Mythology Summary and Analysis

Hercules; Atalanta

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Hercules is considered the greatest Greek hero of all. Unlike Theseus, who was both very strong and thoughtful, Hercules simply is strong. In fact, he is the strongest man who has ever existed, and therefore he considers himself something of a god. Indeed, he is half-god, a son of Zeus. Supremely confident, Hercules showed his brute force from a very early age, when he wrestled a snake that had slithered into his baby cradle.

The saddest incident of his life occurs after he has married Princess Megara and had three children with her. Hera, Zeus's jealous wife, cannot forgive her husband for having had Hercules as an illicit son, so she sends Hercules into insanity. One night Hercules goes mad and unwittingly kills his three boys. When he realizes what he has done, he almost kills himself, but Theseus persuades him to go on living; that is the heroic option.

To cleanse himself, Hercules visits the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle tells him to go to Eurystheus, who sends him on almost impossible challenges. Hercules completes all of his twelve labors: killing the lion of Nemea, killing a creature with nine heads called the Hydra, capturing a stag with horns of gold, killing a boar, cleaning the thousands of Aegean stables in one day, exiling the Stymphalian birds, going to Crete and retrieving the beautiful savage bull that Poseidon gave Minos, retrieving the man-eating mares, bringing back the girdle of Hippolyta, returning the back of the cattle of Geryon (a monster with three bodies), bringing back the Golden Apples of Hesperides—and, finally, bringing Cerberus, the three-headed dog, up from Hades.

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When Atalanta's father sees that his child is a girl, not a boy, he leaves the poor infant on a mountaintop to die. Luckily for her, a she-bear discovers her and raises her to become a fast, daring young woman. She builds a reputation for being the best huntress in the land and becomes famous for killing a ruthless boar. Of all her adventures, the story of the golden apple is most famous. Atalanta decrees that she will marry whichever suitor can outrun her in a race. Knowing that she is faster than everyone, Atalanta smugly beats them all to the finish line.

But one man, named Hippomenes, gets three exquisite golden apples. Along the race, the suitor drops one apple at a time. Atalanta cannot resist stopping to pick them up, and to her surprise, the suitor wins the race. She makes good on the vow and becomes his wife.

Analysis

Hercules, one of the most famous Greek figures, shares a trouble with Theseus, for both men inadvertently kill their sons. For Hercules, justice means engaging in a series of feats of strength that almost no mortal could accomplish. Psychologically, it makes sense that Hercules would look for wisdom at such a time from the Oracle and that he would face his demons by engaging in endless trials of his virtue. Of course, his incredible strength and superhuman power secure his place in legend. Nonetheless, his need for purification, which draws him into action, is at its core a human rather than a divine aspect of his being.

Moreover, his acts of purification align him more closely with Bellerophon, who killed his brother by accident. In both of these situations, the hero's good will does not affect his wrong actions. In the case of Hercules, who kills his children simply because Hera puts a spell on him, the tragic killings appear especially unfair. Why should Hercules be punished for crimes he committed because of Hera's manipulation? In the way he accepts his fate and seeks purification, Hercules proves himself to be humble in the way that Greek culture promoted.

Like the myths about Theseus, Perseus, and Bellerophon, the tales of Hercules combine high adventure with unforgettable characters. The stories remain classic examples of the incredible story-telling techniques of the Greek myths.

Juxtaposed with the extreme strength of Hercules is the extreme speed of Atalanta. She fails in one of her labors, however; ingenuity beats speed in her final race. The temptation of a beautiful apple slows the woman down (compare Eve in Genesis). Despite this trickery, however, Atalanta is still faster than Hippomenes and all the other men. Still, the lesson here is that a person has been foiled by her own greed; without this important character flaw, the trick would not have worked.

The theme of competition also is clear in the story of Atalanta. As in other myths, the competition serves as a narrative climax to the story. Indeed, Atalanta imbues the race with great importance: her romantic future, the lives of her competitors, and her impressive athletic reputation all are on the line. A competition in physical prowess demonstrates who has the most physical virtue and deserves honor in the society.

The story also underscores the importance of fate. Although Atalanta's father leaves her for dead in the woods, he cannot keep the she-bear from raising her as one of her own. As we have seen in several other stories (Io and Prometheus, Bellerophon and Pegasus), the relationship between Atalanta and a she-bear marks a strong connection between an animal and a human. Again, this theme suggests a connection between the natural world and the human spirit.