Heracles (Hercules, Šantaš, Melqart)

Category: Gods > Terrestrial Gods

1 What we mean by “Heracles”

The four names listed in the title of this page may seem jumbled together. The Latin Herculēs is transparently the same as the Greek Hēraklês, but etymologically, Heracles–Hercules has nothing to do with the Luwian Šantaš and Canaanite Melqart. Nevertheless, these gods were called Heracles in ancient Greek literature.

However, the Greek name was not just superficially attached to these local gods by Greek-speaking outsiders, nor did their worship simply become replaced with that of Heracles through Hellenization. Rather, as Canaanites and Cilicans came to speak Greek and increasingly understood their own traditions within a Hellenic cultural horizon, they themselves conceptualized Šanta and Melqart as Heracles, but each as a distinct Heracles (much like with Asclepius and the Canaanite Ešmūn – but unlike, e.g., Canaanite Ēl, who is almost always entirely conflated with Kronos). Other peoples’ myths and histories too were connected to the pan-Mediterranean idea of the hero–god Heracles, sometimes by adapting age-old traditions, sometimes by crafting totally new ones. (In many cases, we do not know which.)

Thus, when we speak about Heracles, it is artificial to restrict ourselves to a “pure” Greek tradition. If such ever truly existed, our sources for the most part do not pertain to it, but to a larger tradition, one that connected Greeks and others in transnational narratives and shared practices, even while simultaneously safeguarding the peculiar nature of local identities and institutions (as will be shown in later sections).

2 Servius on Hercules the “common god”

In Vergil’s Latin epic, the Aeneid (written 1st cent. BCE), the eponymous Aeneas and his Trojan followers join a festival for Hercules held by the Greek Evander and his followers at the Ara Maxima, the ‘Greatest Altar’, set not in Rome (which is not yet founded), but in what by Vergil’s time would be Rome. After Evander has narrated the cause for the celebration – that Hercules, on his way back from a labor in the far West to Greece, killed the monstrous Cacus who had been terrorizing the region –, he enjoins:

“So come, o youths, in honor of such great glories,
Crown your hair with garlands! Stretch out the cups in your right hands,
Call upon the common god, and freely offer wine!”

Aeneid 8.273–275

In the commentary on this passage compiled by Servius (ca. 400 CE), many possible interpretations are offered for the phrase communis deus, which I translated as “common god” just now, but could also be rendered as “shared god” or “intermediate god”. These explanations, I think, will give us a quite comprehensive (because pluralistic) view of the god. Servius writes:

  • “Either (he calls him ‘shared god’) because Hercules is Argive (i.e., Greek), and Aeneas has previously said that Trojans as much as Greeks spring from one source of blood;
  • “Or he called him a ‘god intermediate’ between gods and humans, whence he is called Medius Fidius;
  • “Or as intermediate (medius) between the two natures, that is, mortality and divinity. For there are certain divine powers (numina) that are only celestial, some only terrestrial, some intermediate. These Apuleius calls the middlemost (medioximi) gods, that is, those which become gods out of humans;
  • “Others believe that he is called ‘common god’ because, according to pontifical rite, Hercules is the same as Mars; for as the astrologers also say, they are said to have one star; and we know that Mars is called ‘common’: Cicero writes “and common Mars” (Pro Milone 56), Vergil “and altars for the common gods”. Also, a little later, he assigns the Salian (priests) to Hercules, and it is established knowledge that they belong to Mars;
  • “Others say communis means humane, beneficent, φιλάνθρωπος (philánthrōpos, ‘loving humanity’); whence we also call people communis (‘affable’);
  • “Varro says that there are some gods that are established (certi) from the beginning, and eternal, but others who are (merely) immortal, and made out of humans; and out of these, some are private, others ‘common’. Private are those which some given people worships, like we do Faunus, the Thebans Amphiaraüs, and the Lacedaemonians Tyndareus; ‘common’, those whom all do, like Castor and Pollux, Liber, and Hercules.”

(I have included the so-called augmentations of the Servius auctus here, passages which do not stem from Servius himself but were later incorporated into his commentary.)

3 What kind of god?

[… Apuleius, Varro; basic hero narrative; Homer scholia? Hyginus?]

Servius also gives a brief explanation for the words “freely offer wine!”, to the effect that wine is offered only to the gods above (superi). How can this be reconciled with the statement that he is an ‘intermediate’ god, between the celestials and terrestrials?

This may be in reference to the idea that Heracles dwells with the celestial gods – or that he is even a star, the planet Mars, himself! –, but more likely, it is meant in distinction to the gods of the underworld, grouping the “intermediate” gods with those who are “only celestial”, rather than with those who are “only terrestrial”, i.e., chthonic gods.

I therefore follow the taxonomy of Artemidorus in treating Heracles not as celestial, but as one of the gods on earth – ‘terrestrial’ in the sense of epígeios (‘upon the earth’), not of khthónios or katakhthónios (‘below the earth’). Cf. Servius on Eclogues 5.66, where the schema is gods above – terrestrial gods – gods below:

only celestial = above (superi) = gr. ouranioi
intermediate ~ terrestrial = gr. epígeioi
only terrestrial ~ below (inferi) = gr. (kata)khthónioi

Admittedly, this is somewhat academic, as Heracles was worshipped in various modes, both as a god and as a hero ( one of those dead of remote antiquity who were elevated above ordinary human dignity); but that is for the discussion below to tease out.

4 Semo Sancus Dius Fidius

When Servius writes that Hercules is called Medius Fidius, he relies on an equivalence between communis and medius, as if the name meant ‘Intermediate one of Faithfulness’ (Fidius being from fides, ‘faithfulness’).

Other ancient writers, such as the grammarians Cledonius, Donatus and Diomedes, instead treat medius fidius (or me dius fidius) as an exclamation “of swearing an oath”, like edepol (‘by Pollux!’), (m)ecastor (‘by/my Castor!’), and mehercles (‘my Hercules!’). Taking away the me-, this leaves Dius Fidius as the proper name of the god.

Where these writers largely agree with Servius is in identifying Dius Fidius with Hercules. The Glosses ascribed to Lactantius Placidus are the most economical: Dius Fidius, Iovis filius. Here Dius is interpreted as the genitive of Jupiter (Iovis), Fidius as the word ‘son’ (filius).

Festus goes into more detail: “Medius Fidius seems to be a compound and to mean son of Jupiter, that is, Hercules; Because in Greek they call Jupiter Día and we (in Latin) Iovem, and Fidius stands for filius, since they often used to use the letter D instead of L.”

Semo Sancus Sanctus Deus Fidius (Wikimedia Commons)

Festus also gives us two alternatives, however: “Some believe it is an oath by the faithfulness of the god (per divi fidem); some, by the faithfulness of the diurnal time, that is, the day (diei).”

The grammarian Charisius gives a slightly different form of the exclamation, edio fidio, which he explains as an oath “by Jupiter or faithfulness, as well as by the son of Jupiter, Hercules. This is the proper oath of men, as of women, edepol, ecastor and eiuno (‘by Juno!’)”

According to Varro (as cited in Nonius s.v. rituis), oaths by Dius Fidius were sworn in the conpluvium, the part of an upper-class Roman house that was open to the sky.

He repeats this in On the Latin Language 5.66: “the roof of (the temple of?) Dius Fidius is perforated so that the divus, that is, heaven (caelum), can be seen. Some say that one must not swear by him under a roof. Aelius used to say that Dius Fidius was Diovis filius (‘son of Jupiter’), much as the Greeks call Castor Dióskoros (‘son of Zeus’), and he believed that he is called Sancus in the Sabine language, and Hercules in Greek” (incidentally showing that the Romans perceived Hercules as a Greek name).

John Lydus seems to pick up on Varro’s explanation of Di(v)us and applies it to the name Sancus as well: “The name Sankos signifies Heaven (ouranós) in the Sabine language” (On the Months 4.90).

Varro does not seem to be correct in saying that Dius Fidius is the Roman, Sancus the Sabine name of the same god. Rather, the closely related Roman and Sabine dialects likely both inherited both names, since they are also related in the more distantly related Umbrian language, as attested in the Iguvine Tablets (where Fisus and Fisovius Sançius is invoked).

In two inscriptions, they occur together with a third name, Semo (gen. Semonis), as Sancus sanctus Semo Deus Fidius or Semo Sancus Deus Fidius (off-site links here and here). Ovid actually tentatively treats Sancus Fidio(!) as one deity, Semo as another, only to have the god tell him that all three names belong to him (Fasti 6.213–218).

So, while no ancient author seems to seriously suggest that Semo, Sancus and Fidius are not the same god, the names can be detached from each other. Dionysius of Halicarnassus also attests to this when he refers to Sancus (gr. Sánkos) as a “local daemon” (daímōn epikhṓrios) who “is called Zeus Pistios by some” (Roman Antiquities 2.49.2). Here Zeus Pistios, ‘of faithfulness’, reflects an interpretation of Dius Fidius = Iovis/Iuppiter Fidius = ‘Jupiter of Faithfulness’.

Sangus: Livius 8.20.8; 32.1
Dionysius 2.49; 4.58; 9.60
August. De civ. 18.19
Lact. 1.15
Propert. 4.9.72/74
Silius 8.420
[Fasti 6.242: date of the festival]
[Iguvine Tablets: separate page]
[Zeus Pistios]
[Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.49.2, more sources on Semo Sancus]

5 Heracles the planet Mars

The Greco-Roman names of the planets are based quite directly on the Babylonian ones. But most of them allowed some leeway in translation, with the range of alternatives only gradually closing and becoming fixed on the now conventional names. The astrologer Achilles Tatius tells us that the planet Mars (Greek Ares), more scientifically called Pyrois or ‘red star’, also took the name Heracles; both are reasonable translations for the warlike Babylonian god Nerigal (see the page on Mars).

This connection is further reinforced by a series of inscriptions from Mt Nemrut in modern-day Turkey, in the vicinity of the tomb-sanctuary of king Antiochus I Theos Dikaios Epiphanes Philorhomaios Philhellen (Greek for ‘the god, the just, the manifest, friend of Romans and Greeks’), who died in 31 BCE. This Antiochus, ruler of the kingdom of Syria Commagene (2nd cent. BCE – 1st cent. CE) was Iranian by descent and Zoroastrian by creed, but also immersed in Greek culture.

In these inscriptions, a god who is depicted in the manner of Heracles – as a nude, muscular bearded man with a club – is called Artagnēs Hēraklēs Arēs, where ‘Artagnes’ represents the Iranian god who is called Verethragna (Vərəθraγna) in Avestan, and Bahrām in contemporary Persian. Bahrām is also the common name for the planet Mars in modern Persian, an association that appears to reach back at least to the 1st century BCE, and likely much earlier.

Artagnes-Heracles-Mars shaking the hand of Antiochus I Theos (Wikimedia Commons)

As for the Roman context, Servius auctus on Aeneid 8.285 expands slightly: “The Salian (priests) belong to Mars and Hercules, because the astrologers (Chaldaei) call the star of Mars Herculean; and (the Roman authority) Varro follows them.”

Macrobius, commenting on the same passage, gives us still more: Vergil “assigns the Salians to Hercules out of the fullness of his higher learning, because among the pontiffs, this god is held to be the same as Mars. And the Menippean satire of Varro entitled (in Greek) He Is Another Heracles confirms this; where it talks about Hercules Invictus (‘the Invincible’), it proves that the is the same as Mars. Also, the astrologers (Chaldaei) call the star that everyone else calls that of Mars, that of Hercules” (Saturnalia 3.12.5–6).

(Note that these Salian priests have nothing to do with the Germanic Salian people; the name derives from their jumping dances, salire meaning ‘to spring’ or ‘jump’.)

6 “He is another Heracles”

Hercules Gaditanus (law?); multiple Heracleses (Lydus, Cicero, etc?)
Philostratus on Egyptian Heracles
Nonnus on three? Four Heracleses?

7 Alcaeus, or, the Theban Heracles


Identification with Gemini/Engonasin, Mars, Sun, Time, etc.

Julian on Heracles; Plautus; Euripides and Seneca; etc.


That he was also worshipped as a god – one of the blessed immortals – appears incongruous at first.

Etymologicum Magnum p. 435

Scholia on Pindar N 3.38
Scholia on Oppian, Halieutica 3.28

De malignitate Herodoti 857d

Herodotus 2.44

Pseudo-Lucian Charidemus 6.20: from heroes into gods

Pausanias 1.15.3; 1.32.4: Heracles as god

Dio Chrys. 69.1: demigods

Menander mallon de hôs theon

Damascius, On Principles 1.318