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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Head of a Cypriot Herakles (Hercules)

Hellenic Museum, Melbourne - Joy of Museums - Head of a Cypriot Herakles

Head of a Cypriot Herakles (Hercules)

This “Head of a Cypriot Herakles” is the head of a statue of Herakles, also known as Hercules, wearing a lion’s head with a wide-open muzzle as head-gear.  It belongs to a series of Cypriot sculptures in which the Herakles is represented holding a club in his right hand.

Heracles (Greek: Ἡρακλῆς), was a divine hero in Greek mythology, the son of Zeus. He was the great hero of the Greeks, a paragon of masculinity and the ancestor of many royal clans who claimed to be Heracleidae, meaning descendants of Heracles. In the late sixth century B.C. the local Cypriot god was assimilated with the powerful Greek hero, Herakles. In Cyprus he was represented bearded or beardless, wearing a lion’s skin and a short tunic and holding a miniature lion in his hand. Herakles was the divinity most often depicted in Cypriot sanctuaries.

This historic art piece has traits which are similar to statutes of the Phoenician god Melqart. Melqart was the god and guardian of the Phoenician city of Tyre. Melqart was often called “Lord of Tyre”. The Phoenician kings at Kition eventually identified Herakles with the Phoenician god, Melqart. The Greeks interpreted and identified Melqart with Herakles, and as Tyrian trade and colonisation expanded, images of Melqart may have been influenced by this Cypriot image of Herakles as much as Tyrian art forms may have influenced the Cypriot model.

Hellenic Museum, Melbourne - Joy of Museums - Head of a Cypriot Herakles 2

In Rome and the modern world, Heracles is better known as Hercules, with whom the Roman emperors, often identified themselves. The Romans adopted the Greek version of his life and works essentially unchanged, but added their anecdotal detail and his cult was adapted to Rome.

The Hercules Influence

The legends of Hercules/Heracles have followed the spread of Greek and Roman ideas and culture in many diverse corners of the world. Examples include:

  • Transmitted through the Greco-Buddhist culture of Northern India, Heraclean symbolism was transmitted to the Far East. An interesting suggestion is that the legends of the Hercules strongman influenced the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples.
  • Temples dedicated to Heracles were established across the Mediterranean coastal countries. The temple of Heracles Monoikos, meaning “the lone dweller”, built far from any nearby town upon a promontory in what is now the Côte d’Azur, gave its name to the area’s more recent name, Monaco. According to an ancient myth, Hercules passed through the Monaco area, and a temple was constructed there, the temple of Hercules Monoikos. Because the only temple of this area was the “House” of Hercules, the city was called Monoikos
  • The gateway to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, where the southernmost tip of Spain and the northernmost of Morocco face each other was classically called the Pillars of Hercules/Heracles. According to legend, Hercules set up two massive spires of stone to stabilise the area and ensure the safety of ships sailing between the two landmasses.
  • Heracles has been depicted as protector of Buddha, in 2nd-century Gandhara Art.
  • Hellenistic-era depiction of the Zoroastrian divinity Bahram as Hercules was carved in 153 BCE at Kermanshah, Iran.

Labours of Heracles

According to Greek myths, Heracles was driven mad by Hera, and he slew his children. To expiate the crime, Heracles was required to carry out ten labours. If he succeeded, he would be purified of his sin and, according to myth, he would become a god, and be granted immortality.

Despite the difficulty, Heracles accomplished these tasks, but two of the labours were questioned, so two more tasks were set. In the end, the hero successfully performed each added task, bringing the total number of labours up to the number twelve. The twelve labours were:

  • Slaying the Nemean Lion. He defeated a lion with his bare hands and afterwards, he wore the fur as a cloak to show his power of strength.
  • Slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
  • Capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis
  • Capturing the Erymanthian Boar
  • Cleaning the Augean stables in a single day
  • Killing the Stymphalian Birds
  • Catching the Cretan Bull
  • Steal the Mares of Diomedes
  • Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
  • Capture the cattle of the monster Geryon
  • Steal the apples of the Hesperides
  • Capture and bring back Cerberus

Reflections

  • Monaco’s name is derived from a Temple honouring Hercules.
  • The gateway to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean was called the Pillars of Hercules/Heracles.
  • The face of an Ancient Superhero.

Explore the Hellenic Museum, Melbourne

Head of a Cypriot Herakles (Hercules)

  • Name:            Head of a Cypriot Herakles (Hercules)
  • Date:              500 BCE
  • Period:           Cypro-Archaic II
  • Providence:   Cyprus
  • Material:        Limestone
  • Museum:       Hellenic Museum, Melbourne

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“Honour is priceless and glad be he who has it.”
– Greek Proverb

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Photo Credit: GM

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