Of all the Greek heroes, the greatest is no doubt Heracles. He was the son of Zeus by Alcmene, a mortal woman. He was originally given the name Alcaeus or Alcides. Alcmene herself was a descendant of the hero Perseus, who was also a child of Zeus and a mortal woman.
Zeus’ wife, Hera, was jealous and sought to destroy Alcaeus. She drove him mad and caused him to murder his wife, Megara, and their two children. When he regained his wits, he was distraught by what he had done and sought out the Oracle at Delphi for advice. There, Apollo told him to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, for twelve years, as a penance (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.4.12).
During his time at Tiryns, Alcaeus was tasked to perform the Twelve Labours for which he became understandably famous. After completing these tasks, he was renamed Heracles. The name is ironic: Heracles literally means the glory (kleos) of Hera. If Hera hadn’t driven him mad in the first place, he would never have performed the Twelve Labours and won immortal glory. In trying to break Heracles, the goddess had only ensured his eventual apotheosis.
Heracles was venerated as both a hero and a god. Most of his feats were accomplished using his tremendous physical strength, from fighing serpents as an infant to defeating Cycnus and slaying monsters like the Hydra. In art, therefore, he is usually depicted as a tall, muscular man. A great example is the Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of a statue by the Greek sculptor Lysippos (or someone from his circle) that is currently in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
But muscles alone might not be enough to distinguish Heracles in art from other heroes or even mortals. Heroes, as well as divinities, are occasionally indicated using labels; for example, on Greek pottery, the names of heroes and deities are sometimes inscribed. In other instances, though, the figures in a painted scene, a relief, or a statue group have to be identified using other means. This is where attributes come in.
The Nemean Lion
In art, Heracles is often depicted naked, save for a lion skin. Even in instances where he is depicted as clothed, there’s usually a lion skin nearby. From both texts and art, we know that Heracles was skilled in using spear and sword, as well as the bow and arrow. These were the weapons used throughout the ancient era, so it isn’t surprising to find a hero equipped with them. More often, though, Heracles is depicted wielding a club. In general, the club is regarded as the weapon of less civilized people and also wielded in art by e.g. bandits. But when we see a musclebound figure armed with a club and dressed in a lion skin, he cannot be anyone other than Heracles.
But what’s the significance of the club and the lion skin? According to virtually all ancient sources, including the Bibliotheca attributed to (Pseudo-)Apollodorus, the first of the Twelve Labours performed by Heracles is the slaying of a fearful lion that was terrorizing the people near Nemea, a town in the Peloponnese. This fearsome creature had, according to Hesiod, been fostered by Hera (Theogony 326-332). To make things more difficult, the poet Bacchylides points out that the creature had a skin that was impervious to weapons (13.46-54).
As weapons would be useless, Heracles instead engaged the lion with his bare hands. In art, the conflict has been frequently depicted: Heracles is shown wrestling the lion. Eventually, he managed to get his arms around the creature’s neck and strangled the life out of it. He then managed to skin the creature and wore it as a costume. According to some, Heracles marked the occasion by founding the Nemean Games, an important Panhellenic festival comparable to the Olympic Games.
But what about the club? According to the poet Theocritus (third century BC), Heracles knew that the lion’s skin was impervious, so that piercing and cutting weapons were essentially useless. Instead, Heracles used an olive-wood club – a blunt weapon – to hit the lion on the head, stunning it so that the hero could more easily strangle it (25.153-281). Theocritus also adds that Heracles managed to skin the lion by using the animal’s own razorsharp claws.
In art, attributes help us to identify certain figures. Heracles is recognizable because he’s often associated with a club and lion skin. Other figures can be identified by their own attributes, for example, Zeus wields thunderbolts and is often accompanied by an eagle; his wife, Hera, is associated with the peacock. When trying to figure out which figures are depicted in ancient art, it pays to keep an eye out for characteristic attributes.
Interestingly, later historical figures would adopt the lion-skin and club in an attempt to consciously emulate Heracles. The prime example is Commodus (r. AD 177-192), the son and successor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who fancied himself a bit of a warrior. One of his most famous portrait busts depict him wearing a lion-skin and carrying a club in his hand, as if he were the incarnation of the hero himself, or at the very least an equivalent figure. (Marcus Aurelius, in keeping with a Roman tradition started by Augustus, was also deified upon death, so Commodus was technically a demigod like Heracles.)
It’s worth pointing out that attributes aren’t just important in understanding ancient art. Every day, we rely on symbols to make sense of our world and to identify people. Clothes often convey important information (i.e. a firefighter, a medic, a police officer, a lawyer in a suit). In popular culture, Indiana Jones is instantly recognizable by his whip, revolver, and fedora. Examples can be multiplied ad infinitum.