The Tides of Virtue …and Vice: Herakles among the Christians
This paper explores the reception of Herakles in early Christianity, highlighting the thorough engagement of early Christian thinkers with all strands of pagan philosophical and literary traditions.
By the fourth century BCE, Herakles with his attributes of determination and endurance in the face of adversity had become an ideal for moralists and philosophers. The famous Choice of Herakles by Prodikos paved the way for the comparison of Herakles with Christ which was further anticipated by his investment with Roman Stoic values. Herakles loomed large in the mind of the Christian author of the Letter to the Hebrews (ca. 63-4 CE), was discussed in second century CE by Justin Martyr (1 Apol. 21.2), Origen (Against Celsus 7.53), and Tertullian (Against Marcion 4.10.7) and later by St Ambrose (De Iacob et beata vita). Herakles’ adventures against Cacus (=Evil), his katabasis to the Underworld following his initiation to the Eleusinian mysteries, his resurrection of Alkestis, and, finally, his own apotheosis were taken up anew during early Christianity at a time when defining the new religion against the established pagan cults was crucial for its success. However, rather than this being a desperate attempt on behalf of Christianity to secure its appeal, Herakles, the glutton of the Greek literature (Callim. Dian. 159–161), the arch-enemy of Lactantius (Institutiones 1.18.3-10, 13-17 and 1.9.1-11) and the ideal ruler of distinctly anti-Christian Roman emperors such as Diocletian (Hekster 2005), offered the Christian thinkers a sounding board for debating some of the core issues of Christianity such as flesh resurrection and immortality, the nature and effects of the vices, baptism and even possession and exorcism.
Anagnostou-Laoutides suggests that the Orphisized Herakles of the first Christian centuries shaped the arena of a new type of cultural competition in the shadows of the Second Sophistic which the Christian Fathers had inherited – the competition of dogmas.