Many gods had children with mortal women. These semi-divine offspring became great heroes or kings, but remained mostly human.
Hercules was considered to be an exception to this pattern. According to many sources, particularly later writers, the iconic cultural hero was lifted to the heights of Mount Olympus to live as an immortal god.
To do so, however, he first had to be rid of his mortal half. Unlike Achilles, whose mortality was almost entirely removed by his mother as an infant, Hercules had to live a full life before becoming a god.
That also meant he had to die.
Hercules was killed by one of his most powerful weapons, itself a relic of one of his most famous adventures. The venom of the Lernean Hydra was used to poison the arrows he used in later adventures, and eventually led to his death.
Hercules died not in a fight with a terrible monster, but as an indirect result of his own infidelity. When he was purportedly planning on leaving his wife, Deianira, she gave him an artifact that she had been led to believe was imbued with the power to win back his heart.
Instead, it led to his death.
The story of the death of Hercules began many years before it actually happened, with the second of his famous twelve labors. After defeating the Nemean Lion and taking its impenetrable hide as a cloak, the hero was sent to kill the Lernean Hydra.
The nine-headed snake was another fearsome opponent, with the ability to regenerate severed heads making it difficult to slay. It also had exceptionally strong venom, making it a dangerous opponent.
When Heracles killed the Hydra, he had the foresight to dip his arrows in the monster’s blood. The poisoned arrows proved valuable in his later adventures, but eventually led to his demise.
Many years later Hercules married Deianira, a Calydonian princess. Shortly after their marriage the couple travelled to Tiryns together.
During the journey they came to a fast-flowing river. Hercules was strong enough to swim across it, but his bride could not make it across on her own.
A centaur named Nessus offered to help the princess across while Hercules swam. The supposed good deed, however, was a ruse to attempt to abduct the beautiful young woman.
The centaur ran off with Deianira too quickly for even Hercules to catch them. The hero quickly pulled out his bow and shot the creature before he could get away.
Nessus died on the banks of the river with Deianira beside him. With his last breaths, however, he found a way to get revenge.
He told the young woman to take his blood-stained tunic. Centaurs were known for their mastery of herbs and medicine, and he told her that the tunic was imbued with a love potion that would bring her husband back to her if he ever strayed from their marriage.
After some time, Hercules did just that. He began an affair and, Deianira believed, meant to leave her to marry his new mistress.
Deianira pulled out the stained tunic that she had kept hidden since the centaur’s death. Believing it would ensure her husband’s loyalty to her, she gave it to him as a gift.
Deianira had been misled by the centaur, however. The tunic did not contain a love potion, but rather was imbued with the poison of the Lernean Hydra.
Nessus had realized that the poison was so potent that his blood would be deadly even long after it dried. His deceptive words to Deianira had been his way of ensuring that his death would some day be avenged.
When Hercules put on the tunic his skin began to burn. The fabric stuck to him and he was not able to pull it off.
The great hero was driven mad by the pain the poison caused. With the last of his strength he uprooted several trees to build his own funeral pyre.
As his skin burned to the bone, Hercules threw himself onto the pyre. Only his friend Philoctetes was willing to light the fire and end the hero’s suffering, a merciful act for which he was rewarded with the same bow and arrows that carried the Hydra’s poison.
Deianira committed suicide when she learned that her actions had led to her husband’s death.
His death and funeral, however, was not the end of the story of Hercules.
For most people, even heroes, death would have meant the soul was sent to the realm of Hades. At best, one could hope for an afterlife in the Isles of the Blessed instead of the gloomy eternity of the underworld.
Hercules, however, had been given a different fate. It had long been foretold that Zeus’s favored son would someday earn a place among the gods of Mount Olympus.
By dying and destroying his human body, Hercules was able to take the place he had been promised. When his mortal body had burned away, all that was left was the immortal part of his being.
Hercules was not the only mortal to be given godhood, but he was probably the most famous. While the gods had many children with mortals, few of them were made immortal themselves.
The Greeks built altars to some of their most famous cultural heroes, but made a distinction between them and true gods. Hercules blurred this distinction by occupying both positions.
In the Odyssey, Homer named Hercules among the spirits of the dead Odysseus encountered in the underworld. This implies that either the concept of Hercules as a god had not yet developed when Homer was alive, or that there was no consensus over whether he was truly divine.
In fact, there are records that describe Hercules being revered as both a deceased mortal hero and a god at the same place. Even after his death and apotheosis Hercules existed on the line between hero and god.
There are some historians who believe that Hercules may have been based on an actual person who lived in the pre-literate past. Over time this man’s legend was expanded upon and made more fantastic until he was seen as a heroic demi-god.
If this is the case, the surviving texts of ancient Greece may show part of the evolution from exceptional human to god. If Hercules was once conceived of as fully human, the uncertainty about his godhood in the time of Homer could be a snapshot of a transitional period in the development of the character.
By the later Greek era and into the time of the Roman Empire, it was more widely believed that Hercules was a god. Further mythology developed about his immortal life on Olympus, including a happy marriage to the goddess Hebe.
The existence of stories that preserve both a heroic legacy and that of a god may be a rare example of written record on the way in which some religious beliefs developed. Hercules as a semi-divine hero could provide a clue as to how gods arose from ancient stories of human lives.
The death of Hercules was caused by the venom of the Lernean Hydra, but brought about many years after he killed the monster as one of his twelve labors.
Recognizing the potency of the monster’s venom, he had used it to make poisoned arrows. Many years later, he killed a centaur named Nessus with one of those arrows for attempting to abduct his wife, Deianira.
As he was dying, Nessus convinced Deianira that his bloody tunic was imbued with a love potion. If Hercules ever lost interest in her, the tunic would restore his love.
When Hercules was rumored to be leaving Deianira for another woman she gave him the tunic. Instead of a love potion, however, the centaur’s blood had imbued the garment with the Hydra’s deadly poison.
Hercules was badly burned and his skin was eaten away. Desperate to end his suffering, he built his own funeral pyre and threw himself onto it.
What happened after the death of Hercules, however, seems to have been open to debate. Some sources claim that he became a god and ascended to Mount Olympus, while others implied that his soul ended up in the underworld like that of any other mortal.
It is possible that the surviving stories of Hercules as both a hero and a god represent a transitional phase in the development of mythology. Beginning with an ancient man who may have lived in the distant past, the story developed until he was a great hero and then evolved further to make him a god.
It is possible that, given more time to evolve, Hercules may have eventually been regarded as fully divine and never having been human. The writers of ancient Greece, however, lived in a period when the status of Hercules’s immortality was still in flux.
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Mike Greenberg, PhD
My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.