Why is there a Herakles/Hercules sarcophagus?

I recently visited the Archeological museum of Antalya, seeing two 'Herakles sarcophagi' like this one, depicting his twelve labours.

I learned some about him like how he reached immortality. I was however confused. In my mind (and I double-checked on Wikipedia), a sarcophagus is a funeral container. But here we have a sarcophagus (in fact multiple) of an a priori fictional character that reached immortality.

As far as I saw, gods and other mythological characters are represented with statues, on frescoes or such supports. But not on sarcophagi.

My question is, what/who was this Herakles sarcophagus for? I thought so far that he is revered through a sarcophagus (I would be curious why), it is actually his sarcophagus and the story around him has been embellished, it is a mere mortal sarcophagus and its owner was compared with Herakles or was proud of himself. These might sound ridiculous but I have so far not found an explanation.

To answer your immediate question, the sarcophagus would have been for a wealthy Roman. In the case of the Genzano sarcophagus you cite, like many similar ones, the name of the deceased is unknown.

During the high Imperial period of Rome, 200-400 A.D., sarcophagi such as these were popular. They were often decorated in high relief and contained mythological scenes, often involving death or the underworld. The Labors of Hercules was a popular theme. Note that the last of the labors was to retrieve the hound of hell, Cerebus, and bring him out of Hades. Another common theme was Hercules rescuing Alcestis from Hades. The myth of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Pluto and became the queen of Hades, was an extremely popular theme for sarcophagi.

The style you saw at Antalya, shown in the photo above, is typical, with a temple-like roof and high-relief panels separated by Corinthian columns.

Some moderns may find it a little odd to have superhero mythology on a burial container--sort of the equivalent of having Batman comics on your coffin--but for the later Romans such things were common. They also decorated their houses with exactly the same kinds of art: Hercules, myths, scenes from the gods, and so on.

There was a professor at Barnard named Marion Lawrence who devoted her career to studying classical sarcophagi and you can research the topic by reading her papers.

Hercules in ancient Rome

In ancient Roman religion and myth, Hercules was venerated as a divinized hero and incorporated into the legends of Rome's founding. The Romans adapted Greek myths and the iconography of Heracles into their own literature and art, but the hero developed distinctly Roman characteristics. Some Greek sources as early as the 6th and 5th century BC gave Heracles Roman connections during his famous labors. [1]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus places Hercules among divine figures honored at Rome "whose souls after they had left their mortal bodies are said to have ascended to Heaven and to have obtained the same honours as the gods." [2] His apotheosis thus served as one model during the Empire for the concept of the deified emperor. [3]

The Real Story of Hercules is the Story of a Warrior

Hercules, also known as Heracles, Herculies, Herculea or Hercukes, is a prime example of a mighty warrior.

Without any more major interference from Hera, Hercules grew into a great warrior. He single-handedly led the attack that drove the Minyans out of Thebes. In gratitude, Creon, king of Thebes offered his eldest daughter, Megara, to the hero.

Hercules and Megara got married and had three strong sons. The family lived happily together.

Which Feats Are Included in the Labors of Hercules?

Hercules had lots of adventures and at least a couple of marriages. Among the heroic myths about him, it is told that Hercules went to the Greek Underworld and traveled with the Argonauts on their voyage to collect the Golden Fleece. Were these part of his labors?

Hercules went to the Underworld or towards the Underworld more than once. There is debate about whether he faced Death within or outside the confines of the Underworld. Twice Hercules rescued friends or the wife of a friend, but these excursions were not parts of the assigned labors.

The Argonaut adventure was not connected with his labors nor were his marriages, which may or may not include his transvestite stay with the Lydian queen Omphale.

Ancient Greece

Hercules was the greatest of the mythological Greek heroes. He was famous for his incredible strength, courage, and intelligence. Hercules is actually his Roman name. The Greeks called him Heracles.

Statue of Heracles
Photo by Ducksters

Hercules was a demigod. This means that he was half god, half human. His father was Zeus, king of the gods, and his mother was Alcmene, a beautiful human princess.

Even as a baby Hercules was very strong. When the goddess Hera, Zeus' wife, found out about Hercules, she wanted to kill him. She snuck two large snakes into his crib. However, baby Hercules grabbed the snakes by the neck and strangled them with his bare hands!

Hercules mother, Alcmene, tried to raise him like a regular kid. He went to school like mortal children, learning subjects like math, reading, and writing. However, one day he got mad and hit his music teacher on the head with his lyre and killed him by accident.

Hercules went to live in the hills where he worked as a cattle herder. He enjoyed the outdoors. One day, when Hercules was eighteen years old, a massive lion attacked his herd. Hercules killed the lion with his bare hands.

Hercules married a princess named Megara. They had a family and were living a happy life. This made the goddess Hera angry. She tricked Hercules into thinking his family was a bunch of snakes. Hercules killed the snakes only to realize they were his wife and kids. He was very sad and riddled with guilt.

Hercules wanted to get rid of his guilt. He went to get advice from the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle told Hercules that he must serve King Eurystheus for 10 years and do any task the king asked of him. If he did this, he would be forgiven and wouldn't feel guilty any more. The tasks the king gave him are called the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

The Twelve Labors of Hercules

  1. Slay the Lion of Nemea
  2. Slay the Lernean Hydra
  3. Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis
  4. Capture the Boar of Erymanthia
  5. Clean the entire Augean stables in one day
  6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds
  7. Capture the Bull of Crete
  8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes
  9. Get the girdle from the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta
  10. Take the cattle from the monster Geryon
  11. Steal apples from the Hesperides
  12. Bring back the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Underworld

Another example of Hercules using his brain was when he was tasked with cleaning the Augean stables in a day. There were over 3,000 cows in the stables. There was no way he could clean them by hand in a day. So Hercules built a dam and caused a river to flow through the stables. They were cleaned out in no time.

Hercules went on a number of other adventures throughout Greek mythology. He was a hero who helped people and fought monsters. He continuously had to deal with the goddess Hera trying to trick him and get him into trouble. In the end, Hercules died when his wife was tricked into poisoning him. However, Zeus saved him and his immortal half went to Olympus to become a god.

Pegasus was not Hercules’ friendly companion.

Contrary to what the movie wants us to believe, in the original myth, Hercules did not have any association with Pegasus. While Pegasus did exist in the mythology, he was a companion of another hero — Bellerophon.

Sadly, he was also not a cuddly good-natured mythical horse. The story of his origin is rather gory. As Ranker writes, “He reportedly sprang ‘from the teeming neck’ of the slain Medusa, his mane drenched in blood.”

There are many other aspects of Hercules’ life that are either omitted or sugarcoated in modern entertainment versions of the story. They for example involve his struggles in atoning his murder by conducting the Twelve Labors, one of which was killing the Hydra. But as expected, in the original myth he killed her with much more violence than Disney had us believe.

To learn what further course he must take, Hercules consulted the oracle at Delphi where the Pythian priestess told him to expiate his crime by serving King Eurystheus for 12 years. During this 12-year period, Hercules had to perform the 10 labors the king would require of him. The Pythian also changed Hercules' name from Alcides (after his grandfather Alcaeus) to what we normally call him, Heracles (in Greek) or Hercules (the Latin form and the one most commonly used today regardless of whether the reference is to a Greek or Roman myth). The Pythian also told Hercules to move to Tiryns. Willing to do anything to atone for his murderous rage, Hercules obliged.

Eurystheus set before Hercules a series of impossible tasks. If completed, some of them would have served a useful purpose because they removed the world of dangerous, predatory monsters—or excrement, but others were capricious whims of a king with an inferiority complex: Comparing himself with the hero was bound to make Eurystheus feel inadequate.

Since Hercules was doing these tasks to atone for his crimes, Eurystheus insisted there be no ulterior motive. Because of this restriction, when King Augeas of Elis [see Peloponnese map Bb] promised Hercules a fee for cleaning his stables (Labor 5), Eurystheus denied the feat: Hercules had to do another to fill his quota. That King Augeas reneged and did not pay Hercules made no difference to Eurystheus. Other tasks the king of Tiryns set his nephew were make-work. For instance, once Hercules retrieved the apples of the Hesperides (Labor 11), but Eurystheus had no use for the apples, so he had Hercules send them back again.

1) Definition, history and etymology

A) Definition

A sarcophagus is a protective vat that holds the body or mummy of a deceased important person.

Outdoor sarcophagi are mostly made of stone (marble and granite) and almost always contain another, more finely decorated wooden sarcophagus.

B) History

The Egyptians were not alone in creating sarcophagi for the dead. They were also found among the Romans, Christians, Etruscans and medieval peoples.

However, whatever the civilization, the function of sarcophagi is always to allow a deceased person to reach the Afterlife of his religion more easily. Moreover, in all the civilizations mentioned above, sarcophagi are always decorated with representations of the deceased interacting or living with the god(s) he believes in.

In addition, the sarcophagi are sometimes endowed with large representations of myths and legends of the dead's religion. For example, below, you can see:

  • The wooden sarcophagus of pharaoh Tutankhamun representing him (first image below).
  • The pink granite sarcophagus of pharaoh Rameses III depicts scenes from Egyptian mythology (second image below).

The sarcophagus ofpharaoh Tutankhamun (1327 BC)

The sarcophagus of pharaoh Ramses III (1153BC)

C) Etymology

The ancient Greek word "σαρκο φάγος", "sarkophágos" meant "flesh eater" ("σαρκο" pronounced "sarx" means "the flesh" while "φαγεῖν" pronounced "phagein" means "eat").

The term flesh-eater is used because sarcophagi are the last resting place of the body. It is inside them that the body disappears little by little over the centuries.

Nowadays, we also called "sarcophagus" the dismantling area of nuclear power plants and of dangerous buildings. The most famous of these containment chambers is the "Chernobyl sarcophagus" built after the Ukrainian nuclear disaster of 1986.

Why is there a Herakles/Hercules sarcophagus? - History

Both Kellan Lutz and Dwayne Johnson have Hercules films coming out next year, in the spring and summer, respectively. Sure seems a long time to wait, huh? So to kill some time until then, we thought we'd dig into the myth and love life of the most famous alpha male of all time. Do you think Dwayne and Kellan know they are playing bisexual?

Above: Dwayne Johnson in Brett Ratner's Hercules: The Thracian Wars

Get the lowdown on Hercules's love life with the guys on the following pages >>>

Above: Roman sarcophagus depicting the several of the Labors of Hercules — the defeat of the Cretan Bull and Horses of Diomedes. Sure is a lot of horn on that bull.

Mythology is a tricky business. Basically, it's gossip created by the unconscious minds of the ancients, formed into fables, then told and and retold until it barely resembles the original source material. And that's the way it should happen, because with each retelling and each revision (that sticks) it becomes closer and closer to a mythic truth that explains nature, psychology, and sexuality, among many other things.

Then two things happened that kind of ruined it for mythology: science and Christianity. Science explained the cold hard facts of the physical world, and Christianity had big issues with the freewheeling sex lives of the gods and demigods. So now we know that constellations of stars are random and unplanned, and the natural chaotic sexuality of the universe has been whitewashed by the current religious establishment.

Hercules depicted by Hendrick Goltzius in the late 1500s. Goltzius gives us a somewhat anotomically fantastic Hercules tending more toward the leather daddy spectrum. Those nipples have seen some mileage.

One of the first sexual aspects to go once the Christians were in charge was same-sex love. It wasn't homosexuality then, it was just sexuality. There were certain customs and cultural expectations around same-sex attractions, of course, but none of them had to do with it being considered an abomination.

Each academic revision of the ancient texts has drained them further and further of some very important juice. That's why, if in modern texts there is even a hint of a same-sex storyline, you can probably bet some Christian scholar has dulled it down and that the original is more wonderfully gay than the version we have now. In both history and mythology, any passages dealing with same-sex attractions have been systematically censored for centuries.

Above: At the Musei Capitolini in Rome, a statue of Heracles (Hercules) killing the Lernaean Hydra. Marble, Roman copy from a Greek original of the fourth century B.C. restored c. 1635. Careful, Herc, that Hydra is awful close to the business.

Battles with serpents, snakes, and other phallic forms play freely in the subconcious mind. Is a serpent ever just a serpent? Seems fitting that Hercules was wrestling snakes when he was just an infant. He went on to other legendary phallic battles: His slaying of the Hydra (nine heads!) was one of the 12 Labors of Hercules.

If you study the Hercules myth you will find that both the Greeks (Heracles) and Romans (Hercules) had very similar but slightly varying tales of his parentage and love life, but in both he is a demigod, a child of one god and one human.

He was also fairly erratic. We would say 'roid rage now, but we doubt there was an ancient Greek version of Biogenesis. Suffice it to say he murdered his first three sons while in a very bad mood. But heroes play fast and loose with the rules. We see this in the modern-day equivalent of the gods: professional athletes.

Antaeus and Hercules: Swept Off His Feet
Legend has it that Antaeus would challenge all passers-by to wrestle. He would kill them and then use their skulls to build a temple to his father, Poseidon. He was superhumanly strong as long as he kept his feet on the ground, but once lifted into the air he became as vulnerable as other men.

Antaeus had defeated most of his opponents until it came to his fight with Hercules (who was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides for his 11th Labor). Upon finding that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing him to the ground, Hercules discovered the secret of his power. Holding Antaeus aloft, Hercules crushed him in a bear hug. The struggle between Antaeus and Hercules is a favorite subject in ancient and Renaissance sculpture and painting. Depictions of Antaeus with his legs in the air were also found in many gay men's homes in the last century as a sort of visual code to visitors that they belonged to "the club."

Hercules and Antaeus, Andrea Mantegna, 1497

There is no overtly homosexual side to the story of the battle between Antaeus and Hercules, yet the consistent voluptuousness of the various versions is hard to deny with modern eyes. One man is being dominated by the other, naked sweaty bodies rubbing against each other. Legs flailing in air. The rapturous surrender and the focus on the vulnerable buttocks is hard to miss.

Hercules and Diomedes: That Statue
Finding trustworthy source material on why exactly Diomedes has grabbed the goods here is tough. The basic story takes place after the Eighth Labor.

Above: That this statue makes a lot of folks giggle may be a testament to the humor of the Greeks and Romans. This is another example of a sculpture found in gay men's homes in the middle of the last century — sometimes as a lamp base.

Ares' son, Diomedes, King of the Bistones, in Thrace, offers newcomers to his horses for dinner. When Hercules and his friends arrive, the king decides to feed them to the horses, but Hercules turns the tables on the king after a wrestling match — prolonged because it is with with the war god's son. Prolonged. Penis. Grabbing.

In some versions of this story Hercules loses his young lover, Abderus. Hercules leaves Diomedes's horses in the care of Abderus. While Hercules is away, the horses devour Abderus. In revenge, Hercules feeds Diomedes' still-living flesh to his own mares. Hercules founded the city of Abdera near the boy's tomb, where athletic games were held in honor of Abderus.

Hercules, Iolaus, and Eros, Cista Ficoroni

Hercules was also a legenday stud with the ladies. Invited by King Thespios to stay at his palace before a hunt and "meet the family," Hercules deflowered 49 of the king's 50 daughters in one night. Nine months later, Hercules had 49 new kids.

Above: Hercules and Iolaos after the capture of the Erymanthian boar. Mosaic from a fountain from Neronian times (ruled 54 to 68 C.E.), now located in the Palazzo Massimo, Rome.

His love life with the boys is no less active. Custom was that most male same-sex relationships were between men and boys (not children — young men of the age of legal consent in modern Greece today would be about the same age). These boys often went on to marry and have children. These were not solely sexual relationships – they were deep and devoted friendships full of love and passion, but probably less insertive than what the modern-day gay man would expect.

Above: Hermann Wilhelm Bissen, Hylas, 1846

Plutarch, the Greek historian (and eventual Roman citizen), wrote that Hercules' list of male lovers was beyond numbering. Among his lovers were said to be the young heroes Admetos, Iphitos, Euphemos, Elacatas, and Abderus, son of Hermes, whose love for Hercules cost him his life (see above). Also Nireus, Adonis, Jason, Corythus, Stychius, and Phrynx.

Male love may be central to the 12 Labors of Hercules as well. In some academic circles there are rumored versions of the story pairing Hercules and King Eurystheus, the man for whom he performed the Labors.

Above: Philoctetes, by Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard, 1775

Notable standouts in his love stable were Philoctetes, who upon Hercules' death inherited his bow and arrows, and Nestor, the youngest son of King Neleus.

Of all his loves, Iolaos of Thebes and Hylas of Argos still have slivers of contemporary academic recognition as friends and lovers. Iolaos was also his nephew and, though still a youth, assisted in his Labors. It was said that Hercules performed his Labors with pride when Iolaos watched.

According to Plutarch, "But those who think that Iolaos was one of them do to this day worship and honor him, and make their loved ones swear fidelity at his tomb." Plutarch also wrote, "And Aristotle observes that even in his time lovers 'pledged their faith at Iolaos' tomb.'" The Thebans thought so highly of Iolaos that they worshipped him together with Hercules and named their gymnasium after him.

At left: Hylas being abducted by some fairly formidable nymphs.

The poet Theocritus (c. 300 B.C.) wrote about the love between Hercules and Hylas: "We are not the first mortals to see beauty in what is beautiful. No, even Amphitryon's bronze-hearted son, who defeated the savage Nemean lion, loved a boy — charming Hylas, whose hair hung down in curls. And like a father with a dear son he taught him all the things which had made him a mighty man, and famous."

While traveling for battle Hylas was kidnapped by nymphs in a spring. The nymphs fell in love with him — a scene that has been depicted in many artistic renderings. He vanished without a trace.

Modern-Day Hercules

Modern-Day Hercules

A perfect parting shot of Goltzius's etching of the ancient Roman statue known as the Farnese Hercules, which had been discovered in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1546 and installed in a courtyard of the Farnese family's palace on the banks of the Tiber.

There is not one thing about this etching that is not supergay, from the incredible rendering of the muscles to the modern-day queens peering up from the right to the astoundingly phallic (uncut as well) pediment that Hercules rests on. For an even more breathless account of this statue and engraving, see this page at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why is there a Herakles/Hercules sarcophagus? - History

The second labor of Hercules was to kill the Lernean Hydra. From the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna, the hydra would rise up and terrorize the countryside. A monstrous serpent with nine heads, the hydra attacked with poisonous venom. Nor was this beast easy prey, for one of the nine heads was immortal and therefore indestructible.

Aerial view of site and bay, from E
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

Hercules set off to hunt the nine-headed menace, but he did not go alone. His trusty nephew, Iolaus, was by his side. Iolaus, who shared many adventures with Hercules, accompanied him on many of the twelve labors. Legend has it that Iolaus won a victory in chariot racing at the Olympics and he is often depicted as Hercules' charioteer. So, the pair drove to Lerna and by the springs of Amymone, they discovered the lair of the loathsome hydra.

Munich 1416, Attic black figure amphora, ca. 510-500 B.C.
Side A: scene at left, Hercules and Iolaos in chariot
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

First, Hercules lured the coily creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, though, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules' foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! To make matters worse, the hydra had a friend of its own: a huge crab began biting the trapped foot of Hercules. Quickly disposing of this nuisance, most likely with a swift bash of his club, Hercules called on Iolaus to help him out of this tricky situation.

Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra's heads, Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of the neck. The flames prevented the growth of replacement heads, and finally, Hercules had the better of the beast. Once he had removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, Hercules chopped off the ninth, immortal head. This he buried at the side of the road leading from Lerna to Elaeus, and for good measure, he covered it with a heavy rock. As for the rest of the hapless hydra, Hercules slit open the corpse and dipped his arrows in the venomous blood.

Malibu 83.AE.346, Caeretan hydria, c. 525 B.C.
Main panel: Hercules slaying the Lernean hydra
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

Eurystheus was not impressed with Hercules' feat, however. He said that since Iolaus had helped his uncle, this labor should not count as one of the ten. This technicality didn't seem to matter much to anyone else: the ancient authors still give Hercules all of the credit. Even so, Pausanias did not think that this labor was as fantastic as the myths made it out to be: to him, the fearsome hydra was just, well, a big water snake.

At the source of the Amymone grows a plane tree, beneath which, they say, the hydra (water-snake) grew. I am ready to believe that this beast was superior in size to other water-snakes, and that its poison had something in it so deadly that Heracles treated the points of his arrows with its gall. It had, however, in my opinion, one head, and not several. It was Peisander of Camirus who, in order that the beast might appear more frightful and his poetry might be more remarkable, represented the hydra with its many heads.

To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

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