Many Greek and Roman myths show evidence of having been changed through the ages. New stories were invented, names and places were changed, and the gods became more numerous and specialized.
Many of the stories often became more elaborate and fantastic. Monsters who were described in simple terms by Homer were, by the Roman era, much more large and frightening.
One example of this phenomenon is in the legends of the Greek hero Heracles, who by time of the Roman Republic was a god known as Hercules.
Hercules was always a larger-than-life hero, but over time his story was made more elaborate and he, as a character, was brought closer to the status of the gods than other heroes.
If the mortal Heracles mentioned in the Odyssey became a god in both Greece and Rome, it’s likely that his story had undergone similar changes before the advent of writing.
Historians believe this is the case, and many among them point to the legends of Hercules as evidence that heroes, and even gods, could have originated from real men from the distant past.
So what evidence do we have that Hercules was once real? The clues are in his legends.
If Hercules was ever real, how did an ordinary man’s story develop into that of a powerful hero and eventual god?
According to some historians, many ancient legends began with historical events and figures. As the stories were repeated, they were embellished to be made more astounding and dramatic.
One well-known example of this was the story of King Minos. The legendary king of Crete and the stories associated with him seem to have some basis in the history of Bronze Age Crete and Greece.
In time, the stories became more complex and fantastic. Men took on supernatural attributes, animals became monsters, and adventures became epic quests.
Some historians believe the process went further. Some of these stories continued to evolve until the protagonists were no longer human at all, but were gods themselves.
In many cultures, demi-gods were a common feature of mythology. Existing somewhere between the gods and ordinary men, they had superhuman attributes and often longer than average lifespans.
The Greeks had heroes, but generally stopped short of considering them to be demi-gods. The closest Greco-Roman character to fit this type was Hercules.
This may indicate that the story of Hercules continued to evolve through the classical era. In fact, there is ample evidence that legends of Hercules and the other heroes of Greek mythology were further expanded and exaggerated well after they were first written down.
For example, the status of Hercules as a god was almost entirely absent in the earliest known myths. This idea, and the story of his death connected to it, were almost certainly the result of later additions to the mythos.
Hercules provides an opportunity to see the development of a legendary figure as it played out. The fact that his story was widely expanded on in the historic period makes it a probability that the process had been occurring long before the legends were written down.
Even the transition for Heracles to Hercules shows an evolution of the character toward a less human type. The Roman demi-god was viewed as more divine than his Greek predecessor, and stories of his life among the gods were more numerous and detailed.
So it is possible that the story of Hercules began as that of a real man and eventually evolved into a legend. The main character himself became stronger and more superhuman until, eventually, the Greeks began to believe that his deeds had earned him a place among the gods of Olympus.
While this theory sounds plausible, there is usually little proof that any story evolved in such a way. The story of Hercules, however, might provide some of the best evidence historians have that such a development may have happened.
The birth of Hercules follows many conventions, from Zeus seducing a mortal princess to the birth of twins from different fathers. The fact that it follows such a conventional model indicates that this part of the story was added to bring the heroic figure into the lineage of gods and kings.
Similarly, the fates of Hercules’s descendents follows a similar theme. Both he and his ancestor, Perseus, had numerous sons who became great kings and dynasty-founders.
Making a hero or god the ancestor to contemporary rulers was another common trait in Greco-Roman mythology, so it too can be explained as a later addition to the tale.
Where the heroes and their legends differed was in the details of their adventures. Their quests and the monsters they fought are the most unique aspects of their mythos, and the ones most likely to have originated with ancient sources.
In the case of Hercules, many of his famous twelve labors seem like obvious examples of a realistic scenario that was expanded to become more fantastic.
The beasts he fought in these labors were legendary monsters, but many have their roots in more common animals. The Nemean Lion was an exceptionally strong version of a common predator, the Hydra was a more monstrous venomous snake, and the Stymphalian birds were extraordinary only in their tenacity.
When not set against a monster, some of the labors of Hercules even seem rather mundane. While Geryon was a giant, for example, otherwise the story involving him was simply about stealing some cattle.
It is easy to see how the labors of Hercules could have once been true stories that were later exaggerated. A man, or even several men whose stories were conflated, would certainly be capable of acts like killing a lion, stealing a herd of cattle, or driving away a destructive flock of birds.
Some historians believe that the story of Hercules is one of the oldest in mythology. Its roots, they claim, lay in the prehistoric Stone Age.
This ancient origin even explains some of the particular peculiarities of Hercules’s character. He carried a club and wore an animal skin, attributes that seem more fitting for the Stone Age than the Bronze Age.
Hercules was probably an ancient figure, but it’s doubtful he lived in Greece.
The stories of Hercules have many similarities to those of heroes and gods from Mesopotamia. If a Stone Age Hercules existed, it’s likely that he lived in the Near East and his legends were brought to Greece at a later date.
Hercules may not have been the only hero to arise from the same legends, either. Similarities between Hercules and Odysseus have led some historians to believe that the two share the same origin in a historical figure.
Some historians theorize that many ancient legends can be traced back to a historical source. They believe that real events from the ancient past were elaborated upon until they became extraordinary legends.
One story that seems to work particularly well within this theory is that of Hercules, or Heracles as he was known in Greece.
The many ways in which Hercules fit the demi-god archetype can be seen as evidence that the story was added to in order to fit a general motif. His birth, childhood, and status as the ancestor of kings are all typical of stories that were tailored to fit the culture.
His individual adventures, however, particularly his twelve famous labors, may be evidence of a historic origin. The creatures he fought and captured are largely monstrous versions of common animals, making it easy to see how a simple story could have been made more fantastical over time.
Historians who ascribe to this theory believe that a historical Hercules may have lived sometime during the Stone Age, likely in Mesopotamia given his similarity to figures from that region’s legends. As his story developed, he inspired both Heracles/Hercules and Odysseus.
There will never be proof that Hercules the god was rooted in a historical figure. But the stories of the Greek hero and the Roman god lend credence to the idea that some myths may have grown out of fact.