Hercules Before The Labours
Heracles, or Hercules if we are reading Latin, is perhaps the greatest hero ever conceived of in history. He can be found in history from the furthest reaches of Spain to the mountains of Afghanistan, and was worshipped as a deified mortal everywhere in between. His mythological cycle is monumental, it is epic in its scope both for the range fo deeds he performed but also for the incredible detail to the human condition in which it depicts. Over the next few weeks we will look into picking apart the mythology of Heracles and finding the meanings that underlie the text. This work is from my new released book Hercules: Greek Mythology Explained which I can email to you for free if you sign up here.
The Birth Of Heracles
Before Amphitryon reached Thebes, Zeus came during the night and made the one night as long as three. He made himself look like Amphitryon, slept with Alcmene, and told her what had happened with the Teleboans. When Amphitryon arrived and saw that his wife did not welcome him home, he asked the reason. After she said that he had arrived the night before and slept with her, he learned from Teiresias of the encounter she had had with Zeus. Alcmene bore two sons, Heracles, the older by a day, to Zeus, and Iphicles to Amphitryon. When Heracles was eight months old, Hera sent two enormous serpents into his bed because she wanted to destroy the infant. Alcmene called to Amphitryon for help, but Heracles stood up, throttled them, one in each hand, and killed them. Pherecydes says that Amphitryon, wishing to know which of the boys was his son, put the serpents into the bed. When Iphicles fled and Heracles confronted them, Amphitryon knew that Iphicles was his.
The mythic cycle of Heracles opens expectedly with information of his parentage and details of the world in which he is born into.
Heracles can make claim to a divine lineage as his father is Zeus, yet is brought up by the mortal Amphitryon who himself is a great general of Thebes. The opening passage relies on the assumed knowledge of the reader to know that Amphitryon was away with the Theban army who were fighting the Teleboans. During his absence, Zeus came to his wife Alcmene and impregnated her with Heracles. This sequence of events is told in detail in Plautus’ comedy Amphitruo for those who are interested.
What we have seen so far is that Heracles is born from Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, he is a Theban, and he has a wholly mortal twin brother named Iphicles.
Heracles was taught to drive chariots by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolycos, to shoot a bow by Eurytos, to fight in armor by Castor, and to play the lyre by Linos, who was Orpheus’ brother. After Linos had come to Thebes and become a Theban, he was slain by Heracles, who hit him with his lyre (Heracles killed him in a fit of rage because Linos had struck him). When some men prosecuted him for murder, he read out a law of Rhadamanthys that said that any man who defends himself against an instigator of unjust violence is innocent. In this way he was acquitted. Afraid that Heracles would do something like that again, Amphitryon sent him out to tend his herd of cattle. Growing up there, Heracles surpassed everyone in size and strength. It was obvious from his appearance that he was Zeus’ son, for his body was four cubits tall, and a fiery radiance shone from his eyes. He also did not miss when he shot a bow or threw a javelin. When he was eighteen years old and out with the herd, he killed the Cithaironian lion, which used to rush from Mount Cithairon and ravage the cattle of Amphitryon, as well as those of Thespios.
Thespios was king of Thespiai, and when Heracles wanted to kill the lion, he went to this man. Thespios entertained him as a guest for fifty days and had one of his daughters (he had fifty of them by Megamede daughter of Arneos) sleep with him every night before Heracles went out to hunt, for he was eager for all of them to have children with Heracles. Though Heracles thought that he was always sleeping with the same one, he slept with all of them. After overpowering the lion, he wore its skin and used its gaping jaws as a helmet.
When he was returning from the hunt, he ran into some heralds sent by Erginos to collect the tribute from the Thebans. The Thebans paid tribute to Erginos for the following reason: One of Menoiceus’ charioteers, named Perieres, hit Clymenos, kin of the Minyans, with a stone and wounded him in the precinct of Poseidon in Onchestos. When Clymenos was brought to Orchomenos, he was barely alive. As he was dying, he directed his son Erginos to avenge his death. Erginos marched against Thebes, and after inflicting many casualties, he made an oath-bound treaty that the Thebans would send him a hundred cows of tribute every year for twenty years. As the heralds were going to Thebes to get this tribute, Heracles met up with them and mutilated them. He cut off their ears, noses, and hands, tied them around their necks, and told them to take that back to Erginos and the Minyans as tribute. Enraged by this, Erginos marched against Thebes.
After Heracles got armor and weapons from Athena and became the commander, he killed Erginos, routed the Minyans, and forced them to pay double the tribute to the Thebans. It happened that Amphitryon died fighting bravely in the battle. Heracles received from Creon his oldest daughter Megara as a prize for bravery. He had three sons with her, Therimachos, Creontiades, and Deicoon. Creon gave his youngest daughter to Iphicles, who had already had a son, Iolaos, with Automedousa daughter of Alcathos. After the death of Amphitryon, Rhadamanthys, the son of Zeus, married Alcmene and, exiled from his county, settled in Ocaleai in Boiotia.
Heracles had already been taught archery by Eurytos. Now he got a sword from Hermes, a bow from Apollo, a golden breastplate from Hephaistos, and a robe from Athena; he cut his own club at Nemea.
After his battle against the Minyans it happened that Heracles was driven mad because of the jealousy of Hera. He threw his own children by Megara into a fire, along with two of Iphicles’ sons. For this he condemned himself to exile. He was purified by Thespios, and going to Delphi, he asked the god where he should settle. The Pythia then for the first time called him by the name Heracles; up until then he had been called Alceides. She told him to settle in Tiryns and serve Eurystheus for twelve years. She also told him to accomplish ten labours imposed upon him and said that when the labours were finished, he would become immortal.
This passage depicts the years of Heracles youth and sets up the motive for the rest of Heracles adventures and begins to foreshadow the themes that define the hero. To begin with we see the young man being trained in the arts of war by other heroic figures of renown. Heracles first act of impulse is displayed when he murders Linos, to which he defends was in line with the law showing the audience that he is also quite smart and cunning. So from the beginning Heracles is displaying conflicting characteristics that will later define him. These conflictions cause the people around Heracles to fear him which is why we see him as a young man ushered away to be a cowherd.
The act of sleeping with all of Thespios’ daughters is sometimes referred to as Heracles “thirteenth labour” and is an important addition into the mythic cycle as we reaffirm Heracles weakness in his base urges. He struggles to control his appetite for sex and violence, and though in this case it is condoned, it will not always be and this will lead to difficulties. In another sense, we see Heracles unwittingly being taken advantage of by Thespios as the hero has no idea that he is sleeping with all the man’s daughters in the hope that he will impregnate them all. Though there seems to be no repercussions in this episode, it foreshadows what is to come.
Heracles’ goal to obtain the Cithaironian Lion is important. It is his first real achievement as a hero. You will remember from our discussion on archetypes and the tarot cards that the eighth card, “strength”, held the image of a lion, to which I explained as,
The Strength card symbolises the man’s acknowledgement of the beast within. Taking time to meditate and focus his energies internally, he finds that he still cannot control life and that it will guide his emotions. In the quiet, he finds his inner beast, acknowledges its existence, and finds strength in it. However, he still must develop, as merely acknowledging the beast means that the strength is still not sourced from himself.
– Mythology Unveiled, R. D. Jones
This applies to Heracles in full. For him, this inner beast is his Cithaironian Lion and represents the passions that give him strength, yet he has no power over. They drive his actions and in a way protect him, which is why we see him wear the skin as an armor. We will see through the rest of this story though that the lion’s skin cannot protect the hero from himself, nor can it negate the monstrous deeds he performs and so he must still develop.
The last episode depicted that with the oracle needs a little bit of fleshing out to truly understand. Hera’s hatred toward Heracles was present before his birth and was a product of her jealousy toward the disloyalty of her husband Zeus. Her first act of vengeance took place at the time of Heracles birth where Hera had made Zeus promise that the next male born of Perseus’ line would one day be high-king of Mycenae. Zeus agreed believing this destiny would be for Heracles, but Hera was cunning and in one set of mythic cycles we see that she binds up the birthing canal of Alcmene so as to prolong her pregnancy. This was done so that Eurystheus could be born first and take the throne in place of Heracles. This may seem like a minor detail, but the importance lies in the theme of the Olympian gods cleansing the earth of the old order and replacing it with the new. They sought a hero to do their bidding on earth, and it now appeared that Eurystheus would be the one. This is a theme of husband verses wife, or male against female, as these deities backed different men. It also creates a foundation for the rest of Hera’s attacks on Heracles, as we will see that it was Hera who told the oracle to send Heracles to Eurystheus who gives Heracles his labours, and it is Hera who is behind most of the hardships which Heracles encounters.
Next week we will look at Labour I: The Nemean Lion
If you like what you are reading then you may be interested in my new book Mythology Unveiled. You can find it on Amazon by clicking here. Otherwise, sign up with my list by clicking here and I will send you out a free copy of Hercules: Greek Mythology Explained.