Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Emma Stafford, Herakles. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. London; New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xxvi, 302. ISBN 9780415300681. $32.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Hugo Koning, University of Leiden (h.h.koning@hum.leidenuniv.nl)

Version at BMCR home site

Herakles, the greatest hero of all time, is the latest addition to the increasing list of mythological characters scrutinized in the Routledge series Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. In this series, the book takes a rather exceptional place: much like the hero himself, it is bigger, heavier and decidedly more tawny than its fellows. And there is, of course, good reason for it. In the vast fabric of Greek mythology, the figure of Herakles forms a huge knot. Just as on the divine plane 'everything begins with Zeus', so on the human plane almost all heroes of different generations, tales and locations are somehow connected to Herakles. To fully investigate this figure and his place in the Greek imagination is truly – as is noted more than once in the book – a Herculean task. It took the author more than ten years, but the result is most impressive.

The goal of the Routledge series is not to present straightforward biographies of some of the best-known gods or heroes, such as Dionysos, Athena, Zeus, Perseus, Medea or Prometheus, but rather to investigate 'their multifaceted aspects within the complex world of ancient paganism.' The intended audience consists of the general reader and students of religion, myth, anthropology and literature. Generally speaking, the series succeeds admirably in combining description and analysis, and creates a full and complete account of the god or hero in question, while placing him (or her) in his (or her) cultural and religious context. In this respect, Stafford's Herakles is certainly no exception.

Herakles follows the general structure of the series: a brief introduction first, followed by a discussion in chapters organized by theme (the so-called 'Key Themes'). Stafford first discusses the twelve labors (chapter 1), and then Herakles' other martial exploits (2). Chapter 3 deals with tragic representations of the hero in antiquity, and chapter 4 with less obvious images, such as that of Herakles as a proto-philosopher or romantic hero. Chapter 5 investigates the way the image Herakles was used by kings and other leaders, whereas chapter 6 discusses the religious and cultic aspects of the hero-god. The final chapter (as always in the series) is on reception in post- classical times. Notes, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, a bibliography and (a useful) index come last.

The introductory chapter ('Why Herakles?') gives us an outline of the story of Herakles and discusses the most important sources – a very necessary exercise, since the myth of Herakles comes to us only in bits and pieces, until mythographers like Apollodorus, Diodorus and Hyginus offer their syntheses. The chapter's largest interest, however, is in the tantalizingly brief overview of past and predominantly modern interpretations of (parts of) the Herakles- myth. Of the modern kind, rationalistic, comparative, psychoanalytical, structural and ideological approaches are presented and applied to Herakles, which gives us an impression of how the hero is understood by modern scholars. Even though the book is explicitly aimed to bring the ancient context to life, I would have been most grateful if the author had expanded this section, especially since the modern approaches she touches on from time to time later in the book are mostly restricted to the rationalistic, historicizing or euhemeristic ones (i.e. those known in antiquity as well).

Chapters 1 and 2 offer us an overview of the hero's adventures: the well-known labors (ch. 1) and Herakles's other exploits, from the strangling of the snakes in his cradle and the killing of his music teacher Linos to encounters with Giants, centaurs, Argonauts, Cacus and Prometheus (2). Stafford's aim here is less analytical than descriptive. The exploits are neatly listed, and each time we get a brief outline of the story, the earliest versions in (Greek) literature and an impression of the popularity of the tale in the visual arts (pottery and sculpture). Much like Gantz,1 on whose valuable work Stafford relies, the overviews do not always present easy reading, but they are packed with valuable, relevant, up to date and often surprising information, provided with useful annotations. Anyone who wishes to familiarize himself with the deeds of Herakles could find no better place to start than here. The image of Herakles as a valiant monster-slayer is to a large extent archaic, as is shown in the chapter on the hero's appearance in tragedy (3). Sophokles's Women of Trachis and Euripides's Herakles form the focus of this chapter. Stafford skillfully demonstrates how the tragedians exploit the hero's tendency to excessive behavior, problematize the heroic tradition and focus on his weak spots, thus adjusting him to the tragic stage. In this chapter as well, Stafford is all-inclusive, discussing other plays and fragments, and comparing the Roman tragic Hercules in Ovid and Seneca with the Greek antecedents – she even mentions the hero's appearance in Roman pantomime and so-called 'fatal charades', mythological role-playing by way of capital punishment (Nero perhaps providing the most striking example in burning someone alive for stealing apples). While this chapter contains less to impress classicists, who might want to argue with some of the details in Stafford's interpretations, the selection and lucid discussion of the material are well done.

Chapter 4 presents three other images of Herakles developed from the 5th century onwards. The first is the 'cheerfully promiscuous glutton' familiar from comedy and satyr play, well known for representing in a 'heroically' magnified form man's inclination towards bodily pleasures. Less familiar, perhaps, is the intellectualized Herakles, the exemplum virtutis that Stafford plausibly retraces – through Prodikos' tale of Herakles at the crossroads and the hero's appearance in Pindar's epinicians – to allegorical representations in visual arts and literature. For the Cynics and Stoics, Herakles thus became a model for endurance and patience, a champion of freedom, and, interestingly enough, a man thoroughly disdainful of earthly pleasures and seductions. Different again is the third image, that of Herakles as a lover. This aspect of the hero is probably connected to his comic image, as Stafford argues, and thus – in my opinion – should have been more at home under that heading than as a separate category.

Stafford's thoroughness and eye for detail we see again in chapter 5, which focuses on the ways Greek and Roman leaders appropriated Herakles to legitimize claims to territory or political power. The chapter is subdivided in discussions (a) of Herakles as ´ancestor´, dealing with Spartans, Macedonians, Hellenistic kings and the many Roman generals and emperors who claimed to have Herakles´ blood in their veins; (b) of Herakles as a founder of both colonies and games; and (c) of the hero's place in the democratic ideology of Athens. The first two parts are very complete and rather enumerative, both characteristic of Stafford's book as a whole. The last part, on Athens, is perhaps the most interesting, since it aptly demonstrates that appropriation of a favourite cultural icon can be a very difficult enterprise. After Peisistratos' exploitation of the image of Herakles (which Stafford rightly says is 'difficult to pin down' but very likely), the hero was somewhat 'tainted' by an aristocratic ideology that was hard to get rid of in later times; consequently, his works were used as a model for the exploits of the more democratically-minded hero Theseus.

Chapter 6 confronts the difficult question of Herakles' ambiguous status as a hero-god. The book reaches its climax here, since it is ultimately the religious aspect of the hero that the book (and the series as a whole) wishes to elucidate. Stafford duly discusses ritual and remains of Herakles-worship in the Greek mainland, Magna Graecia and Rome, pointing to the duality of his status as both a hero and a god. Most often, Herakles is honored as a god with temples and sacrifices involving feasting, though there are several rituals with elements that are commonly associated with hero-worship (such as holocausts or partial destruction). Of greater interest is the way Stafford analyzes such evidence, rightly arguing for a historical development of the image of Herakles and putting the deification of the original hero somewhere in the late seventh century BC. Stafford offers some intriguing clues as to the nature of this duality (such as the similar status of Asklepios and Herakles' initiation at Eleusis), but leaves them, to my taste, underexamined.

Each book in the series ends with a chapter on 'post-classical variations', and it is hard to think of a hero or god who could boast a richer Nachleben than Herakles. Stafford probably faced her biggest challenge here, and in my view produced the best chapter of the book - for three reasons. First of all, Stafford's overview over the enormous quantity of material is very impressive. Naturally, it is impossible to present a comprehensive and systematic account, but Stafford – in the limited space available to her – comes pretty close, mentioning painting, sculpture, poetry, prose, movies, tv-show, comics and brand names and logos (and I am probably forgetting a few). Secondly, the wealth of material is presented in a most lucid way, organized both chronologically and thematically, from 'Herakles and the Christians' to 'Hercules the movie star'. And third, this chapter more than any other shows Stafford's pleasure in dealing with the subject, as she allows herself a somewhat more congenial style and the occasional digression, however small. This chapter is a very good read.

In short, Herakles is a well-edited,2 comprehensive and compact guide to the life and afterlife of the hero who turned god. It is packed with up-to-date information and relevant references, reflecting a long and thorough study of the subject. The discussions are most lucid and chapters are well organized, always concluded by helpful overviews. In my opinion, certain passages could have benefited from more analysis and less enumeration – but this focus is understandable as the book is explicitly aimed at both classicists and non-classicists, who may be less familiar with the material. All in all, I strongly recommend Stafford's Herakles to both categories: this book is now the place to start (and keep returning to) for anyone interested in the world's most famous hero.


1.   Gantz, T. (1993), Early Greek Myth: a guide to literary and artistic sources, Baltimore (MD).
2.   I found only a few typos (most of them in the last chapter): xvi Mythography > Mythography,; 7 encounterd > encountered; 26 three-headed, > threeheaded; 60 on > on and; 60 name-vase > the name-vase; 131 homoseroticism > homoeroticism; 214 chose > choose; 219 Medici family > the Medici family; 219 date > date.; 220 putto > putti; 225 Richlieu > Richelieu; 228 prima > prime; 230 identities > identifies; 233 movies > movies.; 233 make > male; 234 story, > story; 235 quarter > a quarter; 236 Teminator > Terminator

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