We see a lot of the demi-god Hercules in ancient and Renaissance potteries, paintings, and sculptures. He was so popular because he was the epitome of strength, virility, and wit. But did you know that Hercules suffered from bouts of temporary insanity in which dead bodies tended to pile up?
Featured photo: This sculpture shows a muscular Hercules resting on his knotty club on which is draped his trademark skin and head of the Nemean lion – the first conquest of his 12 Labors. Ref: (a-27).
What Do You Know About Hercules?
Many of us have heard about the half-mortal half-god Hercules and his fantastic exploits. Or, you may be familiar with the expression “Herculean” effort: what is required when something is exceedingly hard to do.
The ancient Greeks believed that Hercules (Herakles or Heracles in Greek, Hercle in Etruscan) – was a historical figure, and may have lived in the mid-13th century BCE. Many Greek leaders, including Alexander the Great claim descent from Hercules.
His popularity was such, that – even though he was Mycenaean (Greek) in origin – ancients such as Egyptians, as well as Etruscans and Romans, dedicated temples and altars in his honor. Throughout ancient times and during the Italian Renaissance, he was a remarkably popular subject in pottery, paintings, and sculpture.
So who was Hercules and why was he so popular? I found out that he wasn’t so perfect …
Table of Contents
- A Bastard of Zeus
- Virile and Clever, With a Touch of Madness
- Hercules’ Case of Temporary Insanity
- The Oracle Gives a Prophecy
- A Wicked Stepmother and a Mean Uncle Plot the 12 Labors of Hercules
- The Lion of Nemea
- The Hydra of Lernea
- The Cerynitian Hind
- The Boar of Erymanthus
- King Augeas’ Cattle & their Great Dung
- The Birds of the Stymphalian Lake
- The Bull of Crete
- The Man-Eating Mares of Diomedes
- The Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta
- The Cattle of Geryon
- The Golden Apples of the Hesperides
- Three-Headed Cerberus from Hades
- Hercules After the Labors
A Bastard of Zeus
The union of Olympian gods Zeus and Hera was a model of an incredibly dysfunctional marriage. Libidinous Zeus seduced any mortal or immortal woman he fancied, while his vengeful wife, Hera, attempted to sabotage the life of the despoiled woman and any offspring from the illicit affair. Hercules was her most hated stepson, in as much as he was Zeus’ favorite bastard.
Hercules was the product of Zeus’ one-night stand with a mortal woman, Alcmene. She was his own great-grand-daughter, a descendant of his own son Perseus, famed slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.
Zeus seduced Alcmene by coming to her in the likeness of her husband so she would not resist him. Ancient writers claimed that when Zeus made love to her, he made the night three times longer so that the extended time of his procreation would give his offspring exceptional might.
Months later, Alcmene gave birth to twins: Hercules – a demigod sired by Zeus, and Iphicles – a mortal sired by her real husband.
In the Herculean stories, Hera played the Really Wicked Stepmother and masterminded much of Hercules’ travails from his cradle to his grave. It was said, that she planted 2 huge serpents in his crib. But baby Hercules crushed both snakes with his bare hands.
Virile and Clever, With a Touch of Madness
Hercules was the epitome of strength and virility. In works of art, he is often depicted naked, with rippling muscles tensed for action. Usually, he dons the pelt (skin) and head of a lion and carries a knotty club – his sartorial trademark.
He had a strong sense of justice and battled evil when he saw it. However, he not only used brute force but also his famed wit and cunning to solve problems.
Ancient generals, kings, emperors and other state leaders portrayed themselves as having the Herculean character.
Alexander the Great claimed descent from the demigod. Indeed, Hercules was said to have fathered dozens of children including, during his youth, 50 sons from the 50 daughters of the king of Thespiae.
But did you know that Hercules suffered from bouts of temporary insanity in which dead bodies tended to pile up?
Hercules’ Case of Temporary Insanity
It seemed that Hercules had many moments of madness, some of which were brought on by Hera.
In one instance of Hera-induced madness, Hercules killed his first wife, Megara and all their sons.
When he came-to and realized what he had done, he was filled with guilt, remorse, and a suicidal urge. His friend Theseus convinced him that suicide was a cowardly act and that he should go into self-exile instead. (Ref: 8-i).
The Oracle Gives a Prophecy
Hercules consulted the Oracle of Delphi on where he should go on his exile and how to atone for his murderous act.
The Oracle advised him to live in Tiryns and serve the king there, his uncle Eurystheus. King Eurystheus would give him 10 labors to atone for his crime.
Once he completed these labors he would receive the gift of immortality and reside in Olympus with his father Zeus, the Oracle told him.
A Wicked Stepmother and a Mean Uncle Plot the 12 Labors of Hercules
King Eurystheus was no fan of Hercules and he connived with Hera to destroy Zeus’ favorite bastard. He commanded Hercules to carry out impossible and dangerous tasks that would surely kill a normal man.
But Hercules was not any normal man – he was the strongest, most powerful and unbeatable hero there ever was.
Of the 10 Labors that Hercules performed, Eurystheus disqualified 2 and added 2 more. So there were actually “12 Labors of Hercules”.
The writings of ancient Greek writers, Apollodorus (or Pseudo-Apollodorus) and Diodorus Siculus are quite readable. (See Ref: 9-ii, and 10-i).
So let’s have them relate in their own translated words (with a few edits on my part) King Eurytheus’ commands to Hercules to procure, slay, or perform, the following:
#1 – The Lion of Nemea
#2 – The Hydra of Lernea
#3 – The Cerynitian Hind (Red Female Deer with Golden Antlers)
#4 – The Boar of Erymanthus
#5 – King Augeas’ Cattle and Their Great Dung
#6 – The Birds of the Stymphalian Lake
#7 – The Bull of Crete
#8 – The Man-Eating Mares of Diomedes
#9 – The Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta
#10 – The Cattle of Geryon
#11 – The Golden Apples of the Hesperides
#12 – Three-Headed Cerberus from Hades
Hercules After the Labors
Hercules’ 12 Labors cleansed him of his filicide (murder of his children) and uxoricide (murder of his wife Megara).
He went on to have many more adventures where he slew bad actors and saved cities. He even joined Jason and the Argonauts for a period of time.
He had many consorts – both women and young men. (Pederasty – educational + sexual relationships between an older and a younger man – was an accepted practice in ancient Greek society). He married mortal women 2 more times: Queen Omphale of Lydia and Deianeira of Calydon. His fourth wife was the immortal Hebe, Hera’s daughter.
He begot many more children – within and outside of his marriages. His numerous mortal children and descendants were called Heraclidae – many of whom became founders and rulers of Greek cities.
Hercules died in a tragic incident when his wife Deianeira accidentally killed him. This, however, led to his ascension to Mt. Olympus to join the rest of the Olympian gods. Find out more in my post, Hercules and the Centaur At the Piazza della Signoria.
I derived this story based on the interesting works of ancient Greek writers who lived between the 5th and 1st century BCE: Sophocles (Trachinae), Pseudo-Apollodorus (Bibliotheke), and Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Historica) – Reference (8, 9, 10). For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.
Check my post on Hercules and Cacus at the Piazza della Signoria
Check my post on Hercules and the Centaur at the Piazza della Signoria
Get the story The Medici: Benefactors Of Your Sightseeing In Florence
Visit the Italy page for more stories and travel tips …
Fascinating ancient stories.
Practical travel tales and tips.