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12 Angry Labors

The number twelve has always been a rather auspicious number, particularly within the context of Greek mythology. There are the twelve Olympians gods, of course, along with their predecessors, the twelve Titans. Cities in the ancient world were often grouped together in a set of twelve, known as a dodecapolis, as in the case of the Ionian and Etruscan Leagues. A year can be divided into twelve lunar months, a day into twelve daylight and twelve nighttime hours, and it is suggested by Aeschylus in his play The Eumenides that the idea of a twelve-person citizen jury was invented by the goddess Athena.


It is fascinating, therefore, that the the famous labors of Herakles come out to twelve by mere technicality. Seeking penance for the murder of his wife and children, Herakles was advised by the Oracle of Delphi to serve the King Eurytheus for twelve years. Eurytheus, however, only charged Herakles with ten seemingly impossible tasks. Two more were added only when Herakles appeared to break certain rules laid down by Eurytheus with regards to how the labors should be performed - first when his nephew Iolaus assisted in slaying the Hydra, and then when Herakles accepted payment for his cleaning of the Augean stable


Which brings me to the question posed to me: What kind of significance, particularly in regards to symbolism, has history placed on the twelve labors of Herakles/Hercules?


(Looking back, my ramblings about numbers has little to do with the question, but I kept getting so drawn back into it that I couldn't not talk about it - what narrative purpose does the addition of two more serve? Why not start out with twelve to begin with, seeing as the number has some sort of significance? The devil's in the details...)


Though the order in which Herakles performed his labors may differ between accounts, the labors themselves stay relatively consistent. Allegorical interpretations of these labors abound, whether it be moral, psychological, philosophical, or even (some claim) alchemical.


For example, the slaying of creatures such as the Nemean Lion (traditionally considered the first task, according to The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus) or the Hydra has at times been taken as a representation of man's triumph over beast. The inherent violence of such scenes could also signify a certain delight in cruelty (suggested by Nietzsche in his dissertation Homer's Contest) held by the Greeks, which is interesting to consider. Despite the technical nature of the tasks assigned to him, Herakles's quest is still often largely characterized by passion.



Herakles's battles have been visually depicted multitudes of times throughout the millennia, through paintings and sculptures and the like, all which contain a certain degree of ferocity. Even when charged with tasks that may not require violence, such as the theft of the Golden Apples from the garden of the Hesperides or the belt of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, Herakles is forced to kill another creature. There is not a single task that does not end without a death.


Herakles's entire quest for redemption can be considered one of emotion rather than reasoning. That is not to say that Herakles does not use reasoning or intellect when undertaking his tasks, as he does demonstrate remarkable maneuvers when required (tricking the Titan Atlas into taking back the sky, for example). His heroic status is characterized by both his strength and intellect, but a great chunk of his mythos is characterized by the idea of virtuous suffering, only through which redemption or immortality can be obtained.


Virtuous suffering - suffering for a good cause - no pain, no gain, all are ideas/motifs/narratives that permeate and persist in the modern day. Overcoming obstacles is a crucial part of narrative structures, and the structure of that idea is laid out plainly in the story of Herakles labors. Each labor that he undertakes is meant to strengthen him as a person and (if we're looking at it allegorically, which we are) add a certain amount of depth or greater meaning.


The problem I encountered when researching various interpretations of the labors is that there are so many. I struggled to find a broad consensus as to what each task represented in terms of Herakles's greater journey or qualities he possessed. Several sources pointed out what was previously said about his story being one of many obstacles and how that further mirrors life in that life is a series of obstacles we undertake in pursue of virtue, but I found that a bit broad, if not a little too self-explanatory.


Again, I found my attention drawn to something a bit outside the reach of the question - the significance the labors had taken in dramatizations of the Herakles mythos. It was fascinating to me that both Euripedes and Seneca had Herakles undertake his labors before the murder of his family, citing his final task of capturing Cerberus as the reason for his absence in the beginning. This directly contradicts the traditional myth of Herakles undertaking the labors as penance for his murders, instead ending with Herakles being talked out of suicide by Theseus and then heading for Athens in pursuit of absolution.


The rearranging of the narrative appears to me to be a way to set Herakles up as a hero with a farther way to fall once he is driven mad. Here, the labors signify Herakles's strength, his intellect, all his heroic qualities without the added caveat of his murder. Instead of A (murder and the need for redemption) leading to B (the labors), B only has a small effect on A, in that Herakles nearly arrives too late to save his wife, father, and children from Lycus. But he does, and at that point had the play ended Herakles could have been considered a perfect hero, his return and rescue of his family another accolade to be added along with his labors, another trophy on the shelf.


Which, as my rambling comes to a bit a of a halting end, brings me to my question for the playwright: how does responsibility come into play with regards to both Herakles's virtues and sins? Where does circumstance of birth end and agency begin? Herakles, as a demigod, is impacted by a myriad of factors outside his control that define his life (his parentage, Hera's hatred due to his parentage, even the madness that compelled him to murder his family). How much can he be held responsible, or has been held responsible, whether in mythology or in an academic analytical sense, for the events of his own life?


Until the next,


Maddie Nguyen









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