Hercules and Antaeus

As predicted in the very first poem of the collection Hercules has invaded Antaeus’ space; they meet in single combat: superman versus child of earth, brain versus brawn. Antaeus’s fate will be the repeated fate of Ireland.

Hercules is the golden boy with the god-sponsored future: Sky-born and royal. He comes fresh from Labours fulfilled: snake-choker (the nine-headed hydra); dung heaver (the Augean stables). He is preoccupied (his mind big) with his next challenge: to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides from the north-African Atlas range.

Legend has already ordained that Antaeus (Ireland’s ‘champion’ figure) will be no match for him. Hercules, his future hung with trophies, will not lose:

Hercules has the measure, already knows how to overcome his opponent’s resistance, by thwarting him of the black powers that enable him to regain strength by rolling in the earth (feeding off the territory):

Antaeus the mould hugger has outgrown Mother Nature’s ‘breast milk’ and is on his feet: weaned at last. Hercules will not throw him to the ground, sound in the fore-knowledge that a fall was a renewal.

Hercules’ challenger’s intelligence sharp as a spur of light plans to hoist Antaeus powerfully into the air: a blue prong graiping him/ out of his element, to squeeze the strength from him and, by reducing him to a state of semi-consciousness (a dream of loss / and origins) defeat him soundly.

Antaeus’ life-sources, his beloved landscape, the cradling dark/ river-veins/ secret gullies of his strength/ hatching grounds of cave and souterrain are forfeited in defeat, bequeathed as a legacy to elegists who will lament him and the vanquished Irish race he stands for.

Antaeus figures amongst other legendary examples of dispossessed peoples of Irish, Anglo-Saxon and North American First Nation origin.

The lift, a remorseless V meets no resistance leaving Hercules’ triumph unassailed and his victim’s magic powers/ shaken. Hoisted, turned and held high as a profiled ridge Antaeus, now no more than a sleeping giant, a failed champion of Irish underdogs, has left behind a meagre food for his race to chew on: pap for the dispossessed.

  • Hercules: in brief Hercules was said to have killed his wife and children in a confused and angry state brought on by the goddess Hera. Shocked by what he’d done he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance, He was exiled for twelve years in punishment for the murders. Part of his sentence was to perform twelve Labours, challenges so difficult that they were deemed impossible to achieve. However with the help of Hermes and Athena he succeeded in his tasks. His struggles made Hercules the perfect embodiment of the Greek notion of pathos whereby virtuous struggle and suffering evoked feelings of sorrow in others;

  • Heaney uses three examples of men who were killed as a result of their opposition to being dispossessed by invaders: Balor: legendary one-eyed Irish king whose eye slew all those it looked upon; he tried in vain to escape the prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson; Byrthnoth: 11th century Anglo-Saxon earl defeated and slain by Viking spears at the battle of Maldon (991 AD), on the Essex coast; Sitting Bull: Sioux chieftain who led American Indian rebellions against the confiscation of tribal lands; defeated General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (1876) but was subsequently captured and killed ;

  • souterrain: derived from mod. F sous (under) terre (earth) to denote an underground network;

  • pap: “soft food for infants”, early 15c; secondary meaning “over-simplified idea” first recorded 1540s. Both seem germane to the context;

  • 8 quatrains; line length between 4 and 7 syllables;

  • constructed in 4 sentences; 14 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme but more than a dozen internal sonic chains and alliterative beat of consonants;

  • The assonant structure of the piece is traced below using standard phonetic symbols ( same symbol = same sound):

Hercules and Antaeus

Skyborn and royal,

snake-choker, dung-heaver,

hismindbig with golden apples,

his future hungwith trophies

Hercules has the measure

of resistance and blackpowers

feeding off the territory. 

Antaeus, the mouldhugger,

Isweanedat last:

a fall was a renewal

but now he is raised up –

the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,

a blueprong graiping him

out of hiselement

into a dream of loss

and or igins – the cradling dark,

the riverveins, the secret gullies

of his strength,

the hatchinggrounds

of cave and souterrain,

he has bequeathed it all

to elegists. Balor will die

and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

Hercules lifts his arms

in a remorseless V,

his triumphunassailed

by the powers he hasshaken,

and lifts and banks Antaeus

high as a profiledridge,

a sleeping giant,

pap for the dispossessed.

  • [ai] [ʌ] [ei] [i:] [əʊ] [e] [æ] [ɪ] [au] [u]  [ɜː] [ɒ] No fewer than 12 chains of assonant sound are launched; some echo more strongly and regularly than others; all ‘key’ words have sonic echo(es);

  • Alliterative ingredients: title and stanza (1) offer alveolar [n] aspirate [h] and velar [k] carried into (2); (3) is strong in [n] and (4) in bi-labial plosive [p];

  • (5) and into (6) voiceless velar [k] cradling dark with its voiced counterpart [g] gullies/ strengths/ hatching grounds; cave/ bequeathed alongside bilabial [b] of the 3 historical icons;

  • (7) and (8) are constructed around a strong sibilant [s] presence and the increasing ‘pop’ of bilabial [p] in the final line;

  • Hercules, the ‘sky-born’ wrestler, proves tactically superior to earth-bound Antaeus, overcoming his magic easily in the battle for power;

  • NC asks whether Heaney’s end-of-Part-1 message is one of keeping a people hopeful not puerile.