Heracles’ Choice — The Olympic Games and the Human Need for Heroes

Pompeo Batoni, 1753, Hercules at the Crossroads

I’ve been staying up way too late this week watching the Olympic games in Rio. It has reminded me how much we love our heroes. It is not just the skill or physical ability of the athlete that we admire; it is what the athlete overcomes that makes him or her a hero. NBC understands this, which is why it seems half the Olympic coverage is dedicated to the “human interest stories” behind the competition.
 
As a writer, I think a lot about heroes and what makes a hero. You may recall, the Olympic games originated in the 8th Century B.C. in Greece to honor the god Zeus. One of the greatest mythological heroes of all time was Heracles, son of Zeus. You many know him better by his Roman name Hercules.
 
As the story goes, Heracles was half god (son of Zeus) and half man (son of Alcmene, a human). Thrown into madness by his jealous stepmother, Heracles murders his own family. When he comes to his senses he is overwhelmed with guilt. So Heracles goes to an oracle and begs for a way to atone for his actions. The oracle instructs Heracles to serve King Eurystheus for ten years.
 
King Eruystheus assigns ten labors to Heracles. Each task was designed to make Heracles fail and humiliate him on a public stage. The ten labors turned into twelve after the King rejected the work of two of the tasks, claiming Heracles had help. Nonetheless, it was quite a to-do list:
 
Slay the Nemean lion
Kill the nine-headed Hydra
Catch the Golden Hind of Artemis
Catch the Erymanthian boar
Clean the Augean stables in a single day
Kill the Stymphalian birds
Capture the bull of Crete
Steal the mares of Diomedes
Take the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons
Steal the cattle of Geryon the Giant
Steal the apples of Hesperides
Capture Cerberus, three-headed dog of the underworld
 
It is important to note that these were not normal animals, but godlike creatures with extraordinary powers. For example, the Nemean lion had golden fur that was impenetrable by arrows. The nine-headed hydra could regenerate its heads; if you chopped off one head two more grew in its place.
 
To the surprise and horror of the King, Heracles completed each labor. He was fearless and demonstrated incredible cleverness and strength, at times receiving divine help. After Heracles completed the final labor, which involved a trip to the underworld, the King became so terrified of Heracles’ strength that he released him from his service.
 
What I find interesting about Heracles is that his greatest victories were a direct result of his need to atone for his failures. To say Heracles was flawed would be an understatement. Not only was he responsible for his children’s death, he was known for his veracious appetite for food, drink, and sex, which eventually brought about his demise. Heracles died when his wife, angered by his philandering, gave him a tunic to wear. It was lined with poison and it burned his human form away until all that was left was his divinity.
 
But here is the thing about Heracles: he had a choice. As the story goes, when Heracles was a boy herding cattle in the mountains he was approached by two nymphs whose names were virtue and pleasure. They offered him a choice between an easy but unremarkable life or a glorious but hard life. Heracles chose glory. 
 
We love our heroes and praise them for what they can do, but we forget that heroes don’t live normal lives. Heroes live on the margins where their mistakes are public humiliations and their victories public adorations. I think that’s why we love our heroes despite their flaws. They had the courage to aspire for glory, to choose the hard road. With cleverness, strength, and at times a little help, they overcome their humanness to accomplish something extraordinary.
 
Ultimately, I think heroes give us the hope that we too may not be defined by our weakness but by our courage and strength.
 
Go team USA.

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