H is for Hercules: 5 Facts about the Hero for #MuseumWeek
In the A-Z of mythology, there is no doubt that H is for Hercules. His legacy even outdoes that of his vengeful step-mother, Hera, who famously makes his life difficult from birth. In The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300–1990s (1993), the list of representations of Hercules far outweighs any other character from Greek and Roman mythology, at 45 pages long.
This week, we’re taking part in #MuseumWeek: The first worldwide cultural festival on social networks to celebrate art, culture and #togetherness. 7 days, 7 themes, 7 hashtags. May 11th has been devoted to heroes (search #heroesMW to see contributions) — the real or the mythical; the celebrated or the unsung. So we’re shining a superfluous spotlight on Hercules.
What is a ‘hero’? The Oxford dictionary definition is “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
How does our own definition of a ‘hero’ compare with an ancient Greek hero? An ancient Roman hero? A Renaissance hero? A Disney hero?
Hercules is a ‘hero’ who has traversed all these periods. The myths and iconography of the Greek “Heracles” were adopted and reworked under the Romanised “Hercules”. Heracles was a favourite subject for Etruscan art. According to legend, he drained a swamp near Fiesole, making it inhabitable. Hercules underwent a Christian baptism of sorts, during the Middle Ages, when his labours began to be read symbolically as representations or allegories of virtue overcoming vice.
During our Classics Abroad course in Florence, we look a little closer at depictions of Hercules in the “Hercules Room” at Palazzo Pitti. There is also plenty of material online for those interested in the reception of Hercules in Renaissance Florence, or you can contact us for a reading list. There is, of course, not one coherent Hercules ‘myth’ but rather a gigantic tapestry, that has been weaved together by various authors, places and times to fit their own contexts and beliefs. But for now, here are 5 facts about the hero Hercules drawn out from this web for our contribution to #heroesMW.
1. Hercules has a sadly overshadowed half-twin brother.
Hercules and Iphicles shared the same mortal mother, but different fathers. Iphicles was the son of Alcmene’s real, mortal husband whereas Hercules was fathered by Zeus/Jupiter — who tricked Alcmene in disguise as her husband.
2. Hercules strangles two snakes as a child, sent by Zeus’ wife Hera to kill him.
Therefore next time you spot a statue or painting of a child with a snake in either hand, you’ll know who it is.
3. Hercules was one of the ‘Argonauts’ on Jason’s voyage for the Golden Fleece.
The only female hero on the voyage, according to some sources, was Atlanta. For an entertaining read, Hercules is not portrayed as the sharpest tool in the box in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (3rd century BC).
4. The legend of Hercules was long used as a way of celebrating the ruling elite.
From the Roman emperors (in particular, Commodus on the left) to the Medici and Grand Dukes of Tuscany via the frescoes that lined their palaces. The painting on the right was commissioned by Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, for Palazzo Pitti — his power base for some time.
5. In this famous statue, Hercules is holding the apples of the Hesperides behind his back (marking the end of his 11th labour).
The Garden of the Hesperides was Hera’s orchard in a far-flung place where a single tree (or a grove) produced golden apples. The Hesperides (“daughters of the evening”) were given the task of guarding the grove. Hercules managed to trick Atlas — who was father to the Hesperides according to some sources — into retrieving some of the apples, by offering to hold up the heavens while he did it.