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Deconstructing the Herakles Mythology

Posted May 22nd, 2016 at 01:20 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated May 20th, 2018 at 12:16 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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Herakles the God of Strength and the Divine Protector of Mankind

Herakles began as a fugitive. His father Amphitryon was a royal member of the houses of Argos and Tyrins and claimed descent from Perseus (sometimes being the actual grandson of Perseus and Andromeda). His brother became king there in some versions. In others Tiryns was lost to the Mycenaeans. In a spat with King Electryon of Mycenae, Amphitryon accidentally killed him and was forced to flee. He took with him that man's daughter, his wife Alkmene. It was that or else face the wrath of the king's brother Sthenelos who was said to be himself a son of Perseus. Amphitryon traveled to Thebes at the behest of the Theban king where he served as one of its generals. Through his service to Kreon of Thebes he was meant to cleanse himself of the guilt of patricide and regicide. Already there existed a sense of exile from his society.

In a war against the Taphian Greek tribes Alkmene's brothers were slaughtered. Though already pregnant she refused to marry Amphitryon until he avenged their deaths. He thus went on a hero's journey to satisfy a woman. This tale is well known; while he was away it was said that Zeus visited her in the guise of Amphitryon and somehow was impregnated again while still pregnant and gave birth to twins. It could be that this was merely a way to describe how superior Alkaios was to his twin brother Iphikles. Since even Classical poetry and playwrights question the divine birth of Herakles. Some implied that Amphitryon was his earthly father and that Zeus was his father in spirit or in heaven. In one story Hera even willingly (sometimes through a trick) suckles the baby with her divine milk thus implying a motherly connection. At one point there is a myth in which Hera sends snakes to strangle baby Herakles but he crushed them in his tiny hands, if the snake is a reference to the "sacred life healing snake" Caduceus then this is probably just a metaphor for birth and life.

Later Herakles is depicted caring for his elderly father. When Amphitryon is unable to serve Thebes, Herakles takes his place as a general and protector over the city. At one point Herakles was said to have defeated an enemy incursion while still a youth when the adults were away in war. So there does seem to be some kind of recurring cycle between Herakles and Amphitryon, including the sins of the father. Interestingly though depicted as some kind of brute he is unusually cunning and this is often depicted through the intercession of some god like Zeus or Athena and perhaps in one case even Aphrodite in which they tell Herakles what he ought to do. In later myths of other heroes Apollo is used for this purpose but not this early on in the times of the writer Hesiod. Herakles is often depicted beating the likes of Hades, Apollo, Poseidon and Ares in contests of strength and cunning. There must be some significance here at least in the case of Hades who represents death and Ares who represents war. This is certainly the case during the death and apotheosis of the Greek hero.

As a youth Herakles was called Alkaios like the old king of Argos, his grandfather. After killing his wife and children (or just children in some tales) he is told by the oracle to pledge service to his cousin Eurysthios so that he might cleanse himself of his sins. Why he killed them is unknown, in some stories it was the work of Hera and her agents but even Hera's underlings take pity that they must punish so great a man as already he has demonstrated service to Thebes and filial piety to Amphitryon. Herakles seems to have mad fits of rage for some reason and the Greeks at the time compared it to epileptic fits which to them were the same thing. The trend in these cases seem to be a lack of control (compared to the problems of Achilles, Alexander and even Caesar, who did not murder in anger but rather became helpless and jolted about uncontrollably, though also comparable to the visions of a holy man or an oracle). Again service to a ruler is seen as a redemption of sorts where as exile is seen as a form of punishment. This is actually where he changes his name to Herakles to attempt a peace with Hera (Eurysthios was said to be a devout Hera worshiper so one might interpret this as Herakles becoming a servant of Hera as well).

Hera's main qualities seem to be protection and punishment, much like a mother in her own right. Almost all of his tasks deal with destroying beasts such as the Nemean Lion, the Lernean Hydra and the Stymphalian Birds. Apparently this is too easy because later he is asked to retrieve some beasts but they must not be harmed. This he manages to do anyway as he more or less captures or tames them such as the boar, the stag and the Cerberus. This in itself is some kind of metaphor for dominance of the self and teaching one to become a civilized person by submitting to social norms. He also has to clean the Augean stables which has a similar connotation. Though his last two quests, put on him by the jealousy of Eurysthios (as there were supposed to be only 10 not 12) involved very super natural things. He was required to travel to the depths of Tartaros to find some lost souls and tame the Cerberus. He is also told to travel across the world to the other side and find the sacred apples by either killing a deadly serpent or tricking a powerful titan into doing the job for him. Unfortunately Atlas tried to swindle the swindler and some how got swindled again. Herakles is unusually cunning and no one knew whether his honesty was a trap or far too sincere. Much like the psychotic brute aspect his honesty and cunning is represented as his being highly unpredictable. In ancient societies people like this were thought to be untrustworthy. Honesty if used incorrectly and in a direct manner was deemed to be insulting and thus against the social mores where as lying was almost synonymous with theft.

Sometimes he did works on his travels in which he cleared an area of bandits or raiders. On occasion foolish individuals challenged him or attempted to steal from him. Antaios the son of Gaia, attempted both and Herakles defeats him by holding him up in the air. Though not often but this time it is another trend of the air or sky (Hera's domain) for some reason coming down in his favour. This suggests that perhaps Herakles' relationship with Hera is more complicated than merely a feud to the death. Again we have the recurring theme of destroying that which is unsafe for civilization and society. While he on occasion did this for free other stories have him charging a hefty price in the form of gold, followers or even taking a bride.

Aside from his blinding rage his other weakness was his trust and fondness for women. For example he saved Troy from a beast called Cetus and in exchange he would take the King Laomedon's daughter as his wife (or magic horses in some versions), Hesione who was to be sacrificed to appease Poseidon. Negotiations did not go as planned (a cautionary tale) so Laomedon refused and Herakles slaughtered Laomedon and his sons for going back on their word and left only Podarkes as the survivor. Technically here it is justified since the king of Troy went back on his word. In an alternate story written later on he actually conquers Troy and gives the city to Priam of Illiad fame. We also see this same tale again later with the case of Iole where he does the same over a woman. He doesn't get to marry Iole but this is a continuing cause for enmity later between him and King Eurytos of Oikhalia, which develops into an all out war.

Herakles and his followers are able to overthrow city after city. He becomes so unbeatable and persistent that some tales actually state that he canot die because he is immortal. What ever the case he has many wives and princess meaning that many of these kings are de-facto allies for him. This is relevant because there are other similar stories such as Danae of Argos, Andromeda of Jaffa, Helen of Troy, Briseis of Lyrnessos etc etc; women supposedly valuable in the Bronze Age, especially rich and powerful women. It is interesting that he is never considered a king or show him ruling cities but he has an army of followers (a cult?) and makes war upon kings and enemies such as Hippocoon of Sparta. It may be a referenceto Pre-Greek times (the Pelasgians according to the Greeks. Also a reference to the development of the Polis institutions in which kings are subject to rule of law. Herakles is not bound to any such social constructs and he is not dependent on cities to maintain his power. Conquest never seems to be the result rather a marriage deal and on a couple of occasions he places a family member, probably a son or cousin, on one of these thrones. This is consistent with the other myths about the Heraclids who ruled Greece, they too are exiled thus continuing the theme of the sins of the father passing onto the sons. This is said to also be a reference to the supposed Doric invasions which destroyed Mycenaean civilization.

In Greek mythology women are seen as untrustworthy. Be it a magical temptress like Medea or a jealous wife like Deianira (literally means man destroyer) or even a trophy like Briseis: they are always the downfall of man! Medea became the downfall of Aegeus of Athens in her bid for power, Deianira killed Herakles in her jealousy because she thought that he would put her aside for Iole (which also relates to his 'weakness' or 'Hamartia') and Briseis caused Achilles to quarrel with Agamemnon. In the latter case this was not the fault of the woman as the issue was about who got to keep her as a war trophy, while this arguably could have had terrible consequences had it not been for the intervention of Athena. The Trojan War was started when Paris stole Helene away, the wife of Menelaus. This in itself led to the death of Achilles and Agamemnon was murdered by his wife after his return. Herakles is also willing to destroy cities for the possession of a woman. Similarly Herakles also impregnated and had dalliances with foreign women. Queen Omphale of Lydia and Queen Hyppolita of the Amazons are some examples. He also killed his fair share of tyrants and foreign kings who in Greek culture were always frowned upon. Foreigners in general were to be frowned upon so he killed them too, such as the Centaurs (the Scythians in actuality). He is literally the ancient Greek equivalent of a super hero with some folk elements. The ancient values are placed upon his deeds and he throws lying tyrants off of cliffs, kills monsters and beds powerful women.

Ultimately it was his this fondness for collecting women which made Deianira jealous, and then his trust in his wife which actually killed him. Rather than live on in an eternity of suffering he decided to shed his mortal flesh, choosing death but living on for eternity among the gods of Olympos. He was an abnormal man, not quite a god yet still more than human. But in his actions he did not become an abomination like Medusa, Arachne or Iphialtes but rather became a god. He did not choose his destiny, it was thrust upon him; unlike Achilles who sought glory or Jason who sought restitution into his house or Bellerophon who perished due to his Hamartia (fatal weakness) and lust for power.

Herakles comes off as a more archaic hero; one who is a victim of circumstance such as Theseus, Perseus and even the controversial King Minos. Where as both Perseus and Theseus were forced into their heroic roles due to greater circumstances and achieved glory in their respective myths. Herakles is similar but also comes closer to King Minos in the sense that neither of them had an easy times following what one could be considered moral. Herakles due to his inability to control himself but also hints that by his very nature he was not a normal person. King Minos however failed due to his own power and the complications of rule, that is to say that though he had weaknesses which he succumbed to, it was his inability to control the circumstances which he faced even while king that led to his downfall. Herakles differs entirely since he was one man doing tasks which none of these other heroes could have accomplished. Regardless of circumstances and personal weaknesses he succeeded and in the end chose to leave his mortal life. For someone who has done everything and could have surely still done more he was burdened with his immortality and chose to shed himself of his mortal qualities and ultimately choosing to give up on his mortal form itself. This is unlike Jason or Minos or anyone else who even in their apex were burdened by their power, but the key difference here is that they could not choose to give it up, many would not have chosen to give it up in fact. This is what separated Herakles, who was never a king, from a base tyrant. Though in this case political power and physical prowess as well as reputation seem to be synonymous.

The lion in these myths is a symbol of that power. Lions are apex predators so they are inherently seen as dangerous and powerful. The act of killing the lion is to tame the beast as a human should as a superior being. But in this case it is also a representation of taming oneself. Wearing its skin is to display that superiority but interestingly also to take that being's form. Ancient tribal rituals which involved wearing an animal's skin to become that animal and adopt its qualities could be a theme here. Similarly the lion was associated with Herakles himself, he was the "Lion of Olympos" and possessed many of its qualities. The Nemean Lion was indestructible and so was Herakles, it was only his superiority as a thoughtful being which allowed him to kill and skin the beast, usually depicted as a flash of brilliance from Athena. Lions could also be a symbol of fertility as they tend to live in groups of many females with the male as the ruler. Indeed it was said that Herakles fathered many sons.

Herakles was the quintessential warrior and embodied many of the characteristics that Greeks considered to be heroic. This can also be seen in his tutelage over many Greek heroes such as Theseus and in the tales of the Argonauts over many others such as Jason. Curiously though Jason is tasked to bring back the Golden Fleece (the constellation Aries), the skin of a ram. Rather than a symbolism of being a warrior the ram perched upon a tree as if on an altar appears to be a symbol of sacrifice as many of the Argonauts either perished or refused to go on in their quest. Although Jason's retrieval of the Golden Fleece creates a peace within Jason's house as it led to his defeat of his uncle Pelias and convinces his own children to kill their father. Though I am loathe to make the connection of a lamb as a symbol of peace because I can see no pre-Christian connection in Greek culture of a lamb as with such symbolism.

Herakles for his part freed himself from earthly pain and suffering and whether through his deeds or otherwise he ascended up to Olympos and became a god. If the tales of Odysseus (among others) are to be considered part of the canon then Herakles separated from his human self which went down to Hades and his divine self went up to Olympos. As Odysseos and Orpheos were said to have found the 'shade' of Herakles in Hades. But this was not technically Herakles' true self, rather it was a part of his original earthly being which was cast down into Hades at the time of his death. Neither did Herakles get sent to Tartaros or the Elysion Pedion but ascended to Mount Olympos. Herakles' apotheosis appears to be instant. More over it involved the destruction of his physical Human self in the fire and his divine being ascended.

Herakles rejected all suffering and a mortal life by stepping into the pyre of flames and destroying the mortal self. Rather than saving others from a metaphysical concept such as sin his acts involved the destruction of threats to Greek Civilization thus bettering the existence of his people in a more tangible and less metaphysical way. He also categorized individuals into those which he did not harm and those which he caused harm, so he was not a pacifistic deity or all accepting. He was above all a strong warrior who achieved a sort of political power through some less specific means but his position is not exactly clear as he was not technically a king. Herakles struggled to abide by the social values due to his divine nature or his divine curse (from Hera) or perhaps even his lack of morals, this is not in itself clear either. But he does not in itself attempt to reject society or its values as even he abides by them when it was suitable. As such he was not a trickster god but used cunning and an amoral outlook to strengthen the society that lionized him, which would have otherwise cast him out for his strength and violent acts.

Herakles represented the supremacy of mortal man, legitimized through Zeus the Divine Father. Herakles' deeds represented the civilizing nature of mankind through social norms and the justification of war, bringing balance to the Greek world. Not just the balance of society however, but his defeat over the cruel and animalistic forces of nature were one and the same as his domination of the self, as a philosopher might say. He changed from an uncontrollable barbarian, who was not fit to live among civilized society, into a veritable hero and lord who was inspired by a divine inspiration. In the process he also pushed the boundaries of civilization by making the world safe be it from men or gods, beast or supernatural beings, felon or foreign tyrant.
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  1. Old Comment
    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar
    This one is a bit more unorthodox compared to some of the things which I have written.

    It is essentially an analysis of the stories, a foray into Greek religion and society as well as discerning the influence of history and philosophy upon the realms of Greek myth.
    Posted May 20th, 2018 at 12:19 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga Lord Oda Nobunaga is offline

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