Hercules: Scenes from an Heroic Life by Alastair Blanshard - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Suicidal Snake-Strangler

Hercules: Scenes from an Heroic Life

By

Granta Books 224pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

Recent attempts to write ‘biographies’ of Bacchus and Venus have not, in my view, been successful. There are two reasons: first, the lives of mythical gods and heroes are recorded in a wide range of different literary genres (epic, personal poetry, tragedy, comedy, collections of myths and so on), and, since there was no such thing as an authorised version, they are generally irreconcilable; and second, Greek authors did not regard getting under a subject's skin – conveying a sense of his or her unique individuality – as a priority. It was what men and gods achieved that counted. Gods were interested only in success, which meant either coming out on top or, if not, taking revenge. Mythical heroes tended to share those priorities, which in epic and tragedy were put under a searching ethical spotlight: did this man's actions show that he was self-disciplined, courageous, wise, just, pious, honourable, and so on? Such is not the stuff out of which a convincing modern biography can be created.

Sensibly, therefore, the young classical scholar Alastair Blanshard has chosen to turn the exercise into a cultural exploration of the ‘Hercules phenomenon’, setting the differing accounts of the major incidents in Hercules' life found in ancient sources alongside the ways in which later ages have responded to this captivatingly ghastly

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter