The conception of the archetypal hero is rooted in the mythology of the powerful Greek Heracles. A mythopoeic character that served as the cultural hero of Greeks for hundreds of years, his posthumous fame inspires us even today.
Who’s a hero to you, dear reader?
Perhaps it’s the firefighter saving a family from an all-consuming fire or a father working 12-hour days to provide for his children.
We often forget that mythology tells stories about you and me. The mundane adventures and subtle psychological transformations we go through every day push ourselves a little more. Hollywood has managed to sever this connection between myth and reality by abstracting archetypes into self-informed characters.
What do I mean by that?
Well, heroes, gods, monsters become caricatures, movie-like fantastical figures, their teleological purpose being to progress the plot. Meanwhile, we desperately try to externalize our own personal archetypes in a culture that’s uninviting to individuation and relatable models.
“George… these are lots of words, lots of theories. I’m here for Hercules.”
Yes, we’ll get to him! This introduction aims to highlight how, today, in the 21st century, we lack cultural heroes.
Rumours and the Birth of Folk Legends
In the article exploring the mythology of the Witcher, I briefly mention how I personally think myths and legends are formed.
Simply put, a few whispers around the camping fire, a rumour based on a real event sweeping the locals, plus the superstition and imagination of the common folk…
Well, you get the point. Our tendency as a species to find meaning even in the most simple expressions of nature and human nature gives rise to these sorts of stories. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong or outright crazy, no.
All of this is an attempt of our minds to articulate the inner structure of our psyche. Hence, when we look at mythology, we should take it seriously; it’s as real as the reflection of a mirror. When you move, the reflection moves.
But if you’re reading this, you already know. So, Heracles!
Where does this brooding strongman fit in this whole ordeal?
An Ancient Celebrity
Greeks are geniuses when it comes to fictionalizing lessons of ethics. I’d argue that all civilizations did it to some extent, it’s just that descendants of Zeus were particularly fond of pedagogy.
When one of those aforementioned rumors was fleshed out into a story, characters would jump out of imagination to fulfil the plot of the potential drama – drama in its literal sense.
Hercules is one of these characters that acts as a placeholder for the collective psyche of the citizens. An amalgamation of all Vice and Virtue any common man could possibly possess.
Not in a grand, divine way. Sure, there are immortal qualities to that hero – which are what makes him more human than humans –, but for the most part, he doesn’t deal with a cosmic battle. He’s down here, with us, mucking around with forces that challenge him daily.
This “daily” struggle gives him the stamp of a cultural hero. Someone who “tours” the ancient world, fighting monsters and dealing with local problems.
I can’t emphasize the local part enough. That’s what truly differentiates him from others. And this is what gave rise to the Herculean cults that remained active till the fall of the Roman Empire.
It’s an easy figure to transpose to other cultures. Even easier for every community to conjure him up when trouble bumps their doors. He’s everywhere, he’s you and me. Ready to jump out, kill the wolves, and then raise a glass with the locals, tightening their bonds even more.
He’s the known unknown heroic essence.
Now, let’s get into it.
The Glory of Hera
He’s after all the Quintessential Hero, even to this day.
But I do want to underline a couple of things from his past, mainly to showcase why his life was more of a tragedy – and why it was important for the Greeks.
The name Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology) means “for the Glory of Hera”. It was an attempt to ease the rage of the Goddess. Indeed, Hera’s jealousy weaved the fate of our hero before he was even born.
A Jealous Wife
Zeus is well known for his sexual adventures with mortals and immortals alike. His infidelity was at the core of the numerous clashes with his wife, Hera. Writing this sounds childish…
A God, in fact, the most powerful God, having such a human vice, indulging in petty squabbles with his wife? It is a pattern often repeated in Greek mythology. One could argue that Greek mythology is driven by the infighting of the couple. A dysfunctional family dynamic.
But that’s what makes these stories filled to the brim with life. Even Gods don’t lack the shortcomings of humans and that’s what makes them relatable.
Hera is no exception. Her jealousy has caused wars, deaths, and the destruction of many royal lines. In the case of Heracles, the offspring of the mortal Alcmene and Zeus, she convinced the AllFather to promise the High Kingship to the baby that would be born that day.
She made the Goddess of Childbirth, Eileithyia, sit with her legs crossed so the birth of Heracles would be delayed. At the same time, she caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely and become King. This also made these two men archenemies in the future.
(Some versions of the myth mention that Hera, not knowing it was Heracles, nursed the baby out of pity, thus giving him supernatural powers)
But even that didn’t satisfy the hatred towards the illicit offspring of her husband.
Killing the Snakes
A lot can be said about the symbolism of snakes throughout the history and mythology of man.
The primordial enemy of humanity, a test, a challenge for the mortals, as well as their healer and magician.
Hera sent two snakes to kill the Heracles and his brother when they were 8. Where Iphicles cried, Heracles grabbed and strangled the snakes. Later on, he was found playing with them like they were plastic toys.
That sealed the fate of the boy, later becoming a monster-killer.
Vice and Virtue
The philosophy and ethics of ancient Greeks were couched in the concept of “virtue”. While it can be a complex topic, at the forefront of Socratic thinking, we could define it as innate morality that needs to be reiterated in the face of corruption and degeneracy. A more direct translation would be “innate goodness”.
Homer in his famous epics ascribes virtue to all heroes, often implying it’s that particular quality that makes them… heroes.
In our modern society, you can simply say you’re good and moral, and everyone is compelled to believe and validate you.
Yet, in the ancient world, virtue was action and choice. Let me be more specific.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
This adage is usually associated with Spiderman! But it’s much older, going back to the myth of the Sword of Damocles, denoting the constant battle of those in power to remain pure and moral.
Heracles, at a young age, was visited by the personification of Vice and Virtue. Not being able to control his power, he accidentally kills his tutor. He’s now presented with two choices:
- Either live an easy, simple life.
- Or, live a life of suffering and constant struggle. The upside? Glory.
Of course, he chooses the second option.
Power, virtue, and vice are interconnected. The argument is that only those who are strong are truly moral because they have the capacity for great good or great evil. Greeks argue that a weak man cannot be moral because he simply doesn’t have the opportunity to gain power. In this context, morality is a choice; virtue is the painful realization of the consequences of your actions or your inaction.
The other side of the coin is that vice is sine qua non to virtue. Meaning that what makes you strong is your weakness and your downfall. This moral paradox is encountered in the tragic life of Heracles.
Madness of Heracles
During a feat of rage caused by Hera, Heracles kills Megara and his children. He seeks answers and advice from Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi. But little did he know that once again, Hera employs her Machiavellian quality.
Controlling the Oracle, he convinces Heracles that he must spend 10 years obeying Eurystheus, his archenemy, and perform any task he asks for.
Once this strange tenure ends, his soul would be purified and he could ascend to the heavens, becoming an Olympian next to his father.
This is the beginning of the infamous 12 Labours of Heracles.
Some versions of the myth, like the titular tragedy of Euripides, speak of madness overcoming Heracles after completing the 12 challenges, making our hero’s end even more devastating.
The 12 Labours of Heracles
(We’re still researching dusty manuscripts and ancient papyri. Once we finish this section, we’ll notify you via email. Make sure to subscribe here)
In this future post, we’re going to analyze the death of Heracles and the theurgical process he underwent during his mortal lifetime. Some of you might already draw comparisons with another similar theological perspective…
The Meaning of “Hero”
At the beginning of this post, I asked you “who’s a hero?”
The typical answer is that it’s someone helping others, being morally good, and protecting those too weak to protect themselves.
That’s certainly the modern interpretation of the hero, as we constantly see this pattern in modern films. We invert the heroic persona, assuming that the aforementioned qualities are what give him strength.
But fundamentally, a hero is someone with supernatural power. It’s through the resolution of the dialectic, the struggle of choosing what’s good, that power becomes virtue – and not a vice.
So, the question is, in today’s society, where no monsters or deranged Goddesses exist, who are the heroes?
Maybe someone who doesn’t shy away from tests, grabbing every opportunity to challenge himself, whatever the challenge is, without succumbing to societal pressure. From my perspective, this outlook can certainly ignite the qualities that ancient Greeks called αρετή.
P.S. I’m curious to read your interpretation, dear reader. Leave a comment below!
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.