Hercules: World Traveller

Following Professor Llewelyn Morgan’s webinar for the LSA CA on 12th November, Classics Ambassador Liv S takes us on an around-the-world cultural voyage in the company of the many named, multi faceted and paradoxical hero Hercules.

For millennia, Hercules has been a familiar and popular mythical character, immediately recognisable whether in statues, on coins or vase paintings as a bearded, muscular, often nude figure bearing his olive wood club and Nemean lion skin. His life was never easy, right from the moment he grappled in his crib with snakes sent by a vengeful Hera, and he is, of course, best known for his Twelve Labours, performed as a penance for the murder (diminished responsibility/Hera again) of his wife and children. Through the Labours, he saved mankind from a swathe of monstrous creatures, combining supernatural strength with a little help from his divine friends; he even managed to endure the petty behaviour of the world’s most annoying cousin, Eurystheus, King of Tiryns.

And yet there is so much more to know about this mortal son of Zeus who would eventually earn his place amongst the gods on Mount Olympus. In an entertaining and erudite lecture to the Lytham St Annes Classical Association, Professor Llewelyn Morgan of Brasenose College, Oxford took us on a journey of discovery with Hercules, across thousands of miles, from the western Mediterranean to Greece, North Africa, and on to Afghanistan, Pakistan and central China, revealing how the idea of the vanquishing yet unifying Hercules aided both colonisation and trade in the ancient world and, how the image of this superhuman mortal transformed in unexpected ways as it moved from east to west.

There were of course many sites from the ancient world named after Hercules, with Herculaneum and the Pillars of Hercules overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar being the most obvious examples. Through a close reading of the ancient sources, and by concentrating our attention on the tenth Labour, the capture of the prize cattle of the three headed monster Geryon from the island of Erytheia, Professor Morgan showed us that if there was any hint that Hercules had visited a place on his journeys around the Mediterranean, the site became an instant tourist attraction in the ancient world. For example, Herodotus, despite complaining that the land of Scythia had little to recommend it, mentions with some excitement his visit to see a large footprint in a rock, thought to belong to Hercules. Similarly, the Greek historian, Diodorus writes of the town of Argyrium in Sicily where imprints within solid rock were supposedly left by the cattle of Geryon as the increasingly heavy (and god like) Hercules herded them back to Tiryns.

And as a world traveller and a figure who conquers difficulties at every turn, and in the process alleviates distress from the lands he visits, Hercules might be considered the acceptable face of colonisation. Again, according to Diodorus, after leaving Crete, Hercules arrived in Libya to wrestle and kill Antaeus – a monstrous half god – and through this initial act of violence, brought peace to the land, eradicating criminals, taming wild animals and allowing crops to flourish. The Libyan royalty thereafter claimed Hercules as their ancestor and his legacy endured.

Hercules was highly regarded in other corners of the ancient Mediterranean too, not least the Italian peninsula in which the city of Rome was just a small part. Hercules’ travels around Italy are well documented by Virgil in the Aeneid, in particular Book 8, where King Evander recounts to Aeneas and his fellow Trojans, the time when Hercules, once again in the company of Geryon’s cattle, rid Evander’s kingdom of the fire breathing giant Cacus.  In response to this deed, again an act of violence required to produce unity, Evander erected an altar to Hercules in the Forum Boarium (site of cattle trading) in Rome. To drive the point home, Evander completes his account of Cacus’ death by asking his listeners to raise a toast to the god who is “the god we all share” – Hercules, the deity who encourages integration and social stability. The parallels between Hercules and Augustus, as the latter strove to create his Pax Romana after vicious civil war could not be more obvious.

Overall, it seems that wherever Hercules was found within Italy, just as before around the western Mediterranean, those sites were linked together through a common identity, and where identity and ideas were connected, trade surely would follow. And so it was not surprising from what we had learned so far from Professor Morgan that the trades with which Hercules was most aligned was cattle herding and salt (the latter is needed by the animals on their long journeys). Along such trade routes, cult centres to Hercules were established throughout the Italian peninsula and reinforcement of Hercules’ popularity and influence was therefore easily achieved.

Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses seems to confirm the concept of Hercules as a trader at heart: upon observing that Nessus the centaur was about to abduct his wife, Hercules explodes with anger, not so much at the loss of a loved one, but more for the stealing of his “property” and for not “honouring the deposit”. Business came first for Hercules it seems.

It was not just the merchant class of the ancient world who felt a deep connection with Hercules. Hercules had a number of far more famous devotees, a notable one being Alexander the Great, who resolutely believed that he was a descendant of both Achilles and Hercules; this is supported by existing images of him bedecked in his lion skin headdress. According to his biographer Arrian, the ever-competitive Alexander not only emulated Hercules, but through military success and colonisation, tried to surpass him.        

Hannibal too cultivated an association with Hercules, with the image on some of his coins revealing a flowing Herculean beard. His recognition of Hercules’ strength and military success as well as his image as a heroic wanderer was no doubt a factor in his admiration, but the widespread belief that Hercules was considered the equivalent of Melqart, a deity of great importance in Carthage, is also a likely reason.

Yet Melqart was not the only deity synonymous with Hercules in the ancient world.  Professor Morgan revealed to us another artefact, a bronze statue found in the Mesopotamian city of Mesene, and probably my favourite of the talk, which suggests Hercules’ influence extended much further than the Mediterranean. On first glance, the Mesene sculpture ticks all of the boxes for a typical representation of our Greek hero. However, on closer inspection, two texts bearing the same message can be seen to be carved into Hercules’ muscular thighs – on the right, an inscription in Greek confirming the image as “Hercules, the God” but on the left thigh, a different language and name. The inscription on the left is Parthian, that of the rulers of what is now modern Iran, and the name is Verethragna. This warrior god fought constantly against the forces of evil and by placing his name on the same statue as Hercules suggests the Parthians considered them equivalent.

And as we moved further east in the steps of Alexander, Professor Morgan explained how the powerful image of Hercules persisted but now not quite as known before. In eastern Afghanistan, in a monastery complex in Hadda, Hercules experienced something of a metamorphosis. His beard and muscular torso were still in evidence but now a loin cloth preserved his modesty and his club was replaced by a Vajra (Sanskrit for thunderbolt). The Vajra was both an instrument of aggression and destruction in the hands of the Indian sky god Indra, but a symbol of peace when possessed by the Buddha. Hercules now became Vajrapani, the attendant and guardian of the Buddha, and keeper of a symbol of the balance between violence and peace. As we reached the outer limits of our lecture by Professor Morgan, this concept of a many sided and complex icon, both aggressive and unifying, seemed a fitting end to our travels with Hercules: cattle trader, coloniser, Buddhist bodyguard and world traveller.