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Myth Monday - Hercules the Giant-Killer

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Myth Monday - Hercules the Giant-Killer
Heracles fighting Alcyoneus

Boats cup, by the Leagros Group. Detail of the side B showing Heracles fighting Alcyoneus. Attic black-figured cup, c. 520 B.C. From Cerveteri.

PD Courtesy Bibi Saint-Pol

Although it is hard to pin down a definition of myths, one thing they're not is objectively factual. Thus, there are often conflicting versions and repeated elements. This week's Myth Monday, an episode from the career of Hercules/Heracles, is a case in point.

Hercules killed Alcyoneus, a giant and the son of Gaia (Mother Earth). We don't know when Hercules performed this boon to gods and men. Since this is myth, we are not talking about an actual date, but only in terms of the sequence of events in Greek myth and legend:

  • Creation comes before flood.

  • The Gigantomachy is a later, repeat performance of the battle known as Titanomachy that was fought before there were humans.

  • Hercules' first Labor comes before his Twelfth Labor.

  • Perseus comes before Hercules and the only really familiar, but actually second Trojan War comes after.

Gigantomachy vs Hercules' Labors

Hercules killed Alcyoneus either when the hero was returning from his 10th Labor for Eurystheus (the kinsman of Hercules who was also king and task master for the 12 Labors) (Pindar, Nemean Ode 4) or during the Gigantomachy. The Gigantomachy was the follow-up (or doublet) battle to the Titanomachy, fought between the gods of Mt. Olympus and their supporters on the one side and the giant children of Gaia on the other.

In the first version of the giganticide, Hercules kills Alcyoneus with his bow after the giant destroys 12 of Hercules' (probably his 1st Trojan War party's) four-horse chariots and the men in them. In the second -- the Gigantomachy version, Hercules kills Alcyoneus in battle.

The gods had been fighting the giants. Since both were immortal, this wasn't easy and epic battles have to go on and on. Inverting the customary idea of omnipotent gods and frail mortals, the Olympians could not kill their equivalent opponents without the help of one or two lesser beings. As you may be aware, some of the male gods, especially Zeus, spent a good deal of time philandering and so had fathered a host of children. Two of these were the sons of Alcmene and Semele. Hercules (and Dionysus) come to their father's (and aunts' and uncles') aid. Hercules tries in vain to kill Alcyoneus. He fails until Athena gives him a hint: Alcyoneus can not die in the land of his birth; he needs to be taken beyond the borders of Pallene. After dragging him away, Hercules has no further trouble. He kills Alcyoneus.

But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help. Hercules first shot Alcyoneus with an arrow, but when the giant fell on the ground he somewhat revived. However, at Athena's advice Hercules dragged him outside Pallene, and so the giant died.
Apollodorus on the Gigantomachy

Then the gods get their blows in against the other giants, and finally, they let Hercules perform a mopping up operation to make sure all their victims are actually dead. It is also said that the losing giants, being immortal were not really dead and so were later placed under the earth where they make mischief for humans by regularly causing earthquakes and volcanoes.

The other giants Zeus smote and destroyed with thunderbolts and all of them Hercules shot with arrows as they were dying.
Ibid.

Hercules uses a procedure similar to the one he successfully used in the Gigantomachy on Alcyoneus when he kills the son of Poseidon, the half giant Antaeus, but that is in a different and more familiar adventure. Antaeus' strength comes, not from his birthplace, but directly from his mother (Gaia). Hercules kills him by holding him aloft so he can not recharge.

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Originally posted as the August 24, 2009 Myth Monday

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel

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