Hercules, A Greek Hero

Who was the real man behind the Hercules myth, and how did he transcend mythology itself, to become an ageless icon?

The word Herculean is synonymous with superhuman strength, and can be found in almost any English dictionary. But the man and myth, which is Hercules today, is not the same one as first recorded millennia ago. No man has touched the course of human events, nor captured the imagination of so many generations, as the Greek hero, Heracles. But who was the real man, and how did he transcend mythology itself, to become an ageless icon?

The story of Hercules, or Heracles as he was known in the original Greek texts, is a long and complex one, which grew even longer, and more confusing as the character of Hercules evolved in both literature and theatre. In Greek mythology, he was the mortal son of the great god Zeus, and blessed with extraordinary strength by his demi-god birth. It is interesting to note that Greek mythology singled him out from birth, since it also labeled him as the twin of Iphocles.

Perhaps most famous of all Hercules' exploits were his adventures, the Dodekathlos, or Twelve Labors. While these were far from his only adventures, they were the ones which most captured the imagination of classical storytellers and poets. A further series of adventures take place simultaneously with the Dodekathlos, and were known as the Parerga. Then, after he was freed from his service to Eurystheus, King of Argos, Hercules undertook a further series of adventures, including Troy, Ellis, and Pylons. Other adventures appear to have followed these, but many have decayed due to age and poor storage, and it is likely that others were passed on purely through oral traditions, and were never recorded when oration, as a means of storytelling, died out. One mention is made of him as aiding the Olympian gods against a race of giants, but this much-later text is often viewed as a work of complete fiction.

Linguists and historians are quick to point out the fallacies of Hercules' Grecian godhood, since the word "Hercules" most likely means "glorious gift of Hera," and no Greek god was ever given a name which was compounded from another god or goddess' name. Many believe, in fact, that he was probably, at one point, a real man. One man in particular, a chieftain of Tiryns in Mycenaean times and a vassal to Argos, is believed to be the real Hercules. He was, from all surviving accounts, a strong man, highly connected, and it was said of him that he had "the ear of the Gods Themselves." From this description, it is easy to see how a legend could begin of a man who was not only blessed by the gods, but also related to them. For certain, Greek art and literature was enamored with him from the very beginning. He was always depicted as an enormously strong man of moderate height, a huge eater and drinker, very amorous, and generally kind but capable of random outbursts of brutal rage. Many of the surviving representations of Hercules are statues, though Euripides features the hero in several of his plays.

By the age of the Roman Empire, most of the Greek gods and heroes had either been radically altered or completely forgotten. But, as in most matters pertaining to conquest, the conquerors took what they wanted from the conquered, and that included mythologies. Where the Romans borrowed from the Greek myths, they did so with impunity. The legend of Heracles was one such borrowed myth. The Romans changed his name from Heracles to Hercules, and his position from mortal man to immortal god. Under Rome, Hercules became the God of merchants and traders, dispensing luck freely, and was often prayed to for rescue from danger.

Besides becoming a god, Hercules changed in many other ways at the hands of the Imperialistic Romans. Artificial legends, more fiction than fact, told of Hercules' return from raiding Greyon's cattle (one of the Twelve Labors), and how he visited the future site of Rome along the way. Supposedly, by Roman accounts, he also introduced more humane rites in place of human sacrifice, and even taught the people to worship himself after he killed the monster Cacus and earned their respect. This final act is so contrary to the Hercules of Greek myth that the image of Hercules would be forever changed by it.

Of course, by the fall of Rome, the old gods of the Empire had been replaced or regulated to subservient positions by Christianity. Hercules was no exception. Once again divested of his godhood, he returned to his former status as a great and powerful hero. By the time Medieval literature truly began to flourish in the thirteenth century, Hercules had become little more than a romantic figure of chivalrous virtues, far from the dynamic hero of Classical Greece. In the _Romance of Alexander_, for example, the hero's tent is described as being decorated with images of the Herculean Dodekathlos. And, in the French romance _Les Prouesses et Vaillances du Pruex Hercule_, published in Paris in 1500, Hercules' labors were claimed in the honor of a Boeotian princess. Many other liberal licenses were taken with the myth of Hercules during the medieval period, when writers and artists interpreted the myths through the eyes of popular ideals of chivalry and intrigue. The legend of Hercules grew more heroic and complex at the hands of medieval writers; so complex, in fact, that it became nearly impossible to distinguish between the original legend and the fictitious additions of the Saxon-influenced Medieval literature.

As the Renaissance began, and scientific and literary study increased, however, scholars began to relearn the ancient Greek, which had been abandoned for the Church's Latin during the Dark Ages. With Greek as their ally, scholars delved into the undiluted mythology of Classical Greece, and efforts were made to recapture the original spirit of the mythological figures. However, the heroic Hercules was beyond such reversals. The romantics of the medieval era had already forever altered him into the flawless hero, and people were loath to see that hero destroyed.

If Hercules is still a familiar name today, however, it is not because of his Roman godhood, nor because of his medieval perfection. Instead, it can be attributed to his Greek roots, in that he was always more than simply a muscular demi-god. Like most Greek heroes, he had great strength and courage, but also terrible weaknesses and faults. He, like the rest of humanity, was subject to the unpredictability of fate and the violably of human nature. However, the war-entrenched world of the early twentieth century needed a Hercules who possessed none of the moral or bloody blemishes, which so reminded them of Hitler and his own Ubermensch. In 1934, two Americans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created a hero with Herculean roots who was to be a defender of all humanity and possessed a humanitarianism that went beyond heroic. That creation, the comic hero Superman, would eventually spawn a whole genre of super heroic fiction, which calls up images of the mighty Hercules even today.

In the 1950s and 60s, the silver screen reached out to take up the legend, and a new age of heroes began. By the late 1980s, several more Herculean-based movies propelled themselves into history on the back of modern interpretations of Greek mythology. Then, in the early 1990s, a popular television show, starring Kevin Sorbo as the legendary Hercules, brought the ancient myths into an entirely new light, choosing to overlook the more lurid and brutal sides of the Greek hero for his more humane aspects. And then, in 1997, the myth reached its evolutionary pinnacle with the Walt Disney Organization's release of a full-length animated interpretation of the Herculean legends, in which Hercules was not the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman, but rather the kidnapped child of Zeus and his wife, the goddess Hera.

In the millennia since Hercules found his origins in Greek mythology as the hero Hercules, he has evolved from a being flawed like any other to an untouchable icon, far outreaching even the ancient gods of Olympus. And yet, through it all, the only thing, which has never changed, is Hercules' basic sense of human compassion, proving once and for all that some things even evolution cannot strip away from humanity.

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