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.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers