Lucian, Heracles

Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 125 – c.180) was an Assyrian scholar who wrote in Greek.

The following is an adaptation of The Works of Lucian of Samosata, vol. 3, trans. Henry W. Fowler and Francis G. Fowler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905.

Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmios; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus – any one rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is lacking in the Heraclean equipment.

I thought at first that this was a mockery of the Greek Gods; that in taking these liberties with the personal appearance of Heracles, the Gauls were merely exacting pictorial vengeance for his invasion of their territory; for in his search after the herds of Geryon he had overrun and plundered most of the peoples of the West. However, I have yet to mention the most remarkable feature in the portrait. This ancient Heracles drags after him a vast crowd of men, all of whom are fastened by the ears with thin chains composed of gold and amber, and looking more like beautiful necklaces than anything else. From this flimsy bondage they make no attempt to escape, though escape must be easy. There is not the slightest show of resistance: instead of planting their heels in the ground and dragging back, they follow with joyful alacrity, singing their captor’s praises the while; and from the eagerness with which they hurry after him to prevent the chains from tightening, one would say that release is the last thing they desire.

Nor will I conceal from you what struck me as the most curious circumstance of all: Heracles’s right hand is occupied with the club, and his left with the bow – how is he to hold the ends of the chains? The painter solves the difficulty by boring a hole in the tip of the God’s tongue, and making that the means of attachment; his head is turned round, and he regards his followers with a smiling countenance.

For a long time I stood staring at this in amazement: I knew not what to make of it, and was beginning to feel somewhat nettled, when I was addressed in admirable Greek by a Gaul who stood at my side, and who besides possessing a scholarly acquaintance with the Gallic mythology, proved to be not unfamiliar with our own. “Sir,” he said, “I see this picture puzzles you: let me solve the riddle. We Gauls connect eloquence not with Hermes, as you do, but with the mightier Heracles. Nor need it surprise you to see him represented as an old man. It is the prerogative of eloquence, that it reaches perfection in old age […] If you will consider the relation that exists between tongue and ear, you will find nothing more natural than the way in which our Heracles, who is Eloquence personified, draws men along with their ears tied to his tongue. […] His weapons, as I take it, are no other than his words; swift, keen-pointed, true-aimed to pierce the mind.” And in conclusion he reminded me of our own phrase, “winged words.”