October 12, 2014, by Esther Eidinow

A Herculean Achievement: The Twelve Labours of… Vladimir Putin

Esther Eidinow reports on an intriguing use of ancient Greek myth…

Herakles, Hercules, Melqart… Putin: a celebration of the Russian leader’s achievements put Greek myth back on the map last week.

An exhibition of pictures, organised by a Facebook group of Putin’s supporters, showed the President engaged in Herakles’ different tasks—each repurposed to represent a current event.

The pictures were on view only for one night—a present for the President’s 62nd birthday—and the individual artists remain anonymous; some of the pictures can be viewed online.

As you’ll see, no lion-skins are in evidence, but a fine range of pseudo-ancient hero-wear features, from off-the shoulder tunics, to close-fitting breast-plates, racily skimpy skirts and snug shorts, and plenty of greaves, of course.

In some cases, the parallels between Herculean task and Putin-esque achievement are fairly straightforward: for example, the cleaning of the Augean stables as the fight against corruption. Similarly, Putin battles the Nemean ‘Lion’ of terrorism (no mane, but a dodgy beard and intimidating sunglasses); chains a manic Erymanthian boar, aka the oligarchs; and (delightfully) tames the Ceryneian hind—of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Metaphors must work a little harder as political events become more complex: Putin brandishes a tiny shield at the Lernean Hydra of western sanctions, their falling heads crowned with party hats featuring national flags; and dons a rather attractive shift to shoot down ‘the Stymphalian birds’—representing his role in preventing air strikes on Syria.

More ingeniously still: the Mistral contract (for the delivery of warships from France to Russia) becomes the mares of Diomedes; the gas contract with China, the Cattle of Geryon; the South Stream gas pipeline, the belt of Hippolyta; and support for the Minsk agreement for a cease-fire in Ukraine, the Apples of the Hesperides.

By portraying Putin within these mythic narratives, these images offer those outside Russia a remarkable insight into the depth of feeling of some of his supporters, and their views of his policies. We see, for example, his annexation of Crimea as the capture of the Cretan bull; then, just as Herakles stepped in for Atlas, Putin (flowing tunic, impressive musculature) supports the world—representing peace in Ukraine. And we glimpse perceptions of other nations: in the final image of this exhibition, Putin restrains a rather puzzled-looking Cerberus—the US and its ‘unipolar world’.

For those of us as interested in the ancient as the modern world, the pictures also mark a glorious celebration of ancient Greek myth’s longevity and cultural pervasiveness, and remind us of the polysemy and power of mythic narratives.

As well as wishing the Russian President a happy birthday, it also marks many happy returns for Herakles.


Image: “Hercules killing Cacus at his Cave” by Scan by Yellow Lion – Private collection. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hercules_killing_Cacus_at_his_Cave.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hercules_killing_Cacus_at_his_Cave.jpg

Posted in Classical receptionClassicsClassics and popular cultureGreek godsGreek HistoryGreek mythGreek religionHeraklesHerculesUncategorized