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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.

HeraklesSnakes

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:

baby Hercules

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635348500153224541_BabyHercules

Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

In the Greco-Roman cosmology, the underworld was a fearsome place not just for mortals, but for the gods themselves. For one thing, only a handful of deities had full freedom of passage to the realm of the dead. Hades reigned there and could come and go as he pleased (though, like a grumpy rich man, he seldom left his dark palace). Persephone’s annual journey to Hades and back defined the seasons. Mysterious Hecate, the goddess of magic and thresholds could go anywhere at all, as could Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods (and the psychopomp who guided departed spirits to the final door). Nyx, alien goddess of primordial night, existed before the underworld…or anything else…and will exist long after. Although his retirement palace was in Tartaras, the deposed king of the gods Cronus/Saturn seems to have been free to roam the firmament. The Erinyes, spirits of furious retribution could temporarily leave the underworld only in order to goad their charges there…and that is about the full list. There were a lot of deities imprisoned in the underworld and there were lesser deities who worked there…but they were permanently stuck. Feasibly the Olympians, the most powerful gods who ruled heaven, the seas, and earth, could enter the underworld and leave again, but they never deigned to do so. Gaia had the underworld within herself, so she stands beyond the paradigm (and perhaps the abstruse children of Nyx do too…but they were tangential to classical myth).

There is of course an important exception. One Olympian god was the child of a mortal mother. Because of this human origin, and due also to his fundamental gifts and nature, he took the heroes’ journey and went down into the realm of the dead. Here is the myth. I have hesitated to tell it before for personal reasons: this god is one of my two favorite Greek gods but he is also my least favorite—the rewards, delights, and downfalls of worshiping him are all too evident!

Anyway…

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Semele was a beautiful princess. From heaven Zeus spied her beauty: he courted her and won her heart (without using subterfuge or force), but, unfortunately, his lack of guile allowed jealous Hera to easily discover the affair. The angry queen assumed the guise of an ancient crone and paid a visit on the lovely young princess. The crone flattered the princess and fussed over her whims until Semele was convinced the old woman was a dear friend. Then Hera asked who the father of Semele’s unborn child was (for the princess was just beginning to show her pregnancy).

“The father is none other than mighty Zeus, king of all the gods,” announced the princess.

“Eh, I wonder…” replied the old woman. “All sorts of scoundrels have grandiose pretensions and men will tell any blasphemous lie to seduce a beautiful princess. Zeus? King of all the gods? What nonsense. Back when I was young and beautiful, I used to have a no-good man who told me the same thing. If he really is Zeus, why doesn’t he show himself to you in his full splendor.”

Doubt grew in Semele’s heart. Who was her handsome lover, really? When next he was in her arms, she resolved to find out. Using all of her beauty and wiles she cajoled Zeus and beguiled him and convinced him to promise her a boon. She even made him swear on the River Styx–a sacred oath, binding even upon the gods.

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

“If you are Zeus, show yourself to me in all of your divine splendor!” she demanded. Zeus equivocated and explained. Finally he outright begged to be free of his promise, but Semele was adamant: he had sworn an unbreakable oath. Sadly Zeus selected his smallest thunderbolt and gathered his most quickly passing squall. For an instant only, the sky father revealed himself as a force of nature with all the power and glory of the heavens, but an instant of such revelation was too much. Semele was burned away and only a pile of ash remained…and a pre-term baby. In horror and sorrow, Zeus grabbed up the little fetus. He hacked a hole in his “thigh” and sewed the tiny demigod into his own body (online classicists have informed me that “thigh” is a euphemism which decorous 19th century myth writers used for gonads). Then he set off for Nysa, a valley at the secluded edge of the world. The king of the gods knew exactly who was responsible for Semele’s death, and he wanted his son to grow up free from Hera’s wrath.

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

When Zeus reached Nysa, he gave birth to Dionysus directly from his “thigh.” Zeus then gave the beautiful infant to the wild nymphs of Nysa–the maenads–to raise. The maenads brought the child up with their own intuition, wildness, and delirium. Leopards and tigers were his playmates. At the eastern edge of the world strange indecipherable noises could sometimes be heard. Grapes grew there too in superabundance, and the child demigod realized how to make them into sweet intoxicating wine. He grew into an inhumanly beautiful adolescent. Then he clad himself in glorious purple robes and began to make his way through the world towards civilization (which, coincidently for this Greek myth, was Greece).

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Everywhere Dionysus went he brought the secret of wine making. Sometimes he rode in a leopard drawn chariot with throngs of naked maenads running before him wildly singing his glory. Other times he revealed his divine nature to humankind differently—more subtly…or more strangely! But the ecstasy, beauty, and power of his gifts of inebriation always became readily apparent. Dionysus grew into the god of art, fertility, drama, and creation, but there is delirium, madness, anti-creation, and an orphan’s violent sadness to him as well.

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

In his wild youth as a demigod in the mortal world, Dionysus had many adventures (in fact, we’ll circle back to some of these stories in later posts). Although he was powerful, he was youthful, delicate, graceful, and kind. Clad in purple robes, half-human & half-divine, asking us to drink his wine of revelation…he seems terribly familiar. At the end of his pilgrimage through Greece he came to Olympus and he effortlessly ascended up it to join his father among the other gods. His divinity was obvious to all. Hestia stood up from her throne and offered it to her nephew and went over to take a place at the hearth. Hera gritted her teeth and plotted how to win other battles. Zeus beamed and asked his son if there was anything he wanted as a gift on the special occasion of his apotheosis.

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

For all of his wild delirium, Dionysus was a kind god…and an orphan. He plaintively asked his father if he could see his mother. Zeus readily assented…and then some. He told Dionysus to go get his mother and to bring her back to Olympus. And so it was. Dionysus went to the underworld and took his mother’s spirit away from ignominious death up to the glory of the heavens. The underworld part of this story is an afterthought—a tiny grace note at the very end. However it is worth remembering that Dionysus’ story runs through the world and the underworld. Drink and delirium are also keys to the realm of the dead, as any tragedian or hardened boozer could readily tell you.

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

Weary Hecules (Roman, Imperial Period, mid‑ to late 2nd century A.D. Marble)

This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself).  Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable.  Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games!  With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.

In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors.  Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease.  Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task.  Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece.  By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage.  At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables.  All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned.  Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules.  The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.

Ancient Roman Mosaic of Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables (Apologies for the graphic nudity)

Hercules however had a plan.  He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock.  Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years.  Hercules however was not merely a man.  He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach.  The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.

King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness.  He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules.  When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there).  The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld.  When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king.  Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon.  He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death.  Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death.  Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).

To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus).  Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots).  I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.

Ancient Greek Amphora depicting a foot race.

Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes.  Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).

Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,

Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.

That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d.  He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.

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