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The Argive legends are those which best preserve the primitive Dorian conception of Heracles. They are alloyed, indeed, with later elements, of a political origin. Thus, in order that the Dorian conquerors might have some hereditary title to the land, Heracles was made the son of Alcmena, and, through her, a scion of the Perseidae; Tiryns was his heritage, of which he had been despoiled. Again, the struggles between Argos and Sparta for the headship of Peloponnesus have a reflex in those wars which the Argive Heracles wages in Elis or Messenia. But, when such elements have been set aside, there remains the old-Dorian hero, slayer of monsters, purger of the earth, who triumphs over the terrors of Hades, and brings the apples of immortality from the garden of the Hesperides.

We do not know exactly when the ‘twelve labours’ of Heracles became a definite legend. The earliest evidence for it is afforded by the temple of Zeus at Olympia, about 450 B.C. The twelve labours were there portrayed on the metopes,—six on those of the western front, and six on those of the eastern. All the twelve subjects are known from the existing remains1. The list agrees, in much the larger part, with twelve labours enumerated by the Chorus in the Hercules Furens of Euripides2, a play of which the date may be placed about 421—416 B.C. Neither list knows any places, outside of Peloponnesus, except Crete and Thrace; nor does either list recognise any of those later myths in which Heracles symbolises the struggles of Argos with Sparta. In both lists the journey to the Hesperides has lost its original meaning,—the attainment of immortality,—since it precedes the capture of Cerberus. These are some reasons for thinking that a cycle of twelve labours had become fixed in Dorian legend long before the fifth century B.C.3 The Dorians of Argclis were those among whom it first took shape, as the scenes of the labours show. But nothing is known as to the form in which it first became current.

One thing, however, is plain. Although the twelve tasks are more or less independent of each other, the series has the unity of a single idea. Heracles is the destroyer of pests on land and sea, the saviour of Argolis first and then the champion of humanity, the strong man who secures peace to the husbandman and an open path to the sailor: with his club and his bow, he goes forth against armed warriors, or monsters of superhuman malignity, reliant on his inborn might, and conscious of a divine strain in his blood. This is no Achilles, no image of that chivalry which Aeolian legend had delineated and Ionian poetry adorned; no steeds, swift as the wind, bear his chariot into battle; no panoply of bronze, wrought by Hephaestus, flashes on him, ‘like the gleam of blazing fire, or of the sun as it arises’: in the gentle graces of human existence, in the softer human sympathies, he has no portion; no music of the lyre soothes his rest in the camp; he has never known such tears as came into the eyes of the young Achaean warrior, when the aged king of Troy, kneeling at his feet, kissed the hand that had slain Hector; nor has he anything of that peculiar pathos which is given alike to Hector and to Achilles by the dim presage of an early doom, the uncertain shadow which now and again flits across the meridian of their glory; the golden scales, lifted in the hand of Zeus, have never trembled with the fate of Heracles, for his destiny was fixed before his birth, and is inseparable from his origin,—that he must toil while he lives, and must live until his task has been accomplished. He embodies a sterner ideal; one in which there is less of spiritual charm and of flexible intelligence, but which has a moral grandeur of its own; we might say that relatively to the Ionian view of life it is as the Hebraic ideal to the Hellenic. And this ideal may rightly be called ‘Dorian,’ in the sense that it presumably represents a conception of the primitive Dorian folk, bearing a general stamp which can be traced in historical expressions of the Dorian nature.

That conception appears in only two other sets of legends besides the Argive. And these belong to near kinsmen of the Dorian stock, the Boeotians and the Thessalians.

Boeotian legends.
The Boeotian legends concern the birth, childhood, and youth of Heracles. Argive tradition claimed his manhood; and this claim could not be ignored. Nor was it disputed that he sprang from the Argive Perseidae. The Boeotians sought only to reconcile his Argive lineage with a belief that he was born at Thebes. Alcmena, his mother, is the daughter of Electryon, king of Mycenae: she is betrothed to her firstcousin Amphitryon, son of Alcaeus, king of Tiryns. Amphi tryon accidentally kills his uncle, Electryon, and flies, with Alcmena, to Thebes. She requires him, as the condition of their union, to avenge her on the Taphii in western Greece, who have slain her brothers. He sets forth from Thebes to do so. Just before his triumphant return, Zeus visits Alcmena in his likeness, and becomes the father of Heracles. Amphitryon was originally a Theban hero; but the Thebans made him an Argive in order that they might make Heracles a Theban. The name ‘Heracles’ is itself a proof that Argive legend was predominant enough to extort such a compromise. Hera was the goddess of the pre-Dorian Argos. The story of her hatred towards the Dorian Heracles expressed the hostility of her worshippers to the Dorian invaders. But, when the Dorians had conquered, their legendary champion came to be called “Ἡρακλῆς”, ‘the glorified of Hera’; not in the sense that he had won fame by surmounting her persecutions, or through her final reconciliation to him in Olympus; but in the sense that he was the pride of the city which, though it had changed its earthly masters, was still Hera's—the now Dorian Argos. The old story of her spite against him lived on in poetry, but it had lost its first meaning. It is recorded that an earlier name of ‘Heracles’ had been ‘Alcaeus,’ ‘the man of might’; and traces of this lingered in Boeotia4.

There, too, as in Argolis, the myth is blended with facts of local warfare; Heracles fights for Thebes against the Minyae of Orchomenus. But the true Dorian Heracles is seen in other parts of the Theban story,—as when he strangles the snakes in his cradle, and slays the lion of Cithaeron. His last act at Thebes is that which he does in the madness sent on him by Hera,—the slaughter of the children borne to him by Megara, daughter of Creon. This Theban tradition was another compromise with Argive legend, which claimed his best years for the twelve labours. How, then, was he to be severed from Thebes, the home of his youth? He must be forced to fly from it, as blood-guilty—the guilt being excused by Hera's visitation. Further, Thebes had to account for the non-existence of Theban nobles claiming a direct descent from him. Therefore he slew his Theban children.

Thessalian legends.
Lastly, there are the Thessalian legends. These belong especially to Trachis, the chief town of Malis, and to the neighbouring region of Mount Oeta. Here, too, there is an element of disguised history; Heracles is the friend of Dorians; he works for the honour of Apollo, the god of the Thessalo-Delphic amphictyony; he conquers aliens, like Cycnus, or establishes good relations with them, as with the Trachinian king Ceÿx. But the spirit of an older conception animates one part of the Thessalian legend,—the hero's fiery death on the summit of Oeta, when Zeus receives him into heaven. The journey to the Hesperides was probably an older symbol of immortality attained after toil; but if that fable has the charm of the sunset, the legend of Oeta has the grandeur of the hills.

These three cycles of myth,—the Argive, the Boeotian, and the Thessalian,—alone reveal the true old-Dorian Heracles. The traditions found elsewhere are either merely local, expressing the desire of particular Dorian communities to link their own deeds with his name, as at Rhodes and Cos; or they show the influence of non-Dorian poets, who altered the original character of the story by interweaving it with other threads of folk-lore. Thus in the Trachiniae the legend of Oeta is combined with legends of Aetolia. We shall understand this process better if we consider the place of Heracles in that portion of Greek literature which precedes the rise of Attic drama.


1 The subjects of the western metopes, in order from left to right, were: (1) Nemean lion: (2) Lernaean hydra: (3) Stymphalian birds: (4) Cretan bull: (5) Ceryneian hind: (6) Hippolytè's girdle. Those of the eastern metopes were: (1) Erymanthian boar: (2) Mares of Diomedes: (3) Geryon: (4) Atlas and the Hesperides: (5) Augean stables: (6) Cerberus.—Treu, Ausgrabungen zu Olympia, iv. c. 4: W. Copland Perry, Greek and Roman Sculpture, ch. xxi. pp. 225 ff.

2 Eur. H. F. 359—429. The exploits there enumerated are:—(1) Nemean lion: (2) Centaurs: (3) Ceryneian hind: (4) Mares of Diomedes: (5) Cycnus: (6) Hesperides: (7) Sea-monsters: (8) Relieving Atlas as supporter of the heavens: (9) Hippolytè's girdle: (10) Lernaean hydra: (11) Geryon: (12) Cerberus. No. 2 in this list,—the fight with the Centaurs at Pholoè,—was merely an episode in the “ἆθλος” of the Erymanthian boar, the first subject of the eastern metopes at Olympia. Hence the list of Euripides has really nine “ἆθλοι” in common with the temple. The three “ἆθλοι” peculiar to the temple are, Stymphalian birds, Cretan bull, and Augean stables; instead of which Euripides has, Cycnus, Sea-monsters, Relief of Atlas. An express mention of the number twelve, as the fixed limit to the series of “ἆθλοι”, occurs first in Theocr. 24. 81, “δώδεκά οἱ τελέσαντι πεπρωμένον ἐν Διὸς οἰκῆν” | “μόχθους”.

3 Preller (Gr. Myth. II. 186) adopts the view that the number of twelve labours had probably been first fixed by Peisander, in his epic “Ἡράκλεια”, circ. 650 B.C. (cp. below, § 4). Wilamowitz, Heracles, vol. I. p. 308, regards the cycle of twelve labours rather as the invention of some Dorian poet of Argolis,—perhaps of Mycenae,—who lived not later than the 8th century B.C., and of whose work no trace remains.

4 Dion Chrysost. or. 31 (p. 615 Reiske) “ἐν γοῦν Θήβαις Ἀλκαῖος ἀνάκειταί τις, ὃν Ἡρακλέα φασὶν εἶναι, πρότερον οὕτω καλούμενον”. Preller (II. p. 180) quotes the inscription shown in a Farnesian relief on the tripod which Amphitryon dedicated, in his youthful son's name, to the Ismenian Apollo at Thebes: “Ἀμφιτρύων ὑπὲρ Ἀλκαίου τρίποδ᾽ Ἀπόλλωνι”. Sextus Empir. Adv. dogm. 3. 36 gives a like inscription, also connecting it with a Theban “ἀνάθημα”. Diodorus (4. 10) ascribes the change of the hero's name to the Argives: “Ἀργεῖοι...Ἡρακλέα προσηγόρευσαν, ὅτι δἰ Ἥραν ἔσχε κλέος, πρότερον Ἀλκαῖον καλούμενον”. According to the popular tradition, this change of name was prescribed by the Delphic oracle, when the hero went thither for purification, after the slaughter of his children at Thebes. (Apollod. 2. 4. 12: Aelian V. H. 2. 31.) “Ἀλκείδης” was probably a gentilician name, rather than a patronymic in the narrower sense, as Wilamowitz remarks ( I. Eur. Her.p. 293), adding that “Ἀλκαῖος”, the father of Amphitryon, ‘was not invented to explain “Ἀλκείδης”,’ since in that case the form would have been “Ἀλκεύς”. But Pindar, at any rate, seems to have been thinking of “Ἀλκαῖος”, father of Amphitryon, when he wrote “Ἡρακλέης, σεμνὸν θάλος Ἀλκαι:δᾶν” (O. 6. 68). And on the other hand Suidas, s. v.Ἀλκείδης” has “Ἀλκέως γὰρ παῖς Ἀμφιτρύων”.—A similar name to “Ἀλκαῖος” was “Ἀλκάθοος”, a Megarian hero analogous to Heracles. Cp. also “Ἀλκμήνη”.

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (3):
    • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.12
    • Euripides, Heracles, 359
    • Aelian, Varia Historia, 2.31
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