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Heracles in Greek Myth
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Life of Heracles: On-line Resources

Heracles is an incredibly difficult hero to pin down. Tragic sufferer, servant of humankind, unfeeling monster, homicidal maniac, comic buffoon, civilizing hero, Stoic saint — the tales of Heracles were employed variously to explore all of these possibilities. Like the Sumerian/Akkadian Gilgamesh and the Old Testament Samson, Heracles embodies a mass of contradictions, epitomizing both an ideal of civilized human achievement and a sense of the brutish behavior of which human beings are capable.

The oddness of Heracles leaps out at virtually every turn in the tales that are traditionally told of him. First of all, he has no fixed address: unlike other heroes, who are routinely associated with a particular locale (e.g., Perseus and Argos, Jason and Iolcus, Oedipus and Thebes, Achilles and Phthia, Theseus and Athens), Heracles is a perpetual outsider. His father Amphitryon hails from Tiryns, but is compelled to go into exile after killing his uncle (and prospective father-in-law) Electyron (an event that also squashes Heracles' chances of inheriting Electryon's kingdom of Mycenae). Heracles' home base thus becomes Thebes, but he is rarely at home. His youth finds him engaged in various exploits off in the wilds of the Theban countryside. Upon reaching adulthood, he finds himself serving Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, but these services keep him constantly abroad, either in various backwaters in the Peloponnese, or outside of Greece altogether at the margins of the known world. When he does attempt to settle down and achieve something of a regular life in a civilized environment, the attempt ends in disaster: in the murder of his wife Megara and/or their sons at Thebes, and, later, his banishment from Calydon (home of his later wife Deianira) when he accidentally kills one of Deianira's youthful relatives (Eunomos/Cyathus) at a banquet. [FN 1]

Still odder, Heracles is repeatedly presented as the servant of some authority figure: his family's host, Creon of Thebes; Eurystheus of Mycenae; and, most humiliating of all, the barbarian queen Omphale of Lydia (as punishment for the murder of the youthful Iphitus). Thus we are presented with the oddity of the greatest of Greek heroes repeatedly being presented as serving under the authority of another. The baseness of this position is emphasized, on the one hand, by the nature of those whom he is compelled to serve: not only the non-Greek female ruler Omphale, but the craven Eurystheus, whose cowardice is a constant theme in archaic and classical vase-painting but who nonetheless controls Heracles' life (cf. Homer, Odyssey 11.621-22), conveying his orders through the agency of his arrogant herald, Copreus ("Dung-Man"). (One has only to imagine Homer's Achilles listening to the commands of a servant named "Dung-Man" to feel the anomaly of this situation!) And consider the nature of some of the services he is compelled to complete — for example, the cleaning out of the Augean stables (one of the canonical twelve labors): what other hero has as one of his major exploits the cleaning of horse-feces out of a stable?

Various attempts were made to make sense of these tales: repeatedly we find that Heracles' servitude is presented as an act of atonement (for the murder of his teacher Linus, of his wife and/or children, or of Iphitus), or the payment of a debt (to Creon, for rescuing his family from exile), or (as in Iliad 19) the result of some act of the gods (Zeus' foolish vow to Hera). But it is hard to escape the feeling that these explanations are late additions, attempts to bring some order to — and impose a rationale on — a set of disparate stories that originally had a quite different origin.

Then there is the matter of Heracles' weapons. The standard Greek soldier in the classical period is the *hoplite (heavily-armed infantryman), who represents the ideal of the independent citizen-soldier fighting nobly for the freedom of his city, his gods, and his family. Hoplites are armed, not unlike Achilles, with a helmet, breastplate, grieves, shield, heavy thrusting-spear, and sword. Heracles, however, routinely is presented with an outlandish outfit of lion-skin, club, bow, and quiver, to the point that these accoutrements come to serve as an iconographic short-hand for identifying him in a particular scene. The lion-skin and club suggest (not unlike Samson's jawbone of an ass) an uncivilized, brutish figure — a savage creature of the wild — as opposed to the civilized hoplite, while the bow is routinely presented as the weapon of the decadent, unmanly, non-Greek opponent: Paris, Pandaros, the Amazons, the Persians and other Eastern peoples. [FN 2]

The exotic, non-Greek nature of his attire is echoed in the nature of his adventures, which constantly associate him with primitive forces of nature and/or exotic foreign locales. Thus we find him constantly pitted against monsters, generally in a savage environment far removed from day-to-day civilization: the Nemean lion, the Hydra of Lerna, the Erymanthean boar, the Cretan bull, Geryon (who lives the far western extremity of the human world), Acheloüs (in the remote northwest region of Greece) — or in never-never land (in the world of centaurs and amazons, the Garden of the Hesperides, the land of the dead).

Again and again, Heracles is associated with the dangerously primitive sphere of the natural world, where the civilized ways of the Greek city-state do not apply. In this regard, like the goddess Artemis, he is dangerous to deal with. Brutal violence and death constantly attend him. Thus as a youth he savagely beats his teacher Linus to death, only to be banished to the Theban countryside where he fights lions. [FN 3] In the course of these exploits he is hosted by Thespius and, according to one account, impregnates all 50 of his daughters in a single night — an impressive achievement, but tinged with a certain bestial quality. [FN 4] When he meets the heralds of Erginus, the evil king of Orchomenus (who was compelling the Thebans to pay an annual tribute), he cuts off their ears and noses and sends those back as payment to the king. Subsequently, he attacks Orchomenus by leading against it a band of young men attired in rusting armor that had been dedicated to the gods. (This was the only armor available, the story goes, since Erginus had compelled the Thebans to give up all of their weapons.) Again, there is something outlandish about both the story and the hero it celebrates. [FN 5]

As a reward for these labors, Heracles is given the hand of Creon's daughter Megara, only to later kill her and/or their three sons with his own hands in a fit of madness sent upon him by Hera: in the standard account of Heracles' life, it is this (not some foolish oath on Zeus' part) that is said to have led to his service to Eurystheus (as a form of penance) and his famed labors.

Repeatedly Heracles' exploits are marked by brutal violence (rather like those of Samson) and often by an equally savage vindictiveness. It is one thing when he crushes the Nemean lion or the monstrous Antaeus with his bare hands, or deals with the barbarous Diomedes and his man-eating horses, or slaughters the servants of the Egyptian king Busiris (who attempted to have him sacrificed on an altar), but there are a disconcerting number of adventures that see him viciously attacking and often slaughtering individuals (or even whole cities) in revenge for some slight or another, or killing them through mere carelessness: the Argonauts Zetes and Calaïs (for urging the Argonauts to abandon him as he was off seeking his lost lover Hylas); Augeas of Elis (for cheating him of his wages for cleaning the stables); Laomedon of Troy (who cheated him of his reward for saving Laomedon's daughter Hesione); Eurytus of Oechalia (for refusing him the hand of his daughter Iole, whom he had won as a prize in an archery contest); the youthful Iphitus (Eurytus' son, whom he treacherously kills to get back at Eurytus for the same offence); Neleus of Pylos (for refusing to purify him of Iphitus' murder); the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (for refusing to cure him of the disease sent in punishment for Iphitus' murder); Telamon, his companion in the assault on Troy (for breaching the walls of Troy first and so showing him up); the Moliones (who had aided Augeas and whom he kills from ambush as they are on their way to the Olympic games to serve as ambassadors); Hippocoön of Sparta (who had supported Augeas and whose sons had murdered Heracles' cousin); the youthful Eunomus/Cyathus (whom he raps with a single finger for a faux pas in serving him at a banquet, thus killing him). One does not have to read too far in Heracles' story before sensing that (like Lady Caroline Lamb's Lord Byron) he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." [FN 6]

On the other hand, there is the repeated portrayal of Heracles in comedy and vase-painting as the comic glutton and buffoon — a not overly bright strong-man whose first thought is for a roll in the hay and a nice bowl of pea-soup, and who would be likely to put the pea-soup first. It is this Heracles who is mocked by the Cercopes (impish humanoid creatures) as they are being carried off by him as prisoners and notice that his rear-end has become sun-burnt where his lion-skin does not quite cover him. (Note again the odd world Heracles inhabits: what other hero deals with monkey-men/gnomes?) This Heracles, again, stands in stark contrast to the individual who joins in the fabled battle between the gods and the giants, as the sole mortal participant.

The versions of Heracles' story presented in the mythological handbooks of late antiquity (and of today) attempt to bring a certain order to this jumble of tales, but it is clear that we are dealing with a figure who (like Gilgamesh and Samson) incorporates a number of contradictions, many of which point to a tension between the civilized and noble, on one hand, and the bestial and savage, on the other. In modern parlance, we would say that Heracles is a *liminal figure (from the Latin limen: threshold) — a character who straddles the boundary between two different statuses, melding and confusing elements of each, and thereby serving to bring each into stronger definition. In the end, the heroic-monstrous, civilized-brutish Heracles offers an opportunity to examine the contradictions inherent in what it is to be human and, thereby, address both the lofty aspirations and baser instincts that define us, and that distinguish us both from the animals and from the gods. Thus it is that this outlandish figure who achieves his violent feats in the wild, attired in his strange get-up, and who seems to have no place in a settled, civilized community, comes to stand for the epitome of human achievement.

This mysterious quality is perhaps best reflected in the story of Heracles' death and deification. His ghastly suffering in the robe of Deianira and the torment of being burned alive are repaid by his becoming, virtually alone among humankind, one of the gods. This vivid combination of gruesome suffering and eventual redemption speaks directly to some of our most basic human fears and aspirations, and offers a telling image of humankind's peculiarily ambiguous situation.


The Tale of Gilgamesh (in brief): Gilgamesh, the glorious king of the grand city of Uruk, is 2/3 god and enjoys great beauty and physical prowess, but, in his excess of virility, oppresses his people to the point that they call upon the gods to help them against their king. In response, the gods send the hairy proto-human Enkidu ("natural man"), with whom Gilgamesh becomes fast friends after Enkidu has been introduced to the ways of civilization by a prostitute and rejected by the natural world. The two friends battle monsters and gods together, until eventually Enkidu is killed by Ishtar when he gratuitously insults her. In his grief, and fearful of his own death, Gilgamesh journeys through the wilderness and the nether darkness to the land of Utnapishtim, the one man ever to escape death, who lives a blessed life in the gardens of the gods. (Think of a mixture of Eden and the Greek underworld.) Gilgamesh's hope is to learn Utnapishtim's secret and achieve immortality for himself. On his journey through the nether-world, he meets a variety of figures, each of whom attempts to discourage him from his impossible goal: the Scorpion-man, Siduri (the barmaid), Urshanabi (the boatman who ferries him across the waters to the land of the gods). Gilgamesh eventually arrives at his goal dressed in the skins of animals and with his face drawn with care. Utnapishtim assures him that his goal is impossible, but offers to help him if he can pass a test by going without sleep. Gilgamesh fails, but is given a magical plant ("the-old-man-shall-be-made-young") to take back home with him; he loses this when it is snatched away by a serpent. In the end, he returns to Uruk, resigned to his fate and consoled by the grandeur of the city and its walls. One senses that he has learned the lesson offered to him by Siduri: "'When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man'" (N.K. Sandars tr.).

The Tale of Samson (Judges 13-16, in brief): The Israelites are condemned by God to fall under the control of the Philistines for 40 years. Then an angel of the Lord proclaims to Manoah's wife that, although formerly barren, she will bear a child who is destined to be a Nazarite (one who is separated or consecrated [FN 7]) and to free the Israelites from their oppression. Samson is born and, when a young man, announces to his parents that he wishes to marry a Philistine woman whom he has seen while on a trip to Timnah. He and his parents journey to Timnah to arrange the match. On the way, Samson meets with a lion and rips it apart with his bare hands, but tells no one about it. The marriage is arranged and, when Samson later returns to collect his bride, he finds that the lion's carcass has been infested by bees and is filled with honey, which he shares with his parents. At the wedding feast with the woman's relatives he proposes a riddle, with "thirty linen and thirty festal garments" to go to the Philistines if they can solve it, and the same to be paid to him if they cannot. The riddle: "Out of the eater came something to eat. / Out of the strong came something sweet." In the end, Samson's wife manages to coax the answer from him and he loses. In his anger, Samson goes to Ashkelon, slaughters thirty men, and pays his debt from the spoils. He then leaves behind his wife, who is given to "his companion" (one of the Philistines, actually) who had been his best man. Later Samson returns with a present and asks to sleep with his wife, but her father proclaims that he has given her to his companion and offers her younger sister in her place. In his anger, Samson catches thirty foxes, ties torches to their tails, and sets them off among the fields of the Philistines, thus destroying their grain, vines, and olive-groves. In retaliation, the Philistines burn Samson's wife and father-in-law alive. Samson slaughters numbers of them in return and then "he went down and lived in the cleft of the rock of Etam." The Philistines demand that the Israelites hand Samson over for punishment, which they do with his consent: as he is handed over, he bursts the ropes that bind him and slaughters 1,000 Philistines, using the jawbone of a donkey. Later, Samson goes to Gaza and spends the night with a prostitute. The Philistines lie in wait, hoping to ambush him in the morning, but he departs in the middle of the night, ripping out the entire city-gate to make his escape. Samson then marries Delilah, another Philistine girl. The Philistines demand that she find out the secret of his strength. She pesters Samson and, three times, is told a story that proves false when the Philistines attempt to ambush him. "Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death. So he told her his whole secret, and said to her, 'A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.'" Delilah betrays him and he is bound and forced to drive a millstone in prison. But his hair begins to grow back. At a large festival of Dagon, Samson is put on display to entertain the crowd. He pulls down the pillars to which he is bound, crushing some 3,000 Philistine men, women, and children, and dying himself.


[FN 1] I am not concerned, in this account, with the specific provenance or date of any one ancient tale; more important, for my purposes, is a sense of the types of stories that tend to gather around Heracles, in whatever fashion, and the consistent notes that they sound. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Not only does Heracles employ a bow, but in some of his exploits the arrows are said to be poisoned, the height of non-heroic cunning. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Cf. the journey of Gilgamesh to the land of Utnapishtim and the early exploits of Samson. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Cf. the taming of the uncivilized Enkidu near the beginning of Gilgamesh; cf. as well Samson's association with sex. [Return to text]

[FN 5] Many have seen here an echo of puberty rites, which routinely involve rituals of inversion, odd attire, and elements of trickery. Cf., e.g., D.D. Leitao, "The Perils of Leukippos: Initiatory Transvestism and Male Gender Ideology in the Ekdusia at Phaistos," ClAnt 14 (1995) 130-63, and "Solon on the Beach: Some Pragmatic Functions of the Limen in Initiatory Myth and Ritual," in M.W. Padilla, ed. Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece: Literature, Religion, Society (Lewisburg & London, 1999) 247-77. [Return to text]

[FN 6] Note the similar mixture of trickery, cunning, vengeance, and violence in the story of Samson. [Return to text]

[FN 7] Specifically, a Nazarite is someone who has dedicated himself to God for a specified period of time by remaining in a state of purity. Typically, the vow includes the obligation to leave the hair uncut, to abstain from wine and strong drink, and to practice an extraordinary purity of life and devotion. [Return to text]

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