Hamilton draws her story of Hercules mostly from later writers but also borrows from Greek tragedians. Hercules, born in Thebes, is the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal whom Zeus deceives by disguising himself as her husband. Hercules’ demi-god status allows him many liberties. He can challenge the gods and often win, as when he offends the Oracle at Delphi and quarrels with Apollo. He also helps the gods defeat the giants with his superhuman strength; above all else, he is remembered as the strongest man who ever lived. Only magic can harm him, as he overpowers all else. His unequalled strength makes up for deficiencies in intelligence and patience—he can be impetuous, emotional, and careless, and once threatens to shoot an arrow at the sun because it is too hot. Nonetheless, he has boundless courage and a noble sense of right and wrong.
Hercules’ strength is evident from his infancy. One night, two giant snakes attack him and his half-brother, Iphicles, in their nursery, but Hercules strangles them both at once. While still a youth he kills the legendary Thespian lion of the Cithaeron woods, taking its skin as a cloak he always wears thereafter. In his youth he also demonstrates a tragic weakness that haunts him his entire life—he rashly and unthinkingly kills one of his teachers, not knowing his own strength. After conquering the warlike Minyans, he marries the princess Megara. He has three children with her, but then Hera, jealous of Zeus’s infidelity with Hercules’ mother, uses magic to make Hercules go insane and kill his wife and children. Recovering his sanity and seeing what he has done, he rushes to kill himself, but Theseus convinces him to live. Knowing he must purify himself, Hercules goes to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. She tells him to visit his cousin, Eurystheus of Mycenae, who will devise a penance.
Spurred on by Hera, Eurystheus devises a series of twelve impossibly difficult tasks. The first of these Labors of Hercules is to kill the lion of Nemea, a beast that cannot be harmed by weapons; Hercules chokes it to death. Next, he must kill the Hydra, a monster with nine heads, one of which is immortal. A new head grows whenever one of the other heads is chopped off—a problem Hercules solves by burning the neck-stumps and burying the immortal head. In the third task, Hercules captures the sacred golden-horned stag of Artemis and brings it back alive. The fourth task is to capture a giant boar. The fifth, cleaning the stables of King Augeas in a day. The king has thousands of cattle whose manure has not been cleaned in years, so Hercules redirects two rivers to flow through the stable. Athena helps Hercules with his sixth task, which is to rid the people of Stymphalus of a flock of wild birds that terrorize them.
All the other tasks involve the capture of things extremely resistant to captivity: a beautiful wild bull of Minos; the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes; the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons; the cattle of Geryon; a three-bodied monster (it is on the way to fulfill this labor that Hercules balances two giant rocks at Gibraltar and Ceuta, on either side of the strait between Spain and Morocco). The eleventh task is to steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, the mysterious daughters of Atlas. Journeying to find Atlas, the only one who knows the Hesperides’ location, Hercules stops to free Prometheus from his chains. Atlas offers to tell Hercules only if he holds up the world—normally Atlas’s job—while Atlas fetches the Apples for him. Atlas gets the fruit but decides he prefers walking around without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hercules tricks him into taking the earth back, saying he needs to be relieved for a moment to place a pad on his shoulders. Finally, for the twelfth labor, Hercules has to bring Cerberus, the three-headed dog, up from the underworld. Before leaving Hades, Hercules frees his friend Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness.
Hercules undergoes other various adventures after his labors, defeating Antaeus—a wrestler who is invincible as long as he touches the ground—and rescuing King Laomedon’s daughter, who is being sacrificed to a sea serpent. Hercules also carelessly kills several others along the way: a boy who accidentally spills water on him and a friend whose father, King Eurytus, insults him. As punishment for this last murder, Zeus sends Hercules to be a slave to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who forces him to dress and work as a woman for a year (though some say three years). Despite his errors, Hercules almost always has a clear sense of right and wrong as well as the need to make things right. On the way to kill the wicked Diomedes (owner of the flesh-eating horses), Hercules gets drunk at the house of his friend, Admetus, not knowing that Admetus’ wife has just died. When Hercules learns of his friend’s loss, he feels so bad about his inadvertent disrespect that he fights and defeats Pluto (Hades) to bring Admetus’s wife back from Hades.
One time, however, Hercules refuses to see the error of his ways, and this leads to his death. Angered that Zeus had punished him for inadvertently killing King Eurytus’s son, Hercules kills Eurytus and razes his city. One of his captives is a beautiful girl, Iole. Deianira, Hercules’ wife, feels threatened, and recalls some magic she earlier acquired, when Hercules shot a centaur named Nessus who insulted Deianira. As Nessus died, he told Deianira to take some of his blood as a potion to use if her husband ever loved anyone more than her. Deianira secretly rubs some of the potion on Hercules’ robe. When he puts the robe on, pain surges through his body. He does not die and must end the agony by killing himself, building a giant funeral pyre where he burns himself to death. Ascending to Olympus, Hercules reconciles with Hera and marries her daughter, Hebe.
Atalanta is the greatest female hero, mostly for her role in the Calydonian Hunt—a great hunt for a vicious wild boar Artemis has sent to terrorize the kingdom of a king who forgot to pay her tribute. A large group of heroes hunts the boar, but it is Atalanta who finally causes its death. She first wounds it, and a warrior named Meleager, who is hopelessly in love with her, delivers the mortal blow. His love for her, however, results in his death. Meleager’s two uncles insult Atalanta, so he kills them. In turn, Meleager’s mother destroys him by burning the magical log that determines the length of his life.
Atalanta has other adventures, most notably beating Peleus, Achilles’s father, in a wrestling match. Some say she is one of the heroes who search for the Golden Fleece, but that is unlikely. In another story she has vowed never to marry but has many suitors. To appease them, she agrees to marry anyone who beats her in a race, as she knows she is unbeatable. However, a young man named Melanion (or Milanion or Hippomenes) defeats her with his wits. He carries several golden apples in the race and drops them along the way. Distracted by their beauty, Atalanta loses and marries him. At some point they both offend Zeus and are turned into lions.
Though Hercules is one of the most famous mythical characters—largely due to his colorful and spectacular exploits—he is far from the ideal Greek hero. He causes much misery and must endure much suffering as a result. On one level, he is a very simple character: strong, brave, good-hearted, and not much else. He is unlike the heroes Odysseus, Theseus, or even Perseus, who display wit and cleverness along with a clear awareness of the places of gods and men; Hercules, however, is stubborn, pig-headed, decidedly non-intellectual, and often directly challenges the gods.
His story, therefore, is one of constant struggle between his noble urges and his weaker impulses. Hamilton notes that the secret to Hercules’ heroism lies in “his sorrow for wrongdoing and his willingness to expiate it [by which] he showed greatness of soul.” His character is brutishly simple, but his story is compelling because it is about a hero struggling with himself. At every turn in his life, Hercules is his own worst enemy and must suffer to correct his errors. After he murders his family—which Hera induces and is not necessarily his fault—he essentially imposes the Twelve Labors upon himself. As Hamilton notes, his heroism stems from his strong sense of morality and his ability to see when he has done wrong. Hercules’ refusal to atone for one of his sins—even after Zeus has punished him for it—leads to his downfall. His death emphasizes that wrongdoing, as well as arrogance against the gods, will be punished.
It might seem odd that the intellectual culture of Athens would revere such a simple-minded brute. Yet Hercules’ emotional struggle is complex and tragic, and it is this aspect of his character that the great tragedians explore. Indeed, the most satisfying myths are not simple tales of victories over evil but tales of characters who encounter and confront the good and evil causes and consequences of their actions. Hercules is, on one hand, a superheroic character of vast strength and courage. On the other hand, his story, as an adventure tale motivated by his tragic missteps, is a very human one.
Atalanta may appear in this section on four heroes merely because Hamilton desired gender balance. Though a great heroine, her fame and adventures are no match for Perseus, Theseus, or Hercules. Her presence is nonetheless significant, as it is worth noting that the Greek myths do have a tradition of celebrating the female warrior-huntress. From the goddesses Artemis and Athena to the human Amazons and Atalanta, there are numerous proud, fiercely independent women who are every bit equal to men. Though we tend to locate the prototype of a self-sufficient, empowered woman as a twentieth-century phenomenon, these myths demonstrate its existence at a much earlier date.
On page 380 I found it really interesting that Oedipus said " ' For the love of God, ' " a couple of times. I thought they might say for the love of the gods (plural) since they honored many not just one. Or was God considered Zeus to them?
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