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