Homer, in book 5 of the Iliad, tells us that during his expedition against Neleus of Pylos (Poseidon's son), Heracles won battles against Poseidon and Apollo, and managed to wound Hera and Hades with his arrows.

He also killed Neleus and eleven of his twelve sons, including Periclymenus (an Argonaut and a shapeshifter). Citizens of Pylos that stood in his way suffered a similar fate.

All this, because Heracles felt Neleus had insulted him.

Now, Heracles wasn't known for running away from a fight. However, going into battle and slaughtering a city over an insult feels a bit out of character for the classical version of the legend. Furthermore, overcoming not one but four Olympians is simply too magnificent a feat. Some, including Pindar, are highly skeptical of the story:

For how could Heracles have wielded his club against the trident, when Poseidon took his stand to guard Pylos, and pressed him hard, and Phoebus pressed him hard, attacking with his silver bow; nor did Hades keep his staff unmoved, with which he leads mortal bodies down to the hollow path of the dead. My mouth, fling this story away from me! Since to speak evil of the gods is a hateful skill, and untimely boasting is in harmony with madness.

Source: Olympian Ode 9: For Epharmostus of Opus Wrestling-Match 466 B.C., Pindar

Was there a significant change in views about Heracles from Homeric times (around 850 BCE) to Pindar's time (c. 522 – c. 443 BC)? Was the Homeric version of Heracles a far more brutal hero than the classical version? And if so, have we identified other distinct points in the transformation of the myth?

  • 1
    I know that most of Homer's stories have been skewed into something more brutal. Let me see. Commented May 13, 2015 at 14:15
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    Answered, but you may want to reframe the question ever so slightly to reflect a focus on this Pindar passage. I can answer a more general question, but I think that would be better spent on a separate question from this. Let me know if you'd like me to do that. Cheers.
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 22:53

1 Answer 1


While the diachronic development of Heracles is an interesting development in and of itself, it's not really the case here. What we have instead is one later author's piety reflected in his treatment of heroes. This is quite common, but it would be difficult to argue from it that there is a change in character.

Pindar is known for his innovation in myth on account of his piety. Perhaps his most famous contradiction of earlier myths is found in his first Olympian ode and concerns Tantalus, who cut up his son Pelops and tried to feed him to the gods (only Demeter ate any of the boy, since she was grieving for her daughter Persephone, recently snatched by Hades).

Pindar's version was different. He could not think that any of the gods would have eaten Pelops, nor could he imagine Tantalus doing such a crime. For him instead Pelops was taken as a beloved by Poseidon (on analogy of Zeus and Ganymede) while the gods were feasting at Tantalus' house, and the neighbors were jealous at him and made up the stories—a very "Euhemeristic" explanation!

Moreover, this isn't some interpretation of the text, Pindar is very forthright in what he is doing. He sings:

It is seemly for a man to speak well of the gods; for the blame is less that way. Son of Tantalus, I will speak of you, contrary to earlier stories.

(trans. Svarlien)

A nice rundown of other examples (including this one in more detail) can be found in Ian Rutherford's 2011 chapter "Singing Myth: Pindar" in the Blackwell Companion to Greek Mythology pp. 109–159.

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