- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The Water Tamer," which begins on the next page, is Alexander Eliot's interpretation of the myth of Heracles (or Hercules), the strong man of the ancient Greeks, the greatest athlete of the age of legend. Eliot, who lives in Greece, has done extensive research into the art and literature of the ancients. His version of the Heracles legend is a startling departure from the standard tradition; he sees each of the strange, wildly imaginative adventures as having a solid basis in reality.
Of Eliot's treatment of Heracles, Professor Howard N. Porter of Columbia University, a leading authority on Greek literature, says: "When Nietzsche's 'Birth of Tragedy' appeared, the greatest Greek scholar of the day, Wilamowitz, was appalled and regarded it as a threat to everything he stood for. Some spiritual descendants of Wilamowitz will no doubt be offended by 'The Water Tamer,' and it is perfectly true that the piece is not a historically valid report on the Heracles of Homer, or of Euripides, or any other version in our sources. But it may be doubted if a valid interpretation of the myth in general is possible or, if possible, would be of the least interest. The legend is a vast inherited conglomerate of motifs, many mutually contradictory. It comes alive only when edited, distorted if you will, by a Homer, an Aristophanes, a Nietzsche, a Freud, a Robert Graves or an Alexander Eliot. 'The Water Tamer' is a beautifully written and richly imaginative addition to the lore of Heracles. Witness the cornucopia, first transferred from Amalthea to Heracles by Ovid and now gloriously become an irrigation ditch in Eliot's version. The interpretation of the dragon of Troy as a polluted well is not scientific or historical, i.e., we have no hard evidence that such an interpretation was made in antiquity, yet it is the nature of such monsters to suggest such meanings, and Eliot's whole treatment is inwardly true to the spirit of Greek mythopoesis. To interpret Heracles as a sort of Henry J. Kaiser has been a brilliant feat of imaginative translation. The numinous, magic quality remains intact, but the incidents are transposed into terms relevant to our day—no mean achievement."
Some 4,000 years ago the greatest of all athletes took to wrestling rivers. Relentlessly he bent their ways to the purposes of men and earth: irrigation, flood control, hydraulic power, sanitation, military strategy and logistics. He was a one-man TVA project, and more, for the entire Mediterranean basin. Something of all this had been prophesied by the Oracle of Delphi, when she sent him forth into the world at 18. On that occasion Delphi coined a name for him, which combined "hera" and "cles." The Romans read it Hercules, as most people still do. But the Water Tamer's true name was Heracles, renowned for his services to mankind. The "hera" part of his name stood not for the Goddess Hera (as is generally supposed) but for service, and "cles" meant renown.
Heracles stood at the dawn of organized sport, and it was he who founded the Olympic Games. His own athletic prowess has never yet been equaled. But, the times being still barbarous, he himself found few opportunities for friendly rivalry. Instead, his contests were genuine in the fullest possible sense. He served mankind surpassingly well, and took great risks with his own head, hands and feet. In fact, Heracles was not only the best athlete in history, but also the very first one to devote his entire strength and skill to mankind—both the living and the not yet born.
Since we ourselves are on the verge of finishing the job that Heracles began, this seems a most auspicious moment to remember him. We have roped the Columbia, the Snake and St. Lawrence, and built a fine corral at Hungry Horse. The message is spreading and halters are even now being fashioned for the chocolate-colored Nile, the sacred streams of India, and that ravenous dragon that is called the Yellow River. Before the century is out we will have tamed all that remain of the strongest and longest wild things. Among the millions of diggers, riggers and engineers who take part in this worldwide river-taming campaign, few today are aware of the stories of Heracles, although he was their original champion. In more than half of Heracles' adventures water played a leading role. He kept compelling it, by a series of life-and-death struggles.
All that we know of Heracles comes from ancient art, and from legend—which is the same thing as saying semifiction. In his case the legends are drawn from a deep well indeed, from long before Homer, and before Greek history itself began. Therefore they are often self-contradictory and open to various interpretations. Some Greek playwrights made him passion's plaything. The Stoic philosophers, on the contrary, thought him a Stoic. Astrologists read his labors as a progress through the signs of the zodiac. A student of Sir James Frazer's "Golden Bough," or of Robert Graves, will tend to make the athlete a figure of bloody superstition. Such modern scholars as Ker�nyi and Fontenrose see him as a champion against Death. But, looking at the whole of Heracles' story, one cannot help noticing how it will dwarf any one man's view. For if the literature in itself is vast, Heracles' behind-the-scenes influence on human thought and action has been incalculably great. Detailed scholarship collapses, like a pup tent in a gale, before this benevolent thunderhead. No mere examination of the evidence, however elaborate, can put him in perspective. This greatest of all athletes will never be anatomized. Instead, he has to be imagined.
The record that follows is limited to Heracles' struggles in which water looms largest. His water-taming aspect was not entirely lost on the ancients, by any means, and no scholar would deny it altogether. Yet it has never, to my knowledge, been given the emphasis, and indeed centrality, I think it deserves. To try to do that I will tell each relevant story as a story (the semifiction it is) and back it up with an interpretation based upon the ascertainable facts.
Heracles' first chance to serve mankind as a water tamer came soon after leaving Delphi, when he arrived at the seaside town of Lerna. The people on the street were silent, pale and apparently consumed with fear, Why? Heracles, burning with curiosity and the hope of adventure, pulled up at a tavern in the center of town. He ordered beef and wine for himself and his charioteer; then, while eating, he questioned the proprietor. It seemed that the whole village was mortgaged to a terrible monster called Hydra. The name related to water, yet Hydra was no ordinary spring. She lived beneath a plane tree just ahead, where the road dipped toward the beach. Her seven venomous serpent heads burst from the ground together and spilled, flickering across the way, into the sea. She was a fountain of evil, taking constant toll of travelers. Moreover, when enraged she would leave her lair and roil right into the village, even as far as the tavern door, looting and killing. All in all, concluded the proprietor, the young gentlemen would do well to avoid her and go back the same way they had come.
Heracles thanked him and went on eating. His club, a little over three feet long, of knobby, polished olive wood, leaned against the table at his side. When he had done, he rose, brushed himself off, took up his club, nodded to his charioteer and ducked silently out the door. The townspeople, peering through their bolted shutters, saw him stroll the few blocks to the plane tree and stand in its shade, idly twirling his club in one hand. He was whistling, as if to himself, but Hydra heard him and she boiled blackly up. Instantly he waded in against her, with his club flashing, bashing and thudding against the liquid, lethal heads that spread twining, surrounding, filling the dappled shade with poison froth. Soon Heracles was in serious trouble. For each darting, mucky head that he crushed, two new ones instantly grew. And as if that were not enough, a giant crab sidled up out of the sea behind him as he fought, pincering Heracles' ribs in the barnacled vise of a gate-size claw.
It was then that Heracles' charioteer, waiting under orders at the tavern, heard a shout that would never once be heard again: his master's cry for help in battle. The youth snatched a burning branch from the tavern hearth, dashed to the rescue and drove his weapon's fiery point against the eyes of the implacable crab. The murderous claw fell open; Heracles bounded free. As silently as it had come, the crab retreated wincing underneath the waves.