The Apotheosis of Hercules

It is why Atlas shrugged

Most are familiar with the hero, but do you know how Hercules died? The root cause of his death was rumor and deceit. You’ve heard of the mighty legend’s strength, so you may wonder how such a petty trifle could best him. Well, do not worry. His death was not inglorious.

               It began when, one day, Hercules and his second wife, Deianeira, were travelling and came upon a river with a strong current. As they paused at its banks, a centaur showed up and offered to ferry Hercules’ wife on his equine back. The raging waters were no obstacle for Hercules but were for his wife, so Hercules accepted the centaur’s help, though his wife was just as scared of the centaur as she was of the river. Nonetheless, Hercules had full confidence in himself and no alarm for the situation, so he set off fording the river first.

               After he crossed the river, he looked back only to see the centaur running off with his wife! Quickly, Hercules equipped his bow and cast a poisoned arrow into the beast’s back, killing it.

               With its last dying words, the centaur feigned an apology, asking for forgiveness for his devious nature by offering Hercules’ wife a gift: that if she should take the bloodstained shirt off his back and ever give to Hercules, it would make him love her even more – like a love potion.

               Some time later, years in fact, Rumor, here in human form – many human behaviors and natural phenomena were personified as minor gods like Envy, Rumor, Hunger, and Echo in Hellenistic and other ancient societies – spread word that Hercules was falling in love with a foreign princess. So believing this lie, Hercules’ wife remembered the shirt she was told would make Hercules fall in love with her again!

               When given the shirt, Hercules saw it as a keepsake from his wife, a trophy of his kill and rescue. But both were ignorant to the fact that the blood, which had been spilt out of the centaur, was drawn by the poison arrow tipped in Hydra’s blood (a monster Hercules had prior killed whose blood was poisonous). He then wore the shirt. Once on his body, it clung to his skin and burned like hot glue. It seared his flesh and seeped down to his bones, and deeper still it boiled into his bone marrow. And when he would try to remove the shirt, he would pull skin off with it! In this agony, Hercules ran up the nearby mountain, toppling the trees of its forest in his dying rage. All those in the region could hear his horrifying throws and groans getting worse and worse as the poison ran its course.

               Hercules’ mighty strength kept him alive too long. Finding no relief from the pain, he sought the sweet release of death. So, he gathered up the trees he had felled and lit them up on fire, set up as his funeral pyre. A smile crept up his face as he reclined down unto the flames, like bathing in a spring pool – so intensely did the poison burn that the heat of actual fire felt cooler.

               Now, Hercules was well loved. Even the gods watched on in despair, biting their nails and crying. Jupiter, his divine father, was proud. He beckoned the gods and thanked them for their genuine love and care for his son. He assuaged their worries by reminding them that he was the hero’s father. Therefore, there was a touch of the divine within Hercules, an element untouchable by fire. So, as was custom for the process of turning mortals into gods, Jupiter convened the gods so that may allow in consensus to raise Hercules up to the heights of heaven to be transformed into a god himself. All approved of this apotheosis, even Jupiter’s sister-wife, Hera, who had resented Hercules for being born of a mortal woman whom Jupiter adulterously impregnated.

               With this approval in hand, Jupiter bade the gods to witness the ascension of Hercules’ divine form as the fire relieved Hercules of his mortal binds. Even greater in stature than while alive was this god-form of Hercules that Atlas, bearer of the world, shrugged when he felt the new weight of Hercules the god land upon heaven.

The Apotheosis of Hercules François Lemoyne, 1731-1736
The Apotheosis of Hercules, François Lemoyne, 1731-1736 with Hercules located just left and beneath the exact center of the image holding a club in his hand.

Categories: Mythology

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5 replies

  1. What a great story. Reminds me, once again, the beauty of Greek mythology. Metaphorically many of the plots in this story applies to the betrayal and conniving we experience when deceitful people (also governments) extend a helping hand. Keep us informed!


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