HERAKLES , the son of Zeus and the Theban queen Alcmene, is the most prominent Greek hero, despite the fact that no poem on his labors is preserved—numerous images, several preserved tragedies, and countless allusions to his myths and cults in Greek and Latin literature attest to his importance. But although he has a mortal mother and dies himself, he is no typical hero. He lacks the close connection with a single city, or with a grave as the focus of his cult. Instead, his mythology connects him especially with the cities of Thebes and Argos, and his cult is panhellenic and makes him appear much more like a god than a hero. One can understand why the poet Pindar (c. 522–438 bce) blurred the categories and called him a "hero god," (hērōs theos; Nemean Ode 3.22).
Ancient authors, as well as some modern scholars, connected his name with that of the goddess Hera. His name takes the very common form of Greek personal names that are easily understandable as composite nouns: Hera-kles means "the glory of Hera," as Dio-kles is "the glory of Zeus," or Patro-klos "He who brings glory to his father." In mythology, however, such a positive connection with Hera does not exist. He is, after all, the illegitimate son of her husband and a local queen, and in Homeric poetry this turned Hera into Herakles' most bitter enemy (see, for example, Iliad 15.25–28). Only after his elevation into Olympus did Hera accept Herakles as an adoptive son. The ancient explanation—that it was none other than the constant persecution by Hera that set Herakles on his steady course to glory (see Pindar, Fragment 291)—seems rather farfetched, as is the claim that his first name had been Alcides ("strongman"). In reality, the name Alcides designates Herakles as the grandson of Alkaios, father of Herakles' stepfather, Amphitryon. But modern explanations are not much better; the repeated effort to understand hēōs as "young man" rests on no firm linguistic grounds, although Herakles was, among other things, a protector of young warriors.
Zeus fell in love with the beautiful queen of Thebes, Alcmene. When her husband Amphitryon (grandson of Zeus's son Perseus) was away on a military campaign, Zeus took Amphitryon's shape and seduced her; in order to extend his pleasures, he interrupted the sun's course for three days. The complications that resulted from Zeus's disguise were exploited in late classical drama; the preserved adaptation of a Greek tragedy for the Roman comic stage, Plautus's Amphitruo (after 200 bce), became the first in a long series of early plays in European literature.
Zeus's ever-jealous wife Hera pursued the unborn baby. When, immediately before Herakles' birth, Zeus declared that an offspring of Perseus would become king of Mycenae, Hera hindered Herakles' birth in favor of that of another offspring, Eurystheus, whom Herakles would have to serve for many years. Herakles also had a twin half-brother, Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon, and this brother's son, Iolaos, became Herakles' devoted friend and companion.
In the service of Eurystheus, Herakles performed twelve labors. The series begins in the Peloponnesian neighborhood of Argos, the Iron Age successor of the Bronze Age site Mycenae. He killed the lion of Nemea (near Argos), a monstrous beast with a skin that weapons could not penetrate. Herakles strangled him and turned the hide into his signal armor. With Iolaos's help, he killed the Hydra of Lerna (another town near Argos), a snakelike monster whose many heads regrew as soon as he had cut off one; he used the Hydra's poison on the tips of his arrowheads. He caught the Cerynthian hind, a female deer with golden antlers that was living in Arcadia, and the Erymanthean boar, another Arcadian wild animal. He shot the man-eating birds that were living in the swamps of Stymphalos in Arcadia, and he cleaned the stables of Augias, king of Elis, in southwestern Peloponnese.
The other six adventures expand the geographical frame. To the south of the Peloponnese, he caught the bull that Poseidon had given as a present to the Cretan king Minos and that later was devastating the island; in the north, he tamed the man-eating wild horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. Turning east, he asked for and received the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyte; in the far west, he abducted the cattle of Geryoneus on an island on the western shore of the Oceanus, and he received, with the help of the giant Atlas, the apples of the Hesperides ("evening girls"); and finally, he descended into the underworld and brought back the three-headed hound of hell, Cerberus. This cycle was fully established before 460 bce, when it was represented on the temple of Zeus in Olympia.
Other exploits include his service, in female dress, at the court of queen Omphale in Lydia; his fight with death to gain back Alcestis, the wife of his host Admetus; the founding of the Olympian games; his part in a first Trojan war, which preceded the more famous Greek expedition and in which Herakles punished the treacherous Trojan king Laomedon, and a short participation in the voyage of the Argonauts; an often-represented brawl with Apollo over the Delphian tripod; and the shooting of the centaur Nessus when the beast tried to rape Herakles' wife Deianira (with whom Herakles had a son, Hyllus). When Herakles years later abducted young Iole, with whom he had fallen in love, Deianira used the advice of Nessus to impregnate a shirt with Nessus's blood—which was tainted with the Hydra's poison—to use as a love charm. The shirt caused so much pain to Herakles that he burned himself alive on top of Mount Oeta. After his death, he was received among the Olympian gods and married to Hebe ("youth").
The story of Herakles, the mighty, albeit somewhat flawed, mortal who subjects himself to a much weaker person, cleanses the earth from frightful monsters, and finally is rewarded by being made a god, attracted a moralistic reading. In the allegorical interpretation of Stoic philosophers, Herakles became the exemplar of the ideal Stoic sage whose labor and dedication earns him a godlike position. In royal ideology, from Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) to the emperor Charles V (1500–1558), Herakles more specifically became the embodiment of royal virtues. The personal motto of Charles V depicts the pillars of Herakles at the Strait of Gibraltar with the proud caption plus ultra (more beyond)—thus the ruler whose empire included the Americas claimed to have outdone the Greek hero. The myth of Herakles at the crossroads, created in the fifth century bce by Prodicus, confronts the young hero with Dame Virtue and Dame Lust and makes him opt for the former, despite the latter's many promises; the story survives well into the European Renaissance and the baroque age.
In most Greek cities, Herakles had cult followers, although he had very few major sanctuaries. An open-air sanctuary on top of Mount Oeta, where myth placed the pyre in which Herakles burned himself, is archaeologically attested as early as the Archaic Age, and it was the site of an athletic contest. It is the only sanctuary of Herakles that served more than one city. He also had a major city sanctuary on the island of Thasos. Its archaeological exploration points to the importance of ritual (by definition, all-male) banquets in Herakles' cult (myth consistently represented him as an avid eater and even more avid drinker and womanizer). He was among the foremost divine protectors of the city—a relief on a city gate represents him as an archer poised to shoot towards any evil that might approach. In many other cities, especially of the Greek East, he is connected with the military protection of the city and with the able-bodied young male citizens who constituted the city's army; this connection is responsible for Herakles' epithet kallínikos (He of the Beautiful Victory). In Athens, he presided over the coming-of-age rituals of young men, who offered him a large libation of wine.
The birth story of Herakles, with the nightly visit of the supreme god to the ruling king's wife, derives from Egyptian royal ideology, although there are no other traces of such a claim in historical Thebes. The Dorian states of the Peloponnese, especially the Spartan royal lineages, regarded him as their divine ancestor whose son, Hyllos, was the ancestor of one of the three traditional Doric tribes. Other aristocratic and royal families claimed him as their ancestor as well, such as the dynasty of the Lydian king Croesus, or the Macedonian royal family. Such claims inevitably involved a cult whose details, however, mostly elude us.
In private cult, Herakles was addressed as a powerful protector; a very common epithet is alexikakos ("He Who Protects from Evil"). Like other private protectors such as Isis, he received dedications after he manifested himself in a dream. In Athens he was identified with the healing hero Pancrates ("All-powerful"), who had a small sanctuary in the city. Throughout antiquity, the entrance of houses was guarded either by a symbol of Herakles, such as his club, or a verse written on the lintel: "The son of Zeus Herakles kallinikos is living here: no evil may enter."
In the course of the Greek colonization of southern Italy during the eighth and seventh centuries bce, his cult also came to Italy, and especially to Rome, where he was worshiped as Hercules (a form of his name that presumably developed through the Etruscan name Hercle ). In Rome he had an open-air altar, the Ara Maxima (Very Large Altar) near the spot where, in archaic times, the Tiber could be traversed in a ford; the cult dates back to the Archaic Age, as does the pediment sculpture of a temple on the nearby Forum Boarium (Cattle Market) that represents his introduction into Olympus. His connection with cattle and its transhumance through the mountains of Italy seem to be old and constant; the connection is also the backdrop to the Greek myth of Geryoneus and its Roman continuation, the killing of the local Roman cattle-rustling monster Cacus. Throughout Italy, women were excluded from Herakles' cult (which in Greece was already concentrating on males). Other cultic roles are less well attested; somewhat by chance we learn that Herakles possessed a lot oracle in the Roman port city of Ostia.
Herakles is identified with a wide variety of local gods, such as the Cilician Santas/Sandon, whose cult centers on an annual fire ritual reminiscent of Herakles' self-destruction on Mount Oeta. Most important was the identification with the Phoenician Melqart, who has his main sanctuary in Tyre and another important cult on the peninsula of Gades (Cádiz) in southwestern Spain. The Greek historian Herodotos claimed that some Greek cults of Herakles derived from Tyre's Melqart, and a few modern scholars followed this theory and extended it to the cult of the Roman Ara Maxima, but the evidence does not seem to bear them out.
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