If time travel were an option, no doubt we gay men would be booking vacations to ancient Thebes in Greece. It was a hotbed of homoeroticism. It had been home to the Sacred Band, the military regiment of 300 men, 150 pairs of lovers, who dominated the area in the middle of the 4th century BCE.
If we were to have approached Thebes anytime between the 4th century BCE and the 2nd century CE, near the Proitian Gates we would have come upon a large complex. It included a gymnasium, a stadium, and a hippodrome. At the heart of the complex was a shrine dedicated to the mythic hero Iolaus. Indeed, the whole complex was named for him. Iolaus had been a champion charioteer and athlete. But most famously, he had been a lover of Hercules, or Herakles as the Greeks called him. Male lovers from all over would came to pledge their devotion to one another at his shrine. For it was here, legend had it, that the members of the Sacred Band made their vows to one another. There was a similar complex across town that honored Hercules, the greatest of hometown heroes. Each year, the Thebans held a festival known as the Iolaeia or Herakleia, complete with athletic and equestrian events, to honor Hercules and Iolaus and the love between them.
Though we are not able to travel back to such a festival, I want to take the next few posts to explore the life of Hercules and how his story parallels ours as gay men. He was the most beloved of the Greek heroes. He was a man of powerful passions, both as a lover and a fighter. It was his rage, above all, that got him in trouble. It was rage that led to his hero’s journey. And it was rage that became his teacher. Let’s begin, though, with the other side of his passion, his prodigious appetite for sex.
Hercules the Lover
Today we would say that Hercules was bisexual, as were many of those who told his tales. Iolaus was hardly his only male paramour. His conquests include some of the most illustrious names of Greek legend: Abderus, Admetus, Chronus, Dryops, Haemon, Hylas, Iokastus, Iolaus, Nestor, Philoktetes, and Polyphemus, to name a few. “It would be a task too great to enumerate the [male] amours of Hercules,” wrote Plutarch. Hercules was equally prolific with the women. One story had it that he impregnated fifty virgins in a single night. Hercules was often depicted carrying a lionskin and a club. I have to wonder if that club was a Freudian symbol of the wood between his legs. Hercules was a man of voracious appetites.
Yet the most romantic of all these stories was his relationship with the young man Hylas. In a terrible case of mistaken identity, Hercules killed Hylas’s father in battle. To make things right, Hercules took the young man, said to be in the prime of his youth, under his wing. He loved Hylas, and Hylas was deeply devoted to him. One day, Hylas went searching for water to cook a meal for his lover. Bending over a pool of water, he was enchanted by a nymph and sucked into a whirlpool, never to be seen again. When Hercules realized he was missing, Apollonius of Rhodes tells us, “the salt sweat gushed down his forehead, and his dark blood seethed in his innards. Angry, he threw a fir-tree to the ground, and ran wildly on whichever path his feet carried him.” In his grief and rage, Hercules searched for his beloved, but in vain.
The Greek poet Theokritus, rhapsodized on this story. This hero,
Who braved the lion, was the slave of one:
A fair curled creature, Hylas was his name.
He taught him, as a father might his child…
…’Twas all his care
To shape unto his own imaginings
And to the harness train his favourite youth,
Till he became a man in very truth.
When Hylas went missing, Hercules called for him. Three times he cried the name of his beloved. Hearing a faint answer, muffled by the water, Heracles sprang into a manic sprint.
And as a lion, when he hears the bleat
Of fawns among the mountains far away,
A murderous lion, and with hurrying feet
Bounds from his lair to his predestined prey:
So plunged the strong man in the untrodden brake –
(Lovers are maniacs) – for his darling’s sake.
Hercules’ and Hylas’s companions, the poet tells us, were waiting for them aboard ship, ready to set sail. Long into the night they waited, sails hoisted. Yet Hercules searched on.
On he was wandering, reckless where he trod,
So mad a passion on his vitals preyed:
While Hylas had become a blessed god.
There was a fury to Hercules’ failed search for Hylas. As Theokritus wrote, “Lovers are maniacs.” Yes, but there was more to this for Hercules. He loved with a ferocity that seemed to rise from some deep well of rage.
We need not look far to find the source of Hercules’ fury. He was the love child of the god Zeus and a human woman, Alcmene. Zeus was irrepressibly sexual. He loved women. Whether they be goddesses or humans, married or virginal, it mattered not to him. If he saw a beautiful woman, he wanted her. And being a god, he had her. Zeus’s wife, the goddess Hera, was, as you might guess, livid at her husband’s infidelities.
Knowing that Hercules was Zeus’s love child, she hated him. She arranged to have two serpents attack him in his crib. Being a demi-god and the strongest of all mortals, baby Hercules strangled them with his bare fists. But this was only the beginning of Hera’s wrath. The goddess wanted him dead to spite her husband. Having faced repeated attempts on his life by a goddess whose scorn he could never escape, no wonder Hercules was full of rage. He wanted to live. And in the face of a constant existential threat, his will to live became rage.
Hercules’ great problem was his temper. As a child, Hercules’ music teacher was Linus – not of Charlie Brown fame, but the original, the son of Apollo and one of the muses. Hercules played his harp half-heartedly, and Linus reprimanded him with the swat of a stick. The child flew into a fit and hit Linus hard with his harp. It was a mortal blow. Hercules was put on trial for murder. He escaped punishment by claiming that Linus had struck him first.
Hera saw in his temper a chance to make Hercules’ life even more miserable. Hercules had married a woman named Megara. They had three sons together. Hera goaded Hercules into a blind rage, and made it appear that his sons were enemies. Hercules killed them. It was to atone for this sin that Hercules undertook his famous twelve labors.
Hercules’ rage was, at one level, not his fault. He was driven mad by a goddess. Hercules could have once again shifted the blame for his actions to someone else, as he had after killing Linus. But something inside him would not let him take the easy way out this time. He chose his own exile. He chose the hero’s journey.
Lust and rage. Hercules lived them both. He embodied the desire and aggression that draw us forward, and sometimes drive us into destructive behaviors. How can we harness these wild horses? The story of Hercules offers us several bits of wisdom I want to explore in coming posts.
I use the image of horses as a nod to Plato. In his dialogues, Plato describes the soul, that is, the life-force in us, as a chariot drawn by two winged horses. The one horse is Aggression, and the other is Appetite. They are the energies that animate our lives. Plato says they are winged, because they are meant to carry us to the heights. Yet on its own, each is prone to gallop off into the swamps of excess. The driver of the chariot must control these two horses, rein them in, get them to work together to take us toward our goal. The driver, Plato says, is our intuitive perception of reality, our way of seeing the world.
Hercules embodies these two powerful forces, appetite and aggression. He begins life with great physical strength and even greater strength of passion. But he lacks control. His appetite for sex is enormous. And his aggression – that is what gives him the most trouble. The great challenge of his life, his hero’s journey, is learning how to harness his rage toward constructive ends.
Getting the three parts of the soul, as Plato describes them, to work together well is the challenge of being human. We all are on a hero’s journey, if we, like Hercules, are willing to accept responsibility for the life that we have been given.
I can’t help but pause for a moment to note that Plato’s tripartite understanding of the soul has a parallel in the Buddhist tradition. Plato indicated aggression, appetite, and our intuitive perception have to work in harmony or they become destructive. The Buddhist tradition calls their destructive forms the three poisons: attachment, aversion, and delusion. Attachment is a disorder of the appetites, aversion a disorder of aggression, and illusion a disorder of our perception. The antidote, says the Buddhist tradition, is to cultivate loving-kindness, generosity, and wisdom.
Similarly, in the Christian tradition a 4th century monk named Evagrius Ponticus took up Plato’s tripartite description of the soul and named eight deadly thought patterns. Gluttony, lust, and greed, he said, are disorders of the appetites. Anger, dejection, and restless boredom are disorders of our aggressive energy. And vainglory (I am worthier because I have…) and pride (I don’t need anyone but me) are diseases of our perception.
Anger, greed, boredom, illusion, and the rest – these are our common problems. We all struggle to control our appetites and our aggressiveness in one way or another. If we go off the rails in life, it is often because one of our horses has gone rogue, or the charioteer is using a mistaken map.
We sometimes say that our difficulties with appetite and aggression are our personal demons. I want to take the advice of psychologists Rollo May and Stephen Diamond, and suggest that we change the spelling from demon to daimon. We usually think of demons as evil – something to exorcise or expel. In Greek, though, a daimon is a spirit that guides us, inspires us, teaches us.
Rage was Hercules’ daimon. It led him on the hero’s journey. On that journey, he learned to guide his aggression toward constructive ends. Likewise, we do not need to rid ourselves of appetite or aggression. They are manifestations of the life-force. We need their energy.
Like Hercules, we must reach the point where we are ready to take responsibility for ourselves, even for the problems we didn’t create. That is the beginning of the hero’s journey, a journey in which we will face our daimons in all their many forms. Little by little we learn to harness the raw strength of these winged horses, which when properly guided, will carry us to the heights of creativity and ecstasy.
To go deeper:
If you are interested in purchasing any of these resources, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link below. Your purchase directly from this link will help support this blog.
Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology (Kindle) (Paper). Generally believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE, the Library is a compendium of Greek myths drawn from the tragedians and other sources. Of all the ancient writers, Apollodorus offers the most complete telling of the myth of Hercules.
Emma Stafford, Herakles (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper). Stafford traces the history of this Greek hero in myth, tragedy, comedy, poetry, politics, religion, and art. Her work is a tour de force in interdisciplinary studies. There is no better book length treatment of the subject.
Rollo May, Love and Will (Kindle) (Paper). In this seminal book, May defines the daimonic as “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” He gives the examples of “sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power.” He urges that both love (in this daimonic sense) and will (a firm commitment) are needed to make our relationships lasting and meaningful.
Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (Kindle) (Paper). Diamond applies Rollo May’s concept of the daimonic to the issue of rage. He argues that the violence of our present culture is the product of deep rage that has been denied and disowned, rather than understood and channeled toward creative ends. He offers examples of how, historically, rage has produced great artistic works.
Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology (Kindle) (Paper). For those interested in historic Christian spirituality, Allen offers an accessible introduction to some of the best and most ancient wisdom, which is still not widely known among Christians. He includes a chapter on the eight deadly thoughts of Evagrius Ponticus, which is the wisdom that lies behind the somewhat reductionist and legalistic notion of the seven deadly sins.
Notes & Credits
If we were to have entered…: There are numerous primary sources, including Plutarch, Pindar, and Pausanias. I am indebted to Emma Stafford, Herakles (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Thomas F. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (New York: Oxford, 2002).
Abderus, Admetus, Chronus…: Randy P. Connor, David Hatfield Sparks, and Mariya Sparks, Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit (Herndon, VA: Cassell, 1997), 176.
“It would be a task too great…”: Plutarch, Erotikos 761d, in William Goodwin, ed., Plutarch’s Morals (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874), 286.
“the salt sweat gushed down…”: Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautika 1.1261–4, as translated in Stafford, 135.
“Who braved the lion…”: Theokritus, “Idyll 13,” trans. C. S. Calverley, Theocritus: Translated into English Verse (London: George Bell & Sons, 1892), 72-76.
In his dialogues, Plato…: I am combining here material from Phaedrus 246 ff. and Republic 4.436 ff. The chariot metaphor is in Phaedrus, while the tripartite division of the soul is in the Republic. It is traditional in the West to translate logistikon as reason. I contend that this skews Plato’s thought in a rationalistic way. For Plato, logistikon is a synonym of nous, which is the faculty of contemplation. The logistikon is the ability to see the inherent structure (logos) of reality. It is not merely the capacity to reason logically.
… Rollo May and Stephen Diamond…: Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: Norton, 1969), 122-180; and Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic, rev. ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).