• Sam Baldwin

Questions about... questions

What might be modern equivalents of the twelve labors of Herakles and why do people undertake them and/or observe them?

Right now, I have more follow up questions than I have answers. In the search for modern equivalents to Herakles’ twelve labors we are immediately confronted with the question: what are the labors for? In addressing this question, I reached some timeline discrepancies. Euripides and Seneca present a timeline: 1. Herakles completes all twelve labors and then finally 2. returns to his family. 3. He kills Lykus, his last heroic act before he 4. goes mad and kills his wife and sons. Awakening from madness in grief and anguish, then he eventually 5. decides to go on living rather than take his own life. Other scholars identify a different timeline that places the labors after the tragedy that takes place during these plays. The events are not in question, but the order makes a big difference. When the labors take place after he murders his family, they become a sort of penance. Though he was driven into homicidal madness by Hera, he still takes responsibility for the actions he committed. The labors become a story of redemption. No such luck for the Herakles of Euripides and Seneca. In Euripides/Seneca’s timeline, Herakles’ final decision to continue life is worlds harder. With apparently nothing ahead of him besides exile, to go on living is a punishment in its own right. But is punishment the same as penance? And can there be redemption without penance? This leaves us with two possibilities. Either the labors are a form of punishment on the road to redemption or they are nearly impossible tasks that showcase Herakles’ strength and the cruelty of gods and men that make our tragic hero well… tragic. Maybe we can find out together. I’ll start googling.

Two Goddesses visit Hercules. One urges him to the service of humanity and the other tempts him with worldly pleasures.

The next question we find is why does Herakles perform the labors? I’ve been trying to get my hands on any material that is even vaguely related to Herakles and a renaissance painting might have some answers . Euripides and Seneca give us insight into the what and the how but the why becomes a little unclear. Two avenues of exploration are a couple of different types of devotion. Devotion to the service of mankind and devotion to the Gods. Either way, devotion seems as good a modern equivalent to twelve impossible labors as any. Now I don’t know if I’m devout enough to anything to clean up mountains of divine cow pies but lets scale it down a touch. People are devoted to all sorts of things but for Herakles’ sake lets stick to his suggestions. Those devoted to the service of mankind do just that, serve people. This is a labor in and of itself. Whether you’re starting a groundbreaking humanitarian foundation or just sending an extra 5 dollars to clean the oceans; any kind of service act could be interpreted as a modern equivalent to the labors of Herakles. Likewise, religious devotion might also be a labor. Those who commit their lives to a god or gods do not have an easy task. From simple prayer to living in a convent, perhaps religious devotion is a lesson we can learn from Herakles. Why Herakles does the twelve labors might be one of our biggest clues into what our modern equivalents to his labors are. Again, I’ll do some more googling.

Now for my question to the playwright: Immediately after reading Euripides’ Herakles I was curious about the role that hope plays in the show. I could tell it was important but was struggling to put my finger on what exactly Euripides is saying about hope. After reading Seneca’s version, my interest only increased. My question is, as best as I can put it, what are the advantages and drawbacks of hope in the face of tragedy? It doesn’t seem to me that Euripides and Seneca are saying the same thing about the roll of hope in the story, despite it being the same story. My gut tells me that hope is good without exception, but I’ve learned to start taking my gut feelings with a grain of salt. Seneca and Euripides, as well as many other Greek and roman philosophers, have both written about hope in their other work. These works may be a useful outlet of exploration for finding out if hope is a virtue, vice, or both. Hope may also prove itself to be useful in discovering modern equivalents to the twelve labors. In Greek philosophy, hope is noticeably interconnected with things like fear, courage, and virtue. All necessary in a story about overcoming impossible tasks.

Until next time…


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