The servants were caught between laughter and panic –
glancing at one another –
“Is the master playing, or has he gone mad?”
(Euripides, Herakles, lines 921-3, trans. Anne Carson)
The first book of myths I can remember reading as a child was Georges Moroz’s Hercules: The Complete Myths of a Legendary Hero. It was a slim book – less than a hundred pages – and I sometimes I would come home from school and read the whole thing in one sitting, from Hercules’s conception to his twelve labors to his horrifying end on the pyre at Mount Oeta. Even then I thought his apotheosis seemed a bit tacked-on at the end; the real story belonged to his deeds as a mortal, the cycle of madness and repentance that, at least in Moroz’s telling, continually repeated over the course of the hero’s life.
From such a memory, one might expect that I would have developed a deep attachment to Hercules, but that wasn’t the case for me. I had strong feelings for the classical gods as a child – they were the first gods I met, as I think is the case for most of us – and in elementary school, I even drew a comic strip featuring my own superheroic conception of myself, who went by the name “Little Zeus.” But as I came into adulthood my path took me elsewhere, to other deities. I don’t think the gods minded too much; childhood friendships are just like that, sometimes.
I hadn’t thought much about Hercules, or Herakles, in years, but he started to pop up in odd places recently. I built a small model of one his temples out of fiberboard not long ago, and then while reading about the archeological evidence of Thor’s hammer pendants I came across a theory that the pendants were related to similar jewelry based on Herakles’s famous club. But what finally seized my attention was a reference to a play about the god by Euripides, which I found while sauntering through Wikipedia pages one evening earlier this month.
In particular, I was intrigued by this description of the play’s ambiguous themes:
The story, it seems, does an odd job of explaining the faith that the mainstream culture has. Herakles does not believe but has been to Hades and has seen the dog Cerberus and the dead souls of others. Despite evidence of the divine, he chooses to believe, much as Socrates does also, that the gods, as they are commonly believed to be, do not exist. This point of view may reflect the playwright’s own. Even if it does not, it does reflect a viewpoint of Euripides’ own time that is asking for more from the morality of its religion.
I put in an order for the translation by the poet Anne Carson, whose Nox – a word by word examination of Catullus 101, the elegy for his dead brother, spliced within an account of Carson’s own loss of a brother – is one of my favorite books. The volume arrived a few days later, part of a collection of Euripides translations entitled Grief Lessons, which begins with a brief and audacious introduction that argues, “There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness.” Such is the founding theory of tragedy and catharsis, all the way back to Aristotle, but it is still jarring to see the argument laid out so plainly.
Euripides’s Herakles is a strange play. For one thing, it is very nearly bifurcated: it begins without the hero on the scene, while his wife, children, and mortal father await their execution by Herakles’s rival Lykos. Herakles is off completing his final labor, dredging Cerebus up from the lands of the dead. When he does arrive, he is the picture of classical virtue, a protector and avenger, and he dispatches Lykos without any trouble at all.
Then there is an interlude, where Herakles and his family are inside their home, ritually cleansing themselves after the death of Lykos. Iris and Lyssa descend upon the house, where Iris explains that Hera has sent them to drive Herakles into a fit of madness. Lyssa – Madness herself – argues against this, claiming that it is unjust, but she has no power to resist the queen of Olympus. In a haunting scene, a messenger describes how Herakles becomes lost in a vision of his rival Eurystheus, and in this blood-hungry reverie, Herakles kills his family, all save for his mortal father Amphitryon.
It’s the nature of Greek tragedy to have all of this happen off-stage; instead of having the actor playing Herakles commit these murders before the audience, they are instead heard only in monologue, first by the chorus and then by the messenger. We see Herakles the hero enter the house, and when we see him again, he is a wreck, unable to believe in what he has done, and further unwilling to believe such violence could have been caused by the will of the gods.
When his friend Theseus appears and offers to take him in, shelter him, comfort him until he recovers, he argues that as cruel as his fate has been, and as horrifying as his deeds are, Herakles must endure them:
…No mortal is untouched by changes of luck,
No god either – if poets tell the truth.
Don’t gods sleep in one another’s bed?
Don’t they throw their fathers into chains
And take their power? But all the same
They occupy Olympos, they hold on,
Criminals or not.
Will you protest your fate,
When gods do not?
To which Herakles, in a passage that has stunned and confounded readers since Euripides’s own day, replies:
This is all incidental to my grief.
I don’t believe gods commit adultery.
I don’t believe gods throw gods in chains
Or tyrannize one another.
Never did believe it, never shall.
God must, if God is truly God,
All the rest is miserable poets’ lies.
In some ways, this argument is incidental to the action of Herakles – for Herakles arrives having just returned from Hades, and his madness is set off by the gods themselves; strictly speaking, whatever he thinks about the nature of the gods is immaterial, given what the play has already displayed. But if Iris and Lyssa’s appearance is the fulcrum around which the play turns, this exchange is where the play finds its central conflict: how do we live with the shocking cruelty of fate if we also believe that the gods are just?
Herakles does not find a true reconciliation between his belief in the serene Socratic gods he professes and his own experiences, either as hero or madman. It is probably easiest to accept Theseus’s explanation, that the gods themselves make no claims at infallibility, and to accept them as they are presented to us – to take those “miserable poets’ lies” as what has been given to us. But I think for most of us who believe in the gods – whether pagan then or Pagan now – this theodical tension remains with us.
Can the gods be both real and just? Euripides, writing four centuries before Christianity, seems not to have been sure. And while I have my own ways of understanding the relationship between the reality of my gods and the obvious pain that strikes across the world – as I expect every Pagan does – I still find myself mulling over these questions long after I have closed the covers on this play.