In the Iliad (book 8 lines 360-9), Athena complains to Zeus about the number of times she spent saving Herakles from some disaster or other. In this posting, I am going to continue my exploration, begun in my previous posting, into rescuing this figure (mostly Hercules in what will follow). The rescuing in question will concern saving – perhaps liberating – the hero from the elitism that is so often invoked in postclassical receptions of classical mythology. I might even be moving between scholarship and activism in doing this: I have received some supportive feedback on the previous posting, including from Liz Hale, another member of the Our Mythical Childhood team, commenting that such an attempt at rescuing Hercules constitutes ‘not just pioneering work, but activism too.’
My previous posting concluded with the observation that another hero, Odysseus, can be rescued from any elitist associations. I then asked, ‘Can Hercules?.’ I continued: ‘In a sense, it is harder to rescue this particular hero. In another sense, it is significantly easier – so much so that even a representation in a room in a gentleman’s villa can be made accessible to a wide audience – a more diverse audience that those for whom it was created.’ Here I begin to attempt such a rescue.
The story of the reception of Hercules is very much the story of high culture and of elitism. Hercules has been the subject of many paintings, such as Caracci’s Ercoleguidato dalla Virtù, illustrated at the head of this posting. Episodes from the life of Hercules have figured in works of classical music. What is more, if we turn to the kinds of individuals who have received Hercules, the elitist associations appear compounded.
This is a tradition that has been evident over the centuries of postclassical reception – but it is a tendency that begins in antiquity, at least with Alexander the Great, as depicted on the coin illustrated here. It might, possibly, be traced further back, to the Athenian tyranny of the sixth century BCE. Alexander the Great did not just draw on imagery of Hercules: he actually dressed as the hero/god. So, too, did the Roman notables Mark Antony and, later, Commodus. Then, after antiquity, a series of leaders had themselves cast as a modern Hercules, including Charlemagne, Richelieu and Napoleon. In the twentieth century, this was continued with Mussolini. Moving into the current century, Vladimir Putin was represented performing the twelve labours of Hercules at an exhibition in Moscow in 2014.
This brings up to date a tendency that has been evident at least since the fourth century BCE. And what it points to is Hercules as one whose superhuman abilities raise him far above ordinary mortals. Hercules is one who can capture or kill monsters and who can carry out wonderful feats of strength. What is more – and this is something that might be suggested in the various examples of notable leaders representing themselves as Hercules – Hercules does not just possess a strength that exceeds that of ordinary people. Rather, it is where he gets this strength from that also places him above the rest of us, for it is god-given. And, what is more, gods intervene in his life – to aid him or to frustrate him. Athena, as noted earlier in this posting – and possibly intimated in Caracci’s Virtue – is one such deity. As Hercules carries out his adventures, he does so on a level that exceeds anything that can relates to the possibilities of ordinary mortals. By being equated with Hercules, the list of notables mentioned above are cast as superior to their country-people.
There were times when their audacity in casting themselves as Hercules was turned against them. For example, Mark Antony’s opponents engaged with Antony at his own game and likely outplayed him, by saying that Antony was indeed like Hercules, but rather than embodying his virtues what he showed were the flaws of the hero (reference in progress!). However, this only reinforces the elitism at play here: for Hercules is still being used as a model for a leader. It is just that, rather than being imbued with the qualities of good leadership, it is as a bad leader that the hero is being received.
Hercules, then, has been received as one superior to others. This has its roots in the classical past and it has continued through the ages and into our own age. However, it is possible to rescue the hero from his associations with leaders – good or bad – while, also, acknowledging that with his extraordinary qualities, Hercules is likely to remain a superior figure – a fantasy figure. This rescuing has been underway for some time and it is a rescuing that has been effected at least as well as that of Odysseus; indeed, the rescuing of Hercules is likely more advanced than that of Odysseus. For Hercules has been repeatedly received in popular culture. There have been several films of Hercules for instance and it isone of these, Disney's Hercules that has opened up the classical world to a new generation – so much so that, in my experience and that of some of my colleagues, it is that that is providing a pivotal moment for those who, as young adults, go on to study classical subjects at university.
Above all, there is a particular episode from the life of Hercules that has particular value in this regard. It is an episode that is at least as valuable in this respect as the episodes from the life of Odysseus that Grove and Park (see my previous posting) draw from. This is because, for all that Odysseus is read as an everyman figure, this particular Herculean episode has even greater appeal, one that can cut through class or gender. Hercules is, here an ‘everyman’ figure – and an ‘everyhuman’ or ‘everywoman’ as well. This appeal also extends beyond ability or disability.
It is this episode that will be at the centre of the first set of resources that I am developing, with a view to opening up classical myth to autistic users who may, in some cases, lack access to a traditional education.
This episode in question has kept cropping up over the past year or so on this blog – and so some readers might be very aware of what is coming next. But I’ll stop here all the same, and in the next posting I shall turn to this episode. In this next posting, I shall provide the fullest discussion of it to date on this blog.