Hercules’ Labors Found in the Baths

Does a Hercules sculpture point to ancient Jewish paganism?

Hercules’ Labors Found in the Baths

Part of this stucco Hercules sculpture from Hippos-Sussita bore a telltale remnant of Hercules’ labors: the hide of the Nemean lion worn as a cape around his neck (broken off just below the head pictured here). Is the presence of this Greco-Roman hero in Galilee evidence of ancient Jewish paganism?

After a heavy winter rain at the site of Hippos-Sussita in northern Israel, archaeologists Arthur Segal and Michael Eisenberg discovered a sculpted head poking out of the mud in what used to be a bathhouse. After cleaning and study, they identified it as a Hercules sculpture formed of stucco, a type of plaster. Located at a site along the shore of the Galilee in Israel, could this classically themed sculpture be an indicator of Jewish paganism among the ancient population? This is one of the questions Segal and Eisenberg address in their article “Hercules in Galilee” in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

They find the answer is not so simple. The story of Hercules’ labors was well known throughout the ancient Hellenistic world. In fact, one of them was the key to identifying the Hippos-Sussita Hercules sculpture. As the myth goes, the first of Hercules’ labors was to slay the vicious Nemean lion. After accomplishing that feat, Hercules skinned the lion and wore its hide as a cape in a signature knot. Seeing a cape tied at the neck of the stucco in this special Hercules knot alerted the experts that this was in fact a Hercules sculpture.
During the Hellenistic period, however, some Jews and pagans lived among each other—sometimes in neighboring villages or even together in the same city. Such was the case in some parts of Israel and the Galilee.

So, just a few miles from Tiberias, the center of the Sanhedrin and all things Jewish, paganism seems to have had a strong presence at Hippos-Sussita, reflected in the mythical imagery that decorated the local bathhouse.


Read more about this and another Hercules sculpture, Hercules’ labors and the possibility of Jewish paganism in Arthur Segal and Michael Eisenberg’s article “Hercules in Galilee,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

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More on Hippos-Sussita in Bible History Daily:

Hippos-Sussita: The High Horse of the Decapolis

The Fourth-Century Earthquake that Rocked Galilee


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