All myths and legends are connected to reality in some way, rooted in truth primarily as a storytelling technique employed by ancient and modern societies in an attempt to understand the universe around them, and to explain and justify things like morality, virtues, suffering, death, love, and war.
From King Perseus of Argos to Achilles, the king of the Myrmidons, politics and religion played a prominent role in mythmaking, legitimising a leader’s claim to the throne. Whether it be asserting divine birth heritage or having heroic deeds attributed to them, a powerful ruling family can use this type of demigod hero narrative to secure their authority.
Whoever Heracles of Tiryns was, the fact that he was not a king, that he was despised by a prominent religious deity, murdered, and then deified, indicates that this guy accomplished things in his time that ended up echoing in eternity. He is featured in over forty tales of heroism, married four times, had thirty-plus affairs with other women, fathered over fifty children, and is even credited with entering and returning from the underworld. The real Heracles would have had to have been a stunningly larger-than-life individual, plagued by scandal and tragedy, most likely displaying a kind of virtue unseen at the time, to have ended up having an entire religious cult set up around him after his death.
Hercules was no ruler of any kingdom, having missed out on claiming the Argolid throne of Tiryns by being born second to his cousin, Eurystheus. This, according to the narrative, or the propaganda of the time, is due to the goddess Hera’s jealousy-fueled retribution. The queen of the Olympians and protector of women knew about the infidelities of her husband Zeus and sort to punish him, taking it out on his offspring, Heracles.
On the night Heracles was due to be born and claim his destiny, Hera conned Zeus by getting him to agree to have the throne of Tiryns go to the first child born to a member of the Perseus clan. Hera, the protector of women in childbirth, manipulated the proceeding by insidiously delaying Heracles’s mother, Alcmene from giving birth. Hera coerced her daughter, Ilithyia (Goddess of Childbirth) into delaying the birth of Heracles and his twin brother, Iphicles. Ilithyia trapped the twins in the womb, and would have held them there until they died had not Alcmene’s servant, Galanthis deceived the goddess into allowing them to be born. At the same time, Hera had Ilithyia instigate a premature birth for Eurystheus, also a descendant of Perseus, and he was born first and became next in line for the throne.
Not wanting to suffer any repercussions from the angry deity, Alcmene chose to commit infanticide instead, leaving the newborn, named Alcides by his parents, in the forest. Hera’s daughter, Athena found the baby and rescued it, taking it to Olympus. Hera felt pity for the baby, recognising its divine heritage, but did not consider it may be one of Zeus’s many offspring. She nursed him but Heracles suckled so strongly that he caused Hera pain, and she pushed him away. Her milk sprayed across the heavens and there formed the Milky Way. By then the baby had acquired supernatural powers. Athena suspecting all along it was her halfbrother, brought the infant back to Alcmene, and she renamed him Heracles in an attempt to appease Hera.
When the twins turned eight years old, Hera sent two giant snakes into the children’s bedroom. Iphicles cried but his brother grabbed a snake in each hand and strangled them. His nurse found him playing with the snake as if they were toys. Seeing this, Heracles’ stepfather, Amphitryon called in the seer Tiresias, who prophesied that the boy would accomplish incredible feats.
Amphitryon sent his son to study under Linus of Thrace. Heracles was hopeless at music and Linus would reprimand him for making errors, punishing him by smacking Heracles with rods. Heracles flew into a rage and violently struck his teacher with his own lute, killing him.
During the trial, Heracles claimed self-defence, since a law by Rhadamanthys made it clear that whoever defends himself against a wrongful aggressor should suffer no penalty. Heracles was acquitted but his mortal father, Amphitryon, desperate to put a handle on the scandal, sent him away to tend his cattle.
“The Choice of Heracles”
One day as he is tending the herd, Heracles came by a crossroad that branched out into two divergent paths. Unsure which path to take, he was joined by two young women named Arete (Virtue) and Kakia (Vice). Each woman was dressed appropriately to their name, “Virtue handsome and noble in mien, her body clothed in purity and her eyes in modesty… Vice plump and soft, with a complexion not left to nature, a wandering eye, and a dress revealing rather than concealing her charms” After taking into consideration each of their respective advice, Heracles opted for the less alluring road as recommended by Vice. Choosing the path suggested by Virtue guaranteed hard work and suffering in the short term but ultimate
immortality in the long run.
As an adult, Heracles heard that the Theban army had suffered a military defeat against the Minyans and set off to Thebes to assist the Thebans in restoring order. As a sign of his gratitude, King Creon of Thebes gave Hercules his daughter, Megara, in marriage. Heracles settled in Thebes and had children with Megara.
Seeing Heracles enjoying such success in Thebe’s royal family didn’t sit well with Hera. Once again she plotted to destroy Heracles by inducing him into a fit of madness, causing Heracles to kill his children and Megara. Athena intervened and knock him out with a stone, and once his madness had been cured with hellebore proscribed to him by Antikyreus, Heracles was stricken with grief at what he had done. His cousin, Theseus urged him to find a way to atone for his sins and not to opt for suicide.
Hercules consulted the Oracle at Delphi who told him, at the behest of Hera, he must go to his cousin Eurystheus and serve out ten years of labour to the king.
This, Hera hoped, would be the final undoing of Heracles and the insult he represented. King Eurystheus, however, saw Heracles as a threat to his royal standing and sort to be rid of the hero sooner. Instead of ten years, Eurystheus decided to give Heracles ten labours, each more dangerous than the previous task.