Brute and primal hero: Hercules

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

Hera (Juno)

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.

The labors

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:

  1. Hercules kills a monstrous lion and henceforth wears its skull and fur as hat and cape, which is how we picture him.
  2. 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).
  3. 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?)
  4. Next: a boar. Hercules runs it down in the snow, where the boar can’t run fast.
  5. 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?)
  6. Next, Hercules kills some terrifying birds who shot brass feathers into people.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.
  11. 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?)
  12. 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.

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13 thoughts on “Brute and primal hero: Hercules

  1. So Hera sent two venomous snakes into the crib of baby Hercules. I appreciate the clarity in your word choice. I know now that Hera hoped the snakes would bite little Hercules, not that he would eat them.

    On second thought, though, did you double-check the Greek original and verify the translation? Because perhaps Hera didn’t feed the kid for a week and then gave him two poisonous snakes in hopes the starving toddler would greedily devour them. In fact, the latter strategy may have worked better to off lil’ Hercules. So you’re right. The ophidians were probably venomous. After all, our hero survived.

    I had no idea that Hercules and Heracles were the same person. I always thought Heracles was Heraclitus. Looks like I’ve got a nice Greek hero salad going on in my head.

  2. Hercules “…….represents the idea, once universal and now arguably fading, that heroes are somehow beyond morality and the law, beyond ordinary standards……..”

    This could describe Clint Eastwood’s screen characters, “The Man With No Name” from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, and “Dirty Harry” Callahan. I always found these two characters very powerful, no doubt because they are hero archetypes, and resonated somewhere in the depths of my Jungian psyche.

  3. There’s a tiny bit of intrigue. If his wife didn’t require precautions for straying behavior, then Hercules might not have been killed. Another career tarnished by infidelity. (Spitzer, Woods, et al., too numerous to keep track)

    The Great Hercule Poirot; an intellectual Hercules.

    (aha, The Atlas Mountains).

    • In my copy of Poirot’s Complete Short Stories, Agatha Christie says she initially intended Poirot’s name to be Hercules as an ironic joke since he was physically a small man. She later decided that Hercule just sounded better.

  4. I think you are simplifying the story a bit too much. The allure of Hercules is not that he was really stronger or got away with things, but how human he was despite all of his power.

    You state how he is beyond morality. You state: “Ask yourself how plausible that is. Why wouldn’t Hercules just bash his cousin’s head in?). Hercules’s labors prove he is not beyond morality. Several times in his life he is punished for his actions when he had the strength to avoid punishment. One time Hercules killed his lyre teacher and was banished to the country side as punishment. The Labors are another punishment. A third time in a fit of rage not blamed on Hera he lost control and killed someone. He was sold into slavery to Queen Omphale even being force to dress in women’s clothes. A final time was late in his life he killed the servant of a king he was visiting. He went into exile even though the king did not hold the death against him because it was what was required by law.

    The Greeks had an idea that certain actions and crimes created spiritual pollution one had to purify themselves of. Hercules’s willingness to under go punishments makes him a hero because despite his great power he under went them anyway respecting the order of things. He did what was right.

    Hercules did many things that in modern day we would not find acceptable and even back then might be considered inexcusable. He tended to kill people who wronged him even at times destroying entire cities. He was a womanizer with temper problems. His flaws were many. These traits in a way make him more relatable than examples of moral paragons like Superman. Other parts of this is the different values from different cultures.

    Hercules was the ultimate Greek hero. He achieved great fame for slaying monsters thus making the world a safe place for humans. Most of the kings he killed were tyrants or people who welshed on payments for services rendered. He quite literally one time fought Death itself for a friend in need. Yet, despite all of his great power and deeds he was tormented his entire life. Whether it be by Hera or his uncontrollable temper. Instead of ignoring the proper order of things and doing whatever he wanted he actually subjugated himself to punishment setting an example for others.

    Ironically, much of the suffering in his life is the fault of his father Zeus. Zeus bragged about how he was going to turn Hercules into a great king setting Hera against him. He did little to stop Hera from tormenting Hercules even though she inflicted more pain on him than any of his his other children or lovers. The only reason he was born was Zeus wanted him to serve as a weapon in the Gigantomachy.

    So, in the end I think Hercules is more complex than you make him out to be. He was portrayed as unbeatable in battle in myth going so far as to defeat several gods (Ares, Hades, a river god) . But for all of his power he constantly found himself coming up short in life culminating in his death by his current wife’s betrayal.

    Two other minor details:

    1. You are correct in Theseus and Hercules were regarded as contemporaries. According to some stories they invented Pankration, a mixed martial art of boxing and wrestling. In another story Hercules rescued Theseus from the underworld.

    2. The seventh labor was actually to capture the Cretan bull not the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull was a giant bull sent the sea-god Poseidon that fathered the Minotaur.

  5. Dear Bill,

    welcome to The Hannibal Blog and this thread. I love your comment and analysis. You are making me re-think Hercules and his heroism (and that is the point of this thread).

    As you interpret him — and quite plausibly — he begins to sound almost like an antihero. “Coming up short in life,” as you put it. This is novel and original.

    He now sounds almost psychotic and in need of help, were he not endowed with such strength.

    And if he breaks all the rules in his tantrums, he also obeys “larger” rules — the law, as it were — by submitting to his various punishments.

    What, then, do you think his place in our modern imagination is? Do we sympathize with him, emulate him …?

    I corrected the 7th labor above. Thanks!

  6. I think from a modern day perspective Hercules is an antihero, but with emphasis on the heroic. He (and many of the Greek heroes) is more like Wolverine or Batman. That is a character who is at heart heroic, but may use questionable or even to a villainous methods. Contrary to “antiheroes” who are outright villains except they happen to be the protagonist of a story.

    As to his place in modern imagination I think comes down to power and the place modern superheros have in our society. Part of it is what you said. The world is a dangerous place and people take comfort in thinking that there is someone powerful enough standing at the door with a big club to keep the bad guys away. Even Ares, the personification of the violence of warfare was defeated by him.

    The other part or perhaps an extension of that is power and the abuse of it. Throughout human history there have always been those who abuse power or who seem to transcend mortal rules. Zeus and the other gods were laws unto themselves save for Fate. As long as they did not screw up the cosmic order they got to do just about whatever they wanted. If someone wronged them they could get retribution by unleashing a plague, monster, or some other kind of calamity. The gods were all-powerful, eternal, and were probable viewed as transcending human morals and laws.

    Then you have mortals who live short lives and are weak by comparison. Mortals have laws and customs to govern them. Yet, throughout history there have always been people who thought the rules did not apply to them. If a rich man or noble feels someone of lower rank has cheated him he can avenge the insult a number of ways. One is to take him to court and the rich man stands a good chance of winning whether through better knowledge of the law, bribing the judge, or some other act. Even outside the law there there are other things the noble could do depending on the culture and age one lived in. The man of lower rank has limited options. Even if he takes the noble to court and is in the right he could still lose the case. He cannot afford as good as lawyers, he cannot pay off the judges, etc. About the best he can do is pray for divine retribution and hope some comes down eventually.

    In the middle you have demigods like Hercules. Everyone has days where they feel someone has slighted them, hear of an injustice, or something else and wishes they could do something about it. But due to lack of power and the need of an ordered society we cannot do much if anything about it. Hercules however, and other demigods to an extent, could do something about it. They are the wish fulfillment of seeing an injustice, knowing it is wrong, and being able to actually do something about it. I think that is why stories of Hercules and other Greek heroes deposing of tyrants tend to be about as popular as slaying monsters. Having the power to right wrongs links them in a way with modern superheroes like Batman or “The Man With No Name” that Clint Eastwood used to play.

    One can use the story of King Laomedon of Troy. Laomedon promised to reward the gods Poseidon and Apollo for building Troy’s famous walls. When it came time to pay he refused. Poseidon being a god sought retribution by sending a sea monster to attack the city. Hercules agreed to kill it in exchange for payment. He killed the monster, but once again Laomedon refused to pay. If this happened to you or I we would not be able to do anything about it. Laomedon is king and has an army. But since Hercules had the power to do something about it he and his allies sacked the city and killed Laomedon.

    Hercules is so strong that in a way he transcends mortal boundaries. If he gets out of control no one around can stop him. Despite this he is still mortal and lives in the mortal world. So boundaries that were never meant to constrain someone like him try to. He lives in two completely different world and has no real place in either. I think that is why he comes across as psychotic at times.

    I think a final part is that contrary to many modern heroes Hercules is deeply flawed. Despite all of his power and glory he is far from perfect. This makes him more relateable than perfect heroes like Superman. Superman always knows the right thing to do, never seems to mess up, had a perfect home life, and is all around perfect. Hercules’s life is about as screwed up as one can get, but he still tries to do the right thing and stay within the boundaries of mortal society.

    Do we sympathize him? I think as much as any other person whose life tends to be a mess often due to things beyond their control. Do we emulate him? I think one can emulate the heroic parts of him. The part that accepts one has flaws, but tries to do good anyway. The part that despite having the power to transcend the law accepts the law still applies to them and acts accordingly. One is aware of his faults and does not try to follow them, but knows that he is more like a human than a distant god. I think in the end with Hercules one has to remember that the idea of perfect human is an ideal. It is something people can try to emulate, but in the end have to realize we are all flawed in some way. Despite this we can stil do good in the world.

    • I am increasingly impressed by your deep knowledge and thinking about this subject. Are you, perhaps, a professor of ancient Greek or Classics or something of that sort?

      You have made this a great post — ie, one in which we really examine and learn about Hercules. I will ponder this and react in a subsequent post.

      incidentally, your comment reminded my of Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment: Are some people so “great” that they are above the law, or above morality, above good and evil? That’s what Hercules’ story seems in part to be about.

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