Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The reality

Casa del Cinghiale II, fauces mosaic depicting a boar.

It is time to turn to what a real atrium house looked like. I must admit here that I have never encountered an atrium house that even remotely follow the classical, standardized, plan. My first example on how a house might look will be Casa de Ceii (through a plan), but notice that the pictures will come from a lot of different houses. My aim is to show you how much the different parts of the house might differ. The main examples will hopefully come from the fauces (beginning with the fauces), atrium and hortus as these are the parts that I should have material from.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Client benches.

This is the entrance to an atrium house in Herculaneum. Notice the bench where clients would wait in the morning.

I am quite sure that I have mentioned the client patronus system before, but I will give a quick walkthrough again.

Rich members of society were normally connected to equals by a friendship status (amicita-ae) while the lower classes could become clients of a patronus. This system was a way to help each other, the clients could ask their patronus for a service (food, money, help in court etc). The patronus would in turn expect their votes in elections, being followed by them on the way to the forum (more clients would mean more power) and could ask them to perform labor for him. A critical part of this system was the salutation where clients would come to salute their patron in the morning.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Roman stairs

Many houses had an upper floor, normally not preserved, and thus had to be equipped with stairs. These were commonly constructed by making the first 3 or 4 steps in concrete and the rest in wood. This picture is an exemption from Casa del Menandro in Pompeii and you can see it in context here. Notice how space was saved by using a mini vault.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


We will also have to take a look at another critical part of the Roman house - the toilet. These are nothing like the slightly monumental public toilets put up at forums, baths and so on. (pictures from Ostia and the Roman Agora in Athens)

A Roman toilet would typically be placed in the kitchen (notice that this picture come from the same room as the kitchen yesterday) and be a hole in the ground covered with something to sit on. These pits would then be cleaned regularly and the manure used in the agriculture.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Roman Kitchen

The kitchen of an Atrium house. The firewood was stored in the lower are, the fire place on top of the construction. You'll have to imagine it with a slow fire and tripods with pots placed on top.

We have no discussed all the primary rooms of an atrium house. I would now like to turn my attention to other not always mentioned parts, such as the kitchen, toiled, bath, storage room, slave quarters etc.

First out is the kitchen, an essential part of every wealthy person’s house. This might seem strange to point out, but most Romans did not have a kitchen and the lower classes were normally forbidden to cook their own food in their apartments (due to the risk of fire). They thus had to eat out (At places such as the Tabernae mentioned two days ago).

The upper classes however were expected to not be seen at any such establishments and therefore had to have a kitchen of their own.

Friday, September 25, 2009


A small Roman Hortus, Herculaneum. Notice the low wall and waterworks in the middle.

Every domus (house) that wanted to display status and power had to be equipped with a decent hortus, garden. These come in all kind of shapes and I will come back to them later. It can be mentioned already though that the Romans considered a garden to be nature domesticated and they thus preferred strict gardens with hedges in straight lines and figure shaped bushes. Fountains, pond and statues were also popular and the gardens are actually the part of an atrium house that reminds me the most of the (perhaps slightly old fashion) modern equivalent.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Tabernae is an ancient term for the small shops that was common in the Roman world which was commonly situated around a domus (large house, as an atrium house. Also see the plan). These normally consisted of a small square room with all but no decorations. A number of activates could take place in these, shops and fast food restaurants were common. Notice of the desk seen in the photo above is typical.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Triclinium

An outdoor triclinium from Casa Dell'efebo. Notice that the benches (where the diners were lying) is painted. The house have another, indoor, triclinium as well but that was unfortunately covered in plastic the last time I was there.

Next up is the triclinium, the official dining room in a upper class house from this period. The name comes from the characteristic sofa situated in the room which is, as the name suggests, three parted. This is normally one of the more elaborately decorated rooms in the house and would if possibly be placed with a clear view of the garden (hortus). The very riches even had two triclinia, of facing north for the summer, one facing south for the winter.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


A cubiculum in Casa dell'efebo during a very rainy day. It is unfortunate but understandable that most people hardly notice the cubiculi - they are in general small empty rectangular rooms and the decorations not as spectacular as the ones in the nearby atrium.

You may also notice the so called cubiculi (sing. cubiculum) that surround the atrium on the plan. The term is normally translated into “bedroom” but it should be noticed that this is a modern construction more than anything else, due to difficulties when it come to identifying rooms. It is simply enough difficult to identify the activities in most of these rooms and calling them cubiculi has become a convenient way to treat the problem.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A short introduction to the Atrium

A atrium house in Pompeii. Notice the impluvium, cistern head (on the left) and fountain in the background. The tablinium is the small area right in front of the fountain, allowing strangers who were passing by to see the Pater familias (family head) on his seat in front of it, a common way to enchant the view in.

Casa del Menandro (Pompeii), the atrium from the inside. Notice the impluvium and compluvium. You may also see the small drain leading rainwater from the impluvium into a cistern. We can also see a household shrine to the left.

You may have noticed the room right ahead in the first picture. This is the famous atrium that the house type is named after. This room is with no doubt the focus of the entire household. This were where clients saluted their patrons (who would sit in the tablinium, originally the masters bedroom, later a sort of working area/archive) and notice on the plan how all other rooms turn to it.

There are a few characteristics that you may look for when identifying this area. It is to begin with, one of, or the, largest rooms in the house and it is all but always situated right after the entrance. You may also notice a small pond (called impluvium) in the middle of the floor and a hole in the room (which is sloping inwards) called compluvium. There are other type of roofs as well, the ancient architect Vitruvius discuss them in his work De Architectura. This is also one of the absolutely best decorated rooms in most roman upper class houses from this time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fauces, Entering an Atrium House

A fauces mosaic from Casa del Centenario (Pompeii).

The absolutely splendid wall decorations of the fauces leading into the Casa del Fauno (Pompeii).

It’s time to get to the point, what is an atrium house? This is a dilemma that have occupied historians for the last 300 years and there’s still not full consensus, thus a difficult matter to explain in a few short lines. I would summarize it as a type of upper class house that was in use between ca 300 Bc and 100 Ad. It should follow a certain plan, possibly not in detail but at least in general (a standardized plan of the atrium house).

The first room you would enter is the thin corridor that is normally called fauces (it was however not called fauces during antiquity). The word means “jaws” in Latin. This room would, as it gave any visitor a first impression, be decorated when possible and there are many so called facues mosaics preserved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Atrium house

Casa del Menandro, how a Roman atrium house looks from the main entrance.

Welcome to my new theme – the atrium house. There are several reasons why I choose this subject;

-I’ve got a lot of material on the subject, there is a lot to discuss and I simply find it interesting.

The material will, unfortunately, be presented in a somewhat unorganized manner. There is however something that resembles a plan: I will begin with the theoretic atrium house, the concept scholars have formed during the last 300 years. Thereafter I’ll take a look at how the upper class houses from the time period differs from this theoretic house and I’ll finish up with detail information such as garden decorations, paintings, domestic items etc.

Anyway, I till turn to what an atrium house really is tomorrow. For now, consider it dominating type of Roman upper class houses between ca 300 Bc and 100 Ad ( or even later in extreme cases), depending on where in the empire you are.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Heracles during the 16th century

I would like to, as a last post on Heracles, give an example of how the hero was far from forgotten by later generations. This is a fresco from the world famous Villa d’Este depicting the tenth labour and a fighting scene. Notice how the hero is portrayed almost exactly the same during the 16th AD century by a cardinal as 2000 years earlier.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An altar to Heracles.

An altar to the Invincible Heracles from the Roman city Ostia.
(Most temples, altars and other religious buildings, items and artifacts were dedicated to an aspect of a god or goddess. Compare the Invincible Heracles to Jupiter Stator (halter of retreats) and others.)

I am almost out of material (as I only use photos that I have taken myself) but there are a few more points to take up before it’s time for the next theme.

One of these are that Heracles is of course not only about the myths and legends, there was also a very real aspect which is easy to forget about. As hinted in some of the labours (as in the first one), we find that the hero was considered divine and received sacrifices. These cults were spread all over the Greco Roman world as here is one of the many remains of it: an altar to the invincible Heracles.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The delphic competition

The competition between Heracles and Apollo.

Another famous incident is Heracles so called competition with Apollo, an episode that took place right after the final labour.

It happened so that Heracles desired to take a new wife (remember that the labours was his punishment for killing his first wife). Now Eurytus (not to be mixed up with Eurystheus), prince of Oechalia, had promised that any man who could beat him and his son in an archery competition would win his daughters hand.

Heracles of course won the competition and was to have the daughter as his wife, but Eurytus wouldn’t let someone who had killed his earlier wife and children get married to her. The hero thus left and soon afterwards some cattle was stolen, Eurytes assumed that this was Heracles doing. A man who believed Heracles to be innocent was sent after him, but was killed by the hero (thrown of the walls at Tiryns, se pictures here and here).

Yet again Heracles had committed murder and had to be purified, but this was more difficult than expected. He ended up turning to the oracle at Delphi after being refused a number of times at other places, but even the Pythia (Apollo’s oracle at Delphi) would not do this for him (“[the purification would come] not by oracles” as she supposedly expressed it, Apollod. Bibl. II.6.2). Heracles temper took the upper hand when hearing this and he tried to steal the tripod placed there, “to institute an oracle of his own” (Apollod. Bibl. II.6.2).

This is where the competition came in to the myth, Heracles competing with Apollo for the tripod until Zeus finally separated the two with a thunderbolt. The oracle then told Heracles what to do;

"When they had thus been parted, Hercules received an oracle, which declared that the remedy for his disease was for him to be sold, and to serve for three years, and to pay compensation for the murder to Eurytus."

Apollod. Bibl. II.6.2, translation by J. G. Frazer

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When Busiris tried to sacrifice Heracles

I would like to go through a few more items before leaving the world of Heracles. Here is a vase painting depicting a scene from a side story that took place during the travels preceding the eleventh labour.

It was said that Heracles came to Egypt during his travels and was captured by the king at that time, Busiris. Now, Egypt had suffered from starvation for nine years and a seer prophesized that they had to sacrifice a strange once every year – the first one was the seer himself and the king decided that Heracles was next up when he came to the land years later.

The hero however didn’t agree with Busiris and he burst his bonds and slew the king and his son.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cerberus and the final labour

Heracles coming up from Hades with Cerberus. Detail, Roman sarcophagus.

The story of how Heracles managed to complete this labour is very complex and I will not go into all the details. It might be of interest however to know that this is the only labour expressly mentioned in the Homeric poems

“He [Eurystheus] once sent me here to fetch the hell-hound- for he did not think he could find anything harder for me than this, but I got the hound out of Hades and brought him to him, for Mercury and Minerva helped me.”
Od. Xi. 623 Translation by Samuel Butler

This has been seen as the crown Heracles achievements. It is told that he entered the underworld in Laconia with the help of Hermes and Athena. In Hades he accomplished several deeds no less impressive then the ones in the world of the living. He saved Theseus (an ancient king of Athens), he rolled the stone of Ascalaphus (the man who was to roll a stone over a hill, only to lose grip every time when he was almost over the top) and he even intended to fight Meleager and Medusa but was held back by Hermes.

The Hero found himself in the end facing Hades, asking about permission to bring Cerberus to the surface. The god allowed him to do so if he did it without the power of arms. It is said that the hero then simply dragged the hound to the surface. Cerberus unfortunately couldn’t stand the light and started spitting, thus creating a poisonous plant called aconitum.

Eurystehus was terrified when Heracles arrived with the beast and hid away in a pithos (large vessel) as he had done twice already. The hero then returned the animal to the underworld and thus finished the twelfth labour.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The golden apples of the Hesperides

Heracles, 2nd century Bc, found at Forum Boarium (Rome). Notice the apple in his hand.

The garden of Hesperides. Greek vessel from 350-340 Bc, found in Paestum.

The golden apples were the property of Hera, who had received them from Gaia as a wedding gift. The goddess had them entrusted to the Hespedies (nymphs) and the dragon Ladon in the far away land of the Hyperboreans (a legendary race of Apollo-worshippers in the far away north, living in some kind of earthly paradise).

The eleventh labour is was one of the more complicated as Heracles didn’t know where to find the apples. The hero travelled the world asking a number of characters where he could find this mysterious land and he managed to end up at Mount Caucasus in the Far East. This so happened to be the mountain that Prometheus was tied to, having his liver eaten by an eagle every day. Heracles killed the eagle. The titan (Prometheus) was so grateful that he wanted to help Heracles; he told the hero not to get the apples himself but to ask Atlas (the titan who carried the skies and the brother of Prometheus) to do it for him and explained how to get Atlas to take on his burden again afterwards.

Heracles at least found his way to the land of the Hyperboreans and Mount Atlas. Here he offered to carry the burden of the heavens for Atlas if the later brought him the apples. Atlas happily agreed and went on to get the apples and soon returned with them (three acourding to Apollod. Bibl. II.5.11), but then refused to take his place under the skies again - he would instead return to Erystheus himself (There was an alternative story where Heracles went after the apples himself and killed the dragon Ladon).

Now Heracles knew what to do thanks to Prometheus and he managed to get Atlas to carry the skies again by stratagem (a Homeric word roughly translating into trickery):
“he [Heracles] begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should>158 [sic] put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules. And so Hercules picked up the apples and departed.”
Apollod. Bibl. II.5.11. translation by Sir James George Frazer

Heracles then returned to Erystheus and handed him the apples. The king then gave them to the hero again and Heracles decided to dedicate them to Athena, who returned them to the garden of Hesperides.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How ten labours became twelve

A Roman sarcophagus depicting nine of the twelve labours. Notice that a man (possibly the deceased) replace Heracles in the middle. From left to right:
The fight with the Nemean lion
The fight against the Lernean Hydra
Capturing the Erymantioan boar
The stag of Ceryneia in Arcadia
The Stymphalian birds
The girdle of the Amazon Queen
(Unidetified, possibly the cleaning of Augeas stables)
The Creatan Bull
The mares of the Thracian Diomedes

Heracles was to be released from his service when the ten labours were completed. Erystheus however declared that the hero cheated when completing two of the deeds, the killing of the Lernean Hydra and the cleaning of Augeas stables, and therefore had to complete two more. His argument went that Heracles was helped while fighting the hydra and that the hero accepted payment for cleaning the stables.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The oxen of Geryones in Erytheia

Heracles fighting Geryones.

The tenth labour is similar to the ninth in some ways as it contains the same type of side stories during a voyage to and from a distant land – it seems like there are even more minor deeds connected to this one than the earlier. The most important and famous episode is when Heracles raises two pillars, one on each side of Gibraltar. This is why the straits were known under the name of “the pillars of Heracles” during antiquity. Some ancient authors even believed that Heracles was responsible for creating the straits, others that he made the passage smaller to prevent sea monsters from reaching the Mediterranean (Diod. Sic. IV. 18. 4 ).

The labour itself began when Erystheus commanded Heracles to bring him Geryones oxen. These oxen grazed on an island so far away to the west that it was called Erytheia (the red) as is was to be found under the rays of the setting sun. Heracles manned a ship and travelled westwards, accomplishing many great deeds before he reach a terrible warm land which he blamed Helios, the sum (god), for. The hero tried to make the sun move a little further away, making it cooler, by shooting arrows at him. Trying to kill an immortal is however impossible and the effort fruitless. Most gods would also seek revenge after such a behavior but Helios found it amusing and wanted to help the brave mortal. He therefore gave Heracles a golden bowl or ship to continue his journey in and it is in this vessel that he reached Eryteia.

There he found the guardians of the flock waiting for him, first the two-headed dog Orthus (Cerberus sibling), which he killed with his club, and soon thereafter the giant Eurytion who also was killed. The third guardian, Menoetes, who was responsible for Hades cattle (that so happened to be tended together with the ones Geryones owned) noticed what was going on and he reported back to Geryones (Apollod. Epit. II.5.10).

Geryones was an unusually strange monster; he was composed of three men who were joined together at the hip. He faced Heracles in full armour but was shot dead by an arrow (The arrows were poisonous since the hero dipped them in the blood of the hydra) (Apollod. Epit. II.5.10).

Heracles then returned to Greece with the cattle, but Hera put gadfly among them and they ran away from him as he was passing the Hellespont. The hero had to gradually recapture them and managed to give them to Erystheus in the end. The cattle was then sacrificed to Hera by the king.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The girdle of the Amazon queen

The Scirra Amazon (Roman, 30 Bc - 500 Ad).

The ninth labour can be described in two ways; there’s a rather short version (the one I will present here) and there’s a longer one with innumerable additions that can be put in and out of the myth as the story teller wishes.

That the story allows other myths and legends to be added is important. You may have noticed if you’ve read the Iliad or Odyssey that Homer (if there was any such person) goes through extensive namedropping (especially in book two, the catalogue of ships). It is generally considered that all these names were added by bards as they retold the story at different places – every ruler wanted a connection to the epic heroes. We are probably facing some kind of similar phenomena here.

Anyway, this is the short version of the ninth labour:
Hippolyte (called Melanippe by the ancient author Diodorus) was the queen of the Amazons and she owned a gift from Ares (the God of the bloody, ruthless war), a girdle. Erystheus daughter unfortunately wanted this girdle and talked her father into sending Heracles after it. The hero took a number of companions with him and it is the travels before (and after) he found the queen that contains the side stories.

Heracles was welcomed by the queen who even promised to give him the girdle. However, Hera didn’t like how things were playing out, and she took the form of an Amazon and went into the camp spreading the rumour that a stranger was robbing the queen. The other Amazons rose up to her defence and Heracles killed her as he thought that she had betrayed him, snatched the girdle and returned home with it. A bard could add a number of adventures on the way home as well, one important is how Heracles became an enemy of Troy (he would come to destroy the city, but more on that later).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The mares of the Thracian Diomedes

A Greek grave stelé depicting a horse. Notice that it is unrelated to the labours of Heracles - the point is to show how the animal is portrayed in Greek (late classical/hellenistic) art.

This is the story of the man eating horses Diomedes, not to be confused with the Homeric Diomedes, had which Heracles was to capture. As with the other beasts he encountered, these were horrible creatures. The hero travelled to Bistone in Thrace with some companions, sprung a surprise attack and managed to steal the mares. They were however caught up by the locals when they came to the seashore and Heracles himself had to fight the Bistones. The mares was to be checked during the fight and the hero asked the son of Hermes, Abderus to do this. He was unfortunately consumed while the Bistones was defeated; Heracles threw a grave mound for him and founded a city under the friends’ name.

Then he brought the beast with him to Mycenae, only to let them loose as his habit was – they were later killed by wild beasts at Mount Olympus.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Cretan Bull

A Roman relief depicting a bull on it's way to be sacrificed. Notice that this is only a part of the relief, their's also a pig and a sheep (thus becoming a traditional pig, sheep, bull sacrifice).

The origin of the Cretan bull is disputed among the ancient authors; some say that it was the bull which Europa rode, others that it was a gift to Minos from Poseidon. The later scenario is somewhat illogical as Minos was supposed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon (it all seems very strange) but he was so charmed by its beauty that he kept it. Poseidon was angered by this and he put madness into the bulls mind and made it caused havoc to the land.

Erysteus asked Heracles to catch this bull and Minos allowed him to do so (I really wonder if Heracles would have taken no for an answer). The hero caught it and carried it home where he ended up setting it loose, allowing it to roam Greece until it stayed at the fields of Marathon (Theseus, an ancient king of Athens, later found it there).

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Stymphalian birds

A relief depicting the labours of Heracles - they sixth labour at the left.

The modern view over the Stymphalus acropolis cliff and what's left of the lake. The setting must have been absolutely stunning during antiquity.

The Stymphalian birds were the pets of Ares, had brazen claws and beaks and arrows instead of feathers. A great number of these creatures haunted the inhabitants of the central Peloponnesus and lived of their flesh. Erystheus commanded Heracles to expel these birds and he went to the lake where they dwelled (conveniently called Stymphalus). Athena helped the hero by giving him a brazen rattle and he used this to scare the birds who took flight – they were vulnerable in the air and he shot some down, others took refuge at the island of Aretisa (where the Argonauts found them later).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The stables of Augeas

Water bodies were commonly considered deities during antiquity, this is Oceano (first or second century Ad).

Heracles obviously was capable not only of slaughtering monsters but also of capturing them, Erystheus thus had to try to find the hero’s weakness in yet another way. The fifth labour can therefore be considered as an attempt to take away some of Heracles honour since it seemed as there was no way to get through it with clean hands.

The challenge this time was to clean the stables of Augeas in one day, which seemed impossible as Augeas cattle was so numerous that they covered most of his land with dung, making it impossible to cultivate (Paus. V.1.9).

Heracles faced the task by meeting with Augeas, offering him to clean the stables in one day. They also agreed on a reward, a tenth of the cattle (Apollod. Epit. II.5.5) or a piece of land (Paus. V.1.9) - this would be of importance later. Now the hero couldn’t clean out all the dung himself in one day so he took help of two nearby rivers, Alpheus and Peneus (Apollod. Epit. II.5.5) or the river Menius (Paus. V.1.10) (remember that rivers were considered a type of deities).

Augeas However refused to reward the hero, why is unclear and several reasons given such as that Heracles cleaned the stables on the order of Eurystheus (Apollod. II.5.5), the he accomplished it by cunning (Paus. V.1.9), or that he had divine helpers. Heracles was expelled (with Augeas sons, as they defended Heracles right to the reward). The hero wasn’t content though, he marched on Augeas and killed him. Then he founded the Olympian Games during the victory celebrations.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Erymanthian boar

Erystehus hiding in a pithos, rendered unusually humouristicly. Detail from a Roman sarcophagus.

The view from the Mycenae citadel - the place where Heracles brought the boar.

The forth labor yet again involved Heracles capturing a beast, this time the Erymantioan boar. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the first labor connected to a minor deed caller a pererga – the fight against the centaurs.
It is said that the hero went out to search for the boar but was unable to capture it and thus went to the centaurs for advice. There he found Pholus that told him to drive the boar into deep snow, where it couldn’t get away. The centaur unfortenately had one other thing that Heracles wanted; a jar of excellent wine, a gift from Dionysus. Heracles persuaded the centaur to open the jar and all the other centaurs came running to them as they felt the smell. Now a fight broke out, as it commonly does when alcohol in involved, and Heracles drove the centaurs to the house of Cheiron (an old friend of the hero) who was hit by an arrow.

Now, anyone mortal would be killed by the arrow, but Cheiron was an immortal at this point. The pain being too much however, he asked Zeus to take his immortality and he thus died after the incident.

Heracles went on with the chase after the fight with the centaurs and drove the boar into deep snow where he caught it. Erystheus was so scared when the hero returned to Mycenae with it that he hid in a Pithos (large jar). This is a common scene in pottery painting.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The stag of Ceryneia in Arcadia

Detail from a Roman sarcophagus.

There are, as always, a number of different versions concerning Heracles labors – this is a main stream version of the third one. It has been suggested that Erystehus understood, after the first two deeds, that the hero wouldn’t be killed by a monster and that another type of challenge was needed. He therefore asked Heracles to catch Artemis stag, a deer with golden antlers and brazen hooves that was faster than any other creature. The hero went out to search for the animal but it was too quick even for him when he tried to catch it and a hunt began. There is no consensus considering the places they passed during the chase but the hero followed the animal for a whole year until he finally got close enough to wound it with an arrow, which made it possible to catch. Then, as he was carrying his pray to Mycenae, Artemis and Apollo appeared and asked him what he was doing (as this was Artemis favorite animal). Heracles somehow explained the situation and was pardoned by the gods and thus succeeded with his third labor.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fight against the Lernean hydra

The sad remains of the Lernean spring.

The second labor was designed by Erystheus to make sure that Heracles wouldn’t survive. He therefore asked the hero to kill the Lernean hydra, a monster spawned by titans and brought up by Hera. This creature dwelled near in a spring or lake in Lerna near Argos and it was a terrible sight compared to the Nemean lion. This monster had nine heads and the middle one was immortal, its blood was poisonous and each time a head was cut off, two new ones sprang forth.

Heracles tried at first to kill it with his arrows but they were ineffective, then he tried to attack it with his club or a sickle (cutting the heads of) but this only made things so much worse. The hero was also attacked by a gigantic crab. However Heracles helper Iolaus came up with an idea and started burning the necks of each decapitated head, thus preventing it from growing out again. This way the hero and helper killed of all the mortal heads until only the immortal one was left, which Heracles buried under a huge rock.

As a last important act, Heracles had his arrows poisoned in the hydras blood, thus making them even more lethal.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The first labor

Detail of Heracles bow, which he hung of during the fight with the Nemean lion. From a Roman sarcophagus. Notice that the bow, hanging in a tree, is a common way to recognize the hero.

Exactly what tasks Heracles had to endure under Erystheus is uncertain - the earliest sources don’t even mention the so called labors, they only hint that he did great deeds. I, however, would like to present the 12 labors, which are mentioned in “later” works, in the traditional order.

The first labor was the fight with the Nemean lion. This was a great beast lurking in an area close to Mykene (called Nemea) and the hero was instructed to kill it. On his way to the lion’s den Heracles found an old man who was about to sacrificing to Zeus Sotor (an aspect of Zeus, the king of the gods) and he told the man to wait 30 days so that they could celebrate the sacrifice together. If he, Heracles, on the other hand was killed in the fight, he asked the old man to sacrifice to him as a hero.

Heracles then went on to fight the lion and found it in its den. The hero attacked it with his bow, but the skin deflected the arrows. He then tried to kill it with his club, which could not hurt the animal. At last he blocked one of the entrances to the den, went in himself and strangled the animal and then peeled of the skin with its own claws. This is one of the stories about how he gained his lions skin.

He then proceeded by returning to the old man who had given up hope (and was about to sacrifice on his own) and they sacrificed together. It is said that Erystheus was so scared when Heracles returned with the skin after this first labor that he tried to hide from him.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How Heracles came to serve Erystheus

Ancient Tiryns (lager copy)

The story of how Heracles came to endure the labors is long and complex, but these are the main events;

Heracles was on his way home to Thebes after slaying the lion of Cythaeron when he ran into the envoys of King Erginus who was on their way to fetch 100 oxen in tribute from Thebes. Heracles made it very clear to them that they were not welcome (by cutting of their noses and ears) which soon led to King Erginus marching upon Thebes.

Heracles defeated the foreign army and thus gained the friendship of the Theban king who gave him his daughter, Megara, in marriage (with whom he had several children). Hera however soon returned to planning Heracles destruction and slipped madness into his mind – the hero ended up killing his wife and children. He then had (as customs dictated) to be purified and therefore went to Delphi. The Pythia (oracle) there commanded Heracles to go to Tiryns and serve Erysteus for twelve years, after which he would become an immortal. This is also the first time the hero is called Heracles, his name until this point was Alcides (or Alcaeus).