Hercules: Hero and Victim. Part 2
Nigel Green as Hercules in the 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts.
("The greatest motion picture ever made," actor Tom Hanks said at the Academy Awards some years ago when special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen was honored with a special Oscar.)
Today I’m going to finish up my 2-part “thesis” on Hercules, which I wrote in 1984, when I was taking a night class in English Rhetoric at Triton College in Forest Park, IL. Once again, I quote from the sources I used back in 1984 — Bullfinch’s Mythology, by Thomas Bullfinch; God, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece, by W.H.D. Rouse; and Mythology, by Edith Hamilton.
The Temper of Hercules
An example of Hercules’ volatile emotions occurs during the quest for the Golden Fleece. In despairing grief over the loss of Hylas, his armor-bearer, Hercules leaves the Argo and deserts Jason and the other Argonauts to go look for his friend. “This power of deep feeling in a man of his tremendous strength was oddly endearing, but it worked immense harm, too.” Hercules had sudden outbursts of furious anger which were always fatal to the often innocent victims of his rage. Once the anger had passed and his temper had cooled, Hercules would show a disarming penitence and agree to suffer any punishment; of course, no punishment could be inflicted upon him without his consent. More than once he was a victim of his own hot temper and uncontrollable rage.
One time, in a fit of madness, Hercules killed his friend Iphitus and was condemned to become the slave of Queen Omphale of Lydia. While in her serve he “. . . lived effeminately, wearing at times the dress of a woman, and spinning wool with the handmaidens of Omphale, while the Queen wore his lion’s skin.” His own temper brought about this humiliation. He was mocked, treated as a fool and ordered about like a slave. Yet Hercules faced his ordeal in a manner most befitting a hero of his stature — with courage and dignity. Not once did he attempt escape or seek revenge.
Another time he visited his friend, Admetus, whose wife had just died. Hercules did not know this, and save for the manner of his dress Admetus showed no trace of mourning. When Hercules asked who had died, he was told that only a servant of the house had passed away. Hercules wanted to leave, but Admetus begged him to stay. Then, while Admetus attended the funeral, Hercules got drunk and began to sing. The servants chided him for his lack of respect, and Hercules protested, saying that there was no disrespect, for the dead woman was a stranger to him. He was then told that it was Admetus’ wife who had died, and his shame was absolute. “Then he did as he always did, he heaped blame upon himself. . . . As always, too, his thoughts turned quickly to find some way of atoning.” Thus he went down again to Hades, fought with and defeated Death, and returned with Admetus’ wife. (Just why Admetus failed to tell Hercules that his wife had died is something I don’t understand.)
This shows Hercules’ character as the ancient Greeks saw it: “his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where some was dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends.”
The Tragedy of Hercules
As mentioned in Part 1, Hercules could only be defeated by supernatural means, and the greatest of his enemies proved to be Fate itself, and perhaps a touch of irony, as well.
Hercules’ wife was Dejanira, whom he met while in the service of Queen Omphale. She was the beautiful daughter of the king of Calydon “and was wooed by the god of the great river Acheloos, which runs through the country.” Hercules defeated the god Acheloos in battle, winning the hand of Dejanira, and they were married according to ancient custom.
Directly after their marriage, when Hercules was taking his wife home, they reached a river where the centaur Nessus acted as ferryman. He took Dejanira upon his back and tried to run off with her, but she cried out. Hearing her cry, Hercules shot the centaur with an arrow. Before he died, Nessus told Dejanira to take some of his blood to use as a charm if Hercules ever fell in love with another woman. Dejanira did as the centaur bid her and it was not long afterwards when she had occasion to use the blood-charm.
During one of his victorious battles Hercules had taken prisoners, and among them was a fair maiden named Iole, of whom he was overly fond. As he prepared to make sacrifice to the gods in honor of his victory he asked his wife to send him his ceremonial robe. “Dejanira, thinking it a good idea to try her love-spell, steeped the garment in the blood of Nessus.” As soon as Hercules donned the robe it stuck to his flesh and caused him great pain. Wrenching off the rob he tore away pieces of his flesh, and in his frenzy he seized Lichas, the servant who had brought him the robe, and hurled him out to sea. Fatally wounded, Hercules took ship and returned home to his wife.
Upon seeing what she had unwittingly done, Dejanira went out and hung herself. Preparing himself for death, Hercules ascended Mount Oeta, where he built a funeral pyre of trees and commanded a servant to supply the torch. He then laid himself down up on the pyre “with a countenance as serene as if her were taking his place at a festal board,” and the flamnes consumed his body.
The Passing of Hercules
According to Zeus, however, only Hercules’ mortal-half could be destroyed: his mother’s share. What Hercules had derived from his father was immortal. Said Zeus: “I shall take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I require of you all to receive him kindly. If any of you feel grieved at his attaining this honor, yet no one can deny that he has deserved it.” The gods gave their assent and even jealous Hera could not disagree. Hercules was taken to Mount Olympus to dwell; he was even reconciled with Hera, who gave her daughter Hebe to him in marriage.
“And so you see Heracles led the life he had chosen when he was a young man.” He spent a good part of his life expiating one unfortunate deed after another, never rebelling against the almost impossible demands placed upon him. “Sometimes he punished himself when others were inclined to exonerate him.” Hercules was a victim of his own flawed humanity, and his life was filled with tragedy. Yet in the end he won the honor and glory Virtue had promised him, gaining his rightful place among the gods. “But it is not easy to imagine him contently enjoying rest and peace, or allowing the gods to do so, either.”
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There have been many novels about Hercules, and I’ve read a few. But of those I read, not a one told his entire tale, the complete myth from his birth to manhood, covering his Twelve Labors and all his trials, tribulations and tragedies. I would love to write that novel one day. Who knows? And of all the films made about Hercules over the years, many deviated greatly from his story, as first set down by Ovid, and then later Euripides, Sophocles, Pindar, and Theocritus. I had heard once that after the success of the film Jason and the Argonauts, there were plans to make a movie about Hercules, with Nigel Green reprising a role I thought he mastered quite well, and with special effects by the maestro, Ray Harryhausen. Perhaps it was nothing more than Hollywood “urban” legend, and alas, no such film was ever made. At least two films have been made in the 21st century, and both succeeded in leaving me a bit disappointed. The TV series, with Kevin Sorbo in the title role, was its own separate thing; it was enjoyable, at times a little silly, and it often took great liberties with the mythos of “the strongest man in the world.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed my article, and I thank you for stopping by.
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