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Greece, Heroes

HERAKLES: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 3

Herakles (or “Hercules” to many of you), that Panhellenic hero-god everyone knows and loves, who has muscled his way into modern pop-culture… truly immortal.

 …from Ryan Gosling to Kevin Sorbo… 

…all the way to Disney.

Muhammad Ali may have “wrastled with an alligator”, but Herakles wrestled everyone and everything. Known for his incredible strength, his first feat was to kill a lion whose hide was so tough no weapon could pierce it. So he wrestled it, eventually killing it with his bare hands.

Vatican 20262 -- Herakles wrestles the Nemean lion, Athena looks on.

Hence he was depicted wearing the lion’s hide as his identifying garment. Sometime he wields bow and arrow, sometimes a large club, sometimes both. He often has curly hair and a beard, and a few painters took pains to ensure the viewer understood his hair was curly by inserting thick blobs of slip as if to represent tight curls.

Vatican 16546 -- Guess who?

He was the hero “par excellence” for all of Greece. He was worshipped on the islands, on the mainland, in northern Greece, and even as far as Sicily. Later the Etruscans revered him, as did the Romans. He appealed to all — the traveling hero with brute strength.

It makes sense he appealed to athletes. Offerings were made to him by competitors before the Games at Olympia. What is lesser known is that he appealed to musicians, as well. Herakles is a patron hero of ALL athletes, including those of the mousikos agon(musical contest). Almost everyone is familiar of the deeds of Herakles and the monsters he bested, his muscular athletic build and victorious nature, but few are familiar with the stories concerning the musical education of Herakles. It is no surprise, then, that only a handful of the many visual representations of Herakles during the late Archaic periods depict him playing a lyre as a musical contestant. A handful of Athenian vases dating to the late sixth century depict Herakles holding a kithara (a fancy lyre), standing on a pedestal, flanked by Athena and either Hermes or Dionysos.

Athens, NAMA 635 -- Herakles in center playing a lyre, flanked by Athena and Hermes.

Vatican 16590 -- Herakles in center, playing a kithara, flanked by Dionysos and Athena

Here he is the guitar hero: performing at a mousikos agonin the hopes of winning the monetary prize and golden crown. Musical contests took place in nearly every ancient Greek city. At some major Greek Games, contests in music and similar arts formed a part of the program, on a par with athletic contests. The kithara was the most esteemed instrument, and the first place prize in kithara singing was a gold crown worth one thousand drachmas (perhaps worth as much as $150,000 in modern terms). The contestants won prizes for their success just as athletes won prizes for theirs.

The ancient athletic contests were religious in function, held in honor of a god (Olympics for Zeus, Pythian for Apollo, Panathenaian for Athena… and so on). These musical scenes could be seen as religious scenes, though not as obviously religious as Herakles sacrificing at an altar.

NY Met 41.162.29 -- Herakles roasting meat on spits over an altar

However, the issue of Herakles’s piety is a topic for a whole other blog post.

Watch this space.

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About Elizabeth

PhD student in Classical Art & Archaeology at UVA with a focus on Greek heroes and iconography (yet forever awed by Roman 2nd and 4th style painting). Salsa and Argentine tango dancer extraordinaire. Weightlifter and Crossfitter the world over.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “HERAKLES: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 3

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