Heracles

Heracles, a Roman bronze (Louvre Museum)

In Greek mythology, Heracles or Herakles (Roman: Hercules) meaning “glory of Hera“, or “Glorious through Hera” Alcides[1] or Alcaeus[2] (original name) (“Ἥρα + κλέος, Ἡρακλῆς)” was a divine hero, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, foster son of Amphitryon[3] and great-grandson (and half-brother) of Perseus. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes, a paragon of masculinity, the ancestor of royal clans who claimed to be Heracleidae and a champion of the Olympian order against chthonic monsters. In Rome and the modern West, he is known as Hercules, with whom the later Roman Emperors, in particular Commodus and Maximian, often identified themselves. The Romans adopted the Greek version of his life and works essentially unchanged, but added anecdotal detail of their own, some of it linking the hero with the geography of the Central Mediterranean. Details of his cult were adapted to Rome as well. Extraordinary strength, courage, ingenuity, and sexual prowess with both males and females were among his characteristic attributes. Although he was not as clever as the likes of Odysseus or Nestor, Heracles used his wits on several occasions when his strength did not suffice, such as when laboring for the king Augeas of Elis, wrestling the giant Antaeus, or tricking Atlas into taking the sky back onto his shoulders. Together with Hermes he was the patron and protector of gymnasia and palaestrae.[4] His iconographic attributes are the lion skin and the club. These qualities did not prevent him from being regarded as a playful figure who used games to relax from his labors and played a great deal with children.[5] By conquering dangerous archaic forces he is said to have “made the world safe for mankind” and to be its benefactor.[6] Heracles was an extremely passionate and emotional individual, capable of doing both great deeds for his friends (such as wrestling with Thanatos on behalf of Prince Admetus, who had regaled Heracles with his hospitality, or restoring his friend Tyndareus to the throne of Sparta after he was overthrown) and being a terrible enemy who would wreak horrible vengeance on those who crossed him, as Augeas, Neleus and Laomedon all found out to their cost.//

Origin and character

Many popular stories were told of his life, the most famous being The Twelve Labours of Heracles; Alexandrian poets of the Hellenistic age drew his mythology into a high poetic and tragic atmosphere.[7] His figure, which initially drew on Near Eastern motifs such as the lion-fight, was known everywhere: his Etruscan equivalent was Hercle, a son of Tinia and Uni. Heracles was the greatest of Hellenic chthonic heroes, but unlike other Greek heroes, no tomb was identified as his. Heracles was both hero and god, as Pindar says heroes theos; at the same festival sacrifice was made to him, first as a hero, with a chthonic libation, and then as a god, upon an altar: thus he embodies the closest Greek approach to a “demi-god“.[7] The core of the story of Heracles has been identified by Walter Burkert as originating in Neolithic hunter culture and traditions of shamanistic crossings into the netherworld.[8]

Hero or god?

Heracles’ role as a culture hero, whose death could be a subject of mythic telling (see below), was accepted into the Olympian Pantheon during Classical times. This created an awkwardness in the encounter with Odysseus in the episode of Odyssey XI, called the Nekuia, where Odysseus encounters Heracles in Hades:

Ruins in Kos of the temple to Heracles, the Herakleion

And next I caught a glimpse of powerful Heracles—His ghost I mean: the man himself delightsin the grand feasts of the deathless gods on high…Around him cries of the dead rang out like cries of birdsscattering left and right in horror as on he came like night…”[9] Ancient critics were aware of the problem of the aside that interrupts the vivid and complete description, in which Heracles recognizes Odysseus and hails him, and modern critics find very good reasons for denying that the verses beginning, in Fagles’ translation His ghost I mean… were part of the original composition: “once people knew of Heracles’ admission to Olympus, they would not tolerate his presence in the underworld,” remarks Friedrich Solmsen,[10] noting that the interpolated verses represent a compromise between conflicting representations of Heracles. It is also said that when Heracles died he shed his mortal skin, which went down to the underworld and he went up to join the gods for being the greatest hero ever known.

Christian dating

In Christian circles a Euhemerist reading of the widespread Heracles/Hercules cult was attributed to a historical figure who had been offered cult status after his death. Thus Eusebius, Preparation of the Gospel (10.12), reported that Clement could offer historical dates for Hercules as a king in Argos: “from the reign of Hercules in Argos to the deification of Hercules himself and of Asclepius there are comprised thirty-eight years, according to Apollodorus the chronicler: and from that point to the deification of Castor and Pollux fifty-three years: and somewhere about this time was the capture of Troy.” Readers with a literalist bent, following Clement’s reasoning, have asserted from this remark that, since Heracles ruled over Tiryns in Argos at the same time that Eurystheus ruled over Mycenae, and since at about this time Linus was Heracles’ teacher, one can conclude, based on Jerome‘s date—in his universal history, his Chronicon—given to Linus’ notoriety in teaching Heracles in 1264 BC, that Heracles’ death and deification occurred 38 years later, in approximately 1226 BC.

Cult of Heracles

The ancient Greeks celebrated the festival of the Herakleia, which commemorated the death of Heracles, on the second day of the month of Metageitnion (which would fall in late July or early August). What is believed to be an Egyptian Temple of Heracles in the Bahariya Oasis dates to 21 BC.

Myths of Heracles

Birth and childhood

Topics in Greek mythology
Gods

Heroes

Related

A major factor in the well-known tragedies surrounding Heracles is the hatred that the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, had for him. A full account of Heracles must render it clear why Heracles was so tormented by Hera, when there are many illegitimate offspring sired by Zeus. Heracles was the son of the affair Zeus had with the mortal woman Alcmene. Zeus made love to her after disguising himself as her husband, Amphitryon, home early from war (Amphitryon did return later the same night, and Alcmene became pregnant with his son at the same time, a case of heteropaternal superfecundation, where a woman carries twins sired by different fathers).[11] Thus, Heracles’ very existence proved at least one of Zeus’ many illicit affairs, and Hera often conspired against Zeus’ mortal offspring, as revenge for her husband’s infidelities. His twin mortal brother, son of Amphitryon was Iphicles, father of Heracles’ charioteer Iolaus. On the night the twins Heracles and Iphicles were to be born, Hera, knowing of her husband Zeus’ adultery, persuaded Zeus to swear an oath that the child born that night to a member of the House of Perseus would be High King. Hera did this knowing that while Heracles was to be born a descendant of Perseus, so too was Eurystheus. Once the oath was sworn, Hera hurried to Alcmene’s dwelling and slowed the birth of Heracles by forcing Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, to sit crosslegged with her clothing tied in knots, thereby causing Heracles to be trapped in the womb. Meanwhile, Hera caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely, making him High King in place of Heracles. She would have permanently delayed Heracles’ birth had she not been fooled by Galanthis, Alcmene’s servant, who lied to Ilithyia, saying that Alcmene had already delivered the baby. Upon hearing this, she jumped in surprise, untying the knots and inadvertently allowing Alcmene to give birth to her twins, Heracles and Iphicles. The child was originally given the name Alcides by his parents; it was only later that he became known as Heracles.[3] He was renamed Heracles in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. A few months after he was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child’s toys.

Youth

After killing his music tutor Linus with a lyre, he was sent to tend cattle on a mountain by his foster father Amphitryon. Here, according to an allegorical parable, “The Choice of Heracles”, invented by the sophist Prodicus (ca. 400 BC), he was visited by two nymphs – Pleasure and Virtue – who offered him a choice between a pleasant and easy life or a severe but glorious life: he chose the latter. Later in Thebes, Heracles married King Creon‘s daughter, Megara. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles killed his children by Megara. After his madness had been cured with hellebore by Antikyreus, the founder of Antikyra,[12] he realized what he had done and fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. He was directed to serve King Eurystheus for ten years and perform any task, which he required. Eurystheus decided to give Heracles ten labours but after completing them, he said he cheated and added two more, resulting in the Twelve Labors of Heracles.

The Labours of Heracles

Main article: Labours of Hercules

Heracles and the Nemean lion. Black-figure lekythos worked by the Painter of Athens 581, ca. 500 BC. Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.

Driven mad by Hera, Heracles slew his own children. To expiate the crime, Heracles was required to carry out ten labors set by his archenemy, Eurystheus, who had become king in Heracles’ place. If he succeeded, he would be purified of his sin and, as myth says, he would be granted immortality. Heracles accomplished these tasks, but Eurystheus did not accept the cleansing of the Augean stables because Heracles was going to accept pay for the labor. Neither did he accept the killing of the Lernaean Hydra as Heracles’ cousin, Ioloas, had helped him burn the stumps of the heads. Eurysteus set two more tasks (fetching the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capturing Cerberus), which Heracles performed successfully, bringing the total number of tasks up to twelve. Not all writers gave the labors in the same order. Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12) gives the following order:

  1. To kill the Nemean lion.
  2. To destroy the Lernaean Hydra.
  3. To capture the Ceryneian Hind.
  4. To capture the Erymanthian Boar.
  5. To clean the Augean Stables.
  6. To kill the Stymphalian Birds.
  7. To capture the Cretan Bull.
  8. To round up the Mares of Diomedes.
  9. To steal the Girdle of Hippolyte.
  10. To herd the Cattle of Geryon.
  11. To fetch the Apples of Hesperides.
  12. To capture Cerberus.

A Roman statue of Hercules with the apple of Hesperides

Further adventures

After completing these tasks, Heracles joined the Argonauts in a search for the Golden Fleece. They rescued heroines, conquered Troy, and helped the gods fight against the Gigantes. He also fell in love with Princess Iole of Oechalia. King Eurytus of Oechalia promised his daughter, Iole, to whoever could beat his sons in an archery contest. Heracles won but Eurytus abandoned his promise. Heracles’ advances were spurned by the king and his sons, except for one – Iole’s brother Iphitus. Heracles killed the king and his sons–excluding Iphitus–and abducted Iole. Iphitus became Heracles’ best friend. However, once again, Hera drove Heracles mad and he threw Iphitus over the city wall to his death. Once again, Heracles purified himself through three years of servitude – this time to Queen Omphale of Lydia.

Omphale

Main article: Omphale

Omphale was a queen or princess of Lydia. As penalty for a murder, Heracles was her slave. He was forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothes, while she wore the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried his olive-wood club. After some time, Omphale freed Heracles and married him. Some sources mention a son born to them who is variously named. It was at that time that the cercopes, mischievous wood spirits, stole Heracles’ weapons. He punished them by tying them to a stick with their faces pointing downward.

Hylas

Bronze Herakles statuette from Ai Khanoum, Bactria, 2nd century BCE.

While walking through the wilderness, Heracles was set upon by the Dryopians. He killed their king, Theiodamas, and the others gave up and offered him Prince Hylas. He took the youth on as his weapons bearer and beloved. Years later, Heracles and Hylas joined the crew of the Argo. As Argonauts, they only participated in part of the journey. In Mysia, Hylas was kidnapped by a nymph. Heracles, heartbroken, searched for a long time but Hylas had fallen in love with the nymphs and never showed up again. In other versions, he simply drowned. Either way, the Argo set sail without them. Additional Notes: In the cult motion picture Jason and The Argonauts, Hylas is killed, crushed by the bronze giant Talos as he falls dead. Also, there is reference made to a custom of the local people of the area, whereby every year they would pretend to search for Hylas, calling his name.[citation needed]

Rescue of Prometheus

Hesiod‘s Theogony and AeschylusPrometheus Unbound both tell that Heracles shot and killed the eagle that tortured Prometheus (which was his punishment by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals). Heracles freed the Titan from his chains and his torments. Prometheus then made predictions regarding further deeds of Heracles.

Laomedon of Troy

Before the Trojan War, Poseidon sent a sea monster to attack Troy. The story is related in several digressions in the Iliad (7.451-453, 20.145-148, 21.442-457) and is found in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheke (2.5.9). Laomedon planned on sacrificing his daughter Hesione to Poseidon in the hope of appeasing him. Heracles happened to arrive (along with Telamon and Oicles) and agreed to kill the monster if Laomedon would give him the horses received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus’ kidnapping Ganymede. Laomedon agreed. Heracles killed the monster, but Laomedon went back on his word. Accordingly, in a later expedition, Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked it. Then they slew all Laomedon’s sons present there save Podarces, who was renamed Priam, who saved his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil Hesione had made. Telamon took Hesione as a war prize; they were married and had a son, Teucer.

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