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About two years ago, I found this Greek Mythology documentary called, "Clash of the Gods." It is a three disk series with ten episodes.

They feature Heracles by his Roman name, Hercules, in the second episode. As it was a while ago, I don't remember everything they said. What I do know is that they skipped his Sixth Labor, the Stymphalian Birds. They also talked about how the Hydra myth is preserved in the English word, "toxin," or, "toxic." And that one of the men must have been talking about how the myth of Heracles can from many mythologies or something. I definitively remember his saying, "Wait a minute, our strongman seems to be a little bit like your strong man."

So my question is this:

Is it possible that the Heracles myths are a compilation of stories from multiple cultures?

  • I'm not sure I have enough for an answer, but a professor of mine many years ago said that as time passed in the ancient world, any local story with a hero eventually got attributed to Herakles. – Spencer Mar 17 '18 at 23:02
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Absolutely. I can think of at least three separate strands in the development of Heracles/Hercules:

  1. Walter Burkert mentions in his book "Greek Religion" that Heracles at least partially derives from an ancient shamanic hunter figure who hunts animals and journeys to the Underworld. That's the core of his myth, hunting beasts and finally ending up in Hades.

  2. Heracles also incorporates elements of the Proto-Indo-European myth of the Thunder God who defeats the Primordial Dragon. This is seen in the myth of Heracles and the Hydra. Among Indo-European cultures you have: Thor and Jormungandr (Germanic), Indra and Vrtra (Indic), Tarḫunz and Illuyanka (Hittite/Luwian), etc.

  3. The Roman Hercules incorporates material from before the Greek introduction of Heracles, like his battle with the fire giant Cacus.

Another source migh be a Greek proto-myth about the patron founding hero of the Greek people. There are common traits that repeat in stories about the Greek heroes. For instance, Theseus has 6 "labours" in parallel to Heracles' twelve. They also share material about hunting the Cretan Bull. There are a lot of other parallels like this between the myths of the great Greek heroes, suggesting a common core for the myths.

Another suggestion by various mythologists is that at least part of his myths originate from Near-Eastern sources, like Gilgamesh.

If you count them all, that would be five distinct sources for the origin of Heracles.

Hope this helps.

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