Heracles The Immortal Man Essay, Research Paper
Heroes are not uncommon in society. People, especially those facing hardships, created heroes for hope, something to push them through their daily toils. The Greeks of antiquity faced many daily difficulties, war, disease, famine, an unforgiving climate, etc. and also created heroes. Among them are Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, Odysseus, the greatest speaker of the Greeks, Bellerophon, Perseus, and Jason. The greatest hero, though, was Heracles. He sets the standard to compare all heroes. He has the strength and wisdom of a God, but in him resides the imperfections of man.
Heracles, or Hercules to the Romans, is the son of Zeus and Alkema. One night Zeus appeared to Alkema as her husband, Amphitryon, who was at battle defending his native Thebes. Heracles, whose name means “Glory of Hera,” is constantly the recipient of Hera s wrath. In an attempt to bequeath her hostility towards the child of Zeus’ infidelity, Zeus has the baby suckle Hera’s breast while she is sleeping. Hera awakes to knock the baby away, only to have her milk spread across the galaxy, creating the Milky Way. Hera thoroughly attempts to destroy Hercules, only to be defeated herself, intensifying his heroic status among the Greeks. (Burns 16; Murray 247)
Heracles life and trials have been chronicled extensively. As a boy he was taught wisdom and virtue, by Rhadamanthys, the judge of the underworld, boxing by Poldeuces, and music by Linus, until he killed him after being reprimanded. Heracles was sent to live in the country where he tried to learn how to control his anger and put his strength to work. He began wrestling wild animals and upon his return to Thebes kills the man killing Thespian lion. Upon waiting for the lion it is said that he slept with all fifty daughters of King Thespius. Grateful for the ridding of the lion, the king offers his daughter Meagra’s hand in marriage. It is in the next few years of his life where Hera’s antagonism is exposed. (Kirkwood 49)
The time sequence is sketchy at best, but Euripides play, Heracles, exposes the hero as a man of rage and courage, remorse and irrational. Upon returning from the underworld Heracles is informed of the death of Meagra’s brother and father by the hand of a tyrant, Lycus. He enters a dialogue with his father in which he says, “if I make no effort to save my own children from death… No longer than, shall I be called Heracles the victor.” (Euripides 581) The Choragos, immediately follows with, “It is only right that parents should help their children, their aged fathers, and the partners of their marriage.” (Euripides 583) Classic foreshadowing of something to come, the conversation is quickly redirected towards Heracles trip to Hades.
Upon returning home Heracles becomes a tool of reckless abandonment and once again the recipient of Hera’s hostility. In a frenzy, he kills his children and Meagra, mistaking them for wild animals. His father, Amphhitron, is only saved by Athena’s intervention. It is in this sequence that, Euripides exposes Heracles’ human nature. Stephen Harris offers some insight on the “quintessential heroic predicament. (278) Being a son of a God, he is subject to enormous strength, wit and veneer. However, being half-human he is subject to imperfections and is exposed as having poor judgment and devoid of intellect. Harris suggests that Heracles, like all heroes, are engaged in a constant struggle with:
How to fulfill the demands of the godlike desire for knowledge and achievement that drive him while bound to a mortal body…the strength, drive, and energy that define his heroic identity could not brook a life of mere domestic contentment. A savor in times of threat or war the hero becomes a menace in time of peace. (Harris 278)
Similar to Oedipus, the great hero, who was also irrational and fulfilled his destiny described by the oracle and both Bellepheron and Iccarus who perished at their own hands after not heeding others advise about flying. The inability for a hero to deal with his rage or pride, when not in battle, is a common theme throughout all myth.
Heracles does, however, lament over his actions when he comes too. Only after being persuaded by another hero, Theseus, he decides against taking his own life. Theseus urges him to rise and stop engulfing in his sorrow. He speaks down to his fallen hero and distinguishes their abilities, “Such language is fit for the common fellow,” and then asks him, “is this the benefactor and great friend to mortals?” (Euripides 1248-1250)
After forcing himself into exile Heracles praises Theseus for his companionship and ends with a humbling line, “Whoever prefers wealth or might to the possession of good friends, thinks wrongly.” (Euripidus 1426) Euripides brings the play full circle. In the beginning Heracles was a Marlboro man, returning from Hades, and defying the God’s limitations on the mortal man. The completion of his tasks served him as the greatest hero. Yet, the great hero succumbed to the will of Hera in killing his family. His uncontrollable wrath had soon withered to feelings of remorse and sorrow, more common to an infant losing his pacifier. He felt guilty for himself and was willing to give Hera her desire to see him dead. He now understands that he is a man and not immortal, for it is the first time that he has experienced death. With the revelation of the importance of companionship, with both Theseus and his father, and his final words the cosmos returns to order.
The 12 Labors
The reasons for the 12 Labors are not quite understood, however they are what all Greeks came to know as the triumphs of Heracles. One explanation is that they are a penance for his acts of uncontrollable domestic violence. This theory conflicts with Euripides’ play; in the play the labors were already concluded. Another possible explanation is at the request of his cousin King Eurystheus, who was a pawn to the instigation of a jealous Hera. Being the greatest Greek hero, Heracles would have a civic responsibility of not only accepting them, but also completing them. A further justification for the 12 labors is that they are tasks entrusted to him by the immortals that live one Mount Olympus. After their completion and Heracles death he is indeed lead to Mt. Olympus by Athena and is one of the few mortals excepted to reside along side the Gods. (Harris 278; Burn 16)
The order as well as the roster of the Labors varies greatly amongst texts. Generally, the first task is the killing of the Nemean lion a fierce beast whose hide was impervious to weapons of man. Heracles exposes both his enormous strength and intelligence by subduing the lion, skinning it with its own claws, and then taking the hide as his armor. The cloak of the lion represents the animal like nature of the hero. This also where Heracles abandons his club in favor of his bow and arrow. (Murray 249)
The Hydra of the swamp of Lerna was a formidable monster with numerous heads and poisonous blood. Assisted by his nephew Iolaus, son of Iphicles, Heracles cut off the numerous heads of the Hydra only to witness them grow back twofold. After some thought, Iolaus would sear the wounds shut with fire, preventing the Hydra from regenerating. After killing and burying the Hydra, Heracles dipped his arrows in its blood making them deadly poisonous. Eurystheus refused to count this labor because Iolaus assisted him. (Murray 250)
The third task that Heracles was to complete was to bring the Erymanthian boar, alive, to Eurystheus. Heracles used the inclement weather to his advantage and forced the boar into a snow bank, where he captured and bound the dangerous beast. Upon bringing the boar into the palace of Eurystheus, the king jumped into a bronze jar seeking safety. (Burn 19)
The fourth labor was another chase. In an effort to turn the God s against Heracles, Eurystheus sent Heracles to find the Cerynitian hind. A stag, with golden antlers and hooves, sacred to the goddess Artemis; our hero stalked the deer for nearly a year until he was able to sneak up on the stag capturing it unharmed. Fifthly, Heracles had the task of removing the Stymphalian birds that were terrorizing the countryside of Arcadia. Said to be man-eaters with wings as sharp as arrows, the birds droppings were becoming a nuisance to nearby towns. With a brazen rattle fashioned by Hesphsetus and entrusted to him by Athena, he scared off the birds, shooting and killing as many as possible with his bow. (Murray 252)
In the sixth labor, the cleaning of the Augean stables, Heracles redirects the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the stables, which had not been cleaned for thirty years. He demanded payment for this task and Augeas refused. Heracles returned to the stables, within a year, with an army and engaged in a killing spree. Once again the Hero had lost control of his animal like temper. (Kirkwood 51)
The first six labors took place in the Pelopenease and would be familiar to the myths of the Greeks. Heracles used his strength and wit to accomplish his labors. They stretched the imagination, but they did not call on the conflicting dualities of life and mortality. The last six Labors expand beyond the world the Greeks were familiar with and transcended across time to other myths. (Harris 282)
The seventh Labor consisted of the capturing the father of the Minotaur, the Cretan bull. Upon returning to the palace, Heracles releases the bull, only for it to become a toil of Theseus in later myth. The capturing of the Thracian Horses, the eighth Labor completed, proves to be comical. After feeding King Diomedes to his man eating horses, Heracles tames the horses and returns to the palace of Eurythesus. For the ninth Labor, retrieving the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, Heracles travels to the Black Sea. She willingly gives the belt to Heracles, angering Hera. The Goddess persuades the Amazons that she has been kidnapped and to attack Heracles, only to have their queen die by his hand. (Murray 251)
The Final three Labors take Heracles to the far end of the world. He expands the parameters of the Greek and human perspective. First, to the West, beyond the ocean, he was sent to retrieve the cattle of Geryon. In his journey Heracles sets up the Pillars of Heracles, amongst the mountains between Europe and Africa, known today as the Strait of Gibraltar. Geryon employs a two-headed dog, Orthos brother of Cerberus, and the savage herdsmen Eurytion, neither of who prove to be a fierce opponent for Heracles. The task to return with the cattle was much more arduous. Due to Hera s meddling, it took nearly a year for Heracles to return. (Kirkwood 52)
The eleventh task was to retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides, apples of immortality, which grew in the Far West. They were said to be wedding presents to Zeus and Hera from Gaia. It is unsure how he retrieved the apples. He either killed the serpent that protected the garden or he had the titan, Atlas, retrieve them while Heracles held up the sky. Neither is relevant. What is though, is an amplification of the heroes most significant duty, “To retrieve the power and knowledge otherwise limited to the gods.” (Harris 280) The task also signifies Heracles place amongst the immortals and upon his death he is lead to Mt. Olympus by Athena.
The last and final labor, or attempts to rid Heracles was to capture Cerberus, the hound that guarded the house of Hades. After being initiated in the Eleusian Mysteries and being guided to the House of Hades by Hermes, Heracles strangles the dog half to death and returns to the world of the living. It is said that even Hades had feared Hercules. His resurfacing from Hades proves how like many other heroes he faces the most extreme of circumstances; the extremities among nature and culture, mortality and immortality, and life and death. (Harris 282)
Although Heracles completion of the labors is godly and monumentus, his weaknesses as a mortal are still prevalent. As seen after the cleansing of the stables and his capturing of the boar. He takes refuge with his friend Pholos, the wisest of centaurs; half-man and half-horse they portray the animal instinct in man. While drinking whine, in a state of confusion he fires an arrow at his companion Pholos. Startled by other approaching centaurs, Heracles wasted no haste to flash his strength. (Murray 250)
There were many other minor stories of Heracles fortitude and combat ability until the time of his death by the hands of his last wife, Deianeira. Angered that King Eurytheus had not given him his daughter, Iola, in marriage, he returned to kill everyone in the kingdom except for her. Enraged Deianeira soaked a robe in the blood of the Hydra and presented it to Heracles. Upon his death his son Hyllus brought him to Mt. Olympus to be cremated.
Heracles was one of the few mortals excepted to Olympus, to sit among the summit. He was the only Greek to achieve divinity; he embodied both the strength and intelligence of the gods in a mortal form. Heracles was the greatest of Greek heroes.
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Euripedes. Heracles. From The PerseusProject@Tufts.edu
Harris, Stephen and Gloria Platzner L. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights Third Edition. Sacramento: Mayfield Publishing, 2001.
Kirkwood, G.M. A Short Guide to Classical Mythology. Wauconda: Bochazy-Carducci Publishers. 1995.
Murray, Alexander S. Who’s Who in Mythology: A Classic Guide to the Ancient World. New York: Wings Books. 1988
Heracles, The Immortal Man