Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, June 1, 2012

The Web of Myth in the Story of Heracles



A myth is a symbolic narrative current throughout an entire community. Myths tend to grow and link to form all-but-endless comprehensive webs whose warp and woof define the world-view of a culture (or subculture). One figure leads to another and then to others without limit. Mythic texts are often difficult for readers outside the originating culture because, far from telling their tales in a linear and direct manner, they typically assume the audience’s familiarity with the myth and mention details in telegraphic, even sometimes oblique or ironic references.

Heracles is admittedly an odd case: a hero who acceded to divinity and won a place among the Olympians according to Hesiod by his sheer effort and ability. Herodotus thought there must be two Heracles: one mortal and one divine. Though not only pagan, but often something of an uncontrollable thug or an appetitive clod to judge by his actions, he became an emblem for moral striving in Christianity.

His epithet in the Homeric Hymn “lion-hearted” [1] is totemic, rich with magical associations. The hero has incorporated the power of the great cats that were once the predators most likely to threaten humanity. He embodies the traits most identified with males in the animal kingdom and, since archaic times, among people as well: virility, courage, and power. The first of Heracles’ penitential labors is combat with the Nemaean lion and he is customarily depicted wearing a lion-skin in token of this victory. [2]

Two-thirds of his celebrated labors consist of his repeatedly reproving his strength by overcoming such monstrous beasts in battle. [3] The motif of the great man’s taming the wild earth to make it safe for human life is typical of culture heroes. Even the cleaning of the Augean stables, which strikes some as less than heroic, doubtless also relates to the civilizing influence of water-management in earliest civilizations.

Surely his reputation as a defender of humanity against the indignity of unwelcome death in part derives from his position between human and divine. Like Christ (and Dionysos, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, and Odin) he is linked to mankind through this common experience of humanity’s trying experiences including death prior to his apotheosis. Surely this explains the friendly intimacy with which he was approached in popular cult.

Though Hera tried to prevent his birth and bedeviled him afterwards, his name likely signifies “Hera’s glory,” (though some once traced it to the word hero). She may have been his cruel stepmother, but his father was generally said to be Zeus. Due to Heracles’ position as both human and divine, one finds a variety of opinion among the ancients about his human father Amphitryon. This odd double status is defined as early as Homer when his shade appears to Odysseus and is said to be a mere eidolon or phantom while “he himself is feasting with the immortal gods.” (Even this statement is somewhat ambiguous since the same term is sometimes used for ordinary run-of-the-mill deceased spirits.)

Heracles’ adversarial relationship with Hera, the threatening stepmother, is one of a series of gender-defining episodes in the hero’s career. Even this original conflict is ambiguous and nuanced. Heracles is often depicted on pottery sucking at Hera’s breast. His theft of the Amazon Hippolyte’s belt of authority indicates victory of patriarchal authority and thus of the individual son and husband in Greek society. The ambiguity of male dominance, though, is suggested by the fact that Heracles’ task is undertaken at the urging of Admeta, Eurystheus’ daughter, and that Hippolyte is usually represented as giving in voluntarily, though Hera stirs up war with malicious rumors, and some tellings have Heracles kill Hippolyte in error, regretting it later. Heracles is also said to have made off with either Hippolyte herself or her sister Antiope.

The eleventh labor, the theft of the golden apples of the Hesperides again involves defeating women. Heracles frustrates Hera’s will and outwits the Hesperides in the enchanted garden of the west with its apples of immortality. The fact that Heracles is depicted in harmonious converse with these mymphs in Classic Attic pottery again implies the ambivalence of gender relations.

Heracles’ marriages provide a broad spectrum of outcomes: his first alliance to Creon’s daughter Megara ends in horror as he kills their children (and her as well in Euripedes) in a fit of madness induced by Hera. He later married Omphale (a name meaning “navel,” as Delphi was called the omphalos of the world), the Lydian queen whom he had served for a year as a slave in penance for killing Iphitus. He is depicted in a Roman mosaic from Lliria in drag. While Heracles is dressed in women’s clothes and holds the spindle, Omphale wears his lion-skin and carries his club. In order to marry his third mate, Deianira, he had to fight Achelous who assumed the forms of a bull, a river, and a snake (a veritable catalogue of important early fertility images) first when asking for Deianira’s hand and again while fighting Heracles. She inadvertently brought about his death when she became suspicious he was having an affair with Iole by unwittingly sending a garment tainted by the Hydra’s blood. In Olympus he married the “beautiful-ankled Hebe” with whom his relationship seems to have been excellent.

As a goddess primarily of youth Hebe is a guarantor of Heracles’ immortality. As cupbearer for the gods, she is also a model of the serviceable wife, providing an ample table, in which role she is sometimes known as Ganymeda by analogy with Ganymede.
Heracles’ gargantuan characteristics include his violence such as the offhand murders of Linus while yet a young child and of his guest Iphitus as well as of his own children while possessed by madness. The first tablet of the epic of Gilgamesh tells us (in Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation) how an earlier hero is too strong too live in the world without doing damage. He needs a balancing force.


"You have indeed brought into being a mighty wild bull, head raised!
"There is no rival who can raise a weapon against him.
"His fellows stand (at the alert), attentive to his (orders !),
"Gilgamesh does not leave a son to his father,
"day and night he arrogantly ...
"Is he the shepherd of Uruk-Haven,
"is he their shepherd...
"bold, eminent, knowing, and wise,
"Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother(?)!"


As a sexual being Heracles is even more titanic in his appetites. He made love to the fifty daughters of Thespiae in one night, making all pregnant (hence the royal families of Sparta and Macedon). A researcher who listed his heterosexual affairs from all sources, (rather as Leporello had done with Don Giovanni’s), counted forty lovers and well over a hundred children. In addition there are stories of twenty or so homosexual affairs. Plutarch, in his Eroticos says he had “countless” male lovers and tell us that male lovers would swear loyalty to each other at the tomb of Heracles’ lover Iolaus. As for his appetite for food one need look no further than Aristophanes The Frogs for the gourmandizing Heracles of satyr plays and comedies. In Euripedes’ Alcestis he becomes drunk and obstreperous.

For all this Heracles could be viewed as possessing a kind of charmed innocence. Like Parsifal he had a child-like quality. According to Aelian and Euripedes he was fond of play. [4] Further his great sinning seemed matched by great virtue. Having committed one of the greatest imaginable crimes in killing his children, he then did such prodigious penance that he redeemed himself. In the story of the choice of Heracles in Prodicus’ speech reported by Xenophon, he selects the difficult path of virtue over vice and immediate pleasure, allowing him to be viewed as a moral exemplar and even in the Renaissance in particular as a pagan premonition of Christ. [5] Can one read his cry of despair in his death agony “And there are men who can believe in gods!” [6] without thinking of Christ’s “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Over time this characteristic became diluted to a sort of vague beneficence. Aelian notes that Hercules had cleared the Sea and Land, and beyond all question shewed much kindness to men.” [7] As Heracles Alexikakos he averted evils and was often invoked in apotropaic charms. This is his role in the once-famous statue by Hageladas. Similarly, his image appeared as a guardian over tombs and doorways. He was a specific opponent of the keres, the spirits of the dead, conceived as posing a threat to the living. [8] In some contexts these spirits are identified with fate, and fate is most universally and plaintively associated with mortality. An Orphic Hymn calls to Heracles:


Brandishing thy club
Drive forth the baleful fates; with poisoned shafts
Banish the noisome Keres far away.


In one vase painting Heracles holds his club high, about to strike down a grotesque figure with a cane, labeled Old Age. He, after all, not only conquered death himself by attaining immortality; he also wrestled successfully with Death to save Alcestis.

Apart from aiding people to avoid baleful influences, he attracts good ones as well. He betrays vestiges of the archaic fertility role as wild man, or lord of the wild beasts. He is often depicted with a cornucopia made of the horn of Acheloos in the form of a bull, neatly signifying the production of human food from untamed nature.

Perhaps the most generalized referent for his divinity is suggested by Pausanias who refers to his image “in ancient fashion, as an unwrought stone.” (Ex. 20, 25) One may compare the pseudo-Dionysius, the Cloud of Unknowing or the Daoist idea of pu which might be translated “uncarved block” or “uncut log.”

Fragmentary though it is, this is a mere excursion into the forest of myth. I have briefly reviewed Heracles’ roles as a culture hero, as a masculine role model, a jouster, though not a clear victor in the gender wars, a magnification of human, all-too-human traits, a vicious or deranged destroyer, a moral paragon, a friend of humanity, a dying and reborn god, a fertility emblem, an archaic human, a beneficent friend, and as ineffable and absolute divinity. This is hardly more than the beginning of his story. Through close family connections, not to mention structural parallels, Heracles is linked to many of Greece’s central myth: Perseus, Oedipus, Helen, Agamemnon. Zeus’ own parents and grandparents, not to mention their siblings, descendents, and ancestors bring other tales. The process of semeiosis is, in fact, unlimited. One must chop the sprig useful for an immediate purpose.




1. The title may be late, even Byzantine.

2. Prehistoric felids seem likely to have been the animals most likely to prey on early humans. On the other hand, recent evidence has indicated that, at least on a few occasions, people dined on cave lions.

3. I am reminded of Vishnu’s various incarnations, becoming progressively human.

4. According to Thomas Stanley’s 1665 version titled Various Histories, “They say that Hercules alleviated the trouble of his Labours by play. The Son of Jupiter and Alcmena sported much with Children ; which Euripides hints to us, making the God say, I play to intermit my Toils.”

5. In 1709 Addison translated this passage for the Tatler 97 in hopes of curing the “endemic Idleness” he found afflicting Londoners. He wrote, “I have translated this Allegory for the Benefit of the Youth of Great Britain; and particularly of those who are still in the deplorable State of Non-Existence, and whom I most earnestly entreat to come into the World.”

6. Metamorphoses IX, 200

7. III, 5.

8. See Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 165-75.

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