Ancient Greece’s mightiest hero, Heracles (known in Rome as Hercules), was said to have been actually born with the name Alcaeus. As the ancient tales tell, the hero’s famous designation of Heracles was a nickname that he gained as a result of his deeds in life. For more context, a brief recap of the circumstances of Heracles’ birth and adventures would be helpful.
According to myth, Heracles’ birth occurred after the Mycenaean princess, Alcmene, experienced a divine night with the high-god, Zeus, who was convincingly disguised as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon. Zeus had special plans for this newest son, and one of his first ambitions was to place Heracles on the throne of the Mycenaean stronghold city of Tiryns. Zeus even went so far as to utter a careless and vague prophecy that a ruler of the Mycenaeans was about to be born. Nevertheless, Zeus’ godly wife, Hera, learned of her husband’s latest case of unfaithfulness, and she decided to sabotage the successful life of Heracles. Hera, in a direct challenge to Zeus’ plans, pulled her divine strings to arrange for Hercules’ royal rival—a Mycenaean nobleman named Eurystheus—to be born before Heracles, and therefore it was this Eurystheus who became the next king of Tiryns. Although this was a setback, Zeus was able to make the best out of a bad situation, arranging for a new divine deal, which stipulated that if Heracles could accomplish a set number of miraculous labors that were selected by Eurystheus, then Heracles could join the ranks of the immortal gods. Hera, perhaps not knowing just how powerful and competent Heracles would grow to be, did not object to the new divine pact.
Due to Hera’s maneuverings, Heracles was not born as a king or a prince, and he therefore became inclined to live the life of an adventuring wanderer. As Heracles grew and his strength became more apparent, Hera decided to begin sending creatures to attack the hero. The first of these were two serpents that Hera sent to kill baby Heracles, but the young godling simply strangled the snakes to death, a feat that gained the promising young hero great fame. Hera’s future attempts to send monsters to kill Heracles would have similar effects—for example, Hera reportedly raised the famous Hydra, and therefore inadvertently contributed to Heracles’ renown when he was later praised for defeating that very beast. In the end, although Hera put many threats, obstacles and painful situations in the life of Heracles, her adversarial role in his life paradoxically played a major part in propelling Heracles to stardom and immortality.
With this peculiar relationship between Heracles and Hera in mind, it is not surprising that ancient Greeks suspected that there was a connection to the goddess, Hera, in the hero’s nickname. In a tradition told by the Greek-Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), the name Heracles derived from a combination of ‘Hera’ and kleos (meaning glory). Diodorus wrote, “Consequently the inhabitants of Argos, on learning of what had taken place, gave him the name Heracles because he had gained glory (kleos) by the aid of Hera, although he had formerly been called Alcaeus. Other children are given their names by their parents, this one alone gained his name by his valour” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.10). Although this possible connection between Hera and Heracles is entertaining, it should be noted that the name Heracles could also have been inspired by êra (or service), just as easily as it could have been inspired by Hera, the goddess.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, by Gustave Moreau (c. 1826-1898), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.