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Why Myths Still Matter: Hercules and His Twelve Healing Labors

What we can still learn from the psychology of myths, and why it matters.

Part One: Rage, Evil and Redemption

Hercules (aka Herakles or Heracles) is perhaps the greatest of mythic Greek heroes. His courage, strength, skill and cunning are literally legendary, and were revered in ancient Greek culture.

Hercules is honored and admired as someone who repeatedly fought against and conquered evil during his lifetime, a great demigod (fathered by Zeus himself) doing gloriously good deeds.

But we tend to forget that, like Oedipus, in his youth, Hercules himself committed one of the evilest deeds imaginable: He slaughtered his own wife and children as they slept, in a violent fit of murderous rage and madness visited upon him by the vindictive goddess Hera, his hateful arch-nemesis.

What can we still learn from the psychology of such enduring myths, and why does it matter?

This notion of madness — often associated with destructive anger or rage and resulting from the influence of gods, goddesses, or daimones — raised for the Greeks the crucial question in such cases of personal responsibility: Was Hercules a victim of supernatural powers beyond his control when he brutally killed his helpless family? Was it a case of temporary insanity or diminished capacity caused by Hera's wicked spell? Or was he fully responsible for his heinous crime? Such tragic evil deeds were, of course, not unfamiliar to the Greeks, and poetically memorialized in their classic myths and plays.

Today, almost three millennia later, we bear witness with escalating incidence to similar savage acts of so-called senseless violence in our own culture. (See my previous posts.) In courtrooms across the country, forensic psychologists and psychiatrists, judges and juries are confronted with exactly this same question, albeit employing somewhat different explanatory myths or metaphors: How responsible is the angry, mad, mentally disordered or psychotic violent offender for his or her destructive actions? Was it bad biochemistry, faulty neurology, defective genes, childhood trauma or the devil or demons that made them do it? Are they themselves, like Hercules, hapless victims of powerful forces — either biological, psychological, sociological, or metaphysical — that eventually take control and compel them to do evil? Or are they — and should they be — held morally and legally accountable for such evil deeds? For the ancient Greeks, the answer was never unequivocally either/or, but rather, ambivalently both.

Hercules, despite presumably being driven homicidally mad by Hera, was nonetheless condemned by the gods to do penance for his horrific crimes. And it was Hera, who had maliciously induced his madness, who again had a hand in meting out his severe punishment.

But unlike the consequences in such increasingly common criminal cases today — psychiatric hospitalization, incarceration or execution — Hercules, having evidently regained his senses, was sentenced to 12 years of penance, a prolonged penitent period of "hard labor," during which he would certainly suffer unimaginably, and most likely be killed. To atone for his evil deeds, Hercules was required to complete 12 seemingly impossible tasks, known to us as the 12 Labors of Hercules.

In order to surmount these superhuman challenges, Hercules, for starters, had to learn to redirect his immense anger and rage into eradicating rather than wreaking evil. He could only expiate his existential guilt by counteracting his prior evil deeds with good deeds.

There is a crucial difference between the practice of punishment and penance: Mere prolonged imprisonment is not true penance for most violent offenders. To be truly transformative or therapeutic, penance or punishment must be personally meaningful, fully accepted, actively willed, and humbly submitted to rather than viewed as societal authority imposed on one from without and met only with defiance, resentment and resistance. There can be no real atonement, absolution, rehabilitation, or redemption without proper penance.

In this post, let's take a psychological look at just two of Hercules' penitent 12 labors, with an eye toward what they can teach us today about confronting and redirecting the daimonic.

The daimonic (Rollo May, 1969) is an archaic Greek concept that acknowledges the capacity of primal emotions such as anger or rage to take temporary possession of a person, driving him or her into destructive, irrational, evil behavior. At the same time, it recognizes that same extremely dangerous anger or rage as a potentially positive, even creative, vital, indispensable, libidinal, spiritual energy when properly related to and consciously channelled into constructive pursuits. (See also my book, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)

His first labor was to do battle with the Nemean lion, a creature so large and fierce that even the arrows from Hercules' powerful bow would not pierce its impermeable skin. Hercules must rely on brute force, his uncanny physical strength, and courage alone to confront and kill with his bare hands the ferocious predatory feline terrorizing the town.

In depth psychology, cats can connote basic daimonic instincts or drives such as sexuality, power and aggression. Here, Hercules constructively harnesses his own abundant aggression, anger, and rage to help rid the community of evil.

Having succeeded in so doing, Hercules dons the lion's armor-like protective hide to aid him in his upcoming encounters. Psychologically, we could say that when we successfully confront and overcome an especially difficult inner or outer challenge in life, we are empowered, and take on from that experience a confidence and courage helpful in all future ventures. Or as Nietzsche put it: "What does not destroy me makes me stronger." For Hercules, completing this daunting task was the first step toward redemption.

Next, Hercules must fight the hideous Hydra. The Lernaean Hydra was a highly venomous serpentine creature with nine hissing heads. No sooner had Hercules lopped off one, another two heads grew in its place. Recognizing he needed to take a different tack, Hercules cleverly cauterizes the decapitated wound, preventing any heads from regenerating, and finally defeats the dreadful Hydra. However, because the central head of the Hydra was immortal, Hercules could only bury it beneath an enormous stone in order to decommission the monster. Evil can never be completely or forever eradicated. Only controlled, contained, and constantly kept in check.

Again, Hercules is further empowered by this victory: He dips his arrow tips in the Hydra's poisonous blood to help him face whatever comes next. In some versions of the myth, it is the slain serpent's gall or bile with which the arrows are tipped. The English words gall and bile are — like madness — closely linked to anger, rage, resentment or bitterness. (See my previous post.) By vanquishing the horrible Hydra, Hercules transforms its daimonic toxicity into a power he can use for good in his one-man war against evil.

We see this same mythological motif in the story of Perseus and the grotesque gorgon Medusa, whose blood gives birth to the beautiful winged white steed Pegasus, and whose petrifying visage is later employed by Perseus as a potent weapon against evil. Symbolically, the Hydra's blood, bile, or gall can be likened to toxic anger: When consciously confronted, acknowledged, understood, mastered, and controlled, pathological rage, resentment or embitterment can be alchemically transmuted and redirected into a positive force, in the form of healthy aggression, strength, power, resolve and perseverance, without which one cannot conquer life's sometimes hydra-like challenges.

Human existence and the individuation process itself demand such heroic strength, stamina, and courage from each of us in various ways. We all face at times seemingly impossible tasks, intimidating obstacles, serious stumbling blocks — our own Herculean labors to reckon with in life. And, as we shall see in the following series of posts, that greatest and best-loved of Greek heroes, Hercules, still has much to teach us about bravely meeting life's challenges, dealing with fate, and finding and fulfilling our destiny.

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