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Who Really Was Heracles?

Heracles depicted on a Greek amphora (circa 525-520 BC).
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Heracles depicted on a Greek amphora (circa 525-520 BC).

In an article published some time ago we dealt with the figure of Noah, showing how it was likely originated from the superposition of different characters, who lived in different places and eras.

This overlap of multiple individuals also involved one of the most important characters in Greek mythology: Heracles. Although his composite nature was already known in ancient times, to this day we don't know much about how it originated.

In this article we will therefore try to shed light, as much as possible, on the matter.


  • How many “Heracles” existed?
  • The historicity of Heracles
  • The Egyptian Heracles
  • The Greek Heracles

How many “Heracles” existed?

The Greek historian Herodotus was the first to distinguish amore ancient Egyptian Heracles from a more recent Hellenic Heracles (Histories, II, 43-44 and 145-146). He observed that the Egyptians had no news of the Heracles known to the Greeks, son of Zeus and Alcmene, although they worshiped a god of that name. The Egyptian Heracles would have been one of the "twelve gods", to whom the Egyptians attributed an age of 17,000 years. As evidence of the great antiquity of Heracles, Herodotus also mentions two Phoenician sanctuaries dedicated to him (one in Tyre, the other in Thasos) which were older than the era in which Heracles son of Alcmene would have lived, i.e. about 900 years before Herodotus. He therefore concludes that "there was a Hellenic hero of the same name as the Egyptian god."

We also find the same distinction in the Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus first speaks of an Egyptian Heracles, a relative of Osiris (I, 17), who fought against the Giants alongside the Olympic gods (I, 24). Immediately afterwards he reports the considerations of the Egyptians, which he shares, according to which such exploits are not suited to Heracles, son of Alcmene, who lived "a generation before the Trojan War", but to a much older character. It is for the latter, states Diodorus, that the club and the leontea are suitable, "because in those times, weapons not having yet been invented, men defended themselves from enemies with wooden sticks, and used the skins of wild animals". The Egyptian Heracles would also rid the earth of wild beasts, and for such benefits he would be worshiped as a god. Alcmena's son of the same name would have lived "more than ten thousand years later": called Alcaeus at birth, he later had the name of Heracles "because he tried to emulate the older Heracles in his life choice and inherited his celebrity, and also the name".

Further on (III, 74), however, Diodorus mentions a third Heracles: he would have been one of the Dactyli Idei of Crete, as well as the founder of the Olympic Games. Diodorus places him chronologically between his Egyptian and Greek namesake: the latter, "due to the homonymy and identity of the ideals of life, once he died, over time inherited the exploits of the two most ancient characters, as if only one Heracles had lived in all previous time."

Even Cicero, a contemporary of Diodorus Siculus, recognized the existence of several Heracles (“Hercules” according to the Roman wording). In The nature of the gods (III, 42) he name ssix: the first, son of Zeus/Jupiter (to be precise the "oldest" Jupiter, since according to Cicero there were other gods with this name) and of Lysithea; the second, an Egyptian son of the Nile; the third, one of the Phrygian Dactyls; the fourth, son of Jupiter and Asteria, sister of Latona, "venerated above all in Tyre"; the fifth, “what in India they call Belos”; the sixth, son of Jupiter (the "third Jupiter", distinct from the first and more ancient homonym) and Alcmene.

We could go further and quote Varro, who according to what Servius states in his Commentary on Virgil's Aeneid (VIII, 564) listed as many as forty-four Herakles, but I would say that the sources exposed so far are sufficient to get an idea of ​​the plurality of figures at the basis of the myth.

The historicity of Heracles

Having therefore established that Heracles is a composite figure, remains to establish his historicity. Unfortunately we have no evidence of the existence of historical figures identifiable with the hero (or rather, heroes) of the myth. But, of course, that doesn't mean that such characters never existed. The most likely scenario is that there existed several historical figures who were later deified, and on whom the various legends developed. The Egyptians, Diodorus Siculus informs us, stated that in addition to the celestial gods there were others, terrestrial, "who were mortal, but who due to their intelligence and the fact of having provided benefits to all humanity obtained immortality; among them some had also been kings of Egypt" (Historical Library, I, 13). Cicero expresses himself in a similar way: "The human community adopted the custom of elevating to heaven all those who had distinguished themselves in benefiting their fellow men... Hence the introduction of divinities such as Hercules, Castor, Pollux, Aesculapius..." (La nature of the gods, II, 62).

As we have seen, the Egyptians attributed great antiquity to "their" Heracles, even exceeding 10,000 years. And in fact the very wide diffusion of the figure of him, which we find among peoples even very distant from each other (from the Celts to the Etruscans, from the Indians to the Phoenicians), suggests that it is very ancient.

But how old? This article hypothesizes that the myth of Heracles has its roots as far back as the 10th millennium BC, therefore approximately the time of the Egyptian Heracles. In fact, the hero's twelve labors would clearly represent the path of the Sun along the twelve zodiac constellations; but the fact that the first consists in the killing of a lion would indicate the period in which at the spring equinox the Sun rose in the constellation of Leo , i.e. around 10,000 BC. Furthermore, in the same period the polar star corresponded to Iota Herculis, therefore it was located precisely in the constellation of Hercules!

The constellation Hercules in an illustration from Johann Bayer's Uranometria (1603).
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The constellation Hercules in an illustration from Johann Bayer's Uranometria (1603).

The latter could just be a coincidence, since the constellation was associated with Heracles only in the Hellenistic era. However, as writer and astronomy expert Ian Ridpath states, “the origin of this constellation is so ancient that its true identity was forgotten even by the Greeks.” According to some, it has a Babylonian origin, but as we had already seen, Mesopotamian astronomers probably drew on much older sources. It cannot be ruled out, therefore, that it was created around 10,000 BC to commemorate the Egyptian hero, who must have enjoyed considerable celebrity at that time. Perhaps the biblical author was also referring to him when he spoke of the "heroes of antiquity, famous men" (Gen 6, 4): not surprisingly, the same verse mentions the Giants, against whom the Egyptian Heracles would have fought.

So let's try to better understand the historical figures at the basis of the myth of Heracles. The sources examined so far, although they do not agree on the number of characters, all mention an Egyptian and a Greek Heracles. To simplify, therefore, we will distinguish only these two figures, aware of the fact that they are most likely not the only ones.

The Egyptian Heracles

We have seen that Herodotus speaks of Heracles as one of the "twelve gods" of Egypt. However, while he states for example that Osiris corresponds to Dionysus, Horus to Apollo and so on, he never reports the Egyptian equivalent of Heracles. It is not easy, therefore, to establish with which divinity he should be identified. Possible candidates include Shu, god of the air; Khonsu, lunar god, son of Amun as Heracles was of Zeus; and Hershef, venerated in the city of Heracleopolis.

Hershef's name, vaguely assonant with that of Heracles, leaves open the possibility that the latter could also have an Egyptian, or in any case non-Greek, origin. Usually it is traced back to the Greek Hera-kles, or "glory of Hera", which however has every appearance of being a paretymology. On the other hand, Diodorus Siculus already distrusted this interpretation, stating that the Greek Heracles had inherited the name from his Egyptian namesake. Several modern scholars have also expressed doubts about the traditional etymology, but for the moment the question remains open.

So who was the Heracles venerated in Egypt? As we have already observed, he was probably one of the ancient civilizers, like other characters later included in the local pantheon: Osiris, Isis, Horus, etc. Could he also have been one of the mythical predynastic rulers? Diodorus Siculus, in fact, states that when Osiris left on his civilizing mission he appointed Heracles as "general of the whole country" (Historical Library, I, 17). A Hercules also appears in a version of the Egyptian Royal List provided by the monk George Syncellus, who attributes it to the Egyptian historian Manetho (c. 3rd century BC). He includes Heracles among the demigods and assigns him 15 years of reign (this number is actually obtained from the conversion of the years into lunar months, and is therefore to be understood as 185). However, this "semi-divine" Heracles cannot be the same "divine" character who lived at the time of Osiris, or (again following Diodorus Siculus) "just over ten thousand years" before Alexander the Great (Historical Library, I, 23), therefore around 10,500 BC.

But the thousand-year antiquity of this mythical character takes us straight back to the era of Atlantis. That Atlantis of which the Egyptians themselves had preserved the memory, which Plato put in writing in the dialogues Timaeus and Critias.

As we explained in, the Egyptians certainly knew the language spoken in Atlantis, which must have belonged - like theirs - to the Afro-Asiatic family. One might therefore wonder whether the exploits of Heracles set in the West, such as the capture of Geryon's oxen, are perhaps not the memory of ancient contacts between Egypt and Atlantis (locatable precisely in the West). But we could go even further and hypothesize that Heracles and the other civilizing "gods" came from Atlantis. On the other hand, the Egyptians claimed to have been under the dominion of the island (Timaeus, 25a; Critias, 114c); and the red hair of some pharaohs (as well as the god Seth) would seem to accord well with a Western provenance of the ruling elites, perhaps since predynastic times.

The "Atlantic" dimension of Heracles, evident above all in some myths, would also explain the diffusion of his figure among the Semites (in particular the Phoenicians), whose links with the Atlantic world we had already dealt with recently ( The Phoenician Heracles, the tutelary deity of Tyre, was called Melqart, or “King of the City” (Milk-Qart). If we give credit to Cicero, we should distinguish Heracles of Tire from his older Egyptian namesake and from his more recent Greek one. But Melqart also left traces in Greek mythology: his name in fact echoes that of Melicertes. The latter, as well as Heracles himself, was also called Palaemon, a name in which the Phoenician Baal Hammon can be seen. But these parallels do not surprise us too much, being aware of the ancient and prolonged contacts between the Phoenicians and the Indo-Europeans.

Melqart, the Phoenician Heracles, depicted on a coin from Cadiz. Note the lion skin.
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Melqart, the Phoenician Heracles, depicted on a coin from Cadiz. Note the lion skin.

The Greek Heracles

We now come to Heracles of Greek mythology, the most recent (and therefore the most "historic") of the characters with this name. The oldest sources that mention him are the Homeric poems, which mention his expedition against Troy at the time of King Laomedon, father of Priam (Iliad, V, 640-642), and his famous labors, in particular the capture of Cerberus (Iliad, VIII, 367-368; Odyssey, XI, 623-625). One of his sons, Tlepolemus, participated in the Trojan War at the head of the contingent from Rhodes (Iliad, II, 653-654).

The fact that Heracles was known to Homer indicates that he was a character who lived in Northern Europe, the true homeland of the legendary poet. Indeed, many of his labors, although first mentioned only in much later sources, bear traces of an original Nordic setting. Some of them, such as that of the Lernaean hydra and the Stymphalian birds, take place in swamps, much more common in Northern Europe than in Greece. During the hunt for the Erymanthian boar, Heracles manages to trap the animal by causing it to sink in the fresh snow. It is in the land of the Hyperboreans that the hero captures the doe of Cerinea (clearly identifiable with a reindeer), and it is also there that some mythographers placed the garden of the Hesperides. The Amazons that Heracles deals with during the ninth labor could be those that the medieval historian Adam of Bremen placed on the coasts of the Baltic, perhaps the same ones that Homer talks about in the Iliad (III, 189). And finally, the Hades where he captures Cerberus is the same one where Ulysses goes, in the country of the Cimmerians, orin the far north.

The references to his figure in the Germanic world also raise suspicions of a Nordic origin of the Greek Heracles. The Germans, Tacitus informs us, had a particular predilection for Heracles, whom they considered the bravest of all heroes (Germania, 3). Some attributes of the god Thor, such as superhuman strength, have made him compared to Heracles. Even some legendary Germanic kings closely resemble the Greek hero: one of them is the Dane Gram, who according to the historian Saxo Grammaticus went around dressed in goat's fleece and brandishing an enormous club; he also would have fought against the Giants (Gesta Danorum, I, IV, 2). How can we not then think of the berserkir, the warriors who fought wearing bear or wolf skins? The "fury of the berserkir" (berserksgangr), an explosion of uncontrolled rage that pushed these warriors to attack anyone without making a distinction between friends and adversaries, closely resembles the episode of Heracles' madness, which led him to kill his wife and children.

Bronze plate found in Torslunda, on the Swedish island of Öland, and dating back to around the 7th c
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Bronze plate found in Torslunda, on the Swedish island of Öland, and dating back to around the 7th century AD. On the right is depicted a berserker wearing a wolf's skin.

If our reconstruction is correct, then, the Heracles mentioned by Homer should have lived during the Early Norse Bronze Age, a generation or two before the Trojan War. Although it may seem like a very ancient era, it is not ancient enough to consider all the Heracles that we find in the Indo-European world as stand-ins for the Homeric one. As we have now amply demonstrated, the myth of Heracles has its roots in a much earlier era.

The presence of the myth of Heracles already among the archaic Indo-Europeans is suggested, among other things, by the parallels with the Sumerian-Babylonian one of Gilgamesh. Some of them could be due to contacts that occurred in the classical era, but others could date back to an older period. Both Heracles and Gilgamesh are part human and part divine; both have an inseparable companion, Iolaus and Enkidu respectively; both kill a lion and wear its skin; both descend to the Underworld; during his sea voyage to the West, Heracles uses the lion's skin as a sail, just as Gilgamesh does with his cloak; and both go in search of herbs that confer invulnerability and immortality respectively.

Another element supporting the existence of an "Indo-European Heracles" is the similarity between the myths of origin of the Scythians and the Celts: in both stories, the progenitor of the people is generated by Heracles during his return from the tenth labour, the capture of Geryon's cattle. This and other elements in common would suggest that one of the two myths was the source of the other, but it cannot be excluded that both derive from a more ancient common source.

All things considered, what do we really know about Heracles? It is likely that the myth of him was inspired by several historical figures, who lived in places and eras very distant from each other. Clearly, there are still many unanswered questions; but perhaps, in the not too distant future, even these metaphorical "Pillars of Hercules" will be able to be overcome.


This article is the english translation of the italian article "Chi Era Davvero Eracle?" by Merlo Bianco. You can find the original article here:

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