On The ‘Herakles-Artagnes-Ares’ Of The Commagene – A Cautionary Tale In Interpretatio Mistranslation

A very cool shot – although there are some … curious points to it.

Depicted is the Commagene ruler Antiochus I meeting with Hercules (… more on that in a moment).

For those unaware, the Commagene kingdom was a most curious combination Greek / Iranic / Armenian (and later also Romanized) polity located in what’s nowadays eastern Turkey. If you’ve seen the famed carven heads of Mt Nemrut (which really are very very cool looking in a lot of the photography) … yeah, it’s those guys.

Now, I said there were some ‘curious points’ to what’s going on here.

The first of which, I suppose, is this notion of such a ‘direct’ encounter between a human ruler and a (Demi-)God. In a way, it’s not entirely dissimilar perhaps to how a modern-day politician might receive an endorsement from a celebrity. Although I cannot help but feel it inexorably ‘cheapens’ the situation of both kingship and divinity to make such a comparison. But, then, these are ‘cheapened’ times we are living in.

It is also rather unexpected in some ways to have the human ruler on something like an ‘equal footing’ to the Divine Son of Zeus (there’s a slight optical illusion going on here due to the angling of the photograph – they’re actually about equal height to the eye/nose … not including the king’s rather impressively scaled headgear, of course).

We are used to – from further to the East amidst the Iranic (and Hindu, rather pointedly) sphere – finding ‘As Above, So Below’ style depictions of human kings styled in emulation of divine rulers, but this kind of face-to-face encounter is something rather different.

However, it is not the most curious thing going on herein.

Now I said earlier that this is an example of the Commagene king meeting Herakles (Hercules). This … not ‘inaccurate’ – but it is ‘incomplete’.

Technically speaking, this is, in fact, Artagnes-Heracles-Ares (or Herakles-Artagnes-Ares .. or .. well .. you get the idea).

Now, Artagnes is that prominent figure of the Iranic sphere – the theonymic of ‘Verethragna’. We have discussed this theonym at greater length elsewhere. Effectively, in Vedic terms, ‘Vritraghni’ – ‘Slayer of Vritra’ (most prominently an Indra epithet) – has an Iranic cognate (and an Armenian one in the form of Vahagn, etc.).

This should be relatively straightforward. Herakles, after all, slays the Hydra. It is a cognate conflict to that waged by Indra against Vritra (hence the name).

The situation in the Iranic sphere is a bit more complicated … as while it is definitely the case that the Iranics had an Indra … well, the major way we can confirm this is because of the suspicious (and yet unsurprising) presence of an ‘Indra’ in the Zoroastrians’ lists of demonized ‘Daevas’.

That is to say – the early generation of that religion had stripped Him out, ‘divided up’ various elements associated with Indra (for example, they reapportioned the wielding of the Vajra-equivalent, etc. etc.), and as we say: quite literally demonized Him.

A later generation of reformers appears to have re-introduced a ‘sanitized’ version of the deific. One theory, if memory serves, being that it was done under pressure from the warrior caste – and likely due to difficulty actually stamping out the genuine Striker/Thunderer cultic worship elsewhere upon the fringes. So, culture-jam with a ‘controlled version’.

One which, curiously, did not have an actual Vritra-slaying component to the mythology .. despite bearing that particular Vritra-slaying theonym. Because, of course, the ‘essence’ of the myth had been stripped out – and reapportioned elsewhere, leaving only the shell, the name, to be reintroduced concordantly.

Where am I going with all of this?

That third figure that the Commagene had co-identified with ‘Herakles’ and ‘Artagnes’.


Now, at first, it makes … comparatively little sense. In classical terms, trying to declare that Herakles is somehow Ares would be met with a considerable raised eyebrow. As it should be.

However what appears to have happened is that the Verethragna-derived figure known to the Commagene (who had likely also picked it up from earlier Hellenic regents in the further East regions post-Alexander) … was effectively associated not so much with the ‘proper’ panoply of the Striker/Thunderer deific in terms of the full majesty of His portfolios and mythic associations:

Instead, what we appear to observe is a semi-coterminous ‘God of Victory’.

Smashing the ‘Obstacle’ (Vritra – in another translation) or ‘Foe’ (again, ‘Vritra’ can be read that way), rather than that particular Vritra.

It is not, perhaps, too terribly hard to see how somebody might have seen that and decided “well, that sounds like a general War God” (as opposed to a General War God … which … well, another series of rants for another time. Particularly featuring a certain Goddess).

So … I find this particular depiction to be interesting and curious – but also, above all, rather ‘instructive’.

It shows clearly how the introduction of a demonstrably ‘deviated’ comparative element (in this case, the Zoroastrian simulacra of a figure, that had been pointedly ‘chopped and changed’ due to internal imperatives of a decidedly deliberate nature) can lead to some seriously … different interpretations when this gets added into the matrix utilized to inform an ‘Interpretatio’ reading.

I have had a few things to say about the ‘Interpretatio Romana’ and ‘Interpretatio Graeca’ frameworks in the past. Some of it … outright complimentary. Others – ‘complimentary in context’ (for example, observing that the equation of Odin with Jupiter, as we find in a recension of the Icelandic Rune Poem, represents a far superior and theologically accurate ‘interpretatio’ rather than the foundationally flawed efforts at claiming Thor to somehow be His Father that prevailed in Christianized times when ‘Thunder’ was considered seemingly enough … ) .

This Commagene example is a tangible demonstration as to some of the ‘limitations’ of the ‘Interpretatio’ approach – at least, as known and operating upon the evidentiary materials available at the time-period contemporaneous in question.

To be clear – we are not objecting to the linkage of Herakles with Artagnes.

Particularly if the Armenians managed to make their own contribution to the ‘Iranic’-associated deific complex, in their own territory (and we often overlook the Armenians had quite the independent Indo-European rooting to their mythos – people often seem to wish to pretend they just got large swathes of the whole entire thing from the Iranians), then it makes sense.

And I single out the Armenians there because unlike the Zoroastrian Persians, they did have their ‘Vritraghni’-style named Striker/Thunderer still carrying out a Dragon-Slaying and thus being prima facie worthy of the name.

However, attempting to suggest that simply because there is an association with ‘Victory’ between Verethragna and Ares, that this is a prime and overweening consideration to make an equation .. one that then brings together Herakles and Ares .. well, that seems to us to be a ‘cautionary tale’ indeed.

A sign of what can happen when something ‘distorted’ is introduced into the ‘Interpretatio’ – it can correspondingly ‘distort’ further in turn.

Still, handsome art, though !

One thought on “On The ‘Herakles-Artagnes-Ares’ Of The Commagene – A Cautionary Tale In Interpretatio Mistranslation

  1. Pingback: On The ‘Herakles-Artagnes-Ares’ Of The Commagene – A Cautionary Tale In Interpretatio Mistranslation – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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