Hamilton takes her story of Hercules from Greek tragedians and later Roman writers. Hercules is the greatest hero of Greece. Athens had Theseus, as he embodied the things they admired most, but for the rest of Greece Hercules is their ultimate hero. He is the strongest man on earth, supremely self-assured, and the equal of the gods in many ways.
Hamilton analyzes the different ideas about heroism in the myths. Hercules is the most famous hero, but his brand of heroism is very different from someone like Theseus or Odysseus. His is also the rare case where his pride is not punished by the gods, as it is well-deserved.
Hercules can never be defeated except by trickery or magic, so his natural reaction to trouble is to battle it. He even challenges the gods, and would have wrestled Apollo if Zeus hadn’t intervened. Hercules is hot-tempered, passionate, and rather unintelligent, but his boundless strength and moral goodness make up for these flaws. He could never be a king like Theseus, as he has no mind for anything but defeating the next monster, but he has true greatness of character.
Hercules is a relatively simple character who is strong, brave, and well-intentioned, but he is also constantly getting himself into trouble and accidentally doing harm to those he loves. In this case many of his struggles are struggles against himself, as the non-intellectual Hercules tries to make amends for his accidents using only his bravery and immense strength.
Hercules is born in Thebes, the son of Alcmena and Zeus (who fathers him by disguising himself as Alcmena’s husband, the general Amphitryon). Even as an infant Hercules has superhuman strength. One night as Hercules and his mortal brother Iphicles are sleeping in their cribs, two giant snakes enter the nursery, but Hercules catches the snakes and strangles them both at once, laughing.
As Hamilton described in the story of Prometheus and Io, Hercules has long been fated to be a great hero, and he shows it early with this tale. The Greeks clearly delighted in stories of Hercules’ pure strength, as there are so many. Much of his brand of heroism is just straightforward battles against monsters.
As a young student Hercules first demonstrates his tragic nature when he accidentally kills his music teacher, not realizing his own strength. At age eighteen Hercules is full-grown and kills a legendary lion, and after that he wears its skin as a cloak. He then conquers the fierce Minyans, and wins the hand of the Princess Megara. He has three children with her.
This is the tragic nature of Hercules’ story, and what makes his myth so intriguing even to the most intellectual Greeks. He is simple-minded, but his emotional struggle with himself is complex, as even his well-intentioned actions can lead to evil results. This brand of tragedy and irony will be best illustrated in the tales of Orestes and Oedipus.
Hera, who never forgot Zeus’s infidelity with Hercules’ mother, punishes Hercules by driving him temporarily insane and making him kill his own wife and children. Hercules then recovers his sanity and is crushed by what he has done. He prepares to kill himself, but his friend Theseus persuades him to live and takes him to Athens.
This is Hercules’ greatest struggle, as the murders are not even his fault, but Hera’s, who once again jealously punishes innocent mortals for Zeus’s infidelity. Hercules’ heroism is that he is then led to perform great deeds to atone for his sins – he imposes punishment upon himself.
Hercules soon rejects the idea of his own innocence and leaves Athens to purify himself of his crimes. He goes to the Oracle at Delphi, and she sends him to his cousin Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, to receive hard penance and atone for his sins. Eurystheus is encouraged by Hera, and he comes up with twelve impossible tasks, now known as the Labors of Hercules.
The intellectual Theseus could understand that Hercules’ sins were not his fault, but the emotional Hercules cannot accept that he might be innocent. His labors are not as straightforward as other hero’s quests, like Perseus killing Medusa, as Hercules has basically imposed the labors on himself.
The first task is to kill the lion of Nemea. It cannot be wounded by weapons, so Hercules chokes it to death. Next he goes to Lerna to kill the Hydra, a monster with nine heads. One of the heads is immortal, and when any of the others are chopped off two more sprout up in its place. Hercules gets his cousin to burn the stumps of each head as he chops them off, and he imprisons the immortal head under a giant rock.
The twelve labors themselves are less philosophically interesting than Hercules’ inner struggle, but they are all entertaining and show another important Greek aspect of heroism – the hero must slay deadly monsters in creative, interesting ways.
For the third labor, Hercules captures alive a golden-horned stag, which is sacred to Artemis. For the fourth labor he captures a great boar on Mount Erymanthus. The fifth task is to clean the Augean stables in one day – and King Augeas has thousands of cattle, whose stalls haven’t been cleaned in years. Hercules diverts the course of two rivers so they flow through the stables, washing all the filth away.
Many of these labors involve capturing things that are impossible to catch. They can also be divided into tasks associated with beauty and ugliness – capturing rare and beautiful things, or capturing or defeating ugly and monstrous things.
For his sixth task, Athena helps Hercules kill a flock of birds that had been plaguing the people of Stymphalus. For his next labors, Hercules captures the beautiful wild bull of Minos, kills King Diomedes of Thrace and takes his flesh-eating horses, kills Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (though she had been kind to Hercules earlier) and takes her girdle, and captures the cattle of Geryon, a three-bodied monster that lives on the island of Erythia. It is on the way to this last monster that Hercules sets up two great stones called the Pillars of Hercules, which are now Gibraltar and Ceuta.
Hippolyta has been a peripheral character in several myths (she was briefly married to Theseus), but Hercules again shows his tragic nature when he kills her over a misunderstanding. Many accidental deaths take place wherever Hercules goes, both because of his great strength and his troubled fate. As was the case with Pegasus and the Chimaera, beauty is often the difference between holy creatures and monsters.
Hercules’ eleventh labor is to steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. He goes to Atlas, the father of the Hesperides (on the way freeing Prometheus from his chains), to ask for information. Atlas offers to go get the apples himself if Hercules will take Atlas’s job – holding up the earth – while he is gone. Hercules agrees and takes the earth on his shoulders.
This encounter between Hercules and Atlas is almost amusing, as both are incredibly strong and rather stupid, and each is trying to trick the other one. As he had predicted to Io, Prometheus is freed by Hercules.
Atlas brings back the apples, but in the meantime he enjoys his freedom and decides to make Hercules do his job from now on. Hercules is able to trick Atlas into taking the earth back, by saying that he needs a pad for his shoulders, and asks Atlas to hold the earth for just a moment. Then Hercules takes the apples and leaves.
Hercules shows a rare moment of cleverness here, though it is mostly Atlas’s stupidity that is to blame. The Hesperides remain as mysterious figures, and their beautiful apples will return in the story of Atalanta.
For the twelfth and last labor, Hercules must bring Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades, up to the earth’s surface. It is there that Hercules frees his friend Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness. Hades agrees that Hercules can take Cerberus if he can overcome the dog without weapons. Hercules succeeds, and then Eurystheus (sensibly) makes Hercules bring Cerberus back to Hades.
Hercules becomes another hero to enter Hades and return, and he does it through his own strength, as usual. There is seemingly nothing that Hercules cannot do, but for all his strength and success he cannot find peace and happiness.
Even after all his labors, Hercules is rarely at peace. He defeats Antaeus, a wrestler who is invincible as long as he can touch the ground, by lifting him in the air and strangling him. Hercules defeats the river-god Achelous (who first tries to reason with him) because he wants to marry Deianira, Achelous’ daughter. At Troy Hercules rescues King Laomedon’s daughter, who is about to be sacrificed to a sea serpent.
Like Perseus with Andromeda, Hercules saves a princess about to be eaten by a sea monster. Hercules has acted out his self-imposed penance, but he still cannot accept his own atonement. He must continually defeat monsters and perform great deeds to feel satisfied.
Hercules did other deeds that were less than glorious, however. He carelessly kills a boy who spills water on him at a feast. He kills his own good friend to punish the friend’s father, King Eurytus, who had insulted Hercules. Zeus punishes Hercules for this by making him act as a slave to Queen Omphale for three (or one) years, where she makes him dress and work like a woman.
Hercules’ murder of his friend seems to be the one sin for which he must be externally punished. Usually he is so remorseful and eager to make amends that he imposes penance upon himself. The Greek idea of heroism clearly allows for the occasional accidental death, or even murder.
Hamilton goes into the details of one story that gives a clear picture of Hercules’ character. On his way to get the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, Hercules stops at the house of his friend Admetus. Admetus’ wife had just died (as a sacrifice for Admetus himself, whom the Fates had decreed must die unless someone would die for him), but Admetus doesn’t tell Hercules why the household is mourning.
Admetus chooses to be hospitable rather than tell his friend about his wife’s death, and Hercules is incapable of discovering the truth himself. The Fates appear to the side of this story in a strange case where they require a death, but not necessarily Admetus’s.
Hercules feasts and gets drunk in Admetus’ house, and when he learns about Admetus’ wife, he feels so bad for his disrespectful behavior that he decides to make amends by traveling to Hades and bringing Admetus’s wife back to life. Hamilton points out how this story shows Hercules’ characteristics: his tactlessness, his swift penitence and desire to make things right, and his confidence that he can solve any problem – even Death – with his strength.
Hamilton delves so deeply into Hercules’ character because he is the most famous of Greek heroes (except Odysseus), but also because he shows what they valued in a hero at the time – in their stories and entertainment at least, the Greeks prized great deeds over good deeds, and spectacular strength over moral complexity.
When Hercules finishes his enslavement to Omphale he is still angry at King Eurytus. He gathers an army, captures Eurytus’ city, and kills the king. One of the captives Hercules sends home is the beautiful Iole, the king’s daughter. Deianira, Hercules’ wife, is threatened by Iole’s beauty, and so she uses a spell she has been saving to secure Hercules’ love.
It is Hercules’ murder of Eurytus and his son that leads to his ultimate downfall, as this is the one sin that he does not choose to atone for. There is no evidence that Hercules has been unfaithful – Iole’s beauty alone is grounds for jealousy and the need for magic.
Years earlier, a Centaur named Nessus had insulted Deianira, and Hercules shot him. As Nessus died, he told Deianira to take some of his blood as a charm if Hercules ever fell in love with another woman. When she learns of Iole, Deianira anoints a robe with Nessus’ blood and sends it to Hercules.
Nessus has his revenge from beyond the grave, and Hercules can only be defeated by magic and trickery. He is punished for his sins in a very roundabout way – if he hadn’t killed Eurytus and kidnapped his daughter, the jealous Deianira never would have sent the robe.
Hercules puts on the robe and is immediately seized with mortal pain. He kills Deianira’s innocent messenger, and though the pain is tortuous Hercules cannot seem to die. He must kill himself but building a huge funeral pyre and burning himself. Deianira hears how her spell went awry and kills herself. When he dies Hercules ascends to Olympus, where he marries Hera’s daughter Hebe and becomes immortal.
Even death is not strong enough for Hercules, and he must choose to submit to it himself. His arrogance against the gods is in his case (and his alone) rewarded, as he is actually made an immortal himself. It was his wrongdoing against another mortal that led to his suffering and death.