Wise Choice

I spent a bit of time with Paul Bunyan for yesterday’s post and realized something: there are quite a large number of appallingly stupid heroes and male deities in EuroWestern traditions. This probably reflects our ideals in ways that maybe we need to analyze. But for now I have a story for you.

Imagine if Heracles had a brain…

The Choice of Hercules by Annibale Carracci.
(Wikipedia, painting housed in the Capodimonte Gallery of Naples.)

The darkly fathomless eyes of Alcmene bored into the man before her. The body and visage as familiar to her as her garden, the voice that of her dear husband, the tale he told in like manner and habit to Amphitryon. But wise Alcmene saw deeper. This was not her husband. This man wore Amphitryon’s face and flesh and mimicked Amphitryon’s character, but there were tells, tiny hesitations, unwonted words, a cold light flickering behind the tender gaze, a gaze that would not quite meet her own. No facsimile is ever flawless to the eyes of the wise, and this man was acting a part.

To every appearance this was Amphitryon back from the battles victorious. Accompanied by his captains. Solid. Substantial. Smelling of the road, all of them. Eating like twenty oxen in plowing season. The rest of the hall accepted this man as Amphitryon, their king. But Alcmene could see nothing but discordance.

To question her husband was not in her power. Women were captives in their own homes, slaves to the whims of men. She might be famed for her wisdom and devotion, but she could offer up no words unbidden, she could express no doubt without turning the dagger of accusation upon herself. And what if she was wrong? He looked and talked and stank like Amphitryon at homecoming. What if her eyes were the deceivers? And even if she were right and this an imposter, she had no grievance in society. If he were to take her, the offense would not be to her but to her husband, as owner of this wifely body.

So she sat mute as he animately told of his exploits. She listened and watched, trying to divine this interloper’s intentions. She acted her part. Which is all woman could ever do.

Ten moons later, Alcmene lay exhausted in the birthing room. Sweat dripped into her eyes. Blood ran down her thighs. Her back and belly felt shattered. But two healthy sons squirmed in the hands of her women. The first was as large as a child of two winters. He had golden eyes and bronze skin and red-gold hair that curled thickly about his dimpled face. This was not the son of Amphitryon. But the second was. Lithe and dark-eyed like both his mortal parents, with sparse black hair fuzzing his scalp. Alcmene looked on both sons with love, but this second was her own dear heart.

They called the changeling Alcides for the child’s great strength. They named the younger twin Iphicles, for though he was no match for his elder brother, yet was he strong in both body and mind. Indeed, he was Alcmene’s son. The two were inseparable, tumbling merrily through childhood, caring for each other. But there was a mark on the eldest. Even as an infant, his fate was strange.

One night two snakes climbed into the cradle where both boys slumbered. The younger felt them slithering up his legs and cried out, alerting Amphitryon who dashed into the nursery. But by the time the father of Iphicles arrived, Alcides had killed both serpents with his pudgy hands and was merrily playing with the slack bodies like favored toys. Amphitryon, being as wise as Alcmene, saw the hand of the gods in this. In consternation, he and his wife debated the meaning of these strange events, together with the uncanny conception of Alcides, and they decided to give him a new name. They called him Heracles, the glory of Hera, hoping to mollify the betrayed goddess, wife of Heracles’ true father.

In this, they failed; Hera was not to be pacified by a name. She hated all that the child represented, all the casual infidelities and crimes committed by her husband. Not merely against her, but against all she stood for, all she believed in. Faithfulness in marriage. Steadfastness in spirit. Caring wisdom. Love. She was existentially wronged time and again; and this beautiful child, born of yet another rape, came to stand for all those offenses — because she could not find it in her heart to lash out at her deserving husband.

Still, Iphicles and Heracles thrived — perhaps with more trials than is usual even for boys, but hale and healthy nonetheless — and they were never apart until the day that fate intervened.

They were in the music room waiting for their tutor. As boys will, they were devising new uses for the various instruments strewn about the room.

“I bet I can make this lyre fly like a discus all the way to the kitchens,” crowed the elder.

The younger laughed and shook his head. “It’s the wrong shape, idiot, it won’t spin right,” he countered.

“Then I’ll make it spin right!”

And with that Heracles let fly with the heavy harp — just as their tutor was coming through the door. The lyre hit the music instructor, a man of clever fingers and infinite patience, and, whether through mere accident or yet another intervention from Hera, killed him on the instant. The boys rushed to their dear teacher. Iphicles dropped to the floor and began to cry silently.

Heracles stood over his brother and the pooling blood of the man he killed and saw that he must forge a new path in life. He saw all the accidents and trials in his childhood and knew them for more than common mischance. He saw that his own hands were not his own and that the day would come when he would not be the protector, but rather the aggressor. He saw a time when the blood might be his mother’s or his sister’s — or his brother’s. 

He left the next morning.

He found a task that used his strength and wits but kept his uncontrollable hands far from those he loved. He tended to Amphitryon’s cattle on a high mountain, an arduous journey of many days distant from his home. He left word that they were not to follow. Alcmene understood and consoled her younger son.

“He will return to us purged of his curse,” she said to Iphicles. Though in her heart she did not believe it, and she grieved for her golden boy, a child that did no wrong and yet was wronged so grievously by the gods.

Heracles grew to manhood on that mountain. A year passed. And then another. And then a tenth spring came and he was still a cowherd in the hills. And remarkably enough he enjoyed this life that he created. The quietly heartbreaking beauty, the calm eyes of his charges, the gentle fall of days and nights in contemplation and wonder. He made his own fate in the mountain meadows, drinking in freedom with clean mountain waters. He fashioned whatever he needed from what was at hand. He tended to his herd but he also tended to gardens and groves. He sent down far more than the yearling calves when his step-father’s men came for the annual collection. He was good at his task and felt pride in the job well done. But he had time to do much more. He made music and composed verse under the stars. He watched the skies and knew the omens. He learned from the animals and drew wisdom from the birds. He lived a good life.

But there was one more challenge in his path.

One summer day as he strummed idly on his lyre, a pair of women crested the ridge and approached him. It was singular enough to have visitors. Nobody came this way except for the autumn culling. But he’d not seen a woman since he left home. And these were noble women from their fine comportment. They would not deign to climb a mountain for any reason that he knew. He was immediately wary. He could see the hand of Hera in this.

The women hailed him, calling him familiarly by both his names, though he recognized them not, nor even their strange accents. Heracles felt the hot sick of fear in his belly. Surely they were here to cause him harm. Or to bear the news of some great misfortune, notable even to the gods. But no, they said nothing, they did nothing. They sat on the meadow grass leaning against the boulders in despite of all their finery as though they were accustomed to nothing more. 

After a worrying while, Heracles asked who they were and why they had come.

The younger of the two smiled mischievously and replied, “Oh, we’ve come to proposition you, young Heracles.”

Heracles knew not how to respond.

The elder frowned at her partner and explained further, “We are sent by those who would know you better. And we have been tasked with knowing your mind.”

Heracles just nodded mutely. He thought he knew who set them this task and further thought it odd that those task-masters didn’t already know his mind, as they could see with the unclouded eyes of immortal wisdom.

The two women together said, “A choice lays before you.”

The elder continued, “One path will give you a life much like the one you live now, with peace and plenty and quiet joy.”

The younger then proclaimed, “The second path will bring wealth and fame, excitement and adventure. There will be women, wine, feasts, song. Your name will be remembered forever.” The young woman’s eyes were wide with the prospects she described, her hands sweeping imaginary vistas of high fortune and rich fate.

But Heracles looked inward. “Which name?” he asked quietly. The elder woman smiled as the younger’s face fell.

“I do not want any of those things. They do not bring the happiness that I have found here. You say you would know my mind? This is it: I do not want your choice. I have made mine. This is my life. I am content. What is more, I am whole and wholly my own. I make my own fate in these meadows. I do not dance to the tunes of other pipers, be they even the immortal deities. I am my own man. Not a puppet. And here I shall remain, living as I have. Until I deem it time to do otherwise. Until I deem it wise. And I do not care if anyone ever knows my name. Mortals do not remember forever. And gods forget as soon as they turn their fancy elsewhere.”

So saying he stood and walked away from them.

The elder watched him go with a small smile still playing upon her lips. “Told you,” was all she said before they both vanished into the mountain sunlight.

And with Heracles’ wise choice was a lifetime and more of misery averted.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021