Hercules: A Hero for All Greeks

From a lecture series taught by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver

The greatest and most famous Greek hero of all is Hercules, son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. Unlike many heroes who are associated with only one city, Hercules was a pan-Hellenic hero, claimed by all of Greece.

A Hero Is Born 

Hercules is mentioned as the great pan-Hellenic hero all over the place in Greek literature. References to him show up in epic, in tragedy, in history, and in most other genres of Greek and Roman literature. None of these references tell his complete story. Often an author will simply allude to him, will use him as a point of comparison for someone or something else. Because Hercules is so well known, he could be referred to in that very allusive sense without any explanation of what it is the author is referring to. Fortunately, Apollodorus, in The Library of Greek Mythology, gives a fairly full account of Hercules’ life, which allows us to understand these allusive references to him in other authors.

Learn more: The Titans in Greek Mythology

medieval image of Alcmene in labor with Hercules
Alcmene in labor with Hercules

Now, like many heroes, Hercules has a conception and a baby-hood that are fraught with difficulties or, at least, with unusual elements. Hercules is conceived when Zeus tricks Alcmene into thinking that he is actually her husband, Amphitryon. Amphitryon was away at war, and Zeus appeared to Alcmene disguised as Amphitryon. Remember, a god can appear in any guise he chooses. Alcmene went to bed with Zeus, thinking that her husband was home unexpectedly from the war.

The next day, the real Amphitryon came home, and there was a rather surprising scene in which Amphitryon couldn’t understand why Alcmene was not happier and more surprised to see him, and Alcmene couldn’t understand why Amphitryon insisted that he hadn’t been home for ages. Eventually, they figured out that it must have been a god that had visited Alcmene the day before. Alcmene conceived Hercules by Zeus, thinking that he was her husband, and she conceived Hercules’ twin, Iphicles, the next night by Amphitryon.

Hercules has a twin brother who is actually only his half-brother. They are conceived on successive nights. Iphicles is a perfectly normal everyday human being. He is not exceptionally brave, strong, or in any other way marked out for unusual status as Hercules is.

Hercules is, unquestionably and without doubt, the son of Zeus.

This story recalls Theseus’s dual parentage by Aigeus and Poseidon. Theseus has to be both a legitimate king of Athens and the son of a god. Because he needs to fulfill both of those functions, he is given two separate fathers, and the decision is never made which one is really his father. Hercules is not the king of any particular city. He is not directly associated with any particular city, so there is not the same need to have him the son of an actual, legitimate human father. Therefore, the human father’s role in his conception is displaced onto Iphicles, and Hercules is, unquestionably and without doubt, the son of Zeus.

Learn more: Complex Goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, Hera

Hercules Loses His Kingdom 

Hera, Zeus’ wife and one of the twelve Olympian Gods

Zeus’s wife, Hera, hated Zeus’s sons by other females, particularly by human females. She had a particular detestation for Hercules. This hatred for Hercules on the part of Hera reflects the fact that Hercules is destined to be the greatest hero ever. Therefore, he incurs the most hatred and jealousy from Zeus’s wife, Hera. She is out to make trouble for him and make life difficult for him from the very beginning, from before the day of his birth.  When Hercules was about to be born, Zeus decreed that on this particular day there would be born a descendant of Perseus, the great hero, who Zeus said would rule over the great city Mycenae.

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Hera knew that Zeus meant Hercules, but Zeus did not actually say Hercules. He simply said  “a descendant of Perseus.” Hera persuaded the goddess of childbirth, who was, after all, Hera’s daughter, to keep Alcmene in labor longer than she should have been and to hasten the birth of a cousin of Hercules, a man named Eurystheus, also a descendant of Perseus. Thus, Eurystheus is born on the day that Hercules should have been born, and Zeus’s decree that on this day shall be born a descendant of Perseus who will rule over Mycenae gets displaced onto Eurystheus, though he intended it for Hercules.

Glorious through Hera 

That is the first time that Hera steps in and sabotages Hercules. Now, interestingly enough, as people often notice when they have read a good deal of Greek literature, Hercules’ name (remember in the original Greek form is was Hera-cles) seems to have some connection with the name Hera. The first two syllables are exactly the same.

The “-cles” element is similar to the word, or the same word actually, as kleos, which means glory. Hercules’ name seems, in some way, to have something to do with glory and with Hera. Some scholars have tried to say it means “the glory of Hera,” but that makes no sense whatsoever, since Hera hates him and persecutes him. I think a better suggestion is to read Hercules’ name as meaning “glorious through Hera.” Hercules achieves his glory because of all the hardships that Hera forces him into, because of the actions he has to take to overcome those hardships. Therefore, in a sense, he receives glory through Hera, or is glorious through Hera.

Learn more: Gods and Humanity in Greek Thought

Strength, Courage, and Rage 

image from a Greek vase showing the infant Hercules strangling the snakes Hera sent to kill him
The infant Hercules strangling the snakes Hera sent to kill him

Even as a baby, Hercules showed great strength and courage. His first real noteworthy deed was when Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib, and the baby Hercules, instead of being frightened, strangled the snakes with his bare hands. Iphicles is often shown in artistic representations of this, cowering off in one side of the crib looking like a normal baby, and little Hercules is sitting bolt upright strangling the snakes. From babyhood on, Hercules was clearly very unusual, and not just unusually courageous, but unusually strong as well.

When he reached maturity, Hercules was characterized not only by exceptional strength and courage, but also by exceptional or excessive appetites and powers in other regards as well. He is characterized by extremes of sexual appetite, of hunger and thirst, and of rage. Hercules is also noted for excessive passion, including the passion of rage. There are various times when he gives way to excessive rage, even to the extent of madness.

The madness is usually, most likely, sent by Hera. In the most famous such episode of madness, Hercules kills his own children by his first wife, Megara, and perhaps kills the wife as well. It is because of the killing of these children that he undertakes his famous Twelve Labors.

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From the lecture series Classical Mythology 
Taught by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Whitman College