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Are We Wrong About Hercules? – Op-Ed Piece


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Are We Wrong About Hercules? – Op-Ed Piece

Hercules is one of the most iconic names and characters in all of literature. You can’t talk Greek mythology without bringing him up, and until the modern era of superheroes becoming universally known, Hercules was the most popular character around. His name is still something that many know of, even though he is older than most civilizations. You will find the occasional pretentious scholar who will say, “It is Heracles, not Hercules.” Yeah, sure, dude. Whatever you say. You can call him Heracles and feel happy that you know some Greek mythology, but I am going to call him Hercules because that is what everyone else calls him. Just to give you an idea of how far back Hercules goes, the son of Zeus was old when Alexander The Great was going around being all great and Alexandery.

I also gotta mention this side story because when I heard this, I couldn’t believe it. The Milky Way, the science one, not the candy bar, is named after the breast milk of Hera sprayed across the sky. Apparently, the story is that as a baby, Hercules was sucking on his mom, Hera’s breasts, as she slept, and when she woke up, she got the baby off of her, spraying her milk across the sky. Yeah, I just had to mention that story cause that is one of those stories that I couldn’t believe when I heard it. We named our Galaxy after breast milk. Let that sink in for a minute.

Hercules has proven that there is, in fact, some sort of immortal standard that a figure can obtain if they are great enough at whatever they are doing. If you want to live on for years to come, if you want generations to talk of you, then you have to represent something that they will go through in their lives. They go through that struggle after you are dead and gone, but you are the one that is spoken of as they do it. It’s tricky since there are only so many universal things that many of us can agree on. But if you can hit this mark, and be the best at whatever the hell it is you are doing, then you got it made, my brother.

We live in a world of characters, real or not that we like to use to define our lives here. We have the heroes and villains, the romantics and the outcasts, the winners and the losers. Each of these needs a standard to live up to, an example that everyone knows, a name that stands for it.

Hercules is one of those people. He represents the really strong man. That’s about it. Sure there are other parts to him, but for the most part, we see him as the really strong man. When we see someone enormously strong, say a bodybuilder or an athlete, we think they are like Hercules. An enormous amount of strength in an individual is something that many of us know, so we don’t need to know Hercule’s full story in order to relate to him. So what about the lion? Who cares about the boar? What is this about a three-headed dog? That guy is really strong, and so was Hercules, so that guy is like Hercules. This simple train of thought is the most think of the iconic figure, which may not seem like much, but I’d like to see people talk about you a few thousand years after you lived, (or supposedly lived, or they wrote the stories of you. I should probably tell you that nobody knows if Hercules was real, in that there was a man who it was based on.)

I am here to tell you how we think Hercules would be in our world today is not correct.

Let’s get to the most commonplace that I have seen his name being thrown around; sporting events. A hitter hits a home run out of the park, or a running back goes for a touchdown at a full stadium; We all celebrate and say that was Herculean. That homer traveling 460 feet is Herculean. That run of 85 yards was Herculean. In other words, it took a lot of strength. No one really objects to this comparison since the announcers and color commentators all understand Hercules on the level most of us do, as the really strong guy. But that is the funny thing about the well-known comparison. Hercules was not an athlete. In fact, he wasn’t even an athlete in the ancient world. He didn’t fight in the gladiator games. He didn’t run races. He didn’t do anything that the ancient people or we would consider being athletic. (Okay, Hercules did found the ancient Olympic games, so I will concede that one) He completed tasks that are closely related to hunting than any real sport. He never dunked a basketball. He never ran a marathon. He never did any of that. So why do we all associate him with sports? I mean, we all know why the athlete was to be as strong as the Greek hero, but they fail to admit that the Greek hero would never be in the sporting event himself. He is on the battlefield fighting his enemies or completing one of his 12 Labors.

There is actually another ancient figure that many of us get wrong; when we put him in an arena of life, he would never be seen in his day; Julius Caesar. There is this wide notion that Julius Caesar would be at the gladiator games giving a thumbs up or thumbs down judging the competitors. He wasn’t like that at all. He was a warrior king. He was too busy trying to invade Gaul and exploit his political rivals to waste his time on the people at the gladiator games. But you will see many assume that the man killed by Brutus would be invested in the combat of the gladiators. That’s not historically accurate. In fact, did you know that we have the idea of the thumbs or thumbs down for an emperor to decide the fate of a gladiator wrong? Most think that at the end of a gladiator match, the emperor had the decision to kill the loser or not. Thumbs up meant let him live; thumbs down meant to kill him. It was actually the opposite. Thumbs up meant to make the kill, which rarely happened; you have to remember that gladiators were investments, so why would anyone want them killed consistently? It is a bad business model to destroy your stock on a daily basis. Thumbs down meant not to kill the person. But let’s get back to Hercules.

There is the popular opinion that Hercules would be the really strong guy at the gym, pumping iron, doing squats if he was around in our modern world of steroid-induced athletes and yoga pant wearing women. This characterization of the Greek God also misses the point of his character. Hercules isn’t known because he could do many pushups or did a heavy deadlift. He never competed in any events for medals or trophies that he won. His strength somehow is too good for those manly events. It is almost as if it is below him. At least, that is how the story of Hercules presents it. The strong guy at the gym may think he looks like Hercules, as he stares at himself in the mirror after doing some crunches, but he fails to acknowledge that Hercules himself was not an athlete or even a trainer in his day. The last place any of us would find Hercules would be a gym, yet that is where he is referenced most.

I have already told you he isn’t an athlete on the field breaking records and winning titles, or the guy at the gym running on the treadmill breaking a sweat, so who is he? We know that Hercules was a warrior king; yes, that was a thing. He was a warrior that fought his way to be king; it is pretty self-explanatory. (Caesar was that too, but focused more on the king part) Hercules went out to find beasts and monsters, and he went on explorations. What does someone who does that call themselves? You could consider him to be a hunter, like someone that Teddy Roosevelt was in his life. The stories of Hercules have him go out and kill an animal. Sure he does it all bad-ass with nothing more than his hands, but he is showing his prowess as a hunter. Now, if you don’t like this theory, then I suggest reading what I wrote about Harper Lee for more fresh takes you’ll hate, and if you still believe that he is closer to an athlete than hunter, then you can consider him a sort of soldier in his story. Something akin to a marine. He is, after all, a warrior who has had experience in battles.

Also, I have a theory that Hercules wasn’t as tall as you or me or anyone thinks. Yeah, sorry, but he probably doesn’t look like The Rock. Why do I say this? Simple, it is how we describe him. We say he is strong, not something else.

  • He isn’t tall – If Hercules was a tall guy, we’d notice that over his strength. Tall is a very common way to describe someone of a certain height because not many are that height aside from that person.

  • He isn’t small – This is the same as the tall saying. We call someone small.

  • He isn’t big – When we call someone big, that takes precedent over them being strong because we notice it right away.

We don’t mention any of these for Hercules, so that leads me to think that he wasn’t any of them, including being tall.

When you say that someone is strong, you are talking about what they do, not what they look like. Even though we all assume that Hercules is incredibly fit, there are many strong people in this world, that don’t necessarily look like the fittest people. Sumo wrestlers and gymnasts could both be considered strong yet have very different body types because being strong is an action, not a physical trait.

My guess, if Hercules was real, is that he wasn’t as strong as he appeared. He was of average height, and only after he did a great deed would anyone say he was strong. You don’t call someone strong by how they look. Even the examples that I used earlier of the home run or the long run, the player was considered Herculean after the fact.

Hercules presents a very interesting question for readers and writers alike; does the character make the action, or does the action make the character? Do we like Hercules cause he is really strong, or because he is able to accomplish all those amazing feats? We all know a few buff guys, but none of us are going to be talking about what they did in their life a few thousand years from now. We also know men who have accomplished great feats, some even more impressive than Hercules. Yet, it is his name that we speak of when we bring up athletic, physical greatness and will be for years to come.

Perhaps the true greatness of Hercules is not his strength at all but the ability to touch so many people long after his story is told.




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Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes that the reader shares that same passion.


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