Learning from Hercules's Shadow

Hercules’s Shadow

Hercules: strong man, superhero. Sure, yes. But the legendary hero cast a long shadow.

He was abused repeatedly as a child, beginning when he was in the womb, extending through his early childhood, and into adulthood as well. Chronic abuse caused Hercules to develop several behavioral disorders. Otherwise a virtuous guy, he would suddenly enter fugue states. He killed his music teacher when he was just a kid, the first sign that trauma was messing with his brain. As an adult, Hercules murdered several of his wives and many of his children, regretting his acts so deeply afterwards that he overcompensated by godlike feats of heroism and glory.

A deep dive into the more disturbing aspects of Hercules’s story yields rewards applicable to our own lives…which is what myths are supposed to do, anyway.


We have been misinterpreting the story of Hercules (Heracles). He was as characterized by repeated acts of self-sabotage as he was acts of heroism. This feature of his biography should help those of us with similar tendencies, showing us that self-sabotage may be an unfortunate feature of some hero’s journeys. After each outburst of violence, Hercules repented but he never could escape the cycle of heroism—self-sabotage because the latter was caused by forces beyond his control: the machinations of a deity, Hera.

The type of heroism Hercules exemplifies resembles toxic masculinity. But there’s a lot more to the story than that. Early in his life, Hercules was offered a choice between a life of Vice and a life of Virtue. Heracles chose Virtue. In ancient Greece, Virtue meant choosing the difficult path. It meant being willing to suffer. Think of David Goggins: Goggins is the modern equivalent of Hercules.

Although most of Heracles’s feats did not serve a greater purpose other than compensating for his vices, he did achieve some altruistic goals that make him seem more a true hero rather than a vainglorious man overcompensating for child abuse and neglect.

Ultimately, I argue that we should look to Heracles for archetypal heroism, but not for the reasons spelled out for us. We should honor Heracles not for his so-called virtue, his brawn, his accomplishments in the twelve labors. As admirable as those things seem, they are superficial next to the fact that Heracles was a survivor of child abuse and trauma: of numerous attempts at infanticide by his stepmother Hera. Those of us struggling with PTSD and other trauma-related disorders may find it instructive to view Heracles as a tragic hero. For Heracles murdered those he loved, acts directly spawned by his jealous stepmother. His acts of glory are best read as overcompensations for his lack of parental love, proof of what a person can do in spite of debilitating pain.


The names of our heroes bear clues to their archetypal meaning. The name Heracles alone is ironic. We usually use the Romanized spelling and pronunciation Hercules, but the origin and meaning of his name stems from the Greek form Heracles. Heracles means Hera’s glory or Hera’s pride.

The name is ironic because Heracles was anything but Hera’s pride and glory. He was, on the contrary, the bane of her existence. Hercules was the offspring of one of her husband’s affairs. Filled with vengeance, Hera tried many times to kill Heracles. She even tried to strangle him in the womb by tricking the goddess of childbirth. Her prenatal machinations failed, so she tried again when Heracles was an infant. She placed a serpent in his nursery; defying the odds, baby Heracles practically turned the snake into a pet.

Hera hated Hercules because he was her husband’s child with another woman. Zeus had many affairs, but Hera felt uniquely tormented by this one. Giving the story even greater depth and complexity, Hera ended up accidentally nursing Heracles. She must have had some infants of her own and wasn’t paying too much attention at the time. Anyway, Heracles sucked so hard at her tits she had to pull away, spraying her breast milk and forming the Milky Way. Each night we are reminded of the story, showing how significant it may be for our psychosocial development.

What you didn’t know about Hercules

1. He was as much a master of self-sabotage as he was a master of physical prowess.

During severe bouts of anguish, having been driven mad by Hera, Hercules killed several of his lovers and several his own children. He did so as if in a fugue state; he regretted his outbursts instantly and sought help for his behavior. Yet Hera continued to sabotage him, causing him to sabotage himself. Het never broke free from the cycle of trauma.

2. Trauma and abuse defined his life; his heroism lies in what he was able to accomplish in spite of suffering.

Heracles developed a conduct disorder in early childhood, likely linked to his prenatal and postnatal traumas. When he was little, he killed his music teacher for no really good reason. He would go on to kill several of his lovers, his wives, and his own children.

Yet in ancient Greece he was worshipped as a god. Several cults were devoted to him. We still consider him a hero. The ancient Greeks considered him a hero in spite of his many acts of violence. Most of us in the modern world don't even know about his outbursts. His story has been white-washed, sterilized. Revisiting the story to appreciate Hercules in his wholeness allows us the freedom to embrace that which we find intolerable in ourselves and others.

Hercules accomplished all the seemingly impossible tasks laid out before him. Many of those tasks were fiats, but he did complete a few acts of service that demonstrate pure heroism: killing the eagle eating Prometheus’s liver, and liberating Atlas from his heavy burden.

3. Hercules was a proto-Jesus.

Hercules’s story parallels the Jesus legend. In fact, it is highly likely that as the Jesus legend evolved, it directly borrowed from the tale of Hercules. For one, Heracles’s conception was immaculate. He was a heteropaternal twin, born in a rare condition known as superfecundation—when a woman gets pregnant by two men at the same time and gives birth to twins. The twins are half-brothers.

Iphicles was Heracles’s twin by superfecundation. Like Mary, Alcmene had no idea she was sleeping with a god the evening she got pregnant with Heracles. Zeus disguised himself as her husband. Later that evening, Alcmene slept with her real husband, which is how she got pregnant with heteropaternal twins, Iphicles and Hercules.

Second, both Hercules and Jesus had a life characterized by pathos. They didn’t deny or lament the pathos so much as they transcended it. Hercules and Jesus exemplified social standards of virtue, choosing a difficult path over an easy one. They accepted their need to suffer in the name of glory, acting as role models for humanity.

Both Hercules and Jesus were deified, in their own time and thereafter. There were cults devoted to Hercules. Some of those cults worshipped him as a god and placed him in the Olympian pantheon. However, other cults simply venerated him as a superhero or ideal man. Jesus cults met similar fates, as people debated over whether he was divine, semi-divine, or just human.

Just as Hercules had 12 labors to endure, Jesus traverses the 12 passions or stations of the cross. The soul must travel through 12 gates of hell, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead

Hercules and Jesus represent the ideals of a dying world, patriarchy gone awry. These are hero stories that lead to distorted self-concepts and distorted worldviews. Rather than ditch the heroes we know and love, why not simply reinterpret their stories in light of the values of a new humanity?

4. Hercules was poly.

Hercules was polyamorous. He was married four times, and he had numerous affairs with both men and women, clearly documented in the stories about his life. Hercules also liked group sex and was likely kinky AF. He had sex with 50 sisters on the same night. His story shows us how heroes live and love without concern for normative standards.

5. Hercules was bi-cultural.

Being bi-cultural or biracial can be hard on people. We never fit in anywhere. We’re rejected by both sides. Hercules contended with being bicultural; he was half mortal, half god.

The mother of Heracles and Iphicles was a mortal woman named Alcmene. Amphitryon (a mortal) was Iphicles’s father. Zeus was Heracles’s father. Hercules was also a sort of spiritual orphan, a half-breed. Not only that, Zeus only wanted to fuck Alcmene, not have kids with her.

When Hercules was born, he is taken from his biological mother and placed into the hands of a woman who wants to kill him, one who actually tried to kill him while he was still in the womb and then again when he was just an infant. Zeus is pretty much out of the picture entirely for the remainder of his life.

6. Hercules used psychedelics to heal his trauma.

After the first time he kills his wife and children, you might think Hercules was just a cold-blooded murderer. However, all versions of the story show how it was Hera who made him lose his mind. The hero does as heroes do: he takes responsibility.

When he realizes that he’s ruined his life, Heracles goes to Delphi to see the oracle. He hopes she can shed light on the issue. The Oracle of Delphi was a seer and a medicine woman. Archaeological evidence backs up the historical record showing that entheogens were integral to the ceremonies performed at Delphi.

The story goes that Hercules takes herbs to cure him of the insanity wrought by Hera. Given the evidence of entheogens at Delphi, it is also likely Hercules used plant medicine—psychedelics—when he visited the oracle. Of course, Hera reaches the oracle before Hercules does and convinces the oracle to set up Heracles to perform the labors.

So many of us dealing with complex PTSD find that when we seek help, things almost get worse. It certainly played out that way for Hercules. Yet he’s the one we still celebrate as a legendary hero, not Hera. If it’s any consolation, know that if you are suffering and even the plant medicines are failing you, you may still be remembered as a badass.

Hera did the same thing to Hercules again and again. She drove Heracles insane, causing him to kill people he cared about. It’s a miracle he managed to pull off the 12 labors, which is why we read about him. But we don’t realize what he had to overcome psychologically in order to succeed. It wasn’t that he was just strong—he was a spiritual warrior.

7. We may be celebrating Hercules for the wrong reasons.

This seems rather obvious but Hercules represents toxic masculinity. So many of the problems in his life story stem from patriarchy and toxic masculinity. We should feel sorry for Hera, too. Her husband cheats on her with impunity. In spite of being a goddess, she is subordinate to Zeus. She compensated for her lack of status by wielding power over an innocent child. Her behavior is not justifiable, but neither is sexism.

Heracles’s life is full of ironies and paradoxes lost in standard analyses of the legend. I argue that the deep paradoxes of Heracles’s life may yield the most instructive fruits for meditation. Hercules shocks everyone by succeeding. We also need to realize that succeeding does not liberate Heracles.

Takeaways from Hercules: What We Can Learn

1. Misogyny and abuses of power = bad

2. Self-sabotage due to c-PTSD often never resolves itself. We just have to rise above it and become the hero of our story. Hercules shows us what we are capable in spite of trauma. Hera would have made his life miserable regardless; the fact that he pursued greatness anyway inspires us to do the same. Note also Hercules never tried to attack Hera directly, but instead channeled his energy into courageous acts.

3. To eliminate suffering and self-sabotage, we need some serious reprogramming. In the meantime, we should at least set an example for others, love freely, and stand up to tyranny.

4. The heroes we oversimplify, like Hercules, end up being revered for the wrong reasons. Hercules wasn't just a strong man. He was virtuous mentally, too. His physical feats epitomize rising above trauma with the powers we have in our arsenal. For Herc, these powers were physical.

Hercules teaches us how you win, even when the gods are stacked against you What are your superpowers and how will you use them to become legendary?

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