In Greek mythology, one of the most famous heroes was Heracles, more commonly called Hercules. He was the hero with super strength who went on twelve seemingly-impossible labors. However, according to ancient Greek accounts, Hercules has a surprising connection to an Egyptian god.
More Than One Hercules?
None of the accounts about the story of Hercules are even close to contemporary accounts. They are all written long after Hercules allegedly lived, and they contain fantastical elements. This makes them legends. It is not uncommon for legends about one famous person to have some details from another famous person’s life mixed in, especially if the two people had the same name. According to ancient Greek accounts, that is exactly what happened with Hercules.
The Greek historian Herodotus was the first person to claim that there was more than one Hercules. He stated that Hercules ‘was an ancient Egyptian god’, but that this was a different person to the Hercules known by the Greeks. Herodotus explained that this Egyptian god lived much earlier than the Greek hero.
Later, the Greek historian Diodorus claimed that there had been at least three heroes called Hercules. Like Herodotus, he said that the oldest was the Egyptian god, and the youngest was the Greek hero. Between them, Diodorus said that there was a Hercules from Crete. Still later writers counted even more.
The Confusion Between Hercules and the Egyptian God
Herodotus states that the name of the Greek hero, Hercules, came from Egypt. But Diodorus goes even further. According to him, many of the Greek legends of Hercules actually come from this Egyptian god. He argued that the idea of Hercules dressed in a lion’s skin and using a club as a weapon makes much more sense in the context of mankind’s early history. In contrast, the Greek Hercules lived just prior to the Trojan War, when armor and weapons were commonplace.
This Greek historian, Diodorus, further points out that Hercules “cleared the earth of wild beasts, a story which is in no way suitable for man who lived in approximately the period of the Trojan War.” So he argues that this, too, comes from the earlier Egyptian Hercules.
Diodorus also records a story that it was not just the Greek Hercules alone who set up the famous Pillars of Hercules. According to him, the Egyptian god set up a pillar in Libya, and then later, the Greek Hercules set up a pillar in Europe, opposite it.
Explaining the confusion between the different people by the same name, Diodorus wrote about the Greek Hercules that “in the course of time and upon his death he inherited the exploits of the more ancient persons of the name, as if there had been in all the previous ages but one Hercules.”
Was the Egyptian God Shu Connected to Hercules?
If these ancient Greek writers were correct, and there really was an ancient Egyptian god who contributed to the stories of Hercules, then which Egyptian god was it? The simple answer is that no one knows. However, there are some popular theories about this. One of the most common explanations about the earliest Hercules is that Herodotus was referring to the Egyptian god Shu.
Shu was the god of the air. Because of this, he was sometimes shown holding up the sky (that is, the goddess Nut). This depiction bears an interesting similarity to one of the Greek legends of Hercules. On one occasion, Hercules was said to have held up the sky. He did this to help Atlas, the Greek god who normally held it.
Additionally, the Egyptians sometimes depicted Shu with a lion’s head. Similarly, ancient Greek artwork shows Hercules wearing a lion’s skin, with the face of the lion over his head.
However, overall, the connections between Shu and Hercules are very weak. Furthermore, Herodotus specifically notes that the Egyptian god whom he calls Hercules was part of a group of twelve gods, not the earlier group of eight gods. Since Shu was one of the very earliest gods in Egyptian mythology, being part of the Ennead, Herodotus cannot have been referring to him.
The Egyptian God Heryshaf and Hercules
A more likely possibility is Heryshaf. He was a ram-god who is attested in very early Egyptian texts. There is strong evidence that the Greeks identified Heryshaf as Hercules in at least one era. The religious center of Heryshaf, where his main temple was, came to be known by the Greeks as Heracleopolis in the Ptolemaic Period. This means ‘the city of Hercules’. This shows that the Greeks definitely did identify Heryshaf with Hercules in this era.
One reason for this identification might be that the name of this Egyptian god, Heryshaf, is vaguely similar to ‘Heracles’, the Greek name for Hercules. Furthermore, one form of his name could mean ‘He Who Is Over Strength’. This is another reason why the Greeks may have associated this Egyptian god with Hercules, since Hercules was famous for his strength.
Nonetheless, there are still not many connections between Hercules and Heryshaf. There is no guarantee at all that Heryshaf was the Egyptian god Herodotus was thinking of in his discussion of Hercules. Herodotus simply did not provide any detailed information about the Egyptian god he referred to as Hercules. Therefore, we can only speculate about his identity.