Heracles: Mortal Prince, Hero, and God. The name Heracles means “glory of Hera,” indicating that Heracles was originally mortal (gods do not have names compounded from the names of other gods). He may have been a prince of Tiryns, vassal to the king of Mycenae.
Herodotus thought that Heracles the god was separate from Heracles the man, and that he was one of the twelve ancient gods of Egypt. At Tyre (in Phoenicia) he was identified with the god Melkart.
Heracles was a Greek hero who became a Greek god. He performed labors and conquered animals and monsters like many other heroes (e.g., the biblical Samson or the Indian Indra), but his myths are Greek traditional tales. His primitive origins are shown by his violence, his clothing of an animal’s skin, and his club. He fights animals, like the hunter who provides food for the primitive community. The Greek myths transformed him into the son of Zeus and exemplar of strength and patience. His legends may have spread from the Peloponnese all over Greece, or he may have been a hero brought into Greece by invaders from the north at the end of the Mycenaean age. Eventually his legends and his cults spread all over the Greek world, and in Italy he became prominent in the religion of the Roman state.
The Comic and Philosophic Heracles. We should remember that there is a humorous side to Heracles and his legend. The story of Amphitryon, Zeus and Alcmene (with its theme of mistaken identity) provides a recurrent comic theme from ancient to modern times, and Heracles himself can appear as a hero of more brawn than brains, a drunkard, glutton, and womanizer.
Yet the persevering and philosophic Heracles has become a more influential and inspiring archetype. Because of his Labors Heracles became a model of virtue, who through patience transcended human limitations and became immortal. Many of the Labors have folk-tale elements and three—Geryon, the Hesperides, and Cerberus—are certainly conquests of death.
Heracles became an ideal for moralists and philosophers. Prodicus (ca. 400 B.C.), a sophist (teacher of philosophy), told the parable of the Choice of Heracles. As a young man he was invited by two young women, representing Pleasure and Virtue respectively, to choose between the easy path of pleasure and the rocky uphill path of virtue. He chose the path of virtue.
Heracles (like Odysseus) became an example of steadfastness in adversity for the Stoics, especially in Roman Stoicism, which focused on subduing the emotions, on self-reliance, and on fortitude. Even in some Christian writings he is a model of Christ-like endurance.
Hercules in Roman Religion. As Hercules, Heracles was important in Roman religion, and his was the only cult of a non-Italian god accepted by Romulus at the founding of Rome (according to Livy). He himself (or the Greek king of Pallanteum, Evander) established the cult on the site of the future Forum Boarium (cattle market), to commemorate his victory over Cacus and the recovery of his cattle, Its altar was called the Ara Maxima (“the Greatest Altar”), and there were at least twelve other shrines to Hercules in Rome. Hercules (like the god Mercury) became the patron of traders, the bringer of profit and good luck in business.
Heracles in Greek Literature. No epic or tragedy could encompass his saga. Of extant Greek tragedies Sophocles’ Trachiniae (ca. 440 B.C.) deals with Deïanira and the agony of Heracles before his death; one of its glories is the characterization of the patient and devoted Deïanira, who epitomizes the trials of being the wife of a hero. She must endure his long absences, the terror of the dangers that will threaten him, and the fear of a rival lover. When Heracles’ does succumb to Iole's charms, Deïanira’s innocent attempt to win him back brings about a most agonizing death for her husband; the ultimate irony is that the mighty Heracles is finally undone by the woman who loves him most. Two surviving Heracles plays of Euripides, the Heracles Furens (ca. 420 B.C.) deals with his madness, and the Alcestis (438 B.C.) with his role in the return of Alcestis from the dead. Euripides also wrote an Alkmene (now lost), in which Alcmene was accused by Amphitryon of unfaithfulness and was saved from death by Zeus. Heracles appears in the Frogs of Aristophanes (405 B.C.) as a comic glutton.
Of the Alexandrian poets, Apollonius of Rhodes (ca. 260 B.C.) includes Heracles’ in the crew of the Argo, and narrates the loss of Hylas and Heracles’ vain search for him in the first book of his epic, Argonautica (1153–1357). Theocritus (ca. 275 B.C.) also focuses on Heracles’ love for Hylas in Idyll 13, and in Idyll 24 he tells the story of the infant Heracles and the serpents.
Roman Literature. In Rome Plautus emphasized the divine birth of Heracles in his Amphitruo (ca. 200 B.C.: his only mythological comedy) and portrays Alcmena sympathetically as the object of the lust of Zeus (Jupiter) and Amphitryon.
In Roman epic Heracles is important in Vergil’s Aeneid, where in Book 8 (184–305) Evander describes his victory over Cacus. Aeneas has many similarities to Heracles—the hostility of Juno, for example, and the theme of virtue achieved through labor. This is expressed by Jupiter in consoling Hercules, to whom the doomed Pallas has vainly prayed for victory (10.460–72). Ovid describes the apotheosis of Hercules in the Metamorphoses (9.134–272). Lucan (d. 65 A.D.), in his Bellum Civile (4.593–655), tells the story of Hercules and Antaeus. Hercules is the pattern of virtue for Scipio Africanus, the hero of the historical epic, Punica, of Silius Italicus (26–101 A.D.), and he has a bigger part in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus (ca. 90 A.D.) than in the epic of Apollonius.
Seneca (d. 65 A.D.) wrote a tragedy on the madness of Heracles (Hercules Furens) and he may have been the author of a second extant tragedy (Hercules Oetaeus) that deals with his suffering and death. There are innumerable references to Heracles throughout Greek and Roman literature.
Heracles in Western Literature. Heracles was popular throughout the middle ages in the west, and he even appears in Persian astronomical manuscripts with a turban and scimitar. He resumed his classical form in Renaissance art and iconography. In sixteenth-century France he represented eloquence and is sometimes shown drawing people to himself by a chain coming out of his mouth. The French poet Ronsard (1524–85) likened him to Christ, as did John Milton (1671) in England, who used the legend of Antaeus as a simile for Christ’s victory over the Tempter (Paradise Regained 4.562-71). Edmund Spenser (1552–99) frequently used Heracles in the Faerie Queene as an example of justice and virtue, most of all in the first and tenth cantos of Book 5.
Heracles appears frequently in German poetry, notably in the poems of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), who saw in Heracles the symbol of the human struggle against adversity. Later in the nineteenth century Robert Browning used the Alcestis myth in Balaustion’s Adventure (1871). Herakles continues to be used in twentieth century poetry and drama: as “Harcourt-Reilly” he is a Christ-like figure in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1939), while a fine adaptation of Sophocles’ Trachiniae is Ezra Pound’s The Women of Trachis (1954). Robert Graves’ novel, Hercules, My Shipment, is a splendid achievement.
Plautus’ Amphitruo has been an endless source of inspiration. In 1929 the French playwright Jean Giraudoux wrote Amphityon 38, which he purports to be the thirty-eighth comedy on this theme; and there have been more since; the legend also has inspired many musical works.