BMCR 2022.10.12

The Oxford handbook of Heracles

, The Oxford handbook of Heracles. Oxford handbooks. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 608. ISBN 9780190650988 £97.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


It is indeed a strenuous labour to digest the vast amount of ancient materials that have survived regarding this panhellenic hero par excellence, and it is even more challenging to articulate and organize them in a coherent but not reductionistic way. The editor and contributors to this volume successfully provide a far-reaching synthesis that does not oversimplify Heracles’ mythical accounts and their influence in various areas of knowledge. The handbook is divided into five parts, although, de facto, there are two distinguishable sections, as the editor acknowledges in the introduction (p. xxii): “The first half of the book is devoted to the exposition of the ancient evidence, literary and iconographic, for the traditions of Heracles’ life and deeds,” while “the second half … then cuts aslant this first half to offer a thematic approach to Heracles’ myth-cycle, his cults and the uses made of him in the ancient world.” Ogden’s examination of the creation of a canon for Heracles’ labours is well articulated and very useful as an overview of the first part of the volume. This diachronic analysis of the sources demonstrates how myths were not fixed entities and how futile the search for an original institutionalized order of the labours can be.

The first chapters offer a thorough analysis of the hero’s biography, not only from a variety of literary sources but from iconography as well. The episodes of Heracles’ life are classified into three parts subdivided into several chapters: Part I “Before the Labors” addresses the hero’s childhood, while Part II takes up “The Labors (Athloi)”, the core of Heracles’ life. The third part, “The Side-Deeds (Parerga)”, compiles those stories that the canonical tradition deemed as marginal and concludes with the hero’s death and apotheosis. Overall, every thematic unit that the chapters embody features an in-depth analysis of the origins and mythical variations adopted by ancient authors. Most of them go further to provide additional interpretations of those myths in Antiquity. The polyphonic nature of such a handbook is evident but also productive. It would not be profitable to assess all of these episodes by applying the same template to explain them; it is valuable that every contributor takes into consideration their variegated transmission and creates from scratch a commentary that suits each tradition at issue. Thus, the first part of the book offers a well-documented summary of all the events that shaped the hero’s persona. However, different abbreviations for the quoted editions are used in these chapters, creating some confusion. For example, for the same author, Pherecydes, one can find cited EGM (p. 14), Fowler (p. 150), and FGrH (p. 62), just to point out some of the instances. Although these abbreviations are listed by the end of the chapter, it would have been better to unify their use for the sake of consistency, especially during the first half of the book that emphasizes the study of the primary sources of the myth.

The second half of the book is concerned with the Heraclean myth from the perspective of genres and themes. Part IV, titled “Genres and Media”, strives to analyze the myth from a diachronic perspective in a variety of genres (epic, tragedy, comedy, and philosophy).  Although unfortunately an epic focused solely on Heracles’ character and exploits has not survived , the contributors address the fragmentary nature of the surviving texts that corroborate the existence of lost poems on the topic. The role of Heracles in Hesiod and Homer, however, is taken into account, and the antiquity of some Heraclean motifs is assessed at the end of the chapter.  Whilst tragic texts appear consistently throughout the first part of the book as sources for the different episodes, the comic side of Heracles is not sufficiently stressed and clearly deserves its own separate chapter. This is especially important in light of the recent studies that identify comedy as an essential genre when it comes to producing and retelling myths.[1] “The Philosophical Tradition” deals with the philosophical repurposing and reinterpretation of the hero from Archaic poetry until the early Christian authors. Heracles’ role in different authors can be described in the following progression: as a moral hero in epics and Pindar, as a moral agent in Euripides and Prodicus (through Xenophon), as a philosophical model for Antisthenes and the Cynics, and, finally, as an allegory already present in Herodorus of Heraclea (5th century BC), the Stoics, and Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria.  The final genre, entitled “Media,” is here really a synonym for “Classical Art”. Heracles’ image was extensively present in ancient art:  “More pages and images are devoted to Heracles than to any other mythological character from antiquity [in reference to Boardman’s entry for the LIMC]”, (p. 347). This chapter, however, focuses on some examples of the sportive, political and private contexts in which the hero’s image was utilized.

The absence in this section of a chapter dedicated to mythography is surprising, to say the least. To be sure, the first half of the book, in addressing the variety of sources used to explain Heracles’ deeds include several writers of mythographic texts, such as Acusilaus, Hellanicus, Pherecydes, Apollodorus, Diodorus, etc. And those same authors are also quoted in the thematic section of the handbook. One could even say that the very act of creating this handbook and actively deciding its organization and structure is just a continuation of this mythographic tradition. Furthermore, there has been a growing interest in the mythographic perspective during the last decades. In the recent words of Lowell Edmunds, “those called mythographers have in the past generation come into their own as a fundamental resource for the study of Greek myth. They complement archaic and classical poetry, long taken to be the principal sources.”[2] And an Oxford handbook of Greek and Roman mythography is currently under preparation,  as well as a Cambridge one on mythology and mythography.[3] Therefore, given the fact that the volume aims for a broad outlook, it might have been reasonable to reserve some specific space for the presence of the Theban hero in these marginal but influential texts.

The fifth and last part of the book (Themes) contains diverse themes related to Heracles. Undoubtedly, this is the most ambitious section of the book. The authors are dealing with a substantive corpus of materials that range geographically and temporally. It is certainly not possible to cover absolutely every aspect of Heracles and his presence throughout antiquity. Nonetheless, it is striking that there are only eighteen pages devoted to the heroic cult of Heracles in Greece (Chapter 33). “Heracles as a Quest Hero” carries out a review from a folkloristic point of view of the different tasks Heracles performs as a hero. These “quests” must be done in order to test “the extremes of the human condition”(p. 372), although being a quest-hero is not his primary function. Chapter 29, “Heracles Rationalized and Allegorized”, continues with some traditions of ancient myth criticism that have already been highlighted previously in the book (Chapter 25, “The Philosophical Tradition”). Likewise, Chapter 37 (“The Early Christian Heracles”) expands upon the Christian reimagining of the pagan hero. The last chapter on reception tries to compile large quantities of examples that can end up being quite overwhelming to the reader. Maybe it would have been more profitable to choose an example for each period to illustrate how the reception of that myth worked in different epochs. Nonetheless, this last chapter managess to evoke the rich and abundant tradition that continued beyond antiquity.

In conclusion, this handbook will be of great use for those interested in a comprehensive guide to navigating the immensity of accounts and appearances of the hero, as well as the topics and observations derived from his figure during Greek and Roman times. Readers will find an accessible text that provides further references and bibliography in almost every important particularity of the Heraclean myth. Each contribution works by itself and can be read separately. Although typos are very few, “Eumonus son of Archiloteles” (p. 270) is the result of a confusion between different traditions for the name of the cupbearer killed accidentally with a blow from Heracles’ knuckles. In the specific case of the accounts of Apollodorus and Diodorus, the texts give Ἀρχιτέλους παῖδα Εὔνομον, “Eunomus son of Architeles”.


Titles and Authors

Introduction. Daniel Ogden.
Part I: Before the Labors
Birth and Childhood. Corinne Pache.
The Madness and the Labors. Katherine Lu Hsu.

Part II: The Labors (Athloi)
Labor I: The Nemean Lion. Jenny March.
Labor II: The Lernean Hydra. Christina Salowey.
Labor III: The Cerynean Hind. Emma Aston.
Labor IV: The Erymanthian Boar (and Pholus). Daniel Ogden.
Labor V: The Augean Stables. Fiona Mitchell.
Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. Emma Aston.
Labor VII: The Cretan Bull. Daniel Ogden.
Labor VIII: The Mares of Diomede (and Alcestis). Daniel Ogden.
Labor IX: The Girdle of the Amazon Hippolyte. Adrienne Mayor.
Labor X: The Cattle of Geryon and the Return from Tartessus. P. J. Finglass.
Labor XI: The Apples of the Hesperides. Gina Salapata.
Labor XII: Cerberus. Pauline Hanesworth.

Part III: The Side-Deeds (Parerga)
Brigands and Cruel Kings. Debbie Felton.
The Argonauts. Richard Hunter.
Laomedon, Hesione, and the Sea-Monster. Bronwen Wickkiser.
Auge and Telephus. Emma Griffiths.
The Gigantomachy. Christina Salowey.
Oechalia, Delphi, and Omphale. Kristin Heineman.
Deianeira, Death, and Apotheosis. Dámaris Romero-González.

Part IV: Genres and Media
Epic. Elton Barker and Joel Christensen.
Tragedy. Michael Lloyd.
Comedy. John Wilkins.
The Philosophical Tradition. Philip Bosman.
Classical Art. Amy Smith.

Part V: Themes
Heracles as a Quest Hero. Graham Anderson.
Heracles between Hera and Athena. Susan Deacy.
Heracles Rationalized and Allegorized. Greta Hawes.
Heracles and the Mastery of Geographical Space. Antonio Ignacio Molina Marín.
Heracles as Ancestor. Lee E. Patterson.
Heracles, Macedon, and Alexander the Great. Christian Thrue Djurslev.
The Greek Cult of Heracles. Jennifer Larson.
Heracles and Melqart. Megan Daniels.
The Roman Cult of Hercules. Christopher Siwicki.
Hercules, Caesar, and the Roman Emperors. Matthew P. Loar.
The Early Christian Heracles. Alexandra Eppinger.
The Reception of Heracles. Emma Stafford.



[1] Dixon, D. (2015). Myth-making in Greek and Roman comedy (diss.). Boston.

[2] Edmunds, L. (2021). Greek myth. Trends in classics, 2. Berlin & Boston, p. 49. The mythographic research is very much alive: “In the second edition of Approaches to Greek Myth I spoke of the scholarly activities of what could be called ‘the Barcelona school’ of mythography, centred in the Universitat Autònoma. There is also Polymnia (Réseau de recherche sur les mythographes anciens et modernes), under the direction of Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (Lille) and Françoise Graziani (Corsica). Robert Fowler alone, with his edition of early mythographers (on which see below) and his many writings on mythography, stands next to the groups just mentioned. A digital database, based in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at Australian National University, is currently under construction, ‘Mapping Ancient Narratives, Territories, Objects’ (MANTO), of which Greta Hawes and R. Scott Smith are co-directors. This project includes a database of mythical names.”

[3] Smith, S. & Trzaskoma, S. (eds.). [forthcoming] Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography. Oxford; Woodard R. D. (ed.). [forthcoming] Cambridge History of Mythology and Mythography. Cambridge.