A Divine and Human View of Leonidas—the Lion

“Molon Labe—Come and Get Them.”

The concepts of our purpose in life and our life focus needs to shift from the material to the spiritual. We need to educate and awaken ourselves to the totality of human potentiality—one being the power of emotions, and when appropriate, the detachment from them.

We may wonder what thoughts and emotions would have been coursing through Leonidas’ body and mind before the first clash of arms and then when he realized that his position had been flanked. Of course, he would have been detached from them but still he would have recognized their presence. As a Spartan King, Leonidas—the Lion was also a chief priest of Sparta. Supposedly, the decree to “return with your shield victorious or return on it” was the vow of every Spartan knight. Even if this was not exactly true, there was an exception to a Spartan King’s “victory at any cost.”

There is no doubt that religion was important and a unifying factor in Sparta. Spartan social, military and political institutions intertwined together under the uniting influence of the gods. It has been said before that the Spartans were pious while the Athenians were scandalous.

This leads us to the fact that “the most important priests in Sparta were the kings. They were regarded as descendants of Herakles and therefore of divine ancestry. Sparta had an interest and awareness of oracles and portents. Officials dealt with oracles from Delphi and state ministers kept records of signs from the gods. If a Spartan king had a reasonable religious excuse, he could be forgiven for not winning a battle or even for not fighting one in the first place. The gods were to be obeyed unquestioningly. They stood at the very top of the chain of command which all Spartans were taught to respect completely.

Was there anything about the environs of Thermopylae that was deemed to be religiously sacred that would have provided an ‘out’ for Leonidas? There was: “Thermopylae had several quasi-religious advantages for its choice as the point of resistance. Mount Oita nearby was the Spartan-beloved Akhaian Herakles’ site of suicide by immolation and nearby Doris was the mythistorical Dorian homeland.”  Facing such overwhelming odds, 250,000 Persians vs. 7000 Greeks, why then did Leonidas stay and not retreat to fight another day?

During the first two days of the battle, the Greeks repulsed and dealt devastating blows to King Xerxes and his Persians including his elite troops—the Immortals. However, “after the second day of fighting, a local shepherd named Ephialtes defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks.”  Sometime during the night or before dawn of the third day, “warning came to Leonidas… runners brought word that the Persians had broken through and would soon begin their descent, Leonidas knew that time was short. A last war council was called, and scholars have debated ever since over what exactly was said or decided…. What is most likely is that the Spartans stayed as a willing rearguard and that Leonidas accepted the Thespian and Theban volunteers but was not able or inclined to sacrifice the whole of the Greek army….”

In the end Leonidas chose to stay even though he always knew that he had two honorable choices: stay and it would mean his death but more importantly the death of his brothers-in-arms—his bodyguard—the 300 and the other Greek warriors; or retreat and save his brothers and the others. As king and chief priest he knew within his heart that no one would question his decision to fall back to the Isthmus of Corinth where many in the Spartan Senate wanted him to defend in the first place.

There were also other mitigating factors that he would have had to consider in making his decision. Leonidas at sixty years of age  would have spent his years in the Agoge  with many at his side and probably personally knew many in his guard. However, not all of his guard was here with him. There were young knights who had been substituted for veterans—older knights who had no living sons and would have had their family line die out at Thermopylae. Young knights who had not witnessed as many winters or summers as the others. And then there was the Delphi oracle’s pronouncement that Sparta would be sacked or Sparta would mourn the death of a king from the house of Herakles.

The complexity of being human is seldom explored in today’s world, especially when we are dealing with such ‘manly’ things as business and politics. Emotions are frowned upon within both of these arenas. But in past spiritual and martial cultures and traditions, emotions were embraced so as not to be delusional about our humanness.

Fear is normal just as joy and sadness are as well. Many in our society little realize that a focus on retirement is nothing more than fear of the future. But this fear rules so many people’s lives and they don’t even recognize it. On the contrary, the Spartans recognized the totality of human emotion always striving to achieve harmony within oneself and within the Spartan community even to the extent that there were religious cults based on such things as fear (Phobos) and desire.

The importance to the Spartan mind of understanding fear and the detachment to it and the ‘pressing down’  of it is revealed by the evidence of a temple in Sparta devoted solely to Phobos. Additionally, there was a statue of Ares—the god of war. More specifically he was the god of war-like frenzy and bloodlust. Unlike Ares, Athena, the patron goddess of Sparta, personified the heroic-martial ideal of excellence in close combat, victory, and glory. The statue of Ares was chained, which speaks volumes of truth concerning Spartan culture. According to the commonly accepted explanation, the statue of Ares wrapped in chains supposedly symbolized that the spirit of war should never exit the city of Sparta. But this doesn’t make sense. Ares symbolized bloodlust. This was not an attribute of the Spartans. In fact, bloodlust was the antithesis of the Spartan mind and heart. Instead, the chains symbolized the detachment and pressing down of fear and the resultant bloodlust, which was not acceptable in their philosophical culture of perfected minds and hearts. Even though the Athenians and others would want you to think otherwise.

When we speak of fear, we must recognize the virtue of fearlessness. Leonidas’ fame and name have lived on as
an example of not only heroic warrior-ship but also as an example of a fearless and heroic spirit. But he was more than just a fearless heroic warrior. We may wonder what would have been the totality of his last thoughts and feelings. Of course, he would have voiced words within his mind to his wife, the Queen Gorgo, and to his son. But would there have been other emotions at the last minute? Possibly tears of regret, sadness and maybe a feeling of betrayal to his knights. It was his decision that had cost the lives of his brothers, friends and most especially the young knights that he barely knew.

If this was the case it would only make Leonidas even more divinely heroic, even more human and as an example to follow in our current trying times.