Herakles in the Age of Climate Chaos

On Monday afternoon of February 10, 2020, I went to the Classics department of Pomona College for a lecture on Herakles. Chiara Sulprizio of Vanderbilt University used cartoons and animation to help us understand the lasting influence and power of classical mythology.

She chose the Soviet Union and Russia to illustrate how animated Greek myths may have inspired a better future in the collapsing Soviet Union. Greek mythology has always been political and pedagogical. The Greeks repeated those mythological stories as memories of their early history.

Early mythological history is full of political views, which have the potential of uplifting modern people in their quest for freedom or equality and justice.

Chiara Sulprizio hit the nail on the head with her focusing on the life of the Greek mega-hero, Herakles. The animated cartoons sharpened the choices that emerged in the crisis of the Soviet Union-Russia at a time of almost revolutionary upheaval – in the late 1980s. Herakles’ killing of tyrants and struggles for justice probably inspired the Russians to recover their freedom and dignity.

American Skyla and Charybdis

Looking at the animated cartoons on Herakles inspired me as well. Here I am in the United States, studying Hellenic history, science, and mythology for decades, and I am still trying to return to Ithaca. I go from Skyla to Charybdis and, like Sicyphos, I struggle to take a large stone to the top of the mountain.

The United States, meanwhile, has a tyrant for a president. Trump, with the support of Republican Senators, and the oligarchs funding them, has been increasing  the ecocide and human harm and suffering all over the country.

The Greeks and Greek civilization, including mythology, don’t exist for this class of oligarchs.

The virtue of freedom and Herakles

So, Herakles appeals to me. He freed Prometheus, restoring the fire of knowledge among humans. He freed the world from monsters, tyrants, and injustice. He founded the Panhellenic Olympics. He took up the cause of making society and the world better.

The Greeks thought of Herakles as the hero who prevented evil and the hero who was handsome in his ceaseless victories.

Ancient Greek and Roman literature is full of stories and poetry about Herakles: from Homer to Hesiod, to Pindar to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato; the Romans Virgil, Ovid and Seneca; to the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. They praised the super human courage of Herakles and, sometimes, condemned his overreach.

Herakles threatening the Sun god Helios

In the tenth labor of searching for the cattle of Geryon, Herakles turned his bow against the god Sun Helios. He was hot and exhausted. He did not know where he was going. Helios admired the courage of Herakles and gave him a large golden cup to cross the River Okeanos to the island Erythia where Geryon grazed his cattle.

After the labors, Herakles started looking for a new wife. Eurytos, king of Oichalia, put up his daughter Iole as a wedding prize to anyone defeating him and his sons in archery. Herakles won the contest, but Eurytos refused to give Iole to him. His concern was that, if Herakles had children with his daughter, he might kill them, as he did to the children he had with Megara. Iphitos, the eldest of Eurytos’ sons, however, sided with Herakles, saying he deserved Iole.

Herakles’ conflict with Eurytos turned deadly. Iphitos was searching for some lost cattle and Herakles promised him help in finding them. Yet, for reasons that mythographers ignored or did not understand, Herakles killed Iphitos.

Herakles tried to seek forgiveness from the Oracle at Delphi for the murder of innocent Iphitos, but Pythia refused to purify him. Herakles got furious and grabbed the tripod to establish his own oracle. Apollo would not tolerate such offence. He started fighting with Herakles. Zeus separated them with a thunderbolt. Finally, Pythia said Herakles would be purified of his crime only if he agreed to become a slave for three years. Herakles did and Hermes put him up for sale to Omphale, queen of the Lydians.

Herakles: hero of heroes

Despite Herakles’ transgressions, probably because of the hatred of Hera, he remains the hero supreme in the Greek tradition: born a demi-god from a mortal mother, Alkmene, and the father of the gods and Greeks, Zeus. The Sun god Helios even lengthened the night to give Zeus more time with the exquisitely beautiful woman Alkmene.

Such a privileged position all but disappeared because the wife of Zeus, Hera, had to have her revenge. She could not do anything against Zeus, so she targeted Herakles. She made his life a living hell, starting at birth.

Pindar writes (Nemean 1. 37-48):

“The queen of the gods sent two snakes into the room of baby Herakles and his brother. However, Herakles saw the snakes and fought his first battle. He gripped both snakes by their throats and strangled them.”

We don’t know why Zeus did not prevent Hera’s mischiefs. Instead, he sent Athena to protect Herakles. The irony is that the name Herakles means the glory of Hera.

The importance the ancients gave to Herakles was his single-minded purpose of serving the public good. Even the Olympics, which he founded, transended athletic competition. The games brought Greeks together every four years from all over the Greek world. They listened to poets and historians read their works, building a community of common origins and interests. The games forbade hostilities or war.

Herakles is our hero. Our age of perpetual war, ecocide, and genocide could use the spirit of Herakles.

This brings me back to Chiara Sulprizio and her passion for animated myths. Go to her site and indulge in the beauty and virtues of Greek and Roman mythology.

I am also grateful that many colleges and universities teach Greek and Latin, Greek and Roman history, and mythology. We need lots of inspiration from our Western ancestors so we don’t blow up or poison the world. Climate change is a warning we are mistreating our Mother Earth.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.