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Friday, October 19, 2012

Heracles, Theseus, and the Gods OR Euripides (II)

Herakles snake Musei Capitolini MC247
D'aww Baby Herc!
In the latter part of his play, Euripides illustrates the bond between Theseus and Heracles. They’re friends, of course, and why wouldn’t they be, being the two most celebrated heroes of their time, and it goes without saying that Theseus is indebted to Heracles for rescuing him from Hades and the chair of forgetfulness. But more than that, they’re cousins. Family. And in Heracles' most desperate hour of need, when he is contemplating for the first time the thought of suicide to revenge upon himself the murder of his wife and children, it’s Theseus* who comes to his aid.

But what’s more interesting to me is the differences in ideology between the two heroes. Heracles takes upon himself all the guilt for the death of his family, in spite of the fact that Hera drove him into madness, removing from him his ability to reason, his ability even to recognize his own children and wife. Theseus feels differently, placing the guilt upon the gods, and arguing that even the gods sin and suffer. Theseus says:
“I cannot counsel you to die rather than to go on suffering. There is not a man alive that hath wholly ‘scaped misfortune’s taint, nor any god either, if what the poets sing is true. Have they not intermarried in ways that law forbids? Have they not thrown fathers into ignominious chains to gain the sovereign power? Still they inhabit Olympus and brave the issue of their crimes.”
It’s true. The gods are absolutely guilty of incest. Zeus and Hera are brother and sister, for starters. Plus there’s Heracles – a living example of weird family relationships.** And then there’s the whole gelding of Cronus. I mean, really.

But Heracles isn’t buying what Theseus is selling. Not in the slightest. He responds:
“For my part, I do not believe that the gods indulge in unholy unions; and as for putting fetters on parents’ hands, I have never thought that worthy of belief, nor will I now be so persuaded, nor again that one god is naturally lord and master of another. For the deity, if he be really such, has no wants; these are miserable fictions of the poets.”
And then, even more tellingly, in regard to Heracles’ own character:
“But I, for all my piteous plight, reflected whether I should let myself be branded as a coward for giving up my life.”
In the end, it isn’t Theseus’ argument that others have suffered what he has, or even the question of his guilt, at all. In the end, Heracles doesn’t kill himself because he doesn’t want anyone to think he was a coward. Because Heracles will not let anyone call him anything other than brave. In the end, all that matters to him is his reputation, and nothing the gods have done to him can even compare.

*my hero!
**First, some genealogy. Heracles is the son of Zeus and Alcmene, she herself a granddaughter of Perseus, who was, of course, a son of Zeus, thereby making Alcmene Zeus’s great-granddaughter, and Heracles both Zeus’s son, AND his great-great-grandson. 
Just for the record.

2 comments:

  1. I remember being shocked in high school when I read Edith Hamilton's Mythology and found out Heracles killed his family.

    Interesting takes on the blame game. Couldn't it have been the gods AND Heracles' fault? Share the wealth?

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    Replies
    1. I'm not sure it is really Heracles' fault that Hera hates him -- it seems to me the seed of fault was planted with Zeus' cheating heart! But yes, I suppose it could be both -- I just find it fascinating that Heracles won't even consider that the gods are totally blameless in all things. The presentation of those two sides of the coin (the gods are blameless/the gods are flawed) feels to me like a kind of unnatural insertion by Euripides. I can well believe that it was a hot topic in Classical Athens -- what is the nature of divinity/can the gods sin/etc and I wonder if the fact that Theseus is presenting the case of the gods being flawed represents the feelings of Athens, generally, and Heracles' argument that the gods are incapable of fault or failing a representation of what Athens thought the rest of Greece believed?

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