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Janus – Roman God of Time and Transitions

by January 5, 2022

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We all know January is the first month of the year. Many may even know the month is named after the Roman god Janus. Yet what do we know about this mysterious, two-headed figure?
Janus was the god of entrances, thresholds, and transition. Yet unlike many other Roman gods, which had Greek counterparts (the Roman Venus and the Greek Aphrodite, for instance) Janus was a god that was unique to the Romans. An understanding of this god, therefore, can help us to understand the Romans more distinctly.
What are the Origins of Janus?
Janus was probably an Indo-European deity and possibly of Etruscan origin. The name Janus probably comes from the old Latin word for entrance. The worship of this god was especially important in the public religion of Rome. Rites and ceremonies were held in his honor, and they were overseen by the priest known as the ‘King of the Sacred.’  The Romans believed that he was one of the first Kings of Rome, but even they knew little about him and his cult was very mysterious.
What was Janus’ role in Roman myth?
In the fragmentary myths that have survived, he was the embodiment of change and transformation. He is described in some sources as a creator deity who attended the birth of the Roman Gods, such as Jupiter. In another ancient account, Janus arrived in Italy by ship, and was a God of agriculture. Janus was often shown to be the assistant of Saturn and helped him to create a Golden Age. In some, sources he married a nymph, and their son was Tiberinus, after whom the River Tiber was named. The deity of transition was also responsible for the calendar.
The Worship of Janus
The worship of the god was thought to derive from the time of Romulus. There were many ceremonial gateways in Rome, known as Jani. They were seen as auspicious for entrances and leave-takings. Good or bad luck became attached to a person or army as they moved through these gateways. The most famous gateway in Rome was the Janus Geminus. This was the most important shrine dedicated to Janus. A temple on the Janiculum hill was believed to be the place where the god resided, but this temple has never been found by archaeologists. It was a square bronze structure with two doors, one closed inward and the other outwards. This was regarded as the symbolic threshold for first the Roman Republic and later the Empire.
A Roman coin showing the temple of Janus
A Roman coin showing the temple of Janus
The Romans believed that they should be kept closed in times of peace and open in times of war. The war-like Romans rarely closed the gates for an extended period.  They were closed by Augustus and Nero, who used it for propaganda purposes in the First Century AD. The Salii priests would close and open the doors. In the early Roman Republic this would signify the beginning or end of the season for war. In ancient agricultural societies, this was only conducted during the Spring and Summer. The citizens of the Eternal City believed that Janus oversaw the start and end of wars but was not technically a ‘god of war’.
Janus evolved over time, and he was also associated with travel, trade, and sailing. Many merchants celebrate the cult of Janus as a result. Janus was also summoned at the beginning of any public ceremony, such as the Senate opening. He was also honored at significant moments in life, for example weddings, births, and the harvest. Private citizens would seek Janus’ protection as they crossed the threshold in his home.  In myth and art, the god was shown as bearded and having two faces looking different ways. This expressed the liminal nature of this enigmatic deity.
Janus and the New Year
Janus was associated with the calendar and time. His association with transitions meant that he was often seen as a god of time. Janus was especially associated with celebrations around the New Year in mid-winter. Janus’ main feast was seemingly on January 9th, although a number of scholars dispute this. The god was believed to oversee the transition from one year to the next. Because of this, the Romans named the first month in their calendar after him. Later cultures adopted the Roman calendar and took over several of their month’s names. Today the month of January is named after the mysterious Janus.
The end of Janus
The Janiculum was eventually converted into a Christian Church. It seems that small groups of pagans continued to worship the god and during the Gothic Wars (sixth century AD), the doors of Janus were opened again. There were several medieval scholars who believed that witches and wizards worshipped Janus in their ceremonies.
Statue of Janus and Bellona, Roman goddess of war. By Johann Wilhelm Beyer
Statue of Janus and Bellona, Roman goddess of war. By Johann Wilhelm Beyer
Janus and Roman Religion
Janus has no real equivalent in Greek religion, and he is a uniquely Roman god. They worship him because they were preoccupied with the principles of transformation and transitions. The various cults dedicated to Janus were all thought by Romans to help to ensure that any transitions were not dangerous and hazardous. In particular, Romans sought his help to ensure that the transition from peace to war, and war to peace were successfully managed.
Janus offers us an insight into the worldview of the Romans. He was worshipped because he helped them to control changes and transitions and allowed them to understand time and the nature of the world. For the average Roman, the god personified important forces that that he wanted to control. In particular Janus was associated with the successful commencement and conclusion of war, which was critical for the martial Romans.
As a figure representing thresholds and transitions, there’s perhaps no more fitting legacy than inspiring the name of the year’s first month.
Further Reading
Ferguson, John (1985). The religions of the Roman Empire. Cornell, CA: Cornell University Press.

Aeneas: Trojan Prince and Founder of Rome

by December 8, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is a towering figure of ancient myth.
He fought at Troy and appears in the Iliad. Yet he is remembered for something much greater. He was seen by the Romans as a paragon of virtue, and one of the founders of their city. One of the world’s most enduring and influential pieces of literature, the Aeneid, was written about him. But who was Aeneas?
The origins of Aeneas
The Greek version of Aeneas is related in two sources: the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the Iliad. According to legends, he was the son of Anchises, a Trojan royal prince. His mother was the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology). Aphrodite had made Zeus fall in love with a human woman; in retaliation, he made her fall in love with a human too, namely Anchises. Aeneas was then born on Mount Ida, and was at first raised by nymphs before being taken to his father in Troy.
In ancient Greek, he was known as Αἰνείας (Aineías). Aeneas is a Latin form of the Greek. It has been speculated that the Greek name Αἰνείας meant originally ‘terrible’ or agony. This could refer to his martial prowess, or relate to the fact that his mother predicted his life of struggle when he was born.
In the Iliad, Aeneas is a fairly minor figure, but he is still portrayed as a noble warrior who is notably pious. At first in the epic, he holds back from the fighting, because he is angry that he has not received recognition from Priam. Later, he leads a mission to retrieve the body of his brother-in-law Alcathous. He is shown as a commander of a group of Trojan allies. During his time in Troy, Aeneas is rescued twice by the gods because he is destined to have a great future…
Aeneas, the founder of Rome
The legend of Aeneas was later adopted by several Roman writers. The Trojan hero was popular with Romans because he embodied qualities that they valued such as ‘pietas’ or commitment to native land, family and duty. The best-known version of the myth of Aeneas is told in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, one of the greatest works in all of Classical literature.
Bust of Virgil
In Roman mythology, the focus is on Aeneas and his adventures after the destruction of Troy. During the fall of the city, Aeneas leads his family and a small group to safety. He then leads them on a mission to find a new home for the surviving Trojans. They attempted to find a new city several times, but each time they failed. Eventually, Aeneas’ father Anchises died in Sicily. Later, Juno sends a storm that drives the Trojans to the shores of Carthage.
There, Aeneas has a six-year affair with the Phoenician Queen Dido. Committed to his duty, he eventually leaves Dido to find a new home for his people. In despair, Dido commits suicide. After arranging funeral games in Sicily, Aeneas lands on the western shores of Italy with his small band. At this time, Aeneas journeys to the Underworld and meets Dido and his father, who predicts that he would establish a great city (Rome).
Aeneas and Dido
Aeneas and Dido
Aeneas and the Foundation of Rome
Returning from the Underworld, Aeneas continued his journeys. The King of the Latins welcomed the Trojans and allowed them to settle in his territory. Aeneas became engaged to the Latin King’s daughter, Lavinia. This leads to a war with Turnus, the Rutulian King and his allies. In this bloody war, Aeneas emerges victorious. The story makes clear that Aeneas won because his cause was right. At this point in the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas ends abruptly, possibly because of the death of Virgil. The story of Aeneas was completed by writers such as Livy and Ovid. After his victory over Turnus, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium, named after his wife Lavinia. The hero had many descendants. One of them became King of Alba Longa, and was the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. After his death, Venus had Jupiter make him immortal and he ascended into the heavens to live like a god.
Aeneas and Roman Culture
The myth of Aeneas was of great cultural significance in Roman civilization. In ancient societies, myths were used to tell the history of peoples and to explain their origin. The story of Aeneas and his adventures was used to explain the foundation of Rome and justify its imperialism. Similarly, the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas was used to explain the enmity between Carthage and Rome. Aeneas was seen as the embodiment of Roman virtues, especially his pietas. The story of the Trojan prince was used to promote social and cultural ideas that had come to be considered essential for Roman greatness. They were also instrumental in teaching and reinforcing Roman ideas on morality and also justifying its empire as something moral and noble.
The stories of Aeneas demonstrate the power of myths and how they can be adapted. The Trojan was a minor figure in the Trojan War. Yet, when the Romans adopted him, he became something of a ‘national hero.’ Aeneas and his adventures were a common subject in Roman literature and art, and the legends of the Trojan were used to explain the history of Rome.
Elliot, A., 2013. Aeneas. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 20(3), pp.1-8.
Stahl, H.P., 1981. Aeneas—An’Unheroic’Hero? Arethusa, 14(1), pp.157-177.

Top 10 Must-Listen Greek Mythology Podcasts

by December 7, 2021

by Christina Lee
Greek mythology offers an abundance of tales, many of which have helped inspire modern-day culture and storytelling. Needless to say, Greek mythology is compelling, diverse and not for the faint-of-heart, so it makes for great reading material. However, if you want to get your fix of Greek mythology in a format that is easy to fit in around a busy schedule, read on for my top ten Greek mythology podcast recommendations.
This podcast aims to retell Greek and Roman mythology in a way that is appropriate for a modern audience: sarcastic, irreverent and casual. Covering monsters, heroes, gods and goddesses, this retelling of the ancient world focuses on the unparalleled minds of ancient Greece and the wild escapades of the gods.
Learn from host Paul as he teaches his co-host Sarah, a comedy writer, all he knows about Greek mythology. Tune in if you enjoy banter and hilarity with an educational twist.
It’s a commonly held belief that ancient Greek gods were only myths, but what if that’s wrong? Best-selling author and mythologist Patrick Garner discusses the major Greek deities, offering little known insights about who they were and who they became.
If you’re looking for something a little different, this audio drama could fit the bill. The tales are based on Greco-Roman myths surrounding the constellations in our skies and, as you would expect, are filled with tragedy, heroics, violence and injustice. This is the perfect podcast to listen to while looking out at the night sky during a bout of insomnia, so grab a cup of coffee (decaf, of course) and get cozy.
'Zodiac and Constellations', detail from fresco on ceiling of Hall of Maps, Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Italy, 1574
‘Zodiac and Constellations’, detail from fresco on ceiling of Hall of Maps, Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Italy, 1574
Olympians had a reputation for being mercurial, petty and vengeful, so it makes sense that there’s an entire podcast dedicated to the misfortune of Greeks who attracted their attention and the havoc unleashed upon their lives.
This is billed as a podcast for children, but don’t let that put you off. While this podcast does focus on renditions of classic tales that have been tweaked for young minds, it can easily be enjoyed by people of all ages who are interested in ancient myths made accessible.
Created by Janell Rhiannon, author of the Homeric Chronicles, a brilliant adult retelling of the Trojan War, this podcast explores the research that went into the series and the various surprises she uncovered. The aim of this podcast is to highlight female voices of the Trojan War era, offering a more diverse perspective on this fascinating, but often heavily masculinized, topic.
Simple but effective, this podcast offers short summaries and readings of various classical myths. At only 10 to 15 minutes long, each episode is a bitesize chunk that can be easily digested on your lunch break or while doing chores.
Title Page of Charles Kingsley's "The Heroes"
Title page of Charles Kingsley’s “The Heroes”
Originally published in 1855, Charles Kingsley’s collection of three stories (Perseus, The Argonauts and Theseus) is now available in audiobook format. While the author intended for the heroes and adventures in this book to inspire a sense of nobility and integrity in the children who read it, the work has been deemed as culturally important and a significant contribution to our knowledge of ancient civilization.
Informal, fun, and easy to relax into, this podcast focuses on Nikhil Ranjan sharing his knowledge of Greek mythology with everyone. The content of this podcast is drawn from a variety of sources, including original works, some of which have their own episodes. If you enjoy podcasts which lean more towards content than analysis, this might be one for you.
I hope this list has given you some inspiration and encouraged you to dive into a new podcast to brush up on all things Greek. Wherever your particular interests lie, there is a whole range of podcasts and audiobooks out there for you, so get exploring and get listening!
Christina Lee is a writer at Australian Reviewer and other sites, who primarily focuses on marketing news and related technologies. In addition, she is a project manager at Student writing services and Top essay writing services.

The Homeric Question: Who WAS Homer?

by December 3, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Homer is considered one of the greatest poets who ever lived. The literary and cultural influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey is incomparable. But who was Homer, exactly? The answer is a little bit complicated…
You see, for many centuries scholars have questioned not just the identity, but even the existence of Homer. The ‘Homeric Question’ seeks to understand if Homer actually wrote the works attributed to him, and if not, then who?
The Life of Homer
We’ll get to the more modern scholarship in a moment. But first, who did the ancients think Homer was?
Well, in antiquity, Homer was believed to have composed his great works in the Greek Dark Ages (9-8th century). According to this tradition, he was born on the island of Chios and was blind from birth. It was believed that he was a wandering bard, and that he sung his epics to the public at festivals.  These poems were based on events and heroes from the Mycenaean Age (12th-11th century BC). His works were later written down, and though they had been changed and edited, it was still believed that the Iliad and Odyssey were ultimately the product of one mind: Homer’s. Even as far back as antiquity, however, there were those who questioned if Homer really did write the epics…
11th century manuscript of a Homeric epic
11th century manuscript of a Homeric epic
The Homeric Question
Now we’re going to jump forward in time quite a bit. Just a couple of millennia!
Beginning in the 17th century, scholars began to develop textual criticism. Figures such as Isaac Causbon analysed the texts of Homer and found certain discrepancies. Critics began to suspect that the works of Homer were not actually written by just one person.
A Classical Era Bust of Homer
A Classical Era Bust of Homer
Rather, they believed that ‘Homer’ was the name given to a much larger oral tradition of storytelling. The reading public rejected this idea right down to the 19th century, and maintained that the figure of Homer, the blind bard, was the author of the works.
Milman Parry (1902 – 1935), an American Classicist, later revolutionized the study of Homer.  You see, across the Iliad and the Odyssey, there are many formulaic expressions, such as the epithets ‘divine Odysseus’ and ‘swift-footed Achilles’. Parry showed that there was a reason for this consistent repetition. Their presence was no accident: they were in fact memory devices, which allowed the reciting bard to improvise during his public recitations. Parry was also influenced by the recordings of bards from the Balkans, who similarly used formulas to recite very long epic poems. Parry argued that the works of Homer were part of a long literary tradition. He and later scholars proved that “Homer” (as he was commonly understood) did not write the Iliad and Odyssey. Rather, they emerged from a very ancient tradition.
Based on archaeological finds, later scholars have found that the Homeric works displayed a knowledge of Mycenaean warfare and weaponry, which indicates that this oral tradition dated back to the 12th and 11 century BC. Some elements of the poems, however, also came from later time periods. This confirmed that the epics evolved as part of a very dynamic oral tradition; the Homeric Question was resolved. The most famous epics in all of literature were not written by one man named Homer. It was, in fact, the creation of many minds.
A 19th century painting of a scene from the Iliad
A 19th century painting of a scene from the Iliad
So Who DID Write the Iliad and Odyssey?
It seems likely that itinerant bards sang of the heroics of the Greeks during the Trojan War during the Late Bronze Age. These were the instigators of the Homeric epics. Later bards developed their works and added to them. Scholars speculate that “Homer” may have been a name for groups of travelling bards who travelled the Greek world.  The stories told about Homer may reflect the fact that the bards had connections to the island of Chios. Yet mysteries still persist: there is no agreement on this particular theory.  
The Homeric tradition was then popularized by the rhapsodists who succeeded the traditional bards. These were professional singers who performed the works of others, and would have performed the poems attributed to Homer. It is possible that Homer was a famous rhapsodist, and the epics were mistakenly attributed to him. It’s also possible that the popular image of Homer as the blind bard was simply a creation of a similar oral tradition. All of these bards and rhapsodes contributed to the development of the Homeric works and helped to make them such great works of art.
It appears that the oral poems were written down sometime in the 8th century after the development of the Greek alphabet. The various Homeric poems were compiled in Athens during the rule of the tyrant Peisistratus (c 520-540 BC), according to one source. Another tradition argues that the versions of the work that we have were the result of scholars who worked in the Library of Alexandria (c 2nd century BC).
The Homeric Question has been largely solved. There was no single genius behind the works. The epics set during the Trojan War and its aftermath were the product of a very ancient tradition that dated back to the Bronze Age. This tradition was constantly evolving. Bards, rhapsodists, and scholars all contributed to the work in some small way.
Burgess, Jonathan S. (2003). The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. JHU Press

The Tragic Love Story of Orpheus and Eurydice

by November 26, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the greatest love stories in all of Greek myth, and possibly one of the greatest ever told. This story has been enormously influential from the classical world through to today. The story concerns the tragic love story of Orpheus, the archetypal artist, and his wife Eurydice.
Orpheus was widely believed to be of Thracian origin, but some claim he was of Arcadian origin. He is not mentioned in the works of Hesiod or Homer. From an early date, the singer was considered the archetypal poet and musician. It was believed that Orpheus perfected the art of the lyre, and that his singing could charm the birds from the trees. According to legend he was the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. Another story claims that he was the son of a Thracian king. It was also claimed that Orpheus was one of the Argonauts under Jason who travelled to Colchis. His beautiful singing drowned out the Sirens’ song, which sought to lure the adventurers to their death. Orpheus was associated with lyric poetry, which was sung accompanied by the playing of the lyre, and he was considered to be a forbearer of Homer. Eurydice was a wood nymph, a spirit of the forest and very beautiful.
The Tragic Love Story of Eurydice and Orpheus
One beautiful day, Orpheus was alone in the forest playing his lyre. Eurydice heard the beautiful music, and when she saw Orpheus, she fell in love with him at first sight. When Orpheus saw the wood nymph he too fell in love. They soon got married, but the god of marriage who blessed their nuptials predicted that it was not to last long, despite their deep love for one another.
There are several versions of what happened next. According to one, a shepherd tried to abduct Eurydice, and as she tried to escape, she trod on a snake who bit her, and she died. Another account says that she was bit by a snake when dancing with the other nymphs or Naiads. Orpheus was grief-stricken and could not even play his lyre.
Mosaic of Orpheus
Mosaic of Orpheus
Orpheus in the Underworld
In his grief, he asked his father Apollo for help. The god beseeched Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, to let his son retrieve his beloved from the realm of the dead. Hades agreed after he heard Orpheus playing his lyre. The God of the Underworld told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice back to the world of the living, but could not look upon her in the Underworld.  If he did his wife would stay in the Underworld for all time. Orpheus found Eurydice but he did not look at her. He began to lead her out of the Underworld. As he neared the light and the land of the living, he become excited. When he left Underworld, he could not restrain himself and he looked upon his wife. She was still in the darkness of the Underworld. When he looked upon her and tried to embrace her, she was returned to the depths of the Underworld, for all eternity. Orpheus had lost his love for all time, and Eurydice was condemned to wander the realms of the dead.
The husband of Eurydice was only one of a few heroes who was able to return from the realm of Hades. The son of Apollo wandered the world forlorn, until he was torn to pieces by followers of Dionysus. In one account he was killed by women whose attentions he had spurned. Legend states that his head was thrown into a river, and it was singing as it floated away.
Statue of Hades
Statue of Hades
The Meaning of the Myth
Like many myths, there was a moral to the story. Namely that the gods should be obeyed totally, and in every way. Because of his failure to fully obey Hades’ commands, Orpheus lost his beloved. Some believe that the story relates to the cult of Persephone. In another tradition, Orpheus was a religious reformer or prophet, and he was believed to be the founder of a mystery-religion. Several religious poems in hexameters attributed to Orpheus have been found. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is regarded by some as being related to the teachings of the mystery-religion of Orphism.
An 18th century engraving of Orpheus and Eurydice
An 18th century engraving of Orpheus and Eurydice
The Cultural Influence of the Myth
Many great literary figures wrote about the myth, including Ovid and Vergil. Ovid’s version of the myth in his Metamorphoses is perhaps the best known version. The story remained popular in the Middle Ages, and is featured in several poems. Since the 17th century there have been many operas based on the myth, the most popular being Orfeo and Euridice by Gluck (1762). Stravinsky wrote a ballet on the myth. Many poets have adapted the myth including the great modern German poet Rilke. In recent times, Neil Gaiman references the myth in the popular Sandman comics.
So, despite the antiquity of the tale, it clearly has resonated across the centuries, and moves us still. It has it all: poetry, gods, and heroism.
But really it comes down to one thing: there’s nothing like a love story…
Graves, Robert (1980). The Greek Myths. London: Pelican.
Ovid (2000). The Metamorphoses. Hamondsworth: Penguin.

Herakles – What’s In A Name?

by November 20, 2021

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
He’s the greatest of the Greek heroes.
There’s probably no other Greek figure that has had more movies, TV shows, and other adaptations based on their tales. Although, in a lot of these cases, it’s not the character’s original Greek name, Herakles, that is used. Rather, we may know him better by his Latinized name of Hercules, as used by the Romans.
What’s in a name, though?
Quite a lot, actually.
In Greek mythology, a character’s name can have very resonant meanings. A brief example would be Antinous from the Odyssey, one of the leaders of the feckless and wasteful suitors. With Odysseus having left his home of Ithaca twenty years previously to fight at Troy, Antinous hopes to wed Odysseus’ wife Penelope in the Greek hero’s absence. His name is a compound of anti, meaning “opposed” (a meaning it still holds today), and nostos, the Greek word for homecoming.  Antinous’ name reflects the role he plays in the Odyssey – he opposes the homecoming of Odysseus. The French academic Nicole Loraux described such instances of Greek names as being ‘micro-narratives’.
Similarly, Herakles’ identity is encoded within his name. Herakles isn’t even his real name. He is born Alcaeus, and later took on the name Herakles himself. But why?
The name Herakles is a compound of the name of the goddesss Hera and the word kleos, an important concept in Greek society, meaning glory or fame. Herakles’ name, therefore, literally means “the glory of Hera”.
Yet this is deeply ironic. Hera is both Herakles’ stepmother and his aunt, but she is not loving towards her demigod relative. Rather, she is furiously antagonistic towards Herakles. Even as a child, she sent snakes to kill him, which he strangled in his cradle. This is because Herakles is one of many of Zeus’ illegitimate children, having been born of the mortal woman Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus. As a living symbol of Zeus’ infidelity, the Greek hero is an object of relentless scorn to Hera. The queen of the gods, therefore, dedicates many efforts to destroying Herakles.
Infant Herakles stopping a snake
Infant Herakles stopping a snake
Even before he was born, Hera sought to undermine him. Before the birth of Herakles, Zeus made a proclamation that the descendent of Perseus born the following day would become King of Mycenae. Hera then contrived to delay the birth of Herakles, so that her favoured figure, Eurystheus, could instead be born first, thus allowing him to become King, instead of Herakles. This established a dynamic which is invoked in the Iliad as a reflection of the distinctions between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles, like Herakles, is the figure of greater heroism, yet is socially inferior to the much less heroic figure of Agamemnon (or his counterpart, Eurystheus).
As an adult, it is Hera who caused madness to descend on Herakles, leading to him killing his children (and in some versions, his wife). This, in turn, led him to seek atonement by visiting the court of his cousin and champion of Hera, King Eurystheus, who then sends Herakles on his famous twelve labours.
It is on these labours that Herakles battles such enduring figures of myth as the Hydra, or Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades.  Yet, it is from these hardships that he gains his glory. Her attempts to destroy Herakles ultimately backfire, and inadvertently grant the hero greater and greater renown. Herakles, therefore, draws his glory (kleos) from Hera. Herakles chooses his name to reflect this.
Herakles and Cerberus
Herakles and Cerberus
The linguistics of the name Hera itself open up further layers. The name Hera is linguistically related to two other very relevant Greek words – the first of which is hōrā (plural hōrai), meaning ‘season’ or ‘the right time’. This is the word from which we get the modern word hour. The name Herakles, therefore, also carries this connotation within it. He is, in a sense, ‘the glory of the right time’. This again is ironic, as Herakles was born, seemingly, at the wrong time. Yet, just as Hera’s other attempts to destroy him backfired, so did this original attempt to undermine him. His late birth is ultimately what put on him on the path towards the glory gained in the twelve labours. Maybe he was born at the ‘right’ time after all.
These themes of time and ‘untimeliness’ with regards to the myths of Herakles are explored further in Euripides’ play Herakles, one of a number of Greek tragedies dealing with the demigod. It is somewhat similar to his play on Helen, in that it presents a notable departure from the more famous versions of the tale. Strangely, Herakles is presented as having returned from his labours before the frenzy of madness that causes him to kill his family takes place. Although this may seem unusual at first, it is part of a broader examination of the role of time and timing within the myths of Herakles.
Much like one of Euripides’ most famous plays Medea, Herakles deals with the horror of the violence of Homeric warfare entering the world of the oikos, or home. When Herakles is in the midst of his frenzy, he believes that he is fighting his enemy Eurystheus while committing these acts of violence. Within the Homeric code of Euripides’ own day, Herakles actions would be justified by being on a battlefield, yet they are, naturally, horrific when they occur within the home. According to the Homeric code, Herakles actions themselves weren’t wrong – the timing was simply wrong. Euripides, it seems, doesn’t find fault with Herakles himself, but with the prevailing moral code of his day, where the same actions can be rendered just or unjust by something as arbitrary as timing. This reinforces the irony of the hero’s name having the connotation of ‘the glory of the right time.’
Utimately, Euripides’ version of Herakles is granted a different sort of atonement, through the friendship of Theseus, and by implication, the city of Athens. To Euripides, it seems that it wasn’t violence on the battlefield or great deeds that made Herakles great, but rather his innermost character of nobility and decency, the qualities that ensure his friendship with Theseus.
Finally, Hera is also linguistically connected to the Greek word hērōs, meaning hero. This means that the name could be read as “the glory of the hero.” A fitting title, then, for the most enduring of Greek heroes.
It turns out, there’s a lot in a name!