Classical Mythology: Training a Hero

Training a Hero

Zeus had it in mind to rear a son who would have the strength and skills to become not only a hero among men, but an ally and agent of the gods as well. So the god arranged for Heracles to receive training in the skills of warfare and the finer arts from some of the best teachers on Earth.

As a young man, Heracles mastered the teachings of:

  • Amphitryon, his foster father, who taught him how to drive a chariot
  • Autolycus, the notorious thief, who taught him boxing
  • Castor, a renowned horseman, who tutored Heracles not only in combat strategy and cavalry tactics, but the art of fencing as well
  • Cheiron, perhaps the only Centaur (half-human, half-horse) who had a reputation for tenderness, refinement, and wisdom, who taught him manners, decorum, and other polite arts
  • Eumolpus, founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries, who schooled the young hero in both singing and playing the lyre
  • Eurytus, a renowned bowman, who taught him archery
  • Linus, son of Ismenius (a river god), who introduced him to literature

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the most renowned religious rites of the ancient world. The mysteries, developed in the town of Eleusis outside Athens, included rituals, purification rites, fasts, and dramatizations of the story of Demeter and Persephone (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld). Participation in these mysteries guaranteed safe passage to and happiness in the next world. Exactly what was involved in these rites remains, well, a mystery, for severe penalties awaited any who revealed the details of the ceremony.

Linus also had the ill fate to substitute for Eumolpus in teaching Heracles the lyre. The two tutors differed in teaching methods, however, and when Heracles refused to heed his substitute's instruction, Linus made the mistake of striking his formidable student. Enraged, Heracles smashed his lyre over Linus's head, killing him with a single blow.

In his trial for murder, Heracles argued that he had merely responded in kind to his tutor's violence, and won acquittal. Yet Amphitryon, fearful of further incidents of violence, sent the young man to finish his training at a cattle farm in the country.

Heracles learned his lessons well. He soon became the best archer who ever lived, and rarely missed the mark when throwing a spear, too.

Having received the best training available, Heracles was outfitted for warfare by a half-dozen Olympian benefactors:

  • Zeus offered an unbreakable shield forged by Hephaestus, the god of fire and patron of blacksmiths and artisans.
  • Athena provided a helmet and coat of arms.
  • Apollo gave him a bow and a quiver of eagle-feathered arrows.
  • Hermes presented him with a sword.
  • Hephaestus provided a golden breastplate and brass buskins (protective footwear).
  • Poseidon, the creator of horses, entrusted him with a magnificent team of horses.

Divinely equipped and fully trained, Heracles was now ready to become the greatest hero of the ancient world. Yet the road to immortality would prove long and arduous.

Marriage, Madness, and Murder

Though Heracles had not yet accomplished much, King Thespius of Thespia recognized the young hero's potential. With an eye toward a future dynasty, he resolved that each of his 50 daughters would have a child by Heracles. In a single night, Heracles impregnated 49 of the 50 daughters with 51 sons (the eldest and youngest daughter had twins). One daughter refused to take part in this marathon of lovemaking, and she remained a virgin throughout her life, serving as a priestess in the temple of Heracles at Thespia. Many Greeks consider this feat of procreation the “13th labor” of Heracles, as formidable in its way as the 12 labors that followed it.

Mythed by a Mile

Some say that Thespius resorted to trickery to get Heracles to sire his grandchildren. Heracles remained a guest in Thespius's home for seven weeks. To make his guest's stay a happier one, Thespius hospitably offered his “eldest” daughter to lie with Heracles. Each night, however, the king sent a different daughter to Heracles' bed, and in this way accomplished his aim.

After attending to the daughters of Thespius, Heracles headed home to Thebes. Along the way, he met a group of Minyans, the noble clan that ruled the city of Orchomenus—and, at this time, Thebes as well. Several years earlier, a Theban had accidentally killed the king of Orchomenus. In retribution, the Minyans had forced Thebes to pay an annual tribute of 100 cattle.

The Minyans, on their way to collect this tribute, scoffed that the Thebans were lucky that Erginus, king of Orchomenus, had not cut off all of their ears, noses, and hands in punishment. Heracles immediately chopped off the messengers' ears, noses, and hands, hung these severed parts around their necks, and sent them back to Erginus.

Knowing Erginus would retaliate, Heracles quickly gathered together an army of Thebans. Led by Heracles, this army not only successfully defended Thebes and repelled the Minyans, but also killed Erginus and captured the city of Orchomenus.

Creon, king of Thebes, rewarded Heracles for his heroism by offering him his eldest daughter, Megara. But Hera's hostility toward Heracles had not waned; she would not allow him a happy life. The goddess drove Heracles mad, and he killed his children—and perhaps Megara—thinking they were either wild beasts or enemies of Thebes.

The Labors of Heracles

When his sanity returned, Heracles exiled himself from Thebes for his crime. He traveled to Delphi to ask the oracle how best to atone for his crime. The Pythia, the priestess of the oracle, instructed Heracles to go to Tiryns and perform any 10 labors devised for him by King Eurystheus. (This number would grow to 12 when Eurystheus later nit-picked about whether Heracles had truly completed 2 of the labors assigned to him.)

By successfully completing these labors, Heracles would not only pay for his crime, but also achieve immortality and take his place among the gods.

Reluctantly, Heracles agreed to submit to the will of the hated Eurystheus, to whom Hera had given the throne that Zeus had intended for Heracles.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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