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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,
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!