Book Review: Herakles

Herakles-Emma-Stafford-CoverHerakles (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World)
by Emma Stafford
Routledge, 2013
336 pages (Kindle)
Source: Personal Library


My first experience with Herakles or Hercules was as a boy in Sunday school reading about the biblical figure, Samson. (I was too young to understand that he was a philandering, arrogant, killing-machine.) He and Herakles have often been compared, as both kill lions with their hands and find their downfalls due to a woman. But scholars rarely opt for a one-on-one borrowing between their stories.

Emma Stafford’s Herakles (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World) caught my attention, however, not because of this childhood fascination, but because I was eager to see where the most-recent research left the mythic hero. Even at only 336 pages (with thorough notes), Stafford’s volume is research rich. She traverses the wide-spectrum of shifting cultural takes on Herakles and his legendary twelve labors.

Herakles is the quintessential Greek hero. In antiquity he featured in more stories and was represented more frequently in art than other hero or god – some ancient writers speculated that there must have been two, three, six, eight or even as many as forty–three heroes of the same name. His exploits took him all over Greece, to the furthest extents of the known world to east and west, and beyond this world to Hades and eventually to the home of the gods on Olympos.

Stafford provides a tour of this hero, enlightening the reader on the significance of cultural and regional changes to his story. From Herakles’s exploits artfully displayed on ancient pottery (there are illustrations and photographs) to comedies parodying the myth, Stafford provides an immersion into in all. She engages Herakles as a “founder” of cities, a flawed human, and as a worshiped being.

The final—and perhaps my favorite—chapter of Herakles takes a panoramic look at the reception of Herakles over the span of a couple thousand years, ranging from early Christian reactions to modern plays, television, and movies. “The ubiquity of Herakles/ Hercules in the Roman empire made it inevitable that early Christians would encounter him wherever they went, and the popularity of his cult made him at first a rival to Christ,” writes Stafford. “However, there are some obvious similarities between our hero and Christ – both gods born of mortal woman, who suffer, rid the earth of evil and overcome death – that provide scope for analogies to be drawn.”

In usual fashion, ancient Christians saw myth as resembling and foreshadowing Christ in some form. “When it is said that Herakles was strong, that he travelled the whole world, that he was born of Zeus and Alkmene, that after his death he was taken up to heaven,” says Justin Martyr, “do I not understand that this is an imitation of the Scripture which says about Christ that he runs his course as strong as a giant?”

Kevin-Sorbo-HerculesThis final chapter is a fitting one, possessing a Heraklean feast, exploring his appearances in art (“Lucas Cranach the Elder, for example, painted a series of Labours of Hercules“) to the popular TV series from the 1990s, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, featuring Kevin Sorbo, to Marvel’s Incredible Hercules series in 2008. As thorough as the chapter is, it is clear that the story of Herakles is never done being told; for example, The Legend of Hercules hits theaters in January of 2014 (see trailer below).

Reading Herakles will impress you not only with the pedigree that his legends have, but also the power behind his story. He is a figure connected to two worlds, one divine and one human, and that always speaks to human beings. Or as Stafford writes:

What is it, in the end, which has made Herakles such a long-lived and ubiquitous hero?…there are two fundamental factors underlying his enduring popularity. First, Herakles is the original flawed superhero, a type that has never ceased to fascinate western audiences…he is the reliable defender of civilization, but at the same time his excesses brings destruction on himself and others. These two sides to his character are in constant tension, but the balance between them is ultimately tipped towards the positive by the second factor: his apotheosis. In antiquity, those making sacrifice to Herakles the god would have been constantly aware of his mortal origins, and the stories about his weaknesses must have made him seem more approachable than the average Olympian – he was a model for the common man, who might ultimately hope to follow him into the company of the gods.

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