Herakles Hurls His Guest

 Ixion Painter - PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol,  Mnêstêrophonía: slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumeus (right). Side A from a Campanian (Capouan?) red-figure bell-krater, ca. 330 BC.
Ixion Painter – PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol,
Mnêstêrophonía: slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumeus (right). Side A from a Campanian (Capouan?) red-figure bell-krater, ca. 330 BC.

When Odysseus finishes massacring the suitors at the end of the Odyssey, he looks like a blood-soaked lion:

There she found Odysseus amid the bodies of the slain, all befouled with blood and filth, like a lion that comes from feeding on an ox of the farmstead, and all his breast and his cheeks on either side [405] are stained with blood, and he is terrible to look upon; even so was Odysseus befouled, his feet and his hands above. But she, when she beheld the corpses and the great welter of blood, made ready to utter loud cries of joy, seeing what a deed had been wrought. But Odysseus stayed and checked her in her eagerness, [410] and spoke and addressed her with winged words: “In thine own heart rejoice, old dame, but refrain thyself and cry not out aloud: an unholy thing is it to boast over slain men. These men here has the fate of the gods destroyed and their own reckless deeds, for they honored no one of men upon the earth, [415] were he evil or good, whosoever came among them; wherefore by their wanton folly they brought on themselves a shameful death.

The lion is a familiar simile in the Iliad and the Odyssey [See, for example, “Progression of the Lion Simile in the ‘Odyssey,'” by William T. Magrath; The Classical Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Feb. – Mar., 1982), pp. 205-212]. Another Greek hero associated with the lion, but a more literal one, is Herakles, who wears the skin of the Nemean lion.

To procure this excellent piece of armor, Herakles found he could not rely on his weapon of choice, the bow, because of the lion’s impervious skin. Instead, he had to resort to brute strength. To fit the pelt to his own body, Herakles could only cut the skin with its own claws. From then on, in representations of the hero, he often has the lion skin as well as the bow or, in much of the art we see, the gnarly club.

Like Odysseus, Herakles is a renowned bowman — remember it was his selected heir to his bow, Philoctetes, who was essential to finish the Trojan War. Also, like Odysseus, Herakles may have been justified, but he still violated the divine laws regarding proper behavior to one’s guests (xeinia). Odysseus killed the room full of suitors in his very own banquet hall using a special bow. Knowledge that he had just violated the laws of hospitality likely influenced him to ask his nurse not to sing his praises aloud in the quoted passage above. Best not anger the gods by flaunting one’s disobedience. It was because of his skill with a bow, a skill he had learned at the hands of King Eurytus of Oechalia, that Herakles found himself seeking revenge against the House of Oechalia by means of another breach of the same laws of hospitality.

Apollodorus 2.6.1 explains the slight that led to Herakles’ second major need for atonement (the first atonement was the 12 Labors to atone for murdering his own family):

[2.6.1] After his labours Hercules went to Thebes and gave Megara to Iolaus, and, wishing himself to wed, he ascertained that Eurytus, prince of Oechalia, had proposed the hand of his daughter Iole as a prize to him who should vanquish himself and his sons in archery. So he came to Oechalia, and though he proved himself better than them at archery, yet he did not get the bride; for while Iphitus, the elder of Eurytus’s sons, said that Iole should be given to Hercules, Eurytus and the others refused, and said they feared that, if he got children, he would again kill his offspring.

So, slighted by being refused the prize he had just won by archery contest, Herakles would seek and ultimately find ways of avenging himself. It wasn’t easy to get at Eurytus (whose name may mean good at drawing the bow) directly, but he could get at his son. Of course it is the same son who stood up to his father to tell him that Herakles deserved the prize. This adds to our feeling of horror at his destruction at Herakles’ hands.

Eurytus would have deserved it, but Iphitus, not at all. Eventually, Herakles would kill Eurytus, too, but according to some, that wouldn’t actually be necessary because the unjust king also had a divine adversary, the god Apollo. Not only was Apollo an adversary, but he was also Eurytus’ grandfather. Indeed, Apollo had given Eurytus the bow as a gift, with which the ungrateful mortal turned around and challenged the god to an archery contest. This just wasn’t done in Olympian circles and so Apollo was obliged to destroy his own previously honored descendant. The divinely gifted bow was passed on to Iphitus who exchanged it with Odysseus for a sword and spear. That means Eurytus’ bow was the one used to shoot down the room full of suitors.

Back to Iphitus and Herakles….

Herakles couldn’t immediately obtain his prize, Iole, although he would, in time. Eurytus, aware that Herakles wouldn’t just let the slight roll off his lionskin, began to see signs of Herakles where Herakles wasn’t actually present. When some cattle were stolen, he believed the hero responsible. Again, Iphitus stood up for Herakles, but then decided he should talk with the hero and perhaps persuade the hero to prove he hadn’t done it by helping Iphitus recapture the missing kine.

Apollodorus says Herakles agreed and invited Iphitus to dine with him, but then threw him from the walls of the city to his death. Poor Iphitus!

Because of this mad act, Hercules wound up as a servant to a queen in Lydia.

[Flash to scenes of transvestism and pan to the other greatest heroes, including Theseus going through his own string of mighty feats for three years.]

[2.6.3] After the delivery of the oracle, Hermes sold Hercules, and he was bought by Omphale, daughter of Iardanes, queen of Lydia, to whom at his death her husband Tmolus had bequeathed the government. Eurytus did not accept the compensation when it was presented to him, but Hercules served Omphale as a slave, and in the course of his servitude he seized and bound the Cercopes at Ephesus ; and as for Syleus in Aulis, who compelled passing strangers to dig, Hercules killed him with his daughter Xenodoce, after burning the vines with the roots. And having put in to the island of Doliche, he saw the body of Icarus washed ashore and buried it, and he called the island Icaria instead of Doliche. In return Daedalus made a portrait statue of Hercules at Pisa, which Hercules mistook at night for living and threw a stone and hit it. And during the time of his servitude with Omphale it is said that the voyage to Colchis and the hunt of the Calydonian boar took place, and that Theseus on his way from Troezen cleared the Isthmus of malefactors.

Based on

Also noted:

“Reciprocities in Homer,” by Walter Donlan; The Classical World, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jan. – Feb., 1982), pp. 137-175
The Authority of Telemachus,” byA. Gottesman; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 33, No. 1 (April 2014), pp. 31-60

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