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The heroic figure in myth has long been lauded as an example of what humanity can achieve. Strong, moral, and courageous, these individuals have set the bar for pushing ourselves beyond our limitations.

There is, however, a darker side to the heroic characters that we have long held dear. That’s right, I’m talking about criminal negligence.

One of the things I’ve wondered about for some time while reading and studying myths is what the long term effects a hero would have on a country. You’ve got these amazing things happening: beating up lions, killing off monsters, and, in the case of Heracles (Hercules), diverting a river in order to clean some truly disgusting stables. What about the people that rely on that river for their livelihoods? What about the havoc a new body of water running through a city would wreak upon the people living there? It seems heroes are just tragically short sighted.

That’s kind of an allegory for our politicians. Think about it.

Heracles remains one of the most recognizable heroes in the history of humankind. The stories of his deeds continue to be retold in both good and bad (Kevin Sorbo, I’m looking at you) ways, but the essential character remains the same. What we don’t hear about so much nowadays is the rather tragic tale that sets in motion his twelve great deeds. Poor Heracles, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, was stricken with madness by the jealous Hera. In his insanity, Heracles brutally murdered his wife and children. Upon snapping out of his rampage, he found his family dead and their blood on his hands. Heracles felt he did not deserve to live but was given the opportunity to purify himself by the Oracle of Apollo. The Oracle tasked him with performing ten deeds that would redeem him. Heracles spent years wandering and completing these tasks and was given two more when it was decided that he’d technically cheated at two of them (the cleaning of the stables of Augeus was one of those two). The Twelve Labors of Heracles lead him to become one of Greece’s greatest heroes despite the horrific crimes he’d committed against his family. The stories surrounding those labors are all fun, exciting, or interesting, but the story as a whole, a story of redemption, is hopeful and one that I don’t know most people today would entirely identify with.

If Heracles lived today he’d have been thrown in a jail cell to rot and never given the opportunity to redeem himself or atone for his crimes. The story of Heracles is a story of hope and goodness despite the insanity that can happen in a moment. It is also about forgiveness, that is, forgiving someone of their crimes so they might become a better person and a productive member of society. None can say that Heracles did not make up for what he had done.

This is what I like most about this particular tale. It shows us that the “eye for an eye” mentality can rob us of valuable people, that everyone makes mistakes and that we should forgive those mistakes whenever possible. We’ve been taught that crimes must be punished, and they should be, but they should be useful punishments that attempt to teach rather than to beat down.

Heracles shows us that the world is not always black and white, that people can redeem themselves, and most importantly, that criminals should be put to use cleaning stables.

I think that was the lesson, anyway.

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