Category: heracles

My Theseus

Between trips around the world and series of TV shows, I am actually an MA student at Newcastle University. I know, I forget sometimes too.

I’m doing a taught master’s program, so the first two semesters were mostly classes. The third semester, however, involves writing a dissertation on a topic that we choose. The final product is a 15,000 word essay on an original research question.

You may have gathered that I have a deep rooted love for Greek mythology. Archaeology doesn’t really lend itself to discussions on mythology. Or so I thought. But in December I started to ask around about the possibilities of studying something to do with mythology for my dissertation. And I figured it out.

My Greek Archaeology lecturer did her PhD on portrayals of women in Greek pottery. So what I decided to do, under her supervision, was portrayals of one certain myth in Greek pottery.

The difficulty lay in choosing. At first, my supervisor suggested that I write on Heracles, since we have a Heracles pot in our collection that I could work closely with. But it didn’t really grab me. I went to the British Museum on my way home for Christmas and took a bunch of pictures of their beautiful Greek pots. They have some stunning portrayals of the Judgement of Paris, which is my favourite myth.

As the deadline for a topic drew closer, we were told we had to start thinking of a question that involved original research. And I just couldn’t come up with a question for the Judgement of Paris. I was worried.

Then we had a class on the Athenian Agora. In particular, the artwork on the Hephaisteion. You see, this temple had a lot of sculptures of Theseus on it. Theseus, an Athenian king, represented as a hero to democratic Athens. The magic word? Propaganda.

I love the use of myth as propaganda. Last year, I wrote my favourite essay on heroic bone transfer as Spartan propaganda. Have I lost you yet…? Heroic bone transfer is a usually seen as part of a Greek hero cult. It involves finding the “bones” of a mythological hero (in the case of Sparta, most famously Orestes) and repatriating them to your city state in order to lay a claim on the power of that hero. In the case of the Spartans, it was their way to claim a connection to the heroes of the Trojan War, since the Spartans themselves weren’t autochthonous to the Peloponnese.

Right. So Theseus is used as democratic propaganda, even though he was a king. That’s too great to pass up.

In the end, this was my proposal:

Title: How does the change and increase in Theseus as the subject of paintings on Athenian pottery after the late 6th century BCE relate to the development of Athenian democracy?

Abstract: In the late 6th century there is a change in the portrayal of the Theseus myth on Athenian pottery. Most Theseus paintings prior to this period had focused on his slaying of the Minotaur. By the end of the 5th century, not only have representations of Theseus expanded to include a series of other events from his life, but he has also been firmly established as the national hero of Athens in a way that demonstrates close ties with democracy.

Even though in England they call this a dissertation, in North America is would be called a thesis. And so, I have started calling it my Theseus. Yes, I’m that cheesy.

The deeds of Theseus on an Attic red-figure vase, photo from the Beazley Archive

Mythology Mondays: Absolution of guilt

Today, pets, I bring you the last installment of the labours of Heracles. Don’t worry - Mythology Mondays will continue and I may even mention Heracles again (he had a lot more going on than just his labours.)

As mentioned last week, Heracles was originally only supposed to perform 10 labours, but Eurystheus, the man in charge of assigning these tasks, had disqualified two. That left Heracles with two more.

The elventh labour of Heracles was to retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were three minor goddesses of the sunset. They were the daughters of Atlas. Atlas was a Titan, one the generation of gods before the Olympians who had been overthrown by Zeus. Atlas’ punishment for his role in the battle was to spend eternity holding up the world.

The Hesperides themselves were charged with a special task - Hera had entrusted to them a tree which grew golden apples. The Apples were said to give immortality.

Now, we must remember that the reason that Heracles was performing these seemingly foolish tasks was to appease the Furies - creatures who tormented those guilty of blood crimes - for the accidental killing of his wife and children. The murders had been committed when Heracles had been driven mad by Hera. Hera despised Heracles for being yet another illegitimate offspring of her husband (and brother) Zeus.

Needless to say, stealing is not the best way to win over the affection of your jealous stepmother.

Nevertheless, Heracles was bound to perform the tasks set to him by Eurystheus, and he set off to find the garden of the Hesperides. Such wealth is always kept secret, and so Heracles’ journey was long. Along the way, Heracles ran into yet another monster, the giant Antaeus. Antaeus was the son of Gaia, the earth itself. He was invincible. So it seemed.

For once, Heracles figured this one out on his own. He discovered that Antaeus himself was not invincible, but that he drew his strength from his mother. And so, as long as he was touching the earth, he could not be defeated. Heracles walked right up to Antaeus, lifted him off the ground and crushed him to death in a bear hug.

Heracles continued his journey to find the Garden. He captured a shape shifting sea god, Nereus, and made him tell him the location of the Garden. It was deep in the Atlas mountains in Libya. The Apples were guarded not only by the goddesses, but also by a massive dragon. Heracles was growing wise to the ways of the gods, and he knew that while he might be able to defeat the dragon, he could not risk incurring the wrath of either the Hesperides or Hera herself.

Heracles had a solution. He traveled to the ends of the earth to find Atlas. The Titan, holding the world on his shoulders, could watch the comings and goings of life on its surface but never participate. Always boundaries and desires.*

Heracles offered Atlas a deal. He would hold the world for a while while Atlas went to fetch the Apples guarded by his daughters. Atlas, stiff in ways you can’t imagine from holding the world for Ages, readily agreed. Gently he slipped the world off of his shoulders and lowered it to Heracles. Heracles was the strongest man in the world, but he groaned under the weight of the world. Atlas stretched a bit, thanked Heracles, and went off to the Garden.

It wasn’t hard for Atlas to get the Apples. He merely walked into the Garden, hugged his daughters, took a few Apples and set off on his merry way. No one seemed to wonder who was holding the world.

Atlas took his time getting back through the mountains and travelling to the ends of the earth. Heracles shouldered the burden of Atlas’ meandering and waited impatiently for his return. Finally, Atlas returned. He looked at Heracles, sweat on his brow, his shoulders hunched with the weight of the world. And he decided he wasn’t quite ready to hold up the world yet. He asked Heracles if he might hold it for a while longer, and Atlas would deliver to the Apples to Eurystheus himself. Heracles wearily agreed, but he gave the Titan one condition. He was getting a blister, he said, from the weight. Would Atlas take the world back for a moment while Heracles arranged his cloak as padding? Atlas, who thought he had won himself a few more months of freedom, agreed and took the world from Heracles. Heracles bent and retrieved the Apples from the ground and walked away forever.


When Heracles returned to Eurystheus with the Apples, he was given his final task.

The Greek underworld, known as Hades, was guarded by the three-headed dog, Cerberus. Cerberus was mean as anything, meant to keep the live ones out and the dead ones in. Hades was a difficult place to get to for a living human. You had to find away down the river Styx (the dead would pay Charon for their passage, but he was not supposed to ferry the living,) past Cerberus and down into the depths of the land of the dead. But many people accomplish this in Greek mythology: Orpheus in search of Eurydice, Psyche to win back Eros, Aeneas to speak to the ghosts of the Trojan War.

Heracles was to capture the vicious Cerberus and bring him back to Eurystheus. This final task was meant to kill the hero, for even someone half immortal would have difficulty escaping the land of the dead.

With some assistance from his godly family members (most notably Athena and Hestia,) Heracles found his way down through the depths of the underworld, until he was standing in front of Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld. He asked his uncle (for Hades is Zeus’ brother) for permission to borrow Cerberus in order to complete his final labour. Hades agreed, as long as Heracles used no weapons against the dog.

Heracles went back up to Cerberus, grabbed him and threw him over his shoulder like he was just a puppy. He carried the dog back to Eurystheus. Eurystheus was so terrified of the dog that he jumped into a pithos (a large pottery storage container) and refused to come out until Heracles had returned Cerberus to Hades. In his fear, he finally agreed to accept the twelve labours and release Heracles from his penance.

Ancient Greek law was an eye for an eye. Justice was simple: if you killed, you paid the price. In this case, Heracles had to perform these 12 labours for his greatest enemy in order to balance out the accidental murder of his family. The ties of family and honour in Ancient Greece were strong. If a father was killed, his son was honour bound to avenge him. Thus Greek tragedy likes to focus on the what happens when these lines are blurred. What happens when mother kills father, like Agamemnon and Clytemnestra? Or when son kills father and causes the death of mother, like Oedipus? Heracles was honour bound to make his family’s murderer suffer, and therefore to self suffering. Justice may not be as simple as it seems. Only the Gods could absolve that sort of guilt.

In true heroic fashion, after killing a few monsters and gathering a few treasures, Heracles was able to walk away from his past, free of any further guilt or retribution. Free to wander Greece with more fame than ever, to sail the seas with Jason and the other Argonauts. Either unable to control his impulses or genuinely driven mad by Hera, Heracles repeats this pattern several times throughout his life - killing those who love him and serving penance for a few years. As one of Greece’s greatest heroes, was he really a “hero” or just a brute? Either way, when his mortal body died he was quickly deified and joined the ranks of his half siblings.

*from Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

Mythology Mondays: A hero’s welcome

Okay, I was doing so well at this blogging daily thing for awhile. But then Fable 2 got in the way. And episodes of Gossip Girl. But don’t worry, pets, I have posts planned out for the rest of the week!

Another Mythology Monday on a Tuesday but it’s technically still Monday as I type this so it counts. Right?

I’m going to put the next three of Heracles’ labours together because they were supposed to be his last. Originally the deal was that Heracles would perform ten labours of Eurystheus’ choosing and then be absolved of his guilt. But as you know, it’s the twelve labours of Heracles, not ten. Let me explain.

Labour number eight was similar to a number of the earlier ones: to round up the mares of Diomedes, the king of Thrace. The Mares were uncontrollable man-eating horses that belong to Diomedes (not the Trojan War hero, but the son of Ares.) Diomedes would feed the Mares unsuspecting passersby and travellers.

In Ancient Greek culture there is a principal called xenia - hospitality. It was the foundation of interstate and interpersonal relationships. Under the law of xenia a traveller was guaranteed safe passage and lodging at the homes along the way. In return, the traveller would provide a gift to his host and the subsequent generations of each family would have an alliance bonded by xenia. This was so important to the Greeks that xenia was protected by none other than the King of the Gods himself, Zeus. If a traveller’s right to xenia was violated, Zeus would be pissed. The Odyssey is the best example of xenia. Telemachus is hosted by Nestor and Menelaus. Xenia keeps Penelope from kicking out the suitors. Odysseus is rescued several times by the relationship between host and suppliant. Those who violate xenia are barbaric at best.

From the Greek word “xenia” we get our word genial, though the term is more often translated as “guest-friendship” since we have no equivalent idea in our culture (and a shame, too.)

Diomedes was breaking the rules of xenia by feeding visitors to his horses. Thus, Diomedes was as much a monster as the Mares.

Because of this, Heracles was bound as a hero to deliver justice. When he arrived in Thrace, he marched right up to the palace and took Diomedes prisoner. He dragged the king down to where the Mares were tethered to a bronze manger, and threw Diomedes into the manger. The Mares devoured him. When they were full, the Mares were far more subdued. This allowed Heracles to round them up and drive them back to show Eurystheus. They were dedicated to Hera and allowed to roam free in Argos. It’s mythologized that Bucephalus, the famous horse of Alexander the Great, is descendant from the Mares of Diomedes.

The ninth of Heracles’ labours was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons, who eventually married Theseus and bore him a son, Hippolytus. The girdle (a waist belt) was given to her by Ares and signified her as the Queen. Eurystheus wanted to give it to his daughter Admeda as a present. This is a case where Heracles’ brawn was a good thing. Hippolyta supposedly took one look at him and was so impressed by his physique that she gave up the girdle without a fight.

The tenth labour was to herd the cattle of Geryon. Geryon was the grandson of Medusa, a monster with one head and three bodies (opposite of the Hydra?) He had a two headed dog, Orthrus, the brother of Cerberus who guarded the gate to the underworld, and a herd of magnificent red cattle.

As soon as Heracles reached Erytheia, where Geryon lived, he was attacked by Orthrus. He killed the dog with one mighty blow of his club. Next, Geryon himself attacked, wearing three helmets and three shields and carrying three spears. Heracles shot him with an arrow covered with poisonous Hydra blood. The arrow pierced through all three helmets and came out the other side, such was Heracles’ strength.

All Heracles had left to do after that was to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus and happily move on with his life, having completed all ten seemingly impossible labours.

But when he returned to Eurystheus, the man had other plans. Eurystheus claimed that Heracles could not be absolved of his guilt because he had broken the rules on two of the labours. For the Hydra, Heracles had accepted the help of his cousin Iolaus when he was meant to complete all of the tasks on his own. For the Augean Stables, Heracles violated the rules in agreeing to accept payment from Augeas for the task.

And so, Heracles would have to do two more labours, possibly two of his most famous. And that, my pets, is a story for next Monday.

Mythology Mondays: Birds and Bull

Sorry for putting another Mythology Monday on a Tuesday, pets. My life has been occupied by watching horrible TV shows, but I’m done that now!

Back to Heracles and his labours (which, speaking of bad television I highly recommend the Hercules series with Kevin Sorbo if you ever want a good laugh!)

The sixth of Heracles’ labours was to drive away the Stymphalian Birds. The Birds were the pets of Ares, the god of war. They were horrid creatures, with wings made of brass and sharp feathers they could launch at their enemies. They had settled near Stymphalos and terrorized the locals.

Now, Heracles couldn’t kill the Birds, since they belonged to Ares. And if you thought angering Artemis was a bad idea, Ares was worse. Artemis had a history of turning men into stags but Ares had a history of turning men into pin cushions. Anyway, this pretty much rid Heracles of all of his usual options- strangling, beating and poisoning. So again, brutish rather than brainish, Heracles was in a predicament.

This time help came in the form of the goddess Athena. She brought Heracles a pair of krotala - sort of like really noisy castanets - made by Hephaestus. Heracles danced around, clattering loudly, to scare away the Birds. They took flight, startled either by the krotala or Heracles’ horrible dancing. Sometimes it says he shot them, other times he just shot at them. Whether he killed them or not is never really mentioned.

Capturing the Cretan Bull was Heracles’ next task. The bull is a major symbol for Crete and the Cretan Bull is a creature with a vast mythology of its own.

The Bull had been sent to Crete by Poseidon on King Minos’ promise that he would sacrifice whatever he was sent as a gift to Poseidon. When the Bull arose from the sea, Minos thought it was too beautiful and so kept it and sacrificed a different bull. Poseidon was outraged and took his revenge twofold. First he caused Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the Bull. Somehow, she was impregnated by the Bull, and gave birth to the Minotaur. The Minotaur was the monster of the Labyrinth, but that’s a story for another Monday. The second revenge was that Poseidon drove the Bull mad and had it wreak havoc in the streets of Crete. While Cretans were avid bull jumpers, they preferred to leave it to festival and sport and not on their way to the agora (Greek marketplace.)

So when Heracles arrive in Crete, King Minos was happy to let him take the Bull off his hands. Heracles walked right up and took the bull by the horns, literally. He strangled the thing into passivity and shipped it back to Eurystheus. Eurystheus let it escape and the Cretan Bull soon became the Marathonian Bull, later to be killed by Theseus.

Maybe after Heracles, I’ll continue my hero series and do Theseus, Jason and Odysseus. Maybe.

Mythology Mondays: A Truly Herculean Task

Labours numbers 4 and 5, the Erymantian Boar and the Augean Stables.

The story of the Erymantian Boar itself is not very interesting. Very similar to the labours set to Heracles before, he was to capture the boar, just as he had the Hind. The interesting part of the story is what happened before.

Heracles set out for Mount Erymanthos to complete his fourth labour. On the way, he stopped to visit his old friend Pholus, a centaur. They had dinner, and Heracles wanted some wine to wash it down with. Pholus only had one jar of wine - it had been given to him by Dionysus himself. Heracles convinced Pholus to open it. The smell of the superior win attracted the other nearby centaurs, who descended on the, took the wine, and began to drink. Centaurs, notoriously uncivilized in myth, didn’t know to mix the wine with water and quickly became drunk. They attacked Heracles, and he fought back with his arrows, which had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. The centaurs were quickly defeated.  Chiron, the wisest and most civilized of the centaurs, was hit with a poisonous arrow. He was immortal, but not immune to pain. He was in so much agony that he begged to be released of his immortality and promised, in exchange, to take Prometheus’ place, chained to the rock. Heracles brought Chiron to where Prometheus was chained, and the two switched places. Then Heracles shot the eagle with another poisonous eagle, so that Chiron wouldn’t have to suffer Prometheus’ torture.

In gratitude, Chiron told Heracles that to capture the Boar, he must drive it into a snow bank first. It worked and Heracles returned to Eurystheus with the Boar.

The next task set byEurystheus was to clean the Augean Stables.

Augeas , one of the Argonauts and the King of Elis, and had the single biggest herd of cattle in all of Greece. His stables had never been cleaned. Eurystheus was growing tired of the fame Heracles’ previous labours had won and wanted a way to degrade him. And so Heracles was to clean the biggest pile of shit in Greece in just one day.

Heracles, a hero and the son of a god, had likely never done any manual labour in his life. He was far better suited to swinging a sword than a shovel. He arrived in Elis, and stood in front of the mess that was Augeas’ stables. The cattle were a gift from a god, and thus immune to disease. But to enter the stables would probably be fatal to anyone else. Because of this, Heracles came up with a plan. Instead of cleaning the stables himself, he diverted two rivers to wash them clean. The task was done in less than a day, and Augeas was more than suprised. Thinking that the task was insurmountable, he had promised to give Heracles a tenth of his cattle if he completed it in one day. When Heracles finished, Augeas refused to honour the agreement and Heracles killed him.


herculean [her-kew-lee-an]

1. (of a task) requiring tremendous effort or strength
2. Of unusual size, power, or difficulty.
3. resembling Hercules, hero of classical myth, in strength or courage

For me the Augean Stables have always been the best measure of a herculean task. I imagine this as most insurmountable tasks, a huge pile of shit that you have no idea whether you’ll ever be able to clean. And you stand and stare at the mess and wonder how you’re going to make it to the end of the day. But often it’s not a matter of picking up a shovel, but of coming up with a new solution to the problem. When I’m faced with a truly difficult task, I often picture the stables in my head.