The new Hercules apparently wants its masculine hero to be eminently relatable. “I only want to be a husband and a father,” he says. “I am no hero,” this humble Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson, contends. “Become the Legend,” offers the website of the new Hercules, pressing you to put an image of your face in a hole underneath the hero’s lion skin. Yet this modern modesty twist — Hercules as a family man who sees himself as a normal person who happens to be exceptionally strong — is fundamentally at odds with the hero’s ancient origins.
The first written reference to Herakles (his Greek name) is found in Homer’s Iliad; here and for centuries after, he was a Greek hero of the very old school. Classics professor G. Karl Galinsky explains that the “Iliadic hero is not a fiercely independent individualist but almost makes a cult of proper procedure (themis) and of paying proper respect (aidōs) to whomever proper respect is due.” The very ancient Herakles was not even as modern as the Iliadic heroes. Thus in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Herakles is seen as hubristic and his behavior as shocking — he fights against the gods and is said to have killed a guest in his home, both sickening and inherently repulsive transgressions. The only way Herakles would have been “relatable” in the ancient world was as an athlete — poetry likened Herakles’ deeds to athleticism, a line of thinking that suggests athletes should try to emulate Herakles. (Athlos, the word used to describe a sporting contest, was also the word used for his 12 labors.)
Herakles was, by ancient accounts, very sexually promiscuous. In one tale, he had sex with 50 sisters in one night. According to Aristotle, his virility produced 72 sons and a single daughter, but others report even more offspring. The canonical ancient stories tell of the hero murdering his wife and their (legitimate) children in a fit of madness brought on by the goddess Hera. His last mortal wife, Deianeira, inadvertently kills him because she is jealous of the slave-concubine he’s brought home to live in their house. His is a story that makes little sense, perhaps, in the modern context, hence its sanitization.
During the Renaissance, the tale of his “choice between Vice and Virtue” became a popular Hercules story — he inevitably chooses Virtue. The Hercules of the Kevin Sorbo-led 1990s TV show was characterized in the opening credits as having “a strength the world had never seen — a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart.” Hercules was born at a time when there was no chasm between thought and deed as now, hence the acceptance then of his brutality. To be a hero of antiquity meant to perform superhuman feats; to be a hero of modernity means to possess a capacity for deep morality.
In Greece, Herakles became much more popular as a comic figure than a serious figure — Classics scholar Emma Stafford terms him a “a cheerfully promiscuous glutton.” Many statues remain of a drunken Hercules urinating, some of which were designed as fountains. A fragment from Hesiod suggests that Hercules had a sense of humor about himself, which was likely present in oral folktales of the hero. His “active” sexual appetites are highly masculine — Classics professor Giulia Sissa writes that “[desire] is the reaction of a mature male body to another body, whose femininity strikes and stimulates (whether or not that femininity belongs to a woman or a young man).” Although insatiable sexual desires were usually associated with women and receptive male partners, Herakles was nonetheless a paragon of manhood, down to his perfect small penis. Galinsky writes that his prodigious progeny are an affirmation of patriarchal values, in which his many sons spread the glory of his own immortal father, Zeus.
In addition to his plentiful female conquests, Herakles had at least six male lovers. Plutarch wrote that Herakles was sexually involved with his nephew, Iolaos, and connects Iolaos’ hero shrine in Thebes to the Sacred Band, a Theban military squadron made up entirely of male lovers. As Stafford puts it, in the ancient texts, Hercules is not particularly dedicated to any of his female sex partners, so “for unequivocal romance we must turn to his homosexual relationship with Hylas.” In a telling by the Greek writer Theocritus, the two meet on the ship the Argo, and when Hylas is later abducted by water nymphs, Hercules is in anguish, his heart “lacerated.” He forces the residents of a nearby town to help search for the beautiful boy, abandoning his post on the ship. The Argonauts consider him a shameful deserter, but Herakles doesn’t care.
In an evolution from the unruly strongman, the fifth-century B.C. poetry of Pindar and Bacchylides shifts the focus from his pure physicality and toward a more moral interpretation of his life: The enemies of Herakles were explicitly made “lawless” and bad, so that their deaths at the hero’s hands were an act of piety. The first-century A.D. historian Dio Chrysostom uses Hercules to a similar end while writing for the Roman emperor Trajan. In one story, Hercules’ death at his wife’s hand is recast as the result of his moral corruption — the hero is convinced to abandon his ascetic lifestyle for a life of normal clothes and comfort, and he becomes so disgusted with his weakness that he sets himself on fire. His ultimate adherence to Cynic philosophy in this tale made him a suitable figure with which Trajan associated himself.
Interest in Hercules’ love life increased just before and during the Roman imperial period. The Roman poet Ovid tells of Hercules’ affair with Omphale, a queen to whom he’s enslaved for three years to atone for murdering a prince. Ovid details an episode where Hercules and Omphale swap clothing and fall asleep in a cave. A forest god, thinking that Hercules is a woman because of his clothes, climbs into bed with him and attempts to penetrate him with a “swollen cock…harder than horn.” After the intruder feels Hercules’ hairy legs and is pushed to the ground, Hercules and Omphale realize what has happened and laugh at the mistake. Stafford reports that Latin writers, particularly in the late republic, put more emphasis on the absurdity of Hercules’ enslavement to a woman than earlier versions of this particular story: The episode was compared unfavorably to Marc Antony and his relationship with the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra, while Marc Antony, for his part, claimed his extramarital affair with her was justified by his blood relation to Hercules. (Relatedly, many Greek and Roman politicians used Hercules’ image to bolster their political legitimacy, including both the Carthaginian commander Hannibal and his enemy, the Roman general Scipio Africanus, during the Second Punic War).
Continuing the moralizing trend in the early 500s, Fulgentius reinterpreted stories of Hercules as allegorical, sometimes using forced etymology to drive home his point (e.g. he argued that the name Omphale is related to the word for navel, ergo Omphale must symbolize lust). Dante explicitly Christianized Hercules in his Inferno, using the hero’s descent into hell as a symbol of Christ. John Milton, too, used Hercules as a point of comparison for Christian values in some of his poetry. These stories, of course, would restructure or omit murders he committed and men and women he bedded in order to preserve his status as a hero by contemporary standards. An 18th-century opera, with a libretto by the clergyman Thomas Broughton, details the end of the hero’s life, but erases the fact that Iole was his mistress, taking away the rationale for Deianeira’s accidental poisoning of her husband. In the Sophoclean tragedy on which the opera is based, Iole is of course explicitly his concubine (“No other man but you must ever marry / this woman who has lain with me in love,” the Sophoclean Hercules tells his son, entreating him from his deathbed to marry her).
Hercules becomes even more chaste in the 20th century. One of the first Hercules movies was marketed in the 1950s as “the mighty saga of the world’s mightiest man.” He rescues a princess whom he marries at the end of the film. Similar to the normal-dude Hercules of 2014, this Hercules renounces his immortality to live “like any other man.” The first film was followed by many other Hercules movies, some of which took place in an imaginary Ancient Greece, while others transplanted the character to less likely settings (see: Hercules Against the Mongols and Hercules Against the Moon Men). Most of the early Herculeses were played by bodybuilders, including a 1972 turn by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in a film called Hercules in New York.
While the current Hercules incarnations generally wear lion skins and wield ancient clubs, their unfailing selflessness is a decidedly modern development. Much like his Renaissance counterparts, this summer’s Hercules will certainly choose to be virtuous. Johnson wrote, “When HERCULES finally accepts his fate of being the son of Zeus, it’s THE epic moment of the mythology — and our movie,” but this is a new mythology: For the Hercules of antiquity (and indeed, for anyone in ancient Greece or Rome), there was no “accepting fate.” No gap separated mind from action. As the philologist Erich Auerbach notes, the ancient heroes “whose destiny is clearly defined… wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly.” Now heroes must choose their own destiny, everything about their lives an individual decision to be and do good. The heroes are not heroic by nature; rather, they are heroes because they choose to be heroes, which is what all modern people believe they are — the heroes of their own story. It is in the choosing that we see the modern myth.