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THE MYTH MAN'S
MYTH OF THE MONTH
May
HERACLES
(Roman name: Hercules)

by Nick Pontikis
(with apologies to grandpa Hessiod and uncle Homer)

PROLOGUE

Electryon, High King of Mycenae and son of Perseus, was boiling with rage. Those pilfering cattle rustlers, the dastardly Taphians and Teleboans, had joined forces and successfully raided his herd. In the ensuing skirmish, eight of Electryon's sons had died.

Up in arms over this unspeakable crime, Electryon mobilized his army and set off to teach the thieves a lesson: Nobody steals his cattle!

"Rule well, and when I return victorious, you shall marry my daughter Alcmene!" he said to his nephew, King Amphitryon of Troezen, leaving him in charge as he rode off to round up the scoundrels.

When Amphitryon discovered that the King of Elis had bought his uncle's stolen cattle for a song, he paid a large ransom and recalled Electryon to identify them, pleased that he had recovered the herd, albeit for a price.

Imagine his surprise when tightwad Electryon tossed a fit! 'What right had the Eleans to sell stolen property, and why did Amphitryon condone this swindle?' he asked, in more colorful terms. Miffed at Electryon's ingratitude, Amphitryon tossed his club at one of the cows which had wandered away from the herd. The club, as if guided by divine force, struck the cow's horns, rebounded and killed Electryon.

Oh my.

Amphitryon was banished from the land and, accompanied by Alcmene, fled to Thebes, where King Creon purified him - after first making him promise never to throw a club at a cow in his presence, no doubt. But Alcmene refused to lie with her new husband until he had avenged the death of her eight brothers.

"Dear, we've been married for six months now, and I've yet to taste the fruits of marital bliss," would complain Amphitryon to Alcmene.

"Yeah, well bliss this!" she would retort. "You think you ain't getting any now, stick around, pal! Last time I checked, my eight brothers were still dead, and nary a hero to avenge them!"

"Well, what can I do, sweetie? I'm a stranger in a strange land, with no soldiers, no gold, and a real serious case of pent-up sexual frustration," would moan Amp.

"What can you do? I suggest that you raise a herd of cows, wait till the enemy is in sight, then start heaving clubs at the cows. The enemy should all be dead in no time!"

Ouch! Low blow or what? Alcmene would never let Amphitryon forget that his errant toss had killed her father. Hey, it wasn't like he meant it...

Hearing of this oral dilemma, hospitable King Creon took pity on him and permitted Amphitryon to raise an army. Aided by Athenian, Argive, Phocian and Locrian troops, Amphitryon trounced the Teleboans and Taphians and bestowed their islands on his allies.

Miraculously, not a single cow was harmed in the process.

Yeah, so what's all this cow manure got to do with Hercules, you're thinking. Well, meanwhile, back at Rancho Olympus, my godfather Zeus had observed the unfolding events with curious (and lascivious) interest. Guess what happened next.

Yup. Taking advantage of Amphitryon's absence, Zeus assumed his appearance and, impersonating her husband, "returned" home and assured Alcmene that her brothers were now avenged. It wasn't a lie, because just that morning Amphitryon and his troops had routed the killer cattle rustlers, exacting revenge.

Disguised as Amphitryon, Zeus then lay with the grateful Alcmene all night, which actually was three nights. You see, under Zeus' command, Hermes had ordered Helios, the sun god, to quench the solar fires, have the Hours unyoke his team, and "take the rest of the day off, go golfing or something."

Mighty Zeus knew that the procreation of so great a champion as he had in mind could not be accomplished in haste. Man, was my godfather ever full of himself, three full nights of erotic merriment...well at least auntie Hera still held the Olympic record of wedding night bliss, with her and Zeus' 300-year marathon...(see Zeus Part I)

"I don't want to make light of the matter, but back in my youth, day was day and night was night!" I heard Helios muttering as he parked his golden chariot. "Cronus never cavorted all over Thebes with other men's wives! Go golfing indeed! How in Hades can I golf in the dark?"

But that wasn't all: Ever the romantic, Hermes added his own small touches by directing the Moon (Selene) to go slowly, and Sleep (Hypnos) to make mankind so drowsy that no one would notice what was happening.

It worked. Alcmene delighted in hearing Zeus' account of the crushing defeat of her brothers' killers, and loved him passionately for the whole thirty-six hours. The next day, when her real husband returned, full of victory stories and lust for her, the exhausted Alcmene wasn't as responsive as he had hoped.

"Dear, last night was wonderful, but it seemed to last forever and we didn't sleep a wink," she told him. "Besides, you already told me all about your battle exploits."

Utterly confused, Amphitryon the next day consulted the oracle Teiresias, who told him how Zeus in his guise had deceived Alcmene. To add insult to injury, poor Amphitryon never dared sleep with his own wife Alcmene again, lest he incur the wrath of Zeus.

HERCULES IS BORN

Nine months later, one late night down at Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant, Zeus had a nice buzz going. Without thinking, he boasted that he had fathered a son, to be born any day now, who would be called Heracles (Glory of Hera), and rule the noble House of Perseus.

Say what? Hera was having none of this! First she made Zeus swear an unbreakable oath that any prince born before nightfall to the House of Perseus should be High King. No problemo, said Zeus. Hera then raced to Mycenae and hastened the birth pangs of Nicippe, wife of King Sthenelus, who was seven months pregnant. Next Hera hurried to Thebes and squatted cross-legged at Alcmene's door.

All that was missing was the voodoo doll. With her clothing tied into knots, and her fingers locked together, the squatting Hera delayed the birth of Hercules until Nicippe had delivered her premature son, Eurystheus.

Don't try this at home, kids, these are trained professionals.

Shortly thereafter my nephew Herc was born, followed an hour later by his twin brother Iphecles, who was Amphytrion's son and the younger by a night. Some say that Zeus divinely illuminated the birth chamber, but at the most crucial moment was distracted.

I'm here to tell you that it wasn't a pretty sight when Hera returned to Olympus and haughtily boasted how she kept Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, from visiting Alcmene first. According to Zeus' own oath, Eurystheus would be the High King of the House of Perseus, "having been primogenitured," in Hera's words.

I've rarely seen my godfather more enraged! I don't know if Zeus was more pissed at once again having being bamboozled by Hera, or because he didn't have a clue in Hades what "primogenitured" meant...

He hated when that happened! Yo, Athena, what's "primogen.."...oh, forget it!

Seizing his eldest daughter, Ate, whose mindless chattering had blinded him to Hera's deceit, he whirled her by her golden hair and sent her hurtling down to earth. "You'll never set foot again on Olympus, you conniving witch!" he roared at her, as she fell screaming to an earthly exile.

Lighten up, Zeus! Why can't you just discipline the poor girl, maybe take away her chariot privileges for a month? She was only acting on her mother's instructions, after all. No need to 'ground' her for life!

Hera was experiencing acute deja-vu. Visions of being strung up from the heavens, with heavy anvils tied to her feet, raced through her mind. Turning his livid gaze on her, Zeus barked that he couldn't go back on his oath, but when his boy Hercules successfully performed 10 labors for that "puny punk Eurystheus", he should become a god.

"You got a problem with that, darling?" he icily hissed at Hera, readying his thunderbolts in case her response was not to his liking.

She reluctantly agreed, which was wise because my godfather had asked the kids to leave the room, always a sign of pending thunderbolt activity. You could set your weather forecast by it.

But my aunt Hera wasn't going to go quietly. At that moment, she swore to herself that she would make the life of Hercules complete Hades. And, without belaboring the point, boy did she ever!

Heracles - "Glory of Hera" indeed! Is that ironic or what? No wonder my nephew legally changed his name to Hercules early on in his career.

"I've tried hard to like that woman, and I've failed miserably," Herc once told me. "I'll be damned if I honor that wicked step-mother of mine anymore! It's Hercules from here on, unc!"

Yes, Hera would prove to be Herc's personal Nemesis, thwarting his every move and making life miserable for the greatest hero who ever lived...

(The literary gang nearly came to blows over the true origin and identity of Hercules one late night down at Thanasi's Olympus. It was long ago and the memory is foggy, but to the best of my recollection, here's the basic context of the great debate:

Diodorus Siculus: "There were three heroes named Heracles: an Egyptian; a Cretan Dactyl; and the son of Alcmene. Anyone who claims otherwise possesses a room temperature IQ. A very cold room."

Cicero: "The number was six. Didn't I send you a copy of my latest book, 'On the Nature of the Gods', dear Dio? I must remember to do so!"

Varro: "Forty-two! Some drink from the fountain of knowledge but it appears that you two just gargled! There were forty-two Heracles! I can prove it!"

Diodorus Siculus: "Varro, you must have got into the gene pool while the lifeguard wasn't watching! There were three Hercs! Vicki, more Ambrosia please, and make Varro's de-caf!"

Varro: "Forty-two!"

Diodorus Siculus: "Three!"

Cicero: "Six!"

And so it went for hours, tempers flaring as dueling egos wrestled with the facts. Just as the Dio/Cicero tag team was about to strangle Varro, in stepped Herodotus, the voice of calm and reason.

Herodotus: "When I asked for Heracles's original home, the Egyptians referred me to Phoenicia, so I'm partial to Dio's argument."

Diodorus Siculus: "Thank you, Hero my man! The Egyptian Heracles, called Som, or Chon, lived ten thousand years before the Trojan War, and his Greek namesake inherited his exploits. I swear, these clowns are so dense, light bends around them, Herodotus!"

Varro: "Who you calling a clown, fool? Wanna step outside?"

Oh my...just goes to show what happens when you read too many books, I guess. Good thing grandpa Hesiod and uncle Homer weren't there that night, or there would have been a fistfight for sure.)

YOUNG HERCULES

But back to the subject of all this bluster, good ol' Herc. Now, Alcmene was petrified of Hera's jealous wrath - Can you say "Io"? How 'bout "Leto" or "Callisto", to name but a few of Hera's victims? So she exposed her newborn child in a field outside the walls of Thebes.

That's where my beloved great-aunt Athena, acting on Zeus's request, took Hera for a seemingly casual stroll. Discovering the baby, Athena feigned surprise and invited Hera over to "look at this beautiful and robust child!" Appealing to her mothering instinct, Athena suggested that Hera give the baby some of her milk. Without thinking Hera took the baby boy and held him to her breast, whereupon Hercules drew with such force that she dropped him in pain.

A spurt of milk flew across the sky and became the Milky Way. "What a little brat!" cried Hera, but too late: Having tasted the godly milk, Heracles was now immortal, and Athena happily returned him to Alcmene, telling her to raise him well for her son would be a very special child.

Other galactic versions of this say that Hermes brought baby Hercules to Olympus and that Zeus himself laid him at Hera's breast while she slept. The Milky Way was formed when startled she awoke and pushed him away, or when the strong little guy greedily sucked more milk than his mouth would hold, and coughed it up.

Regardless, Hera was Heracles' foster-mother for a little while and that's why the Thebans honored him as her son. They even changed his name from Alcaeus, which was his given name before she suckled him, to Heracles, the aforementioned Glory of Hera.

But what about Iphicles, his twin brother, you ask? Iffy, which is what we cruel boys called Herc's bro, was a little, well...iffy. You try living under the shadow of the greatest hero who ever lived! Talk about an inferiority complex! Even when it came to Hercules' tormentor Eurystheus, Iffy humbled himself, according to grandpa Hesiod, even though he offers few details. Next to his famous brother, Iphicles was ineffective and nearly forgotten.

It started when they were young, no more than eight or nine months. There were the adorable twins, freshly bathed and sleeping like babies on a lamb-fleece blanket, when spiteful Hera decided to act. At midnight she dispatched two huge and horrific serpents to Alcmene's house, with strict orders to kill baby Heracles.

The gates opened silently as the serpents approached the house, slithering over the marble floors to the nursery. Flames shot from their eyes and poison dripped from their fangs. It wasn't a pretty sight, very reminiscent of a lawyers' convention.

The babies were doomed! Well, make that 'the baby', for the serpents had no evil intent towards Iphicles, it was his brother Hercules they were after. Just as they were coiled to make lunch of Herc, the twins woke up and saw the serpents writhed above them, with darting, forked tongues, dripping venom.

Not realizing it wasn't him they were drooling over, poor Iffy absolutely freaked! He let out piercing, blood-letting screams, kicked off his coverlet and in terror fell to the floor, rolling about the room looking for a place to hide. His shrieks roused Alcmene and Amphitryon, who grabbed his sword as they raced to the nursery.

They rushed in to find Heracles, who had not uttered so much as a whimper, proudly showing off the serpents as he strangled them, one in each hand. He giggled and laughed excitedly as they died, bouncing up and down as life left his would-be assassins. When finally they stopped moving, he tossed them with delight at Amphitryon's feet, barely missing the cowering Iphicles, who began to shriek anew.

"Don't be such a baby!" Herc's scornful look at his sissy brother seemed to say. While Alcmene changed the terror-stricken Iffy's diaper, Amphitryon spread the coverlet over Heracles and returned to bed, all the wiser.

You see, some wags say that it wasn't Hera, but Amphitryon himself, who had sent the serpents to the nursery. He wanted to know which of the twins was his son, and now he knew well, no ands, iffys or buts about it!

EARLY YEARS & EDUCATION

So what sort of education and guidance did virile young Heracles receive? Only the best! Amphitryon taught his step-son the finer points of chariot driving, showing Herc how to round corners without grazing the markers or tipping over. You should have seen my cocky nephew, once he got the hang of it, screeching at full speed around the corners, his chariot often precariously balancing on one wheel, as he leaned mightily to keep it from crashing! Drove his poor mother Alcmene into hysterics every time!

"At least put on your helmet and seatbelt!" she would scream.

From Castor, Herc received fencing lessons, was taught the use of weapons, cavalry and infantry tactics, and was introduced to the rudiments of battle strategy. His boxing teacher was one of Hermes' sons, either Autolycus or Harpalycus. Talk about tough! Harpolycus looked so grim and deadly when fighting that none dared face him! He could knock out his opponents simply by glowering at them!

No wonder my nephew Herc never had a problem kicking butt! Just look at his tutors!

Eurytus taught him archery, or perhaps one of Amphitryon's herdsmen, the Scythian Teutarus. Even Apollo got involved, just to make sure Heracles got nothing but the finest instruction. Soon Herc surpassed all other archers ever born, becoming even better than his companion Alcon, who was father of Phalerus the Argonaut, and who had a most unnerving practice method.

You see, to hone his skill, Alcon would align a bunch of his soldiers in a straight line and set a succession of rings on their helmets. He then would shoot his arrow through the rings, as his soldiers stood motionless and tried to control their bowels, hoping above all that Alcon wasn't paying homage to Dionysus the previous evening...

Once, the son of Alcon was attacked by a serpent, which wound its coils about him and was suffocating the boy. Alcon coolly took out an arrow and shot with such skill as to mortally wound the snake, without hurting a hair on his son. Eat your heart out William Tell!

Yes, Alcon didn't know how to miss, and he transferred this magic to Hercules. One night the three of us cruised down to one of those traveling carnivals, where the huckster Centaurs try to fleece your drachmas by having you shoot an arrow from a great distance through this impossibly small target. Ha! Let's just say the boys cleaned up! The carnies hastily broke camp and left town before dawn, their tails between their legs, having completely run out of stuffed toy Minotaurs, Chimeras, Griffins and Medusas.

The boys donated the toys to the Special Olympics. The grateful Greeks in Herc's honor held a foot race and called it the Olympic Games. They had such a blast that they decided to do it every four years. The rest is athletic history most glorious, today's O.O.C. notwithstanding...

It's unclear who taught Heracles astronomy and philosophy, but he was well versed in both subjects. As educated and worldly as he was, however, my nephew remained the embodiment of physical strength, as opposed to mental. Only the Celts honored him as the patron of letters and the bardic arts.

Eumolpus taught Herc how to play the lyre and sing, and the handsome youth Linus, son of the River-god Ismenius, turned him on to books and the wonders found therein. One day, however, Eumolpus was away and Linus was substituting as Herc's lyre teacher. Linus kept trying to get Heracles to change his playing style, but Herc was loyal to Eumolpus, and refused to comply. Linus proceeded to brutally beat Herc for his stubbornness.

Bad, bad move, and had Linus lived, he would have regretted it. After tolerating a succession of hard blows from Linus without flinching, Hercules finally lost it and, picking up the heavy lyre, struck Linus upside the head, killing him instantly.

Heracles was brought up on murder charges but at his trial astutely quoted a law of Rhadamanthys, which justified forcible resistance to an aggressor. In other words, "In your famous 'Zeus vs. Python' ruling, you in essence decided that it's perfectly ok to crush your attacker's skull with a medium-sized harp, as long as it's done in self-defense, your Honor."

Hey, you want to get a Supreme Court judge's attention, cite one of their own rulings. Herc got an absolute discharge, with not even a mark on his record. Ever after, the killing of Linus was interpreted by the spin doctors as "an attack against tyranny."

Still, Amphitryon now was concerned that the boy might commit further violent crimes and sent him away to a cattle ranch until his eighteenth birthday. Here Herc was a man among boys, outstripping his contemporaries in height, strength and courage.

Apollodorus liked telling how Heracles's eyes flashed fire, and he had an unerring aim, both with javelin and arrow. He ate sparingly at noon; for supper his favorite food was roast meat and Doric barley-cakes. His tunic was short-skirted and neat; and he preferred a night under the stars to one spent indoors.

Plutarch explains that Herc's profound knowledge of augury, which is the ability to interpret omens, led him to welcome the appearance of vultures, whenever he was about to undertake a new Labor. "Vultures," he would say, "are the most righteous of birds: they do not attack even the smallest living creature."

Heracles fashioned his famous club from the New Year tree of ancient Greece, the Wild Olive tree, even bringing a sapling to Olympia from the land of the Hyperboreans.

I never knew my nephew Hercules to pick a quarrel or start a fight, but he always gave aggressors tit for tat. He subscribed to the Cyclopes theory, "an eye for an eye," and all that...

But only fools dared come on to Herc! One such chump, named Termerus, used to kill travelers by challenging them to a head-butting match. Thick-skulled Termerus had the temerity to insist that he and Heracles have a go. That's using your head. Like grandpa Hesiod would say, "Now there's a prime candidate for natural deselection. If Termerus were any more stupid, we'd have to water him twice a week."

Heracles obliged Termerus. Faster than you can say "Termerus terminatus," the big lug lay dead, his head crushed like an egg, with nary a bump to mar Herc's fair cranium.

I'm here to tell you, however, that my nephew Hercules was naturally courteous, well-mannered, and the perfect gentleman. Except for the time he murdered his wife and kids. But we can blame Hera for that, as we'll see next.

NEXT:
HERCULES GOES NUTS

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