The Warrior and His Gods

In “The Stakes of the Warrior” Georges Dumézil uses his theory of the tri-functional structure of Indo-European society as a framework for the analyses of stories belonging to three different areas of the world; India, Scandinavia, and Greece. His comparative study includes the Scandinavian saga of Starkaṓr, the Indian tale of Śiśupāla, and the Greek story of Herakles.((Dumézil, Georges. The Stakes of the Warrior. Translated by David Weeks. Ed. With introduction by Jaan Puhvel, University of CA Press, Berkeley, LA, London. 1983)  This study was cited in Hermes in India and it will be used again in subsequent posts, so I would like to summarize it here.

In each story the hero sins against each of the three Indo-European functions–the functions of the sovereign, the warrior, and fertility or sexuality. In the process he fails in the very duties and responsibilities that give his life meaning. An important element in each story is the rivalry of two deities who take an interest in the life of the hero, and are directly or indirectly responsible for his crimes.


For the Scandinavian tale of Starkaṓr there are two sources. One is the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus (1150–after 1216). The other is the Gautrekssage, which is a redaction of the poem, the Vikarsbálkr, from the 13th or 14th century. The saga also adds additional material from ancient sources. Saxo calls the hero Starcatherus; the saga calls him Starkaṓr.

Starkaṓr/Starcatherus is either a giant, or he has giant ancestry. In the saga, his grandfather was a giant but he has a human form. In Saxo he is born with extra arms and Thor prunes them off, giving him a human appearance. The child begins life under the patronage of Othinus or Odin, but also under the hostile and watchful eye of Thor, who hates giants in general, and according to the saga, Starkaṓr in particular.

As Starkaṓr’s story begins, the fathers of little Starkaṓr and Vikar are killed in battle. The boys are brought up together among the people of Herthjófr, king of Hördaland. One of Herthjófr’s men, Hrosshársgrani raises Starkaṓr. Hrosshársgrani is Odin in disguise, and the god has dark designs on him. Although he is supposed to be Starkaṓr’s protector, he has decided that Starkaṓr will be the one to bring him Vikar, king of Norway and Starkaṓr’s childhood friend, as a sacrifice.

After living for nine years with Hrosshársgrani, Starkaṓr helps Vikar reconquer his realm, and accompanies him on many victorious expeditions. During a Viking expedition Vikar’s fleet is “becalmed” near a small island. The king and his crew have a “magical consultation” and determine that Odin wants a man of the army to be sacrificed by hanging. They draw lots and the king is chosen. After this shocking development they postpone deliberations until the next day.

In the meantime Hrosshársgrani acts. He wakes Starkaṓr and takes him to the Island and through a forest. In a clearing they come upon a strange assembly.

“A crowd of beings of human appearance are gathered around twelve high seats, eleven of which are already occupied by the chief gods. Revealing himself for who he is, Odin ascends the twelfth seat and announces that the order of business is the determination of the fate of Starkaṓr…The event comes down to a magical-oratorical duel between Odin and Thor.”

Thor hates Starkaṓr because his grandfather was a giant. He hates him even more because his grandfather, long ago, abducted a young girl. When Thor rescued her he found that she actually preferred the giant over the “Thor of the Æsir”! This was Starkaṓr’s grandmother. In consequence of this lasting grudge, Thor imposes Starkaṓr’s first curse before the council of the gods, “Starkaṓr will have no children.”

Odin compensates for this curse. “Starkaṓr will have three human life spans.”

It continues in this way, the gods taking turns.

Thor says “He will commit a villainy in each.”

Odin answers, “He will always have the best arms and the best raiments.”

Thor: “He will have neither land nor real property.”

Odin: “He will have fine furnishings.”

Thor: “He will never feel he has enough.”

Odin: “He will have success and victory in every combat.”

Thor: “He will receive a grave wound in every combat.”

Odin: “He will have the gift of poetry and improvisation.”

Thor: “He will forget all he has composed.”

Odin: “He will appeal to the well-born and the great.”

Thor: “He will be despised by the common folk.”

As they return to the ship, Odin informs Starkaṓr that he must pay for the assistance he has just received by sending him the king, or in other words, by putting Vikar in a position to be sacrificed. Odin will take care of the rest. Starkaṓr is apparently convinced that he must pay and he agrees to help Odin.

The next day Starkaṓr suggests to the king that they carry out a mock sacrifice and Vikar agrees. Starkaṓr bends down the limb of a tree and fastens a noose to it and also around Vikar’s neck. Then Starkaṓr takes a magic reed-stick given him by Odin and thrusts it at the king saying, “Now I give thee to Odin.” Then he releases the branch. The reed-stick becomes a spear and pierces the king. The branch springs up and drags the king into the leaves, where he dies.

“From this deed Starkaṓr became much despised by the people and was exiled from Hördaland.”

Now we depend on Saxo’s version. Starcatherus still has a long career ahead of him and he accomplishes many admirable exploits, but after the death in battle of another master, a Swedish king, he shamefully flees from the battlefield, allowing the army to be defeated. After this debacle, he joins an army of Danish vikings and eventually serves the Danish king, Frotho, where he is a “model of martial virtue”.

For his third sin he allows conspirators to bribe him and he kills another master, the Danish king Olo. He has already sinned against his duty to kings and his duty as a warrior. In taking a bribe for the murder of Olo he sins against the morality of the third function–not through sexuality but through greed.

The hero has been aging during his three life spans but he keeps all of his strength until after the third crime. Finally old age, his many wounds, and his crimes burden him to the point where he wishes for his own death. He doesn’t want to die shamefully of old age so he looks for a warrior who will give him an honorable death. Providentially he meets Hatherus, the son of one of the conspirators in the murder of Olo. He confesses that he is the one who killed Hatherus’ father, (Starcatherus killed all of the conspirators).  Hatherus agrees to behead him in exchange for the money that Starcatherus received for killing Olo. Starcatherus also wishes to give Hatherus his invulnerability and tells him to stand between his head and his body after his death. In a moment of suspicion, however, Hatherus stands back and does not accept this gift.


Dumézil acknowledges that there are problems posed by the character of Kṛṣṇa in the Mahabharata. He thinks that what is said about him is a transposition of the myth of an ancient Viṣṇu, like that which produced the Pandavas from an archaic list of the functional gods. But for this study it is enough that the relationship of Kṛṣṇa/Viṣṇu is stated in the episode. It provides structure comparable to the tale of Starkaṓr/Starcatherus.

The story of Śiśupāla is not central to the cosmic conflict in the Mahabharata. And while Starcatherus, aside from his three crimes, was a perfect example of a defender of kingship, as well as a warrior and a teacher, the Indian hero is said to be the reincarnation of a demon that Viṣṇu has already killed twice in past lives. We learn of his previous lives after he challenges the proceedings of Yudhisthira’s sacrificial ceremony. This information, and the story of the hero’s birth, provide the justification for his hostility to Kṛṣṇa.

Śiśupāla was born into the royal family of the Cedis. He had three eyes and four arms and he uttered inarticulate cries like an animal. His parents had decided to expose him, but they heard a disembodied voice saying that this was not the “Time” for the child’s death. His slayer “by the sword” has been born, lord of men.

His mother demands to know “who shall be the death of this son!”

The voice answers,

“He upon whose lap his two extra arms will both fall on the ground like five-headed snakes and that third eye in the middle of the child’s forehead will sink away as he looks at him–he shall be his death.”

These things happen as soon as the child is placed on Kṛṣṇa lap. Śiśupāla’s mother witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy and is fearful for her son. She asks Kṛṣṇa to forgive the “dereliction of Śiśupāla”.

(Because of Śiśupāla’s physical similarities to Rudra/Śiva, and also because of his name, which is said to be a transposition of paśupati or lord of animals, this story is similar to the story of Starkaṓr/Starcatherus in its conflict between two divinities, in this case Rudra/Śiva and Kṛṣṇa/Viṣṇu.)

Kṛṣṇa promises that he will forgive one hundred offenses, even though they may be capital offenses. But by the time Śiśupāla challenges the proceedings of Yudhisthira’s sacrificial ceremony he has exhausted his one hundred offenses. His tirade against Krṣṇa is the one hundred and first offense. However, only five offenses are listed. Dumézil argues that the list can be further reduced to three. The five sins, which Kṛṣṇa recited to the kings assembled at Yudhisthira’s ceremony are:

1.  “Knowing that we had gone to the city of Prāgjyotiṣa, this fiend, who is our cousin, burned down Dvārakā, kings.”
2.  “While the barons of the Bhojas were at play on Mount Raivataka, he slew and captured them, then returned to his city.”
3.  “Malevolently, he stole the horse that was set free at the Horse Sacrifice and surrounded by guards to disrupt my father’s sacrifice.”
4.  “When she was journeying to the country of the Sauvīras to be given in marriage, the misguided fool abducted the unwilling wife-to-be of the glorious Babhru.”
5.  “Hiding beneath his wizardry, the fiendish offender of his uncle abducted Bhadrā of Viśāla, the intended bride of the Karūṣa!’

The offenses are distributed as follows: The first and second offenses are committed against the warrior function; the third offense, against sovereignty; and the forth and fifth offenses have to do with sexuality. However, all of the sins are directed against the king. The similarity of the first and last two offenses indicate that the list may have been inflated, and that originally there were only three sins.

Kṛṣṇa continues,

“For the sake of my father’s sister I have endured very great suffering; but fortunately now this is taking place in the presence of all the kings. For you are now witnesses of the all-surpassing offense against me; learn also now the offenses he has perpetrated against me in concealment.”

Śiśupāla does not relent. He continues to scold those who honor Kṛṣṇa, who is “no king”. Finally Kṛṣṇa throws his discus, cutting off Śiśupāla’s head. A sublime radiance rises from the “body of the king of the Cedis, which, great king, was like the sun rising up from the sky; and that radiance greeted lotus-eyed Kṛṣṇa, honored by the world, and entered him, O king…”

There is no mention of corresponding consequences after each of Śiśupāla’s sins and he does not offer himself for death as Starcatherus did. Also another king, Jarāsandha, is mentioned, although he has no part in the story itself. Śiśupāla, although a king in his own right, is said to be Jarāsandha’s general, giving him the same position as Starcatherus, who served kings but was not himself a king. Jarāsandha is accused of holding Kṛṣṇa’s clan in jail, with plans to sacrifice them. In other words, he was under contract to Rudra/Śiva, just as Starkaṓr/Starcatherus was under contract to Odin. This provides another correspondence between the Scandinavian and Indian stories. However, in the Indian version human sacrifice is not as believable as it is in the Scandinavian tales. Also Śiva has no particular interest in kings, as Odin does. This only makes the Indo-European framework of both stories more apparent.


In the Greek story of Herakles, genders are reversed–the rival deities, Hera and Athena, are female. Dumézil makes an interesting observation–the rival deities in the first two stories answer to no superior judge or authority. But in the tale of Herakles, the patriarchal Zeus is given the final word.

Herakles’ birth is told by Diodorus Siculus (iv, 9, 2-3). When Herakles was born he was not monstrous or demonic but he had a certain excess. He was the son of Zeus and Alkmene. Zeus had taken the appearance of Alkmene’s husband, Amphitryon, in order to beget an exceptional king who would rule over the descendants of Perseus. But when Hera learned of his plans she was jealous. She caused the labor pains of Alkmene to slow down and the result was that another heir, Eurystheus, was born first. Zeus then decreed that Herakles would serve Eurystheus and perform twelve labors. In this way he would earn immortality.

Alkmene abandoned her baby out of fear of Hera. Athena and Hera found him, and Athena gave him to Hera who began to nurse him. This saved his life. However he bit her and she pushed him away. Dumézil suggests that this is like the story of Śiśupāla, whose deformities disappeared at the touch of the very god who was destined to kill him. Hera is the sovereign whose first concern is to exclude Alkmene’s son from royalty and demote him to a champion. Athena is the warrior and becomes Herakles’ most trusted friend. The patronage of Athena and the enmity of Hera are a constant theme in Herakles’ life. As for his attitude to the two higher functions, the kingship and the labors, (or fights) he does not attempt to replace the king. He serves him and is sometimes rewarded, but his first sin actually involves his hesitation over entering the king’s service. Starkaṓr/Staratherus serves kings ostentatiously. Śiśupāla is a king who voluntarily serves as a general of another king.

For his hesitation in obeying Zeus and entering the service of Eurystheus Hera strikes him with madness, causing him to kill his own children. He is consigned by Eurystheus to perform twelve labors as well as additional sub-labors.

His next sin is the killing of an enemy by a shameful trick, rather than in fair combat. For this sin he contracts a physical disease. At this point he has no choice but to become a slave of Omphale, Queen of Lydia.

The penalties are not cumulative with Herakles and he is cured of them each time, until the last one. After a new series of “free” deeds he forgets that he has just married Deianeira, and he takes another lover. Deianeira sends him a cloak that she thinks contains a love potion. However, it contains the poisoned blood of Nessos and it gives Herakles an incurable burn. Two of his companions consult the oracle at Delphi in his behalf and Apollo tells them,

“Let Herakles be taken up to Mount Oeta in all his warrior gear, and let a pyre be erected next to him; for the rest, Zeus will provide.”

When all is made ready, Herakles voluntarily climbs onto the pyre and asks each one who comes up to him to light it. No one but Philoktetes has the courage to light the pyre, and Herakles gives him his bow and arrows. Immediately after Philoktetes lights the pyre “lightening also fell from the heavens and it was wholly consumed.”

But later the arrows caused the death of Philoktetes.


The strongest similarities are between Greece and Scandinavia.

1.  The divinities who oppose each other over Herakles and Starkaṓr are those of the 1st and 2nd functions. The ones in India (Krṣṇa/Viṣṇu and Rudra/Śiva) don’t fit in the tri-functional structure but they compare to Odin and Thor in other aspects.

2.  Herakles is reconciled after his death with the sovereign Hera, wife of Zeus. The one who benefits from the death of Starkaṓr is Höṑr, (Hatherus) who is close to Odin, (the sovereign, and dark god comparable to Śiva). Śiśupāla is reconciled with Krṩṇa/Viṣṇu.

3.  Herakles and Starkaṓr are similar in their basic nature. Herakles has no demonic component and Starkaṓr is made human. But Śiśupāla remains demonic and Sivaistic.
Neither Herakles nor Starkaṓr provoke the deity who persecutes them. Śiśupāla does however, although Krṣṇa does not persecute him.

4.  Herakles and Starkaṓr are more interesting than the deities, but Śiśupāla is just an incorrigible Indian Loki in the career of Krṣṇa.  The reader is on the side of Starkaṓr and Herakles, and also on the side of Athena, but only as Herakles’ helper. The Indian story is more complementary to Krṣṇa/Viṣṇu, and against Śiśupāla.

5.  The deaths of Herakles and Starkaṓr are good and serene. That of Śiśupāla is the result of a “frenzied delirium”.

6.  A young man is asked to kill the hero in the stories of Herakles and Starkaṓr–but not in the story of Śiśupāla.

7.  In the stories of Herakles and Starkaṓr the gift or payment is ambiguous. The arrows kill Philoktetes and Hatherus chooses not to receive the essence of Starkaṓr.

8.  The types of Herakles and Starkaṓr are the same, a wandering hero, redresser of wrongs, given to toil

9.  Both are educators.

10.  Both are poets.

But other similarities tie India and Scandinavia together, in contrast to Greece.

1.  Śiśupāla and Starkaṓr are born with deformities. Heracles is not.

2.  The Indian and Scandinavian legends make much of a royal ideology. The Greek legend outlines the opposition of Erystheus and Herakles but does not dwell on it.

3.  The faults of Śiśupāla and Starkaṓr are foreordained. Śiśupāla’s fate is decided by his demonic ancestry. Starkaṓr’s is decided by lots.

4.  Given that Jarāsandha completes the legend of Śiśupāla, India and Scandinavia both charge the heros with the human sacrifice of kings. The Greek legend does not.

5.  Starkaṓr and Śiśupāla are both beheaded. Heracles is burned.

6.  The deities in the stories of Starkaṓr and Śiśupāla have no higher judge. Krṣṇa/Viṣṇu and Rudra/Śiva don’t answer to Brahma, for example. The divinities in the Greek story are supervised by Zeus.

There aren’t as many similarities between Greece and India, but the failings of Śiśupāla and Herakles are similar in that:

1.  The first sin offended a god in the case of Herakles who resisted the command of Zeus; and a sacrificer in the case of Śiśupāla who stole the king’s sacrificial horse. In Starkaṓr’s case his failing resulted from an excess of submissiveness towards a god.

2.  The second sin in the case of Śiśupāla and Herakles involves the unworthy betrayal of a warrior. For Starkaṓr it was a shameful flight on the battlefield.

3.  Śiśupāla and Herakles have no particular prejudice against the sensuous aspect of the third function, but Starkaṓr, who is ruled by Odin and Thor, condemns this kind of weakness.

One thought on “The Warrior and His Gods”

  1. Three more:Peter Jones, The God of Sex (Victor). Good book linnikg sexuality and worship while connecting particular cultural trends to neo-paganism from the perspective of sexuality. Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Regent). One of the best books on the ethics of sex and marriage that I’ve ever read. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage. One of the best pastoral books on marriage. We give lots of them away at Park Church. Starts with Bonhoeffer’s charge and moves from there. I think this is one of Piper’s best books.

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