Heroes, Ablemen, and the Beard of Odin
The Evolution of the Chief Archetype
After the fall of Troy (in modern day Turkey), a tribe appeared in northern Europe claiming descent from the Trojans. They were led by a one-eyed man named Wotan.
Wotan was a universally impressive fellow.
He’d inspire the unite the existing peoples in Old Saxony. Some of his sons would lead the Germanic tribes and establish the Franks.
The Saxons would carry on revering him as they invaded/migrated to modern day England— leading to the English day of the week, Wednesday (Wotan’s Day).
Allegedly Wotan continued on to modern Sweden, where his band of followers would be called the Aesir, meaning “men from Asia”.
Eventually his people would spread throughout modern Scandinavia and become known as the Norsemen, which included the Vikings.
Through oral retellings over many generations, Wotan’s journey would become mythologized.
His Aesir tribe would become one of the pantheons of Norse mythology— including the god/desses Frigg, Thor, and Baldr. (The other pantheon was the Vanir, which scholars believe was another competing tribe.)
Wotan himself would become deified as the god of wisdom, warfare, and many other things.
His name translates to “lord of frenzy” or “lord of the possessed” suggesting the real Wotan's leadership could inspire such aggression (viz: mob mentality).
We now commonly know him as Odin, father of the Norse gods, and cultural hero of the Norse people.
Even if (and especially because) he was mythologized, Odin a prime example of the Chief Archetype— The set of traits that allows a people to take collective action.
Whereas the Warrior has shaped the material world through personal action, the Chief Archetype is what mobilizes the masses.
The Chief serves the group through two functions:
As Commander — making decisions
As Hero — modeling culture
Commander & Consensual Hierarchy
At a certain point of growth, tribes could not rely purely on the Warrior Archetype in its men to keep them safe.
Those warriors had to work together too.
A group of well-coordinated weak men would usually be able to defeat a disorganized group of stronger men.
A group is only as effective as it’s ability to take collective action.
Therefore the tribes required a new social function from their alpha males— leadership.
The Chief puts the whole tribe “on the same team” by becoming the decision-making node for the group.
Thomas Carlyle, in his essay Hero as King, describes such a man as
he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men.
The Chief creates hierarchy, not through force (as the 2% killer/alpha male) but through uniting the group within a unified Perimeter.
His people willingly defer some of their autonomy to him because they are better off within his perimeter than off on their own.
Carlyle goes on to point out that the English word “king” comes from Germanic Konning, which means Can-ning— The man who “can do things”… the Able-man.
The Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn;
Find me the true Konning, King, or Able-man, and he has a divine right over me.
In order to earn his title the Chief had to prove he was “good” in both senses— in competence AND morality.
If his direction wasn’t beneficial, they’d stop following him. Even if he was a 2% killer, the other 98% beta males could still team up and overthrow him.
And most of human history, there was a low “barrier to exit” from any political grouping. If a people didn’t like the Chief’s leadership, they could just “opt out”.
Speaking of, here’s a tribe you can always opt in or out of. All History of Man podcasts and articles are free.
So there was a natural check and balance between the Chief and his people.
He had to adhere to a similar competitive standard as a pre-human alpha male— if he slipped up, he’d be taken out.
Therefore, most human groups naturally assumed a belief in “following the best man” described by Carlyle:
Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit.
Carlyle’s view obviously doesn’t quite line up with that of modern democracy. But it is more in line with nature:
Fathers to Fuhrers.
The earliest human tribes were kinship groups— people with shared genetics, and therefore an incentive to keep each other alive.
Leaders of such tribes were not so different than a pre-human alpha male— The most competent man whom they trusted to protect the group in exchange for the best/most mating opportunities.
In this way, he was literally the “father of the people.”
As tribes expanded, he became more of a figurative father to those not directly related— the patriarch of the society.
Though most of his followers would not carry his genes, the young men at least were likely carry on his memes.
This meant that the Chief had to be a cultural hero.
Local Hero Worship
The shift from ancestor worship to hero worship was a major advancement in cultural masculinity.
Tribes could choose to collective emulate great men who they weren’t necessarily related to.
But the Chief was always the immediate male role model, the “local hero”. (If he wasn’t, then he wouldn’t be chief.)
The Chief’s virtues were expected to “rub off” on the other men. His presence would instill his men with the courage and strength that they believed he had.
The collective Warrior Archetype of the tribe could only be as strong as Warrior Archetype within their chief.
The Archaic and Classical Greeks emphasized oratory as a manly skill for this reason.
The pre-battle speech was among a general’s primary duties as it instilled the men with courage and strength. Historians like Thucydides and Xenophon went as far as recreating them word for word in their writings. It’s implied that the quality of the speech often determined the results of the battle.
From the Frontline to the Back Office
As societies and their militaries grew, the risk of having the leader on the front began to greatly outweigh the rewards.
A 200,000 strong field army wasn’t going to be able to observe their general as well as a 200 person warband. And come the time of maneuver warfare, losing a good general could mean the end of the war.
So the archetypal Chief began to move further to the rear.
His two functions of Commander/Decision-maker and Hero/Role Model began to separate.
Simply due to scale, a Commander/Leader’s experience became more abstract— a Division Commander has to look at his units as figures on a map. They take up too much space to observe and direct in real life.
The observable Heroes became the noncoms and junior officers who were actually on the ground.
The role of leadership became less about being an Ableman, and more about getting other Ablemen do to things for you.
The same is true in politics.
Our political systems no longer allow the most competent to rise to the top.
Instead we have what Carlyle called,
…a fearful business, that of having to Ableman to seek, and not knowing in what manner to proceed about it! That is the world’s sad predicament in these times of ours.
On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1840)
For modern nation-states, the Chief Archetype has become less important. At least one doesn’t need to embody the Chief in order to be elected into a “leadership” position.
Modern governance is more subject to different archetype of nation-building: the Shaman— that who molds our interpretations. (Future article).
Catch the next in this series on the Archetypes of Nation-building.
The Ablest Men of today are more likely to go into other arenas than governance.
In sports (which is a sublimation of warfare) fans still choose to identify with and emulate certain competent figures. Wearing a player’s jersey is essentially hero worship— you are carrying his image with the “hope” of embodying some of his characteristics.
In business (another sublimation of warfare) founders and Chief Executive Officers, fulfill the commander role, and sometimes the chief too.
But most importantly the Chief still matters within the family.
Ensuring the survival and future success of one’s familial lineage is the reason why natural hierarchies exist in the first place.
In assuming the role of Head of Household, one returns to the original embodiment of the Chief in:
Making the hard decisions for collective benefit, and
Demonstrating a standard of conduct that dependents can model
You probably won’t be deified. Nor will you get a day of the week named after you.
But you can still embody the Chief in an arena that still matters.
Roughly the modern German state of Lower Saxony.
The Vanir are fertility gods compared to the warlike Aesir, suggesting that the real Vanir were probably an agrarian people who were invaded by Wotan’s tribe.
This theory is based on euhemerism— the idea that mythologies are based exaggerated accounts of real events.
This a leading theory as to how the puny Homo sapiens out-survived the physically superior Neanderthals.