In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Heracles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Heracles’ Life
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Heracles as a Mythological Figure
  • Cult
  • Homer
  • Archaic Poetry
  • Epinician Poetry
  • Heracles in Comedy
  • Satyr Play
  • Philosophy
  • Gender
  • Politics and Ideology
  • General Iconography
  • Specific Iconography

Classics Heracles
Katherine Lu Hsu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0198


Heracles (also spelled Herakles, or Hercules in the Roman tradition) was Greece’s most popular mythological hero. Unlike many heroes whose fame was initially local, Heracles was from the earliest evidence already a Panhellenic figure, known well and widely throughout the Greek-speaking world. In addition to the completion of the Twelve Labors, he was famous for a precocious youth, the murder of his wife Megara and children, his vast appetites, his athletic prowess and martial victories, and his apotheosis. He played a major role in cultural life across Greece, figuring in literature, art, cult, drama, philosophy, politics, etc. His many dimensions provide nearly endless avenues for scholarly investigation, and hence the relevant bibliography is large and unwieldy. This article is focused on the Greek world.

General Overviews of Heracles’ Life

The Heracles cycle is extensive, episodic, and scattered throughout various sources. Some of the earliest scholarship on Heracles consists of attempts to draw a coherent biographical narrative from the manifold ancient testimony. Des Essarts 1871, Schweitzer 1922, and Flacelière and Devambez 1966 represent scholarly efforts simply to bring together all the disparate evidence about Heracles into one place. Galinsky 1972 and Stafford 2012 are the best general overviews of the Heracles cycle; both are scholarly and very readable. Kirk 1974 is a handy summary, Gantz 1993 is the best resource on the Archaic period, and Blanshard 2005 and Padilla 1998 are lighter reading.

  • Blanshard, Alastair. 2005. Hercules: A heroic life. London: Granta.

    An overview of the life of Heracles written for a nonspecialist audience. The text is organized around a chronological account of Heracles’ life, bringing in a broad range of sources to support the narrative. Good illustrations, and particularly strong on 20th-century popular culture.

  • Des Essarts, Emmanuel. 1871. Du type d’Hercule dans la littérature grecque depuis les origines jusqu’au siècle des Antonins. Paris: Thorin.

    A narrative survey of Heracles’ appearances in Greek and Latin literature, ranging from Homer to Maximus of Tyre.

  • Flacelière, Robert, and Pierre Devambez. 1966. Héraclès: Images et récits. Paris: E. de Boccard.

    An overview of Heracles in Greek literature and imagery, divided into two parts: the first part, “Récits,” by Flacelière, collects quotations from the major Greek texts in which Heracles appears; the second part, “Images,” by Devambez, presents popular iconographic representations of Heracles, with representative illustrations of each. Useful as a student introduction to the material, but in French.

  • Galinsky, Karl. 1972. The Herakles theme: The adaptations of the hero in literature from Homer to the twentieth century. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Until Stafford 2012, this text was the standard scholarly overview of the Heracles tradition from Homer through the 20th century. Each chapter treats Heracles in a particular genre or time period; the sections focused on the Greco-Roman period are the strongest.

  • Gantz, Timothy. 1993. Early Greek myth: A guide to literary and artistic sources. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Gantz’s useful handbook on the literary and artistic sources for archaic myth devotes a chapter to the Heracles cycle (pp. 374–466). Particularly helpful are the sections devoted to Heracles’ lesser-known exploits.

  • Kirk, G. S. 1974. The mythical life of Heracles. In The nature of Greek myths. By G. S. Kirk, 176–212. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    In his general introduction to Greek mythology, Kirk devotes a full chapter to Heracles, the only individual to receive such scrutiny. The discussion focuses on the contradictions that distinguish Heracles from other Greek heroes. Republished in English as recently as 2009 (New York: Barnes & Noble).

  • Padilla, Mark W. 1998. The myths of Herakles in ancient Greece: Survey and profile. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    This slim volume (thirty-three pages, excluding notes) introduces the reader to a diachronic perspective on Heracles in the first part, focusing on archaic and classical Greece, and a synchronic perspective in the second part, focusing on Heracles’ life and cultic roles.

  • Schweitzer, Bernhard. 1922. Herakles: Aufsätze zur griechischen religions- und sagengeschichte. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.

    An early example of a study of Heracles both in art and in literature (pp. 131–240). Examines each of the twelve labors, physical monuments, and literary evidence, in comparison with other European sagas. Republished as recently as 1982 (Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms).

  • Stafford, Emma. 2012. Herakles. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. New York: Routledge.

    Stafford’s book is a contribution to Routledge’s Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series. The book gives a thorough account of ancient sources, with rewarding attention to the visual and cultic evidence. It is arranged according to “Key Themes” in the Heracles cycle. An excellent choice for the myth classes or the undergraduate classroom. The substantial “post-script” on “Post-classical Variations” identifies many useful avenues for reception studies.

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