Earth Spirits – Heracles

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Also known as: Herakles; Hercules (Roman)

Origin: Greece

Heracles’ origins are mysterious. His name means “Hera’s Glory” but until his deification, she is his mortal enemy. Alternative myth suggests she may really have been his mother, but classical Greek mythology identifies him as the son of Zeus and Alkmene, a mortal princess. Hera does all she can to prevent the birth; later sending snakes to assassinate the baby. Heracles, already incomparably strong, even in the cradle, strangles the snakes instead. Hera periodically strikes Heracles with violent madness so that he harms innocent people and those he loves. (Or at least Hera is blamed.) Heracles’ saga is a cycle of heroic acts and acts of expiation for the most terrible crimes. Heracles is a hero, the strongest man on Earth, capable of holding the entire Earth on his shoulders, the subject of numerous legends and entertainments.

That’s one way of looking at him. He is also a ruthless killer and assassin; champion of the Olympian order; a contract killer whose assorted labors involve eliminating sacred beings of earlier or alternative pantheons. Scholars have interpreted his labors as indicating the victory of terrestrial spirits over an older, more aquatic pantheon. Heracles is an ancestral spirit. Many royal lineages traced their descent from him. (He once lay with a king’s fifty daughters, all in one night, impregnating each one.) Although Heracles was mortal, after his death, Zeus deified him and brought him to Olympus, where he reconciled with Hera and married her daughter, Hebe. Heracles was venerated differently in different places and by different spiritual traditions:

• In Greece, he was venerated alongside Zeus and the Nymphs, invoked for prosperity, victory, healing, and good health. Heracles was associated with healing springs and thermal spas. During life, he was a fan of hot springs and thermal baths. As a spirit, he presides over them. The Greek term Herculean baths indicated naturally hot or artificially heated waters.

• Heracles evolved into Hercules, men’s deity in Rome venerated by merchants, traders, travelers, soldiers, and military personnel. He provides protection, success, and good fortune; offering blessings of vigor, good health, stamina, physical strength, and endurance. Hercules was the male counterpart of the Bona Dea, who refused to accept males into her presence. Hercules similarly rejected female devotees.

• The Romans carried his veneration or at least his name throughout Europe. In Celtic regions, Hercules evolved into a spirit of healing. Some theorize that Celtic Hercules is really a Roman name for Celtic deities like the Dagda, Ogmios, and Borvo. Little bronze statues identifiable as Hercules were offered at Borvo’s shrine at Aix-les-Bains. It’s theorized that heroic Hercules was considered a fighter against disease or disease demons.

• In Phoenician-ruled areas, Hercules is likely to be Melkart, whom the Greeks called Tyrian Heracles. Manifestation: A huge, muscled bearded man draped in a lion’s pelt (and usually nothing else)

Attributes: Club, lyre. (Chiron taught him how to play; he clunked another music tutor over the head with it, killing him.)

Consort: Hebe, Hera’s daughter, whom he marries after his death and deification; while alive, he had several wives and countless lovers, male and female.

Sacred dates:

• 30 June, dedication day of the Roman temple of Hercules and the Muses in 179 BCE

• 12 August, men offer sacrifices to Hercules Invictus (“Invincible Hercules”) at the great altar near the Circus Maximus. (Women are excluded.)

Sacred sites: He had shrines along the entire Mediterranean coast. Among the most significant were those in Cadiz (now Spain) and the ancient Phoenician city of Lixus (now Larache, Morocco), allegedly the site of the Garden of the Hesperides. He also had a mountain shrine atop Mount Oite in Greece, scene of his death and funeral pyre. The Via Herculea, or Herculean Way, is the ancient road that ran from Rome to Cadizhr, now in southwestern Spain .

Offerings: Heracles likes to drink. (He once lost a drinking contest with Dionysus. As payment, he spent time dancing in Dionysus’ processions.) He prefers wine but will not rebuff anything stronger. He likes extreme drinks such as over-proof liquors, if only because of his excessive machismo, but be careful not to serve him too much. Even as a spirit, he’s not a good drunk: too much liquor and he becomes unreliable. According to Roman tradition, Hercules accepts any food or drink offerings but only from men. True devotees usually tithe or offer him a percentage. Merchants offer percentages of proceeds earned. Soldiers of all ranks offered a percentage of booty won. Money may be spent on public feasts in Hercules’ honor. Animal sacrifices to Hercules had to be shared and eaten in their entirety. Lavish dinners were typically held in his honor with food shared by all attendees. The High Priest of his Roman temple used to gamble with Hercules. If the priest won, Hercules granted him favors. If Hercules won, the priest procured courtesans for the deity . Heracles is not quite so exclusively associated with men in the other regions where he was worshipped, although they were his primary devotees.