A Character of Heracles in Mythology
Euripides’ Heracles is the story of the illegitimate child of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Heracles was generally referred to as the epitome of Greek heroes in Greek mythology. Heracles’ defining traits is his exceptional fortitude, and his most defining story is the completion of his twelve labours. Unlike in the plays of Sophocles where the gods represent cosmic forces, Euripides saw more chaos than of order and justice. He clearly intended for his audience to be puzzled and outraged by the irrational and unjust act of Hera against an innocent Heracles, and to question the actions of such divine beings and to question their own religious beliefs. There are two perspectives one can have concerning Heracles. The first is that he is a violent murderer who killed Lichas and his own family. The second and more common perspective is that he is or a loving and mighty hero who rescues his family. Heracles is often idolized during times of war but does not display perfect intelligence, he fails to act rational when manipulated by the gods or overcome by emotion, which effectively humanizes them. This essay will explore Heracles through the two viewpoints of Euripides as it concentrates on the hero’s killing of his family and despair; and Sophocles focuses both on Heracles’ sufferings caused by the poisonous robe.
As seen in Euripides’ Heracles, the readers learn that Heracles did not intentionally kill his cherished wife and kids; it was a fate callously inflicted upon him by Hera:
Hera wishes to attach to him kindred blood
By his killing of the children, and I wish the same. …
So that… he may recognize what sort is Hera’s anger against him (Eur. Her. 840 – 842).
As depicted in this quote, it is clear that Heracles did not deliberately try to kill his family. Instead, it was inflicted by Iris, Hera’s messenger, with madness. This ultimately is the cause of his actions. Heracles was under the impression that he was killing Eurytheus’ kids however; he later realized that he had been killing his own family. Readers may be aware that Hera never was particularly fond of Heracles, simply because he was the product of Zeus’ affair with Aclmene. If Hera was not targeting Heracles; he would have not harmed anyone; which affirms that the death of his wife and children were out of his own control. The habit of perpetual violence is what Heracles is known for. Hera takes full advantage of that by ordering her messenger to consciously create lunacy within Heracles. She knows that his rage combined with lunacy will cause him to slaughter his family.
Eurystheus was a cousin of Heracles who also had great jealousy for him. Eurystheus was the individual who assigned the twelve labours to Heracles. The murder of Lichas was tragic and resulted from a complete misunderstanding by Heracles. Lichas was Heracles’ servant and Heracles’ wife Deianira gave the cloth to Lichas so that he could deliver it to Heracles:
Was it you, Lichas, brought this fatal gift?
Shall you be called the author of my death?
Lichas, in terror, groveled at his feet and begged for mercy–“Only let me live!” But seizing on him, the crazed Hero whirled him thrice and once again about his head and hurled him, shot as by a catapult, into the waves of the Euboic Sea. Lichas was innocent but due to a big misunderstanding Hercules threw in him the sea. (Eur. Her. 1294 – 1339).
When Heracles was given the cloth soaked in a love potion, he dismally burned to death. As his skin began to burn, he thought that Lichas was the one who tried to kill him; and his first instinct was to kill him; so he was thrown into the sea. Deianira was given the love potion and was told it would make Heracles devoted to only her; and she was insecure at the time and decided to use it. The excerpt clearly illustrates how Lichas was a victim of Heracles’ temper. However, one thing that should be clear is that if multiple people were not attempting to kill Heracles; murders like this would have never occurred. Knowing what has occurred as a result of Hera and her harsh intention to kill Heracles, he is very disturbed by the fact that he has been killing people. And to make up for that guilt, he wanted to clear his sins. So Heracles chose to speak to Apollo and the prophet advised him to do the twelve labours assigned by Eurystheus. In the play Euripides’ Heracles, the twelve labours are a huge factor to the play and express how Heracles felt great guilt after each murder because he was not intentionally trying to murder them; it was just a result of his anger that was sparked by others. Another fact that the twelves labours proved is that Heracles had good intentions because he wanted he wanted to get rid of sins and guilt by completing these labours. Although Hera instructed Eurystheus to assign difficult and life threatening tasks, Heracles still accomplished them:
This has been his life that only brings him home
to send him out again, to serve some man or other.
Now he wins through to the end of all his labors,
and now I find I am more than ever afraid. (Soph. Trach. 34 – 37).
This extract from Sophocles shows Heracles’ great determination to finish his tasks. This ultimately proves how devoted Heracles was to eliminating his sins and the guilt spiritually. Heracles now can be seen as both a strong hero and a victim depending on the situation.
Heracles was a demigod during his life and a full god after his death. Zeus and Hera play a big role in the relationships between gods and heroes. For example, Zeus often cheats on his wife Hera, and sleeps with many mortal women by disguising himself as an attractive man. And as a result of that, a baby will be born a hero and Hera will most likely get jealous because her husband is having babies with other women. Heroes most of the time do not control their own destiny at birth; but after birth, they are free to do what they like. They have to be vigilant that gods such as Hera will be there to kill or harm them. For example, Hera sent two snakes to kill baby Heracles. Iris’ statement in Euripides’ play represented a reversal of fortunes for Heracles as she states:
But against one man’s house we wage war,
Who they say is from Zeus and Alcmene.
Until he fully completed his bitter trials
Necessity was keeping him safe, nor would his father Zeus
Allow either me or Hera to harm him at any time.
But since he’s gone through the toils of Eurystheus,
Hera wishes to attach to him kindred blood
By his killing of the children, and I wish the same. …
So that… he may recognize what sort is Hera’s anger against him
And learn mine. Otherwise the gods are nowhere
And mortal things will be great, if he doesn’t pay the penalty (Eur. Her. 825-832, 840-842).
After finishing the twelve grueling labours, Heracles has been safe thus far in the story because he has always had Zeus to protect him and ensure that nothing bad happens to him. It could have also been pure fate and luck that he was not harmed thus far, because even as an infant he was targeted by Hera. Therefore, Heracles being safe thus far in the story could have been out of pure luck or from the protection of his father. In this play, Heracles goes from killing monsters that threaten humanity to killing his own children. Theseus, however, remains a friend to Heracles although they are cousins and Theseus often competes with him to be a popular hero. Theseus makes a promise to Heracles stating that he will kill the Minotaur. Heracles killed his own family including his wife and kids; Hera filled Heracles with a lot of rage and when he got very angry, he ended up killing them as a result of his rage. Hence, Heracles’ crime of murder does not cancel out the good he has done as a hero because at the end of the day, he still killed his own family; which is far worse than all the good he has done.
On the other hand, the poet Sophocles´ Trachiniae emphasizes Heracles’ heroic side because he saved a princess from getting raped by a centaur. There is no central character, it begins with the fulfillment of oracles known of the characters in the play which are Heracles and Deianeira (Papadimitropoulos 131). In Euripides’ Heracles, the author depicts how Heracles is forced to unknowingly commit prolicide but in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Heracles is displayed as a self-centered man with divine liaisons. He saves someone, dies as a result of killing two of his enemies and his wife was tricked into giving him poison. To demonstrate the difference in tone:
But, after a time, to my joy there came
the famous Heracles, son of Alcmena and Zeus.
In close combat with Acheloüs, he won the contest (20) and set me free….
Chosen partner for the bed of Heracles,
I nurse fear after fear, always worrying
over him. I have a constant relay of troubles;
some each night dispels—each night brings others on. (30)
We have had children now, whom he sees at times,
like a farmer working an outlying field,
who sees it only when he sows and when he reaps.
This has been his life, that only brings him home
to send him out again, to serve some man or other. (35)
Now he wins through to the end of all his labors,
and now I find I am more than ever afraid.
Ever since he killed the might Iphitus,
we, his family, live here in Trachis, a stranger’s guests,
forced to leave our home. (Soph. Trach. 18-21, 27-40)
Heracles marries Deianira because he won her hand in marriage by wrestling with the river god Acheloüs, who took on the form of a centaur. Once, when Deianira and Hercules were traveling, they came to the Evenus River. A centaur named Nessos had been appointed ferryman there. As Nessos carried Deianira across, he tries to rape her, and Hercules, hearing her screams, runs to rescue her. Hercules shot the centaur in the heart with one of his Hydra blood tipped arrows. In this story, Heracles is a very heroic, strong, fearless and helpful husband who will risk his own life to save those he loves. As you can see from the text, he helps those in danger, whereas in Euripides, he shows considerably more erratic behaviour.
It is evident that Deianira is very insecure about her relationship with Heracles because she is always cautious and thinks that Heracles will marry another women. From Sophocles’ Women of Trachiniae, we see her concern and insecurity when, one day, Heracles was returning from war and she heard that he had captured a beautiful local princess and was thinking of taking her as his wife. Deianira has a love potion that was given to her by Nesseus long before, and she soaked Heracles’ shirt in it to ensure that he doesn’t cheat on her. But when Heracles wears the shirts as victory, the poison burns his skin and gives him unbearable pain. Nesseus clearly tricked Deianira into thinking it was a love potion. Her insecurity is justified, but her actions have disastrous consequences.
When looking at the circumstances surrounding Heracles’ death in Trachiniae, Nesseus and Hydra are ultimately responsible for what happened. The prophecy said how Heracles would be killed by two dead enemies, which no one really understood. However, the dead centaur Nessus tricked Deianira into using his poisoned blood, which she thought was a love potion that will make Heracles only love her and no one else. Also the Hydra, whose deadly poison on the arrow that killed Nessus, thus making his blood poisonous as well. The people to blame would be Hydra and Nessus. Fate doesn’t play that big of a role in Heracles’ death because the actions that happened could have easily been avoided however, Nessus decided to trick Heracles’ wife Deianira by poisoning her own husband. It is evident that Sophocles and Euripides have two distinct viewpoints on the virtue of Heracles.
Heracles’ downfall in both plays either caused by Nesseus’ robe or his driven madness evidently creates a division between his glorious heroic past and his weeping present. His toils are revived only to mark out this contrast and the extent of the reversal of his existence. (Papadimitropoulos 135). Heracles clearly goes through a change of status which involves the loss of the divine part of his identity. The essential parts of The Trachiniae and Heracles which overlap is that the hero is always introduced as victorious with the divine realm because of his kinship with Zeus. Heracles’ state of birth determines his fundamental ambiguity being both human and divine which makes him potentially dangerous for himself and his family. In Trachiniae, his lust for Iole causes Deianeira’s suicide and in Euriprides the madness leading to the death of his family and we can conclude that his person emobides the internal conflict between human and divine (Papadimitropoulos 136). Heracles realizes in Sophocles that only fire can purify him of Nesseus’ bestial blood and restore his identity as a civilizing hero with divine affinity. Euripides acts as a more human victory as he completed the twelve labours, appears as a family defender and committed suicide. In both tragedies, he manages to reconstruct the true content of his life to gain knowledge either by interpreting the two separate divine oracles or by realizing the link between his toils and outrageous killings that both appear to be a part of his ambivalent status (Papadimitropoulos 138).
Therefore, we can arrive at the consensus that the great Greek hero Heracles was an infatuated and concerned individual who was a victim of psychological harassment by Hera which sparked the anger within him. This is what created chaos to many around him. As discussed previously, it is evident that Heracles must learn to govern his temper and learn to control the actions he takes because it affects many people negatively. Heracles has the power to create a lot of positivity in the world; however, he must put his powers to use wisely. Many readers and viewers of the play must come to the realization that Heracles is indeed a caring father because he did not intentionally choose to kill his wife and children, the death of Lichas was a misunderstanding caused by another individual, and whenever something unfortunate occurred, Heracles would try to complete an adventurous and dangerous task to get rid of his sins and guilt. Heracles was absolutely a type of figure who loved his family; an ultimate message to take away is that you must look beyond the appearance of a person to find their true personality. We can now realize why both Sophocles and Euripides presented Heracles as having finished his labours, because the hero’s most difficult labour remained to be accomplished; whether the final direction was toward divinity or towards humanity.
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