India Unboxed: Heracles at the Museum of Classical Archaeology

The muscle-bound Greek hero
Heracles, Hercules to the Romans, strides manfully through classical art and myth
wearing the skin of the lion he killed with his bare hands. Famous for his strength and his 12 mighty labours – legend sent Heracles from
one end of the earth to the other. This 3 metre tall sculpture is one of the
oldest plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. It is an exact replica of the Farnese Hercules, an ancient marble statue now in
the Museo Nazionale at Naples. The precise age of the cast is unknown but
it came to Cambridge in 1850. We see Heracles, the man of action, in an unusual
moment of rest after carrying out his eleventh labour, stealing the golden
apples of Hesperides. A task which involved a stint bearing the weight of
the sky on his shoulders. Herakles’ labours are typically feats of machismo, such as striking off the ever replicating heads of the monstrous Hydra. Most of Heracles’ Indian adventures are similarly aggressive. He conquers enemies and fathers many children. Once Heracles had crossed the
whole earth and the sea destroying whatever he could find that was evil, he
discovered in the sea a new kind of jewellery, the ocean pearl. Heracles gathered pearls from every sea and brought them to India as jewellery for his
daughter Pandea. So how do we interpret this unlikely juxtaposition of hyper-masculine hunk and ladies’ jewellery? Pearls travelled from India, the end of
the earth, to the Mediterranean to adorn the ladies of Imperial Rome. Scholars have noted that in the story of the pearl there are echoes of ancient Indian
literature and Heracles’ Indian exploits were used by Alexander the
Great and would-be conquerors after him as a precedent for military campaigns in
the East. The Hercules cast doesn’t just allow us to study one of the icons of
classical art up close, he can also help us unlock a world of
imagined and actual connections between the ancient Mediterranean and South Asia.

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