HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 7 Cherry Fan
The Hero and the Heroine:
Heracles and Antigone
"A plot (mythos) does not have unity... simply because it deals with a single hero. Many and indeed
innumerable things happened to an individual, some of which do not go to make up any unity, and
similarly an individual is concerned in many actions which do not combine into a single piece of action. It
seems therefore that all those poets are wrong who have writtened a Heracleid or Theseid or other such
poems. They think that because Heracles was a single individual the plot must for that reason have
Aristotle, Poetics 8 1451a
Heracles was the greatest of the Greek heroes. Yet because he is mentioned in so many contexts, the
roles he plays are many and diverse. It will be important when studying him to distinguish just what the
sources allow us to say. Aristotle cautions us against seeing one, unified character.
The name Heracles (Hercules in Latin) appears to have something to do with "the glory (kleos) of Hera",
(the analogous name for Zeus would be Diocles), but there is really nothing that confirms an original
connection to her. In almost all the stories Hera is hostile towards him, hardly the stuff of "glory". We
cannot say whether or not the name results from this hostility. Perhaps stories of the hostility resulted
from the name.
The most succinct picture of Heracles is found in Homeric Hymn 15. It notes his status as a mighty man,
his parentage (Zeus and Semele), that he traveled widely, that he committed and endured many reckless
things (atasthla) because of Eurystheus, and that he lives now on Olympus (as a god?) married to Hebe
(cf. Th 950-5). We long for the details. Why did he do these things for Eurystheus? How did he come to
live on Olympus? Perhaps the ordering of the portrayal implies that his living on Olympus is a reward for
what he did and endured. That is an inference. What seems clearer is that the portrayal is ambivalent.
Heracles both did and endured "reckless" things. Not everything about him is good.
The Athenian playwright Euripides wrote an extant play, Heracles, which portrays Heracles killing his
wife Megara and their children in a fit of madness induced by Hera, but there is no mention of these
terrible events in the earlier poetry. In order to get an accurate idea of how Heracles was viewed in the
archaic Greek world, we have to review how he is mentioned in Hesiod and in Homer. No doubt other
authors portrayed Heracles in greater detail, but their writings do not survive. We could also make use
of vase paintings, but it is difficult to infer too much from them.
Birth and Marriage
Homer describes the circumstances of his birth in the Iliad 19.95-134. Hera is jealous of Zeus' liaison
with Alcmene and lays a trap for him. Zeus has it in mind that Heracles should be a great king, "a man
Page 1 of 6 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 7 Cherry Fan
who shall be the lord of all them that swell round about" (104). But Hera sees to it that Heracles' cousin
Eurystheus is given this honour instead, so that Heracles must eventually labour for him. (This account
comes from the lips of Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief at Troy, who wants to excuse his
own folly by citing a case of Zeus' folly. Even if we accept the story, we don't have to accept
Agamemnon's inference that Zeus committed a folly. He no doubt wants Heracles to have the
opportunity to prove his mettle.) So despite being the greatest of heroes, Heracles is not born to be a
king. He is almost a slave.
Euripides' Heracles describes the hero's murder of his wife Megara, and Sophocles' Trachiniae portrays
his death through the actions of his later wife Dianeira, but Homer and Hesiod are ignorant of these
details. Only the Odyssey says anything at all, when Odyssey recounts the women he saw in the
underworld: "And Megara I saw, the daughter of Creon, high-of-heart, whom the son of Amphitryon,
ever stubborn in might, had as wife" (11.269-70).
Later authors build a great picture of a canonical group of twelve Labours (athloi) of Heracles, together
with "side-deeds" (parerga), but there is only a vague picture of them in Homer and Hesiod. The
Homeric Hymn tells us that he did and endure many reckless things for Eurystheus. Glimpses of these
"... Copreus, who used to convey messages from king Eurystheus to the mighty Heracles. Of him, a father
baser by far, was begotten a son better in all manner of excellence."
A son of Copreus fought at Troy; that's what leads Homer to describe him. Copreus' name is the
equivalent of "dungman". Perhaps Homer's negative description of him is based on that. But he must
have a bigger story in mind. Copreus travels between Heracles and Eurystheus. Why?
Hesiod's Theogony mentions several deeds of Heracles as he dispatches monsters described in Hesiod's
"Nemean lion, which Hera, the noble wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a
plague to men. There he preyed upon the tribes of her own people and had power over Tretus of Nemea
and Apesas: yet the strength of stout Heracles overcame him."
"... the evil minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, being angry
beyond measure with the mighty Heracles. And her Heracles, the son of Zeus, of the house of Amphitryon,
together with warlike Iolaus, destroyed with the unpitying sword through the plans of Athena the spoil
Page 2 of 6 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 7 Cherry Fan
"... three-headed Geryon. Him mighty Heracles slew in sea-girt Erythea by his shambling oxen on that
day when he drove the wide-browed oxen to holy Tiryns, and had crossed the ford of Ocean and killed
Orthus and Eurytion the herds man in the dim stead out beyond glorious Ocean.
The Nemean Lion, the Hydra, and the "Cattle" of Geryon become three of the twelve Labours, but
Hesiod just gives us a glimpse of what appear to be much bigger stories behind each one of them. He
doesn't connect any of them to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus' home is indeed Tiryns, where Heracles
drives Geryon's oxen. Later authors describe Iolaus as Heracles' nephew, but that information would
have to be assumed here.
In the Odyssey, Heracles describes in his own words his last labour for Eurystheus.
"I was the son of Zeus, son of Cronos, but I had woe beyond measure; for to a man far worse than I was
I made subject, and he laid on me hard labours. He once sent me off to fetch the hound of Hades, for he
could devise for me no other task mightier than this. The hound I carried off and led forth from the house
of Hades; and Hermes was my guide, and flashing-eyed Athena."
Hesiod names the hound Cerberus, "who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed,
relentless and strong" (311-2).
Can we draw any conclus9ions about these early portrayals of Heracles' Labours? With the aid of Iolaus
he does them under Eurystheus' directions, which are conveyed by Copreus. They all deal with animals
or monsters. Later traditions will characterize them as triumphs over monsters and a domestication of
animals to human service.
Other References to Heracles
In the major surviving works of early Greece, most of which (Iliad, Odyssey, Theogony) you are reading in
this course, there are only brief references to Heracles. They all seem to refer to more elaborate stories
that have not survived. More importantly, the