Culture Heroes

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CULTURE HEROES . The culture hero is a mythical being found in the religious traditions of many archaic societies. Although the culture hero sometimes assists the supreme being in the creation of the world, the most important activity for the culture hero occurs after creation: making the world habitable and safe for humankind. The culture hero establishes institutions for humans, brings them cultural goods, and instructs them in the arts of civilization. Thus, the hero introduces culture to human beings.

The culture hero, unlike the supreme being, is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. In some cases, the hero's behavior resembles that of a clown or buffoon; in the myths of many North American Indian tribes the culture hero appears as the trickster. Various scholars have referred to the culture hero as transformer, demiurge, culture bringer, héros civilisateur, and, most frequently, Heilbringer.

History of Scholarship

The German historian Kurt Breysig first introduced the term Heilbringer in 1905. Since then, the idea of the culture hero has been interpreted in various ways. Early interpretations emphasized the place of the culture hero in the evolution of the idea of a supreme being. Breysig, for example, saw the culture hero as belonging to a stage of religious development that was not only earlier than, but also inferior to, humankind's awareness of a personal supreme being. The German ethnologist Paul Ehrenreich, in developing his theory of "nature mythology," interpreted the myths about culture heroes as attempts by primitive humans to understand their natural surroundings. Ehrenreich saw in the culture hero the embodiment of the structure and rhythms of natural phenomena, for example, the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the movement of the stars and constellations. On the other hand, Wilhelm Schmidt, an ethnologist and historian of religions, was the chief proponent of the doctrine of primitive monotheism (Urmonotheismus ). Theorizing that even early humans believed in a supreme being, he contended that the Heilbringer was never a genuine creator and that the form appeared in archaic societies after, not before, the idea of the supreme being.

The interpretations of Breysig, Ehrenreich, and Schmidt have been rejected by later students of culture and historians of religions, who, having access to more and different ethnological data, have recognized the autonomy and complexity of the culture hero. Scholars such as Hermann Baumann, Adolf E. Jensen, Mircea Eliade, Otto Zerries, Raffaele Pettazzoni, and Harry Tegnaeus have made significant contributions to a new appreciation and understanding of the culture hero. Rather than pursue an evolutionary approach, these scholars have examined the relation between the details of the myths and the historical and cultural realities of the archaic societiestheir economic activity, their political and social institutions, and their attitude toward space, time, and mortality.

Characteristic Activities

In many of the myths that tell of the culture hero's exploits, the culture hero is portrayed as setting the stage for human survival. The myth of the Jicarilla Apaches of the southwestern United States tells how the culture hero Jonayaiuin saved humanity by destroying huge monsters that were killing people. By removing this threat of annihilation, the culture hero made the world fit for human habitation. The Malecite Indians of northern Maine tell that long ago a monster, Aglabem, withheld all the water in the world, causing people to die of thirst. Their culture hero, referred to as "a great man," killed Aglabem and released the waters by felling a huge tree. This tree became the Saint John River; its branches, the tributaries of the river; its leaves, the ponds and lakes at the heads of the streams. To the tellers of this myth, the shape of the landscape is evidence that the culture hero made the world fit for human life.

In various ways, the culture hero creates distinctions between humans and animals. The Tupian peoples of the Amazon basin in eastern Brazil believe that Korupira, a deity who is referred to as "lord of the beasts," protects wild game against human hunters. Korupira has the power to close the forest to hunters and punish those who kill his animals needlessly. The Mbuti, hunters and gatherers who inhabit the rain forest of central Africa, are one of many groups who credit their culture hero with bringing them fire. The Mbuti hero, Tore, stole fire, much to the chagrin of the neighboring chimpanzees, and gave it to humankind. From that time on, humans have enjoyed the use of fire while chimpanzees have lived in the forest without it. In the stories of numerous societies, the culture hero introduced humans to speech and manners, established the social differences between males and females, and instituted the laws of society.

The culture hero is also perceived as making economic life possible for humans. According to the myths of the San (Bushmen), a hunting and gathering people living in South Africa and Namibia, the culture hero Kaang created all wild game and gave the animals their colors, names, and characteristics. He taught the San how to make bows, poisoned arrows, traps, and snares, and he instructed them in hunting techniques. Tudava, the culture hero of the Trobriand Islanders, not only taught the Trobrianders how to build canoes and to fish but introduced them to the cultivation of yams and taros, the first root crops. Nyikang, the culture hero and first king of the Shilluk, pastoral nomads of East Africa, is said to have been the son of a cow. He released the waters and provided grazing land for the Shilluk's cattle. Among the Dogon people of Mali, West Africa, the twin culture heroes known as Nommo are credited with bringing the first millet seeds from heaven to earth and with teaching the arts of blacksmithing and pottery.

In numerous myths, the culture hero is connected with the origin of death. In a story told by the Khoi (Hottentots) of South Africa, the moon sends an insect to tell humans that after they die they will come back to life, as the moon does. The culture hero, Hare, overtakes the insect and volunteers to carry the message. However, Hare delivers the opposite message to humans, saying that they will perish forever.

Through the adventures in which they ensure human survival, institute the difference between humans and animals, introduce humankind to social and economic activity, and originate human mortality, the culture heros save the human race from chaos. They order and arrange the world, introducing humankind to the possibilities of human creativity.

Birth of the Culture Hero

The culture hero is able to perform these feats because he is imbued with power; he comes from another world. His divine origin is revealed in his parentage and in the supernatural nature of his birth. Tudava, the culture hero of the Trobriand Islanders, was said to have been born of a mother who became pregnant while sleeping in a cave, when her vagina was pierced by water dripping from a stalactite. The mother of Manabozho, the culture hero of the Menomini tribe of North America, was made pregnant by the wind. The mother of the culture hero of the Dinka of East Africa came to earth already pregnant. Among several African peoples, the culture hero was born from the knee or thigh of a man or woman. Regardless of the way the culture hero is born, his origin is not of this world.

Disappearance and Transmutation

After setting the world in order for humankind, the culture hero usually disappears. Sometimes the culture hero is killed while conquering monsters; frequently returning to a point of origininto the sky or earth. In the myths of several peoples, the culture hero is transformed into the moon or stars or constellations. In other instances, particularly among the Australian tribes, the culture hero disappears into the earth at a specific spot, which is marked by a stone, a plant, or a body of water. Such a place, imbued as it is with power, becomes the site of the tribe's initiation and increase ceremonies.

One of the dramatic myths of the disappearance and transformation of a culture hero is that of the people on the island of Ceram in Indonesia, reported by the German ethnologist Adolf E. Jensen. The principal culture hero, Hainuwele, who in this case was a maiden, was murdered by other beings in mythical times. Their punishment, imposed by Hainuwele's sister, was that they were forced to consume the body of their victim. Then the body of Hainuwele was transformed into useful root crops, which before that time had not existed. Her sister became mistress of the underworld. This primeval murder signaled the end of mythical time and the beginning of the historical world.

The events leading up to the murder and transformation of Hainuwele established the institution of cannibalism among the people of Ceram. It also established the initiation ceremony: The young men must kill, imitating the primordial murder of Hainuwele as part of their rite of passage to manhood. Further consequences of this murder were the cultivation of root crops, the delineation of the people into separate clans, the establishment of cult houses, the separation of humans from ghosts and spirits, and the establishment of rules governing entrance to the mythical land of the afterlife. Jensen's research demonstrated the significance of the murdered culture hero among those peoples who practice root crop cultivation.

In the mythology of the Cheyenne of North America, maize originated from the murdered body of their culture hero. The transmutation of the culture hero into food, however, is not limited to the myths of agricultural societies. The Central Inuit (Eskimo) tell of Sedna, a female culture hero, who was murdered by her father. Different sea animals emerged from parts of her mutilated bodywhales from her fingers, whale bones from her fingernails, and seals from the second joints of her fingers. As in the case of Hainuwele's sister, Sedna became the mistress of the underworld.

Various Manifestations

The culture hero often appears as twins, who usually symbolize opposites. They may be of different sexes. Frequently the elder is the hero while the younger is depicted as foolish and inept. The twin heroes of the Iroquois of North America are brothers who have different fathers: One, who represents good, is the son of the sun, while his brother, who represents evil, is the son of the waters.

While Hainuwele, Sedna, and many other culture heroes are anthropomorphic, the culture heroes of many societies are theriomorphic. In Oceania, the culture hero is frequently a snake; in South America he is often a jaguar. In many tribes of North America and Africa, the culture hero appears as an animal or insect and has the characteristics of a trickster. Ananse the spider, the culture hero of many of the peoples of West Africa, is popularly known as "the foolish one"; the southern African San's culture hero, Praying Mantis, is seen as a mischievous trickster. Among North American tribes, the coyote, the hare, the mink, the chipmunk, and the crow are common forms of the trickster.

In many instances, the activities of the trickster parallel those of other culture heroes: The trickster destroys monsters, creates animals, and introduces humans to various forms of technology and social institutions. However, the trickster's adventures are also marked by failures and stumblings, deceptions and lies, awkwardness and crudity. Tricksters are often portrayed as oversexed, gluttonous, and amoral. They continually violate the institutions and prohibitions they had established. They can be alternately gracious and cruel, truthful and mendacious.

The American anthropologist Paul Radin (1956) interprets the figure of the trickster and the trickster's adventures as symbolic of humankind's development from an undifferentiated psyche to a differentiated and individual one. The adventures of the trickster, Radin contends, are symbolic of the movement from a state of asociality or nonsociality to one of sociality, from isolation to being a part of the community. The trickster not only creates or modifies the physical and social environment of humankind; by violation of the social rules and the contempt the trickster exhibits toward sacred objects, the trickster creates a kind of internal space for humankind. The trickster legitimates rebellion and disobedience by constantly challenging the status quo of the cosmos.

The phenomenon of the culture hero is very complex. Although the hero usually appears as male, some cultures have a culture heroine. In some societies, the hero is the object of a cult; in others he or she is not. Sometimes the culture hero appears as the offspring of the supreme being and assists in creation; in other instances, the culture hero is the supreme being's adversary. Visible forms of the culture hero range from human to animal, from insect to heavenly body.

Having completed his or her task on earth, the culture hero disappears, sometimes ascending to the sky or descending to the underworld. Occasionally the culture hero is transformed into a natural phenomenon such as the stars or the moon, while in some religious traditions the hero's parting accounts for shapes in the landscape.

In spite of the multifarious forms and adventures of the culture hero as they appears in different cultures, the culture hero clearly discloses one characteristic: The culture hero's mode of being reveals the sacrality of cultural and social institutions and activities that constitute the context of ordinary life for humankind. Participation in these activities by the people of archaic societies provides meaning and value to their lives and enables them to live in a sacred cosmos.

See Also

Animals; Cosmogony; Death; Lord of the Animals; Tricksters; Twins.


A general discussion of the culture hero can be found in the chapter entitled "Mythische Urzeitwesen und Heilbringer" in Ferdinand Hermann's Symbolik in den Religionen der Naturvölker (Stuttgart, 1961), pp. 98109. This book also contains an excellent bibliography. Two good books on the culture hero in Africa are Hermann Baumann's Schöpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Völker (Berlin, 1936) and Harry Tegnaeus's Le héros civilisateur (Stockholm, 1950). Otto Zerries's Wild- und Buschgeister in Sudamerika (Weisbaden, 1954) is an exhaustive study of the culture hero in the myths of hunting and gathering cultures in South America. The role of the culture hero among archaic cultivators is discussed in Adolf E. Jensen's Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples (Chicago, 1963). This book also treats the relation of the culture hero to the supreme being. The pioneering work on the trickster figure among North American Indians in Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York, 1956). A readable and enlightening critique of Radin's position can be found in Mac Linscott Ricketts's "The North American Indian Trickster," History of Religions 5 (Winter 1966): 327350. Robert D. Pelton, in The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight (Berkeley Calif., 1980) extends the study of the trickster to the peoples of Africa and applies methods of literary criticism in his analysis.

Jerome H. Long (1987)