Herakles was probably the greatest hero of the Classical world, and was known and loved by people all over the ancient world. The Greeks called him Herakles, Hercules is the Roman version of his name. Herakles means 'Glory of Hera', although Hera, who was his stepmother, hated him.

Alcmene, Herakles mother, was married to Amphitryon, but she refused to lay with him unless he avenged the death of her eight brothers who had been killed in battle, so Amphitryon duly went off to fight a war and killed those responsible for the deaths of Alcmene's brothers. Meanwhile, however, Zeus had his eye on Alcmene. As well as being beautiful, she was strong and intelligent, and had courage and integrity. One of Zeus favourite hobbies was the seduction of mortal women, but with Alcmene he thought he could father a truly great hero, so he took a lot of care - much more than usual - in having his way with her.

He disguised himself as Amphitryon, and came to Alcmene with the story of how he had avenged her brothers. They went to bed together, and Zeus made the night last for three days (which really annoyed the other gods). The next day Amphitryon turned up, and proceeded to tell Alcmene of how he had destroyed her brother's killers, but she said he'd already told her all about that, and he'd also kept her awake all the previous night and tired her out. Amphitryon spent the night with her, but the next day he went to see Tiresias, a renowned wise man. Tiresias told him that Alcmene had been claimed by Zeus, so Amphitryon never slept with her again, in case Zeus got angry and destroyed them all.

When Herakles was born, he had a twin brother, Iphikles. Herakles was the son of Zeus, and Iphikles was the son of Amphitryon. Zeus boasted to Hera that he had fathered a son who was to be a great hero, and Hera got very jealous, so she sent two serpents to kill Heracles. Heracles and Iphikles were asleep in the cradle that Amphitryon had made out of a big bronze shield he'd taken as booty in the war he'd fought. When the serpents slithered into the cradle Iphikles screamed and fell out, but Heracles grabbed the serpents by their necks and strangled them. When Amphitryon came into their room to see what the noise was all about, he found the baby Herakles gurgling happily, and clutching a dead serpent in each hand.

Amphitryon and Alcmene did their best to ensure that Herakles had the best possible education. He learnt how to drive a chariot, use a sword and other weapons, box, use a bow, sing, play the lyre, and he was also trained in astronomy and philosophy. Herakles did well in all these, so don't think of him as just someone who was physically strong - he had brains too, and more importantly, knew how to use them

Amphitryon and Alcmene must have been incredible people. Zeus' attraction to Alcmene was not just his usual lust for a beautiful maiden, but a recognition that here was an exceptional woman who had all the qualities of a woman who was capable of bearing a hero; in other words she was pretty much of a heroine herself. Amphitryon acted like a perfect husband and father, doing everything that he could for Alcmene and Herakles, despite his knowledge that his wife had been stolen by Zeus, and Herakles was not his true son. The legends don't pick Amphitryon and Alcmene out for any special praise, but I think they deserve it.

Anyway, Herakles got into a spot of trouble while he was growing up – he actually killed a man, but in the subsequent court case it was accepted that it was in self-defence. Amphitryon sent him off to a cattle farm to keep him out of further trouble, and here he finished his schooling and grew tall and strong.

Herakles' height is usually given as four cubits. A cubit is the measurement from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow, and can be anywhere between 43 and 56cm. Actually, the lower measurement would mean that Herakles was by no means a big man, and, indeed, some sources say that he was of normal stature, but he is usually portrayed as being physically huge. Pythagoras measured the Olympian stadium which Herakles had stepped out, then compared it to other stadia, and reasoned that Herakles' stature must have been in the same ratio to the stride and stature of other men as the length of the Olympian stadium is to that of other stadia. This calculation made him four cubits and one foot.

When he was eighteen, Herakles heard that a lion (the lion of Cithaeron)was creating havoc with the herds of Amphitryon and his neighbour, King Thespius. Herakles left the cattle ranch and stayed at Thespiae while he hunted the lion. Now King Thespius had fifty daughters, and he decided that Herakles was such a fine chap that he would like each of his daughters to have a child by him. So he said to Herakles 'While you are staying with us my eldest daughter will share your bed' (actually, a lot of primitive cultures have customs like this, it was seen as a form of hospitality to the stranger and it was certainly a very practical way of increasing the gene-pool when travel was limited, and in-breeding was the norm). Crafty old Thespius sent a different daughter to Herakles every night, however. The stories don't say whether Herakles caught on; he probably did, he was very intelligent, remember, but he was a young man, and young men don't often complain in these sort of circumstances! As a result Thespius' daughters had fifty-one sons, all fathered by Herakles. Fifty-one because the eldest and youngest daughters had twins, and one daughter refused to comply with her father's wishes; she eventually started a tradition of virgin priestesses in Thespiae.

During the day Herakles chased the lion, and eventually tracked it to its lair on Mount Helicon. He uprooted a wild olive tree and used it to kill the lion, then he skinned it and wore the lion-skin as a robe, with its head and gaping jaws as a helmet.

I'm now going to go back some years before Herakles killed the Lion of Cithaeron. At a festival at Onchestus the Minyan King Clymenus was mortally wounded by a stone thrown at him by one of the Theban charioteers (the Thebans had been upset by some small incident - people were just as stupid in the Bronze Age as they are now!). He asked his sons to avenge him, and they defeated the Thebans in battle. The Thebans had to sign a treaty to pay Erginus (Clymenus's eldest son) one hundred cattle per year for twenty years in recompense for Clymenus's death.

Back to the present, or Herakles' present, anyway, and as he returned from Helicon he met up with the Minyan heralds on their way to collect the Theban tribute. Herakles had been brought up as a gentleman, and the criteria for a gentleman in ancient Greece were not too different from what they are now. Herakles had been brought up to be modest in victory, and he found the cocky manner of the heralds very irritating. When he asked what their business was they replied that they were going to remind the Thebans of Erginus's clemency in not cutting off the ears, nose and hands of every man in the city. This made Herakles very angry 'Do you think that is any way to treat people' he cried 'see how you like it!', and he maimed them in just the way they had described and sent them back to Erginus. (He must have been in a very bad mood that day - he wasn't normally cruel).

Erginus was hopping mad! He sent off a messenger to the Thebans demanding that they hand over Herakles! King Creon of Thebes was in a bad position; he had no army or weapons to defend his city, and his neighbours would probably not help - after all; Herakles had done violence to heralds, whose persons were supposed to be sacrosanct.

Herakles felt bad about putting the Thebans in such an awkward position, so he got his young friends to go around all the temples in the city and they collected all the spears, swords, shields, breastplates and helmets which had been dedicated there in the past as offerings. Athene was impressed at their bravery and resolution, and came to earth to gird the armour on them with her own hands. Herakles in this way armed every Theban of fighting age, taught them how to use their weapons, and took command.

An oracle predicted that the Thebans would be victorious if the noblest-born person in Thebes took his own life, so everyone looked at Antipoenus, who was a descendant of the Sown Men, but Antipoenus looked the other way (proving, I suppose, that noble birth does not automatically mean that noble actions will follow - not everyone can be a hero!). His daughters, however, were made of sterner stuff than their father - they consented to die in his stead, and were honoured ever afterwards as heroines of Artemis.

The Minyan army attacked, but Herakles and his makeshift army ambushed them in a narrow pass, and killed Erginus and most of his officers. Herakles immobilised the Minyan chariots by blocking tunnels through which the river Cephissus emptied into the sea, thereby flooding the plain so the chariots could not move. This forced the war into the hills, where the Thebans could fight on equal terms, they then swooped down on Orchomenus, the Minyan city, where they battered down the gates, stormed the palace and forced the Minyans to pay tribute to Thebes instead! Unfortunately, during this campaign Amphitryon, Herakles foster-father, was killed in the fighting.

On his return to Thebes, Herakles dedicated altars to Zeus and Artemis, and two statues to Athene the Girder-on-of-Arms. As the gods had not punished Herakles for his mistreatment of the Minyan heralds (which showed that they approved of his action), the Thebans erected a statue to him, and called it Herakles the Nose-docker.

After his (almost single-handed) defeat of the mighty Minyan army, Herakles was famous, and King Creon rewarded him by giving him the hand of Megara, his eldest daughter, in marriage, while Iphikles (remember him – Herakles twin - he must have been with Herakles during the fighting) got the hand of Creon's youngest daughter. Herakles was also made Protector of Thebes.

The last exploit of Herakles' early years was when the Euboeans, under King Pyraechmus, who was an ally of the Minyans, marched on Thebes. Herakles and the (now well-armed) Thebans vanquished this army easily.

Herakles and Megara lived happily together, and had many children. . ..... but they didn't live happily ever after - Hera was angry!


NEXT: Herakles - The Labours - click here

Gilded bronze statue of Hercules found near the Theatre of Pompey in Rome



Herakles' name

Herakles was originally called Alkides after his grandfather Alkeus, meaning strength or glory. He took the name Herakles on advice from the Delphic oracle after killing his children and his wife, Megara.

The Latin name, Hercules, was not directly derived from the Greek Herakles, but is a modified version of the Etruscan name 'Hercle' (which was derived from the Greek, but lost a vowel on the way)

Herakles' Teachers

Some of Herakles' teachers were: Amphitryon – chariot driving, Autolycus – boxing, Castor – art of riding horses in battle, Cheiron – (centaur) politics, manners, and wisdom, Eumolpus – playing the lyre and singing, Eurytus – archery


Herakles down on the farm 

Amphitryon sent Herakles to a cattle farm, but you mustn't think in terms of Herakles being banished from the big city to the country shack. The city may have had more people, but in modern terms it would hardly have qualified as a village, and the cattle ranch would have probably been just as much of a social and intellectual centre.


Herakles' weapons

Herakles favourite weapons were his club and his bow, which may make him sound primitive, but Bronze Age swords were easily bent or broken, and also got blunt very quickly. They were more of a status symbol than a practical weapon. Swords did not really come into their own as a weapon to use in battle until the Iron Age. The preferred weapon until then was the spear – which wasn't easy to use at close quarters.

Herakles strength made his club greatly superior to the bronze swords that most others were using - it didn't bend or break easily, and he certainly didn't have to worry about it getting blunt! His use of the bow was different too. Bows in the Bronze Age were not very powerful, and didn't have much range. This was because the bow itself was quite short, and the string was only pulled back to the chest. Herakles was taught to shoot the bow by one of Amphitryon's herdsmen, a man called Teutarus, who just happened to be a Scythian. Now the Scythians were the archers of the Ancient World; they used a composite bow (made of layers of wood and bone glued together) which was much more powerful than usual, and they pulled the string back to the ear, which made it much more accurate and gave a longer reach. Herakles learnt to use a Scythian bow, which was much better than a spear for missile combat. The point I am making is that Herakles choice of weapons only seems primitive to us moderns; in the Bronze Age they were the best weapons possible for a man who was strong enough to use them. Incidentally, the bow didn't get any better until the Middle Ages and the English Longbow (which was actually the Welsh Longbow) that won the Battle of Agincourt.Minyans and Achaeans

Minyans were the original inhabitants of Greece; they were a matriarchal culture, who worshipped the goddess in various aspects. Greece was invaded by the Achaeans, nomadic tribes from the Northern steppes, whose totem animal was the horse. They were a patriarchal culture. The Greek myths are mostly from the Bronze-Age culture formed by the meeting of these two peoples.

Minyan horses were small, and could not be ridden by a full-grown man, especially not when he was wearing armour. For this reason the Minyans used chariots in battle (The Britons who fought against the invading Romans used chariots instead of cavalry for the same reason). The Achaean horses were more like our modern horse, and could be used as cavalry

The Sown Men 

Kadmos had killed the Dragon of Ares, and on the advice of the goddess Athene he ploughed the soil and sowed it with the dragon's teeth. After a while a crop of armed men grew from the soil, and proceeded to attack each other. there were five survivors, all mighty warriors, these were known as the Spartoi or 'Sown Men'. Many Theban families claimed them as ancestors.




Herakles sacrificing

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