Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 3 Chapter 3 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 3, Chapter 3 : Hercules | Summary

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Summary

Hercules is the son of Zeus and a mortal named Alcmena, but he is raised as the son of her husband, Amphitryon. Zeus visits Alcmena disguised as her husband while Amphitryon is away at war, so Alcmena bears Hercules, Zeus's son, and Iphicles, Amphitryon's son. Hercules's singular strength emerges almost immediately. Two large snakes come into the crib he shares with Iphicles, who cries and tries to flee. Hercules strangles one snake in each of his hands, presenting the limp creatures to his parents when they come to the boys' rescue. His parents attempt to have him educated, but Hercules doesn't like music and accidentally kills his teacher by hitting him with a lute. He excels at physical pursuits and kills a great lion at age 18.

Hera knows who Hercules's father is, and she tortures Hercules for it throughout his life. As a young man, Hercules conquers a tribe called the Minyans to stop them from exacting "a burdensome tribute from the Thebans." Thebes gives him a bride, Princess Megara. They have three sons and are happy until Hera strikes him with a madness that leads him to kill Megara and their children. When he regains his senses, Hercules threatens to kill himself, but his friend Theseus stops him by taking his hands, thus sharing Hercules's guilt. Although Theseus and Amphitryon try to convince Hercules he is not responsible for his actions while insane, Hercules cannot forgive himself. He goes to Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, who gives him a series of tasks for purification. These 12 tasks become known as the "the Labors of Hercules."

First, Hercules kills the lion of Nemea with his hands because the lion is impervious to weapons. Second, he kills the multiheaded Hydra, who grows two heads in the place of each one that is cut off; Hercules burns the stumps before new heads can sprout. Third, Hercules brings Eurystheus a sacred stag with golden horns; and fourth, he captures a wild boar in deep snow on Mount Erymanthus. The fifth labor requires Hercules to clean the Augean stables, home to thousands of cattle; Hercules diverts two rivers to accomplish the task. For his sixth labor, Athena helps Hercules shoot a flock of birds that plague the people of Stymphalus. The seventh labor takes him to Crete to tame and capture a bull Poseidon gave King Minos. For the eighth labor, he goes to Thrace and slays King Diomedes to take his man-eating horses. While on his way to Thrace, Hercules visits his friend Admetus whose wife has just died, but Admetus only tells Hercules a "woman of his household" is dead. Hercules gets roaring drunk at dinner. He is embarrassed when a servant tells him the truth and convinces Death to give back Admetus's wife to make amends.

Hercules goes to the Amazons to complete his ninth labor, which is to fetch the girdle of their queen Hippolyta. She assents easily, but Hera inspires the other Amazons to attack Hercules. Without thinking, he kills Hippolyta in the fray and fights the rest to return with the girdle. For his tenth labor, he takes the oxen that belong to a three-bodied monster called Geryon.

The eleventh labor is tricky because Hercules has to ask Atlas to locate the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Atlas agrees to fetch the apples for Hercules if Hercules will take over holding up the sky while he goes on the errand. Hercules agrees, and when Atlas returns, it becomes clear he has no intention of taking the sky back. Hercules asks Atlas to just hold the sky for a minute while Hercules places a pad on his shoulders to alleviate the pressure. Atlas agrees, and Hercules makes his escape with the apples.

The twelfth labor is most difficult because Hercules must descend to the underworld and bring back the three-headed guard dog, Cerberus. While Hercules is there, he frees his friend Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness. Hercules carries Cerberus on his back to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus decides against keeping Cerberus, so Hercules must return the dog to Hades.

Even after these labors, Hercules never feels at ease about Megara and his children and continues to seek danger. He fights and defeats a Giant who wrestles and kills strangers, then uses the skulls to roof his temple. Hercules fights the river-god Achelous to win the love of a woman named Deianira, who becomes his second wife. He rescues a woman from a sea serpent in Troy and frees Prometheus from the eagle that preys on him.

Later, Hercules accidentally kills the son of King Eurytus, and Zeus punishes Hercules by sending him to serve Queen Omphale in Lydia. The queen often dresses Hercules as a woman and Hercules swears revenge on Eurytus, which he takes by killing the king and taking his city. When Hercules sends a group of captive women home, the man who brings them tells Deianira that Hercules is in love with one of them. Deianira uses a blood charm she developed for such an occasion and puts it on a robe she sends Hercules. The charm does not weaken or kill him but inflicts great pain. When he comes home and finds Deianira has killed herself in guilt, he orders a pyre built so he can die, too. When he dies, he goes to Olympus where he makes amends with Hera and marries her daughter Hebe.

Analysis

Edith Hamilton draws a distinction between Hercules and his friend and contemporary Theseus. Theseus, as mentioned in Part 3, Chapter 1, is the great hero of Athens because he combines a strong devotion to reason and justice with his strength and daring sense of adventure. As the quintessential Greek hero, Hercules shows how the values of the rest of Greece differ from Athenian values. Hercules is better known for his brawn than his brains. He is also known for supreme courage and self-confidence, regarding himself as an equal to the gods who "needed his help to conquer the Giants." He is often ruled by his emotions as well and shows the gods little respect, such as the occasion when he picks a fight with Apollo when the oracle at Delphi will not answer his questions. It is reasonable to conclude the Greeks wanted a hero not inhibited by too much thought, whose strength and courage were so great he could hold his own against the gods. Hercules indicates a desire among mortals to be able to shrug off the will of the gods and follow their own path as Hercules does. Hercules isn't just the most revered hero to the Greeks, he is possibly the most revered hero in all of Western culture; his name is actually synonymous with heroism, giving rise to the English word herculean, which describes any task requiring superhuman strength and commitment.

Because of the circumstances of his birth, Hercules might as well defy the gods because at least one of them is going to punish him no matter what he does. Hercules is another of Zeus's sons with a mortal woman, and Part 3, Chapter 1 points out that his great-grandfather is Perseus, another son of Zeus. Hera is not kind to the women her husband seduces, nor to their children. Throughout Hercules's life, she torments him. Hamilton introduces Hercules's encounter with the snakes in his crib with the line, "Hera, as always, was furiously jealous and she determined to kill Hercules." So, Hera sends the snakes for the infant hero, and things only go downhill from there. She drives Hercules to the madness that causes him to kill his family, an incident from which he never truly recovers despite his many acts of penance. The two are only reconciled after Hercules is dead. His death probably means Hera has finally gotten what she wanted all along.

Hercules's story does not follow the strict linear trajectory characteristic of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. His parentage sets up his destiny as a hero, but he engages in a few minor adventures and feats of strength before the death of his family draws him into his primary adventure, the 12 labors. The 12 labors conform to the series of obstacles characteristic of a hero's journey. The journey into the underworld and the return becomes a standard feature of other heroic journeys after Hercules's story, as it represents an apex of strength and bravery, the act of literally overcoming death. Technically, Theseus is the first of the great heroes to visit the underworld, but he is unable to return under his own power. Hercules is the one who returns Theseus to the surface world, which establishes his superiority over Theseus in an important respect.

Unlike the other heroes who follow Campbell's cycle, Hercules does not reap a true reward for his efforts, at least not in life, as even after he has completed his labors he finds no peace or consolation. He remains haunted by the loss of Megara and his family, and ends up in a marriage with Deianira, a woman who trusts him so little that she devises a spell to punish his future faithlessness on the same day they are married. She uses this spell not to bring Hercules back to her, as might be expected, but to kill him.

Hercules's labors represent acts of service to King Eurystheus of Mycenae, but Hercules does these to atone for killing his family. In fact, Hercules departs from the heroic model set by Perseus and Theseus, because few of his acts are driven by altruism toward individuals or society. However, Hercules isn't self-serving in a conventional sense, either. His actions are driven by impulse and emotion, and these traits, combined with his massive strength, lead him to accidentally kill people with some frequency. Many of Hercules's acts, even beyond the 12 labors, are acts of penance. Even when he goes to Death to win back the wife of his friend Admetus—his kindest and most selfless act—he does so to make amends for his thoughtless drunkenness. In Hercules, the Greeks have created a hero uniquely human in his flaws. He constantly makes mistakes; he is often clumsy and thoughtless in his use of force. Yet, Hercules is also constantly engaged in the process of atoning for his flaws and mistakes, and in this sense, he represents the most important of ideals: all humans are deeply flawed, but it is truly heroic to attempt to overcome those flaws.

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