Nathan (vovat) wrote,

I can tell you, it's a Herculean task

Amazing strength is a common trait among the semi-divine, but the most famous mythological strong man is, of course, Hercules. And for some reason, he's pretty much always called "Hercules" in our culture, even when the other mythological figures are referred to by their Greek names. Technically speaking, Herakles is the son of Zeus, and Hercules is the son of Jupiter. The figure of Herakles came to Rome by way of the Etruscans, who referred to the hero as "Hercle." The cult of Hercules was popular throughout the Roman world, and Wikipedia suggests that images of the demigod might have inspired the Buddhist Nio statues of East Asia.

I'm sure everyone knows the tales of Hercules, if only from Disney movies or campy Sunday afternoon television, so I won't bother recapping the story of his birth and labors in full. I will, however, mention some of the odder and more interesting aspects of the vast mythology that developed around the son of Zeus.

  • In his youth, he was struck by his music teacher Linus for his inattention, and inadvertently killed Linus with his own, I mean, lyre.
  • I've mentioned this before, but how Herakles, in a fit of Hera-inspired madness, killed the children he'd had with his first wife, Megara of Thebes, bears repeating.
  • On his way to retrieve the cattle of the three-bodied giant Geryon, he engaged in a bit of Paul Bunyan style terraforming, building pillars along the sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. These are still known as the Pillars of Hercules, and I believe I've seen suggestions that a version of Hercules was the main god worshipped in the lost Iberian city of Tartessos. The same journey involved Herakles trying to shoot the Sun with an arrow, the boldness of which act so impressed Helios that the god gave the strong man the disc of the Sun to use as a boat.
  • He was forced to cross-dress while serving as a domestic servant to Omphale of Lydia. As with his Labors, this was the result of a murder brought on by madness, this time of his friend Iphitus of Oechalia.
  • According to Diodorus Siculus, he established the first Olympic Games, but most other accounts contradict this.
  • The man did a fair amount of wrestling, with opponents including Antaeus of Libya and the sons of Proteus. He even wrestled Death himself (known as Thanatos to the Greeks) in order to restore his friend Admetus' wife Alcestis to life. Maybe the beating he took from Herakles is the reason Death stuck to chess after that. {g}
  • He aided the Olympians in driving off an attack by giants. For some reason, the gods needed a mortal to assist them in repelling the invasion.
  • He killed a sea monster sent by Poseidon to attack Troy, only to sack the city himself and hold Podarces (later known as Priam) for ransom when Podarces' father Laomedon refused to give Herakles the reward he had originally promised.
  • The Troy McClure movie The Erotic Adventures of Hercules (by way of The Simpsons, natch) wasn't really as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance, as one story told of Herakles is that he had sex with and impregnated all fifty daughters of King Thespius of Thespiae in one night, with the rulers of Sparta and Macedon tracing their ancestry back to this affair.
  • One adventure in which he did not prevail was a drinking contest with Dionysus.

The semi-divine hero's life was ended by a cloak woven by his last wife Deianeira and laced with hydra venom by a vengeful centaur, but he was granted a place in Olympus and a marriage to Zeus's daughter Hebe in his afterlife.
Tags: characters, mythology, simpsons

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