Hercules and Athena. Fresco, mid 4th century CE. Left hand arcosolium, cubiculum N, Catacomb della Via Latina, Rome.
Today is the Roman festival of Hercules Invictus (Greek: Heracles Kallinikos). He was worshipped as a protector of humanity, and his help sought against natural disasters, as well as disease.
Heracles was born in Thebes, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the daughter of Electryon, King of Mycenae and Tiryns, who was the son of Perseus and Andromeda. Hesiod describes Alcmene as a paragon of women: tall and beautiful, as charming as Aphrodite, and an exemplary wife to her husband, the hero Amphitryon.
Hercules had a patron in his half-sister Athena. Fearing the wrath of Hera, Alcmene and Amphitryon exposed the child. However, Athena found him and brought him to Hera, who did not recognize him, to be suckled. Athena later reunited Heracles with his parents.
The wrath of Hera followed the hero throughout his life. She induced a madness in him, under which influence he killed his wife and children. When he went to Delphi to seek purification, she guided the Pythia to send him to serve King
Eurystheus for ten years, resulting in the Twelve Labors. Afterwards, Hera sent another madness, which incited Heracles to kill his best friend, Iphitus of
Oechalia. Heracles returned to Delphi, and was sent to serve Queen Omphale of Lydia for three years.
Heracles had many other adventures. He was a member of the Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece. He killed a sea monster that plagued the city of Troy, and then sacked the town when the king refused a reward he had promised for the deed. He freed Prometheus from his chains, and rescued the princess Alcestis from Death. He was part of the thiasos of Dionysus, and became an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. He had numerous lovers, male and female, and had many children.
He competed for the hand of princess Deianira, daughter of the king of Calydon who ordered the hunt for the monstrous boar, and defeated the river god Achelous in a wrestling match to win her as his bride. Even though Heracles was the strongest man in the world, his reputation wasn’t enough to keep Deianira safe, and a centaur named Nessus attempted to abduct her. Heracles came to her rescue, killing Nessus with a poisoned arrow. But, as he lay dying, Nessus convinced Deianira to save a few drops of his poisoned blood to use in a potion to ensure Heracles would remain true to her. She applied the potion to one of Heracles’ garments, but the centaur’s toxic blood inflicted unendurable pain. In agony, Heracles built a funeral pyre for himself, which his friend Philoctetes ignited. His immortal side could not perish, though, and Zeus sent Athena to raise him from the flames. He was brought to reside with the gods at Olympus, where he married Hebe, Goddess of Youth, the daughter of Zeus and Hera.
Numerous regional cults were dedicated to Heracles in Greece, most notably at his birthplace, Thebes. He was worshipped in Egypt, where the town of Heracleion was named for him. His cult was introduced to Italy by the colonists of Magna Graecia as early as the 5th century BCE. The earliest temple to Hercules in Rome was in the Forum Boarium, and dates to the 3rd century BCE. Roman generals in the 1st century BCE delivered a tenth of their booty to Hercules at this temple.
It is possibly at this site that an ancient statue of Hercules stood, which, according to Pliny the Elder, was dressed to review triumphal processions as they passed.
Hercules Invictus, accept this offering! Help us to be strong and courageous in the face of adversity!