Updated: Sep 28, 2020
There is no Greek hero quite like Herakles. Son of Zeus, king of the Greek Pantheon, and a mortal woman by the name of Alcmene, Herakles was one of the most famed and widely revered heroes of the ancient mythic tradition and one of the only heroes to ascend to Godhood after his death. Herakles had a wide appeal across the ancient world, he was revered in several Greek city-states as a mythological founder due to his many children and even in the Roman world became a paradigm of masculinity and heroism that was emulated by some emperors. Herakles was a popular figure in Classical literature and drama, inspiring the poet Pindar and playwright Sophocles. He also appears in comedy, characterised as a brute strength but also dim-witted in Aristophanes’ Frogs. In the Hellenistic age, his character took on a more philosophical nature as people began to view him as representing the stoic virtues of endurance and suffering, as a result of the many labours and tragedies he endured during his lifetime.
(Left: The infant Herakles strangling a snake. Roman, 2nd century CE. Capitoline Museum, Rome.
Right: The ‘Farnese’ Herakles. 2nd century CE Roman copy of a Greek original. National Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Childhood and Early Myths
Herakles, originally named Alcaeus at his birth, was born to Alcmene after she had been visited by the God Zeus. Zeus had disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband and visited her in the name night as her real husband, and so Herakles was born with a twin brother by the name of Iphicles who was wholly mortal. Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, was supremely jealous of her husband’s extramarital affairs and of any children born as a result. Because of this, on the night that Herakles and his brother were due to be born Hera tied up the clothing of Illithyia, the Goddess of childbirth, in order to prevent Herakles’ mother from giving birth safely. Hera was tricked into letting the Goddess go, and eventually, Herakles was born. Fearing Hera’s revenge, Alcmene tried to abandon the infant Heracles to appease the Goddess however the baby was rescued and taken to Olympus by Athena. Hera, who did not recognise the baby, nursed the child out of pity but upon realising his identity pushed the baby away. As a result, her milk sprayed across the sky and became the star constellation known as the Milky Way. After this Herakles was returned his parents and renamed – with his name being a combination of ‘Hera’ and ‘kleos’, the Greek word for glory, in an attempt to appease the furious Goddess once again. Hera’s hatred of Herakles would continue all his life, and in another famous incident from his childhood, Hera sent two poisonous snakes to kill him as an infant. In a display of Herakles’ supreme strength and a testament to his heroic and Godly nature, the baby Herakles killed Hera’s snakes and was found playing with him as if they were toys.
Labours and other Notable Exploits
Herakles grew into a strong and handsome young man and was first married to Megara, the daughter of King Creon of Thebes. However, Hera’s hatred had not diminished, and she caused Herakles to be overcome by a terrible madness during which he killed both his wife and children. In order to be exonerated of this terrible crime, Herakles was directed to King Eurystheus and given the famed Labours of Herakles as punishment. Originally there were only ten seemingly impossible tasks, but Eurystheus was not entirely satisfied and so two additional tasks were added to bring the total to twelve which became Herakles’ most famous exploits. The Twelve Labours were:
The slaying of the Nemean Lion.
The slaying of the Lernaean Hydra.
The capture of the Golden Hind.
The capture of the Erymanthian Boar.
To clean the Augean stables.
The slaying of the Stymphalian Birds.
The capture of the Cretan Bull.
The theft of the Mares of Diomedes.
The theft of the girdle of Hippolyta.
The theft of Geryon’s cattle.
The theft of the Golden apples of the Hesperides.
The capture of Cerberus.
The successful completion of these tasks gained Herakles renown across all of Greece and brought him into contact with many of mythologies most notable creatures, including the mysterious Amazon warrior women, the same bull that fathered the fearsome Minotaur, and even brought him to the depths of the underworld and back. During his lifetime Herakles also underwent a number of other adventures, including joining Jason as part of the crew of the Argo, slaying the great giantsAlcyoneus and Porphyrion, rescuing the Titan Prometheus from his divine punishment by killing Zeus’ eagle, and sacking the great city of Troy a generation before the events of Homer’s Iliad.
Offspring and Enduring Legacy
As the paradigm of masculinity and virility, Herakles produced a mightily impressive number of children and is recorded as having taken a large number of lovers during his mortal lifetime- as a result, Herakles has links to many important ruling families across the ancient Mediterranean. His first marriage to Megara ended in tragedy and left no surviving children. His second marriage to the Lydian Queen Omphale produced in children whose descendants would eventually become the Kings of Lydia, including the fabled King Croesus. His final mortal marriage to the princess Deianiraresulted in the Heraclediae line, which primarily refers to the descends of his eldest son with this wife, Hyllus. Through Hyllus, these sons would form a group of Dorian kings who conquered the Peloponnesian kingdoms of Sparta, Argos, Corinth and Mycenae. As such the Peloponnese was ruled by families who traced their lineage back to Herakles and thereby asserted their divine right to rule the area into the Classical era and beyond. Herakles had influence in Sparta for the longest of all, as the two royal families of Sparta, the Agiads and the Eurypontids, ruled Sparta until the third century BCE.
However, Heracles’ influence as a mythological ancestor was not only limited to the Peloponnese. In Macedon, the Argead dynasty, who ruled from 700BCE until around 310BCE, drew their lineage from Herakles via his descendent Temenus. As a result, Herakles featured prominently in the royal iconography of Argead kings and Herakles’ image often appeared on Macedonian coinage as a mark of their royal prestige. Arguably the most famous and successful of the Argead kings, Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, made particular use of Herakles as part of their royal image and as a means to justify their eventual conquest of the Greek city-states and beyond. In the Hellenistic age, after Alexander’s conquest brought Greek kingship to areas of Asia Minor, the kings of Pergamon, one of the most significant of the Hellenistic kingdoms, also constructed their royal identity around their descent from Herakles. This was crucial for the ruling dynasty of Pergamon, the Attalids, as many of the successor kingdoms within Alexander the Great’s former empire sought to demonstrate their legitimacy via these ancestral connections to famed Greek heroes since the Hellenistic age was plagued by wars of succession in the wake of Alexander’s premature death. The Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and the Antigonids all sought to reinforce their relationship to Herakles during this time in a bid to legitimise their claim to rule and increase their prestige through divine descent. As such, the myth of Herakles as his role as a patriarchal founder of ruling dynasties became even more potent and politicised against the highly volatile backdrop of the Hellenistic age.