Ancient Myths – Local Heroes


by Phil Dimitriadis

Where does Australian Rules football, derive its imperative ideologies? What disciplines or beliefs drive the allegory of the sport? It is here that Biblical comparisons and Greek mythology might come into play. Hero mythology is derived from these two ideologies because of their influence on the moral fabric of language in the christianized west. Possibly the first western text that established the hero archetype was The Iliad by Homer. According to Fagles:

Heroes might be, usually were, violent, anti-social, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live. The heroes are godlike in their passionate self-esteem. But they are not gods, not immortal. They are subject, like the rest of us to failure, above all to the irredeemable failure of death. And sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, they come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish (or reestablish) a human relationship with their fellow men. This pattern, recurrent in the myths of the Greeks and later to be the model for some of the greatest Athenian tragedies, is first given artistic form in the Iliad. (In Fagles, ed, 1990, p.45).

The Bible is also a fertile source of mythological symbolism and archetypal conservatism, used by writers to perpetuate virtue, courage and the rewards of selflessness and hard work. “A baptism of fire” for a rookie or a new coach with a “ fire and brimstone” attitude is a simple example of the biblical language giving meaning to footy language. “There is profit in all labour” (Proverbs: 14:23) or “ he who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys” (Proverbs: 18:9). Combine this with a cliché’ like “he is the hardest worker at the club” and one can see how the archetype has gathered so much momentum over a long stretch of time.

Yet footy is not only about hard work, sacrifice and teammanship. It is also about “miraculous deeds”, performed on the field by players and off the field by coaches and in some instances commentators or even fans. One can argue that former Hawthorn champion Leigh Matthews  performed miracles, firstly by coaching Collingwood to a drought breaking flag in 1990 and then taking the Brisbane Lions from a wooden spoon in 1998 to a hattrick of premierships between 2001 and 2003. In footy terms, it can be classed as a “miraculous performance” because Collingwood had not won any of its previous nine Grand Finals before Matthews was coach. Brisbane was a holiday haven for many players from other clubs until Matthews stepped in as coach. He resembled Hercules in the way he took seemingly difficult labours like Collingwood’s thirty two year premiership drought and was seen as the symbolic deliverer who rescued ‘princess Collingwood’ from the shackles of Poseidon metaphorically, a sub-conscious fear of the Collywobbles. Campbell states: “the visiting hero agreed to rescue her for a price. The monster, in due time, broke to the surface of the water and opened its enormous maw. Herakles (Hercules/Matthews) took a dive into the throat, cut his way out through the belly and left the monster (Collywobbles) dead”.(Campbell, 1968, p.91)

Often it is said of figures like “Barassi” or “Matthews” that they have the “Midas touch”, this symbolically exhalting their deeds to demi – god status. However, both these “messianic types” have also endured humbling experiences in their league careers, “whoever humbles himself will be the greatest” (Mattheus: 18:4), “he brings low those who dwell on high” (Isahia: 25:11). Matthews finished his career at Collingwood and Brisbane in a cloud of mediocrity whilst former favourite son and perceived messiah, Melbourne Football club hero Ron Barassi coached Melbourne to a wooden spoon and did not get them to finals during his much-anticipated tenure as coach between 1981 and 1985. Therefore they are not the “messiahs”, they are just people who are good at what they do generally, but have also experienced failure along with success. Herein lies the paradoxical mythological rhetoric of footy language as a schema for hyperrealising facts and distorting the hero myth, which asserts that the hero will eventually prevail regardless of the misfortunes he has to go through first.

Vice and virtue in a virtual world.

King Midas too, found that his touch turned some things into gold that were better to remain as they were. As a result Appollo gave him a set of donkey ears to forever remind him of his foolishness in tampering with his gift. Perhaps it is harsh to equate Barassi and Matthews to this parable. And yet this is one reason why we are intrigued as fans and critics. We endure the fact that our football heroes are no different to us off the field, dealing with internal vulnerabilities and the ongoing agon of bad choices and sometimes-indifferent fate. Perhaps, like the feted Jesus and Hercules, who also created disastrous situations for themselves, we empathise more readily because their experiences are not so far removed from common humanity, regardless of how celebrated their miraculous feets have become. Cooper argues: “We are too close to our heroes. We see their dirty laundry, and we’re disappointed, yet strangely gratified, to find it is no different from our own.” (Cooper, 1998, p. 145)

This does not stop the fans waiting for the new messiah at their club. The next coaching wizard or player who will take the subliminal aspects of the game to depths and heights never before experienced is sought after. It seems to be part of human nature to look for “an inspiration”, not just to aspire to but to measure, compare and question one’s own faculties in the process.

As poet Tom Petsinis puts it when reflecting on the legend of Fitzroy’s Haydn Burton:

Did he really have the ball on a string?

Could he walk on winter-thin air?

With each slow, deliberate re-telling he drew us to the man we still dreamt of becoming: Fearless, poised in full flight, always great, Replacing Alexander in our minds. (Petsinis, 2006, p.96)

Petsinas compares the classical archetypal hero of Alexander from his collective cultural history and reanimates him through the guise of Haydn Burton, therefore continuing the tradition of hero worship in another epoch, in a different game and playing field.

Carl Jung once wrote:

The psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths, and that our unconscious is acting and suffering subject with an inner drama which primitive man rediscovers, by means of analogy, in the process of nature both great and small. (Jung, 1968, p.7)

Perhaps this example questions the evolving power of language as a narrative tool to suit the generation of the moment. Petsinas parallels the deeds of Alexander the Great, who murdered thousands as he conquered lands, to a young man who played a game of Australian Rules football well in Fitzroy.

Why is there a need to make such comparisons?

This says much about the relatively benign environment of Melbourne ,Australia and the need to hyper-inflate local miracles to “epics”. Alexander the Great can be seen as an archetypal hero to many Macedonians like Petsinis, but it is Haydn Bunton who took the place of the heady archetype. Football is not original in that sense. If Petsinis’ family had migrated to Redfern in Sydney he may have been speaking similarly of South Sydney Rugby League champion, Clive Churchill. We can see how Petsinis has understandably fallen into the romantic ideal of an Australian sportsman as metaphorical substitute for an archetypal hero. It is not just Petsinis who defers to a mythological heritage to make the comparison.

Commentators and authors refer to footballer’s “Herculean efforts” or teams “engaged in a titanic struggle”. This language is based on formulaic poetics, which have an oral tradition. This tradition relies on epithets and cliché to maintain a discursive pattern of shared identification and tribal cultural distinction. Manning Clark’s grandson, Dr.Tom Clark, from Victoria University, has published extensively on the use of cliché as a poetic device in sport and politics. He argues:

This logic of poetic limitations rather naturally lends itself to platitude and cliché.  In fact, we find that formulaic traditions of poetry tend to celebrate the hyper-determined and conceptually familiar, mentioning them repeatedly, setting all drama within them, casting them as heroes, and so forth.  (Clark, Conference Paper, 2007, p.7)

Is humanity condemned to repeat existing forms disguised as local metaphors, which Jung claims to be the case?

It appears so, because the language of football helps to sustain the myth and create new versions of it, through player worship and team hagiography or villainy. The players, the game and the language need to at least appear to sustain the poetic heights in order to remain relevant in the imaginations and activities of its followers.

Hercules may have built the two great pillars in Gibraltar and Centa, but Leigh Matthews broke the point post at Essendon’s old ground Windy Hill in 1982. Most footy fans would probably go for Matthews’ efforts as the one that is most relevant to their experiences. Archetypally, Matthews broke a football pillar as no footballer has done before and became known as the Hercules of the VFL circa 1982. Like Hercules when he had what is now known as a “brain explosion” he let his temper get the better of him in 1985 and was deregistered from the VFL for four weeks. Hercules killed his children in a fit of manic rage; Matthews broke another footballer’s jaw. And so the cycle of symbolic archetypes continues as we admire heroes with their flaws and produce new language and literature to describe age-old situations.

This is also what makes football intriguing and exciting as a comparable metaphor for ancient mythology. It is a lived experience but it also contains a romantic distance for those who are never likely to play the game at the highest level.

Priests and clergymen break bread and re-enact the Eucharist, but are not Christ, yet they somehow take on the role of simulacrum figurehead, regardless of the known and unknown skeletons in their own closets. Religious leaders and politicians were once vaunted as guiding lights for the masses, but most live past the age of 33 and lose their archetypal vigour. Footballers generally retire at 33 (often well before this age) and the great ones, like Haydn Burton perpetuate the memory of the hero and would be messiah with the potential to make magic happen.

It is easier to trust a footballer because his performance entertains one’s fantasy. The same could not really be said for Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Rupert Murdoch or James Packer, yet most people’s future prospects lie in the machinations of their minds and not in the condition of Chris Judd’s groin or Adam Goodes’ impending tribunal appearance.

Football as text, language and image still confronts us with the issues we wish it could momentarily take us far away from. There is politics in football clubs that have ruined many a coaching and playing career. And it is not always the just who prevail. The religious fervour of fans and critics dramatizes the political aspects of football clubs because political incompetence interferes with the archetypal fantasies of those who invest their emotions and occupations in the game.

In wanting players to be “bigger, stronger, faster”, the media and fans perpetuate the same process that has dislodged religious leaders and politicians from their ivory towers. Football is in danger of falling into the same chasm because fans have turned their attention to the medium in a more acutely critical manner as it symbolically competes and occasionally colludes with the status afforded to religion and politics. History show that this may be a dangerous practice.



About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.



    Interesting that Barassi bought the point post, which ties in nicely with the story. I was not aware of this until I saw this link.

  2. Interesting read Phil. The last paragraph sums up the position beautifully. Modern society seems to be obsessed with demystifying everything. Hence we come to “know” our heroes and they therefore stop being heroes.

    Gary Ablett senior’s experiences are a great illustration here. He shuned the media, stayed away from the footy public and is still regarded as an almost mythical legend ( at least on the footy field).

    The biggest mistake that churches and religions (and maybe sports) make is attempting to make themselves “appealing” rather than relying on their inherent values.

  3. Thanks Dips.

    I think it’s great that we get so much coverage of games these days and we get to see the talent strut its stuff. However, there is a genuine mystery to having not seen the greats of the past like Bunton,Dyer,etc. Imagine if every game they ever played was available on DVD. No more mystery. Imagine if G.Ablett senior predated the television era? How much more deified would his feats have been?

    I think our generation was fortunate in that we have gotten to experience both ends of the spectrum. Getting to read a book about footy in the 60s or 70s was a genuinely rare treat, regardless of the quality.

    Part of footy’s mystique was the morality play that occurred on the field and the importance of place for each team and its fans. Now what goes on off the field often generates more interest and moralising than the games themselves. Hence, your point about inherent values. Without the game, there are no fans or media.

  4. Phil – its a bit like the shower scene in Phsyco. It was made more spine chilling by what we COULDN”T see.

  5. Phil

    I read this just after reading David Foster Wallace’s essay on the Tracy Austin biography, in which he writes:

    “If it’s just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn’t really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant’s glass jaw or Eliot’s inability to hit the curve.”

  6. Two noted differences between the two institutions.

    Most of the publicised football players shannanigans pale off into significance compared to what an alarming amount of the clergy of traditional faiths have done, and;

    the AFL heirarchy seems to be reasonably committed to addressing any problems but some of the major church leaders have tried to cover up what can only be described as crimminal behavior.

    No wonder the footy crowds expand as the congregations of those faiths contract. I am not sure that it is due to the decomissioning of the mythical bit.

  7. Salient observation phantom!

  8. Litza, love the logic. Spot on. But why is it that we expect action and reflection from our sportspeople compared to other entertainers who get much more money and get away with so much more on the moral scale? I’m thinking of the extremes of Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen here, but their ‘sins’ are quickly forgotten and soon ‘celebrated’ as part of the journey. Sportspeople have to put in years of purgatory to get the same respect. This has always intrigued me and I’m keen to read what other Knackers think.

    Phanto, a shitload of money is made from people’s religious, political and sporting allegiances and beliefs. And yet without the people’s money and faith all these institutions would become redundant. How do we know when and where to draw the line?

  9. Damo Balassone says

    Very enjoyable piece Phil. Every culture needs its Mythology – was it Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, man would find a way to invent him”?

    Who can forget those Messianic moments e.g. when Ablett kicked that goal against Essendon from a boundary throw-in, and as the ball sailed through, was sitting on the ground with his arms in the air or when Daicos kicked THAT goal versus the Eagles and raised his arms to the skies – Sermon on the Mount stuff indeed.

    It’s ironic that Messianic figures likes Ablett, Carey and Matthews (from what I have been told), have been suddenly demonized for off-field incidents, yet if Mick Jagger or some rap or heavy metal twit do the same, they are lionized.

  10. Phil

    I think at a base-level there is a purity to sport that does not exist within entertainment, particularly music which thrives on an outsider status (the exception being Coldplay who are so mind-numbingly bland and fucking awful) – this in turn feeds the expectations we have of sport stars off the field.

    I expect more from my man Paul Pierce at the Celtics than I do from Kim Kardashian.

    Pierce is a brilliant athlete and a worthy role model. Kim Kardashian is a media whore whose Dad helped get OJ off a murder conviction.

    If Kris Humphries was a Celtic, I’ve no doubt he would’ve been traded at the first possible opportunity.

  11. Phanto – some glaring ommissions in your arguments. But now is not the time. Perhaps we can discuss it in front of a fire in early June?

  12. Stainless says

    Interesting piece Phil.

    The “hero” concept itself is a complex one. You rightly note that the Iliad is probably the first major example of it in western literature and it is very much about the “hero as warrior”. That concept lends itself fairly well to combative sport like football. We can fairly easily equate the football hero’s on-field deeds (and failings) in the heat of battle, so to speak, with those of the warrior.

    For mine, the Odyssey, and, later, the Aeneid, are much more interesting explorations of the “hero”. Large tracts of these stories take place outside the war setting and the heroes find themselves confronting many and varied challenges other than armed conflict. As a result, these works provide much better portrayals of the complex nature of the human condition and, within that, what it means to be a hero. Needless to say, not all of it is pretty and the virtues of the “warrior hero” get quite a tarnishing along the way.

    In a funny way, the increasing invasion of the media into the off-field aspects of the lives of our sporting heroes might be giving us this more complex picture of who they really are, in the same way that I would argue Odysseus and Aeneas are portrayed in greater depth than Achilles and Hector. If demythologising sports stars means understanding them at a level beyond that of “giants who kick monster goals and win games” then I for one see this as a natural and desirable evolution.

  13. Mark Doyle says

    An interesting essay, Phil! I also agree with Stainless that Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ is more interesting on hero status.
    My question is, why do people have sporting heroes? I believe that any action or deed on a sports field should not confer hero status. Also, comparison of sporting field deeds with war deeds is silly. I believe that some people treat sportspeople and other celebrities as heroes because of some anxiety or stress in their home or work life; it is a form of escapism and they fantasise of fame and fortune. However, these heroworshippers are delusional.
    Hero status should only be conferred for humanitarian actions such as the eye doctor work of Fred Hollows with Aboriginal Australians and Eritrean people and the 1st world war bloke Simpson who transported injured soldiers with a donkey.

  14. Damo, I share your empathy with the Voltaire quote. I need to believe in the existence of higher powers in order for my life to have meaning. Of course, I was luck enough to have seen one of those powers, Daics, live and savour his contribution to the uncanny moments in footy. As much as it pains me to say it, Stevie J is at least equal on the supernatural front.

    Stainless, far be it from me to argue with a man who’s studied the classics and barracks for Richmond. I used the Iliad as a chronological introductory trope. The Odyssey was far superior as a story of human suffering, hope, triumph and futility. I have only read bits of the Aeneid. There is only so much dactylic hexameter one can take.

    I agree that a natural evolution is happening, but too much reality could stifle the imagination and this is a part of what I was trying to convey in this piece. My favourite author on these themes is Joseph Cambell. I will write something containing his ideas soon.

    I came to mythology through footy. As a kid I found Jack Dyer’s: ‘The Wild Men of Football’ much more entertaining than the Greek and Roman classics. As a writer, I like to mix myth, pop culture and footy to see what transpires. It makes me think while having fun at the same time.

    Mark, I reckon medicine and the sciences need to recruit new PR people. The AFL and C7 would be good starting points for them to inject some hyperbolic rhetoric into their causes. I agree though, comparisons are superfluous between sports heroes and real heroes. Thanks for your thoughts boys, much to ponder and much appreciated :)

  15. Mythology is a part of us, long before we are aware of it. That is why faerie stories resonate in our minds and souls from the time when we are young.
    The hero myth can be inverted from the paradigm discussed in the article here (and an interesting one it is) to include a more feminine perspective, one from the fringe of the psyche – even in footy.
    Take, for instance, the Olympic myth of Arachne and Athena: the former is the rebel and visionary who exposes the gods for their corruptive behaviour, and the latter defends Zeus and his boys’ abhorrent actions.
    Arachne, for her trouble, is turned into a spider by Athena (considered an act of mercy by those from the mount), doomed to live forever in the corners of the world, feared by those who pull the strings in positions of power, and fearing of them.
    Translating this into bloke speak, Arachne would be an anti hero – in the mould of Paul Newman in “Hombre” or Steve McQueen in…well, anything.
    I love the anti heroes of footy and anywhere. They speak of those not in the frame, the ones who surprise and agitate us, who play the game so well that they piss off the gods who think they rule us all.

  16. “There is only so much dactylic hexameter one can take.” Oh, how I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that statement.

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