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Dillon Abstract Antipodean Hercules

Mathew Dillon

Hercules 'Down Under': Antipodean experiences of the hero's machismo

Antipodean Herculean academic studies have significant potential.  The film Hercules Returns (1993), for example, might suggest that Hercules is as much a household name down-under in the twentieth century as he was early in modern Australian history, where he is (probably) present in the work of the English artist Robert Cleveley in his 1790s engraving ‘Natives of Botany Bay’, which transforms an aboriginal inhabitant in his fishing boat into the Belvedere torso. Nevertheless an examination of how the hero has fared in the intervening and succeeding centuries in terra australis is timely.

At an everyday level, both Woolworths (groceries) and DT Australia (dump-truck trays) have used the name Hercules in their branding. The products in question do not reveal manufacturers immersed in the classical tradition, but rather an awareness – not unique to Australian companies – of Hercules as: a by-word in the English language for strength; a figure associated with sheer muscle, power and endurance. Further evidence of this is offered by ‘Planet Hercules’, a Aussie strongman website, which emphasises deeds of muscle, such as a mighty Aussie pulling a semi-trailer. For the Australian classical scholar, this appropriation of Hercules is at first somewhat depressing: the twelve labours of Hercules (none of which actually involved lifting, or even for that matter great endurance) are reduced in Antipodean terms to a mining truck tray. Yet this is Olympian glory in the Antipodes:  Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, and Athena/Minerva are nowhere in the great southern land and for a society which extols drinking as its main national pastime, few ‘ordinary Aussies’ seem to have heard of the gods Dionysos and Bacchus.  On the other hand, there are some scientific and cultural touches: a massive beetle found in the north is Episcaphula hercules and one of the world’s largest moths, found in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, is Coscinocera hercules, while artworks featuring Hercules hang in Aussie art galleries and museums, for example G. Rayner Hoff’s relief sculpture Hercules, Deianira and Achelous (1920).

While there is nothing unique in the Aussie appropriation of Hercules as a synonym for strength, what is different is that Hercules is associated with a single strongman dragging a semi-trailer covered with an Australian flag; that Hercules is part and parcel of rugged truck trays bearing hundreds of tonnes of mineral ore; that he is synonymous with the indispensible, strong, durable sandwich bag thousands of Aussie kids take their lunch to school in. These create the identity of Hercules ‘down-under’ and the antipodean experiences of the hero’s machismo. There is something respectful, too, about the Aussie cultural transmission of Herculean strength: one will not find here a brand of disposable nappies called ‘Hercules diapers’ as in the US. An ancient hero is preserved in an Australian context, striding the colossal mining landscape, leaving the other gods far away.