The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, , at sacred-texts.com
The myth of Cyrus the Great, which the majority of investigators place in the center of this entire mythical circle--without entirely sufficient grounds, it would appear--has been transmitted to us in several versions. According to the report of Herodotus (about 450 B.C.), who states that among four renderings known to him, he selected the least "glorifying" version, 2 the story of the birth and youth of Cyrus is as follows:
Having thus spoken, he at once despatched a messenger to one of the king's cattle herders, by name Mithradates, who, as he happened to know, was keeping his herd in a very suitable mountain pasturage, full of wild animals. The herder's wife was also a slave of Astyages’, by name Cyno in Greek, or Spako ("a bitch") in the Median language. When the herder hurriedly arrived, on the command of Harpagos, the latter said to him: "Astyages bids thee take this boy and expose him in the wildest mountains, that he may perish as promptly as may be, and the King has ordered me to say to thee: If thou doest not kill the boy, but let him live, in whatever way, thou art to die a most disgraceful death. And I am charged to see to it that the boy is really exposed." When the herder had listened to this, he took the boy, went home, and arrived in his cottage. His wife was with child, and was in labor the entire day, and it happened that she was just bringing forth, when the herder had gone to the city. They were greatly worried about each other. But when he had returned and the woman saw him again so unexpectedly, she asked in the first place why Harpagos had sent for him so hurriedly. But he said: "My dear wife, would that I had never seen what I have seen and heard in the city, and what has happened to our masters. The house of Harpagos was full of cries and laments. This startled me, but I entered, and soon after I had entered, I saw a small boy lying before me, who struggled and cried and was dressed in fine garments and gold. When Harpagos saw me, he bid me quickly take the boy, and expose him in the wildest spot of the mountains. He said Astyages had ordered this, and added awful threats if I failed to do so. I took the child and went away with it, thinking
Having thus spoken, the herder uncovered the child and showed it to her, and when the woman saw that he was a fine strong child, she wept, and fell at her husband's feet, and implored him not to expose it. But he said he could not do otherwise, for Harpagos would send servants to see if this had been done; he would have to die a disgraceful death unless he did so. Then she said again: "If I have failed to move thee, do as follows, so that they may see an exposed child: I have brought forth a dead child; take it and expose it, but the son of the daughter of Astyages we will raise as our own child. In this way, thou wilt not be found a disobedient servant, nor will we fare ill ourselves. Our stillborn child will be given a kingly burial, and the living child's life will be preserved." The herder did as his wife had begged and advised him to do. He placed his own dead boy in a basket, dressed him in all the finery of the other, and exposed him on the most desert mountain. Three days later he announced to Harpagos that he was now enabled to show the boy's cadaver. Harpagos sent his most faithful body guardians, and ordered the burial of the cattle herder's son. The other boy, however, who was known later on as Cyrus, was brought up by the herder's wife. They did not call him Cyrus, but gave him another name.
When the boy was twelve years old the truth was revealed, through the following accident. He was playing on the road, with other boys of his own age, in the village where the cattle were kept. The boys played "King," and elected the supposed son of the cattle herder. 1 But he commanded some to build
When Harpagos heard this, he prostrated himself on the ground before the king, and praised himself for his error having turned out well, and for being invited to the king's table, in commemoration of a happy event. So he went home, and when he arrived there, he at once sent off his only son, a boy of about thirteen years, telling him to go to Astyages, and to do as he was bid. Then Harpagos joyfully told his wife what had befallen him. But Astyages butchered the son of Harpagos when he came, cut him to pieces, and roasted the flesh in part; another portion of the flesh was cooked, and when everything was prepared he kept it in readiness. When the hour of the meal had come, Harpagos and the other guests arrived. A table with sheep's meat was arranged in front of Astyages and the others, but Harpagos was served with his own son's flesh, without the head, and without the chop-pings of hands and feet, but with everything else. These parts were kept hidden in a basket. When Harpagos seemed to have taken his fill, Astyages asked him if the meat had tasted good to him, and when Harpagos answered that he had enjoyed it, the servants, who had been ordered to do so, brought in his own son's covered head, with the hands and feet, stepped up to Harpagos, and told him to uncover and take what he desired. Harpagos did so, uncovered the basket, and saw the remnants of his son. When he saw this, he did not give way to his horror, but controlled himself. Astyages then asked him if he knew of what game he had eaten; and he replied that he knew it very well, and that whatever the king did was well done. Thus he spoke, took the flesh that remained, and went home with it, where he probably meant to bury it together.
This was the revenge of Astyages upon Harpagos. Concerning Cyrus, he took counsel, and summoned
Later on, Cyrus, on the instigation of Harpagos, stirred up the Persians against the Medes. War was declared, and Cyrus, at the head of the Persians, conquered the Medes in battle. Astyages was taken prisoner alive, but Cyrus did not harm him, and kept him with him until his end. Herodotus' report concludes with the words: "But from that time on the Persians and Cyrus reigned over Asia. Thus was Cyrus born and raised, and made a king."
The report of Pompeius Trogus is preserved only in the extract by Justin, according to whom Astyages had a daughter but no male heir. 1 This version continues:
Thus the two boys had to exchange fates; one was raised in place of the herder's child, while the other was exposed instead of the grandson of the king. The remainder of this apparently more primitive report agrees essentially with the account of Herodotus.
An altogether different version of the Cyrus myth is extant in the report of Ctesias, a contemporary of Herodotus. The original of his narrative, which comprised more than an entire book in his Persian history, has been lost; but a surviving fragment of Nicholas of Damascus summarizes the Ctesian account. 2 Astyages is said to have been the worthiest king of the Medes, after Abakes. Under his rule occurred the great transmutation through which the rulership passed from the Medes to the Persians, in the following manner:
The Medes had a law that a poor man who went to a
rich man for his support, and surrendered himself to him, had to be fed and clothed and kept like a slave by the rich man, or in case the latter refused to do so, the poor man was at liberty to go elsewhere. In this way a boy by name of Cyrus, a Mard by birth, came to the king's servant who was at the head of the palace sweepers. Cyrus was the son of Atradates, whose poverty made him live as a robber, and whose wife, Argoste, Cyrus' mother, made her living by tending the goats. Cyrus surrendered himself for the sake of his daily bread, and helped to clean the palace. As he was diligent, the foreman gave him better clothing and advanced him from the outside sweepers to those who cleaned the interior of the king's palace, placing him under their superintendent. This man was severe, however, and often whipped Cyrus. The boy left him and went to the lamplighter, who liked Cyrus and moved him closer to the king, by placing him among the royal torchbearers. As Cyrus distinguished himself also in his new position, he came to Artembares, who was at the head of the cupbearers and himself presented the cup to the king. Artembares gladly accepted Cyrus, and bade him pour the wine for the guests at the king's table. Not long afterwards, Astyages noticed the dexterity and nimbleness of Cyrus' service, and his graceful presentation of the wine cup, so that he asked of Artembares whence this youth had come who was so skillful a cupbearer.
Astyages had a very noble and beautiful daughter, 1 whom he gave to the Mede Spitamas, adding all Media as her dowry. Then Cyrus sent for his father and mother, in the land of the Medes, and they rejoiced in the good fortune of their son, and his mother told him the dream which she had at the time that she was bearing him, while asleep in the sanctuary as she was tending the goats. So much water passed away from her that it became as a large stream, inundating all Asia, and flowing as far as the sea. When the father heard this, he ordered the dream to be placed before the Chaldeans in Babylon. Cyrus summoned the wisest among them, and communicated the dream to him. He declared that the dream foretold great good fortune to Cyrus, and the highest dignity in Asia; but Astyages must not learn of it, "for else he would disgracefully kill thee, as well as myself the interpreter," said the Babylonian. They swore to each other to tell no one of this great and incomparable vision. Cyrus later on rose to still higher dignities, created his father a Satrap of Persia, and raised his mother to the highest rank and possessions among the Persian women. But when the Babylonian was killed soon afterwards by Oebares, the confidant of Cyrus, his wife betrayed the fateful dream to the king, when she learned of Cyrus' expedition to Persia, which he had undertaken in preparation of the revolt. The king sent his horsemen after Cyrus, with the command to deliver him dead or alive. But Cyrus escaped them by a ruse. Finally a combat took place, terminating in the defeat of the Medes. Cyrus also conquered Egbatana, and here the daughter of Astyages and her husband Spitamas, with their two sons, were taken prisoners. But Astyages himself could not be found,
A great similarity to Herodotus' version of the Cyrus myth is found in the early history of the Persian royal hero, Kaikhosrav, as related by Firdausi in the Shah Namah. This myth is most extensively rendered by Spiegel. 1 During the warfare of King Kaikâus, of Bactria and Iran, against King Afrâsiâb, of Turan, Kaikâus fell out with his son, Siâvaksh, who applied to Afrâsiâb for protection and assistance. He was kindly received by Afrâsiâb, who gave him his daughter Feringis to wife, on the persuasion of his vizier, Pirân, although he had received the prophecy that the son to be born of this union would bring great misfortune upon him. Garsevaz, the king's brother, and a near relative of Siâvaksh, calumniates the son-in-law, and Afrâsiâb leads an army against him. Before the birth of his son, Siâvaksh is warned by a dream, which foretold destruction and death to himself, but royalty to his offspring. He therefore flies from Afrâsiâb, but is taken prisoner and killed, on the command of the Shah. His wife, who is pregnant, is saved by Pirân from the hands of the murderers. On condition of announcing at once the delivery of Feringis to the king, Pirân is granted permission to keep her in his house. The shade of the murdered Siâvaksh once comes to him in a dream and tells him that an avenger has been born; Pirân actually finds in the room of Feringis a newborn boy, whom he names Kaikhosrav. Afrâsiâb no longer insisted upon the killing of the boy, but he ordered
[paragraph continues] Pirân to surrender the child with a nurse to the herders, who were to raise him in ignorance of his origin. But his royal descent is promptly revealed in his courage and his demeanor; and as Pirân takes the boy back into his home, Afrâsiâb becomes distrustful, and orders the boy to be led before him. Instructed by Pirân, Kaikhosrav plays the fool, 1 and reassured as to his harmlessness, the Shah dismisses him to his mother, Feringis. Finally, Kaikhosrav is crowned as king by his grandfather, Kaikâus. After prolonged, complicated, and tedious combats, Afrâsiâb is at last taken prisoner, with divine assistance. Kaikhosrav strikes his head off, and also causes Garsevaz to be decapitated.
A certain resemblance to the preceding saga, although more remote, is presented by the myth of Feridun, as told by Firdausi. 2 Zohâk, the king of Iran, once sees in a dream three men of royal tribe. Two of them are bent with age, but between them is a younger man who holds a club,
with a bull's head, in his right hand; this man steps up to him, and fells him with his club to the ground. The dream interpreters declared to the king that the young hero who will dethrone him is Feridun, a scion of the tribe of Dschemschid. Zohâk at once sets out to look for the tracks of his dreaded enemy. Feridun is the son of Abtin, a grandson of Dschemschid. His father hides from the pursuit of the tyrant, but he is seized and killed. Feridun himself, a boy of tender age, is saved by his mother, Firânek, who escapes with him and entrusts him to the care of the guardian of a distant forest. Here he is suckled by a cow. For three years he remains hidden in this place, but then his mother no longer believes him safe, and she carries him to a hermit on Mount Elburz. Soon afterwards Zohâk comes to the forest and kills the guardian as well as the cow.
When Feridun was sixteen years old, he came down from Mount Elburz, learned of his origin through his mother, and swore to avenge the death of his father and of his nurse. On the expedition against Zohâk he is accompanied by his two older brothers, Purmâje and Kayânuseh. He orders a club to be forged for his use, and ornaments it with the bull's head, in memory of his foster mother, the cow. With this club he smites Zohâk, as foretold by the dream.
27:1 Claudius Aelianus: Historia Animalium, translated by F. Jacobs (Stuttgart, r841), Vol. XII, p. 21. The same book tells of Ptolemy I, the son of Lagus and Arsinoë, that an eagle protected the exposed boy with his wings against the sunshine, the rain, and birds of prey.
27:2 F. E. Lange: Herodots Geschichten (Reclam edition), Vol. I, pp. 95, 107 ff. Compare also Duncker: History of Antiquity (Leipzig, 1880), p. 256, n. 5.
30:1 The same "playing king" is found in the Hindu myth of Chandragupta,p. 31 the founder of the Maurya dynasty, whom his mother exposed after his birth, in a vessel at the gate of a cowshed, where a herder found him and raised him. Later on he came to a hunter, where he as cowherd played "king" with the other boys, and as king ordered that the hands and feet of the great criminals be chopped off. (The mutilation motif occurs also in the Cyrus saga, and is generally widely distributed.) At his command, the separated limbs returned to their proper position. Kanakja, who once looked on as they were at play, admired the boy, and bought him from the hunter for one thousand kârshâpana; at home he discovered that the boy was a Maurya. (After Lassen, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 196, n. 1.)
35:1 Justin (Marcus Junianus Justines): Extract from Pompeius Trogus’ Philippian History, Vol. I, pp. 4-7. Demon's Persian tales (written in the first half of the fourth century before Christ) are presumably the sources of Trogus' narrative.
36:1 The words in parentheses are said to be lacking in certain manuscripts.
36:2 Nicol. Damasc. Frag. 66, Ctes.; Frag. Pers., II, 5.
38:1 This daughter's name is Amatyis (not Mandane) in the version of Ctesias.
39:1 Cp. cit., Vol. I, pp. 581 ff.
40:1 On the basis of this motif of simulated dementia and certain other corresponding features, Jiriczek ("Hamlet in Iran," in the Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, Vol. X , p. 353) has represented the Hamlet saga as a variation of the Persian myth of Kaikhosrav. This idea was followed up by H. Lessmann ("Die Kyrossage . . . ," loc. cit.), who shows that the Hamlet saga strikingly agrees in certain items--for example, in the simulated folly--with the sagas of Brutus and of Tell. (Compare also the protestations of Moses.) In another connection, the deeper roots of these relations have been more extensively discussed, especially with reference to the Tell saga. (See Inzestmotiv, Chapter vii.)
Attention is also directed to the story of David, as it is told in the books of Samuel. Here again, the royal scion, David, is made a shepherd, who gradually rises in the social scale up to the royal throne. He likewise is given the king's (Saul's) daughter in marriage, and the king seeks his life, but David is always saved by miraculous means from the greatest perils. He also evades persecution by simulating dementia and playing the fool. The relationship between the Hamlet saga and the David saga has already been pointed out by Jiriczek and Lessmann. The biblical character of this entire mythological cycle is also emphasized by Jiriczek, who finds in the tale of Siâvaksh's death certain features from the Passion of the Saviour.
40:2 Translated by Schack (op. cit.). The name Zohâk here is a mutilation of the original Zend Avesta expression Ashi-dahaka (Azis-dahaka), meaning "pernicious serpent." (See "The Myth of Feridun in India and Iran," by Dr. R. Roth, in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. II., p. 216.) To the Persian Feridun corresponds the Hindu Trita, whose Avestian double is Thraetaona. The last-named form is the most predominantly authenticated; from it was formed, by transition of the aspirated sounds, first Phrenduna, then Frêdûn or Afrêdun; Feridun is a more recent corruption. Compare Spiegel, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 537 ff.