Heracles, en palabras de Grimal, es el héroe más célebre y popular de toda la mitología clásica (GRIMAL, 1951:2009). Sus famosos doce trabajos suponen un ciclópeo esfuerzo civilizador. El héroe encarna la lucha del orden frente al caos y sus leyendas forman un ciclo complejo y en continua evolución cuya complejidad fue percibida ya por los propios mitógrafos de la Antigüedad. Mediterráneo Antiguo se ha querido acercar más a la historia de este personaje de la mano de la profesora Flavia Frisone, de la Università del Salento, que ha seguido su rastro en Sicilia, isla en la que se celebró un ciclo de conferencias sobre el héroe recientemente.

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Heracles lucha contra Hipólita. Selinunte. Siglo V a.C. Foto: Museo Salinas de Palermo

Question – What are the main features that Sicilian Herakles have respect to the Greek Herakles?
Answer – First of all, let me point out that Herakles which we find in Sicily is generally a Greek Herakles. Even in the Greek world, however, it seems very difficult to identify him in reference to an individual main characteristic, if only we consider the many aspects and features which pertain to this hero both in myth and in cult. Contraddiction, indeed, is ingrained in Herakles’ religious personality: his origin is divine and regal but he is forced in the service of an oppressive master; he is a justice hero, but at the same time his way of doing is violent and aggressive. Although being a man he disguises himself as a beast covering his head and his body with a lion’s skin and scalp. He is stronger than anyone, but is often subjected and suffering. He embodies the Greek ideal at the same time as he is notoriously a drinker, a great glutton and a man easily blinded by rage. In short, as A. Brelich has put it, the Greek Herakles is a perfect hero precisely because he embodies the various contradictions of human nature and faces radical alternatives, experiencing the deepest misery as well as the apotheosis. In mith he also challenges the absolute Otherness (in anthropological terms the unknown and the death) so he was easily perceived as the best divine power to accompany various groups outside their Greek countries when they attempted to settle in unknown lands and confronted other peoples.

Contraddiction, indeed, is ingrained in Herakles’ religious personality: his origin is divine and regal but he is forced in the service of an oppressive master; he is a justice hero, but at the same time his way of doing is violent and aggressive.

So they did in Sicily as well. Here Herakles conveys the same multiplicity of aspects concerning individual and collective life as in the rest of the Greek world, but in addition he could be connected to the various forms of intercourses which Greeks had with non-Greek communities. If I should mention something special concerning Herakles in Sicily, however, it is that here the Greek hero met (again) Melqart, the Phoenician god that also elsewhere the Greeks assimilated to their Herakles. And as far as also the Phoenicians brought to Sicily with them the great lord of their cities, here different aspects of a divine figure which has been defined a “point of convergence of the Mediterranean religious imagery” got into contact and faced each others.

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Heracles reduce a dos ladrones que le habían robado las armas. Metopa de Selinunte. Siglo V a.C. Foto: Museo Salinas de Palermo

Question – What archaeological remains related to Herakles do we have on the island?
Answer – In Sicily we find all kinds of archaeological evidence related to Herakles. It’s sure that great temples dedicated to him existed in Agrigentum and Himera, the city of the great archaic poet who wrote an epic poem on Herakles. Some remains of these two buildings still stand or have been excavated in recent times. It’s highly probable, however, that also other Greek poleis had a temple of Herakles or venerated him in a sanctuary, perhaps with other gods or godesses. Literary sources give clear evidence of this as regards Syracuse and Zankle/Messene whereas in Gela and Camarina some excavated architectural items suggest that a building was dedicated to his cult. Also native peoples adopted Herakles among their gods and we know in particular that Agirion, the Sicel city from which the historian Diodorus was, maintained until Roman times an important civic cult and venerated supposed vestiges of the hero’s passage. But the Sicilian city which shows the the strongest archaeological evidence of Herakles’ cult is Selinous, in south-western part of the island. Herakles’ name is indeed among those gods the Selinuntines expecially thanked for a victory which is recorded in a great stone inscription (ca 450 a. C.) now at the Archaeological Museum of Palermo. They possibly venerated him as a god in one of the temples either placed on the temples hill near the city or in the akropolis. Also Herakles’ tales were very popular in Selinous as we find some of them, refering to adventures (Herakles killing the Amazon’s queen and the capture of the rascal brothers, the Cercopes) which are not among the most famous labours. Those are represented on two of the great sculpted metopas extant from various temples of the city. He was venerated also in shrines in the countryside, as an archaic stone inscription from the inland of Selinous (Poggioreale) attests. It’s not for chance that in the westernmost part of Sicily various miths were told about Herakles hard fighting against local kings to conquest the land that his descendand could later claim. Consequently at least two cities founded in this area where named after him: the short-lived Herakleia founded by the Spartan prince Dorieus and a colony of Selinous, Herakleia Minoa, near the mouth of the river Platani.

It’s not for chance that in the westernmost part of Sicily various miths were told about Herakles hard fighting against local kings to conquest the land that his descendand could later claim.

Coins are pieces of evidence in which Herakles is specially attested. Indeed from the fifth century BC until the Roman conquest both Greek and non-Greek cities often minted coins either representing the god in various features or also his reknown symbols, the club and the lion scalp. Last but not least, besides architecture, inscriptions and coins there is ceramics. I mean of couse the large amount of Greek figured pottery, both local and imported products, bearing scenes related to Herakles. The range of these copious manufacture spans from the great kraters or bowls with elegant creations by famous painters to poor quality items with a schematic decoration. Some of the magnificent Attic figured vases painted either with scenes of Herakles’ labours or representing one of his various adventures have been found in Sicily. Most of them, both black and red figured wares, show original and impressive representations, especially as concerns Herakles’ fights against mosters and savage beasts (like Hydra, the Nemean lion, the Erymanthian boar, Cerberus). Particularly requested were vases bearing scenes of Herakles’ descent to the underworld or his admittance into Olimpus as a god, which are often found in tombs and funerary contexts as well as pictures hinting at Herakles’ special connection with young males and their education.

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Ánfora ática que representa la captura del jabalí de Erimanto. Agrigento. 525-520 a.C. Foto: Museo Salinas de Palermo

Question – Do we know how and when the figure of Herakles was introduced on the Sicily?
Answer – As I told answering the first question, Herakles accompanied the first Greeks coming to Sicily as well as in their navigations in the Tyrrhenian Sea and toward the westernmost post of the Mediterranean which they named after him Herakles’ Pillars. The first Greek communities dealing in these sea routes are from the island of Euboea, Eretrians and Chalcidians, and we know that Herakles had a primary role in the myths that they transposed abroad to integrate their new locations in their mental landscape.

Herakles has indeed some connections with volcanism and we see that elsewere, near Naples in Campania or in the Chalcidian Peninsula, for instance, local volcanism is associated with the legendary struggle of the Olimpian gods against the Giants and the Tytans, in which Herakles was involved. In Sicily, however, this connection is not stated clearly, even if some Giants as Typhaeus or Enkélados are told to have been buried under the Mount Aetna.

Chalcidians in particular were the first settlers of Sicily, founding Naxos in 734 BC and Zankle, around the mid-eighth century BC. Both of these cities have a dominant location to control the Strait of Messina, a place where Herakles is told to have passed through getting his triumph on the terrifying sea monster Scylla. Not for chance the lyric poet Stesichorus (ca 630- 555 BC), the rhapsode who authoritatively located Herakles’ adventure in the West, was a Chalcidian of Sicily. But also other Greek colonists who settled in Sicily from the second half of the eighth century BC had their own Herakles.

Question – Sicily is an island marked by volcanism, how does this reality reflect itself in its mythical accounts?
Answer – Herakles has indeed some connections with volcanism and we see that elsewere, near Naples in Campania or in the Chalcidian Peninsula, for instance, local volcanism is associated with the legendary struggle of the Olimpian gods against the Giants and the Tytans, in which Herakles was involved. In Sicily, however, this connection is not stated clearly, even if some Giants as Typhaeus or Enkélados are told to have been buried under the Mount Aetna. Instead, quite surprisingly, Herakles in Sicily is connected with thermal and health waters and with hot springs which exist in various places of the island, like near Segesta and at Thermae, in the vicinity of the ancient city of Himera.

Question – When does the figure of Herakles begin to fade in Sicily?
Answer – It is not easy to answer this question. Herakles’ cult is a long-lasting phenomenon in Sicily and, as I already have told, it become common also among native peoples of the island. In the Roman period, as we learn from Cicero or Diodorus, local Herakles’ worships were still strong and cults were lively practiced both in the cities and in the countryside. Its decrease is perhaps more a result of the general decline of the island in late Roman times than a sharp disappearence and sometimes we still find some blurred traces of Herakles also in later local traditions and worships.

Author

Mario Agudo Villanueva