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Bill Thayer

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Fragments of a Life of Hercules
or: Il Trionfo della Gelosia

When one day as a teenager forty-five years ago (1964) I was extravagant with my allowance and took a full roll of pictures on a day outing with the Société Archéologique de Tanger to Volubilis, some 150 km south of where I lived, I never thought I'd be putting them up on the Web: what's a "personal computer"?

So I'm left with a very incomplete record of the great Hercules Mosaic; a pity, because the association of Hercules with northern Morocco is not just a modern conceit, but was current in Antiquity, so that this large mosaic in Volubilis is a celebration of local identity, as is the Orpheus Mosaic showing all the wonderful African animals the Romans exterminated.

Anyway, I believe I remember a large color mosaic with vignettes of most of the Labors of Hercules, and only a few bits missing; but here is what I have:


[image ALT: A small oval mosaic medallion rather schematically depicting a baby with a snake in each fist. It is a detail of a Roman mosaic at Volubilis, Morocco, depicting the infancy of Hercules.]
	Infancy

When Hercules was still a baby in the cradle, according to legend, he strangled a pair of snakes with his bare hands. Now normal babies don't do this, but then few of them have snakes in their bedding either. The explanation was simple, though: Hercules' father was Jupiter, but his mother was Alcmena, not Jupiter's wife Juno; and Juno didn't like it.


[image ALT: A small oval mosaic medallion rather schematically depicting a man shooting arrows at two birds. One bird is dead, the other still stands. It is a detail of a Roman mosaic at Volubilis, Morocco, depicting the Fifth Labor of Hercules.]
	The Fifth Labor

The demigod was ordered to drive away or destroy the death-dealing metallic birds of Stymphalus.


[image ALT: A small oval mosaic medallion rather schematically depicting a man carrying a bull over his shoulder toward a man cowering in a large jar. It is a detail of a Roman mosaic at Volubilis, Morocco, depicting the Eighth Labor of Hercules.]
	The Eighth Labor

King Eurystheus ordered him to capture the Minoan bull and bring it back to him from Crete; and here indeed we see him carrying the bull, and the king cowering in what looks like a large storage jar or dolium.

(You get what you ask for: watch out!)
 


[image ALT: A small oval mosaic medallion rather schematically depicting a running centaur brandishing a spear in his rtk and a large two-handled crater in his left. It is a detail of a Roman mosaic at Volubilis, Morocco.]
	Death

This centaur doesn't represent one of the labors of Hercules; but it is more than just decorative. The centaur Nessus killed Hercules with the coöperation of the latter's wife, driven by jealousy. What a jealous goddess could not do in Frame 1 of this mosaic, so to speak, a jealous human did in the last frame.

One cannot fail to be reminded of another monster Hercules had to deal with, the many-headed Hydra, as in the famous aria from Verdi's Otello:

Come un' idra fosca, livida

La gelosia strugge e divora.

Why spoil a good story? Alas, a kind reader Aurélie wrote to let me know this last item does not belong to the Hercules Mosaic; my memory doesn't span the 40 years I thought it did. (And since writing this page, I've found a photo online of the entire Hercules Mosaic here, which confirms it.)


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Page updated: 1 Dec 12