Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TFBT: Doubly Odd Heracles

 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

Opening Scene

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.” 

Lycus Jr.

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.    

Double Lives

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 End

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


  1. While in other sources Io may be already pregnant during her wanderings, I think that in the "Prometheus Bound" she is persecuted by Hera before getting pregnant. Prometheus tells her that she will conceive in the future, and she explicitly calls herself a virgin. Indeed, being still a virgin at this moment is better for the plot.

  2. Maya M,

    Thanks for the comment. Part of the glory and frustration of Greek Myth is that there is always another version to deal with.

    That said, what do you think of Prometheus Bound? Admittedly, it is part of a trilogy, so we aren't getting the whole thing. It just feels so theatric to me. Zeus is such a cliché bad guy. Oceanus, who never shows up at Olympus, weddings, Mecone or a war, shows up to visit Prometheus. And Prometheus is positively Christ-like when in fact this is the guy who betrayed his brothers in the Titanomachy and Zeus at Mecone. And that bit about him being the benefactor of man! If it wasn't for him we would not need a benefactor. Any way, all the characters struck me as two dimensional. Your thoughts?

  3. I think that, unfortunately, while cliché good guys are largely thought constructs, cliché bad guys are easy to find :-(. Haven't you have a boss resembling that Zeus? What about tyrants, ancient and modern (Assad, Putin, Lukashenko...)? Aeschylus seems to have known that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but is unlikely to have proposed a better solution. Unfortunately, we haven't the sequel, but I guess that the good tragic questions in the first play were just diluted in a dubious happy end, as in the Oresteia.
    Actually, Zeus is even somewhat whitewashed in the Prometheus Bound. His worst abuses of power (the wish to protein-starve mankind at Mecone, the genocide of Silver Age humans, Pandora's box, the deluge, the swallowing of Metis, the transformation of Chiron's daughter etc.) are not even hinted at. Population control by wars is still to come, so it is not mentioned either.
    The question why Oceanus comes is discussed here: http://www.didaskalia.net/issues/vol4no1/deforest.html

  4. You are quite right that, if Prometheus hadn't supported Zeus, humans would not have needed his benefaction (neither would he find himself at the bottom of the food chain). His forethought must have had a day off.
    Hesiod, unfortunately, says nothing about Prometheus' part (if any) in the Titanomachy. He just appears at Mecone out of nowhere, without a clue why he is free and allowed to do an important job. Aeschylus invents an explanation. However, it makes Prometheus a too complex personality. His behavior during the Titanomachy (as he himself describes it) shows, I would say, lack of soul. At the same time, his outburst at the end of the play proves that he has a soul (despite his unscrupulous, typically revolutionary treatment of the poor Oceanids). I have heard that some people acquire souls as adults, but I have never met one. I would simplify things by giving him a soul right from the beginning.
    To me, the most Christian element in the play is the idea of expiation. Prometheus has done damage of cosmic proportions by helping Zeus, and must pay for it. Maybe Thetis in the Iliad is a similar case – she has helped Zeus after his tyranny had made even his closest kin rebel, and she pays for it. Of course, truly evil beings get away with doing evil, because they have no souls to save by expiaton of their sins. The only suffering of Zeus is the fear he presumably has felt while making unprotected sex to new female partners. On the other hand, given the obsession of Zeus with serial rapes, this suffering may not have been as trivial as it seems.

  5. I am now trying to find some system in Heracles' madness, which is not easy. To do this, Euripides made his Heracles mistake his children for Eurystheus'. This of course required turning the story upside down by putting the 12 Labors before the madness. I wish to keep the traditional chronology.
    I've read somewhere (possibly in Hour25) that, by forcing Heracles to kill his Theban-born children, Zeus "withdraw his seal" from Thebes. See what I've just mentioned, browsing Apollodorus' Library:
    "Hercules received from Creon his eldest daughter Megara... But Creon gave his younger daughter to Iphicles, who already had a son Iolaus by Automedusa, daughter of Alcathus... After the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire..."
    The two killed nephews were apparently from Creon's younger daughter, because Yolaus survived and later helped Heracles subdue the Hydra. So the "system in madness" seems to be Theban descent of the victims (unless it is specifically descent from the house of Creon).

  6. Maya,

    Recent discussion at Hour 25 talked about the fact that over and over again Theban princes have something awful happen to them, possibly triggered when the next generation "comes of age", hence Laius when Oedipus comes of age, Oedipus when his sons come of age, Cadmus when Pentheus, Dionysus and Action come of age, Amphion and Zethus when Niobe's sons become all grown up. The Lycus under discussion was a grandson of Chthonius one of the sparti not descended from Laius. So apparently the curse was location rather than lineage. Mt Cithearon always has something weird going upon his slopes.

  7. The renewal of the curse with the coming of age of every generation of Theban rulers makes much sense.
    I think we need not pay much attention to the Lycus in this play. He (unlike his ancestor of the same name) seems to be an invention of Euripides to create additional suspense. His killing of Creon violates chronology too much even by the liberal standards of Greek mythology. Because in too many other stories we see the same Creon confront the Seven; and if Lycus kills him after the Seven's attack, this would make Heracles contemporary of the Trojan War.
    I checked that Creon is a descendant of Pentheus. I.e. he belongs to the house of Cadmus that was object of the lethal jealousy of both Hera and Dionysus. Incidentally, Hera was protectress of Argos from where the Seven and the Epigoni went to war. Possibly the primary goal of sending madness to Heracles was elimination of his Cadmus-descended wife, children and nephews, rather than hurting him. As far as I know, Hera never targeted his children from other women.
    I also think you are right to put emphasis on the location. Thersander son of Polyneices, who grew elsewhere, was not persecuted by the gods - quite the opposite, they installed him in place of his Theban-born and bread cousin Laodamas and gave him prosperity. Possibly ancient Greeks believed that spending some years/generations somewhere else changes heredity. Aeschylus' Epaphus, child of white Zeus and white Io, was born in Africa dark-skinned.

  8. Maya,

    Ibteresting thought that family curses are site specific. Life was looking pretty goog gor Oedipus as long as he stayed in Corinth. The Atresides did well in Troy, Agamemnon, not so well once home. Hmm.


  9. Menelaus actually seems to do reasonably well ever since he moved from Mycenae to Sparta.
    Also, Diomedes saves himself by moving to Italy (though it is Aphrodite's wrath in his case, rather than a family curse).

  10. Maya M,

    Menelaus and Diomedes both had "Get Out of Jail Free" cards. Homer explicitly promises Menelaus the Isle of the Blest because he wed Zeus' daughter.

    Diomedes inherited the promise of immortality that Athena induced the gods to rashly promise for his father, Tydeus. Tydeus was one of the Seven against Thebes. Once Zeus nodded in consent, Athena snatched up a cup of ambrosia and raced to the battle before Thebes where Tydeus would die soon. Rather than a mortally wounded hero she found a brain-eating monster. So startled and offended the goddess dropped the cup and stormed off. But the oath had been made and the immortality fell to Diomedes. I think Tydeus is the only person in Greek mythology to eat their enemy's brain, although others in moments of rage contemplate it.


    1. I didn't mean the tickets for the "Blessed Realm" given to both heroes but their long and relatively happy lives on Earth. Compare them to Heracles who indeed obtained a high-quality immortal existence but it was preceded by a nasty, brutish, and short mortal life.
      What do you think of Athena's attitude? In the Tydeus story, she is presented as a guardian of civilized norms. However, she carried on her aegis the severed head of Medusa, and the aegis herself was reportedly prepared from the skin of another vanquished enemy. I suspect that Athena let Tydeus die not because of his barbarity but because she saw him encroaching on Olympian privileges :-).

    2. Maya,

      Diomedes had some hard times in Italy, I think. As to the irony of the goddess of civilization on her shield...a godess has got to do whst a godess has got to do. I still cant judge the gods by mortal standards

  11. I am now reading something G. Murray wrote about the Women of Trachis:
    "True he (Heracles) is a son of Zeus; that no doubt is the secret of his victoriousness, but it is no particular guarantee of moral virtue... In Sophocles as in Euripides the gods are often distinguished from human beings chiefly by their inhumanity, illustrated for example by the vindictive Athena of the Ajax or the malignant Apollo who is the source of all evils in the Oedipus... The piety of Sophocles insists mainly on the extreme danger of offending or disregarding the gods."

  12. Maya,

    First thanks for the book reference. Particularly since it is free.

    I wonder if his analysis of Sophocles piety is true, that it was based on fear. Assuming that Euripides was an aetheist and Aeschylus a blaspheme, it appears piety paid off better for as a lifestyle.

    I wonder too at the worship of Apollo. His hatred of mortals and pro-Persian, pro-Trojan stance could not endear him to the Greeks. Was their piety based on fear of the plague-demon and fear of the future?


  13. Why do you think that Aeschylus was a blaspheme? I'm not saying that this is not true, just wondering, because most people think he was pious. Actually, the authenticity debate of the Prometheus bound started exactly for that reason - pious Aeschylus was not expected to write such a play. I do not find much piety in Aeschylus, however. When his characters or (more often) Choruses praise Zeus, it sounds like, "Zeus, please exist and be good, please! We need it badly!"
    You are right that, in terms of his position in society, pious Sophocles was the most successful of the three tragedians. I wonder, however, what about personal life. If Oedipus from Oedipus at Colonus is a self-portrait, I think I'd prefer to die long before my relationship with my sons deteriorates as much.

    I think you are quite right about Apollo. I like the hypothesis that he is a remaking of Hurrian plague-god Aplu. After all, Greeks took Hurrian Kumarbi as Cronus, why not also Aplu?
    I think that an interesting deity in this respect is Hera. Myth shows her as a pissed off, vengeful goddess who has nothing better to do than look who does not respect her enough and bring him to hell, or at least make his life hell. Even when she does somebody favors, it is out if ignoble motives. (She helps the Argonauts because she is angry with Pelias.) Hera is thought to be very ancient, and her cult seems to have long preceded that of Zeus (and the Indo-European invasion). I think that Hera is an archetype of the primitive deity - an entity that has no morality, hates humans and gives them nothing except to spare them from her own rage in some cases, if properly appeased.

  14. Aeschylus was almost stoned to death by an angry mob for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries.

    I hadnti heard about the Hurrian plagye god Aplu. Apollo was from that part of the world origionally, right

    I have a book on Hera, dont remember the name off hand and I am on the road at the moment. Anyway, as I recall she was a much nicer person prior to divorcing the River Sangrius and marrying Zeus

  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aplu_(deity)
    He is identified with Nergal, who was also a solar deity, like Apollo. In his role as plague god, Nergal was called Erra; under this name, he led the seven demons to destroy humanity, possibly giving the idea of the Seven would-be destroyers of Thebes. The Hurrians apparently did not dare to call any of his existing names and epithets, so they listed him just as Aplu, "son of", meaning son of Enlil. Another similarity to Apollo - both are sons of the supreme god.

    It is interesting to me that, when Chryses asks Apollo to punish the Greeks, he addresses the god as Apollo Smintheus, "Mouse Apollo". There was an episode in the Bible where the Philistines were punished with a disease resembling bubonic plague, and to be spared, they (among other things) made an offer of buboes and mice made of gold. I wonder, were the mice included just as "generic" pests, or these ancient people knew the role of rodents as plague reservoirs? True plague at that time was unknown in Europe, but already endemic in the Fertile Crescent - enough to earn its god a seat in the pantheon.
    My Apollo, among all gods, has the best knowledge of infectious diseases, because he has observed and studied them in cattle and other domestic animals ever since the domestication (gods themselves have natural immunity against pathogens). After the "theft" of fire, Apollo is ordered by Zeus to collect the germs for Pandora's jar.

    I had never heard about Sangrius!

  16. Maya,
    It amazes me how much i think i know until i have to produce a reference. Joan V O'Brien in The Transformation of Hera suggests that Hera's first husband was a Samian River god named Iambrasas.