Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Heracles at Omphale’s house, 1537 (detail).
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Heracles at Omphale’s house, 1537 (detail). Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig / Wikimedia

Greetings from Heracles

The Greek myths are a treasure chamber of human possibilities and limits. A little foray into the life of Heracles, the greatest hero of them all, provides ample evidence of this. The setting is archaic and mythical; the knowledge gained is ageless.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.

Heroic, and therefore unfamiliar to the likes of us: a hero baby is placed in a shield instead of a cradle, as it should be. Two hideous snakes immediately slither over. But the reptiles have no foreboding of the deed to which one budding young hero will owe his future fame. Two little baby hands – two monstrous beasts strangled. His name: Heracles, son of Zeus and Alcmene, a queen of Thebes. The Romans will later call him Hercules. As an adolescent, Heracles comes to a turning point. He is visited by two women. One is called bliss by her friends, but vice by her enemies. Somewhat confusing, because it’s a complex situation: it’s the same woman. The other woman is clear and unequivocal – no ifs or buts – telling him: No pain, no gain! Heracles must choose. That means he has no choice. How could a hero who will later take his place on Mount Olympus settle for the delicious pleasure of a life of idleness! Any course other than the arduous path to glory and admiration through virtue and hard work is out of the question. A tentative assessment suggests a rather special childhood and adolescence. But things get much tougher for our hero. Hera, the mother of the gods, refuses to forgive her husband Zeus for siring the young Heracles with another woman, so she makes life difficult for the boy, even driving him to fits of madness. In a violent rage, Heracles throws his twelve children into the fire, and then can only expiate his crime by carrying out twelve tasks, one for each child.

The fight with the Nemean lion

For his first task, Heracles is ordered to bring his master, King Eurystheus, the skin of the Nemean lion. The monster prowls the forests of the Peloponnese, invulnerable; arrows bounce harmlessly off its fur, and the beast simply shrugs off crushing blows from a club. The only option is to strangle it. So – job done. Heracles makes himself a protective cloak from the skin, and a crest from the lion’s head. When Eurystheus hears that the first test has been completed, he is seized with such terror that he refuses to allow Heracles to come and see him anymore. A messenger is to give him the remaining eleven tasks – outside the protective city walls.
Heracles with the Nemean lion, ca. AD 200, excavated in 1937 in a Zeus temple at Dura-Europos on the Syria-Iraq border.
Heracles with the Nemean lion, ca. AD 200, excavated in 1937 in a Zeus temple at Dura-Europos on the Syria-Iraq border. More than 40 statues of Heracles at this one location on the Euphrates document how popular the Heracles motif was at that time. There is a long-standing tradition of fights with lions in Eastern art. Depictions from Persepolis date back to the third millennium BC. Yale University Art Gallery
Hero and monster locked in a life-and-death struggle. But with the sculpture from Dura-Europos, this isn’t really clear. Doesn’t it look more like an elderly couple who, worn out after an exhausting night of dancing at the ball, are making their way home, both still dressed as lions, the husband staggering at a dangerous lean, his sweet-tempered wife slowly getting a bit annoyed, visibly gritting her teeth, but still valiantly pressing on? As a statue, the two seem a bit lumpen and awkward. Faces, bodies, legs – some bits of it could have been more skilfully done – but more compelling?
Heracles and the Nemean lion. Roman mosaic from Llíria, first half of the 3rd century, province of Valencia, Spain.
Heracles and the Nemean lion. Roman mosaic from Llíria, first half of the 3rd century, province of Valencia, Spain. A perfect snapshot in time: it’s still anyone’s guess as to how the fight will end and the hero’s iconographic attribute, the club slung away, hangs in the air, turning the moment into an eternity. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid / Wikimedia
Yes, it still happens: a real knock-down, drag-out fight to the death. Heracles and the Nemean lion are so closely intertwined that at first glance it’s almost impossible to work out who’s who. Gradually the lion’s left forepaw becomes discernible above Heracles’ leg, along with the hero’s right arm, perhaps the lion’s face, its mane, the musculature of its belly and back. It would have been easy to use colour to create a clearer distinction between the combatants. The artist was seeking to achieve the opposite.

The battle with the Lernaean Hydra

The second task, too, we naively think, should strike fear even in the heart of a hero. Deep in the remote and inaccessible Lernaean swamps in southern Greece, Heracles is tasked with rendering the Hydra harmless. But how is he to achieve this feat? As if a single head of this water serpent weren’t enough to deal with on its own, the Hydra has nine, and if one of those nine heads is cut off, two will immediately grow back in its place. Once on land, the monster rips apart entire herds of cattle.
Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra, Attic vase, ca. 540 BC.
Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra, Attic vase, ca. 540 BC. The hero is protecting himself with the skin of the Nemean lion he slayed earlier (visible on his head, wrapped around his body and hanging at the sides of his legs). Musée du Louvre Paris / Wikimedia
Even after two and a half millennia, the way the Hydra with its nine necks sways and swings back and forth sends a shiver down the spine. Wonderful. Could any snake be depicted as more sinister and menacing? And those contrasting colours! Hera, the mother of the gods, has sent a giant crab to the aid of the hideous beast. The crustacean nips the hero on the foot (at lower left) – a futile act. Heracles doesn’t even notice it. Simultaneous attacks are in a class of their own, even more so when paralysing poison is involved and every valiant partial victory over the beast doubles the danger. A division of labour is needed; a helper’s assistance is called for. Heracles cuts off the heads of the Hydra, while his nephew Iolaus cauterises the open stumps with flaming firebrands to stop the two heads immediately sprouting in place of each lost one. The faithful companion has set an entire grove of trees aflame for the purpose. Just nine trunks would have done the job.
Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), Heracles Killing the Hydra, 1545.
Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), Heracles Killing the Hydra, 1545. Cooperation and timing are perfect. But because the hero carried out this task together with the aid of a helper, it wasn’t counted towards the tally of his labours. Some clients have got a nerve! At lower left is the crab, but it’s not going for the “Achilles heel”. That’s a different story. Wikimedia

The Augean stables

There’s a stable that’s home to 3,000 cattle – that’s three thousand – and it hasn’t been cleaned in years. The quantity of dung produced by that number of cattle beggars description. Heracles’ assignment is to clean this stable in a single day – again, in the judgement of the times, another impossible task. And what’s more, dung is hardly an appropriate substance for a son of Zeus to be handling. What does he care! Heracles tears the stables off their foundations and reroutes two rivers through the cattle house. Voilà! Impossible? Nothing of the sort. But even then King Eurystheus finds fault with the task, saying it was the water that did the cleaning, not Heracles. Nit-pickers have been around since antiquity; they’re classics, in a manner of speaking.

Vive la différence!

Three tasks is enough. Obviously, Heracles also successfully completes the remaining nine tasks. There’s a boar and a bull that lay waste to the land as far as the eye can see, there are birds that shoot metallic feathers as deadly arrows, horses that eat people – not to mention defeating the three-headed hellhound Cerberus, whose name becomes the nickname of every virtuoso football goalkeeper who guards his goal as the hellhound once guarded the entrance to the underworld. Some of the animal adversaries personify nature in its life-threatening reality. But Heracles is rendering this service for others as an aside. He is focused on himself and his tasks, for which immense powers are at his disposal. However, he’s not just a self-absorbed muscle man. It takes more than muscular strength to capture a hind that flees as fast as the wind. Heracles lacks neither skill nor patience. He spends a whole year pursuing the animal. But nonetheless, there is no discernible code of ethics in the sense of a heroic morality, such as Homer ascribes to Achilles, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Friendship, empathy, magnanimity? None. Head and hand yes; heart not so much. But Heracles cannot be entirely without a heart. Otherwise how could he lose it?

A lovelorn hero

New adversity is coming. It becomes evident that heroes, demigods, even gods were not omnipotent in those days. They have no control over destiny. Every once in a while, fate unleashes a storm upon them. Heracles has committed a murder in a violent fit of temper, and now he must atone for his misdeed by performing slave labour. He is sold as a slave to the Queen of Lydia, Omphale. Heracles suffers, yearns, loses his mind – not because he has to protect the Lydian Empire, but because he falls madly in love with Omphale.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Heracles at Omphale’s house, 1537.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Heracles at Omphale’s house, 1537. The hero of heroes is made a mockery of by women, as the Latin inscription at the top of the picture states: “The Lydian girls put their housework in the hands of Heracles / that god who submits to the sovereignty of women / thus does lust inveigle the spirit of the great / and desire weakens the strong heart through effeminacy.” The two partridges (above left), a symbol of desire in antiquity, are another allusion to this. Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig / Wikimedia
The fact that the hero is delirious is shown by his unfocused and melancholy gaze, which is directed not at Omphale, but at an indeterminate point in the distance. In turn, his beloved, identifiable by her over-elaborate headgear, doesn’t dignify him with a glance. Heracles no longer knows where he is or where he came from, or what is happening to him. Unresisting, he has allowed the servants to remove the skin of the Nemean lion from his shoulders. In place of the lion skin, two servants have placed a woman’s white bonnet on his head. Before that, they placed a distaff in the crook of his arm and put thread and a spindle whorl in his hands. A laughing stock twice over! Maximum penalty number 1: hero in women’s clothing; maximum penalty number 2: hero doing women’s work. Esteem for women in free fall? On the contrary: Femina triumphans, at least in this painting which, admittedly, turns the actual gender hierarchy of the Renaissance upside down. It is precisely this fact that may have made the picture so popular when it was first created: the artful social reversal, the man as the woman’s plaything.

A business as good as the pictures

The painting divine, the subject human, the upshot: a money-spinner. Orders flooded in from every point of the compass. Lucas Cranach responded to the lively demand with a business acumen that was no less accomplished than his skill as a painter. He recruited talented assistants, and had them make a series of similar paintings according to directions and master paintings provided by himself and his sons. His formula for success was not just copies, but “tema con variazioni”. Each work is unique, and the formats also differ depending on the client. A subtle cross between a copy and a one-off. An important consideration for many when buying a picture: the master’s quality seal, tiny, dragon-like, winged, the “Cranach snake”.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid
Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, after 1537.
Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, after 1537. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawi / Wikimedia
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537. Fondation Bemberg Toulouse/ Wikimedia
Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, ca. 1535-1538.
Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, ca. 1535-1538. Wikimedia
Heracles, à discrétion: now contemplative or vacant, now seeming to impishly play along, now completely delirious, and finally, in empathy with Christ, as the trophy of a quietly exulting servant girl. Omphale, completely different three times, may suddenly be missing from a picture. There are two or three servants, as the case may be. There are two, five or no partridges hanging on the wall. Similar, but never the same.

Have a good trip!

Heracles has covered a lot of ground, especially under his Latin name, Hercules, from antiquity through the Renaissance to the classical period and from Historicism to the present (a stopover). How does he manage it? Every night he rests, in the starry firmament.
Depiction from the Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) with the constellation HERCULES (HERACLES), Danzig, 1687.
Depiction from the Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) with the constellation HERCULES (HERACLES), Danzig, 1687. Polish astronomer Jan Heweliusz was one of the most important astronomers of his era. Wikimedia

In a nutshell

First were the myths. Out of these were born sculptures, objects, paintings. The oldest depiction of an ancient myth presented here dates back to the 6th century BC. Two and a half millennia is an age that is beyond comprehension. We are completely spellbound by the meaning and expressive power of the works. The contemporary action films and graphic novels of the past decade take their place alongside the art-historical interpretations. Welcome to the musée imaginaire! In many cases, the Greek legends reflect the eternal dreams of humankind. What if, like Heracles, we could save the world from misfortune and suffering? However, heroic songs are best sung in two voices. In addition to the upper, light voice, there is usually a lower, dark voice. Herakles sends his greetings in two voices. What is the core of the message? The ancient myths confront us with a plethora of archetypal configurations, characters, motifs. The outlines of the conditio humana become apparent, and within them innumerable hypotheses about us. When we gaze into this cosmos, we get a sense of where we come from and who we are.

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