Herakles, son of Zeus and Alcmene is perhaps one of the most popular deity of the Hellenistic and Imperial Period. In the Greco-Roman world his popularity was great that he was celebrated by all strata of society, from soldiers to merchants, from sailors to farmers, from plebeians to nobles. Temples and sanctuaries to Herakles dotted the landscape from far off Syria to the Rhine to Egypt all the way to Spain and Gaul, a testament to his popularity around the Mediterranean and in Europe. Syncretic associations and interpretatio of Herakles with various deities were common especially in Western Europe and in Syria.
Among the Greeks in Bactria and India his popularity is such that depictions of Herakles is one of the commonest nuministic finds from the ruins of the Hellenistic cities in the region. Indeed Herakles was so popular among the Indo-Greeks that when the Greeks transformed the depiction of the Buddha from an aniconic to a human depiction they often paired the Buddha with Herakles who was equated with Vajrapani, a popular Buddhist deity. In this role he is seen as being a defender not only of the Buddha, but also the defender of the Buddhist teachings and also defender of all Buddhists. Herakles was worshiped as the divine protector of mankind. Indeed it was in this role he was popularly honored in cult. He is seen as a God who having been a mortal man now in his divinity defends humanity.
Yet in my opinion what Herakles represents is equally as important as his role in cult as defender and protector of mankind.
Herakles in my opinion is the synthesis of a mortal man who not only fulfils his full potential. He is a mortal man who faces adversity with courage, who through trial and tribulation breaks through his own limitation and with this achieved excellence that is beyond expectation. His tremendous strength is merely an asset. Herakles is great not because of his amazing strength, but how he applied and used the assets he has to face adversity.
He is a mortal who is harangued and whipped on all sides by difficulty, by pain, by struggle, by humiliation, by injustice, by failure, by suffering, by everything that should in theory have broken him and reduce him to a weeping man. Yet instead of shirking and trying to hide from these he bravely faces it head on. Instead of letting the trials that Hera beset upon him shatter him or scar him he instead grapples them and uses each one to make himself stronger and better. From the Nemean lion he gathers a hide that would protect him from arrows, from the Lernaean hydra poison he can dip his arrows in, from the Ceryneian Hind he actually gains the friendship of Artemis. Each Labour that was set forth on him he faced it full on. He faced it in the manner of a Hero.
Yet Herakles struggle was not merely in the Labors and adventures he had. His life was beset with problems. His first marriage to Megara
saw him being compelled to a fit of psychological madness which saw the destruction of his most beloved family. Instead of hiding in a cave to hide from what he had done Herakles faced up to it. He sought ways to atone for this and because of this he was made to perform the
Twelve Labors. His relationship with Deainira who he deeply loved was even at the start rocky, having to first win her from the river God
Achelous. Not long after their relationship started he had to save her from the rape of Nessus. The personal life of Herakles is anything but smooth sailing. Despite this he still lead a noble life, not letting his personal problems get in the way of his duty.
Herakles also used his skills, his strength, his labours and adventures not only for himself. He uses them as well to benefit and ensure the security of the society and people around him. He first and foremost dealt with threats to human society from outside. He was the slayer monsters that were most pernicious and a constant threat to human society. By dealing with this threat from without human society would be safe. He however also dealt with humans who were becoming a danger and threat to other humans. He dealt with the terribly wicked robber Termerus who until being slained by Herakles had a tendency to rob and murder people in the most wanton manner. Lityerses who challenges people to harvest contest than later killed them was stopped from doing further harm by Herakles. He also uses his might to right injustice. When Hippoccon of Sparta was overthrown in an illegal and unjust manner by his brother Tyndaereus Herakles sided with Hippoccon and righted the wrong. Thus Herakles did things for the betterment and for the welfare of those around him.
Herakles shows the potential of arête, which can translate to “goodness”, “virtue” and “excellence” within all man. It is through arête that man becomes a Hero. Even though Herakles may have been fathered by Zeus Herakles shared more characteristic common to all of us than he did with the Gods.
He was mortal. Even though he was very strong he could still be hurt, both physically and psychologically. He hungered and panged, he worried, he feels shame, he suffered, he experience poverty, he has setback. He knows failure and he knows grief. He has very human
problems that everyone of us faces. In fact his problems are far more than normal. One can speculate that he also knows envy at the start.
Whilst his siblings roamed Olympus and governed the Universe here was he, a mere mortal walking on two feet being made to be slave to his
Yet every time and at every step of his life when given a choice between running away from a problem and seeking pleasure versus confronting a problem and solving it and thus taking the harder route, Herakles chose the latter. In the choice of Herakles he chose Virtue over Pleasure, Duty over Debauchery.
Ultimately it is not only the physical strength of Herakles that made him become a Hero, nor is the fact that he is the son of Zeus that made him a God. There are many strong individuals in Greek myth, not everyone was seen as a Hero. Zeus has many sons yet only a handful who were born mortal ever became a God of Olympus.
What made Herakles great is his choice. He chose to follow the path of Arete, the difficult path, the thorny path, the path towards excellence and of virtue. He faced challenges as a Hero would. He never shirks his duty, he never runs away from a problem. He confronts it, he addresses it. Courage is not that one is without fear when facing a problem. Rather courage is that one faces the problem despite the fear. Herakles does not lift up his hands and scream to Olympus, “Why me?” Rather he after studying the issue deals with in the best manner possible. Herakles made the best use of what circumstances threw at him by choosing to face circumstances through arête
The choice that Herakles made is a choice that all of us can make. Herakles did not make the choice of a God. All of the stories of Herakles are when he was a mere mortal. He made the choice any mortal at any point in their life when faced with a challenge can make. Do you wish to take the path towards arête, or do you wish to run away from a problem? Do you choose to be as a Hero, for only mortals can become Heroes, or do you choose to be a victim of circumstances?
Herakles is a Hero to Heroes, and a God to Men. He shows us the potential that lies latent within each and every one of us. It is no wonder that his myth remains so popular nearly three millenniums later, for it serves to remind us of the Hero within each one of us. It cries out to us to strive for excellence, for virtue, for courage and for goodness. It calls for man to become Heroes.