Remember Omphale?
How Hercules really became a God(dess)



#mythology, #queer, #history, #biopolitics

In one of my last articles, I believe to have misrepresented ancient Athens, and I want to address this through an exploration of something else, of the relationship between Hercules and Omphale.

In ancient Greece, Slavery was commonplace, and ancient Athens may well be remembered as the first major city held up upon the backs of invisible slaves; slavery was how Athens functioned, slavery was what gave Plato and Aristotle the time to sit and think. Thomas Nail revisits this topic in his exploration of the fetishisation of Stasis that he accuses the West of perpetuating for thousands of years. Take for example, Aristotle: to him, the migrants were those who move, and the Athenians were those who remained still, and given the superiority of stasis, it would be quite acceptable for him to sit and think while others slaved for him. Athens was a city of slavery, and so when Hercules stole the Delphic tripod and murdered his friend Iphitus, it was not surprising that an oracle declared that Hercules must be subject to three years of slavery.

I want to stress the importance of seeing the story of Hercules as it is perhaps intended, as a series of trials that attempt to define the limits and thresholds between human and gods. The pantheon of Greek deities is rather unlike a Christianised God, and they engage in unimaginably human lives. In pre-Abrahamic religions, the deities are framed as humans sans humanity, humans that are somehow beyond the limitations of humans, and this is not necessarily an ethical position, in of itself, just an observation that the gods do as the humans do, they just do it without limitations, they can pass through walls, shape-shift, become ethereal, enact punishments and be cruel, they can have affairs, they can bare children. The deities of ancient Athens bare more resemblance to Nietzsche’s übermensch than to any post-christian notion of divinity. After Greece had been colonised by Christianity, divinity became a matter of flawlessness, of untouchable distance, and of being opposed to sin, whereas before the Christianisation of Greece, the divine was all entangled up in sin. Before Christ, the imaginary of ancient Greece was perhaps centred around this idea of a spectrum of humans, from those who could control others and bypass limitations, and those who could not bypass limitations and thus face more limitations. This is obviously a very problematic way of seeing politics and power, and it smacks of Master-Slave relations, binary dualities, and all those intolerable Orthodoxies that form the foundation of the West. There is only one way, according to the Orthodox, and Aristotle was no different — the world was as it was because it had to be that way, there was only one way. Aristotle would have believed that it was right that he had so much privilege that he could sit for decades in peace and theorise and fuck his way through life, that is how it is — there are those who stay still and those who move, and only one is the right way.
           Yet, what we can see under these binaries is the early formation of what Jacques Derrida identified as the metaphysics of presence and the symbolic order. Within the context of this symbolic ordering, where Static and Native are equated as opposite and superior to Motion, Foreign, it seems there could be nothing more shameful to a Greek man than becoming a foreign, perpetually-in-motion servant. No, actually, there is one thing that could be worse for the Orthodox Greek man; women. It can seem, for a moment, very romantic to imagine that these Greek men preferred company of other men, and preferred to fuck twenty-year old boys, like a sort of gay paradise where homosexual relations ruled, especially in the shadow of Sparta — yet when one turns to imagine how awful the life of women must have been within this situation, it certainly does not seem paradisiacal. If the men are not even fucking the women, what on earth would stop the men from literally enslaving women, considering them sub-human, and entrapping them in their house to do all the work and all the moving. The modern day sexist paradigm is that men supposedly only “put up with women” because women are the only ones allowed to give them an orgasm. For women, this ancient city may have been Hell (hellas), and there is not one reason to stop us from assuming that somehow, women, and women-slaves, were to these Orthodox Greek men, the worst of all humans. This is an upsetting image, but let us continue this trail of thought to the end.

The story of Hercules, at one point in the narrative, attempts to take this line of thinking to the extreme. One of the trials of Hercules, in becoming a God, is to challenge all of these expectations. We see that culturally and ethically, the Men of Athens were a homoerotic cult, who viewed women as a reflection of the inferior half of the Orthodox symbolic binary — women were categorised with foreigners, with movers, with slaves, with barbarians. The trial of Hercules asks the question: what if the ultimate human pros deity, embodied by Hercules, had to become all of these things at once. For Hercules was not just to become a slave, he was to become a slave to a Queen, a Barbarian Queen in Lydia (Ur-Turkey), far from Athens. That Queen’s name was Omphale.

Omphale was a Queen, in the way that Gen-Z would use the word. Omphale would push this narrative to the limit by forcing Hercules to become-woman, by making the most-masculine of heroes wear women’s clothing and spin silk on a wheel with other maidens. For the Greeks, this completed the perfect inversion of values — Hercules was supposed to be representative of all masculinised virtues, the ultimate man on his way to becoming god, and Omphale has him crossdressing in her Palace. I will leave it to your imagination, to consider what else was happening, but it’s important to know that the story ends with the marriage between Hercules and Omphale. Their marriage was celebrated at a temple of Dionysus, a Greek deity, and it is shocking that this is largely forgotten from the story — there could be nothing more scandalous than a Greek man, not just dressing as a woman, but becoming-woman (socialising, labouring, behaving as woman) during a term of slavery to a Turkish Queen, for them to go on and have a Queer marriage which was consummated in a Greek temple of hedonism and pleasure.

This story happens in the context of Hercules twelve labours, a series of tasks set out before the protagonist that represent his path to becoming free of the limits of humanity; to become a god like his parents. In common storytelling, Hercules is remembered as becoming a god due to his heroic feats of violence, in defeating enemies and taking the heads as trophies, yet this betrays the record. Hercules only became a god when he was forced to challenge the Orthodoxical symbolic binary that cursed Greece at the time, only through becoming-foreign, becoming-woman, becoming-slave, was he able to break out of humanity’s limits, for these are the true limits of the human and only those who see through and go beyond these symbolic distinctions can be liberated. To become a god like Hercules, one must ultimately put on a dress, and have a heretical marriage to a Foreign Queen, and then sacrifice his body to save the soul of a woman. Hercules did not become a God because of his violence or his muscles, but from his abandonment of masculinity. He had to give up all of these traits to escape humanity and this lesson should be taught worldwide. The true brilliance of the Greeks was not in their abuse of women or enslavement of proto-turks, but in recognising in their storytelling, that hegemony was present even back then, and that hegemony must be broken in order to feel liberation. Ancient Greece was not as I painted it in another article, a paradise for femboys, it was corrupt, masculinised and misogynistic hell, much as it is now; a city of men who could never become-ubermensch due to their addiction to hegemonic power.
           It cannot be understated that the story of Hercules is not one of muscles and strength, but in the abandonment of hegemony, and the abandonment of such absurd notions as gender. To become a god, you do not need to wear a dress, but you have to let go of the binaries - until you stop thinking in terms of men & women, foreign & native, stasis & motion, you will forever be trapped on this earth as a human, looking up at the stars wondering why the gods are so free.