Hercules: Hero and Victim. Part 1
I thought it might be interesting to post the following “thesis” I wrote in 1984, when I was taking a night class in English Rhetoric at Triton College in Forest Park, IL. We were told we could write about anything as long as we stuck to the “format” of using footnotes and such. I’ll spare you the footnotes and just list the three sources from which I quote. Bullfinch’s Mythology, by Thomas Bullfinch; God, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece, by W.H.D. Rouse; and Mythology, by Edith Hamilton. BTW, I got an “A.”
Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained, 1959
The Strongest Man on Earth
One of the greatest and certainly the most famous hero in Greek mythology is Heracles, who the Romans called “Hercules,” and I’ll call him that because that’s the name I first heard, thanks to the two Steve Reeves’ films, Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), and in the later film Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where Hercules was played by Nigel Green. By that time I was already reading up on Greek Mythology. To the ancient Greeks, Hercules was the embodiment of what they most valued and admired: honor and courage, physical strength and beauty. He was the symbol of the Olympian Ideal. However, for all his god-like attributes and heroic stature, he was all too human, having the same qualities, virtues and faults that are common human traits.
Hercules was the strongest man on earth, and he possessed the supreme self-assurance that magnificent strength gives. “Throughout his life Hercules had this perfect confidence that no matter who was against him he could never be defeated, and facts bore him out.” Whenever he fought someone the outcome was certain at the outset. Nothing of the natural world could ever best him. “He could only be overcome by supernatural force.” He considered himself equal to the gods, and with good reason: he was the son of the Father of Gods.
Zeus (called Jupiter by the Romans) was the father of Hercules, whose mother was a mortal woman named Alcmene, Princess of Thebes. Hera, (called Juno by the Romans) was Zeus’ wife; she hated Hercules and was jealous of Alcmene. “As Juno was always hostile to the offspring of her husband by mortal mothers, she declared war against Hercules from his birth.” Hera sent a pair of serpents to destroy the infant Hercules as he lay in his cradle, but the precocious babe strangled them with his own hands, thus foiling her plot. It was through her doing that Eurystheus, King of Mycanea, commanded Hercules to undertake the Twelve Labors, to atone for certain crimes he later committed when he was older.
The Last of the Twelve Labors
Of these Twelve Labors, the last proved to be the ultimate challenge for Hercules, testing both his strength and his courage. King Eurystheus demanded that Hercules fetch for him Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Tartarus. This was a dangerous task, for Tartarus was the Land of the Dead and was rules by the dark god, Hades. Not only did Hercules have to brave all the horrors of the Underworld, he had to risk his life battling that monstrous dog. Hades gave him permission to take Cerberus, provided he could so without the aid of weapons. “Heracles therefore seized the dog with his hands, and crushed him tight until his spirit was tamed; then he carried him up into the world, and showed him to Eurystheus, after which he brought him back to remain as the watch-dog of Hades.” Not once, but twice Hercules had to walk the landscape of Death. Later in his life, he would do so again.
The Wisdom of Hercules
In his early youth Hercules was confused about his future and his destiny. When he was about 18 years old he was approached by two women. The first was painted with make-up, wore gaudy jewels and was gaily attired. The other woman was stately and dignified, and her clothing was all of white. The flamboyant woman, familiar with the indecisiveness of youth and knowing of Hercules’ self-doubt, tempted him. “I invite you to follow me; you shall have the easiest and pleasantest life in the world, no hard work and no dangers; you shall eat, drink and be merry.” Other promises did she make the young hero, offering him a life free of care, if he but followed her.
This woman said her name was Pleasure.
Then the noble-looking woman gave Hercules her advice, knowing something of his lineage and destiny. “I will not deceive you with promises of pleasant things, but I will tell you the truth. Nothing that is really good can be got without labor and hardship, for so the gods have ordained.” She told him if he wished the gods to serve him he must first serve the gods; if he wished honor from his native land he must go forth and work for its benefit; the man who chooses the hard road and performs many noble deeds will attain everlasting glory and happiness.
This woman was named Virtue.
Though young, Hercules displayed a realistic insight into the nature of things, showing wisdom beyond his years. In the end he resolved to follow the path of Virtue, putting from his mind all craving for easy pleasure. “But his first task was to master himself before he could do great deeds with his own strength; for he had a violent temper.”
The son of Zeus, for all his awesome strength, often found it difficult to control his emotions. This was one labor in which he did not always triumph.
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Next time, in Part 2, I’ll talk about the temper, tragedy and passing of Hercules. Thanks for joining me today. I appreciate it!
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