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Hercules and Hylas

As for the love between Hercules and Hylas, the poet Theocritus, who wrote 300 years before our era, had this to say: "We are not the first mortals to see beauty in what is beautiful. No, even Amphitryon's bronze-hearted son, who defeated the savage Nemean lion, loved a boy—charming Hylas, whose hair hung down in curls. And like a father with a dear son he taught him all the things which had made him a mighty man, and famous. 

And they were inseparable, being together both day and night. That way the boy might grow the way he wanted him to, and being by his side attain the true measure of a man. When Jason sailed after the golden fleece, and all the nobles went with him invited from every city, to rich Iolkos he came too, the man of many labors, son of noble Alcmena. And brave Hylas in the flower of youth went with him aboard the Argo, the strong-thwarted ship, to bear his arrows and to guard his bow." 

After many adventures and no little struggle it happened one day that the ship was becalmed off the Mysian coast, and the noble heroes held a contest to see who was the strongest. One by one the other heroes grew tired, until only Jason and Hercules were left. So powerfully did Hercules tug at his oar that the strong-knit timbers of the ship shuddered with each pull, until finally the oar's shaft, made of hard wood and as thick as his own forearm, snapped in two. Half the oar fell into the sea, and the other half, together with Hercules, into the bottom of the ship. And he sat up in silence glaring round; for his hands were not used to being idle.

Hercules and Hylas; Detail from the Cista Ficoroni, 4th c. BCE, engraving on bronze Etruscan ritual urn; Villa Borghese, Rome

The other heroes wearily started rowing again, and late in the day, close to supper time they reached the Mysian port of Kios, at the mouth of the river by the same name. Since they came in friendship, the Mysians warmly welcomed them and gave them in their need provisions and sheep and plenty of wine. Then some of the heroes gathered dried wood, others from the meadows great heaps of leaves for making beds, while others were twirling sticks to start a fire; still others were mixing wine and water in the bowl and making ready the feast, after sacrificing one of the sheep at nightfall to Delian Apollo, protector god of wave-tossed ships. But the son of Zeus, wishing his comrades enjoyment of the feast, made his way into a wood, that he might first uproot a fir tree and fashion himself a new oar. 

Meanwhile Hylas took a bronze pitcher and went off on his own, in quest of a sacred running spring, that he might before his return draw for him water for his dinner and get all else ready and in good order for him at suppertime. For Hercules had with his own hands brought him up with such habits from the time he took him, while still an infant, from his father Theiodamas, the king of the Dryopians, whom he killed in a fight over an ox.

Quickly Hylas came to the spring which the people of that land call Pegae. The dances of the nymphs [nature spirits] were just now starting; for it was the custom of the nymphs that haunted that lovely headland to honor Artemis in hymn and dance by night. The ones who held the mountain peaks or glens were ranged far off guarding the woods; but Dryope, a water-nymph, was just rising from the clear spring; and she saw the boy on shore, glowing with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky shone bright on him. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her wits.

As soon as the unsuspecting boy dipped the pitcher in the stream and the flowing water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, she laid her left arm upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy. His muffled cry was heard only by the hero Polyphemos, son of Eilatos. Right away he drew his great sword and took off towards Pegae in pursuit, in fear lest the boy should be the prey of wild beasts, or men should have lain in ambush for him, and be carrying him off.

But all his searching only turned up the brazen pitcher. As he ran to and fro, brandishing his naked sword in his hand he ran into Hercules himself returning through the darkness. At once he told him what had happened, heart pounding, out of breath: "My poor friend, I shall be the first to bring you bitter news: Hylas has gone to the spring and has not returned safe, perhaps robbers have attacked and are carrying him off, or beasts are tearing him to pieces; I heard his shout for help."

When Hercules heard those words, sweat poured down from his temples and black blood boiled in his heart. In wrath he hurled the fir tree to the ground and rushed wildly along the path wherever his feet took him. "Hylas!" he roared three times, as loud as he could with that deep voice of his, and the boy answered three times, but his voice came faintly through the water.

Like a bull which, stung by a gadfly, tears madly along and heeds not herd or herdsman but presses on, now without check, now standing still, so Hercules raged fiercely through the thick wood, shouting afar with loud thunderous bellows like a great beast in pain. He and Polyphemos searched all night, and forced every Mysian they met to join them, to no avail. He had been seduced by the nymphs, and remained to live with them in an underwater cave.

Then he gathered the Mysians together and threatened to ravage their land if they didn't discover for him the fate of Hylas, either alive or dead. To appease him they chose out the noblest sons of the people, and gave them as pledges for him, and swore an oath that they would never cease from the toil of seeking him. Wherefore long afterwards the Mysians sacrificed to Hylas once a year at Prusa, near Pegae.

The priest thrice called out his name, and the others roamed the mountains shouting aloud for the son of Theiodamas. They also looked after the town of Trachis, for it was there that Hercules did place the boys they sent to him from Kios to take as hostages.

1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths
2. Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica,
    tr. R.C. Seaton, and tr. Peter Green
3. Donald Richardson, Great Zeus and
    All his Children,
    Greek Mythology for Adults

4. Theocritus, Idyll 13 (fr. Bernard Sergent,
    Homosexuality in Greek Myth)

Comments on the Concepts of Gay and Homosexual:

The book The Gay Greek Myths restores the homosexual and homoerotic content of the Greek myths. But Gay Greek Myths, indeed "gay mythology" in general, is a misnomer. "Gay" as a sexual identity is a recent development, emerging only in the 20th Century and our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape. In the time of the Greeks there was no such identity as gay - or straight - and they did not compartmentalize their sexuality into homosexual and heterosexual. Their homosexual passions were part of their erotic expression as sexual beings. They would not have considered their love for boys as gay or homosexual, as separate from other sexual expressions, and the worth of the relationship was judged not by the gender of the person one loved, but by its results. Nevertheless, throughout this site you will see the use of the words gay, homosexual and homosexuality when referring to ancient practices. Indeed this very section is titled "Homosexual Greek Myths." This is done for practical purposes, so we can easily describe the sexual relations of the ancients with familiar vocabulary. Things, however, were much more complex then the words might indicate.

Mythographer's Comments

These Greek myths are based quite closely on ancient fragments, materials until now passed over by modern mythographers. The sources range from poets to historians to playwrights and early Christian polemicists. Thus the form of the stories should be seen as a late one, incorporating in many cases Roman sensibilities.

Of course there has never been any one "true" version of any of these stories, as they were told and retold over a span of at least two thousand years across a region ranging across three continents, from the Black Sea to the shores of North Africa, an area now occupied by such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and others. Nonetheless, the myths collectively reflect a world view in which male love was wholly compatible with living life in a sacred way, a path to heroism and divinity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Greek Mythology", Hercules and Hylas, 1999 <>

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