John Porter and HeRAkles: Battered but not beaten heroes

I have been searching high and low for a classical connection to my favorite Richard Armitage character…John Porter.  I love every damaged, heroic inch of this character from his fingertip gently stroking the cheek of his distraught daughter on a computer screen, to his anguish when he learns of his mate Steve’s death….emotion aplenty.  Then there is the plain physical beauty of the man – I especially love his tantalizing teres.  Although not as obvious, there are a lot of connections to the classical tradition in Porter’s story – they just have to be fleshed out a bit more since they tend to be more conceptual than visual.  That said, it is to the visual (and how) that I turn today.

I’ve looked several times lately at a favorite sculptural work of mine known as the Farnese Hercules (I saw him “in the flesh” in 1992, and the impression has never left me.)   The connection to John Porter struck me only today.  Hercules is the Latin equivalent of the Greek hero HeRAkles.  The Romans adopted him and his mythology wholesale from the Greeks, and his Latin name has become more commonly known than the original Greek version.  There is an enormous volume of myth surrounding Herakles, especially as pertains to his famous Twelve Labors.  Less well known is the reason why he undertook the labors in the first place.

This is a story of guilt and redemption for the most part, very much like the central theme that runs through John Porter’s character arc.  A bit of back story would probably be useful.  Herakles was one of the many illegitimate children of the god Zeus (Jupiter in Latin) and as such was on the bad side of Hera, Zeus’ wife. (Ironically, the name Herakles means “the glory of Hera” in Greek)  Hera is a really interesting character…she hates her husband/brother (yep – incest was common among ancient deities), yet she is insanely jealous of his extracurricular activities.  She can’t take her jealous rage out on him – he is much too powerful, so instead, she lashes out at his lovers and his extramarital offspring.  Hera had it in for Herakles from the cradle where she sent snakes to kill him

"Baby" Hercules strangles the snakes.  I love how the classical Greeks depict infants as miniature adults... Source:  Vase Painting by the Berlin Painter in the Louvre

“Baby” Herakles strangles the snakes sent by Hera.
I love how the classical Greeks depict infants as miniature adults…
Source: Vase Painting by the Berlin Painter in the Louvre

Herakles grew into a man of tremendous strength and courage, but he was a bit of a loose cannon, so there were bumps in the road for him throughout his life.  As a young adult he married a princess named Megara and sometime later in a state of insane rage caused by Hera killed both his wife and their children.  Like Orestes, he fled to Delphi for advice from the oracle.  To redeem himself from his crimes, he was sentenced to carry out what came to be called the Twelve Labors of Herakles…a series of monumental tasks engineered by Hera to set Herakles up for failure and disgrace.  (and thereby keep him off of Mt. Olympus which he had been promised – along with immortality)

One by one Herakles completed each task.  The Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of a Greek original sculpture by Lysippos, is perhaps the most famous depiction of Herakles.  It lives in the Naples Museum today.

Herakles in a moment of rest... So-called Farnese Hercules Source:  Wikimedia

Herakles in a moment of rest…
So-called Farnese Hercules
Source: Wikimedia

Here we see Herakles in a rare moment of rest, having completed almost all of his tasks.  We can see the skin of the Nemean Lion (Labor #1) draped over the club he leans on.  In behind his back, in his right hand Herakles holds the Apples of the Hesperides (Labor# 11)  The exaggerated musculature of this piece is one of its most striking elements, but I’ve also always found the weariness of the powerful Herakles extremely moving.  He is so close to achieving his goal, so close to redemption, if only he can find the strength to go on.

John Porter (Richard Armitage) in a moment of rest Source:

John Porter (Richard Armitage) in a moment of rest

He seems so similar to John Porter (here as he digs a grave in Strike Back S1.4).  A powerful male in the midst of an unpleasant, but necessary task.  Labor that no one else can do, labor that stands between him and his quest for redemption.  There are moments in Strike Back when Porter’s exhaustion is almost palpable…it’s not just a physical response, but a mental one as well.  The result is deeply emotional and evocative.

John Porter (Richard Armitage) fights for the will to go on... (Strike Back S1.6) Source: Source

John Porter (Richard Armitage) fights for the will to go on… (Strike Back S1.6)

Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic Greek bronze thought to have been inspired by the Lysippan Herakles, also captures this same attitude of dogged exhaustion…the feeling of digging deep inside to find the energy both physically and mentally to achieve the goal.

"Boxer at Rest" Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.  Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

“Boxer at Rest”
Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.
Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

These are heroes who have been through the wringer.  They have toiled, they have struggled and for just a moment they are at rest…battered, but not beaten.

27 comments on “John Porter and HeRAkles: Battered but not beaten heroes

  1. katie70 says:

    I sat with SB just sitting at my house to be watched for 2 months until we had gotten to the point where we had seen the rest of what I had bought at Christmas that we watched as a family. I really liked SB and still can’t believe I waited so long to watch it. The rest of the family also liked it.

    There seems to be a waiting to prove himself in John Porter. Also needing answers as in his buddies death and the wounded buddy, who did this to them and why had everyone thought it was him. There is a toughness about JP.

    • obscura says:

      I can only explain my attraction to SB through Richard Armitage since it’s not a genre I’d usually choose, but he brought so much dimension to John Porter…who could have been just another PO’d commando in someone else’s hands.

      • katie70 says:

        I have watched my share of war movies (in a house full boys I can’t watch what I want all the time haha) some of those good and some bad. I think Richard did a great job. If he did a bad job my boys would have said and then kept saying so.

  2. guylty says:

    Porter as Herakles – great interpretation. I never realised (but then I am not familiar enough with Greek mythology). I find it amusing to spin this further: Collinson as Hera, sending Porter on errands that are designed to fail??? Well, the parallel ends when Collinson actually perishes, but there…
    A totally different question, and one that might come across as a bit pubescent, sorry: Do we know who commissioned sculptures like the Farnese Hercules? And do we know where they were intended to be displayed? I am curious about the reception of nudity in those days. I mean, I know from stuying Latin in school that the Romans certainly knew how to have a good time *ahem*. But as opposed to two-dimensional depictions on urns and vases, the three-dimensionality is much more in-your-face. Were these sculptures openly displayed and did men, women, children all get to see them? (No judgment within my question – I actually think that our society is unnaturally prudish, and that is causing massive problems imo.)

    • obscura says:

      It may be a slight stretch (I’ll be the modern version of Plutarch and *make* my comparisons fit…it’s a fine classical tradition). Quite apt to cast Collinson in that role…Hera does relent eventually. (Incidentally, Andrew Lincoln was terrific as the slimy nemesis to Porter – I loved to hate him! I’m really liking him in The Walking Dead too…I totally disillusioned one of my students who was raving about the show when I disclosed that Georgia boy Rick Grimes was played by an English actor…small pleasures 😉 )

      As to the sculptures, “in your face” is right…this one especially so since the picture I used doesn’t adequately convey the scale..he is well over life size…something like ten feet tall, so when you do the math… This one is a copy which makes it more likely that it was done for a private owner, but the original Lysippos version could well have be commissioned for public display – the civic landscape of the classical world was heavily adorned with nudes…mostly male nudes in the Greek world, but also females later and on into the Roman period…the Greeks and Romans had little issue with nudity – pre Christian as they were, there wasn’t the immediate connection between nudity and sexuality.

      So, in whatever more limited capacity women and children operated in some spaces in the classical world, this type of art was on display in all sorts of buildings.

      • obscura says:

        And I forgot to mention, you cannot walk into the room where is is housed in Naples and not find someone staring up at his butt and giggling like a two year old…

        • Leigh says:

          Too, I imagine that certain proportions would be very reassuring to any human male equipped with average-size bits.

  3. Leigh says:

    I can certainly see the parallels, even though John Porter’s parentage was human on both sides and he wasn’t saddled with the expectation of heroism from the cradle. A good and brave man, confronted with situations that caused guilt and explosions of a volatile temper, someone set up to fail repeatedly but succeeding in spite of the odds — yes, Porter fits the model well. Physically, I find Porter much more appealing than the sculptures, and I love the AU fic where he survives to gain vindication, love, and a happy ending

    • obscura says:

      I find Porter’s physique much more appealing as well. One of the criticisms that has been launched at the Farnese Hercules for decades is the exaggerated musculature, “no self respecting Classical Greek sculptor would do THIS” type of discussion… It s a departure from Lysippos’ earlier works, but he sort of straddles the fence into the Hellenistic period, and this work has all the more baroque qualities of that period (which is probably one of the reasons I like it so much 🙂 )

      I think that vindication is a great description…I too love AU fics where Porter achieves it 😀

      • kelbel75 says:

        could the exaggerated musculature and overall size be representative of the fact that he was half human-half god?

        • obscura says:

          That’s certainly a factor, but in the 5th century, although Herakles is depicted as bigger, stronger, etc., it is never to this degree. The 5th century had a pretty rigid aesthetic, and this doesn’t fit…hence the attribution of a later date.

          • kelbel75 says:

            that calf muscle, and the overall appearance of his feet look strange to me. and really, if you’re going to exaggerate the feet… 😉

          • obscura says:

            Oh yeah, he is not the picture of male perfection you usually think of with Greek sculpture…and yes the feet, and other things slightly disproportionate. 😉

            One thing that has always fascinated me is the level of “manscaping” in classical art. These are southern Mediterranean people – I’ve been on many a Greek beach, and there are very few hairless men about. Imagine the depilatory industry..I should write an article! 😀

          • Leigh says:

            I did read a description of Roman males having their entire bodies depilated by being oiled and the scraped. Can’t imagine it was very comfortable. Did the ancient Greeks do the same thing? I knew Turkish women who would “do halvah” using a hot sugar concoction the way we might use wax, but I’m not sure that those Hellenes would be up for it.

  4. kelbel75 says:

    I really enjoyed your telling of the Herakles tale (I’m not very familiar with the mythologies, so I always like reading about them on your blog 🙂 ) and guylty’s comparison of Collinson to Hera 😉 I absolutely love “Strike Back”, it’s the program that I use to “spread the RA love” by getting family and friends to watch 🙂 my view is a little bit different than yours though, because I never saw Porter as seeking redemption. he needed to prove himself, and I imagine there was a good bit of guilt in relation to his family and friend, but I never saw his actions as a form of atonement. I think he carried the responsibility willingly because it was his actions that brought about the negative turn of events (or so he thought) but I’m not sure he took true ownership of the mistake. the proving of himself had more to do with showing that he was capable, that his judgements and abilities were still valid, still needed; he wasn’t about to be counted out just because of one folly (major though it was) that’s just my interpretation, of course 😉 I’m normally a sucker for the redemption stories, so I can definitely appreciate your view of Porter seeking that. I agree that he did have a heavy weight upon his shoulders, which was beautifully visible when “at rest” 🙂

    • obscura says:

      I think your interpretation is equally valid…redemption might be a bit strong here, although what brought it to mind particularly was the scene with right after the mine field where Porter weeps about how his little girl can’t look him in the eye. I watched this and thought that part of his motivation toward vindication was to redeem himself to her. (Some of the details are a bit of a S T R E T C H 🙂 )

      I thought I showed great restraint in not pointing out the striking butt parallels as well :). (Room for another post?)

      • kelbel75 says:

        *scoffs* as if there could even be any valid butt comparisons. you’re more than welcome to try though…:)

        • obscura says:

          Well, you know…we have a very nicely sculpted Herakles butt, and if I can force myself to cap it, (I have this weird tendency to look away quickly as if Richard Armitage knows I’m staring at his naked heinie on DVD) we have an elusive appearance of John Porter butt…

          As to comparing marble to well sculpted human flesh…you’re right, there’s no comparison there 🙂

  5. perry322 says:

    The Farnese Herakles bears s facial resemblance to John Porter, but the Boxer at Rest has exactly the same expression and demeanor as John Porter in the photo you chose- both are looking up, slightly open mouth, hunched shoulders. Brava

    • obscura says:

      Thanks for the comment and welcome! the kind of overall weariness of both Porter and the Farnese was similar, but I was very taken by the marked similarity with the boxer – I was able to look at him up close in NY this spring, and he is stunning (the boxer, not RA….he’s stunning too, but I think he’d be a little wigged out if I was centimeters from his nose…the boxer didn’t seem to mind 🙂 )

  6. perry322 says:

    Oh I’ve been here before and I’m a follower.Was turned on to you by Servetus, I really enjoy your angle. I know the myths quite well- used to teach them and took some courses. I did a thesis on The Demeter-Kore Persephone Worship and its Influence on Early Christianity for both a religion course and a mythology course, but I know little about the the art and the archaeology so part is even more fun. I especially enjoyed the Guy/Apollo comparison and look forward to more.
    I just launched my own blog today with just an introductory post. Perhaps when i finally get to something substantive you’ll take a look. “ArmitageAgonistes”

    • obscura says:

      Excellent! I have to admit, I haven’t kept very good track lately…this is your first time commenting though right? (I don’t like to think I’m totally nu
      ts 🙂 ).

      That Demeter – Kore / Christianity issue is quite interesting. I think there was a whole lot more syncretism than some would like to entertain. I will definitely swing over to your
      new blog ASAP!

      • perry322 says:

        Take your time. I’m about halfway finished writing but I will probably spend much more time with formatting issues.
        I don’t think I did comment on your blog before, but I think I “liked” the analyses between the two male body types and the unrequited love.

  7. Joanna says:

    It was fun Obscura , thank you! 🙂 Now I have to peek to Augean stable…that is to daughter’s room 😉

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