I am participating in Hour 25. It is a project sponsored by The Center for Hellenic studies for graduates of "The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours" (H24H) H24H in turn is a massive online open classroom sponsored by Harvard University via edX. The third run of the course will be coming soon. This week we study Heracles by Euripides
Euripides’ play; “Heracles” portrays the deaths of Heracles’ wife Megara (daughter of Creon) and their three young sons. The play starts with them and Heracles’ father sitting at Zeus’ altar, the two adults preserving the boys beneath their “wings” “like the parent bird that puts her young under her.” Afflicted Megara laments. The poor old man trembles with age, his languid nerves without vigor. He tries to calm her with platitudes. He regrets his age and the spent strength of his former youth that might save them all. (Almost exactly like the opening scene of Euripides’, Heracleidae ) Heracles earthly father Amphitryon and Heracles’ wife dress themselves and the young boys “in the dark robes and ornaments of death.”
The usurper oppressing them is a character referenced only by Euripides, Lycus II of Thebes. Emily A. McDermott[i] argues that Euripides gives his knowing audience an odd little wink at the introduction of this character by the use of the Ancient Greek work “houtos” and words of double meaning. (See Nagy’s comments on houtos and ainos. [ii]) Lycus (wolf) is clearly a straw-man. The part is barely a minor character. This two dimensional character is so dastardly drawn that no one in the audience or on the stage regrets him vanishing from the story line when Heracles returns.
While they dress the chorus laments that good men aren’t given two lives to distinguish them from bad. Sort of an odd conversation to be having at that moment. Odder still because in the Ancient Greek religion the “good”, that is those initiated into the mysteries were promised a life here and a life in the world to come. See Nagy’s comment below. Heracles returns from the dead at that moment. I did a double take at the conversation with his father.
Amphitryon “Did you indeed to Hades’ house descend, son? 610
Herakles; And dragged the triple-headed dog to light.
Amphitryon Subdued with a fight, or by the goddess given?
Herakles With a fight: I was lucky enough to see the mysteries.”
At the Eleusian Mysteries they taught people how to dog wrestle? Or was it how to bake poisoned honey cakes? Neither answer seems right. Could it be that Euripides intends for his audience to understand something else? Was this a nod to the secret of the Eluisian Mysteries where the double life denied by the play is promised to the initiated? In Professor Nagy’s informal comments he suggests (659ff) “This dramatized attitude reveals a poetically-created misunderstanding of what “really” happens to heroes after they die, how they are resurrected to a state of immortalization.” Back to our story; Heracles returns from the dead. (Is this again a nod by the poet to the secret promised life for the initiated?) His father, wife and children already ritually dead are freed from death. (Double life again.)
Ripped Apart and Eaten by Dogs
The two men set up the ambush in which Heracles states he will rip off Lycus’ “unholy head and hurl it to the hungry dogs”Hmm, ripped apart and eaten by dogs this sort of thing seems to happen a lot to the Theban royal family. Prince Actaeon was torn apart by this own pack thanks to Artemis. (Eurip. Bacch. 320) On the exact same spot King Pentheus (Bacchae) was ripped apart and eaten by his mother and aunts as arranged by Dionysius. In another life Prince Dionysius was ripped apart and eaten by Titans thanks to Hera. [iii] Legend has it that Euripides died the same way.
As to the impending ambush the chorus sings, “You should do nothing with violence, or you shall suffer violence (215) when the god shall change the direction of the winds.” This bodes ill for both “kings”.
Heracles slays Lycus off stage. During the ritual to purify his home Heracles goes mad and slays the last of the Theban royal family in a Bacchic frenzy. “He shakes his locks, and rolls, in silence his distorted Gorgon eyes, his breathing is not balanced like a bull. Dreadful in the assault he roars, and calls the Stygian Furies, he howls with noisy fury, like dogs rushing on the hunt.“ (ff870) Sort of like Actaeon’s dogs and Pentheus’ mother with her “foaming mouth and wildly rolling eyes,. (Bacchae 225) Although in this case, Heracles used a bow and arrow like Artemis and Apollo did while slaughtering the children of Niobe, an earlier queen of Thebes. (Homer, Iliad 24. 602)
Heracles awakens to discover himself tied to a pillar. His father Amphitryon is his sole surviving family member. (Interestingly Amphitryon is neither a Theban royal nor Theban born.) “Come, let me veil my head in darkness…” he begs his father in shame and grief.
King Theseus Arrives
Theseus King of Athens shows up at this point. Theseus often shows up at this point in Ancient Greek tragedies, because the performances are in Athens and the poets are playing to the crowd. Hence Theseus is always portrayed as saintly, knightly and wise. His conversation with Amphitryon and eventually Heracles consists of proverbs and platitudes. He asked Amphitryon that Heracles be unveiled. [iv]
Amphitryon, Zeus and the Woman
In the stilted conversation that follows with Theseus, Heracles says “ I am the son of a man who incurred the guilt of blood, before he married my mother Alcmena, by slaying her aged sire.” Up to this point in the play, Heracles is universally considered the son of Zeus. So in my initial reading I thought Heracles was talking about Zeus, who incurred the rage of the erinnyes by overthrowing his wife’s (Hera’s) sire. Rather an obtuse way to describe Cronus’ and Zeus’ relationship, but continued reading and then re-reading proved that Heracles meant Amphitryon, “for thee rather than Zeus do I regard as my father.” As to compound the equating of Amphitryon and Zeus, Theseus adds later, Have they not intermarried in ways that law forbids? Have they not thrown fathers into ignominious chains to gain the sovereign power?”
At one point in the play Amphitryon says of Zeus; “Mortal as I am, in virtue I surpass you, a mighty god;” Nagy notes (342ff) a god-hero antagonism here. God-hero antagonisms are a love/hate relationship. The love aspect five times is referenced by Amphitryon’s “idle boasts, scattered broadcast” that Zeus shared his marriage-bed. (Starting with the play’s opening line, then lines 148, 340, 343 and 800). Amphitryon’s bragging of an intimate relationship with Zeus is seen nowhere else in Ancient Greek literature; “the one who shared his bed with Zeus,” “ Zeus once shared thy bed,” “ come by stealth to my marriage-bed” “I share my wife with you.” “O marriage bed shared by two One a mortal, the other Zeus,”
Towards the end of the play Heracles laments, (ff1307) “To such a goddess (Hera) who would pay his vows? That for a woman, jealous of the bed of Zeus, has crushed the innocent”. What “woman” is Heracles the most masculine of Greek heroes referring too? There is no mention of Heracles’ mother Alceme suffering abuse from Hera in the play. In point of fact Hera never abuses her husband’s mistresses. Leto (HH to Apollo), Semele[v] and Io[vi] were all pregnant when Hera persecuted them. After they gave birth, Hera’s wrath subsides because she is actually targeting her husband’s bastard children. Hera’s hatred of Heracles is natural of a queen trying to prevent potential heirs depriving her own children of their birthright. The crushed innocent in the play include the “woman” Megara and three little boys. Who is the woman? Who is it in Zeus’ bed that rouses Hera’s jealousy? Robert Graves[vii] and everyone on the internet say that Amphitryon means "harassing either side". It is too easy to give the phrase a sexual connotation of bisexuality. However, bisexuality explains Amphitryon’s overly sexualized references to Zeus and unveils the bedmate that roused Hera’s jealousy.
The play ends with Theseus taking Heracles away with him, promising honors and sacrifice in years to come. Heracles leaves his father behind to bury the dead, promising to send for the old man.
[i] Transactions of the American Philological Association 121 (1991) 123-132 DOUBLE MEANING AND MYTHIC NOVELTY IN EURIPIDES' PLAYS
[ii] The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours”
[iii] William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. London.
[iv] 1215 referring to the veil o'r Heracles’ face , Theseus says of it “No darkness has a cloud so black,” Amphitryon speaks to Heracles; ‘’’ My son, remove that mantle from thine eyes… a counterpoise to weeping is battlingfor the mastery. In suppliant wise I entreat thee, as I grasp thy beard, thy knees, thy hands…O my child! Restrain thy savage lion-like temper, for thou art rushing forth on an unholy course of bloodshed” A wise precaution if one considers how vicious dark veiled Demeter was in her grief. (Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter)
[v] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 26-27
[vi] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 561-609
[vii] The Greek Myths