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Chapter 22: Heracles


Read the Commentary for Chapter 22.


Familiarize yourself with the map of Peloponnese.


Investigate the images of Heracles from the Perseus Vase Catalog.

Examine the metopes from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which depict the various labors of Heracles.

What emotions are evoked when you look at Waterhouse’s painting of Hylas and the Nymphs


Appreciate the details in Apollodorus’ account of the birth and exploits of Heracles.

Compare Pindar’s Olympian Ode 3, in which the poet recounts some of the incidents in the legend of Heracles, with the other ancient sources you have read.

Read Euripides’ play Heracles, in which the hero, driven mad, kills his own family. How does Euripides’ treatment differ from his treatment of Heracles in Alcestis? In what ways does Euripides’ treatment of the hero differ from the heroic temper and torment of Sophoclean heroes and heroines?

Read Livy’s account of the encounter between Hercules and Cacus.

Read Ovid, Heroides 9, a letter from Deïanira to Hercules.

Compare and contrast Seneca’s Hercules Furens with the Heracles of Euripides.

Analyze the characterization of Deïanira in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis. You may also wish to compare Sophocles’ original play with Ezra Pound’s adaptation.

Read Xenophon, Memoribilia 2.1.21-2.1.34, in which the tale of Heracles at the crossroads is told. You may want to listen to the musical versions of the story by Bach and Handel (see below).

Describe the character of Heracles in Robert Graves’ novel Hercules, My Shipmate.

For a scholarly treatment of the influence the legend of Heracles has had on later Western culture, you may wish to consult Karl Galinsky’s The Heracles Theme: The Adaptation of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century.

Compact Discs and Videos

For this chapter there are several musicals that may be enjoyed:

The first, Out of This World, by Cole Porter, has already been introduced for its depiction of several deities. It belongs, however, with the story of Heracles, since it is loosely based on the Amphitryon legend, telling of Jupiter’s infatuation with a lovely American mortal.

Not quite of the same caliber, but still very enjoyable is Olympus on my Mind, by Grant Sturiale, with book and lyrics by Barry Harman, suggested by the Amphitryon of Heinrich von Kleist.

A musical by Richard Rodgers, The Boys from Syracuse, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, has a more tenuous connection; it is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which is reminiscent of Plautus’ Amphitryo and Menaechmi. If you read the Amphitruo, you may wish to pursue Plautine themes; this a good excuse to revel in Stephen Sondheim’s superb A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, both the CD and the video.

A musical very pertinent to this chapter on Heracles is By Jupiter, by Richard Rodgers, again with lyrics by Hart. It deals with Heracles’ ninth labor, the girdle of Hippolyta, and is a sheer delight as you will know if you have heard the LP original cast recording of selections. Unfortunately this has not yet appeared on CD, although one of its songs, “Jupiter Forbid,” has been reissued. The musical comes from the play A Warrior’s Husband, by Julian Thompson.

Pick one of the episodes in the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or The Xena Trilogy, and provide a detailed and specific critique.

Oh Woe Is Me (Hélas Pour Moi) is a serious cinematic treatment of the Amphitryon story that deserves critical viewing.

Are you a fan of Walt Disney movies? If so, how do you evaluate his transformation of the legend in the movie Hercules?

There are two significant musical compositions about the famous parable about Hercules’ choice between Pleasure and Virtue: two cantatas, one by Bach, Hercules auf dem Scheidenwege; another by Handel, The Choice of Hercules. Bach enthusiasts may want to listen his other cantata on a classical theme: Aeolus Propitiated (“Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus”), which tells how Zephyr, Pomona, and Pallas propitiate an angry Aeolus.

After you read Sophocles’ Trachiniae, compare the opera Hercules, by Handel, about Heracles, Deianira, and Iole.


How does the meaning of herculean relate to Hercules? What is a hydra in English? Thanatos (Death) with whom Heracles wrestled had a brother Hypnos, the god of sleep; explain the meaning of hypnosis. Morpheus, the god of dreams, gives us the word morphine. What does Augean mean in English?


View the following constellations:

  • Cancer
  • Hercules
  • Hydra
  • Leo
  • Draco

Essay Questions

  1. Discuss the nature and importance of goddesses and heroines in Heracles’ life and death.

  2. How many themes from saga and folktale can you identify in the legend of Heracles?

  3. Compare and contrast the saga of Perseus with the saga of Heracles.

  4. Discuss the development of Heracles from a rather primitive “master of animals,” known more for his brute strength and endurance, to a more compassionate, unselfish hero, a paradigm of virtue and self-reliance with divine associations.

  5. Explain how the last three labors of Heracles can be seen as a conquest of death.

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