Ramblin’ Man: The Pyre of Hercules

Never used to have much time for Hercules. He seemed to be just an ancient version of Superman, an invincible he-man in the most banal of proto-superhero molds.  But then I discovered ancient Greek tragedy and came to love him for the riveting figure he really is. So much so that I decided to venture to rural Greece and visit not his birth place, but his death place. Or I should say his transmogrification place.

Those who think that the despair and anxiety are purely modern phenomena need only crack open a volume of ancient Greek tragedy to realize that they’re sorely mistaken.

The supposed son of Zeus, Herakles—known to the Romans and us as Hercules—drew the ire of Zeus’s sister slash wife, Hera, because he was the product of one Zeus’s many adventures in illicit sex. She sent a couple snakes to his crib to kill him, and he throttled them to death. And here you thought your kid was precocious.

Later on she schemed to task him with a dozen seemingly impossible labors that he nonetheless completed—feats you’re no doubt familiar with. But what makes Herakles the compelling, heartbreaking character he is is what you often don’t hear about: that he killed his kids and wife in a fit of madness.

The whole episode is depicted in Euripides’s Ἡρακλῆς μαινόμενος, known in English as The Madness of Hercules:

Alas! Why do I spare my own life,
Who am the murderer of my own dear sons,
And not plunge myself headlong from a cliff,
Or thrust a dagger into my heart,
And make me avenger of my children’s blood,
Or with consuming fire burn this my flesh,
To avert a long life of infamy?

My own struggles with mental illness make Herakles an attractive character to me. No, I didn’t kill my wife and kids—but I can empathize with his journey from glory to utter degradation and back again.

Those who think that despair and anxiety are purely modern phenomena need only crack open a volume of ancient Greek tragedy to realize that they’re sorely mistaken. In the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides we find man at war with his fellow man, at war with nature, at war with destiny, at war with the gods, and at war with himself. In other words, modern man is ancient man.

The Pyre of Hercules

But back to the site of Herakles’s conversion from mortal to divine. First of all, how to get there:

  1. Fly into Athens.
  2. Rent a car right there at the airport.
  3. Drive north on E75 for about 200 km.
  4. Just past Thermopylae, head south on E65.
  5. At the town of Skamnos, head west on a road that goes towards Mount Oeta (in Greek Oiti).
  6. Drive for about 18 km and you’ll see a brown sign just before you hit the town of Pavliani that says “Pyra – Sanctuary of Herakles.” You can either drive up to it on the dirt road or park your card by the sign and take the one-to-two-hour walk up there. I recommend the latter because you’ll feel like you’ve earned visiting the place. Just driving up to it seems way too easy.

It’s called the Pyra, or Pyre, of Herakles because, according to tradition, that was the place where he was cremated. And as he was being cremated Zeus and Hera finally had pity on him and made him a god and/or constellation.

His demise came about through a woman’s jealousy, of course. The best way to go, in my opinion. Sophocles, in Τραχίνιαι (Women of Trachis) tells how Herakles’s wife daubs a robe in poison, thinking it’s instead a love potion, and ends up subjecting him to a horrific death. The toxic robe sticks to Herakles’s skin and starts eating up his innards:

Lord of the Dead, receive me!
Smite me, O fire of Zeus!
Hurl, Father, on my head thy crashing bolt!

I just happened to be sick myself at the time of my visit, and I found the walk up from the main road to the ruins a trying, tiring one. Being sick while on vacation is akin to torture—no comforts of home coupled with the fierce desire to relish it all while physically and mentally being unable to. Plus, my medicine of choice, Dayquil, was not available in Greece. Fittingly, Herakles’s pain became my pain, albeit in weakened form.

I was the only one there. Just how I like it. The Pyre of Hercules is actually a set of stone ruins sitting in a green meadow nestled amongst various peaks, some of them snow-covered. I pretentiously had Sophocles’s Women of Trachis in hand as I inspected the stones and read from it:

Thou know’st the peak of Oeta, shrine of Zeus?

Yes, I have climbed it oft to sacrifice.

Go yourself, you and your friends,
And carry me there. From the deep-rooted oak
Cut many a branch, and many a log hew
From the wild olive’s fertile stock, and lay me
Upon the pyre. Kindle a torch of pine,
And fire it. Not a tear or a wail moan.
Unweeping, unlamenting must you do
Your part and prove that you are indeed my son.
Fail, and my ghost shall haunt you always.

I walked amongst and on top of the big stone blocks strewing the grass which were the remains of the temple which marked the spot where the hero was cremated as per the above instructions. At a site like this there’s really not much more to do than to walk the grounds, linger and breathe in the air, paw a few stones, sit down and have a snack, take one more walk around, then head home. No interpretive center, no audio tours, no gift shop—not even a sign giving the site’s history.

That’s part of the charm of Greece: they suffer from ruin fatigue. In the U.S., if something’s two hundred years old, it’s treated like a holy relic. In Greece, they’ve got ancient history sitting around all over the place, remnants of man’s handiwork that have been there since way before Jesus was just a twinkle in his father’s eye.

Speaking of Jesus, the parallels between him and Herakles are apt to raise an eyebrow when examined closely: both sons of gods, both residents of the Mediterranean, both persecuted at birth, both exhibitors of a preternatural precocity, both righters of wrongs, both miracle workers, both sojourners to hell and back, both victims of grisly deaths, both transmogrified and currently sitting in the heavens in all their glory.

Can’t say as I’ve been to Golgotha, but I’ve been to Mount Oeta.

  • March 28, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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