A Herculean Choice

Hercules as an exemplar of Chivalry

by Jamie Acutt — Posted on 4th July, 2014 ( | words)

Hercules, or in the original Greek Hēraklēs (Ἡρακλῆς), is the name attributed to a mythic and divine hero according to Greek and Roman Mythology. His name comes from two Greek words Hēr (Ἥρη) from which is derived the modern English word “Hero”; and kleos (κλέος) which means “deeds”, “fame” or “glory”. With the meaning of his name, already we are struck with a very potent image of what Hercules represented. Needless to say, he was the prime choice for patron of the palaestra (the combat school, usually used to refer to wrestling), of athletes1 and of heroes. He was often cited as having removed all dangers from the face of the earth in order that mankind might live with greater safety. For this reason, he is also mentioned as having been the Protector of Mankind2.

It is easy for us to assume that such an ancient personality should assert little gravitas on such a distinctly Medieval framework, yet when delving past the surface of both Chivalry and the Hercules myth, we may find so many correlates so as to prompt us towards reassessment.

Indeed, this having been said, Hercules is not listed amongst the 9 worthies by Caxton, nor is he often attributed in martial literature. The presence of Hercules is often subversive, given that is presents may often amount to nothing more than a representation on a frontispiece, or a reference in an introduction. Yet the myth serves as a crucial allegory for the application of Chivalry in one’s life, that it includes lessons almost directly followed by the proponents of Historical Chivalry.

The Path of Virtue: A Herculean Choice

Take for example the initial allegory created by the philosopher Prodicus, who authored a parable using Hercules as its motif. The meaning of his name would have been significant for Prodicus, who used the device to demonstrate the important properties of Choice. Although no such example of Prodicus’ original parable exists, there is a recording of it in Xenophon's Memorabilia (2.1.21–34, recording the remarks of Socrates) wherein he cited ‘wise Prodicus’ as its author. This parable was recalled by Xenophon as “"Education of Heracles by Virtue” but later became known simply as ‘The Choice of Hercules’. In the Memorabilia3, Xenophon tells us (Translated by H. G. Dakyns)

"When Heracles was emerging from boyhood into the bloom of youth, having reached that season in which the young man, now standing upon the verge of independence, shows plainly whether he will enter upon the path of virtue or of vice, he went forth into a quiet place, and sat debating with himself which of those two paths he should pursue; and as he there sat musing, there appeared to him two women of great stature which drew nigh to him. The one was fair to look upon, frank and free by gift of nature, (30) her limbs adorned with purity and her eyes with bashfulness; sobriety set the rhythm of her gait, and she was clad in white apparel. The other was of a different type; the fleshy softness of her limbs betrayed her nurture, while the complexion of her skin was embellished that she might appear whiter and rosier than she really was, and her figure that she might seem taller than nature made her; she stared with wide-open eyes, and the raiment wherewith she was clad served but to reveal the ripeness of her bloom. With frequent glances she surveyed her person, or looked to see if others noticed her; while ever and anon she fixed her gaze upon the shadow of herself intently.
"Now when these two had drawn near to Heracles, she who was first named advanced at an even pace (31) towards him, but the other, in her eagerness to outstrip her, ran forward to the youth, exclaiming, 'I see you, Heracles, in doubt and difficulty what path of life to choose; make me your friend, and I will lead you to the pleasantest road and easiest. This I promise you: you shall taste all of life's sweets and escape all bitters. In the first place, you shall not trouble your brain with war or business; other topics shall engage your mind; (32) your only speculation, what meat or drink you shall find agreeable to your palate; what delight (33) of ear or eye; what pleasure of smell or touch; what darling lover's intercourse shall most enrapture you; how you shall pillow your limbs in softest slumber; how cull each individual pleasure without alloy of pain; and if ever the suspicion steal upon you that the stream of joys will one day dwindle, trust me I will not lead you where you shall replenish the store by toil of body and trouble of soul. No! others shall labour, but you shall reap the fruit of their labours; you shall withhold your hand from nought which shall bring you gain. For to all my followers I give authority and power to help themselves freely from every side.'
"Heracles hearing these words made answer: 'What, O lady, is the name you bear?' To which she: 'Know that my friends call be Happiness, but they that hate me have their own nicknames (34) for me, Vice and Naughtiness.'
"But just then the other of those fair women approached and spoke: 'Heracles, I too am come to you, seeing that your parents are well known to me, and in your nurture I have gauged your nature; wherefore I entertain good hope that if you choose the path which leads to me, you shall greatly bestir yourself to be the doer of many a doughty deed of noble emprise; and that I too shall be held in even higher honour for your sake, lit with the lustre shed by valorous deeds. (35) I will not cheat you with preludings of pleasure, (36) but I will relate to you the things that are according to the ordinances of God in very truth. Know then that among things that are lovely and of good report, not one have the gods bestowed upon mortal men apart from toil and pains. Would you obtain the favour of the gods, then must you pay these same gods service; would you be loved by your friends, you must benefit these friends; do you desire to be honoured by the state, you must give the state your aid; do you claim admiration for your virtue from all Hellas, you must strive to do some good to Hellas; do you wish earth to yield her fruits to you abundantly, to earth must you pay your court; do you seek to amass riches from your flocks and herds, on them must you bestow your labour; or is it your ambition to be potent as a warrior, able to save your friends and to subdue your foes, then must you learn the arts of war from those who have the knowledge, and practise their application in the field when learned; or would you e'en be powerful of limb and body, then must you habituate limbs and body to obey the mind, and exercise yourself with toil and sweat.'
"At this point, (as Prodicus relates) Vice broke in exclaiming: 'See you, Heracles, how hard and long the road is by which yonder woman would escort you to her festal joys. (37) But I will guide you by a short and easy road to happiness.'
"Then spoke Virtue: 'Nay, wretched one, what good thing hast thou? or what sweet thing art thou acquainted with—that wilt stir neither hand nor foot to gain it? Thou, that mayest not even await the desire of pleasure, but, or ever that desire springs up, art already satiated; eating before thou hungerest, and drinking before thou thirsteth; who to eke out an appetite must invent an army of cooks and confectioners; and to whet thy thirst must lay down costliest wines, and run up and down in search of ice in summer-time; to help thy slumbers soft coverlets suffice not, but couches and feather-beds must be prepared thee and rockers to rock thee to rest; since desire for sleep in thy case springs not from toil but from vacuity and nothing in the world to do. Even the natural appetite of love thou forcest prematurely by every means thou mayest devise, confounding the sexes in thy service. Thus thou educatest thy friends: with insult in the night season and drowse of slumber during the precious hours of the day. Immortal, thou art cast forth from the company of gods, and by good men art dishonoured: that sweetest sound of all, the voice of praise, has never thrilled thine ears; and the fairest of all fair visions is hidden from thine eyes that have never beheld one bounteous deed wrought by thine own hand. If thou openest thy lips in speech, who will believe thy word? If thou hast need of aught, none shall satisfy thee. What sane man will venture to join thy rablle rout? Ill indeed are thy revellers to look upon, young men impotent of body, and old men witless in mind: in the heyday of life they batten in sleek idleness, and wearily do they drag through an age of wrinkled wretchedness: and why? they blush with shame at the thought of deeds done in the past, and groan for weariness at what is left to do. During their youth they ran riot through their sweet things, and laid up for themselves large store of bitterness against the time of eld. But my companionship is with the gods; and with the good among men my conversation; no bounteous deed, divine or human, is wrought without my aid. Therefore am I honoured in Heaven pre-eminently, and upon earth among men whose right it is to honour me; (38) as a beloved fellow-worker of all craftsmen; a faithful guardian of house and lands, whom the owners bless; a kindly helpmeet of servants; (39) a brave assistant in the labours of peace; an unflinching ally in the deeds of war; a sharer in all friendships indispensable. To my friends is given an enjoyment of meats and drinks, which is sweet in itself and devoid of trouble, in that they can endure until desire ripens, and sleep more delicious visits them than those who toil not. Yet they are not pained to part with it; nor for the sake of slumber do they let slip the performance of their duties. Among my followers the youth delights in the praises of his elders, and the old man glories in the honour of the young; with joy they call to memory their deeds of old, and in to-day's well-doing are well pleased. For my sake they are dear in the sight of God, beloved of their friends and honoured by the country of their birth. When the appointed goal is reached they lie not down in oblivion with dishonour, but bloom afresh—their praise resounded on the lips of men for ever. (40) Toils like these, O son of noble parents, Heracles, it is yours to meet with, and having endured, to enter into the heritage assured you of transcendant happiness.'

With Hercules’ choice, we may bear witness to the decision being taken by those who wish to achieve heroic status (of which Hercules, like all Mythological inventions, is a personification). Whether that choice is conscious or unconscious, the pursuit of noble deeds by means of a mode of Virtue is compelling and inspiring. In Prodicus’ parable, the reader already is familiar with Hercules and his deeds, and so the choice which he is to make is known before even reading it. Yet the insight into the mind-set which must precede such deeds is valuable to a Chivalric audience.

Components of the Myth

Lessons

He was a personification of ‘Heroic Glory’

He represents the quintessential model of what a 'hero' should be.

His story is an allegory for the achievement of greatness and worth.

As Aristotle said, ‘it’s easy to avoid criticism if one does nothing, achieves nothing and ultimately is nothing’ – if we do anything, or achieve anything then we are ultimately open to criticism – yet it is the aim to achieve that cannot be criticised.

In Hercules’ early life he was clumsy and inept

It’s impossible to be naturally great at everything, but it is possible to practice to become good at anything
All skills must be learned, including reading, walking, sitting, eating etc., those skills just were practiced at a time of our lives that most don’t remember
Even Hercules couldn’t overcome his foes first time, he had to learn to overcome them.

He was accused of crimes, which he may or may not have actually done

We do not have to have lived a perfect life (mistakes are often the fastest way to learn), but believe that maintaining virtue even in the endurance of life’s challenges contributes to one’s Nobility.

Hercules made the conscious effort to pursue a path of Virtue

A decision which became a life-long Mode of how to live one’s life according to Good Ethics.

His life was a narrative based upon dedication to deeds, virtue, effort and achievement
In each deed, there is a trial of skill, in which he must learn the path to success

Aim to achieve, to apply effort
People might criticise your achievements, but one day your achievements may become a ‘body of achievements’ which represents ‘worth’.

The greatness of his deeds mark him out as Great

As Di Vinci once stated: ‘We’re all born equal, and through practice the gap increases’ – therefore practice and dedication to anything will mark you out amongst the general populace. Greater time or effort relative to your peers will mark you out from them. Repeated good effect increases worth, and self-belief which adds to your credibility. The more people who believe you to be credible, the greater your authority and reputation. Lesson: focus on the right deeds.

Hercules achieved the deeds that others couldn’t

As a strong, agile and healthy individual, Hercules applied his talents and gifts to benefit and help others. The knight is expected to ‘Bear the burdens others cannot bear’.

His eventual place amongst the gods, and amongst legend and perpetual remembrance ever since was the product of this dedication

In the Illiad, Achilles must make an important et extreme example of choice (Homer, Book 9)4 between Life and Glory. This example, though entirely extreme, suggests that rememberance was as valued as life itself.

  1. Athloi, means Labour. Especially in the context of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. This is the origin of the term ‘Athlete’ which refers to those who take part in physical effort.

  2. Biography of Hercules, at the Perseus Project

  3. Xenoph. Mem. 2.1, and Cic de Off. 1.32.

  4. Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death: If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies...

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Chivalry