Hercules – The Roman counterpart to Heracles

Hercules battles Achelous, metamorphosed into a serpent, 1824, by François Joseph Bosio. Louvre LL 325

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod and incredibly strong Heracles. He is the son of Jupiter (in Greece, Zeus) and the mortal Alcmene.

Generally regarded as a ‘divine hero,’ he was born a destroyer par excellence. Hercules vanquished two snakes while still in the cradle and as a boy killed a lion. This disturbed Juno (Hera in Greece) who summoned the Furies from the underworld to drive Hercules insane, which lead him to murder his wife and children.

To discover how to redeem himself, Hercules consulted the Delphic Oracle. In some versions of the myth, the Oracle instructs him to visit King Eurystheus. Because Hercules was so physically powerful, Eurystheus couldn’t think of any tasks too demanding for him. So Eurystheus consulted Juno on how best to redeem Hercules through physical penance.

Together,  Eurystheus and Juno conceived of Twelve Labors for Hercules to undergo in order to restore his good standing among the gods and mankind. However, in other versions of the myth, the Oracle itself prescribes the Twelve Labors.

Hercules and the Nemean lion in Villa Farnesin...
Hercules and the Nemean lion in Villa Farnesina ceiling, Rome

The Twelve Labors Hercules must complete are:

1 – Kill the Nemean Lion – He strangled it.

2 – Kill the nine-headed Hydra – This was difficult because two heads grew back for each one destroyed. Hercules burnt eight heads and threw one under a rock.

3 – Seize the Hind of Ceryneia – This was tricky because Ceryneia was Diana‘s pet deer. He pursued the deer for several months before succeeding

4 – Seize the Erymanthian Boar and bring it to King Eurystheus – “The Erymanthian Boar was a giant fear-inspiring creature of the wilds that lived on Mount Erymanthos, a mountain that was apparently once sacred to the Mistress of the Animals, for in classical times it remained the haunt of Artemis (Homer, Odyssey, VI.105).” ¹

5 – Cleanse the huge and filthy stables of King Augeas of Elis – Hercules succeeded by diverting a nearby river.

6 – Free the Stymphalian Lake of nasty birds that ate human beings – Not easy because they were vicious and had toxic dung.

7 – Capture the Cretan Bull – The bull had been wreaking havoc in Crete, destroying crops and orchards. Hercules captured and caged the beast with his bare hands.

Detail of Roman sculpture of seated Hades, sho...
Detail of Roman sculpture of seated Hades, showing Cerberus

8 – Capture the four beastly mares of the Thracian King Diomedes – These horses ate the flesh of human visitors and in some myths breathed fire

9 – Steal the magic girdle of the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta – This could have been non-violent but Hera stirred up trouble resulting in the death of the Amazon queen

10 – Capture the giant Geryon’s cattle – This story has many twists and turns. The Roman version has Hercules driving the cattle over the Aventine Hill at the future site of Rome.

11 – Obtain the famous Golden Apples of the Hesperides – This and the twelfth Labors were added after Eurystheus said some didn’t count because Hercules was paid and/or received some help.

12 – Capture Cerberus – Cerberus is a frightful three-headed dog and the guardian of the underworld ruled by Hades. Hercules had to bring him to daylight, which was no easy task because “Cerberus was the offspring of Echidna, a hybrid half-woman and half-serpent, and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant whom even the Olympian gods feared.”² And Cerberus’ job was to prevent people from escaping Hades via the river Styx, which was the link between Hades and the world of living mortals.

Herakles brings Eurystheus the Erymanthian boa...
Herakles brings Eurystheus the Erymanthian boar. Side A from an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 510 BC

The story of Hercules probably resonates with those curious about the mysterious realm of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. Jung, himself, said that delving into the collective unconscious could be wonderful and rewarding but also hideous and revolting.

An experiential downside of the journey into the collective unconscious – apart from running the risk of going mad – might involve the idea of spiritual impurity, especially with regard to the Fifth Labor, which involves a great deal of pollution.

The upside, according to Jung and other thinkers like Joseph Campbell, is personal transformation and newly acquired wisdom—providing of course one returns to ordinary life without compromising their sanity. Not everyone is so lucky, unfortunately. And some arguably become trapped in the “grip of the god” as one of my religion professors once put it.³

“The mythical Greek strongman gets a refreshingly human spin in Brett Ratner’s grandly scaled, solidly entertaining popcorn pic” – variety.com

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erymanthian_Boar (Quoted from 2011 version, the time of a previous revision)

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerberus (Quoted from 2011 version)

³ As opposed to having a healthy relationship with capital G, God. Sadly, I had another religion professor with gleaming eyeballs who seemed almost psychic but proved to be nothing more than a cheap, cowardly bully. And I would argue that this latter professor was at least partially gripped by some inferior supernatural power.


2 thoughts on “Hercules – The Roman counterpart to Heracles

    1. Looks like a cool film. At first I confused it with Jason an the Argonauts and that unforgettable skeleton fight.

      Herc apparently completed all his Labors, was wiped clean of his guilt, and gained immortality. 😊


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