Hercules: A Hero for All Greeks

From the lecture series: Classical Mythology

By Elizabeth Vandiver, PhD, Whitman College 

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.

Hercules's Dog Discovers Purple Dye, by Peter Paul Rubens.
(Image: Peter Paul Rubens/Public domain)

A Hero Is Born 

Hercules is mentioned as the great pan-Hellenic hero throughout Greek literature. References to him show up in epic, tragedy, history, and most other genres of Greek and Roman literature. None of these references tell his complete story, however. Often an author will simply allude to him and 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 allusive style 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

Alcmena's Labor. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book IX, 285-323. Francfurt, 1581, fol. 118 v., image 5.
Alcmene in labor with Hercules. (Image: Virgil Solis/Public domain)

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 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 returned, 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.

This is a transcript from the video series Classical Mythology. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Hercules has a twin brother who is actually his half-brother. They are conceived on successive nights. Iphicles is a perfectly normal 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 Aegeus 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 his true father. Hercules is not the king of any particular city, nor is he 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 

Marble statues of Hera
Hera, Zeus’ wife and one of the twelve Olympian Gods. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Zeus’s wife, Hera, hated Zeus’s sons by other females, particularly by human women, with a particular detestation for Hercules. This hatred for Hercules on the part of Hera reflects Hercules’s destiny to be the greatest hero of all time. Therefore, he incurs the most hatred and jealousy from Zeus’s wife. She is out to cause trouble and make life difficult for him 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.

Hera knew that Zeus meant Hercules, but Zeus did not 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 is displaced onto Eurystheus, though he intended it for Hercules.

Glorious through Hera 

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

The “-cles” element is the same word as kleos, which means glory. Hercules’ name appears, 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, since Hera hates him and persecutes him. A better suggestion is to read Hercules’ name as meaning “glorious through Hera.” Hercules achieves his glory because of 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 

Baby Hercules strangling a snake sent to kill him in his cradle (Roman marble, 2nd century CE, in the Capitoline Museums of Rome, Italy).
The infant Hercules strangling the snakes Hera sent to kill him. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

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. Baby Hercules, instead of being frightened, strangled the snakes with his bare hands. Iphicles is often shown in artistic representations of this, cowering off on 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 unusual, and not just remarkably courageous, but surprisingly 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 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 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.

Common Questions About the Hercules Myth

Q: Where did the myth of Hercules originate?

Hercules is a famous hero from Greek mythology (in Greek he was called “Heracles“). His father was the Greek god Zeus, and his mother was Alcmene, Perseus’s granddaughter.

Q: Who did Hercules kill?

In a fit of insanity, Hercules murdered his wife and children. Then, feeling remorseful, he traveled to the oracle at Delphi and prayed to Apollo. The message he received was to perform a series of heroic feats to atone for his sin.

Q: How does Hercules die in mythology?

According to the original Greek myth, Hercules killed the centaur Nessus, but the poisonous blood of Nessus then killed Hercules.

Q: Who trained Hercules?

According to some versions of Greek mythology, Hercules was trained by Chiron, a noble, sophisticated, and intelligent centaur who also trained Achilles and Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts).

This article was updated on July 23, 2020

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