“… Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera, and threw his own children, who had been borne to him by Megara, into the fire,” (Apollodorus, 73)
“Heracles after his marriage with Megara, daughter of Creon, had children by her. . . . Leaving his sons in Thebes, he himself went to Argos to accomplish his labors,” (Euripides, 283)
The most common telling of the Herculean myth – part of the wider series of cult myths which were told all through ancient Mediterranean culture, perhaps as a regional / societal reflex to the civilizing force that had shifted these native Mediterranean cultures away from their more “barbaric” pasts into a somewhat more unified (possibly through trade) city culture – is found in Apollodorus of Athens’ encyclopedic retelling of the labors: Hercules kills his children and must undertake a dangerous task to make amends for his crimes.
Why would Hercules kill his own children? Apollodorus only tells us that “Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera,” (73), but what exactly is this jealousy of Heracles that fuels Hera’s rage? A possible answer is that Hera is attempting to keep Zeus’ seed from spreading and influencing the region any further. However, Hercules’ crime leads to his need for an expiation of his guilt through the undertaking of the labors. These labors have a strong civilizing force in that not only is Hercules carrying out the commands of Eurystheus, the ruler of Tiryns who is using Hercules to rid the surrounding lands of dangers to his kingdom, but by his very travels he is influencing these lands with his (and by proxy, Zeus’) presence (religion). Therefore we have a civilizing force working on behalf of a city that is successful because of his relation to Zeus. Hera is ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting her husband’s plans and is eventually reconciled (hierogamy) with Hercules after “he obtained immortality,” and “married her daughter, Hebe,” (91).
Interestingly, we are seeing the evolved remnants of some of the themes we have covered so far: overthrow and creation. In previous myths we have seen how the younger generations have overthrown their parents (Zeus, Marduk), yet Hera reverses this trend and now wishes to kill her husband’s offspring because of her jealousy. She is a more complex character because we are now getting another point of view, just as we see in the Rig Veda when the Maruts disagree with Indra (Rig Veda, 167) over who has rights to a sacrifice (power struggle). We also see the remnants of the creation myth in that Greek civilization is “creating” the Mediterranean world in its own image through Hercules’ slaying of the terrible monsters. Yet we and the contemporary audience of this myth have already moved into a world of pure mythos to explain the creation of the world because the world already exists, it’s just uncivilized and therefore needs a civilizing force to tame it, not to actually create it out of the corpses of the slain monsters (such as Marduk slaying Tiamat).
And it is this moving out of a world of pure Logos (priestly myths exclusively for a priestly class) and into a world of Mythos (a world of regular people living in cities) that leads us to Euripides’ retelling of the Herculean myth. Euripides changes one key aspect of the basic story: Hercules kills his children after he has completed his labors and gone down into to Hades. Hercules is changed from a character who only possess great physical courage which allows him to complete the labors into someone more psychologically complex who also possess great moral courage to endure the pain he has caused. Hercules initially wants to kill himself (a reflex of his previous form), but his friend, Theseus talks him out suicide because talk of killing oneself is “the words of an ordinary man,” (Euripides 330). Hercules is not an ordinary man not just because he will not kill himself (as an ordinary man would do), or because he is the child of Zeus (semi-divine, and in that sense not at all like anyone in the audience listening to the play), but because he has the moral courage to endure this terrible pain, his “last worst labor,” (Euripides 331). Hercules must and can serve as an example not just as someone who is physically strong and can protect the city (civilization), but is also morally strong and can serve his fellow man, similar to how Gilgamesh devoted his life to serving his city after his failed journey.
This psychological complexity is important because for a warrior, such as Hercules or Gilgamesh to live in society, he has to channel his great powers into something that does not disrupt the delicate balance of living within a city (civilization). Civilization has rules and laws that must be imposed on even a semi-divine hero, like Hercules, to maintain order. The warrior’s code of self-rule is overruled by codified laws (such as Hammurabi). Though his actions have helped create civilization through the act of “All those wars I fought, those beasts I slew” (Euripides, 331) he most certainly suffers from what we would call PTSD (no longer is it Hera’s rage, but rather something mental and interior to the individual; a Freudian repression) and must figure out how to live alongside the common people / his neighbors. This is a new kind of hero who serves the city and can cope with the burdens of life by channeling (what Freud calls Sublimation) the destructive impulses (recall that Hercules is a reflex of Zeus; Zeus’s thunderbolt and Hercule’s club are similar projections of male violence) into something more constructive, and less terrifying for his neighbors.
Simply by switching the order of events – the labors as a penance for the killing of his children into the labors as the reason why he killed his children – we see the evolution of heroic myth from that of a hero clad in lion skins and swinging a giant club at anyone who gets in his way in a barbaric society and who merely possess great physical courage into the city poetry that worships someone who is morally courageous and therefore someone more recognizable and imitable by the common people rather than just the priests who ritualize the mythos of creation in the temples, someone who can rationalize a problem rather than simply apply violence to every situation and can unite people through example rather than brute force. In this way the evolution of the Herculean myth is a combining of both the characters Gilgamesh (civilized, city) and Enkidu (wild, barbaric) into one new vision of the heroic example.