The gay myth of Hercules

Farnese Hercules statue, Roman copy of a Greek original circa 300 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

The name Hercules (Heracles in Rome) still resonates as the ultimate slab of masculinity.

Hercules was a stud, having sex with countless women and bearing as many as 500 children. In one story a king named Thespios had Hercules help him get rid of a dangerous lion. Thespios also introduced Hercules to his family, which included 50 virgins. Nine months later 49 of them gave birth to sons, as the 50th was too shy.

Based on those stories, Hercules was clearly not “gay” in the modern political sense, yet Plutarch says he also had male lovers beyond counting. Names we know include his lovers Admetos, Iphitos, Euphemos, Elacatas, Abderus, and Iolaos.

In the most famous story of Hercules’ love for young men, he fell in love with Hylas during Jason’s quest for the golden fleece. As the poet Theocritus wrote in 300 BC, Hylas had locks of hair that hung down in curls,

And like a father with a dear son he taught him all the things which had made him a mighty man, and famous. 

And they were inseparable, being together both day and night. That way the boy might grow the way he wanted him to, and being by his side attain the true measure of a man.

Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse

Hercules helped row the ship Argo, but was so strong he broke the oar. When they got to land Hercules went to find a strong tree to make a new oar while Hylas went to a famous spring for water. At the spring Hyllus met nymphs who fell in love with his beauty and captured him, possibly dragging him into the water. Hercules was so distraught he remained there searching for Hylas when the Argos sailed, abandoning the expedition for love.

We know Hercules best for his famous labors, performed to please King Eurystheus. It was rumored Eurystheus was another of his lovers, providing the motivation for his heroic acts.

Hercules may not have been gay in the modern sense, but his love of men proved pivotal in his heroic life. Only by understanding all of who he was can we make sense of this heroic figure.

For more ancient myths that include gay people and gender variation, click here.