledge, and he chose the Ancient God that the Greeks here called Apollo. He let in the light, and he saw that he was not a hero who slew monsters as he had thought. He had not slain the monster, he had merged with it. He was a monster.
He lost his wife and his mother in the same moment. Iokasta hanged herself from the rafters of her bedroom. He cut her down and laid her on the floor. He took the two golden pins that held her robe and tore out his eyes.
He begged for death, he was denied that. He was forced to remain in the place where he had been king, among people who now regarded him as a fungus. Everything he did and everything he felt was sickness and horror, the only desire he had left and the only request he made was to be allowed to see his children. He was denied that. He begged to be allowed to leave, blind and alone. He was denied that. He was conducted indoors because it was felt that he would pollute the sun if it should shine upon him. (Sophokles, Oidipous the King: 1424-1429)
The years passed, and so did his desire for death. His thoughts began to rest more and more on the knowledge that what had happened had not been his fault. He grew contented to pass what was left of his life in the surroundings he knew. He was denied that. It was finally decided that his presence polluted the whole countryside, and he was driven out of Theban territory forever.
The one part of his life that had been worth anything to him was his children. His two sons were grown now and had great political influence, they became kings eventually. They agreed to his exile. He was blind and physically broken, he could not stand for long, he could barely walk. Most of the world considered him an abortion and would not come near him. His two daughters were loyal, that and nothing else remained to him. His oldest daughter Antigone went into exile with him, she was never more than a short distance away from him for the rest of his life. It was she who kept him alive long enough to fulfill his destiny.
Oidipous has repeated the pattern of Apollon and of Kadmos. He had killed a monster and now he would have to do penance to cleanse himself of the resulting pollution. But Oidipous’ monster was Death itself, and like Apollon and Kadmos he did not kill his monster but merged with it. That merger is worth examining.
Silenos was the companion of Dionysos. Silenos was half animal, half God and constantly drunk. The legendary Midas, king of the Phrygians, captured him on one occasion and asked Silenos: What is mankind’s greatest good? For a long time Silenos refused to answer. Finally he said, “The greatest good for you would be not to know. But since you force me, I will tell you that mankind’s greatest good is never to have been born, and the second greatest good is to die swiftly.” “τί μμε βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἂ ὑμῖν γνῶναι; ... ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ δεύτερον δὲ τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.” (Bakchylides, Lyra Greaca, Vol.III, 1980: 208-211)
Solon, the founder of the Athenian constitution and famous for his wisdom had an interview with Kroesos, the king of Lydia. Kroesos was then the richest, the most powerful and the most revered man in that part of the world. Kroesos asked Solon, “Who is the happiest of all men?”
Solon’s answer was an Athenian neither Kroesos or anyone else had ever heard of. The sons of this Athenian had all grown up to be fine, honorable men, he had suffered no great dishonor or heartache in his life, and he was now safe from all pain being dead.
Kroesos asked who was the second happiest. Kreosos thought that his own position was the most enviable in the world, and that the answer should be himself.
Solon then told the following story: Once in the city of Argos, a priestess of Hera was supposed to be at a temple at a certain time for an important festival. Ritual required that she go in an ox-cart, but at the last moment the oxen were unavailable. The cart was very heavy and it really needed two healthy oxen to pull it, but her two grown sons hitched themselves to the cart and pulled their mother to the temple on time. The mother was so proud of having such fine strong sons who were so good to her that she prayed to the Goddess that they be given the greatest gift a human being could receive. She left the judgement of what that gift should be to the Goddess. Her sons fell into a peaceful sleep and never woke up. They died. (Herodotos: I, 31)
The poet Bakchylides told the story of Silenos and his answer to Midas. Pindar tells us that two brothers named Trophonios and Agmedes built a temple for Apollon, when they asked for a reward Apollon gave them a peaceful sleep from which they never awakened (Quoted in Plutarch, A Letter to Apollonion: 109, A, in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. II, 1992). The poet Theogins made the same statement that Silenos did. “The best of all is not to be born on the Earth nor behold the light of the piercing sun. Or being born in this way, pass swiftly through the gates of Hades and lie under much-heaped earth.” “τί μμε βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἂ ὑμῖν γνῶναι; ... ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ δεύτερον δὲ τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.” (Theogins: I: 425-428, in Greek Elegy and Iambus, Vol. I, 1982: 280-281), and the same statement can be found in the post-classic poem, The Contest between Homer and Hesiod (Contest: 315, in Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica 1982: 572-573.). The Contest is post-classic and the poet does not mean anything by the statement, he uses it because it is a well-known saying. Numerous other Hellenic poets made similar statements, notably Aeschylos in an otherwise unknown tragedy (Aeschylus, Vol. II, 1983: "Fragments of Uncertain Plays," 191, 353, pg. 491, and Plutarch, A Letter to Apollonion: 106, C. The Letter quotes several anonymous poets saying similar things.) “We who will die are not just in hating death, which is our greatest protection against evil.” “ὡς οὐ δικαίως θάνατον ἔχθουσιν βροτοί, ὅσπερ μέγιστον ῥῦμα τῶν πολλῶν κακῶν.” And Plato made a somewhat washed-out version of the statement in (Apology: 442, A).
And we meet the statement again in Sophokles, our main source of the story of Oidipous, (Oidipous at Kolonos: (1225-1228): “Never to have been born, that is greater than anything that can be thought. The second best is a brief walk in the sunlight, then return to whence one came. And do it quickly. "μὴ φῠναι τὸν ἄπαντα νικᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ᾿, ἐπεὶ φανῇ, βῆναι κεῖθεν ὃθεν περ ἥκει, πολὺ δεὺτερον, ὡς τάχιστα." And then he walked calmly and deliberately into the afterworld.
Apollo had chosen him, now he chose Apollo. Before he would be king, before he would be a hero, before he would be a conqueror, before he would be a husband and a father, before he would have anything like a decent life, before anything else he chose to be conscious. He chose Knowledge. He looked his Fate in the teeth, and he saw the real monster and he saw real Death and he saw the real riddle, and he knew it had no answer. Answers are the opposite of consciousness. He did not face Death as a king or a hero or a conqueror, he faced it as you and I must. He faced it naked—without power, without wisdom and without an answer. But. If he faced his Fate without an answer, he faced it with open eyes. And if he faced the monster without an answer, he did not require one. And the earth opened before him, and the passageway to the afterworld opened before him, and he deliberately walked into Death. And this man who was so filthy that he dirtied the sun when it shone on him, this man looked at himself. With open eyes. And as he calmly walked into the darkness, all the land, everywhere around him, became clean.
Oidipous’ choice is the center of the story, because it is a choice about the God the story is about. But it is not a climax, it does not end the story and it does not resolve the plot. Oidipous and his choice come, as always, in the second-to-last generation.
His two sons, Polynakes and Eteokles, try to share the throne. But they quarrel, Polynakes is expelled, he invades his country with a foreign army, there is a battle, and the two brothers kill one another. (Aeschylos, Seven Against Thebes) Their uncle, Kreon takes the throne and decrees that Eteokles is to be buried with honors, but Polynakes, who led a foreign army against his country, is to be left unburied and thus condemned to an eternity of suffering.
Of the daughters: Ismene managed to live a quiet life, but Antigone had followed her father into hell until he could fulfill his destiny. Now Antigone’s brother is in an eternity of suffering, and there is no doubt about what she will do. (Sophokles, Antigone)
She is too slender to move Polynakes’ big body to a place of safety, all she can do is sprinkle a little soft earth over him and ritually bury him. But Kreon’s guards found what she had done and undid it, as she knew they must. And then they caught her as she tried to do it a second time, as she knew they must. She had been on the verge of fulfillment, of marrying a man who loved her more than his life. But now she was led into an underground tomb and sealed over, and she died in the darkness when the oxygen ran out. She was very much like her father, and like him she walked deliberately, down into the earth, and into the afterworld.
The foreigner who came from a long distance away and founded the dynasty was Kadmos. The story’s principal character who comes in the second-to-last generation and who makes a choice about the God that the story is about is Oidipous. In this Greek version of the story, the Ancient God that the story is about is called Apollo, and to me, another aspect of him is called Dionysos, and his conflict is with his opposite, unconsciousness. The story and Oidipous’ choice has taught us a great deal about this Ancient God that was known to the Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture, and this next story will teach us more still.
The House of Volsung
This will be the story of the House of Volsung: The foreigner who comes from a very long distance away and founds the dynasty is Sigi. The principal character who comes in the second-to-last generation and makes a choice about the Ancient God will be Sigurd. As this is a Germanic story, the Ancient God will be called “Odin,” he will be identical to the God that Oidipous just dealt with, and the choice that Sigurd makes about him will be identical to Oidipous’ choice. Furthermore, the Ancient God, here called Odin, will be in conflict with a Hoard of Treasure and a Ring that will be identical to the Robe and the Necklace in the story of the House of Melampous. Like the Robe and the Necklace, the Hoard and the Ring will be everything Good and Desirable and Fulfilling, and so they will be the opposite of Odin, the opposite of the Ancient God.
Sigi was the son of Odin. Sigi murdered someone and he was driven from his homeland, embarking with his followers on an immense journey and guided by Odin. After many adventures he came to a seacoast and managed to take possession of some ships, with these he took to pirating and became so successful that he eventually became king of a territory rather than simply of a band of armed men. From this base and through a judicious marriage he became king of the country of the Huns (Hungary), and now he was a very powerful king. His success kept growing, finally he became so admired that his wife's brothers killed him out of envy.
That put his son, Renir, in a quandary. He liked his uncles very much, but they had killed his father so he was torn. He went back and forth on this for a bit, but in the end he took revenge for his father, killed his uncles, and established himself as king. He was less successful, however, in producing children. So Odin sent him a special apple, and after eating some of that he succeeded in producing a son, Volsung. Volsung became king in his time, and he had ten sons and a daughter. The daughter, Signy, was to be married to Siggeir, the king of Gautland in what we now call Sweden.
At the wedding feast an old man appeared, tall and grey-haired with one blind eye and carrying a Sword. That was Odin. He thrust the Sword into a huge tree, and he said that only he who was worthy of this Sword would be able to draw it out. Everybody including Siggeir tried, but no one could draw out the Sword but Sigmund, Volsung’s eldest son. Now Siggeir didn’t like that. He was very rich and powerful, so he thought he was entitled to the Sword and he tried to buy it. But Sigmund replied, with no tact at all, that the sword was obviously meant for no one but himself and he would not even consider selling it. Siggeir liked that even less.
So Siggeir invited Volsung and his sons to visit Gautland. Everyone knew that there was something wrong with that invitation, but Volsung went, because he did not want it said that he had ever run from anything. Well, no one had occasion to say that, but Volsung was killed and all ten of his sons were captured. Nine of the ten sons were then killed by a werewolf, but Sigmund slew the werewolf and escaped into the forests of Gautland.
Signy had two sons by Siggeir. When she thought they were old enough, she sent them into the woods to Sigmund to help him kill their father. However, Sigmund found that they were not bold enough for the job, and so she told him to then kill them both and he did. She then exchanged forms with a witch woman. And in the witch woman’s shape, she went to her brother and got a child from him. She reasoned that a child with the blood of Volsung on both sides would be fierce enough to kill her husband. And she was right. The child, named Sinfjotli was fierce enough, maybe too fierce. He went to his father and they began to roam the forests murdering and robbing people, they became werewolves eventually. At one point, Odin intervened to save Sinfjotli’s life.
When Sigmund thought Sinfjotli was ready, the two of them invaded Siggeir’s hall and killed the two sons that had since been born to Siggeir and Signy. They accomplished nothing else however, they were only two and Siggeir’s warriors overpowered them. Siggeir had them buried alive in a great mound of earth, but Signy smuggled Odin’s Sword to them before they were covered. With this, they cut their way through a stone slab, and they cut their way out of the mound, and they went back to Sigeir’s hall, and they burned Siggeir’s hall, and they burned him and everyone else who was asleep in the hall.
Signy however was not in the hall, she was with Sigmund and Sinfjotli. As she watched the hall burn, she said to them, “Now you know whether I remember the murder of Volsung. For his sake, I have born a son to my brother, I have murdered my children, and I am not fit to live.” And then she walked into the burning hall to join her husband. (Volsungasaga, 8. The actual speech is longer.)
Sigmund and Sinfjotli returned to Hunland. They recovered the kingship with their swords, and Sigmund married a woman named Borghild. However, Sinfjotli killed Borghild’s brother in a fight, she in turn poisoned him, and he died. So Sigmund left her and married a woman named Hjordis. But Hjordis had another suitor who didn’t accept this, and he invaded Hunland with a large army.
There was a battle between the Huns and the invaders. It went on for a long time until Sigmund saw Odin striding towards him, looking very serious, carrying a spear. And when Odin got too close Sigmund swung Odin’s Sword, Odin parried it with his spear and the Sword shattered. And Odin disappeared. Sigmund knew that this would be his life's last day, and he urged his men on more fiercely than ever and he stopped trying to parry blows.
Until he was cut down and the Huns were defeated. But Hjordis escaped and found shelter with the king of Denmark, and she carried with her Sigmund's unborn son. The son was named Sigurd, elsewhere called Sigfried. He is the principal character in the second-to-last generation who will make the choice.
When Sigurd came of age, the king of Denmark gave him the choice of any of the king’s horses to have for his own. Odin appeared and showed him which horse to choose, and so he chose Grani. Grani was the best and bravest horse in the world, and he was completely devoted to Sigurd and to no one else. And in fact Grani was descended from Odin’s own horse, Sleipnir, and Grani will have an enormous effect on Sigurd’s life. But meanwhile, Odin began another chain of events without meaning to:
There was a man named Hreidmar who had three sons: one, Regin, was a dwarf and a supremely skilled metalworker, another, Fafnir, was huge and strong and violent, the third, Otr, was a shape-changer and could change himself into an otter to catch fish for the others. Otr was asleep on a riverbank in his animal form, when the Gods Odin, Loki and Hoenir happened along. Loki could never leave anything alone, and he threw a stone at the sleeping otter and killed him. Hreidmar found out who had killed his son and demanded gold from the Gods in compensation, this was the customary practice in those days. Hreidmar was extremely formidable, and the Gods were not at that moment in their full power. The Gods had to take this matter completely seriously, and they sent Loki to find gold.
Loki found a dwarf, named Andvar. Andvar lived in a cave behind a waterfall, or else in a lake somewhere in the region of the dark elves. Wherever he lived, he had a hoard of gold. Loki forced him to hand it over which he did, all except a single ring which he was very reluctant to give up. Loki was not noted for generosity, and he forced Andvar to give over the Ring as well. Then, after the Hoard was Loki's and not Andvar's, Andvar seemed to realize that something had begun. He told Loki that the Hoard was Fated to destroy whoever owned it, and by far the most dangerous part of the Hoard was the Ring. The Ring had no effect on Andvar in his solitary life in the water-apart from possessing him with greed for it. He had no friends and therefore no one to kill him. But now the Ring was out in the world, and indeed something had begun.
According to the compensation agreement, the Gods were to fill the dead otter's skin with gold and then completely cover it with gold. They did that using all of the Hoard, only one whisker still stuck out from the pile. Hreidmar demanded that they produce more gold to cover that last whiskertip, and it turned out that they had more gold, Odin had been reluctant to part with the Ring and had held it back. The Ring just covered that last whiskertip and the debt was paid. (Volsungasaga: 14 and Poetic Edda, Lay of Regin and Prose Edda, Skáldskaparmál: XLVI)
Hreidmar now had the Hoard and the Ring, and he refused to share it with his sons. Fafnir murdered him in his sleep, took the treasure and refused to share it with Regin. Regin the dwarf didn't dare do anything against Fafnir, and he left home. Fafnir kept the Hoard and the Ring and became completely dominated by them, eventually he became a grotesque dragon brooding over his Hoard, afraid to leave it, poisoning all the country near it. He would never again leave that place, and his eyes would never again see anything but the Hoard and poisoned withered desolation.
Regin went to the Danish court. There he met Sigurd, and Regin became Sigurd’s foster father. Now in this position, Regin was able to talk Sigurd into taking revenge on Fafnir for him. But if Sigurd was to do that, then he was going to need a weapon capable of killing a dragon, so Regin the master smith takes the shattered fragments of Odin’s Sword and re-forges them.
Before Sigurd could take revenge on Regin’s behalf , he had to avenge his own father. As he was sailing on his journey to do that, a terrible storm arose. As he made his way through towering waves, he saw an old man standing alone on a rock that jutted out amid monstrous crashing breakers. The old man beckoned for Sigurd to pull alongside the rock and take him aboard. Now obviously no one with even a trace of sanity would even think about doing this, but this is exactly what Sigurd did, and of course the old man turned out to be Odin. Sigurd had a half-brother, Borghild’ son, who was once sailing in a similar storm, and he told his sailors not to shorten the sail, as any remotely sane person would do, but to hoist it higher still. The Volsungs were all like this. They were good or they were bad or they were whoever they were, but they were all children of Odin.
He avenged Sigmund. After he had done that, he and Regin traveled to the poison-country of Fafnir. Fafnir, as I say, had changed into a “dragon,” that is, an enormous serpent whose breath was poison. Now you couldn’t confront a thing like that head-on, but Odin the trickster appeared and advised Sigurd to dig a trench in a place where he knew the dragon would crawl and hide in the trench. Sigurd did that, and as Fafnir crawled over the trench Sigurd stabbed him in the heart with Odin’s sword.
Regin asked Sigurd to roast the dragon's heart for him. Sigurd obeyed, but when he tested the meat with his finger to see whether it was done, he burnt his finger and stuck it in his mouth. And as soon as he had thus tasted the dragon's heart he found he could understand the language of the birds. Remember that the Greek Melampous did essentially the same thing. The birds said that he had killed Regin's brother and that he was a fool if he thought Regin wasn't going to take revenge, and that furthermore there was great wisdom to be gained from eating the heart and that Sigurd should kill Regin and eat the heart and take the treasure for himself. The birds were right, Regin wanted the dragon's heart to give him sufficient ferocity to kill Sigurd, but Sigurd had eaten first. Sigurd drew the Sword and followed the birds' advice, and then he took the Hoard and the Ring. Odin had been defeated, from this point on, Odin would never advise Sigurd again. (Volsungasaga, 20)
Sigurd had had an uncle, Gripir, who could see all of Fate. Before Sigurd set out on his travels, he had begged Gripir to tell him what his Fate would be. For a long time Gripir refused to answer, but finally Gripir told him every horrible detail of what would happen to him. (Volsungasaga: 16) And now when he killed Fafnir, and as Fafnir lay dying, Fafnir told Sigurd what would happen to him if he took the Hoard and the Ring. (Volsungasaga: 18) But he took the Hoard and the Ring, and he rode off and out of the country. He rode until he met a valkyrie named Brynhild. A valkyrie was a human who was a shape-changer, but instead of changing into an animal, she became something that was not human, that was present at battles, and that chose those who would be slain. The Greeks conceived of such beings and called them keres, but where the Greeks regarded the ker as a monster, the Germanic peoples did not consider the valkyries to be monsters at all, but simply servants of Odin, and what they were as valkyries had an enormous effect on the character they had when they were human. Sigurd knew how close Brynhild was to Odin, and he asked her to teach him wisdom.
So Brynhild offered Sigurd a cup of beer, and she asked whether he would take it. But this is far from ordinary beer, this is something like the Scandinavian grasaðr mjöðr. (Heimskringla, “Saga of the Holy King Olaf”: 83) Grasaðr mjöðr is alcoholic drink with some herbal substance in it to make it stronger. There is abundant evidence for psychoactive plants in European pre-history, (Sherratt 1991: 52) traces of psychotrophic black nightshade were found in a ceremonial vessel in Scotland from the time of the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures, (Barclay 1993: 109-110, 184-185) and the Poetic Edda specifically says that Odin drinks a special mead to find an “opening” or “way,” “gat.” (Sayings of Har: 140) There is nothing surprising in any of this. Europeans continued to ingest such “vegetable substances” as opium, cannabis, henbane (black nightshade), datura, wild lettuce and many others until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of these are hallucinogenic, and all of them are psychoactive— more so than the coffee, tea, chocolate and nicotine that replaced them. (Goodman 1995: 128-132 and Smith 1995: 142-143)
So obviously this drink is much more than refreshment. If he accepts the drink, he accepts Odin and he does so on a number of levels. To begin with, he will accept a great deal of magic done with carved runes. The runes are the Norse alphabet. Where our alphabet was first made to keep business records, the Norse alphabet, the runes, were first made to use in magic. She teaches him technical points such as where to carve what rune and the purpose of the various runes, but the knowledge that is the magic itself is not learned but “accepted.” And the question is, will he accept this magic? She also teaches him wisdom that has to do with steering the ship of his life. She tells him how to avoid certain spirit-beings. She tells him to avoid drunken arguments. She tells him to be careful of pretty women. She tells him to be very conservative and very careful about taking revenge. This is important, because revenge runs all through the story of the House of Volsung. Atli, the one character in the storywho doesn’t take revenge, is seen as negative and weak, and Sigurd’s step-sons, who do take revenge, but reluctantly, clearly have nothing to do with Odin. All the positive characters in the story take revenge, and Signy was pretty fanatical about it. But here, we are told to be conservative about revenge, to think twice about taking it. In fact, Odin has nothing to do with revenge and he has nothing to do with the horrible situations that revenge produces and that occur over and over in the story of the House of Volsung. Odin is a response that some people have when faced with such situations, he has nothing to do with the situations themselves.
Sigurd accepts wisdom, he accepts magic, he accepts knowledge, and he accepts her. She is Odin’s valkyre, and the embodiment of Odin, and when he accepts her, his life becomes much more than a series of objects of desire. When he accepts her, he accepts his own life. And he accepts the whole of his own life: Brynhild now tells him: (Volsungasaga: 21, 20)
Now you must choose,
since to you is offered choice,
Maple Shaft of Sharp Weapons.
A tale or silence,
you take for you,
your own mind,
all the tale is determined.
Nú skaltu kjósa
alls thér er kostr of bothinn
hvassa vopna hlynr.
Sögn etha thögn
haf thu thér sjálfr of hug.
Öll eru mál of metin.
He must choose whether to “take” or “have,” hafa, what has been determined. When she says, “maple shaft of sharp weapons,” she is referring to him. Will he have this? will he take it? Will he accept in his own mind everything that he is, all the failures and all the defeats that are going to belong to him? Brynhild says that he has no choice about what will happen to him, it’s going to happen, but he can accept this or he can not accept it. He can accept the beer, the magic, the wisdom, his life, his Fate, he can accept Odin and he can accept her, it’s all the same decision. He says: (Volsungasaga: 21, 21)
I will not run away.
I will have all of it
for all of my life.
emkat eg með bleyði borinn.
vil eg öll of hafa
svo lengi sem eg lifí.
From now on the Ring will rule everything, it will be stronger than he and Brynhild together, it will be stronger than love, it will be stronger than human will, human heart and human intelligence. And it will be stronger than Odin. Odin's power is limited, and it is his Fate to be defeated in the end. (Poetic Edda, Prophecy of the Seeress: 52) Sigurd will remain a child of Odin and his life will remain one of power and spirit and faith. But from now on his spirit will always work against him and will destroy everything he would protect. From now on he will always be defeated. He knows all this, and he chooses it.
And he chooses Brynhild, Odin's valkyrie. They pledged to one another that they would marry, then he rode off. He rode on till he reached the hall of Heimir, and he found her there living her ordinary life. Brynhild was a Hunnish princess and the sister of Atli, elsewhere called Atilla, but she was being fostered with Heimir. In those days people would often have their children grow up in the house of a friend, as another way of binding families together. In Heimir's hall they again pledged themselves to each other, and he gave her the Ring. (Volsungasaga: 25) They conceived a daughter.
Then he rides on further until h e reaches the kingdom of Burgundy. He stays there with king Gyuki, his wife Grimhild, his daughter Gudrun and his three sons Gunnar, Hogni and Guttorm. Grimhild was a sorceress, and she wanted to incorporate a potent man like Sigurd into her family. She gave him a poison that caused him to forget Brynhild; he completely forgets Brynhild, he forgets he ever met her. And in time he swore a pact of brotherhood with Grimhild’s sons, and he married Gudrun. (Volsungasaga: 28)
Grimhild then decided that Brynhild would make a good match for Gunnar, and she sent Sigurd and Gunnar to try to win her. Brynhild had been given no poison and was aware that she was married to no one but Sigurd, so she surrounded herself with a wall of flames and vowed that she would marry none but the man who could ride through it. She knew that no one could do that but Sigurd. (Volsungasaga: 29) Gunnar was willing to try, but his horse would have nothing to do with it. Sigurd’s horse, Grani, the best and bravest horse in the world, the gift of Odin, was quite able to pass through the firewall, but he would allow no one to ride him except Sigurd. So Sigurd and Gunnar changed shapes, and Granni and Sigurd in Gunnar’s shape rode through the flames. Brynhild did not know what to make of this stranger who, was where Sigurd should have been, but she had vowed to have the man who passed through the flames, and for Brynhild the valkyrie to break a vow was not thinkable.
Furthermore, Brynhild’s foster-father advised her to keep her vow. Signy too had married a man though “my mind does not laugh with him,” “eigi gerir hugur minn hlæja við honum,” with equally disastrous results and also on the advice of her father. (Volsungasaga: 4)
He stayed with her inside the firewall for three nights, but they slept with Odin’s unsheathed sword between them. He explained that this was necessary because of a vow he had made. He’s been poisoned, he has no idea who she is, and the Ring is as irresistible as ever. Remember that she’s still wearing the Ring. And at night while she sleeps, he steals the Ring from her sleeping finger and replaces it with another. Now, the Ring has conquered everything. Sigurd’s courage and Grani’s loyalty have been turned against them, Odin’s sword that should have protected their house against anything has sundered it. They have already been destroyed, nothing remains for them but to know it.
Brynhild married Gunner, as she had vowed. Sigurd, Gudrun, Gunnar and Brynhild all lived together in Gjuki’s household. One day Gudrun and Brynhild were bathing in the Rhine, and Brynhild pointedly moved farther out into the river than Gudrun. She did this to show that she was of higher rank than Gudrun, since her husband Gunnar was king. Gudrun questioned this, and Brynhild said, “My husband Gunnar rode through the firewall, but your Sigurd was a dependent of the Danish king.”
Gudrun, who had kept her mouth shut until now, said, “ It was Sigurd who rode through the fire, not Gunnar, and it was Sigurd who slept with you on your wedding night, not Gunnar. And Sigurd gave me something that he took from you that night.” And she held up the Ring. (Volsungasaga: 30) Now they know.
Brynhild was a Valkyrie, she was completely of Odin. She was pure truth, pure poetry, absolute integrity. She was what she was unequivocally. Like Oidipous, she did not think about what was good for herself or for anyone else, she did not think about what was good, desirable, sensible, advantageous or even sane, she didn’t want anything but the truth. And the only truth was that she was Sigurd’s wife, and if that truth was impossible then so was she. We have already seen what happens to the best of all men, the best of all horses and the best of all swords when perverted by the Ring. Now that part of her that should have made her the best of all wives will be perverted, and it will lead her into murder.
Sigurd had eventually recovered from the poison and remembered who Brynhild was, but by then it was far too late. He accepted such happiness as was possible and hoped that the horrible things that had been foretold would somehow not happen. He only agreed to leave Gudrun and marry Brynhild again when Brynhild had become so unstable that it was clear she might die. But such a marriage would mean dishonor, and dishonor for Brynhild was not a possibility. Like Oidipous she could not think of what might be good, but only about what was true. And truth was no longer possible. She knew Gunnar’s weaknesses, she knew her husband’s weaknesses, and she played on them day after day after day, and the Hoard and the Ring pulled on him. And finally he and his brothers murdered Sigurd, and they took the Hoard and Ring. When Sigurd died, Brynhild died as well. Then she killed her lifeless body with Odin’s sword. She and her husband Sigurd lay on the same funeral pyre and were burned on the same pyre, lying side by side with the sword between them as it was in life.
When Sigurd says, “I will not run away, Your love, I will have all of it for all of my life,” that is what he chose to accept. When Brynhild asks him if he will accept the cup of beer, accept the magic of Odin, the wisdom of Odin, accept every horrible thing that will happen to him in his life, when she asks him if he will accept her and her love, this is what she is asking. She doesn’t fully understand what she is asking, but he does, he knows what she is asking him to accept, he knows exactly what will happen. He knows that his wife, his love, half of his life, will become so perverse that she will incite his best friends to murder him, and that they will murder him, that all his courage and his strength and his spirit will work against him, will work to destroy him and everything he loves, and all of her courage, all of her strength, all of her spirit will work against her and destroy her and everything she loves. They will be ground into the dust. He knows exactly what he is taking when she asks him if he will take her, and he takes her. He says, “I will have all of it for all of my life.” He is completely of Odin.
There are ways in which the Ring controls Odin and the children of Odin, and there are ways in which it cannot touch them. It can harm them, it can destroy them, but it cannot touch their souls. The power of Odin is the power to be human, and nothing that happens and nothing the Ring does can touch that.
Sigurd is the principal character in the second-to-last generation who makes the choice that is the center of the story. As always, this choice does not come at the end of the story and does not necessarily resolve the plot. Here is the rest of the story: Brynhild and Sigurd conceive a daughter, Aslaung, (Volsungasaga: 25 & 29) When Sigurd is murdered Heimir flees with little Aslaung. But their luck is bad, Heimir is murdered, and Aslaung is made into a slave. But she is a child of Odin, and she knows the language of the birds. (Ragnar Lodbrok’s Saga: 9) When she grows up, a rich man becomes so impressed with her intelligence and her beauty, that he asks her to marry him. She passes beyond the reach of the Ring. (Ragnar Lodbrok’s Saga: 1, 5-6, 9-11, 15)
Sigurd and Gudrun have an infant son who is murdered after Sigurd’s death, but their daughter, Svanhild, is spared. Gudrun had lost her husband and her son and she was inconsolable, so Grimhild gave her some more poison to forget and married her off to Atli, king of the Huns.
That was another bad move, since Atli wanted revenge for his sister Brynhild. Alti also wanted to get his hands on the Hoard that Gudrun's brothers had now taken possession of; the Hoard had been a motive in their decision to murder Sigurd. The brothers knew quite well that there was something wrong with Atli's invitation to visit, but Just as Volsung could not quite decide to stay away from Siggeir, just as the Trojans could never quite decide to give up Helen, the Brothers could never quite decide not to go, though that was the obvious thing to do at every point. They knew they might not come back and they guessed that Atli had more than a casual interest in the Hoard, so they sunk the Hoard and the Ring in the Rhine in a place known only to themselves. (Volsungasaga: 39) Atli did indeed kill them as soon as they arrived at his court, but he never got the Hoard. The Hoard and the Ring disappeared back into the waters and never killed anyone again, though their aftermath would last a while and remained fatal.
Sigurd had saved some of the dragon's heart he had cut out of Fafnir, and when he had married Gudrun he had given her some of it to eat. (Volsungasaga: 28) After Atli killed her brothers, she murdered her two sons that she had born him and served their flesh to him at table, and then she told him what he had eaten. Atli berated her but did nothing. Then she waited until he went to bed drunk one night, murdered him in his sleep and set fire to his hall, killing everyone in his household.
We don't fully understand this story unless we understand that the people involved were just as appalled by these things as we are. And indeed like Signy, Gudrun no longer wanted to live, she filled her arms with stones and walked into the sea. (Volsungasaga: 41) But the sea was not kind to her, great waves picked her up and carried her over the water to the land of a king named Jonakr. Jonakr married her and had three sons by her, and Svanhild, Sigurd's daughter, joined her there. Svanhild was to be married to an old king named Jormunrek, but on her way to Jormunrek's country she fell in love with his son instead. Jormunrek killed both of them.
After she learned of Svanhild's death Gudrun would give her sons, by Jonakr, no peace until they had agreed to avenge their sister, finally they agreed and they set out toward Jormunrek's country. On the way there, two of the brothers killed the third simply out of nervous irritation. When they found Jormunrek they cut off his hands and feet, but they did not succeed in killing him before his warriors stepped in. They fought for a while, but Jormunrek's men could not overcome them and they were kept too busy to finish off Jormunrek. Then Odin appeared and gave Jormunrek's men good advice on how to kill the brothers, and the brothers were killed. Odin was not punishing the brothers, Odin never punished anyone unless they insulted him. (Poetic Edda, Lay of Grimnir) Whatever his motives, and if indeed he had any, they had nothing to do with the brothers. It was just that, unlike Sigmund, Sigurd and the others, the brothers had nothing to do with Odin and were none of his business.
Certain things are becoming clear, and they will be completely clear by the time you finish “The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles II and III. The Greeks and the Northern Europeans had a number of cultural factors in common. We have already seen that they both sang their most important literature to the lyre, and we have seen that they had the Shield Poem in common, we have seen that both cultures connected serpents with Knowledge in fairly specific ways, and we will see more of their common cultural ground later. And we have also seen that the Family Cycle, an integral part of both cultures, was identical in every way in both cultures. The lyre, the Shield Poem and the associations concerning serpents probably go back to a time when the people who became Greek and the people who became Germanic shared a common culture, and the Family Cycle, which was fundamental to both the Greek and the Germanic peoples, absolutely went back to such a time.
There is much more to say about all this, but we can already see several things: (1) The Greek language is most closely associated with Indic and Iranian, (Anthony 2007: 51-55) but a very large block of Greek ancient literature is solidly Germanic, or a large block of Germanic literature is solidly Greek. (2) The God that these stories are about is as old as a time when the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germanic peoples shared the same literature and culture. By far the most important aspect of these stories, the choice that is made concerning this God, this choice is an integral part of both the ancient Greek and Germanic cultures and it goes back to the time when these cultures were being formed.
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