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Heracles is the most famous of all Greek heroes, the Dorian hero par excellence.
He was born in Thebes, the son of Zeus and Alcmene,
Amphitryon's wife, and the twin
brother of Iphicles, while his mortal parents were in exile from Argolis, their
true homeland (for the story of his birth, see the section on Amphitryon
in the entry on Mycenæ). Amphitryon,
his "mortal" father, was a grand-son of Perseus,
the legendary founder of Mycenæ, and
Alcmene, his mother, was Amphitryon's cousin, herself a grand-daughter of Perseus.
Because of Hera's jealousy of Alcmene
and a careless pledge of Zeus, even before his birth, Heracles was deprived
of the kingdom of Mycenæ in favor of
his father's cousin Eurystheus,
yet another grand-son of Perseus, who
later subjected hims to his famous labors.
The legends relating to Heracles are so many that it is impossible to quote them all here. While a baby, he managed to suck the breast of Hera in order to acquire immortality, despite her hatred for him. When he and his twin brother were still toddlers, one night they were asleep, Hera introduced two monstruous snakes in their room. While Iphicles started to cry as soon as he saw the snakes, Heracles seized one in each hand and suffocated them. This is how Amphitryon found out which one was his son and which Zeus'.
Heracles grew to gigantic proportions and soon started to undertake wondrous deeds. The first of them, the killing of the lion of Cithæron (a mountain of Boeotia), took place when he was 18. Heracles underook the hunt at the request of Thespius, a son of Erechtheus, the king of Athens, himself king of the nearby city of Thespiæ he had founded in Boeotia. Thespius had fifty daughters and wanted grand-children from Heracles ; so, while the hunt lasted and Heracles was his host, he managed to have each one of his daughters spend one night with him. Heracles would leave in the morning to run after the lion and come back exhausted in the evening, so that he didn't see the change taking place each night. But the end result is that the hunt lasted fifty days before he eventually killed the lion, and all fifty daughters of Thespius had a son from him (most of these sons of Heracles were later sent by him as settlers in Sardinia).
During a war he waged, and won, against the king of Orchomenus (a city of northern Boeotia) to free Thebes from having to pay him a tribute, his father Amphitryon was killed while fighting on his side. As a reward for freeing Thebes, Creon gave his daughter Megara and her younger sister as wives to Heracles and Iphicles (the later had already been married and, from his first wife, had a son, Iolaus, who was to become the companion of Heracles in all his labors, and the driver of his chariot (Socrates refers to the relationship between Heracles and Iolaus at the beginning of his discussion with Phædo on mysology in the middle of the dialogue that bears his name, Phædo, 89c)). From Megara, Heracles had several children, but, one day, rendered temporariry mad by Hera, he killed them all (A somewhat different version of this story is the basis of Euripides' drama Heracles) After that, he could no longer live with Megara and gave her as wife to his nephew Iolaus. One explanation of his labors is that, following this crime, he went to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and was ordered to subject himself to his cousin Eurystheus for 12 years and that he would win immortality as a result. Other simply say that he wanted to return to Argos and the labors were the condition set by Eurystheus for his return. Either way, Hera was in the background.
Of his twelve labors, the first six took place in Peloponnese, and the last six in all parts of the world. They are :
The last episode of Heracles' life, leading to his death and apotheosis, deals
with his love for Deiareina and is in large part
known to us through Sophocles' drama, the Trachiniæ
(the name of the inhabitants of the city of Trachis
in which the drama took place and whose women form the chorus of the play).
Deiareina was the daughter of Oeneus, king of Pleuron
and Calydon in Ætolia, on the northern
shore of the gulf of Corinth. When Heracles
descended to Hades in search of Cerberus, he met her brother Meleagrus,
who had been killed in a fight between residents of Pleuron and Calydon in the
aftermath of the hunt for the boar of Calydon,
and who asked him to marry his sister that he had left without protection. Back
on earth, Heracles went to Calydon, where he had to fight and kill the river-god
Achelous, who was courting Deiareina at the time, before being given her as
his wife. Heracles stayed for a while in Calydon, where Deiareina gave birth
to Hyllus, the firstborn of several sons. When they finally left Calydon, on
their way, Heracles and Deiareina met the Centaur Nessus who helped them cross
a river. But, while he was carrying Deiareina across the river, he tried to
rape her and was killed by a arrow of Heracles. Before dying, he had time to
tell Deiareina that she should keep his blood as a love philter in case some
day Heracles no longer loved her.
Heracles and Deiareina settled at the court of king Ceyx in Trachis. Once, Heracles took up a challenge set by Eurytus, king of Oechalia (a city of nearby northern Euboea or, according to other traditions, of Arcadia, or Messenia). Eurytus, who was an outstanding archer (his bow was later offered by his son Iphitus to Ulysses and it is the one he used to kill the suitors of his wife Penelope after his return home), had promised to give his daughter Iole for wife to whomever would beat him at the bow. Heracles did beat him, but Eurytus and his sons, except Iphitus, refused to let Iole marry him. Yet, for some unclear reason (explanations vary depending on the sources), Heracles later killed Iphitus. So, he went to Delphi to ask the Pythoness what to do to get cleansed from this murder. There, he had to fight Apollo himself to finally get an answer, after he had grabbed the tripod and threatened to plunder the temple because the Pythoness remained silent. The sentence was that he should be sold as a slave and serve a master for three years, the money from the sale being given Eurytus as price for the blood of his lost son. Heracles was thus sold by Hermes and bought by Omphale, queen of Lydia, whom he served for the set time while being loved by her.
After he had recovered his freedom, Heracles waged a war against Eurytus to claim Iole. He took Oechalia, killed Eurytus and his sons and took Iole with him. But Deiareina, jealous of Iole who was much younger than her, and afraid of loosing Heracles' love, upon hearing of his victory, remembering Nessus gift, sent her husband a tunic she had smeared with what she thought was a lover philter, for him to wear at the solemn thanksgiving ceremony he was to celebrate in memory of Zeus on his way back. But when Heracles put the tunic on, under the heat of the sun, it started to burn him and to stick to his skin so that he couldn't get rid of it. While Heracles was being brought back to Trachis by boat in such a desperate state, Deiareina, upon learning what had happened, killed herself. Unabled to put an end to the sufferings caused by the sticky tunic he couldn't take off, Heracles, after asking his son Hyllus to marry Iole when he would come of age, climbed the slopes of nearby Mount Oeta, set a pyre, laid on top of it and asked his companions to set it on fire. Only one, Philoctetes, dared do it and, to thank him, Heracles, before dying, gave him his bow.
There is another, less frequent, tradition on the death of Heracles in which, rather than dying on the pyre on Mount Oeta, to ease the pains caused by Nessus' tunic that finally set him afire, he flung himself into a nearby stream and drowned. That stream stayed hot ever after and became the hot spring near the Thermopylæ.
After his death, Heracles was admitted among the Gods. Hera made peace with him and became his immortal mother. He married Hebe, Hera's own daughter and the goddess of youth, and earned glory and immortality for his sufferings on earth. Indeed, the name "Hera-kles" means, in Greek, "the glory of Hera". We may wonder if Plato had this etymology in mind when choosing, or creating, as the apostle of strength and law of nature in the Gorgias, a character named Kalli-kles, that is, "the glory of the beautiful", especially when we see that this character, in his introductory speech, calls upon the example of Heracles, by doing violence to the text of an ode of Pindar, to justify his stance (Gorgias, 484b-c). The fact is, in Socrates' time, the story of Heracles was being reinterpreted in a moralizing way by many sophists, among them Prodicus of Ceos, whose apologue of Heracles between Vice and Virtue has come down to us in summary in Xenophon's Memorabilia (II, 1, 21-34 ; see also Plato's Symposium, 177b about the fashion of praising Heracles, with an explicit mention of Prodicus). In Prodicus' apologue, a young Heracles about to enter adult life (a situation not unlike that of Alcibiades in the dialogue that bears his name and opens the whole cycle of the dialogues) meets two women describing each a different road through life : one call herself Happiness (Eudaimonia), but says her critics call her Vice (Kakia) and describes an easy road that is not unlike what Callicles advocates, while the other is called Virtue (Arètè) and describes a road of hardship and hard labor. We are not told which road Heracles chooses, but it is clear that, in such a reading, the stress is put on his labors and submission to god's (Hera's) will rather than on his brute srength and the marvelous dimension of his deeds. The discussion between Socrates and Callicles may be read as Plato's version of Prodicus' apologue, in which two candidate Heracleses directly confront each other. In this reading, Kalli-klès is the Heracles who has chosen the road of Kakia, thinking her true name was indeed Kallia, lured by the semblance of beauty advocated by the sophists in the house of Callias (the man whose name means "beautiful") where they are shown at work in the Protagoras (with Prodicus, compared to Tantalus, unable to make himself heard (Protagoras, 315d-316a)).
Heracles was credited with seventy children, most of them sons, including the fifty sons he had from the fifty daughters of Thespius, and the children he had from Megara, Deiareina, Omphale, several other wives not mentioned here and, in heaven, from Hebe. Together, they wre called the Heraclidæ, but this name was later extended to all those who tracked their origin to him, and, in historical times, many noble families pretended to be Heraclidæ (In the Alcibiades, 120e, Socrates refers to the pretense of the kings of Sparta to descend from Heracles, and in the Laws, III, 683c-685e, the Athenian describes the split of Peloponnese between three sons of Heracles, one becoming king of Argos, another of Messene and the third one of Sparta. In the Theætetus, 175a-b, Socrates presents the so-called "philosopher" whose portrait he draws for Theodorus, as making fun of those people who are proud to track their ancesters back to Heracles).
The name "Pillars of Heracles (Hèracleiai stèlai)" was given by the ancients to a location which is usually identified with the Rock of Gibraltar and the facing Apes' Hill near Tangier, on either side of the strait of Gibraltar leading from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. Plato mention them in the Timæus and Critias when locating the Island of Atlantis (Timæus, 24e ; Critias, 108e ; 114b), and also in the myth of the earth at the end of the Phædo (109b).
References to Heracles in the dialogues are at Alcibiades, 120e ; Lysis, 205c-d ; 208e ; Charmides, 154d ; Hippias Major, 290d ; 293a ; Gorgias, 484b ; Meno, 91c ; Euthyphro, 4a ; Symposium, 177b ; 213b ; Republic, I, 337a ; Phædo, 89c ; Euthydemus, 297c-e ; 303a ; Theætetus, 169b ; 175a ; Timæus, 24e ; Laws, III, 685d ;