Episode Two: “With This Or On It”
It’s only fitting to begin our exploration of the Warrior Archetype with ancient Sparta. But let’s not start with the men. Let’s start with the women. Spartan women were famous as the most beautiful and the free-est in the ancient world. But they were also the toughest-minded and the fiercest enforcers of the warrior ethos to which their husbands, sons, and fathers aspired. Let’s begin this series with them.
“Come back with this or on it.”
—Spartan mother, handing his shield to her son as he marches off to war
This is probably the most famous quotation from a woman of ancient Sparta. It comes down to us from Plutarch’s Moralia, Sayings of the Spartan Women.
I want to start this series on the Warrior Archetype not with the male but with the female.
Not with Spartan warriors but with Spartan women.
Here are three other quick stories of Spartan mothers, also from Plutarch:
A messenger returned to Sparta from a battle. The women clustered around. To one, the messenger said, “Mother, I bring sad news: your son was killed facing the enemy.” The mother said, “He is my son.” “Your other son is alive and unhurt,” said the messenger, “He fled from the enemy.” The mother said, “He is not my son.”
A different messenger returned from a battle and was hailed by a Spartan mother: “How fares our country, herald?” The messenger burst into tears. “Mother, I pity you,” he said, “All five of your sons have been killed facing the enemy.” “You fool!” said the woman, “I did not ask of my sons. I asked whether Sparta was victorious!” “Indeed, Mother, our warriors have prevailed.” “Then I am happy,” said the mother, and she turned and walked home.
Two warriors, brothers, were fleeing from the enemy back toward the city. Their mother happened to be on the road and saw them running toward her. She lifted her skirts above her waist. “Where do you two think you’re running? Back here from whence you came?”
That’s a warrior culture. That’s the Warrior mentality par excellence, where the female, indeed the MOTHER (whom we always think of as nurturing, protective, willing to sacrifice everything to spare her child) is more hard-core than the male, more take-no-prisoners than the son.
We think of ancient Sparta as a male-dominated society, but the more I studied it, the more I saw that the women were the steel in the society’s spine. Just as one example, in the society’s latter days, when Sparta began to become corrupt and her commanders overseas took to taking bribes and conducting themselves with arrogance and cruelty toward the people under them, who called them out?
We have a number of letters from Spartan mothers to their sons-colonels and generals overseas-where the mother says a version of the following:
Quit your thieving or quit breathing.
Spartan women enforced the warrior culture in a thousand ways. If a warrior was reported to have shown fear or acted with cowardice in the face of the enemy, when he returned to the city the young girls would surround him in the street singing anthems of ridicule. If he were engaged to be married, his fiancee’s family would break off the engagement. If he had sisters and they were engaged, the other families would sever all ties with them. In other words, the women made the warrior code stick.
What’s interesting is to contrast this to our own American culture. I’m not making any judgments here. I don’t mean to imply that one is “better” than the other. I’m just observing.
In contemporary America, we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, a Marine Corps … and these, just as in the ancient world, are warrior cultures and they share with societies of the past certain central virtues: the ideal of service, of placing the self below the good of the whole, camaraderie, fidelity to a code of honor, the willing embracing of adversity, the foundational desire for the rigorous, physically demanding life. And, of course, ultimately the commitment to lay down one’s life, if necessary, to defend the greater society.
But here’s one huge difference. Our U.S. military is a warrior society embedded not within a warrior culture, as with ancient Sparta, but within a culture of consumerism, a culture of individualism, even hyper-individualism, where the highest aspiration is a glorification of the self at the expense of the whole … and where such aspirations are often seconded and abetted by the wives and mothers of the individual male. Sparta was a warrior society embedded in a warrior culture, within a culture of collective unity. Central to this was the women of Sparta’s total buy-in and commitment. If a Spartan warrior experienced dread or reluctance to be a fighter and face the enemy and he dared articulate this to any woman, his wife, his mother, even his young daughter, he would find no sympathy. The greater warrior culture reinforced the warrior society within it.
In our society, the warrior ideals of service and self-sacrifice-embodied, let’s say, among law enforcement, first responders, firefighters, paramedics, and of course the military-is embedded in a greater society whose ideals are the exact opposite. The mainstream of American culture glorifies success, money, the pursuit of pleasure, luxury, and consumption. The ideal is to have a big house, drive a big car, advance your own individual interests even at the expense of others and of the environment or the well-being of future generations. Corporate CEOs make 400 times what workers do and no one sees anything wrong with this. Right or wrong, this much can be said for sure: this is not the warrior ideal of service and brotherhood, is it?
Again, I’m not making any judgments or arguing a case for an all-in warrior society. What I’m hoping to do with this video series is to examine the warrior mindset and track it through history to the current day. The reason I’m starting with the ancient Spartans, and particularly the Spartan women, is that I think that culture at its peak (along with, say, Samurai culture or Zulu or Masai culture) was probably the purest expression of the warrior ideal throughout an entire society.
So let’s start here, using Sparta (specifically Sparta at its moral apex with the battle of Thermopylae) as a base of comparison to the present, and move on through the succeeding episodes to other less pure–and in many ways, more challenging and interesting–expressions of the Warrior Archetype and the warrior ideal.