1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hercules

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14750831911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 13 — HerculesCharles Augustus Maude Fennell

HERCULES (O. Lat. Hercoles, Hercles), the latinized form of the mythical Heracles, the chief national hero of Hellas. The name Ἡρακλῆς (Ἥρα, and κλέος = glory) is explained as “renowned through Hera” (i.e. in consequence of her persecution) or “the glory of Hera” i.e. of Argos. The thoroughly national character of Heracles is shown by his being the mythical ancestor of the Dorian dynastic tribe, while revered by Ionian Athens, Lelegian Opus and Aeolo-Phoenician Thebes, and closely associated with the Achaean heroes Peleus and Telamon. The Perseid Alcmena, wife of Amphitryon of Tiryns, was Hercules’ mother, Zeus his father. After his father he is often called Amphitryoniades, and also Alcides, after the Perseid Alcaeus, father of Amphitryon. His mother and her husband lived at Thebes in exile as guests of King Creon. By the craft of Hera, his foe through life, his birth was delayed, and that of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus of Argos, hastened, Zeus having in effect sworn that the elder of the two should rule the realm of Perseus. Hera sent two serpents to destroy the new-born Hercules, but he strangled them. He was trained in all manly accomplishments by heroes of the highest renown in each, until in a transport of anger at a reprimand he slew Linus, his instructor in music, with the lyre. Thereupon he was sent to tend Amphitryon’s oxen, and at this period slew the lion of Mount Cithaeron. By freeing Thebes from paying tribute to the Minyans of Orchomenus he won Creon’s daughter, Megara, to wife. Her children by him he killed in a frenzy induced by Hera. After purification he was sent by the Pythia to serve Eurystheus. Thus began the cycle of the twelve labours.

  1. Wrestling with the Nemean lion.
  2. Destruction of the Lernean hydra.
  3. Capture of the Arcadian hind (a stag in art).
  4. Capture of the boar of Erymanthus, while chasing which he fought the Centaurs and killed his friends Chiron and Pholus, this homicide leading to Demeter’s institution of mysteries.
  5. Cleansing of the stables of Augeas.
  6. Shooting the Stymphalian birds.
  7. Capture of the Cretan bull subsequently slain by Theseus at Marathon.
  8. Capture of the man-eating mares of the Thracian Diomedes.
  9. Seizure of the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons.
  10. Bringing the oxen of Geryones from Erythia in the far west, which errand involved many adventures in the coast lands of the Mediterranean, and the setting up of the “Pillars of Hercules” at the Straits of Gibraltar.
  11. Bringing the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides.
  12. Carrying Cerberus from Hades to the upper world.

Most of the labours lead to various adventures called πάρεργα. On Hercules’ return to Thebes he gave his wife Megara to his friend and charioteer Iolaus, son of Iphicles, and by beating Eurytus of Oechalia and his sons in a shooting match won a claim to the hand of his daughter Iole, whose family, however, except her brother Iphitus, withheld their consent to the union. Iphitus persuaded Hercules to search for Eurytus’ lost oxen, but was killed by him at Tiryns in a frenzy. He consulted the Pythia about a cure for the consequent madness, but she declined to answer him. Whereupon he seized the oracular tripod, and so entered upon a contest with Apollo, which Zeus stopped by sending a flash of lightning between the combatants. The Pythia then sent him to serve the Lydian queen Omphale. He then, with Telamon, Peleus and Theseus, took Troy. He next helped the gods in the great battle against the giants. He destroyed sundry sea-monsters, set free the bound Prometheus, took part in the Argonautic voyage and the Calydonian boar hunt, made war against Augeas, and against Nestor and the Pylians, and restored Tyndareus to the sovereignty of Lacedaemon. He sustained many single combats, one very famous struggle being the wrestling with the Libyan Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Ge (Earth), who had to be held in the air, as he grew stronger every time he touched his mother, Earth. Hercules withstood Ares, Poseidon and Hera, as well as Apollo. The close of his career is assigned to Aetolia and Trachis. He wrestles with Achelous for Deianeira (“destructive to husband”), daughter of Oeneus, king of Calydon, vanquishes the river god, and breaks off one of his horns, which as a horn of plenty is found as an attribute of Hercules in art. Driven from Calydon for homicide, he goes with Deianeira to Trachis. On the way he slays the centaur Nessus, who persuades Deianeira that his blood is a love-charm. From Trachis he wages successful war against the Dryopes and Lapithae as ally of Aegimius, king of the Dorians, who promised him a third of his realm, and after his death adopted Hyllus, his son by Deianeira. Finally Hercules attacks Eurytus, takes Oechalia and carries off Iola. Thereupon Deianeira, prompted by love and jealousy, sends him a tunic dipped in the blood of Nessus, and the unsuspecting hero puts it on just before sacrificing at the headland of Cenaeum in Euboea. (So far the dithyramb of Bacchylides xv. [xvi.], agrees with Sophocles’ Trachiniae as to the hero’s end.) Mad with pain, he seizes Lichas, the messenger who had brought the fatal garment, and hurls him on the rocks; and then he wanders in agony to Mount Oeta, where he mounts a pyre, which, however, no one will kindle. At last Poeas, father of Philoctetes, takes pity on him, and is rewarded with the gift of his bow and arrows. The immortal part of Hercules passes to Olympus, where he is reconciled to Hera and weds her daughter Hebe. This account of the hero’s principal labours, exploits and crimes is derived from the mythologists Apollodorus and Diodorus, who probably followed the Heracleia by Peisander of Rhodes as to the twelve labours or that of Panyasis of Halicarnassus, but sundry variations of order and incident are found in classical literature.

In one aspect Hercules is clearly a sun-god, being identified, especially in Cyprus and in Thasos (as Makar), with the Tyrian Melkarth. The third and twelfth labours may be solar, the horned hind representing the moon, and the carrying of Cerberus to the upper world an eclipse, while the last episode of the hero’s tragedy is possibly a complete solar myth developed at Trachis. The winter sun is seen rising over the Cenaean promontory to toil across to Mount Oeta and disappear over it in a bank of fiery cloud. But more important and less speculative is the hero’s aspect as a national type or an amalgamation of tribal types of physical force, of dauntless effort and endurance, of militant civilization, and of Hellenic enterprise, “stronger than everything except his own passions,” and “at once above and below the noblest type of man” (Jebb). The fifth labour seems to symbolize some great improvement in the drainage of Elis. Strenuous devotion to the deliverance of mankind from dangers and pests is the “virtue” which, in Prodicus’ famous apologue on the Choice of Hercules, the hero preferred to an easy and happy life. Ethically, Hercules symbolizes the attainment of glory and immortality by toil and suffering.

The Old-Dorian Hercules is represented in three cycles of myth, the Argive, the Boeotian and the Thessalian; the legends of Arcadia, Aetolia, Lydia, &c., and Italy are either local or symbolical and comparatively late. The fatality by which Hercules kills so many friends as well as foes recalls the destroying Apollo; while his career frequently illustrates the Delphic views on blood-guiltiness and expiation. As Apollo’s champion Hercules is Daphnephoros, and fights Cycnus and Amyntor to keep open the sacred way from Tempe to Delphi. As the Dorian tutelar he aids Tyndareus and Aegimius. As patron of maritime adventure (ἡγεμόνιος) he struggles with Nereus and Triton, slays Eryx and Busiris, and perhaps captures the wild horses and oxen, which may stand for pirates. As a god of athletes he is often a wrestler (παλαίμων), and founds the Olympian games. In comedy and occasionally in myths he is depicted as voracious (βουφάγος). He is also represented as the companion of Dionysus, especially in Asia Minor. The “Resting” (ἀναπαυόμενος) Hercules is, as at Thermopylae and near Himera, the natural tutelar of hot springs in conjunction with his protectress Athena, who is usually depicted attending him on ancient vases. The glorified Hercules was worshipped both as a god and a hero. In the Attic deme Melita he was invoked as ἀλεξίκακος (“Helper in ills”), at Olympia as καλλίνικος (“Nobly-victorious”), in the rustic worship of the Oetaeans as κορνοπίων (κόρνοπες, “locusts”), by the Erythraeans of Ionia as ἰποκτόνος (“Canker-worm-slayer”). He was σωτήρ (“Saviour”), i.e. a protector of voyagers, at Thasos and Smyrna. Games in his honour were held at Thebes and Marathon and annual festivals in every deme of Attica, in Sicyon and Agyrium (Sicily). His guardian goddess was Athena (Homer, Il. viii. 638; Bacchylides v. 91 f.). In early poetry, as often in art, he is an archer, afterwards a club-wielder and fully-armed warrior. In early art the adult Hercules is bearded, but not long-haired. Later he is sometimes youthful and beardless, always with short curly hair and thick neck, the lower part of the brow prominent. A lion’s skin is generally worn or carried. Lysippus worked out the finest type of sculptured Hercules, of which the Farnese by Glycon is a grand specimen. The infantine struggle with serpents was a favourite subject.

Quite distinct was the Idaean Hercules, a Cretan Dactyl connected with the cult of Rhea or Cybele. The Greeks recognized Hercules in an Egyptian deity Chons and an Indian Dorsanes, not to mention personages of other mythologies.

Hercules is supposed to have visited Italy on his return from Erythia, when he slew Cacus, son of Vulcan, the giant of the Aventine mount of Rome, who had stolen his oxen. To this victory was assigned the founding of the Ara maxima by Evander. His worship, introduced from the Greek colonies in Etruria and in the south of Italy, seems to have been established in Rome from the earliest times, as two old Patrician gentes were associated with his cult and the Fabii claimed him as their ancestor. The tithes vowed to him by Romans and men of Sora and Reate, for safety on journeys and voyages, furnished sacrifices and (in Rome) public entertainment (polluctum). Tibur was a special seat of his cult. In Rome he was patron of gladiators, as of athletes in Greece. With respect to the Roman relations of the hero, it is manifest that the native myths of Recaranus, or Sancus, or Dius Fidius, were transferred to the Hellenic Hercules.  (C. A. M. F.) 

See L. Preller, Griechische Mythologie (4th ed., Berlin, 1900); W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (1884); Sir R. C. Jebb, Trachiniae of Sophocles (Introd.), (1892); Ch. Daremberg and E. Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines; Bréal, Hercule et Cacus, 1863; J. G. Winter, Myth of Hercules at Rome (New York, 1910).

In the article Greek Art, fig. 16 represents Heracles wrestling with the river-god Achelous; fig. 20 (from a small pediment, possibly of a shrine of the hero) the slaying of the Hydra; fig. 35 Heracles holding up the sky on a cushion.

Hercules was a favourite figure in French medieval literature. In the romance of Alexander the tent of the hero is decorated with incidents from his adventures. In the prose romance Les Prouesses et vaillances du preux Hercule (Paris, 1500), the hero’s labours are represented as having been performed in honour of a Boeotian princess; Pluto is a king dwelling in a dismal castle; the Fates are duennas watching Proserpine; the entrance to Pluto’s castle is watched by the giant Cerberus. Hercules conquers Spain and takes Merida from Geryon. The book is translated into English as Hercules of Greece (n. d.). Fragments of a French poem on the subject will be found in the Bulletin de la soc. des anciens textes français (1877). Don Enrique de Villena took from Les Prouesses his prose Los Doze Trabajos de Hercules (Zamora, 1483 and 1499), and Fernandez de Heredia wrote Trabajos y afanes de Hercules (Madrid, 1682), which belies its title, being a collection of adages and allegories. Le Fatiche d’Ercole (1475) is a romance in poetic prose by Pietro Bassi, and the Dodeci Travagli di Ercole (1544) a poem by J. Perillos.