Ancient Athenian Drama

Euripides: Heracles

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

again and againEx(change) of identity

Is this what happens when you return from Hades, from the realm of the dead? You believe yourself to be someone else!

There are not many of us who can say that we can remember having returned from the dead. But is this a necessary consequence of doing so? This madness?

Heracles is tied, now, to a fractured pillar of his house, bound like a madman. And he is a madman. The goddess Hera has sent a terrible sickness to visit him. His father bends over his sleeping body, distraught with terror at what may resume when his son awakes.

Only an hour ago, this same man, Heracles' aged father, and grandfather to Heracles' sons, was protecting his daughter-in-law and his three grandsons from the murderous intent of king Lycus; he was cowering at the Theban altar of Zeus in an attempt to save the lives of these three children and of this woman from the sword of a man who had usurped her father’s city of Thebes by force. She, who had born these three sons in wedlock to the hero Heracles, these sons who now lie dead on the floor of the theatre below us. When all this had been going on, Heracles had been assumed dead and could not help his family in their distress. Ha! – would that that had been the case! Heracles’, whose final labour has taken him into the depths of the Earth to bring out the dog Cerberus, the three-headed beast who guards the gates of the underworld. Heracles, who had entered the realm of Hades and was widely assumed, therefore, to be dead.

Heracles had 'taken the route from which none return', the Chorus sang a while ago. He'll never come back ventured king Lycus. No, unless indeed some god should raise him from the dead, agreed Heracles's father. 'Were the gods to be in their right minds,' the chorus crooned, 'a second life would be granted to those who deserved it, another life beneath the sun’s bright rays.' But look what this has brought!

Heracles has returned. And now he is bound to a pillar and we all await his awakening with dread, for he has accomplished all that king Lycus was trying to accomplish himself. What difference has there been between them? He has murdered the three sons of Heracles, his own three sons and their mother, murdered them with his own weapons, believing them not to be his own sons but somebody else's.

Is this what happens when you return from Hades? You believe yourself to be someone else?

Story fragment retold from: Vellacott, Philip, 1963, reprinted 2002. Medea, Hecabe, Electra, Heracles (Penguin Classics). Translated from Ancient Greek with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. Heracles, pp 153–99.

See for yourself

Euripides – Wikipedia

Heracles – Wikipedia

Euripides: Heracles – English translation, Internet Classics Archive (download the text-only version)

Around and around

Circle Line

part of a prehistoric stone circle
artwork, ancient athenian theatre

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