Heracles, or more commonly Hercules (the Roman version), is the quintessential and archetypal hero, the one the Greeks considered their greatest and, more importantly, the one my four-year-old daughter names when I ask her who her favorite hero is.
So Hercules must, of necessity, open this thread on heroes and any investigation of heroism.
Which is interesting because I put it to you that the myth of Hercules is one of the worst stories of antiquity when you consider the storytelling per se. We today would consider Hercules a brute, a meathead, a boor. He is one-dimensional as opposed to complex. His story is in essence a repetitive list of triumphs that leaves no room for suspense, surprise or sympathy. (I meant empathy, really, but why not alliterate?).
And yet, Hercules is the one my daughter picks. So there must be something primal there. And that’s what this post wants to establish.
The man and his dilemma
Hercules was, like many other Greco-Roman heroes, half god, half human. His father was Zeus, which meant that Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, was jealous and would forever hate Hercules (some say that she is the Hera in Hera-cles) and make his life difficult. If there is tension in the story at all, it is this fight among the gods (some goddesses, such as Athena, helped Hercules) and between a goddess and a mortal. We’ll encounter this theme all throughout ancient mythology (Hera also fought against Aeneas, for instance).
Hera is thus how the Greeks, in this story, personified adversity and even what we would call our dark side. If things go wrong, even if Hercules himself does wrong, we will blame Hera. She is the Ur-bitch, you might say.
Just so this is clear, the story starts when Hera sends two venomous snakes into the crib of baby Hercules to kill him off. Poor snakes. Baby Hercules strangles them, one in each cute fist.
And thus you have the only other piece of information you need about Hercules, the thing that he is known for, the only thing we can really say about him: He is …. strong.
Strength is probably the first trait of a hero, as Jens has already pointed out. But strength against or for what?
Combine the malign influence of Hera and this awe-inspiring strength and you get a combustible cocktail.
Indeed, we need an explosion to get started: Hera causes Hercules to go temporarily mad. He rages with blood lust, destroying and killing not just anybody but … his own children! (Ask yourself: Could Hercules be a modern hero? Do heroes have to be “good”?)
This sets up a rather complicated and unconvincing double rationale for what must come next–ie, the ostensible “story”. Hercules has sinned and must atone, by doing certain labors of penance.
But penance did not work for the Greeks as a story line, so there is another, simpler layer: a good old power struggle. Hercules was supposed to have been a prince, but Hera (who else?) had played with Zeus’ mind and given the throne to Hercules’ cousin Eurystheus, a caricature of mediocrity. The deal is that Hercules can get his throne back if he completes the tasks that Eurystheus gives him. (Ask yourself how plausible that is. Why wouldn’t Hercules just bash his cousin’s head in?)
I’ve been dwelling on all this only to show you what a “bad” story this is. It should be entirely clear by now that the ancients were not the least bit interested in the why of Hercules’ labors, and arguably only modestly interested in the how. They were interested in the that. Namely, Hercules accomplished twelve amazing feats because … he could.
I won’t, as it were, belabor the labors, even though they are the myth, because you know them and, frankly, I consider them rather predictable and thus dull. (Compare any one of them to the fiendish complexity and uncertainty of, say, Jason having to get that fleece.) To jog your memory, here is the list:
- Hercules kills a monstrous lion and henceforth wears its skull and fur as hat and cape, which is how we picture him.
- He kills the Hydra, a monster with many heads. Every time he cuts off a head, two more grow in its place. (Compare this with the monster that Siegfried confronts in Norse myth).
- He captures a golden-horned deer that is the favorite of the goddess Artemis. (I think this task was included to show that Hercules also had Fingerspitzengefühl, finesse. He could not kill the doe, lest he piss off yet another goddess, so he aimed an arrow so carefully that it immobilized the doe without killing her. But ask yourself: Why did he have to use an arrow at all?)
- Next: a boar. Hercules runs it down in the snow, where the boar can’t run fast.
- He cleans the famous Augean stables. The cattle of King Augeas had been pooping uninterrupted for eternity and the entire Peloponnesus was reeking. Instead of shoveling shit, Hercules diverts two rivers to flush out the mess. (An import from the river cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt? Meant to show that Hercules could not be humiliated?)
- Next, Hercules kills some terrifying birds who shot brass feathers into people.
- Next, Hercules carries the Cretan bull to the mainland. (This is the bull that would father, with King Minos’ wife, the Minotaur that Theseus will later deal with, which theoretically locates Hercules in time as slightly older than Theseus. Probably included to establish a link between the two heroes, the greatest, respectively, of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Updated and corrected thanks to Bill Frank.)
- Next, Hercules deals with the mares of Diomedes, horses that tear apart and devour any guest of their king. Hercules somehow turns the tables and feeds Diomedes himself to his mares, and they lose their appetite.
- Next, the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. We need some sex in the story and this is it. Hippolyte falls in love with Hercules and wants to give him her belt, but Hera interferes again, making the other Amazons think that Hercules is about to kill their queen, and causing a battle in which Hercules and his men kill the Amazons. (Every time he kills children or women, you see, it’s really Hera’s fault.)
- Next, Hercules has to steal some cattle from a three-headed monster named Geryon. What’s interesting here is the location: Geryon is in Spain, and Hercules travels back to Greece via Italy (thus allowing the Romans to link him with their locales). Also, he has to cross the Alps along the way, and this was, in the Roman mind, not done again “at scale” until … Hannibal did it. I digress.
- Next, Hercules has to get the apples of the Hesperides, in today’s Morocco. He persuades Atlas, a Titan who is holding up the sky on his shoulders, to fetch the Apples for him, holding the sky (strength!) while Atlas obliges. When Atlas returns, he doesn’t want to take the burden of the sky back. Hercules says “Fine, I’ll keep carrying it, just take it for one second so that I can put a pillow on my shoulders.” As Atlas helps him out, Hercules makes off with the apples. (I think this is included to show that Hercules also had wit, besides strength. But that qualifies?)
- Last, Hercules must fetch Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld of the dead. This is de rigueur for heroes: Odysseus and Aeneas will also visit Hades and return. I think it is meant to symbolize a brush with death, a transcendence of mortality.
Death and meaning
And that’s it, a smooth ride from one triumph to the next. If there is a twist, it is only in Hercules’ death.
Hercules and his wife crossed a river once and Hercules let a centaur, half man and half horse, carry his wife across (why did Hercules himself not carry her?). The centaur tried to elope with her, so Hercules shot him. As the centaur lay dying, the beast whispered to Hercules’ wife that she should keep his blood and soak Hercules’ clothes in it, which would prevent him from straying with other women. She did as told, but the blood was really venom. And thus she inadvertently killed her husband.
And yet, Hercules, alone among heroes, did not totally die. Zeus, his father, made him immortal and brought him to Mount Olymp. Another indication that Hercules was special.
So what is Hercules to us?
He represents the idea, once universal and now arguably fading, that heroes are somehow beyond morality and the law, beyond ordinary standards, “beyond good and evil”. That happens to be the title of a book by Nietzsche, and I think Hercules might have fit Nietzsche’s idea of an Übermensch. It is what Dostoyevsky examined in Crime and Punishment: Can the hero be beyond morality? The ancients believed Yes. We have opted for No. Today, we would lock Hercules up or, if he happened to be president, appoint a special prosecutor.
But back to the point: Hercules may have got rid of some nuisances for his fellow men–a boar here, a monster there–but that was not why he did his labors.
Hercules was simply a strong man at a time when nature was ever-threatening and as arbitrary as a jealous woman (Hera), when our frightened ancestors yearned for one among them, whatever else his flaws, to stand by at the gate with a bludgeon and brawn.