Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review, October 2005

Recent attempts to write "biographies" of Bacchus and Venus have not, in my view, been a success. There are two reasons: first, the lives of mythical gods and heroes are recorded in a wide range of different literary genres - epic, personal poetry, tragedy, comedy, collections of myths and so on - and since there was no such thing as an authorised version, they are generally irreconcilable; and second, Greek authors did not regard getting under a subject's skin - depicting a sense of his or her unique individuality - as a priority. It was what men and gods achieved that counted. Gods were interested only in success, which meant coming out on top and, if not, taking revenge. Mythical heroes tended to have the same priorities too, which in epic and tragedy were put under a searching ethical spotlight - did this man's actions show that he was self-disciplined, courageous, wise, just, pious, honourable, and so on? Such is not the stuff out of which a convincing modern biography can be created.

Sensibly, therefore, the young classical scholar Alastair Blanshard has chosen to turn the exercise into a cultural exploration of the "Hercules phenomenon", setting the differing accounts of the major incidents in Hercules' life found in ancient sources alongside the ways in which later ages have responded to this captivatingly ghastly hero.

Hercules is (via Etruscan) the Latin for the Greek Heracles (lit. "Hera- glory"). The name is slightly baffling, since Heracles was a son of Zeus by Alcmena, whom Zeus seduced after disguising himself as her husband Amphitryon. As a result, Zeus' wife Hera loathed Hercules and did all she could to do away with or frustrate him. She tried to prevent his birth, and when that failed, sent snakes to kill him in the cradle. Hercules upped and strangled them.

This whole scenario was wildly popular. B. examines its depiction in the wall-paintings of various houses in Pompeii; considers the implications of comic versions of Zeus' adultery in Plautus, Molière and Kleist (a pity that B. did not include Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38 - the thirty- eighth version of the story - in which Alcmena keeps on resisting the inflated suggestions of a self-satisfied Zeus about how it must have been for her, until he loses his temper and angrily demands what it had been like for her, to which she replies "so ... domestic"); and touches on Tintoretto and Rubens, who used the story to depict the formation of the Milky Way. This galaxy (Greek gala , "milk") was created when Hera tore Heracles from her breast after he had covertly snatched a quick suck in order to gain immortality, and her milk spattered the heavens. The scene so pleased Napoleon that he used it to decorate a dinner service he gave to Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

This is B.'s approach throughout as he discusses Hercules' early years, when he slaughtered his tutor Linus and was presented with the famous "Choice of Hercules" (an influential allegory about the life of Virtue or Vice); his madness, brought on by Hera, which led him to slaughter his wife and children; his atonement for this crime (the famous twelve labours); his attempted suicide on a funeral pyre (his wife Deianeira, hoping to win back his love, had unknowingly given him a poisoned tunic, causing him agony so unendurable he tried to kill himself), and eventual apotheosis; and finally his after-life as the model for strong men and body-builders all over the world, not to mention his starring role as camp movie super-hero. Here B. relates the splendid story of Eugene Sandow, the original 19thC strong man, who decided to enact Hercules' first labour and wrestle a lion, but one muzzled, mittened and possibly drugged, to be on the safe side. When the beast refused to respond, Sandow was reduced to pulling its tail. The crowd fell about. Sandow never tried again.

It all adds up to a most entertaining read. B. writes clearly about his subject, generally avoiding academic moron-speak (only the occasional "subvert", "problematise" and "critique" [as a verb] to flinch at), and his engaging enthusiasm encourages him to range far and wide. For example, while discussing Hercules' theft of the golden apples, B. remembers those Hellenistic mechanical toys that illustrated the scene (pick an apple, and Hercules would draw his bow, serpents hiss, etc.). This leads him into a brief digression on the ancients' failure - for which he suggests slavery is responsible - to exploit such technological know-how and anticipate the industrial revolution. B. is particularly good on the madness of Hercules and the issues it raises in Euripides Hercules about the purpose of heroism, in the Roman philosopher Seneca's Hercules Furens about the nature of madness (on the strength of Seneca's description, Hercules has been variously diagnosed with stylish illnesses like bipolar depression) and in Antonio Canova's dramatic sculptures that caused such a stir in the 19thC. Incidentally, I was fascinated to learn that Monaco is named after a Greek altar to Heracles monoikos , "living alone".

If there is a criticism, it is B.'s occasional tendency to sermonise (should Zeus' seduction of Alcmena make us think deeply about deceit, consent and rape? Certainly not) and to unearth important-sounding but wholly fanciful connections (always tempting for cultural historians). When Hercules erected pillars at the straits of Gibraltar to separate Europe from Africa, B. pontificates "the conceptual division he set up plays an important part in the subsequent European history of colonialism, genocide and enslavement of the African continent." Did Hercules really set up that particular conceptual division? And B. surely means "the sub-Saharan Africa continent", which rather wrecks the point. But it is wrong anyway: if there was any "conceptual division", it was between inside and outside the Mediterranean. Again, B. tells us that the hydra, used in cartoons to represent different problems stemming from the same cause, "allows us to begin to analyse and critique [ouch] institutions. The hydra allows the beginning of political theory." Come off it. It simply provides a useful image.

For all that, this is a wide-ranging, lively and enjoyable book, establishing an ideal model for writing a "life" of mythical gods and heroes.

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