Who was Heracles (Herakles or Hercules)?
Many believe that behind Heracles’ complicated mythology there was probably a real man, perhaps a chieftain of the kingdom of Argos. Other scholars suggest the story of Heracles is an allegory for the sun’s yearly passage through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Others yet point to earlier myths from other cultures, showing the story of Heracles as a local adaptation of hero myths already well established.
In most traditional Greek myths, Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, granddaughter of Perseus. His fantastic exploits provided much material for popular legend. In art and literature, Heracles was represented as an extremely strong man of moderate height; his weapon of choice was the club and the bow. Vase paintings demonstrate the unparalleled popularity of Heracles, his fight with the Nemean lion being depicted many hundreds of times.
Heracles also entered Etruscan and Roman mythology and cult, and the exclamation “mehercule” became as familiar to the Romans as “Heracles” was to the Greeks.
Heracles attained the highest social prestige through his appointment as official ancestor of the Dorian kings (who called themselves Heracleidae or Heraclids). This probably served as a legitimation for the Dorian migrations into the Peloponnese. These Dorian Heraclids conquered the Peloponnesian kingdoms of Mycenae, Sparta, and Argos, claiming, according to legend, a right to rule them through their ancestor Heracles. This Dorian rise to dominance is frequently called the “Dorian invasion”. The Lydian and later the Macedonian kings, as rulers of the same rank, also became Heracleidae.