An odd thought about Heracles

Published June 21, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

This is coming totally out of the blue, but lately I’ve been looking at some posts talking about some of the less well-known exploits of Heracles (less well known in modern times, anyhow), and a few minutes ago I had a…well, it wouldn’t be right to call it an epiphany (especially as it’s rather odd and probably wrong) but it struck me with that kind of lightning-like speed, and at the moment I had the thought I was sure it explained everything.  (Though giving it a little more thought made me realize that it didn’t make a lick of sense.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share it, in case anyone else found it interesting, but I’ll put it in context first.

Heracles, as most Greek myth enthusiasts know, was either born in Thebes, or born in Tiryns and then his family moved to Thebes when he was an infant.  (The former is the standard version, I believe.)  Either way, the point is that Heracles was raised in Thebes, and was a Theban hero who protected the city.  Particularly he defended it against the Orchomenians, who had conquered the city earlier, and now were demanding a huge payment from Thebes each year.  In some versions, he received the hand of King Creon’s daughter, Megara, in repayment for his victory over the Orchomenians.

All well and good, yes?

Except if you look at Heracles’ interactions with the other major mythic cycles.

Heracles was an Argonaut.  Heracles sacked Troy when Priam was a youth (and called Podarces in some versions of the tale).  And Heracles has no interaction whatsoever with the Theban Cycle.  And yet, two of the Epigoni fought at Troy, placing the earlier actions of the Theban Cycle squarely during Heracles’ lifetime.  (A fact made all the more glaringly evident by the fact that the king of Thebes in Heracles’ day goes by the name of Creon…which is actually a generic name for a king in ancient Greece, but…)

So, the thought that occurred to me was that the Thebes in Greece is not the only Thebes.

What if Heracles was originally from the Egyptian Thebes?

Heracles bears considerable similarities to certain Middle Eastern figures, particularly Mesopotamian and Phoenician ones, and in classical times there was an Egyptian figure believed by the Greeks to be Heracles.  (Though the latter isn’t saying much, since it was the traditional Greek practice to assume that all foreign gods were actually the Greek gods by the wrong names, and the mortal Heracles was deified upon his “death.”  (Though it’s actually much more complicated than that, considering his Mesopotamian forebear was never mortal, and in the Odyssey, the shade of Heracles appears along with the other dead, implying that during the Archaic era, Heracles was not considered to have become an immortal after death.))  So what if originally his parents fled all the way to Egypt, instead of simply to Thebes?  Cadmos, after all, was both a Phoenician and the grandfather of Dionysos, so it’s not as though the Greeks couldn’t admit foreigners into their divine family.  And the Greeks admired the Egyptians, while the Phoenicians were still “barbarians” to them.  (Though obviously more acceptable “barbarians” than, say, the Persians.)

There’s also one more Thebes, but I doubt it could ever have been Heracles’ homeland:  it’s a town near Troy, sacked by Achilles during the Trojan War (like so many others), and the birthplace of poor Andromache.

Of course, the Anatolian Thebes brings up another point:  just because in historical times there were only two Thebes, the Greek one and the Egyptian one, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been more of them in the Mycenaean era in which the myths began to form.  Perhaps there used to be another Thebes in Greece, and it was to that city that Amphitryon and Alcmene moved when they left Tiryns.

Given the utter disconnect between Heracles and the Theban Cycle (how could his entire life come in the gaps while Creon was ruling?), I think it seems most likely that he was not originally associated with the same Thebes as Oedipus and his family.  Maybe there used to be an Argive Thebes, which would make a lot more sense in many ways:  for good or ill, Heracles is always connected to Hera, and Argos was her region of Greece, plus then his family wouldn’t have fled so far.  On the other hand, if he was Peloponnesian, it would make less sense for him to be an Argonaut, since the Argo‘s crew was largely Thessalian — at least originally.

I’d have to check the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad to see if there are any other cities named Thebes listed, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t, so if I’m right and Heracles used to come from an entirely different Thebes, it was already lost and forgotten by the time the Catalog of Ships was first composed.  And that was a part of the Iliad that the poet inherited from generations of earlier bards, considering it’s describing the Mycenaean power landscape, not the Archaic one that was in place when the epic itself was composed.  So if there isn’t another Thebes in the Catalog of Ships, then for Heracles to have originally been associated with a different Thebes, his story would have to be really freakin’ old.  Unless he was originally from Egyptian Thebes.  That’s an entirely different matter…but I don’t know if the Greeks ever assumed that the Egyptian cities were city-states like their own, so…yeah, that’s a problem.

Another problem, of course, is that fact that Tiresias is lightly involved in the story of Heracles’ conception, at least in some versions, which rather requires him to have been born (and conceived) in that Thebes.

Ultimately, what bothers me about this little conundrum is how I’m going to handle the life of Heracles in my myth re-tellings.  I need to figure out what to do about that, because if he’s from the same Thebes as Oedipus, then why doesn’t he get involved in all of that?  What’s the timing?  If he’s from a different Thebes, then it’s a little easier to work out the chronology.  Or rather, the precise chronology is of little relevance, so I don’t have to stress about it.  (I just have to explain what Tiresias is doing in a Thebes other than the one he lives in.)

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