Hercules’ Labours Today

Hercules' Labours Today

22% of the visitors to the exhibition of portrayals of Hercules' labours over the last 2,500 years created a postcard of a new labour which they left for, or allowed to be photographed by, the Hercules Project. A number of interesting, thought-provoking and reassuring discussions about the labours and Hercules' character were entered into around these and we would like to thank everyone who participated on the day. Three more postcards were contributed by email. If you would like to add another labour to these images, please get in touch with us by email at HerculesProject@leeds.ac.uk.

While many participants admired the images of Greek vases on display and a number of participants chose to use a monochromatic palette of pencil on paper (perhaps representing this or echoing Marian Maguire's palette), most participants were eager to use colour, with some being inspired by coloured reconstructions of the Olympia metopes.
Images displayed at the event
Adult participants were keen to enlist Hercules as an ally given the current political circumstances, although many then struggled with defining exactly what Hercules might do or how he might be shown doing it. The difficulty experienced here certainly identifies Brexit as a Herculean task in the sense of being extremely difficult/well-nigh impossible for ordinary mortals to tackle.
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While the Lernean Hydra labour as a popular choice among adults enlisting Hercules' help with Brexit (2 images), it was also represented by a child (1 image), who depicted Hercules as a European hero defeating the Brexit Hydra.
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This adult contribution, draw in response to a child's observation that Hercules could improve the world by stopping Brexit, also casts him as a European hero championing Remain, but uses the Hydra's heads to differentiate between the different versions of Brexit that have proliferated over the past two years.
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Another take on the current UK political situation saw Hercules as the champion of Brexit, and used the image of Cerberus to show the now-united warring factions being successfully ushered from the Underworld.
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The Augean Stables has a distinguished career as a political metaphor - from Thomas Rowlandson's 1805 cartoon of Samuel Whitbread routing out corruption in the Admiralty to Alexander Hunter's 2017 cartoon of Donald Trump moving into the White House by Alexander Hunter - and was used by participants to comment on the need for political reform.
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Hercules' two-phase approach to cleansing the Augean Stables is used here to identify the nature of the problem with the current political situation in Britain, identifying Hercules' discouragement at the enormity of the task with the interval before he discards the spade and turns instead to the rivers, as used by HH in the 1832 of the Thames cleansing the Palace of Westminster of politicians.
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For this new labour Hercules rises to the challenge of taking up the position and responsibilities of an MP, or does the labour consist of wresting the privileges of the position from a current incumbent, who seems reluctant to cede them?
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In this child's labour the world needs saving from stupid people, who are identified as politicians, in a global rather than a local context, with both Teresa May and Donald Trump being identified as 'monsters' to be defeated by Hercules.
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Both adults (here) and young adults (below) identified climate change as a challenge worthy of the attention of a modern Hercules.
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This young-adult response not only identified climate change as a major issue, but showed that addressing it can be seen as requiring superhuman powers. Here, Hercules evolves into a superhero capable of inhaling carbon dioxide.
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This child's response - as so many did - identified a way to make a difference in regard to an issue. The explanation of this picture focused on the desire to eat popcorn and the difference in size between unpopped and pre-popped popcorn. A discussion brought out the associated implications of the effects of greater bulk on transportation needs, fuel use, air pollution, and global warming but the initial identification of a problem with the packaging of / existence of convenience foods by an under-five shows how big an issue this actually is.
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This child artist identified not only a threat from which the world needs to be saved, but a means of doing so. While dealing with rubbish can seem like a Herculean task, it is one where every individual can do something to make a difference: picking up rubbish lets you be Hercules!.
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Making everything clean, on the other hand, requires a larger effort, but this response is very similar in identifying a challenge to which human beings can rise; it would be a difficult (i.e. Herculean) task, but not an impossible one that is beyond human beings.
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A greater degree of specificity to cleaning up the planet was brought by another child, who saw the need to save dolphins from human's irresponsible plastic disposal. She put herself into her labour as "Lady Hercules"; perhaps this could be the first of a series of labours performed by Omphale once Hercules gives his lion-skin and club!
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Having identified that the world is in real danger, here Hercules is seen as being capable of transplanting human beings to other planets once they have destroyed this one. At the same time, this serves as a warning that (because there is no Hercules who can do this) human beings should do everything possible not to end up in this situation!
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The idea of Hercules as a saviour figure permeates several responses, whether Hercules is saving the world or human beings from specific or non-specific threats.
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Here Hercules saves a man from the specific threat of drowning. This makes a link between the activity of Hercules as a saviour of mankind and the activities of officers of the emergency services, especially the RNLI, and all those who have helped others during disasters involving flooding. Such responses, which necessitate choosing a specific incident to demonstrate a general principle, reflect the larger idea that saving a single life is the equivalent of saving the entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Jerusalem Talmud 4.9; Babylonian Talmud 37a; Quran 5.32).
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This respondent had difficulty choosing a single labour, choosing saving dying people, helping animals in danger and putting out fires (the last of which may, of course, cause the previous two).
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Given the illustrations of the Labours of Hercules on display, it is perhaps not surprising that the image and message here do not entirely match. While Hercules' labours against animals often respond to those animals adversely affecting humans, this is not always the case and in the case of the Ceryneian Hind in particular (not to mention ɢeryon's guard-dog, perhaps Hercules himself should have been reminded, 'Be kind to animals!".
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This labour developed as the result of conversations within a family. It started with Hercules alleviating poverty by giving money, but, in an extension of the idea that if you give a man a fish you feed him for today, whereas if you teach a man to fish yo8u feed him for life (availability of fish permitting), this was expanded to lead to Hercules providing escape from poverty through a combination of monetary assistance, employment and housing.
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Here Hercules brings Peace to the world. While there is no personification of Peace here, it is clear that Peace is understood by this primary-school-age child as not existing on earth, requiring the intervention of a hero to (re)introduce it.
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At an individual level, mistreating each other and being verbally and physically violent is clearly identified as wrong. Here an external force is identified as being needed to prevent such behaviour. Hercules has a sufficiently powerful personality to effect changes in other people's behaviour.
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This response identifies a Herculean task that all individuals should undertake in the modern world. Here Hercules actually reads the terms and conditions! Recent articles by journalists have showed that the 'average' person has accumulated at least 150,000 words of terms and conditions which would take at least 8 hours just to skim read, and that reading the Privacy Policies typically encountered in a year would take 76 working days...
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