I recently submitted this essay as part of an assignment in my Classical Mythology class. We were told to analyze a myth as it related to Greek culture. Here’s what I came up with:
This essay will analyze the Heracles myth and how the cultural and philosophical beliefs of the ancient Greeks are represented in the character of Heracles and his story.
Three aspects of the Heracles myth standout in their representation of Greek attitude and culture: First, that women are schemers,who when angered or wronged will commit to treachery; that men of strength, power and heroic deeds are possessed of an insatiable libido and a sometimes unconquerable temper; and finally, that mankind–no matter his own strengths and relations to the gods– are subject to the gods’ whims, which ultimately lead to his pain and demise.
In the beginning of the Heracles tale, we see glimpses of how the ancient Greeks viewed women. Born from one of Zeus’ many indiscretions, Hercules draws the ire of Hera, his stepmother, whose burning jealousy leads her to torture Heracles his whole life. Even as a sweet child Heracles could not find safety from Hera’s wrath. The goddess dispatched two serpents to strangle the godling in his bed, but he throttled the snakes, playing with their dead bodies in his innocence. We can of course see many instances of the Greek suspicion of the feminine in other myths; Pandora immedately comes to mind. But the whole Heracles myth stands against the background of womanly treachery and bitterness.
The anger that serves Heracles so well in his battles against legendary beasts also leads to many pains. He kills his music tutor in a fit of rage and is sent to tend seep in the hills. Hera, possibly seizing upon the natural inclinations of Heracles, drives him mad; he kills his children as a result and thus dooms himself to his famous twelve labors. We can see that for all his physical powers, for all his attempts at rectifying his own deeds, even then the gods tamper with his future. Hera meddles with the Oracle at Delphi, who proclaims that Heracles must perform his labors.
Yet again driven mad by Hera, Heracles tosses Iphitis over a city wall to his death. It would be three more years of servitude for Heracles… Forced to serve Queen Omphale, Heracles takes on the role of woman. He wears women’s clothing and does what is considered women’s work. Omphale on the other hand, wears the skin of the Nemean Lion and carries Heracles’ cub, both symbols of manly power. We see plainly that the ancient Greeks viewed a woman’s work as degrading and a punishment if done by men. Also, that men are to be in charge of things, thus Omphale’s donning of manly garb gives her authority and mocks Heracles.
Heracles prodigious libido is evident throughout the tale. For one, Heracles married four times. His uncontrollable anger, Hera’s jealousy and Heracles’ sex drive conspire to deny him marital bliss. In one portion of the myth, King Thespius asks Heracles to kill the Lion of Cithaeron, and in return Heracles will be allowed to make love to all fifty of Thespius’ daughters. Heracles does the impossible; he impregnates all fifty women and they all bare him sons. To the ancient Greeks, heroic masculinity and a powerful sex drive were one and the same. This sex drive is also considered a curse by the Greeks. While travelling with his third wife, Deianira, they came across a river. The centaur Nessus helped Deianira cross the river, but then tried to rape her. Heracles shot Nessus with an arrow laced with the acid blood of the slain Hydra. As Nessus lay dying in agony, he told Deianira to mingle his blood and semen to create a potion that would ensure Heracles’ fidelity. Now, Deianira knew of Heracles’ heritage as the son of Zeus, known for his many affairs. She makes the potion and later has her servant cover Heracles’ clothing with it. She does not know that it contains the deadly Hydra blood. Heracles’ flesh tears form his bones when he tries to remove his virulent clothing. He dies and his body is burned on a pyre, stripping away his humanity and leaving the remaining side of his dual nature–his god-hood–to climb Mt. Olympus to reside with the immortals.
So, I have discussed the Greek views on women–that they use wile in place of physical strength, and that they are jealous and conniving–, that the Greeks believed that heroic masculinity could not be separated from virility, and that regardless of mens’ intentions or strength, the gods will meddle and in the end triumph.