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.
Recently I enjoyed a cinematic experience. The title of the movie was “Immortals”, and it was made by the same people who did “300”.
Aesthetically, it was quite pretty. Very enjoyable for the sake of entertainment. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the mythical Greek hero Theseus, however, even though that is the name of the protagonist of this CG-enhanced adventure. (Although there was an allusion to a fight with a minotaur and the inclusion of a bull… and even I didn’t actually get the reference until the very end. Then I laughed.) For anyone who cares about historical accuracy (or accuracy of any sort), this movie will be very frustrating: the art and architecture is all over the chronological map and the outfits are fantastical; but the flick has its pros, as well: Ancient Greek is spoken by 4 of the characters, which is pretty cool; there are pretty bodies throughout (at one point a very nude very pretty body); colorful costumes and shiny gods permeate the screen; and let’s never forget the many fun action scenes. ANNNND Mickey Rourke plays the bad guy, so it must be legit.
One thing they did get very right: Theseus was young, he wore a short tunic, and he was beardless. At least, that’s how he is typically portrayed on Athenian vase-painting (where is weapon of choice is a sword, though, not this mythical “bow of Hyperion”).
Who was the Greek Theseus, the man I study? He was the Athenian hero par excellence. He begins his story by venturing to Crete to slay the minotaur and in doing so save his city from having to send any more girls and boys as tribute (er, food). Plutarch gathered all of his stories and with them narrated a biography of Theseus, and in doing so made him appear a real historical figure. He was a king of Athens, he had connections to the Trojan War, he was associated with Poseidon (and Athena), and he completed ‘deeds’ similar to those of Herakles.
Around 500BC, Theseus sees a surge in iconographic popularity. Herakles used to be the popular hero in Athens, but it seems that Theseus for a brief moment almost replaces him, and he is imagined as the ideal Athenian citizen, what every young man should aspire to be. His mythology comes with a set of deeds similar to Herakles’ labors, and around this time period large red-figure Athenian plates are produced which portray these deeds in sequence. He battles evil men (such as Sinis and Prokrustes) and beasts (the minotaur, of course, and also animals such as a sow and a bull).
Theseus does not really have set attributes the way most deities and some other heroes do; for example: Zeus has a thunderbolt, Poseidon a trident, Herakles his club… Theseus normally is depicted as a beardless youth, often (partially) nude and wielding a sword (or an axe for Prokrustes), but really he is better identified in context. It seems as if the Athenians themselves are still unsure how to best portray their new main hero. They’re still playing around with whether he has brown or blonde hair, whether he should wear clothes or be athletically/heroically nude, or whether he should fight with a sword or assimilate him to that other awesome hero, Herakles, by giving him a club to hold… and a bull to fight.
This leads to what I like to call “conscious ambiguity”. Herakles’s seventh labor was to capture (not kill!) the Cretan bull and take it with him back to Athens. The bull was released from there and wandered to Marathon (nearby) and Theseus captured the “Marathonian bull” (the very same one) for sacrifice. Herakles is often depicted bearded and nude but for his lionskin helmet and cape while subduing the bull. Theseus is also shown (partially) nude while subduing the bull, sometimes tying its legs together. Sometimes the hero wields a club. In such cases, the identity of the hero capturing the bull is a tad uncertain.
Herakles or Theseus? Your choice! (<– that may have been just the point, indeed.)
Let’s talk about heroes.
…Dead ones (long dead).
…Mythological ones (Herakles and Theseus!).
…Heroes with cult in Athens (sorry, Achilles, but helllllo Ajax).
….Heroes you’ve probably never heard of (Eumolpos, Triptolemos, Erichthonios, Akamas, Demophon…).
Heroes and their cult are the main ingredient of my dissertation, and their representations on late Archaic Athenian vase-painting are the reasons I’m traveling from city to city in Europe spending hours with vases in museums (lovely lovely hours).
Sometimes I get so wrapped up with organizing my notes from a recent museum visit, or noting connections between this vase and that, or marking when an unusual subject is portrayed, that I forget I am in Europe, in some wonderful city waiting to be explored, and instead I just sit with my notes and my images and work.
This is not a bad thing, really, considering that I *should* be devoting the majority of my time to my dissertation! I want this Ph.D., after all.
So, since heroes are so much on my mind, some of my future posts will be devoted to heroes relevant to my work. This way, in future contexts when I blather on excitedly about so-and-so you can be a little more informed about who so-and-so is! The first ones will cover some of the more familiar heroes, such as Herakles (NOT Hercules, this is Greek vase-painting!), Theseus, and the ever solemn Ajax. I may just start with that last guy, since he’s quickly forming a large soft spot in my heart with his name written all over it. Aww Ajax, the guy just doesn’t get enough credit.
I may also include tidbits on how these ancient heroes of old still play a role in our own pop culture (I like that sort of thing…. cue “Xena” …). To kick things off, here’s the trailer for a new movie coming out based (very loosely) on Theseus. Now that that’s done, I refuse to discuss this trailer any further.