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. Legend has already ordained that Antaeus (Ireland’s ‘champion’ figure in Heaney’s eyes) will be no match for Hercules as the poet pointed out in his Birthday Speech.

Hercules the golden boy with the god-sponsored future (sky-born and royal) enters Antaeus-space fresh from Labours fulfilled – snake-choker (the nine-headed hydra); dung heaver (the Augean stables) and preoccupied (his mind big) with his next mission (to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides from the north-African Atlas range) – he is destined to succeed on all counts (his future hung with trophies).

Hercules has already weighed up (has the measure) how to overcome his opponent’s defences (resistance) by thwarting Antaeus of the supernatural properties (black powers) that enable him to regain strength via contact with the earth (feeding off the territory).

Antaeus born of decomposing ground (mould hugger) has outgrown Mother Nature’s ‘breast milk’ and is on his feet (weaned at last). To be thrown to the ground in combat is his trump-card (fall was a renewal) but Hercules is wise to this – his challenger’s intelligence, pointed as a spur of light, plans to pin Antaeus (blue prong graiping him) and hoist him from earth to air (out of his element) dispossessing him and leaving him light-headed (dream of loss and origins).

Antaeus’ restorative-sources – motherly nurture (cradling dark), oxygen-suppliers (river-veins) and conduits (secret gullies of his strength), underground agents of reinvigoration (hatching grounds of cave and souterrain) – are forfeited in defeat and Antaeus’ memorial passed on (bequeathed) to poets who will lament him (elegists).

Antaeus figures amongst other legendary figures dispossessed by invaders – Irish (Balor), Anglo-Saxon (Byrthnoth) and North American First Nation (Sitting Bull).

Heaney dramatizes the bout that brings victory for one and defeat for the other: the unrelenting hoist (remorseless V), the impotent response (triumph unassailed), the draining of strength (powers shaken), the wrestling holds (lifts and banks), Antaeus held aloft against the Atlas background (high as a profiled ridge).

A powerful man no more, a memory on hold (sleeping giant) – the failed champion who left a meagre food for his underdog race to chew on (pap for the dispossessed).

  • Hercules: legend has it that Hercules 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;
  • have the measure of: understand and use that understanding to achieve an aim;
  • black powers: possible subtle allusion to a contemporaneous African political campaign aimed to improve the lot of the underprivileged;
  • mould: green, grey fungal growth;
  • hug: squeeze tightly typically to show affection;
  • wean: accustom to food more solid than milk;
  • spur: spike, pointed flas;
  • prong: pointed tip;
  • graip: (noun, Scottish) a pronged fork used for lifting;
  • cradle: hold gently and protectively, cushion;
  • gully: narrow channel;
  • hatching grounds: incubation sites
  • souterrain: derived from mod. F sous (under) terre (earth) to denote an underground network;
  • bequeath: hand on, pass on;
  • elegist: writer of elegiac, lamenting/ requiem pieces
  • 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;
  • bank: tip sideways, tilt
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • NC asks whether Heaney’s end-of-Part-1 message is one of keeping a people hopeful not puerile.
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s Birthday Speech 13th April 2009 

“In Greek mythology, Antaeus was a giant who was born out of the earth and who consequently derived all his strength and prowess from contact with the earth. This meant that every time he was brought to the ground in a fight or a wrestling match, every time he seemed to be beaten, he wasn’t beaten at all; instead, he was gathering strength, recharging his batteries, getting ready to rise again, refreshed and fighting fit.

I identified with this earthman because I saw myself as something of an earthman, somebody with his poetic feet very much on the local ground. At that stage I too felt fighting fit, having just written a book that began with images of a man digging, ‘going down and down for the good turf,’ and ended with my young poet self looking deep into the ‘trapped sky’ at the bottom of a well. I therefore regarded Antaeus as something of a guardian spirit, an emblem of whatever poetic gift I might have. But at the same time I was also aware that Antaeus, for all his strength, was far from invulnerable; I knew indeed that he would be defeated in the end by another hero, the mighty Hercules.

Hercules turned out to be a match for Antaeus in brawn and more than his match in brain, for he realized in the course of their wrestling match that the way to defeat the giant was to hold him high rather than hammer him down. The way to bring him low was to elevate him. So instead of throwing his adversary, Hercules lifted him up until all the strength drained out of him … The import of the story about Hercules and Antaeus is complicated but potent. It tells us that we are made to live in at least two places at one time, in two domains that match each other. We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us.”

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment