I have not yet seen the new film about Hercules by Dwayne Johnson but its release does bring up an interesting issue which needs to be addressed. Hercules was a failed hero—in spite of the world believing that he was the highest human beings had to offer. Hercules was a murderer and in the end sacrificed himself much the way Christ would many years later paving the way for a culture the world over obsessed with the notion of sacrifice as opposed to creation. The basic premise of Hercules if looked at beyond his extraordinary Paul Bunyan type of mythic folklore feats was that he was a troubled man easily manipulated by hidden spirits—in this case his jealous step mother Hera. Hercules killed and destroyed others and no matter how strong he was—his only way to divine settlement was through sacrifice. The constant resurrection of the Hercules myth as a superhero of human civilization is faulty and built on a terrible weakness imposed on history—the notion that sacrifice is the highest strength that even Hercules would eventually discover and that the moral to his story is that all who follow him may someday reach the same destination. The Hercules story is simply a prequel to Christ—both have a similar ending and the adventures leading up to that ultimate decision were extraordinary and laced with miracles. But it is the motive of Hercules to begin with which should bring great trepidation to all listeners of the old Greek tale of a half man-half god—created by a love affair through his father Zeus, the early prototype for Yahweh.
After killing his music tutor Linus with a lyre, Hercules 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 (c. 400 BCE) and reported in Xenophon‘s Memorabilia 2.1.21–34, 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. This was part of a pattern of “ethicizing” Heracles over the 5th century BCE.
Later in Thebes, Hercules married King Creon‘s daughter, Megara. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera—Zeus’ jealous wife, Heracles killed his children by Megara. After his madness had been cured with hellebore by Antikyreus, the founder of Antikyra, he realized what he had done and fled to the Oracle of Delphi. The story at this point differs somewhat depending on various translations, in some stories Hercules also killed Megara bathing in the blood of his family. In others Heracles gave his wife, Megara, at the age of thirty three, to his nephew Iolaus, then only sixteen years old – ostensibly because the sight of her reminded him of his murder of their three children. In either version, Hercules was a haunted man prone to murder and far from being a pillar of strength. Even with all his great strength, he failed to secure his family from the forces of the gods—which clearly promotes the ideal that no man can stand against the unseen forces of Mt Olympus.
Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. He was directed to serve King Eurystheus for ten years and perform any task Eurystheus required of him. Eurystheus decided to give Heracles ten labours, but after completing them, Heracles was cheated by Eurystheus when he added two more, resulting in the Twelve Labors of Heracles.
Hercules was the Roman name for the Greek divine hero Heracles. The Romans adapted the Greek hero’s iconography and myths for their literature and art under the name Hercules. In later Western art and literature and in popular culture, Hercules is more commonly used than Heracles as the name of the hero. Hercules was a multifaceted figure with contradictory characteristics, which enabled later artists and writers to pick and choose how to represent him. This article provides an introduction to representations of Hercules in the later tradition.
Hercules is known for his many adventures, which took him to the far reaches of the Greco-Roman world. One cycle of these adventures became canonical as the “Twelve Labours,” but the list has variations. Driven mad by Hera, Heracles slew his own family. 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’ nephew, Iolaus, 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.
- Slay the Nemean Lion.
- Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.
- Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
- Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
- Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
- Capture the Cretan Bull.
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
- Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
- Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon.
- Steal the apples of the Hesperides.
- Capture and bring back Cerberus.
This is described in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses Book IX. Having wrestled and defeated Achelous, god of the Acheloos river, Heracles takes Deianira as his wife. Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast flowing river while Heracles swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Heracles is still in the water. Angry, Heracles shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will “excite the love of her husband”.
Several years later, rumor tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Heracles. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Heracles the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Heracles. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Heracles’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Heracles throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Heracles then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Heracles rises to Olympus as he dies.
In addition to the life of Hercules he was not only a womanizing adulterer but a homosexual. Heracles had a number of male lovers. Plutarch, in his Eroticos, maintains that Heracles’ male lovers were beyond counting. Of these, the one most closely linked to Heracles is the Theban Iolaus. According to a myth thought to be of ancient origins, Iolaus was Heracles’ charioteer and squire. Heracles in the end helped Iolaus find a wife. Plutarch reports that down to his own time, male couples would go to Iolaus’s tomb in Thebes to swear an oath of loyalty to the hero and to each other.
One of Heracles’ male lovers, and one represented in ancient as well as modern art, is Hylas. Though it is of more recent vintage (dated to the 3rd century) than that with Iolaus, it had themes of mentoring in the ways of a warrior and help finding a wife in the end. However it should be noted that there is nothing whatever in Apollonius’s account that suggests that Hylas was a sexual lover as opposed to a companion and servant.
Abdera‘s eponymous hero, Abderus, was another of Heracles’ lovers. He was said to have been entrusted with—and slain by—the carnivorous mares of Thracian Diomedes. Heracles founded the city of Abdera in Thrace in his memory, where he was honored with athletic games.
Another story is the one of his love for Nireus, who was “the most beautiful man who came beneath Ilion” (Iliad, 673). But Ptolemy adds that certain authors made Nireus out to be a son of Heracles.
Pausanias makes mention of Sostratus, a youth of Dyme, Achaea, as a lover of Heracles. Sostratus was said to have died young and to have been buried by Heracles outside the city. The tomb was still there in historical times, and the inhabitants of Dyme honored Sostratus as a hero. The youth seems to have also been referred to as Polystratus.
There is also a series of lovers who are either later inventions or purely literary conceits. Among these are Admetus, who assisted in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar; Adonis; Corythus; and Nestor, who was said to have been loved for his wisdom. His role as lover was perhaps to explain why he was the only son of Neleus to be spared by the hero.
A scholiast on Argonautica lists the following male lovers of Heracles: “Hylas, Philoctetes, Diomus, Perithoas, and Phrix, after whom a city in Libya was named”. Diomus is also mentioned by Stephanus of Byzantium as the eponym of the deme Diomeia of the Attic phyle Aegeis: Heracles is said to have fallen in love with Diomus when he was received as guest by Diomus’ father Collytus. Perithoas and Phrix are otherwise unknown, and so is the version that suggests a sexual relationship between Heracles and Philoctetes.
Clearly the continued attempt to perpetuate the Hercules myth by contemporary society—frustrated by the pacifism of Christianity is to point them into the direction of the very flawed personality of Hercules. It should be no wonder then that men to this very day are confused as to how to act—as the heroes that history has pointed them to are men such as Hercules—men of strength who could create the rocks of Gibraltar, bed thousands of women and men, and still be considered a hero even though they killed their entire family.
The power of myth is far stronger than the rule of law—it is what people believe deep inside and what types of religions that they will seek to support that belief system which shapes society. Myth is what creates that belief system—it is the epistemology of philosophy. When Hercules is held as the highest form of man, then these are the parameters that mankind sets for themselves. If the Hercules story did not evolve into the Christ story which has then become the largest religion on planet earth and shaped the minds of most every human being that has ever breathed—then the faults of the story could be dismissed. But even after thousands of years, there is still a desire to resurrect such a flawed character as Hercules as the finest example of what a human being can be—which is pretty pathetic.
Hercules was nothing more than a sexually obsessed murderer easily manipulated by the forces of Mt Olympus—the spirit world—who ultimately killed himself to be free of its grip. And to this very day, human beings still believe wrongly that sacrifice is the way to heaven instead of higher virtues associated with production, enterprise, and genuine goodness.
When a guy in a bar on a business trip far from home is encountered by a woman also on a business trip far from home with a few drinks in her decide they want to play with each other sexually, the man might go through his list of heroes in his mind who helped shape his thoughts and think of Hercules. Even Disney has made a hero of the old Greek protagonist—so the modern references are there as most superheroes can point back to the old Greek myths for their origins. The man about to bed the woman might think of his wife back home and justify that Hercules did it, and so can he. After all, isn’t death awaiting all of us at some point—so all we must do is do some little appeasement to the gods and all will be forgiven—so why not bed the drunk woman in the bar?” And so the saga goes, and thus one more case of adultery, and the path to yet another destroyed family ensues where little kids lose hope that the men of their life can provide role models and that the state is all anyone can depend on. And those who run the state reside on Mt Olympus and live like gods and must be appeased with sacrifice. So long as those things happen, life is a free for all ending in death and resurrection—no matter how great the sins are. After all, Hercules killed his family and to atone for it he did many heroic deeds which serviced ultimately all of society and in the end sacrificed himself so that he could become a member of Olympus with the other gods and live happily ever after.
Our society needs new heroes to fill the void of mythic storytelling. Hercules was a loser, and not the type of character that should set the standard of behavior for our entire society. But as of now—he is—and Hollywood yet again is resurrecting him as a way to keep the old beliefs intact for a new generation. And what that generation will find if they follow Hercules is a pyre of wood at the end of their life and nothing else. Sacrificial redemption is the only value of such a society and the ultimate failure of the ancient past that is relevant to our modern times through art and myth. Hercules was a fallen hero who should be rejected, not honored, and points to the deep need that the human race has for better characters far more powerful than Hercules–and far more dependable.