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Hamstead Abstract

Hercules, Medea and the Reality of Filicide

Sue Hamstead

With many and varied stories attaching to the legendary hero, Herakles has from earliest times been an ambiguous figure, undertaking great feats as a benefactor of civilization but capable also of great atrocities, his morals and motivation frequently questionable, and the most shocking story of all concerning him must surely be the one in which he kills his own children.

With the majority of modern interpretations choosing to ignore that act of filicide altogether, this paper considers those treatments which do include it or make allusion to it – chiefly productions of the Euripidean play that bears his name – and investigates why the occlusion of this aspect from mainstream offerings has been so successful.  In particular, his trajectory through time into the present age is compared to that of Medea, another mythological figure who likewise had endless stories attaching to her but – in contrast – is now remembered almost solely for this one act that she and Herakles have in common: the murder of their own offspring.  This is despite the evidence of statistics seeming to show that in real life a father is more likely to be the perpetrator of such an act than is the mother.  This chapter draws on the relationship to real-life experience in seeking to explain our favoured image of Herakles.