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The Primal Hero
Hunter-Gatherer and Settled Origins of Heroism: A Survey of 12 Epics, from Gilgamesh to The Lord of the Rings
© 2016 James LaFond
Why are we so easily obsessed with sports? Particularly, whenever people are above subsistence level, why do they become obsessed with watching sports?
Last night I was at two bars that each had the Baltimore Orioles baseball game on. At the working class white//middleclass black sports bar men were speaking of work, coaching their athletes, getting better jobs, writing their first book, politics, economics, crime.
An hour later, across the street at an upscale microwbrew-family food bar, where there are two middleclass black men and twenty upper middleclass white men, all eyes are on the game, obsessed with a millionaire catching a flying ball, and these men, unlike the men across the street, did not play in high school and college sports for the most part.
The fact is, we are wired for sports and the more we become divorced from the reality of making a living and fighting for survival [for instance the upscale patrons are not targeted by the neighborhood youth for muggings, as it is known that the cops will go to bat for the yuppies. Instead the working men are targeted as being unsympathetic to the cops.] Sports are important to both groups of men, but where the coaches across the street remark on technique, character, etc. the dun-well folks are obsessive, cheering fans.
Every sport has resonance in the human soul because every sport has elements of the hunt: chasing and aiming, in its makeup. The more inauthentic and domesticated our lives, the more we gravitate towards watching ritual hunts of a sort. In ancient Greece, where small scale warfare was constant and great empires threatened, there were no team sports at all, and sports were more contained and focused on divine appeasement—actual religious rituals.
Questing is a hunt of a transcendental nature and was best represented in Native North America and very probably in pre-civilized Europe. The hero is not simply a fighter, but ultimately a hunter, with one of the dangers to his quest being the seduction of settled affairs: war for a social superior [Achilles] seduction of the easements of civilized life [Enkidu]. Piracy [Jason, Odysseus] and migration [Moses and the Crow elder chiefs] are also in the realm of the hunt and are the things of the primal hero.
The seduced, civilized hero is more interesting as he is conflicted. His questing is threatened, submerged, overshadowed—and sometimes called into action by—the settled matters of mass war, intrigue and debate.
If one looks at The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, we see a splitting of the fellowship into questing and political, barbaric and civilized, primal and domesticated spheres, with Aragorn and the heroes who represent adults [corrupt, civilized humanity, who cannot be trusted with the One Ring] splitting into political pursuits, while the hobbits [representing children or primal humans] go on the ring quest of self-discovery and lone peril.
Below is a rough table of the two root heroic elements in various epics, with H standing for the Hunt-Quest-primal-barbarian theme and W standing for the War-intrigue-debate-civilized-domesticated concerns of the modern human.
Gilgamesh: H exclusively
Exodus: H supported by W
The Iliad: W supported by H
The Odyssey: H supported by W
The Argonautica: H supported by W
The Aeneid: W supported by H
The Song of Roland: W exclusively, or [Roland’s behavior can be interpreted as quest yearning.]
Beowulf: H undermined by W
The Life of Arthur: H undermined by W
People of the Black Circle [Howard]: H supported by W
The Hour of the Dragon [Howard]: W supported by H
The Lord of the Rings [Tolkien]: H supported by W
Recall that divine intervention, sorcery, monsters, as well as patron and malefic minor deities such as in the Hellenic epics, are in the transcendental realm of the quest which is an outgrowth of the perpetual hunt that was primal man’s life, not simply the hunt for food, but for a homeland for his people and for an understanding of his place in the cosmos.
As with Tolkien, who also drew from the tragic European traditions, Howard’s heroes are usually hunters saddled with civilized, tribal and even settled concerns, such as Conan. Kull and Bran Mak Morn’s kingship. Even Kane, a wanderer in search of evil to battle, as often takes up the cause of some beleaguered people or is sucked into some evil social situation, as he does face evil alone in a lonely place. The balance stricken between these two heroic elements, the hunter and the chief/king, the shaman and the priest, is the measure of the author who tells their tale. In this, Tolkien and Howard were, in my estimation, the best at striking that volatile balance between the hunter on his perilous quest and the king on his troubled throne.
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Ishmael     Jul 7, 2016

Great post James, the quest you describe, by hunting for blood, meaning, understanding, improving you special skill, I feel alive, to the point of intoxication, when I hunted Elk with a bow, when I read my favorite books, when someone smashed my nose in, when a truth I was searching for is discoverd, the quest is all, the kill anti climatic.
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