Cross-Dressing, Feminism, and the Greek Demi-God

Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852–1923), Hercules at the Feet of Omphale (1912), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Hôtel de Ville de Baulmes, Switzerland. Image by Don de Maurice Dériaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article about Deianira, I promised to return to the odd story of Hercules and Omphale, for which I showed a fine painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, in which Hercules is dressed up in women’s clothing, and trying to spin.

Hercules or Heracles (even Herakles) is one of the great heros of classical mythology. Stories of his accomplishments pervade the literature of Greece and Rome from Homer’s early Iliad and Odyssey, right up to the last writings as Europe moved into the Middle Ages. He is most famous for his twelve labours, in which he proved his endurance, strength, fearlessness, and cunning by overcoming legendary monstrous challenges.

From the first, his killing of the Nemean lion, he wore its skin as a badge of honour and witness to those accomplishments.

He was also more than a little wayward, as might be expected from the son of Zeus/Jupiter and a Theban woman, Alkmene. He had as many ‘adventures’ as he had relationships – both forced and consensual – with women and men, and is an archetype of the swashbuckling testosterone-rich superhero.

Hercules also had some close calls, visits to Hades from which his return was uncertain, and often displeased the gods. At some stage, when he violated the laws of guest-friendship in the murder of Iphitos, his conduct reached a new low, and he was forced to seek the advice of the Oracle at Delphi. He ended up being sent into slavery to Omphale, the queen of Lydia, for a year or more.

It is in Omphale’s court that the once-mighty demi-god experiences his greatest humiliation. He is subjugated, stripped of the hide of the Nemean lion, his trademark club taken away, and the women of the court dress him in their (or possibly Omphale’s) clothes, and give him a distaff so that he can join them in spinning. The queen asserts her authority by donning the lionskin, and wielding the club.

From quite early in the telling of this story, it has also developed a certain sexual frisson, amplified in a dubious appendix in which Hercules is in Omphale’s bed, only for Pan to get in, assuming that he is the queen. Hercules promptly kicks Pan out of the bed, to welcome Omphale instead.

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Artist not known, The Twelve Labours of Hercules (c 250 CE), mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, dimensions not known, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid. Image by Sgiralt, via Wikimedia Commons.

These stories were shown on vases and elsewhere from quite early on. One of the most unusual summaries of Hercules’ career is this mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, which summarises the twelve labours around its central panel.

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Artist not known, The Twelve Labours of Hercules (detail) (c 250 CE), mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, dimensions not known, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid. Image by Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.

There, in the midst of the swashbuckling, Hercules is seen holding his distaff and spindle, dressed as a woman, while Omphale sits on the Nemean lionskin on her throne, clutching his club.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), Hercules and Omphale (1537), oil on beech wood, 82 × 118.9 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Lucas Cranach the Elder made several slightly different paintings on the same basic theme of Hercules and Omphale (1537), which shows Hercules being humiliated in a respectable and amicable way by the women of Omphale’s court.

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Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), Hercules and Omphale (c 1585), oil on copper, 24 × 19 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartholomeus Spranger’s Hercules and Omphale (c 1585) uses the same exchange of attributes, but plays openly with the eroticism of Omphale’s position.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) (attr), Hercules and Omphale (c 1620), oil on canvas, 215 x 173 cm, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Hercules and Omphale (c 1620) has been attributed to Rubens, and explores the humiliation of the hero in a more conventional way, as Omphale tugs at his ear as if he were an errant schoolboy.

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Bernardo Cavallino (1616–1656), Hercules and Omphale (c 1640), oil on canvas, 127 x 180.3 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Bernardo Cavallino puts the enslaved and degraded Hercules on display in the court, in his Hercules and Omphale (c 1640).

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Antonio Bellucci (1654–1726), Hercules in the Palace of Omphale (c 1698), oil on canvas, 320 x 300 cm, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

Antonio Bellucci cedes Hercules’ club to the queen, but not (yet) the lionskin, in his Hercules in the Palace of Omphale (c 1698). But look carefully at the directions of gaze of Omphale and her attendant women: they are not looking Hercules in the eye, although he appears to be remonstrating with the queen as a floral crown is put on his head, and a distaff in his left hand.

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Luigi Garzi (1638–1721), Hercules and Omphale (c 1700-10), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program, via Wikimedia Commons.

Luigi Garzi’s Hercules and Omphale (c 1700-10) lets Hercules put his spinning gear behind him, as he entertains the court with a song and the tambourine. Omphale seems to be enjoying her new position on the lionskin, and holding his club in her left hand.

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Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes) (1746-1828), Hercules and Omphale (c 1810), oil on canvas, 81 x 64.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Only Goya is more straight-laced, in his Hercules and Omphale (c 1810); there is no exchange of clothing, but Hercules sits attempting some fine task – threading a needle perhaps? – with his sword under the control of a courtier.

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Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre (1806-1874), Hercules and Omphale (1862), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

As the nineteenth century wrestled with the future of history painting and mythology, the story of Hercules’ humiliation did not die, by any means. This is Charles Gleyre’s Hercules and Omphale from 1862, showing the hero learning to spin. It was at Gleyre’s Academy that Jean-Léon Gérôme, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Whistler all started to learn to paint.

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Otto Greiner (1869–1916), Hercules and Omphale (1905), oil on canvas, 100 × 165 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Into the twentieth century, this story held out when most others were falling into disfavour. Otto Greiner’s Hercules and Omphale (1905) shows an older and exhausted Hercules who has fallen asleep because of his exertions, amidst the taunting court.

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Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852–1923), Hercules at the Feet of Omphale (1912), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Hôtel de Ville de Baulmes, Switzerland. Image by Don de Maurice Dériaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the First World War loomed close, Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois cast Hercules as a circus strong-man, a ‘toy-boy’ kneeling in front of an opulent Omphale, in his Hercules at the Feet of Omphale (1912).

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Byam Shaw (1872–1919), Omphale (1914), watercolor and bodycolor, 72.5 × 29 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Byam Shaw ignores the figure of Hercules alogether, showing a triumphant and erotically-charged Omphale (1914), against a background of the twelve labours, in a remarkable reconfiguration of the ancient Roman mosaic.

What of Ovid’s account in his Heroides, though?

This seems to me to be the most remarkable twist to the whole story. For a Roman poet who was sent into exile because of the content of some of his erotic works, Ovid’s fictional letter from Deianira to Hercules is a model for feminism. Having given a brief account of Hercules’ serial adultery and promiscuity, Deianira mercilessly attacks his relationship with Omphale, accusing him of being effeminate. Worse, Deianira claims that Omphale was a better man than Hercules ever was.

Shortly after that, the letter records that Deianira has been told that her stray husband is dying because of the Centaur’s poison with which she impregnated his tunic. Her world has ended, and she bids farewell to it before she kills herself.

As beautiful and unusual as these paintings are, none covers a fraction of the ground laid out by Ovid’s heroine.