Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Triumph of Herakles

Some of the most timeless stories in western literature are about the heroes of ancient Greece.

For millennia people have been inspired by Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Achilles and Odysseus. Many an ancient king and warrior has tried to emulate the actions and personae of these heroes, and even claimed descent from them.

Far and away, the greatest hero of all was Herakles.

There are so many stories related to Herakles (‘Hercules’ of you were Roman) in mythology that it’s impossible to cover all of them in a simple blog post. A book would be required for that.

So, this post is going to be the first in a two-part series on the hero. There are countless triumphant deeds associated with Herakles, but for our purposes here I’m going to cover the most famous of all – The Twelve Labours.

The Twelve Labours of Herakles have been the subject of art, sculpture and song for ages. Their portrayal decorated the ancient world from the images on vases to the metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In our modern age, we’ve seen him in comics, television shows, and movies, two of which are coming out this year!

But who was Herakles? Where did he come from?

Herakles was born in the city of Thebes. He was the son of Zeus who begat him on Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Zeus came to her in the guise of her mortal husband, Amphitryon, and so Herakles was born.

From the beginning, Herakles showed that he was not a ‘normal’ person. Out of jealousy, Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, sent two snakes to kill the baby Herakles in his cot. Herakles strangled the snakes with his bare baby hands.

When he was 18 years of age, Herakles began to really make a name for himself by slaying a lion on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron after hunting it for fifty days. During that time, he stayed with the king of Thespiae who was so impressed with the youth that he had him beget children on all fifty of his daughters.

Herakles was a man of extreme prowess, deeds, emotion and appetites.

King Creon of Thebes rewarded Herakles for helping him against his enemy, Erginus, king of the Minyans by giving him the hand of his daughter Megara with whom the hero had several children.

This is where things sour for the young hero. After all, this is a Greek story, and tragedy is never far behind to bring even the mightiest of heroes back to Earth.

Temple of Apollo - Delphi
Hera stepped in to afflict Herakles with madness, causing him to kill his wife and children. When his sanity returned, he was overcome with grief and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice.

The Oracle told him to go to Tyrins and serve its king, Eurystheus, for twelve years as punishment for his brutal crime. He had to complete all tasks set for him by the king, and this is the origin of The Twelve Labours.

It’s curious that the name ‘Herakles’ means ‘Glory of Hera’, since she persecuted him so much throughout his life. Then again, perhaps as Hera is the root cause of his Labours, his triumphs reflect on her?

I – The Nemean Lion

This first labour is probably his most famous, and takes us to the ancient land of the Argolid peninsula. The lion that was terrorizing the hills about Nemea had skin that was impenetrable to weapons and so Herakles, when he faced it, choked it to death with his brute strength and then used the claws to skin it. It’s this skin, which he used as a hooded pelt, that the hero became known for in art. If you see someone with a lion’s head on their own, it’s likely Herakles, or someone trying to emulate him.
Valley of Nemea

As a side note, Nemea was thereafter the site of the Nemean Games, one of the four sacred games of the ancient world, which also included the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games, and the Olympic Games.

II – The Lernean Hydra

When he faced the Hydra in the Peloponnesian swamps of Lerna, it’s a good thing that Herakles brought along his nephew and companion, Iolaus. Facing the monster, he discovered that when he cut one head off, two more grew back in its place. And so, after each head was cut, Iolaus would cauterize the stump before it could grow again. When the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the blood which was poison, even to Immortals. These arrows would come in useful in later episodes of the hero’s life.
Lerna, Greece

III – The Ceryneian Hind

Eurystheus, this time, thought he would set Herakles against Artemis with this third labour by telling him to capture a deer with golden horns that was sacred to the goddess. But Herakles pursued the hind for a whole year until he finally captured it and brought it before Eurystheus who, by this time, was always hiding in a jar whenever his cousin would return. The hind was allowed to go once it was brought before the king and so Herakles was able to avoid Artemis’ wrath.

Giving the Boar to Eurystheus
IV – The Erymanthian Boar

Around Psophis, in the Arcadian region of the Peloponnese, a massive boar had been giving the locals trouble and so Herakles was sent to capture it. He did so by pursuing it through deep snow in the mountains until it was so exhausted that he was able to capture it. Such a massive specimen would have made quite a sacrificial feast!

V – The Stables of Augeas

Athena helping Herakles to
clean the stables
Augeas was the King of Elis, and he had a cattle stable that had never been mucked out, EVER! In this case, it was not a monster that terrorized the locals, but rather the monumental stench. In this very different  labour, Herakles was told he had to clean out the stables. So, what did he do? What all heroes would do, he diverted the rivers Alpheius and Peneius so that they flowed through the stables and washed the titanic stink away. It’s no wonder the land thereabouts is so fertile.

VI – The Stymphalian Birds

In Stymphalia, there were flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks that infested the woods around the Lake of Stymphalus, again in Arcadia. Herakles was told he had to get them out. So, he scared them all from their hiding places and then shot them down with his great bow. No more birds.
Lake Stymphalos, Greece

VII – The Cretan Bull

For his seventh labour, Herakles had to leave the Peloponnese for the Island of Crete to capture and bring back the Cretan Bull. This was no ordinary bull. This was the bull that Poseidon sent to Crete for King Minos to sacrifice. When Minos refused, Poseidon made his wife, Pasiphae fall in love with it and from that union was born the terror that was to become the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull rampaged all over Crete until Herakles arrived, wrestled it to the ground, and brought it back to Greece. The hero’s friend, Theseus, would come back to Crete years later to take care of the Minotaur.

VIII – The Mares of Diomedes

Once more, Herakles was forced to deal with another group of man-eating animals. But this time they were not birds, but rather horses! The mares of Diomedes were in Thrace and so Herakles travelled there. He had a run-in with Diomedes himself and so, to tame the horses, Herakles fed them their own master. After that, the mares followed him back to Eurystheus.

IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte

Near the River Thermodon, just off the Black Sea, Herakles and his followers, including Theseus, went to the Amazons and their Queen, Hippolyte. The story goes that Herakles just asked this lovely daughter of Ares for her girdle, or belt, and she said ‘Yes’. Hera decided to step in and whispered to the rest of the Amazons that their queen was being abducted.

The Amazons attacked Herakles and his men who fought back, and in the bloody engagement, Hippolyte herself was killed. Herakles managed to get the girdle, but the cost of this labour was indeed heavy.
The River Thermodon

X – The Cattle of Geryon

The tenth labour is a sort of epic cattle raid. Herakles was told he had to bring back the red cattle of the three-bodied giant, Geryon, from the Island of Erytheia which was far, far to the west. This took the hero on a long journey into the Atlantic. On his way, he set up the Pillars of Hercules to mark his way.

But Herakles began to grow weary with the heat, and so Helios, God of the Sun, lent Herakles his great golden bowl or boat so that he could sail the rest of the way to Erytheia. Herakles succeeded in raiding the cattle and sailed in Helios’ boat back to Spain. From Spain he travelled to Greece and had many adventures on this mythic cattle drive.

There is a whole list of adventures he had on his way home, but the one I would like to highlight brings him in touch with the Romans. When Herakles arrived in Rome he came into conflict with a monster named Cacus after the beast killed some of the cattle. Herakles killed Cacus in what must have been a great battle of strength.

The Temple of Hercules in
the Forum Boarium in Rome
It’s interesting that in Rome, there are some steps leading off of the Palatine Hill called the Steps of Cacus which is where the monster is said to have lain in wait for passers-by. In the Forum Boarium, or cattle market, near the banks of the Tiber, there is a round Tholos temple dedicated to Hercules, commemorating the hero’s time in Rome.

XI – The Golden Apples of Hesperides

Hesperia was the garden of the gods and Herakles must have been exhausted when he discovered that he had to go back to the Atlantic. Some believe Hesperia was located on the Atlantic side of the North African coast. The garden was said to be beyond the sunset, where Atlas, the Titan, was holding up the sky.
Holding the Heavens for Atlas

The labour was to pick the golden apples that were guarded by a giant snake. In some stories, Herakles asks Atlas to pick the apples for him while he holds the heavens in his stead. In others, Herakles picks the apples himself and kills the serpent.

XII – Cerberus

There is one archetype that is common to most hero stories, and that is the journey to the Underworld.  And this is where Herakles must go in his final labour to bring the three-headed hound of Hades back to Eurystheus.

To get to the Underworld, Herakles gets help from the god Hermes, who travelled there regularly. Supposedly, they entered through the gate at Taenarum, in the southern Peloponnese.

There is a fascinating episode when they arrive in Hades’ realm. The shades of the dead flee from Herakles who wounds Hades himself with one of his poison arrows. The only shades who do not flee are Meleager, famed for bringing down the great Calydonian Boar, and Medusa, the Gorgon slain by Perseus.

The Gate to Hades
at Taenarum
Herakles drew his sword against Medusa but Hermes told him to leave her be. But Meleager told the hero his sad tale. Herakles, inspired by Meleager, said that he would marry the sister of such a noble man. And so, the shade of Meleager named his sister, Deianaira, to be Herakles’ wife. This at the end of his long penance for killing his family. Was it a new beginning?

Hades told Herakles that he could take Cerberus if he could bring him to heel without using his weapons. In true Heraclean fashion, he wrestled the hell hound and then brought it to Eurystheus. Afterward, Hades got his dog back.

The Labours of Herakles are not just adventure stories. They are stories of atonement, of courage, of strength of mind and body. Over and over, the hero is taken to extremes until he attains his final triumph, and his debt is paid.

But this is a Greek story. There is no celebration. For laurels dry out on the brow of even the greatest of heroes.

Herakles - older and tired
after his Labours
There is much more to Herakles’ story, and I for one have a lot more reading to do. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these tales.

In the coming months, I’ll post the second part of this series – The Tragedy of Herakles.

Until then, I’m looking forward to the two movies that are coming out this year.

Sure, they’ll be the usual Hollywood interpretations of the legends. And that’s ok!

The legends of Herakles’ triumphs should live on in any form, so long as they are remembered…


If you are interested in the upcoming movies, here are the trailers for both. I especially like the first one which seems to focus on the actual Labours. Looking forward to these!

Hercules (with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson looking the part!)

Hercules: The Legend Begins (with Kellan Lutz)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

In the House of the Muses

The Nine Muses
We’re going to a very special place today. It’s one of the only places where you can meet the past, step into it, whisper to it, and sometimes even touch it.

To the curious among us, to the lovers of history, and those who sometimes feel out of place in the present day, this can be a sanctuary, a place of pilgrimage, or a second home.

I’m talking about the Museum.

Have you ever walked among the displays or cabinets of a museum and paused to listen, to look, because some artifact grabbed your attention, because it whispered something to you from its niche?

I have, many times. I love walking among history’s ghosts. They teach, they inspire, they speak to us in ways that books don’t. These ghosts are our direct link to the people of the past, be it a mirror or piece of jewellery, dagger or even a nail.
Red Samian bowl

Someone hundreds or thousands of years ago touched the objects you see in a museum, held them dear, or created things with them.

Today I want to introduce you to some of the museums that have meant a lot to me. I’m not talking about those bastions of cultural heritage like the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Athens Archaeological Museum. We know all about those.

What I want to look at are the smaller site museums that often fly under the popular radar, but which contain the hidden gems that have fueled my academic research, and my novels.

The word ‘museum’ comes from the Greek ‘mouseion’ which means ‘House of the Muses’, or more literally ‘Place of the Muses’.

That is where I want to go.

Many of these museums are located on archaeological sites, and others hold artifacts of nearby places.

A lot goes into researching and writing an historical novel. You want to become acquainted not only with the big events and people of the day, but also the average person and his or her everyday items and routines.

It’s always a given when I’m doing research or travelling that my footsteps always lead me to the local museum.

When it comes to Roman Britain, one of my main stops is usually the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon, just outside of Cardiff, Wales.

Caerleon was the base of the II Augustan Legion in Britannia, and if you visit you can  see the remains of barrack blocks, a magnificent amphitheatre, and a wonderful bath complex where the men of the legions washed, socialized and exercised.

The National Roman Legion Museum itself is small but contains a wealth of interesting finds with which you can get right up close and personal. You can check out original pieces of armour and weapons, as well as re-creations, the all-important stone inscriptions that tell us so much about the Roman period, mosaics, amphorae and all manner of items such as the intaglio gemstones that the troops had set in rings but which were lost in the drains of the baths.
Caerleon's Museum

All of these items give some precious insight into the life of Roman legionaries at the edge of the Empire. The museum even has (last time I was there, at least) a re-created barracks room where visitors can see how troops lived together in the real blocks down the street. This museum and the site on which it is located are a great resource that should not be missed!

We’ll head north now to the Wroxeter Roman City site and museum. In Roman times Wroxeter, then Viroconium, was the fourth largest Roman settlement in Britain with about 5000 people. The site itself has impressive remains of a bath complex and palaestra, and the visual interpretations really help to give a sense of what it would have looked like.

Wroxeter's hypocausts
When I was there, it was for research into the Dark Age occupation of Wroxeter, mainly the villa that had been built there and which may have been used by the warlord Vortigern.

But for Roman history, the site museum contains several artifacts that would have been a part of citizens’ everyday lives. A recent addition to the site is the re-created Roman villa, or villa urbana. I love these sorts of re-created buildings because they can really give you a sense of the surroundings and bring a period to life. At sites like these, be sure to look out for days when demonstrations are being put on by re-enactment groups such as the Ermine Street Guard.
Wroxeter's recreated
 Roman Townhouse 

Now we’ll push on to Hadrian’s Wall. There are a number of sites and museums along that 73-mile-long monument. Any one of those is worth a visit – the scenery and history never disappoint!

Of the sites along Hadrian’s Wall, there are three that I would recommend: Birdoswald, Corbridge, and Vindolanda (just south of the Wall).

Birdoswald site and Museum
I went to Birdoswald to study its Dark Age occupation during the post-Roman period, but as ever, I was pleasantly surprised by the Roman history of the site. Birdoswald, or ‘Banna’ as it was known, is one of the best preserved of the 16 forts along Hadrian’s Wall. It is located in Cumbria at the western end of the wall, and has the foundations of barracks, horrea (granaries), a basilica and principia (headquarters building). This was a base for auxiliary forces until about A.D. 400 after which it was used by a local warlord as a power center.

On site is a museum with artefacts, interactive displays and, most interestingly, a very good model of the entire site during the Roman period, including the Wall itself.

Birdoswald drill hall interpretation
For a unique view of Birdoswald, check out the episode of Time Team, in which the archaeologists excavate over their usual 3-day period.

Corbridge (Roman ‘Coria’) is a different site from Birdoswald. This was not fort, but rather a town and supply base for the troops along Hadrian’s Wall where they could mingle and trade with the civilian population. The ruins are extensive and include more horrea, town streets, fountains, sewage systems and markets. The museum, as expected, has numerous small finds that were part of the everyday life of the military and civilian populations.

Corbridge museum artifacts
Site of Corbridge Roman Town

Roman Vindolanda, just south of Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, is a fantastic site where history and archaeology come vividly to life. This was the site of a fort and civilian settlement that predated the Wall, and the remains are vast, including a fort, a commanding officer’s residence, a barracks, a bath house, and some reconstructions of a Roman wall and a Romano-British residence.

Vindolanda ruins and recreated walls
The best part however, is in the museum. One of the most interesting and important finds to be unearthed at Vindolanda are the series of ‘Vindolanda Tablets’ as they are known. These are the oldest surviving hand-written documents in Britain. These wafer-thin pieces of wood with delicate ink scrawls provide a precious window into the lives of the people who lived and worked at this remote frontier of the Empire. They include a wonderful letter from one lady inviting another to a birthday celebration at her home. It’s a wonderful snap-shot of life on the frontier which must indeed have gotten lonely at times.
One of the Vindolanda Tablets

If you ever do make your way to Vindolanda, be sure to watch for the archaeologists at work. At this site, you can see excavations going on and I must say it’s fantastic when that happens. When I was there, every shovelful that I saw the archaeologists pull up had an artifact it in, a shoe, a piece of fabric, some glass etc. etc. It was amazing!

Our last stop on this small tour of museums profiling Roman collections and sites is the Trimontium Museum in Melrose, Scotland, in the Borders.

Trimontium Museum, Melrose
This site itself was used as a marching camp by Agricola’s troops c. A.D. 80 and had eight subsequent phases of Roman occupation all the way to the time of Septimius Severus’ campaigns into Caledonia in the early 3rd century.

Trimontium is so-named because of the three peaks of the Eildon Hills that overshadow it. It was on the marching route to the north and provided a visible meeting place for the legions and auxiliaries. Some of the most important finds to come from the area are the horse harness and ornamental cavalry armour of the troops that were stationed there.

These finds are wonderful and some can be seen in the museum in Melrose. Some other fun things that the museum had when I visited were some recreated Roman arms and armour that visitors could try on. It was good to heft a scutum and unsheathe a gladius! A very helpful item for research was the four-horned Roman cavalry saddle that I was able to sit in. This gave me a sense of what it was like to sit atop a horse in an age before stirrups. Great insights all around.

This post has turned into a look at museums dealing with the Romans in Britain, but in truth, there are many more little museums that have added a great deal to my knowledge and enjoyment of the ancient world.

Taunton Museum in Somerset was where I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cadbury Castle artifacts, as well as the Shapwick Coin Hoard which showed me the faces of Emperor Severus, Julia Domna and Caesar Caracalla up close and personal.

In Greece and Italy, the Olympia Archaeological Museum, and the Palatine Hill Museum in Rome, are places that I long to return to, for all the gifts they gave to me. The Bardo Museum in Tunisia holds some of the most important Roman mosaics in the world, and it was there that I got a good look at life in Roman North Africa.

There are so many!

I’ve really enjoyed this bit of reminiscence, and I hope this post tempts you to take the time to step into the local ‘House of the Muses’ next time you are visiting an ancient or medieval site. They’re everywhere and they all hold some gems.

If you’re lucky, you’ll hear those ghosts whispering in your ear as you pass by.

Yes! That's me having a bit of fun
in Trimontium.