Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself). For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly. The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood. A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.
Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety. Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day). Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish. Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth. When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib. Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands. This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art. It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology. Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes: