Emma Stafford’s Herakles (review)

Last month, my second book was published, a handbook on Greek mythology in Dutch, with the catchy title Goden, helden en monsters: de mythologie van de oude Grieken (which translates to Gods, Heroes and Monsters: the Mythology of the Ancient Greeks, in case you were wondering).

One of the problems I have discovered with writing books is that you’re never really done with them. They always somehow feels incomplete or inadequate. Then, of course, there are the mistakes that have managed to slip through, and the omissions that you wish you could correct. These tend to be silly things that most readers will probably never notice, but nevertheless bothersome to the author anyway. Hopefully, both Henchmen of Ares and this new one will sell enough to warrant the appearance of revised editions somewhere down the line!

One glaring omission in my mythology book is that I did not include, in the book’s further reading, Emma Stafford’s monograph Herakles, published in 2012 by Routledge (London and New York). My chapter on Heracles is only 14 pages long; allocating more space was simply impossible, since I also had to deal with the gods – both Titans and Olympians – as well as all of the shorter tales on heroes, the Theban Cycle, and the entire Trojan War, and it all had to fit a book not more than 200 pages thick.

Emma Stafford’s book is a little over 300 pages in length. Her foreword quickly introduces the topic and the reason for writing this book in the first place. Heracles is the most important of all the Greek heroes and was also venerated throughout the Roman Empire as Hercules. He has been the subject of countless scholarly articles and books, as well as conferences. Of all the Greek heroes, he was the one most often depicted in art. Stafford’s book therefore tries to consolidate the various strands of scholarship into a single, convenient handbook.

Her chapter “Introducing Herakles”, in the first part of the book entitled “Why Herakles?”, gives a convenient overview of the myth of the ancient Greek heroes and also treats some of the major themes and important ancient sources. The hero is then further discussed in a series of chapters that together form the second part of her book, entitled “Themes”. In the first chapter, she focuses on the Twelve Labours, before turning in chapter 2 to a discussion of Heracles’ other major battles. These chapters are very detailed in their treatment of the separate stories and their sources.

The remaining chapters to this part of the book explore the various aspects of Heracles. In chapter 3, the emphasis is on the tragic hero: Heracles was not a mighty warrior capable of performing impressive feats of strength (and sometimes also cunning), but he was also a complex character, a victim to fits of rage and madness, a slayer of his children and, depending on the source, also his first wife, Megara. This chapter focuses on this aspect of the hero couched largely within a discussion of Greek (Attic) drama.

Chapter 4, “Vice or virtue incarnate”, explores the more comedic aspects of the hero (which often focus on his drinking), before turning to a discussion of Heracles and his use in allegories and more philosophical discussions. Stafford then discusses what she refers to as the “romantic hero” to explore the many loves of Heracles, both female and male, with particular attention lavished on his servitude to Omphale.

Chapter 5 explores the political aspects of Herakles and starts with what is an excellent summary of the return of the Heraclidea. Many people used and abused Heracles, claiming descent from him or stating that their town or city was founded by him. Stafford discusses Heracles as a “political hero” in the context of ancient Sparta, Macedon, Hellenistic kings and non-Greeks, as well as Roman generals and emperors, before turning to his role as founder-hero and a lengthy treatment of Heracles in Athens. Particularly interesting, I thought, is the interpretation of Heracles in Athens as a hero of more broadly Greek and older aristocratic values, and thereby contrasted with the hero Theseus, who is seen as more specifically Attic and associated with Athenian democratic values.

Chapter 6, “Worship of the hero-god”, considers a last aspect of Heracles, namely his divinity. Heracles was a demigod, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Upon his death, however, he was made into a full-fledged god and allowed to live on Mount Olympus. As such, he was also worshipped as a god throughout ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Usefully, Stafford explores the cult of the divine Heracles region by region.

The final part of the book is entitled “Herakles afterwards”. The emphasis here is on the treatment of Heracles after the ancient era, including his appearance in Christian writings such as Dante’s Inferno, and his treatment in art and literature from the renaissance onwards. Space is also devoted here to discuss Heracles’ treatment in modern movies, with a lengthy discussion of the peplum-movies and the two films starring Steve Reeves in particular.

This is an excellent book, clearly laid out, and written in an engaging and pleasant manner. If you have any interest at all in Heracles (and by now I certainly hope that you do!), I recommend that you go and pick up a copy of this book.

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