Is Hercules a Demi-God?
Through most of their history the Greeks seemed to have no real demi-gods in their religion. The gods had children, but they were either human or divine themselves.
The human children of the gods often had exceptional abilities, but they were still not true demi-gods. They were born as human children and aged until they died and went to the same afterlife as other mortal men.
This changed with Hercules. While he was a typical hero in early myths, by the end of the classical period his legend had changed. He was no longer subject to eternity as a shade in the realm of Hades but was instead made a god.
The changing story of Hercules marked a major shift in Greek mythology. He was the first character who could be said to have developed into a demi-god. But he would not be the last.
Hercules occupies a unique place in Greek mythology.
He was born as a mortal human, the son of Zeus and the human princess Alcmene. With only a few exceptions, the children of the gods and mortal women were typically mortal themselves.
The Greeks did not have the same view of semi-divine heroes as some other cultures did. While other religions saw men born to relationships between the gods and mortals as demi-gods, the Greeks saw them as primarily human.
In some other mythological traditions, demi-gods had the features of both god and humans. Often they would live a human life for a time but be guaranteed a place among the gods after their deaths.
This was not the case for most of the sons and daughters of the gods and their human lovers. These offspring would live as humans and when they died would be subject to the same afterlife as any other mortal.
This view began to change later in the Greek era with the development of the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed. While the realm of Hades had been universally bleak before, these new ideas promised a more pleasant afterlife to those who were favored by the gods.
Furthermore, believe in reincarnation began to be popular in some Greek states. If a person could earn their way to the Elysian Fields three times, it was believed, they would then be taken to the Isles of the Blessed to spend eternity in paradise.
Still, these were later traditions in Greek thought and for most of the culture’s history it was believed that the children of gods had a similar fate to other humans.
The one thing that set the mortal children of the gods apart in Greek mythology was that they tended to be exceptional in some way. Some were heroes who were exceptionally brave and strong, others were particularly wise, while many of the daughters of the gods were notably beautiful.
A few were even exceptionally wicked.
Initially, Hercules fit into this pattern. He was born and lived as a mortal and was known for his exceptional strength and fighting skills.
He still, however, died a human death. In the 8th century BC, the Odyssey’s underworld scene including a mention of Hercules among the spectral shades seen among the dead.
This began to change, though, and new stories arose that placed a greater level of importance on Hercules.
Within a few centuries it was believed that Hercules had never gone to the underworld when he died. Instead, he was taken to Olympus to join the ranks of the gods.
So did this make Hercules a true demi-god?
In archaic Greek mythology, there were no real demi-gods.
There were gods and humans. Hybrids of the two were heroes, but they were not divine themselves.
The trace of divinity in their blood may have given them exceptional abilities or virtue, even vice, but that in itself did not make them so different from the ordinary men and women around them. They would still experience human life and go to the realm of Hades after their death.
The evolution of the legend of Hercules, however, seemed to mark a change in this way of thinking.
While his earliest written legends were those of a heroic human, in later years Hercules became a god. This was a rare phenomenon in Greek mythology and marked a major change in the way the children of the gods were viewed.
This changed seemed to be just a continuation of many that were made regarding Hercules over the course of thousands of years. Some historians think that the character may have once been inspired by a real man whose exploits were repeated and expanded upon until they became truly legendary.
The step to godhood made in later eras can thus be seen as the next step in the evolution of this character. Having already gone from ordinary man to a hero and son of a god, the next logical step in the legend’s development would be toward being a demi-god.
Hercules may have thus been the first major character in Greek mythology who could have been identified as a demi-god. But he would not be the last.
In Hellenistic Greece and in Rome the idea of the gods’ children being made fully divine after death seemed to have become popular at a rapid pace. Soon Hercules was joined by other new gods like Asclepius and, in some traditions, Helen.
It was not only the children of the gods who became demi-gods. The gods’ lovers like Ganymede and Psyche were also made immortal.
This shift in belief toward demi-gods also corresponded to the shifting attitudes toward the afterlife. Both the children of the gods and the children of ordinary humans could hope for a more peaceful and happy existence.
The Isles of the Blessed could themselves be read as a kind of semi-divine plane. While the souls who were taken there were not gods themselves, they lived eternal lives in a state of bliss and peace that could only be compared to that of the Olympians.
The changing beliefs around Hercules are therefore only a small piece of the overall change in attitudes toward death in the Greek world. As humans began to see hope for something more after death, so too did the prognosis for the afterlives of the heroes improve.
In early written legends from ancient Greece, the character of Hercules was similar to that of other heroes. He was the son of a god but, other than his exceptional strength, possessed no truly divine attributes of his own.
Eventually, however, the character of Hercules underwent an evolution. Instead of dying a standard human death and being sent to Hades’s realm, he underwent apotheosis and was taken to Olympus as a god.
Hercules can thus be said to be the first true demi-god in Greek mythology. While he was born a human, his lineage and deeds made him worthy of immortality among the gods.
He was not the only character to eventually undergo this shift. Children of the gods as well as their lovers were said to have become gods more frequently in later eras and into the Roman age.
The changing attitudes toward the deaths of heroes and kings took place at the same time as belief in the human afterlife began to change. The Elysian Fields, Isles of the Blessed, and reincarnation were all later developments in Greek religion that offered a more hopeful and prosperous life after death.
As the prospects for normal humans became better, the prospects for those favored by the gods did likewise. Hercules as a demi-god was just part of a major shift in Greek attitudes toward divinity and death.