The Apotheosis of Hercules

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The Apotheosis of Hercules

Head detail of stone sculpture of Hercules
Head detail of stone sculpture of Hercules. Getty Images/KenWiedemann

The demigod Hercules was one of many children of Jupiter or Zeus, but unlike most of them, he was immortal. That did not make him completely a god -- at least until his apotheosis. For instance, he might have grown old -- had he lived long enough.

Since Hercules was immortal, dying was a problem. He should not have been able to die, but before addressing the how of his ending his life, it is necessary to address the why. Why on earth would a hero still in the full vigor of his manhood want to shake off his mortal coil?

Caustic Garments

In the story of Jason and Medea, Jason wanted to get rid of Medea and marry a princess, Glauce of Corinth. Although Medea warned Jason that he was hurting her and their two children, she eventually pretended to go along. She sent their two children to the palace, bearing a wedding gift for the princess. This gift was a gown that contained a body heat-activated caustic substance. When the princess started to burn, her father, Creon, embraced her, and so both Creon and his daughter Glauce burned to death. Something similar happened to Hercules, with the same kind of jealousy as a motive.

The Hercules story is not a complete doublet. The poisoner was, again, the current wife, but the victim was not a new wife. Instead, the victim was the straying husband; in this case, Hercules. The object of jealousy was a beautiful young woman named Iole.

A Gullible Wife and the Centaur's Revenge

Deianeira -- a name Christopher Faraone (in his Harvard University Press book Ancient Greek Love Magic) says has a popular etymology of husband-slayer -- was the name of Hercules' traitorous wife, but unlike Medea, she did not know what she was doing. She thought she was using a love potion. She had received the poison as a gift from a lecherous centaur who told her to save it for just such a purpose. The name of the centaur was Nessus. He had been commissioned by Hercules to help his second wife Deianeira across a river when she was traveling with her husband, but Nessus had other plans, the result of which was that Hercules had to rescue his wife. Hercules shot the centaur in the heart with one of his hydra-poisoned arrows. As this fast-acting poison ran its course, Nessus, who (to give Deianeira the benefit of the doubt) may have appeared to be dying from the accuracy of Hercules' aim, rather than from invisible poison, told Deianeira to take some of his blood to use as a charm should Hercules start to lose interest in her.

When Hercules put on the "love-potion" soaked garment, a gift from his wife, he had no reason to be suspicious. It is hard to say which of them would have been more surprised by what happened to Hercules. She hanged herself when she realized what she had done. His skin started to burn. The pain was unspeakable, unbearable. Water did nothing to ease the pain. Hercules could not remove the garment without ripping himself apart.

The Death Prep and Details

Historian Diodorus Siculus (fl. mid 1st century B.C.) says Hercules sent Iolaus to the Delphic Oracle to find out what he should do. The answer was to build a pyre on Mt. Oeta and look to the decision of the gods about his fate.

Hercules ordered a pyre to be built on Mt. Oeta. No problem there, but he did have trouble finding someone willing to light the pyre. When, at last, Philoctetes agreed to do so, Hercules rewarded him with the gift of his poison-tipped arrows. More than a decade later, the presence of an arrow-bearing Philoctetes, whom the Greeks had abandoned for 10 years on Lemnos, was required, by oracular mandate, in order for the Greeks to win the Trojan War.

Hercules asked help from the gods to end his life and received it. Jupiter sent lightning to consume Hercules' mortal body and took Hercules to live with the gods on Mt. Olympus (the apotheosis or, in other words, the turning of Hercules into a god).​

Athens First Worships Hercules as a God

When no remains could be found of the hero, his followers assumed Hercules' apotheosis. Diodorus tells us that Athens was the first city to worship Hercules as a god:

"[4.38.5] After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods."

"[4.39.1] These men, therefore, performed the offerings to the dead as to a hero, and after throwing up a great mound of earth returned to Trachis. Following their example Menoetius, the son of Actor and a friend of Heracles, sacrificed a boar and a bull and a ram to him as to a hero and commanded that each year in Opus Heracles should receive the sacrifices and honours of a hero. Much the same thing was likewise done by the Thebans, but the Athenians were the first of all other men to honour Heracles with sacrifices like as to a god, and by holding up as an example for all other men to follow their own reverence for the god they induced the Greeks first of all, and after them all men throughout the inhabited world, to honour Heracles as a god.
Diodorus Siculus 4.38.5-4.39.1

Hercules and Hera Reconcile

Although the queen of the gods, Juno or Hera, had been the bane of Hercules' earthly existence, once he was made a god, Juno was reconciled to her stepson and even gave him her daughter Hebe for his divine wife.

The Dual Nature of Hercules as Mortal and Divine

In a dialogue, the second century A.D. Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata shows the puzzling nature of Hercules. Please note that Iphicles is normally taken as the name of the twin brother of Hercules, born to Alcmena and Amphitryon and conceived of on the same night that Zeus disguised as Amphitryon slept with Alcmena. Diogenes was a philosopher from the school of Cynicism. Here is a passage from a public domain 1905 English translation that mentions the idea that he is worshiped as a god:

 

11 (16). DIOGENES AND HERACLES

DIOGENES
Surely this is Heracles I see? By his godhead, 'tis no other! The bow, the club, the lion's-skin, the giant frame; 'tis Heracles complete. Yet how should this be?-a son of Zeus, and mortal? I say, Mighty Conqueror, are you dead? I used to sacrifice to you in the other world; I understood you were a God!

HERACLES
Thou didst well. Heracles is with the Gods in Heaven, and hath white-ankled Hebe there to wife. I am his phantom.

DIOGENES
His phantom! What then, can one half of any one be a God, and the other half mortal?

HERACLES
Even so. The God still lives. 'Tis I, his counterpart, am dead.

DIOGENES
I see. You're a dummy; he palms you off upon Pluto, instead of coming himself. And here are you, enjoying his mortality!

HERACLES
'Tis somewhat as thou hast said.

DIOGENES
Well, but where were Aeacus's keen eyes, that he let a counterfeit Heracles pass under his very nose, and never knew the difference?

HERACLES
I was made very like to him.

DIOGENES
I believe you! Very like indeed, no difference at all! Why, we may find it's the other way round, that you are Heracles, and the phantom is in Heaven, married to Hebe!

HERACLES
Prating knave, no more of thy gibes; else thou shalt presently learn how great a God calls me phantom.

DIOGENES
H'm. That bow looks as if it meant business. And yet,-what have I to fear now? A man can die but once. Tell me, phantom,-by your great Substance I adjure you-did you serve him in your present capacity in the upper world? Perhaps you were one individual during your lives, the separation taking place only at your deaths, when he, the God, soared heavenwards, and you, the phantom, very properly made your appearance here?

HERACLES
Thy ribald questions were best unanswered. Yet thus much thou shalt know.-All that was Amphitryon in Heracles, is dead; I am that mortal part. The Zeus in him lives, and is with the Gods in Heaven.

DIOGENES
Ah, now I see! Alcmena had twins, you mean,-Heracles the son of Zeus, and Heracles the son of Amphitryon? You were really half-bothers all the time?

HERACLES
Fool! not so. We twain were one Heracles.

DIOGENES
It's a little difficult to grasp, the two Heracleses packed into one. I suppose you must have been like a sort of Centaur, man and God all mixed together?

HERACLES
And are not all thus composed of two elements,-the body and the soul? What then should hinder the soul from being in Heaven, with Zeus who gave it, and the mortal part-myself-among the dead?

DIOGENES
Yes, yes, my esteemed son of Amphitryon,-that would be all very well if you were a body; but you see you are a phantom, you have no body. At this rate we shall get three Heracleses.

HERACLES
Three?

DIOGENES
Yes; look here. One in Heaven: one in Hades, that's you, the phantom: and lastly the body, which by this time has returned to dust. That makes three. Can you think of a good father for number Three?

HERACLES
Impudent quibbler! And who art thou?

DIOGENES
I am Diogenes's phantom, late of Sinope. But my original, I assure you, is not `among th' immortal Gods,' but here among dead men; where he enjoys the best of company, and snaps my ringers at Homer and all hair-splitting.

Lucian: Dialogues Of The Dead, Translated By H. W. & F. G. Fowler

For more on the Apotheosis of Hercules, see: "Defining the Divine in Rome," by D. S. LEVENE; Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 142, No. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 41-81.

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Gill, N.S. "The Apotheosis of Hercules." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-apotheosis-of-hercules-119669. Gill, N.S. (2017, September 6). The Apotheosis of Hercules. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-apotheosis-of-hercules-119669 Gill, N.S. "The Apotheosis of Hercules." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-apotheosis-of-hercules-119669 (accessed May 22, 2018).