Herakles. Synonymous with strength for centuries
A guest from from Asa Williams
Perhaps no name in history is more synonymous with strength then that of Herakles. This mythological Ancient Greek figure has been the subject of stories from the Archaic era all the way to the 2014 Dwayne Johnson film. The rough barbaric shamanic figure that patrolled the minds of the Ancients has been replaced by a far cleaner and less brutal character. Who Herakles was however remains a mystery, his tasks, his physique, and power all immortalised, the man himself lost. This article shall attempt to explain the mythological figure, his feats of strength and espouse some theories on the individual behind the stories. I believe he is significant to the modern lifter for a number of reasons we shall explore but perhaps most significantly he was the patron god of the Gym.
According to the mythology Herakles was born the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a union of divine and mortal. This seed of Zeus is what provided him with his superhuman abilities. Despite his godly patronage the life of Herakles was at risk from the start. Zeus, a notorious philanderer, was married to a jealous goddess named Hera. There are variety of stories of how she attempted to end the baby’s life but the most common one involves her sending down two snakes to the boy’s crib. Herakle’s nurse, alerted by the sounds of merriment gushing from the cradle, found one giant snake crushed to death in each of the infant’s pudgy hands. Athena would later smuggle the baby to Hera who accidentally breastfed it alongside her child. His mouth was already so powerful that it hurt the queen of the gods, and realising who it was she threw him away, the residue creating the milky way. This increased his powers even further and kept on distancing him from the remainder of mankind. The seer Tiserias was summoned to meet this unusual child and predicted a glorious future for him.
His youth started abruptly, he killed his music tutor with a lyre and was banished by his ‘father’ (the husband of Alcmene Amphytron). He was educated by the centaur Chiron who was the teacher of almost all the great Greek heroes, from Perseus to Akhilles. After this education, creating a man skilled in warfare, medicine, and bush craft he married Megara. She was the daughter of Creon, the king of Thebes. Unlike the Disney Film there was no Pegasus and he killed her and their children in a fit of madness. This rage was sent down on him by Hera who would pursue him vengefully throughout his mortal life. After the madness was lifted Herakles went to the oracle of Delphi, the most holy place for the Ancient Greeks. The Oracle told him that the only way that he could purify himself was to complete 10 tasks, 12 in some accounts, under the service of Eurystheus. Eurystheus was his cousin and the king of Tirnys.
These tasks were:
Slay the Nemean Lion, a giant invulnerable big cat that Heracles throttled to death. After this he wears the impenetrable skin as his battle armour.
Kill the Lernean Hydra, a many-headed serpentine monster that he defeats with the aid of his nephew ioalus. He also soaks his arrow in the beast’s venomous blood, imbuing them with poison.
Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis. It took a year, but Herakles eventually delivered.
Capture the Erymanthian boar, a giant wild pig.
Clean the Aegean stables in a day. Augeas had been given 3000 cattle by his father, the sun god Helios. For reasons unspecified the stables had not been cleaned for 30 years and the idea was that this task would be humiliating rather than heroic. As well as that it was presumably impossible. Herkales resolved this in both dramatic and simple fashion by rerouting Alpheus and Peneus rivers to wash the stables out. This task was discounted by Eurystheus because the rivers cleaned the stables and Herakles was financially rewarded for his task. As the hero was promised a tenth of the cattle as a reward, and Augeas refused it him. In vengeance Herakles killed him.
The slaying of the Stymphalian birds. These were bronze-beaked and metallic-feathered carnivores that preyed on men. Living on a marsh they were inaccessible to Herakles, his weight causing him to sink. He drove them out with a rattle and then shot them down with his bow and arrow.
Capture the Cretan bull. This animal was the father of the Minotaur and was terrorising the island of Crete. An animal of Poseidon it was fuelled by rage. Herakles wrestled it into submission and carried on his shoulders back to the court of Eurystheus.
Steal the mares of Diomedes. These horses had been trained to feed on human flesh and thus were a numerous and dangerous opposition. Herakles fed their owner to them before bringing them back to Tirnys.
Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta. Herakles led a band of warriors into the territory of the Amazons. These warrior women had been ordered by Hera to attack the heroes, yet the latter vanquished the former. They secured the girdle of the Amazonian queen and returned to Mycenae.
Rustle the cattle of Geryon. These cattle were guarded by Orthus, a two-headed dog and Geryon, a three-bodied giant. He then took the cattle and proceeded on his labours.
Take the apples of the Hesperides. Perhaps Herakles most impressive feat of strength took place in this task. As they were the daughters of Atlas, Herakles enlisted the help of their father. The titan agreed and while he went to talk to his daughters Herakles held up the sky in his stead.
Bring Cerberus to court. The point of this labour is that it was impossible. Herakles had to descend to the underworld and retrieve the guardian of Hell, the three-headed giant dog Cerberus. Once in Hell he met with dread Hades who agreed that he could take the dog if he did not use weapons. Herakles dragged the dog from Hell and presented it to Eurystheus.
These are the 12 tasks for which Herakles is most famous but are certainly not alone amongst his feats. He accompanied the Argonauts and was allegedly so heavy that their boat ran aground. He saved the titan Prometheus, bound to a mountain side, by snapping the chains that held him. He wrestled a giant named Anateus and defeated him by crushing him in his arms while holding him. Death itself could not escape his grip and apparently the hero held him tight enough that Thanatos let some souls escape. Herakles lived a violent, sensual life, engaging in affairs with both men and women throughout his life. His appetites would be what would eventually kill him. His wife Deianira, thinking her husband loved another man attempted to keep him by soaking his tunic in the blood and semen of Nessus. Nessus was a centaur and ferryman. He had offered transport across a river to Deianara and Herakles. Due to Herakles’ weight he had to take them one by one and attempt to rape Deianara. Herakles promptly shot him full of arrows. Nessus told Deianira to take his spilt fluids in a vial and if Herakles should ever be unfaithful to soak his clothing in his blood. Of course, these arrows had been dipped in the blood of the Hydra and were deadly poisoned. When Herakles put on his tunic it stuck to his skin and corroded his body. He attempted to remove it and in doing so removed great chunks of flesh. In great pain he uprooted several trees and assembled them. Then demanding for them to be set aflame he set himself upon them and Philoctetes, his great friend and archer set them alight. The mortal part of Herakles was burnt away and thus he ascended to godhead. z
Herakles is often credited as the inventor of wrestling. As Greco-Roman relies heavily on upper-body power this would not be a surprising origin story. At the original Olympic Games he allegedly won every single event and is regularly seen as the founder of the Games themselves. Greek athletes had Herakles a patron god and thus merely the practice of sport was an honouring of his legacy. As talked about in an earlier Milo of Kroton, the most successful Classical athlete of all time based himself on Herakles. He went far enough into this to wear a lionskin into battle in an imitation of his inspiration. Depictions of heroes would have abounded in exercise areas and as pointed out in the book Greek athletics in the Roman World (2005) ‘While the mosaics in the palaestra suggest that the bathers could see themselves in these figures of athletic prowess, Hercules too acts as an athletic role model, the brawniest and burliest of them all’. As such the inspiration Herakles would have provided to the Greeks cannot be understated. Statues like the Farnese Hercules depict a massively powerful figure, far beyond any natural physique. Herakles would have been present as an example of the pinnacle of functional strength that Greeks aspired to. He inspired countless stories, artwork, and strongmen throughout the ages. No man has ever held up the sky, no man was ever Herakles.
Who Herakles was will probably never be known. He is probably a composite of folktales and adventurers reaching back into later prehistory. My personal theory is that there was a shamanic figure, explaining the journeys to the underworld, who ended up being combined with a warrior figure, probably a very strong person. This created the myth of Herakles and laid the foundation to one of the greatest heroes the world has ever seen.