Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

The Birth of Herakles

Introduction: Diodorus’ account of the life or deeds (praxeis) of Herakles is taken from a lengthy “Universal History” in forty books, written by an otherwise unknown Sicilian historian of the first century B.C. Less than half of the work is still extant. The “Universal History” reflects the Stoic notion of “one world / one society / one humanity.” As a result, Diodorus goes back to the origin of the Gods and the creation of the world in his opening books. He then carefully treats the mythical heroes or demigods of each nation (Egypt, Assyria, India, Ethiopia, Atlantis, Greece, etc.) until he comes to more contemporary times.

The object of all this is to demonstrate that all the nations’ histories sprang up from the universal activity of Divine Providence for the mutual benefaction of the whole world. Our account comes from Diodorus’ treatment of the Greek mythical heroes.

Aware that his readers might be skeptical of his description of Herakles, Diodorus warns his readers not to judge Herakles by their own weaknesses, lest they “forget the good deeds he bestowed upon all humanity, belittling the praise he used to receive for the noblest deeds … (and thus) no longer preserve the religious veneration for this God which has been handed down from our fathers.”

Diodorus’ account of the birth and labors of Herakles probably was greatly dependent upon an earlier writing entitled, In Praise of Herakles by Matris of Thebes. Matris lived in Alexandria during the second century B.C.


Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.9.1–10

They say that Perseus was the son of Danae, who was the daughter of Akrisios and Zeus. Andromeda, Kepheos’ daughter, lay with him (Perseus) and bore Elektryon; then Euridike, daughter of Pelops, cohabited with him (Elektryon) and gave birth to Alkmene. Alkmene was taken by Zeus, through a deceit, and she bore Herakles. Thus, the root of his family tree, through both his parents, is said to go back to the greatest of the Gods (i.e., Zeus), in the way we have shown.

The excellence (aretē) begotten in Herakles is not only seen in his great acts (praxeis), but was known before his birth. When Zeus lay with Alkmene, he tripled the length of the night, and, in the increased length of time spent in begetting the child, he foreshadowed the exceptional power of the child who was to be begotten. All in all, this union was not done because of erotic desire, as with other women, but more for the purpose of creating the child.

-135-

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