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Who Is Hercules?

The Basic Facts on this Major Greek Legendary Hero

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Hera Suckling the Baby Heracles. Apulian Red-Figure Squat Lekythos, c. 360-350, From Anzi.

Hera Suckling the Baby Heracles. Apulian Red-Figure Squat Lekythos, c. 360-350, From Anzi.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

If you already know who Hercules was and want to skip right to the lesser known material or the superhuman tasks he performed, see More You Should Know About Hercules or 12 Labors. In this article you'll learn the basic facts and a lot more, including some of the movies and plays that feature him.

A Possible Biography:

Why Hercules Was Immortal

There were many heroes who could claim Zeus, the king of the gods, as their father, but few were immortal. Hercules and his half-brother Dionysusp1 [the superscript p+ a digit means there is a pronunciation guide for the name at the bottom of this article] (Bacchus) claimed immortality as an accident at birth. Dionysus was immortal because, although conceived by the mortal woman Semelep2, he was actually born from the thigh of Zeus. Dionysus is, therefore, referred to as "twice-born." Hercules was born in a more normal manner, from a human woman. His final dose of immortality sprang from the Queen of the gods, Hera, whose milk he drank at birth.

Further Reading

How Hercules Made the Milky Way

Hera didn't know whose child she suckled -- just that its mother had abandoned her baby, but when the newborn sucked too hard, Hera threw him from her breast with a cosmic spurt of milk that created the Milky Way.

From nurturer she became enemy. When she learned the strong baby's identity, she sent snakes to strangle the infant Hercules and his hapless brother, Iphicles (I pronounce this like IF-ic-kleez). But Hercules only chortled as he strangled the snakes in his chubby baby fists.

The Name Hercules:

What Does Herculean Mean?

Hercules is portrayed as larger than life in most areas -- especially his physical prowess, his sexual appetites, and his relationship with death, which is why we have the word "herculean". In just one paragraph of Apollodorus, Hercules impregnates 50 sisters; diverting a river to wash out the Augean stables was the act of a day.

By the Renaissance, Hercules was an example of moral virtue. But he wasn't all noble. At times Hercules seems simply foolish. He also:

  • ravished virgins,
  • violated the rules of hospitality, and
  • murdered his own children.

It's small wonder that with all his variety he continues to fuel the imagination of dramatists.

Further Reading

Shouldn't It Be Heracles?

The name Heracles means "the Glory of Hera" somewhat ironically honoring the demigod's nemesis. The Roman name Hercules -- the one that is generally used in English to refer to either the Roman version of the demigod or the Greek -- is based on the Etruscan name Hercle. It's easy to see the path from Heracles to Hercle to Hercules.

Further Reading

His Enemies:

One Even Worse Than Hera

Hera drove Hercules mad (but see Epilepsy - The Disease of Hercules). In his altered state, he killed his family. In penance for the unforgivable acts he committed, he performed the 12 labors that Hera, again, instigated.

But Hera wasn't his only or deadliest enemy.

Hercules, who couldn't be defeated in combat, killed Nessusp3. He was a centaur -- that mythological half-human half-horse breed. Centaurs were varied in character, like everyone else. Nessus was very different from the kindly centaur, Chironp4, who trained most of the heroes in Greek mythology.

After trying to rape Hercules' new wife, he conned her into taking a deadly gift, his blood, poisoned when Hercules shot him. Nessus' blood had produced the weapon of Hercules' destruction.

Immortals don't usually die. Burning alive from Nessus' poisoned blood, Hercules begged his father to let him die and so end the pain.

Mercifully, Zeus intervened. See The Death and Apotheosis of Hercules.

Ironically, once Hercules was dead and resurrected, he and his step-mother were reconciled. Hera made him her son-in-law by bestowing her daughter Hebep5 in marriage.

At least that's one version of Hercules' life and death.

Ancient Sources on Hercules

Sifting through the conflicting information on Hercules is almost a herculean task in itself. His personality has been described as kaleidoscopic*.

Most of what we know about the mythic hero comes from:

The Library of (Pseudo-)Apollodorus**, but

  • Pausanias,
  • Tacitus, and
  • Plutarch

also wrote about him, and there were Ancient Historians, like Herodotus who wrote especially about a Hercules worshiped in Egypt.

There are artifacts depicting Hercules, and there were Greek and Roman Philosophers:

  • Plato,
  • Aristotle, and
  • Lucretius,

and literature from Greek and Roman Writers:

  • Vergil (Virgil),
  • Pindar, and
  • Homer,

as well as several plays, both comedy and tragedy, that refer to Hercules.

Online Greek Plays About Hercules

Hercules Movies

The following is a list of movies about him from The Internet Movie Database, Ltd., up to, but not including, the 1997 Disney Hercules film:

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995)
Hercules II (1985).
Conquest (1983)
Ercole al centro della terra (1961)
Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (1961)
Ercole contro Roma (1964)
Ercole e la regina di Lidia (1959)
Fatiche di Ercole, Le (1957)
Forbidden Zone (1980)
Hercules (1997)
Hercules and the Amazon Women (1994) (TV)
Hercules and the Circle of Fire (1994) (TV)
Hercules in New York (1970)
Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur (1994) (TV)
Hercules Returns (1983)
Hercules (1983)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Unholy Three, The (1925)

If you think of Hercules (in Greek, Herakles or Heracles) together with Autolycus, Iolaus, and Ares, your vision of Hercules is derived from Kevin Sorbo's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. While Sorbo-Herc and crew may have delighted 1990s audiences with their antics and strong morality, the ancient and very diverse stories of the hero shared little with Kevin Sorbo's Hercules beyond strength, strained relations with his stepmother, Hera, and an affinity with mythological monsters.

Haven't Had Enough Hercules?

Read More You Should Know About Hercules. In this article, you'll find information on the hero's:

  • Education
  • The Daughters of Thespius
  • Hercules and the Minyans
  • The Augean Stables
  • Hercules' Madness
  • Hercules' Fight With Apollo
  • Omphale
  • Deianeira - Hercules' Final Earthly Wife

Hercules Labors Resources

Other Hercules Resources

Notes

Pronunciation

p1 [dy-ə-NY-səs] I pronounce this like the following four English words, in succession: dye, oh, nigh, sis

p2 I pronounce this like SEM-ə-lee

p3 I pronounce this like NES-əss

p4 I pronounce this like KYE-ron

p5 I pronounce this like HE-be

Other Notes

*"Intertextuality as Irony: Heracles in Epic and in Sophocles," by Vayos Liapis. Greece and Rome, 2006, Vol. 53.1, pages 48-59.

**Apollodorus, a 2nd Century B.C. Greek scholar, wrote a Chronicles and On the Gods. It is thought that the Bibliotheca 'Library' was written a few centuries later, but the work is still referred to as the Library of Apollodorus or Pseudo-Apollodorus.

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