The Life and Times of HerculesStories about the gods, called myths, were made up thousands of years ago. Was there a real Hercules, a man behind the stories? We will never know. Yet, his story is of a man who was so strong and courageous, whose deeds were so mighty, and who so endured all the hardships that were given to him, that when he died, Hercules was brought up to Mount Olympus to live with the gods.
Hercules was both the most famous hero of ancient times and the most beloved. More stories were told about him than any other hero. Hercules was worshipped in many temples all over Greece and Rome.
Berlin F 2278, Attic red figure kylix, c. 500 B.C.
Side B: Hercules, carrying his club and wearing his lion skin,
walks with a procession of gods and goddesses to Olympus.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung
Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Greek woman named Alcmene [Alk-ME-ne]. When Alcmene's husband, Amphitryon, was away, Zeus made her pregnant. This made Hera so angry that she tried to prevent the baby from being born. When Alcmene gave birth to the baby anyway, she named him Herakles. (The Romans pronounced the name "Hercules," and so do we today.) The name Herakles means "glorious gift of Hera" in Greek, and that got Hera angrier still. Then she tried to kill the baby by sending snakes into his crib. But little Hercules was one strong baby, and he strangled the snakes, one in each hand, before they could bite him.
Louvre G 192, Attic red figure stamnos, c. 480-470 B.C.
The baby Hercules wrestles with the snakes Hera has sent to his crib.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre
When Hercules regained his senses and saw the horrible thing that he had done, he asked the god Apollo to rid him of this pollution. Apollo commanded the hero to do certain tasks as a punishment for his wrongs, so that the evil might be cleansed from his spirit.
Würzburg L 500, Attic red figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500 B.C.
The god Apollo.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg
Hercules hurried to the temple where Apollo gave such advice. It was in the town of Delphi and was called the Delphic oracle. Apollo said that in order to purify himself for the spilling of his family's blood, he had to perform 10 heroic labors (this number would soon be increased to 12).
Delphi, view looking SE across the Temple of Apollo's terrace toward the valley below.
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was built on a very steep hillside.
Photograph by Pamela Russell
Aerial view of the fortress-palace at Tiryns.
The citadel's impressively thick fortress walls have stood for over thirty centuries.
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers
Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules sneaks up on a sleeping giant, Alkyoneus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art
London E 370, Attic red figure pelike, c. 440-430 B.C.
Hercules trades in his old lionskin for the new cloak Deianira has woven him.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London
Munich 2360, Attic red figure pelike, c. 410 B.C.
Athena and Hercules leave the funeral pyre, headed for Mount Olympus.
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München
To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.
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