Using the portrayal of Hercules in Sophocles' tragedy Women of Trachis, a puzzling image of the Greek hero emerges. Most of the myths of Heracles portray him as a fierce warrior, tamer of beasts and a master of everything he attempts. This myth however, shows honorable traits juxtaposed with very negative aspects of the same man. Heracles is a paradox because even though he is a very great man and ideal hero, in some ways he is savage, highly emotional and even vulnerable.
Sophocles' version of Heracles' life, or at least part of it, made Heracles look less like a Greek hero and more like an ordinary Greek warrior. There are a few exceptions though. For one, Zeus was his father. Not many of the children of gods were thought of as ordinary. All of them had some terrific power or ability like Hercules. Secondly, his ability to fulfill his assigned tasks in the way in which he does shows in no uncertain terms, he is more than a common man is. Lastly, Hercules is granted immortality as a reward for impressing the gods on Mount Olympus. This final item is of special importance because it itself is a paradox. Was Hercules a Greek hero or was he a God? These things all lead me to see Hercules the man clearly but his relationships to things outside his heroic motif are a puzzle.
Let us start by identifying the purpose of identifying Hercules as a hero. There are eight identifiable traits that must be present in order to declare somebody a Greek hero. The first point is divine birth. Hercules being a son of Zeus meets this requirement. He is threatened almost immediately by a jealous Hera but saved by his own strength and fearless valor. His up bringing was by an outsider, actually ...
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...ignity but Heracles refused to admit his end was coming. All the times he left for a task he went in search of fame but "not to die." (Sophocles, Women, l 159-60) Then why did he think to leave his will with Deianira? It was obvious the tablet described the way his land should be divided up amongst his children so why was he still not ready for his fate? It is because Heracles thought of himself as a hero and could not imagine the gods fate him to death.
All these contradicting sides of Heracles makes him a more interesting figure in ancient texts but they also create quite confusion. Why after all the evil, horrid things he did would the gods make him immortal? Heracles truly is a paradox.
Sophocles. The Women of Trachis. Trans. Michael Jameson. Sophocles II. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
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