How does one stop a raging Heracles? Throw a boulder at him. No, that’s not a bad joke, that is how Athena brings Heracles, who has been driven mad by the goddesses Iris and Madness at the order of Hera, back to his senses in the ancient Greek play by Euripides, Heracles. But I get ahead of myself.
Our hero Heracles is off performing his final labor, bringing Cerebus up from Hades to the light of day. He’s been gone a long time and presumed dead by many. Back in Thebes, Lycus has staged a coup and has decided that he is going to kill Heracles’ father Amphitryon, his wife Megara (the daughter of the rightful king of Thebes) and Heracles and Megara’s children. Lycus wants to burn them all alive, but Megara, hoping to buy some time, manages to convince him to let them dress themselves in funeral robes and be killed properly (burning is a coward’s death).
All this talk about being put to death goes on with the children present. They are naturally upset by it and start crying and clinging to Megara’s skirts. Amphitryon tells Megara to calm the children down by deceiving them “with the poor deceit of stories.” Since the children are right there when he says this, it is obvious that Amphitryon doesn’t think they understand what he is talking about. The children aren’t babies though, they are three young boys probably from toddler to about age five or six.
Just a few pages later as Megara and Amphitryon are negotiating the conditions of their deaths with Lycus, while the children are still right there, Amphitryon says:
But there is one favour we beg of you, lord: kill me and this poor woman here before you murder the children, so that we don’t have to witness the hideous sight of them breathing their last and calling on their mother and grandfather.
Obviously the adults don’t think the children will be distressed watching their grandfather and mother be murdered! To add to this, in a few more pages as Megara is dressing the boys in their funeral robes, she tells each of them what kingdoms Heracles has planned to give each of them when they came of age so they would know how much their father loved them and how rich they would have been if they weren’t about to be murdered. From the play it seems the Greeks thought highly about the physical well-being of their children but had no thought at all for their mental or emotional well-being. Maybe that’s why there were so many wars between cities, the men had to find some kind of outlet for their mental and emotional issues. And the poor women, I suppose they took it out on their slaves.
Anywho, so along with all this, Amphitryon is feeling a bit betrayed by Zeus. Zeus is Heracles’ biological father and Amphityron sees himself as having allowed Zeus to share his wife, Heracles’ mother. He considers himself and Zeus to be co-fathers and thinks that Zeus owes him something for the privilege. Because Zeus is not intervening he declares himself the better father since he didn’t betray Heracles or Heracles’ sons. Amphitryon talks big but really, when Zeus shows up and wants your wife it’s not like you have any say in the matter. He’s lucky Zeus didn’t strike him dead with a thunderbolt or turn him into a toad or something.
About two-thirds of the way through the play Heracles finally shows up all full of himself and looking for a bath, a good home-cooked meal and a roll in the hay with his wife. Only he finds them all in tears and dressed in funeral attire. They tell him what has happened and Heracles being Heracles says, don’t worry, I’m back and I’ll kick Lycus’ ass, so
Cheer up, and stop these floods of tears. And you, wife, pull yourself together and stop trembling — and let go of my cloak, all of you! I have no wings; I’m not about to flee from my loved ones. Oh, they’re not letting go my cloak, but are clinging to it even harder. Was your situation so precarious?
Heracles, are you such an idiot? You arrive home to your family dressed for death! Precarious? If Heracles had been 15 or 20 minutes later he’d have arrived home just in time to see them all being killed! And so we now know where and when the stereotype of dumb musclemen began.
Heracles lays a trap for Lycus, by sending his father out to tell Lycus to go inside the house to get Megara and the children. When Lycus and his men go inside, Heracles kills them all. But while this is going on, Hera, who hates Heracles because Zeus cheated on her, sends the goddesses Iris and Madness with orders to make Heracles go crazy and kill his family. The orders are carried out and Heracles kills Megara and his children. Amphitryon escapes the carnage because he is still outside the house. Athena then throws that boulder at Heracles and he comes to his senses.
Heracles goes outside all covered in blood and crying over what he has done. But that’s not the end of the play, no, because our hero must be absolved. Theseus appears looking for Heracles. Heracles rescued Theseus from Hades where he was imprisoned (but not dead) for something I don’t recall what, and the two became fast friends. Heracles is hiding his polluted self beneath a cloak so Theseus doesn’t have to look at him and risk becoming polluted too. But Theseus, sounding a bit like Heracles earlier tells him to buck up, it’s not as bad as all that, you’re the great Heracles, pull yourself together! He tells Heracles to come back with him to Athens, they will perform purification rights there and Theseus will give Heracles some land he has acquired, set him up, give him a chance to start over.
Then there is a touching moment of, gosh wow, you’d really do that for me? And sure, you bet! That’s what friends are for! And the play ends with a lovely little moral declaimed by Heracles:
Anyone who would rather have wealth or strength than good men as friends is a fool.
Chest bumps all around!
On a more serious note, Heracles was popular among both the Greeks and Romans because he was part man and part god. He had super powers but was human at the same time and was seen as a kind of bridge between man and the gods. The message of Heracles is that men must rely on themselves (and good friends!) and, as Amphitryon pointed out, moral goodness is a human trait and does not belong to the gods. It is really interesting how, from Aeschylus, through Sophocles and now Euripides, we can see how the Greeks and their relationship with the gods is changing. The gods still have power, but humans are starting to realize that the gods cannot be relied upon and begin taking matters into their own hands.
The next Euripides play to look forward to is Children of Heracles. I think these are different children than the ones Heracles killed in this play, which means thanks to Theseus Heracles managed to start a new life. What a relief!