Miscellaneous Myths: Heracles

greek mythology

#Miscellaneous #Myths #Heracles

Well, what’s the point of me doing this one? Everyone already knows Hercules. He’s basically ancient Greek Superman with a healthy dose of modern sports stardom, right? Did twelve cool things, got the girl, call it a day. Couldn’t be simpler! Weeellll… …no.

Hercules is a lot of things, but simple is not one of them. First of all, Hercules is the Roman hero. Heracles is the original Greek version, named for the glory of Hera in an ineffectual attempt to keep her from trying to murder him. Unsurprisingly, they are pretty distinct.

Second of all, remember this word? I’ve talked a bit how hubris was the most common character flaw for Greek heroes. They’d think too highly of themselves, try to be gods, and end up getting smacked down for their sins.

So far, we’ve only seen one major subversion of this, which was Perseus, who basically didn’t have any flaws. But Heracles is also a subversion, because his biggest flaw is wrath. How unexpectedly modern, right? Well, Heracles begins his life, as so many heroes do, with Zeus spotting a fine-looking lady,

This one by the name of Alcmene. Zeus does his thing and shapeshifts into her husband, Amphytrion, and gets her pregnant. The very same night, her actual husband scoots on by and does the same thing. That’s right, today’s first plot twist is that Heracles had a twin.

So Hera is livid, as she always is when Zeus pulls this kind of nonsense. But this time she’s extra miffed, and starts trying to take as many petty revenges on the baby as she can possibly think of.

Priority one is screwing Heracles out of his birthright, so the night Heracles and his twin are slated to be born, Hera convinces Zeus to make the next descendant of Perseus to be born the king. Now, Alcmene is one of Perseus’s descendants, meaning Heracles

Is slated to be the next descendant of Perseus, so Zeus is totally OK with the idea, whereupon Hera zips down and kidnaps Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to keep Heracles and his brother right where they are until the day is done.

Then she causes Heracles’s cousin Eurystheus to be born prematurely, so he gets to be the king instead. Fortunately, Alcmene gets to give birth eventually, because one of her servants tricks Ilithyia into bailing, whereupon Hera turns the servant into a weasel as revenge. The family still keeps her around though, which is nice.

Anyway, Alcmene is acutely aware of the fact that the baby is already a problem for her, and will probably only cause more problems later on, so she kicks him out, whereupon Athena scoops him up and ferries him over to Hera, telling her that someone left this poor baby just lying around.

Whereupon Hera pities the little guy and nurses him a bit. Unfortunately, Heracles is a toothy baby and boob-noms a little too hard. Hera chucks him, because…ow, but the damage is done, because her magic milk has given him superpowers, making him crazy strong.

Athena takes the little guy back to his parents, and they raise him pretty uneventfully. So, prior to the twelve tasks thing, Heracles’s story is a little muddled, which is pretty common for culture heroes – they tend to accumulate stories over time. The main highlight is one time teenage Heracles gets pissy, because he’s having trouble

Learning to play the lyre, and ends up killing his teacher as a result. Then, a while later, he ends up in Thebes, where he courts and marries Megara, the daughter of King Creon. They have two beautiful children, whereupon Hera drives Heracles crazy, and he kills all three of them.

He gets his brain back, is immediately stricken with grief, and goes to consult the oracle about what he should do to atone. The oracle, guided by Hera, tells him he needs to atone for his crimes by serving his cousin, King Eurystheus, for ten years, and doing whatever he tells him to.

This is all part of her cunning plan to accidentally make Heracles the most famous and revered Greek hero ever, because nobody ever just kills anybody in these stories. So, this leads to the famous twelve labors, (or, rather, ten plus a couple extra).

Initially, Eurystheus gives him ten labors, but two of them get discounted for shenanigans. Number one is to kill the Nemian Lion, known for being immune to all mortal weapons, and having the general disposition of a chainsaw strapped to a ceiling fan.

Heracles ends up strangling it and skinning it with one of its own claws. Mission number two is killing the Lernaean Hydra, for which Heracles conscripts his half-nephew and sometimes lover, Iolaus, for moral support. Anyway, after learning that cutting off the heads just causes more heads to grow back, Iolaus suggests using fire to burn the neck stumps, which works really well. Before they leave, Heracles takes some poisonous hydra blood and coats his arrows with it, because why not, right?

With that out of the way, Heracles returns home, but Eurystheus is all, “Hey, you got help from that one, ooh, doesn’t count, nyeh nyeh nyeh!” and adds another trial for later. So trial number three is to capture (alive this time) the Ceryneian Hind, a deer sacred to Artemis.

Eurystheus’s cunning plan here is to have Heracles offend Artemis and get her to kill him. But as soon as Heracles explains what’s up with his trials and such, Artemis is like, “Yeah dude, go for it, just bring her back when you’re done.”

So Heracles brings the hind to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus is too slow to actually catch it, and it zorps back to Artemis no problem. Mission accomplished. Mission four is to capture the Erymanthian Boar, but Heracles gets distracted along the way and parties it up with his centaur friend for a while instead.

Unfortunately, centaurs apparently don’t know that Greek wine needs to be watered down before it’s drinkable, so they all get super drunk and then start trying to pick fights. Heracles drives them off with his poison arrows, but his centaur buddy accidentally drops one on his foot and dies. Well…that was…kinda pointless.

Anyway, after that fiasco, Heracles visits the immortal centaur Chiron for advice, who tells him that the boar is impossible to stop while charging, so he needs to drive him into the snow to immobilize him, and then carry him off. So Heracles does, and brings the boar back to Eurystheus,

Who immediately freaks out and makes him release it back into the wild. Mission number five is to clean the stables of King Augeas, which are *filthy.* So Heracles first gets the guy to promise him ten percent of his prized cattle if he manages to pull it off,

Then diverts two rivers though the stables and cleans them out super efficiently, surprisingly not demolishing the building in the process. But Augeas is a sore loser and refuses to pay up, so Heracles and Augeas’s son Phyleus take him to court,

Whereupon he sidesteps all that legal nonsense by banishing them both, because he *is* the king. And then Eurystheus refuses to credit the trial because Heracles did it for pay, even though he didn’t get paid. Heracles gets pretty pissed and kicks Augeas out of the kingdom

And makes his son Phyleus the king, then takes his cows and goes home. Mission number six is to drive out the Stymphalian birds from the swamp they live in, which he does with a little divine help: Athena has Hephaestus make him a special rattle

To frighten the birds into the air, whereupon Heracles is free to shoot them down. Trial seven is to capture the Cretan Bull, mostly known for being the father of the Minotaur. So Heracles wanders into Crete and asks Minos if he can take the bull, which Minos is fine with, since that stupid bull has done nothing but wreck stuff ever since it got there. So Heracles picks him up and brings him back, whereupon the bull breaks loose

And wanders around Marathon for a while before dropping out of the story completely. Trial eight involves capturing the Mares of Diomedes, which is complicated by the fact that the mares mostly eat people, and they’re very hard to control. Heracles ends up isolating them on an island he dug out for just that purpose,

Then kills Diomedes and feed him to the horses to calm them down. This chills them out enough that it’s easy for him to bring them back. Trial number nine is to retrieve the Girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

Fortunately, Heracles being Heracles, this isn’t too hard, as Hippolyta takes one look at him and quite willingly drops her clothes. However, Hera decides this was too easy, and spreads a rumor among the Amazons that Heracles intends to kidnap their queen.

They dogpile on him, and in the chaos, Heracles kills Hippolyta for some reason and bails with the girdle. Mission ten is to steal the Cattle of Geryon. Unfortunately, he lives on the other side of a stupid hot desert,

And Heracles gets so grumpy and overheated that he fires an arrow at the sun. Fortunately, Helios finds this charming rather than intimidating, and loans Heracles his sun-chariot to get him there faster. So Heracles touches down on Erytheia, whereupon he is attacked by Orthrus, the two-headed dog. Who he kills.

Then Eurytion, the cattle-herd, hears the commotion and comes by to help. And gets killed too. Finally, Geryon comes out in full battle armor and is, you guessed it, killed. So, Heracles scoots back with the cattle after taking an extra year to round them all up

Because Hera thought it’d be funny to send a gadfly to spook them. Eurystheus then sacrifices the cattle to Hera, which does nothing to soothe her nerves. Trial number eleven is to retrieve apples from the garden of the Hesperides,

Which is complicated somewhat by the fact that the location of the garden is a secret. So, Heracles wrastles the location out of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, and heads off. On the way, he runs into this dude Antaeus, who’s immortal, but only so long as he’s touching the earth.

He challenges Heracles to a wrastling match, and when Heracles realizes he can’t beat him by pinning him, he just…picks him up and crushes him. Anyway, so Heracles reaches the garden of the Hesperides, but he can’t get the apples, because the tree is guarded by this big dragony thing named Ladon.

Fortunately, nearby is the titan Atlas, busily holding up the sky. So Heracles is like, “Hey buddy! Hey!” “Yeah, wanna do me a solid and grab me some apples?” And Atlas is like, “Sure dude, but you’ll need to carry this.” “Sky ain’t gonna hold itself up, ya know?”

So, Heracles tags in and holds up the sky while Atlas scoots over to the tree and picks some apples. So Heracles is like, “Yo, thanks man! Hey, can you tag back in?” And Atlas is like, “You know, actually…”

“How ’bout you just tell me where to take these, and I deliver your apples for you!” So Heracles is like, “Aw, man, that…” “…that just sounds great! But…” “…y’know, my cape’s getting really uncomfortable. Could you like, tag in for a second” “so I can adjust it, and then we’ll swap back out?”

And Atlas is like, “What could go wrong?” and takes back the sky, at which point Heracles obviously bails. For his twelfth and final labor, Eurystheus straight-up tells Heracles to go to hell, and kidnap Cerberus. So Heracles traipses down to Hades, whereupon he bumps into Theseus and Pirithous, still fused to their chairs.

They ask him for help, so Heracles frees Theseus, but when he tries for Pirithous, there’s a huge earthquake, which he takes as a sign that he should probably leave him there. So, Heracles heads deeper into the underworld, and encounters Cerberus, along with Hades, who asks him what exactly he thinks he’s doing.

So, Heracles tells him he’s here to kidnap his dog, and Hades tells him …okay, but he can’t use any weapons to do it. Which Heracles is fine with, because, again, wrastling. So, he bear-hugs one of Cerberus’s heads until he gives in, and I guess Hades objects or something,

Because most tellings of the story involve Heracles shooting him for some reason. So Heracles drags Cerberus out to Eurystheus, who is unsurprisingly so terrified that he demands Heracles return him immediately. So, Heracles carries Cerberus back to Hades and goes on his merry way, finally free of his service to Eurystheus.

Now, Heracles’s story doesn’t end with his labors. He has all kinds of hijinks, frankly too many to list here. A lot of those hijinks were romantic; he was married four times, his third wife being the one to kill him,

And one noteworthy thing is that Heracles, as a symbol of pure masculinity for Greece, had a lot of dude lovers too, because what’s manlier than two men? Apparently, in Plutarch’s time, it was customary for male couples to worship at the tomb of Iolaus,

Who was widely considered to be Heracles’s primary boyfriend. Which is kinda sweet. But anyway, I kinda glossed over the fact that he *dies* somewhere along the line, so let’s talk about that! Heracles is on marriage number three, and his wife is this lady Deianira

For those of you who know Greek, her name is a spoiler, as it translates to “husband-destroyer.” So, one day this centaur Nessus decides to kidnap her, which Heracles obviously objects to. He shoots the centaur with one of his old hydra-blood arrows, and the poisoned centaur tells Deianira that

His blood can totally make a potion to keep her husband faithful should she ever need such a thing. He persuades her to bottle some of his blood, and then dies. This becomes relevant several years later, when Heracles falls in love with this other lady, Iole.

Deianira remembers the love-potion thing, takes some of the blood, and smears it on the inside of one of Heracles’s tunics. Whereupon, because it’s full of hydra venom and very very poisonous, the blood melts into Heracles’s body and seriously f*cks him up.

He’s too tough for it to kill him, but it really hurts, so he kinda decides to die anyway. Heracles throws himself into a funeral pyre and burns away his mortal half, becoming a pure god and ascending to Olympus in the process. Whereupon he marries Hebe, the goddess of youth.

Philoctetes, the guy who lit the pyre, gets gifted Heracles’s poison arrows, and later uses them to kill Paris in the Trojan War. So I guess some good came of all this. *red singing* Hercules Hero of song and stories Hercules Winner of ancient glory fighting for the right fighting with his might

With the strength of ten ordinary men Hercules people are safe when near him Hercules only the evil fear him softness in his eyes iron in his thighs virtue in his heart fire in every part of the might Hercules

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