The Choice of Hercules, also known as Hercules at the Crossroads or The Two Paths, is the oldest well known allegory in Western literature. Although the parable dates from the fifth century B.C., it was a common motif more than two millennia later, in Renaissance and Baroque art. Hercules was always one of the most popular heroes, and the choice between virtue and vice is the fundamental moral dilemma. The allegory is related to Tarot in two ways. First, the Tarot trumps themselves constitute a moral allegory, and Hercules at the Crossroads is one of the earliest examples of such personification, reflecting the most basic and characteristic subject. As discussed in the previous post, the design of the middle trumps in TdM decks includes a variation on the Stoic De Remediis trope with appropriate virtues triumphing over successes, reversals, and catastrophe. Second, occultists maintain that the image on the Love card (at least in some versions of TdM) was an illustration of this subject, renaming it "The Two Paths" and changing the iconography to clearly match the alleged meaning.
The story is attributed to the Sophist Prodicus of Ceos, (Pródikos, 460?-400? BC), a contemporary of Socrates (c.470–399 BC). At that time the Homeric gods were already being allegorized as embodiments of natural elements and forces, and their exploits moralized. Sextus Empiricus, the second-century Skeptic, listed Prodicus among the atheists because he apparently viewed the gods as personifications representing useful and notable things: the sun and moon, rivers and springs, bread and wine, water and fire, etc. Like his younger contemporary Socrates, Prodicus was ultimately condemned to death by the Athenians for his impiety.
Galen quoted from Prodicus’ On the Nature of Man, and Cicero mentions a work On Nature, but Prodicus apparently included the allegory of Hercules at the Crossroads in his treatise on The Seasons. The earliest surviving account however, translated here, is related by the character of Socrates in the Memoirs of Socrates, by Xenophon (431-350? BC). The Cynics Diogenes (c.412-323 BC) and Antisthenes (c.446-370? BC) also used the parable of Hercules.
Socrates relates Prodicus’ allegory
Excerpt, reproduced from Project Gutenberg
The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates, by Xenophon
Translated by Edward Bysshe 1712, ed. Henry Morley
“How,” said Socrates, “you know not this difference between things voluntary and constrained, that he who suffers hunger because he is pleased to do so may likewise eat when he has a mind; and he who suffers thirst because he is willing may also drink when he pleases. But it is not in the power of him who suffers either of them through constraint and necessity to relieve himself by eating and drinking the moment he desires it? Besides, he that voluntarily embraceth any laborious exercise finds much comfort and content in the hope that animates him. Thus the fatigues of hunting discourage not the hunters, because they hope to take the game they pursue. And yet what they take, though they think it a reward for all their toil, is certainly of very little value. Ought not they, then, who labour to gain the friendship of good men, or to overcome their enemies, or to render themselves capable of governing their families, and of serving their country, ought not these, I say, joyfully to undertake the trouble, and to rest content, conscious of the inward approbation of their own minds, and the regard and esteem of the virtuous? And to convince you that it is good to impose labours on ourselves, it is a maxim among those who instruct youth that the exercises which are easily performed at the first attempt, and which we immediately take delight in, are not capable to form the body to that vigour and strength that is requisite in great undertakings, nor of imprinting in the soul any considerable knowledge: but that those which require patience, application, labour, and assiduity, prepare the way to illustrious actions and great achievements. This is the opinion of good judges, and of Hesiod in particular, who says somewhere—
‘To Vice, in crowded ranks, the course we steer,
The road is smooth, and her abode is near;
But Virtue’s heights are reached with sweat and pain,
For thus did the immortal powers ordain.
A long and rough ascent leads to her gate,
Nor, till the summit’s gained, doth toil abate.’
And to the same purpose Epicharmus:—
“The gods confer their blessings at the price
Who remarks in another place—
“Thou son of sloth, avoid the charms of ease,
Lest pain succeed—.”
“Of the same opinion is Prodicus, in the book he has written of the life of Hercules, where Virtue and Vice make their court to that hero under the appearance of two beautiful women. His words, as near as I can remember, are as follows:—
“‘When Hercules,’ says the moralist, ‘had arrived at that part of his youth in which young men commonly choose for themselves, and show, by the result of their choice, whether they will, through the succeeding stages of their lives, enter into and walk in the path of virtue or that of vice, he went out into a solitary place fit for contemplation, there to consider with himself which of those two paths he should pursue.
“‘As he was sitting there in suspense he saw two women of a larger stature than ordinary approaching towards him. One of them had a genteel and amiable aspect; her beauty was natural and easy, her person and shape clean and handsome, her eyes cast towards the ground with an agreeable reserve, her motion and behaviour full of modesty, and her raiment white as snow. The other wanted all the native beauty and proportion of the former; her person was swelled, by luxury and ease, to a size quite disproportioned and uncomely. She had painted her complexion, that it might seem fairer and more ruddy than it really was, and endeavoured to appear more graceful than ordinary in her mien, by a mixture of affectation in all her gestures. Her eyes were full of confidence, and her dress transparent, that the conceited beauty of her person might appear through it to advantage. She cast her eyes frequently upon herself, then turned them on those that were present, to see whether any one regarded her, and now and then looked on the figure she made in her own shadow.
“‘As they drew nearer, the former continued the same composed pace, while the latter, striving to get before her, ran up to Hercules, and addressed herself to him in the following manner:—
“I perceive, my dear Hercules, you are in doubt which path in life you should pursue. If, then, you will be my friend and follow me, I will lead you to a path the most easy and most delightful, wherein you shall taste all the sweets of life, and live exempt from every trouble. You shall neither be concerned in war nor in the affairs of the world, but shall only consider how to gratify all your senses—your taste with the finest dainties and most delicious drink, your sight with the most agreeable objects, your scent with the richest perfumes and fragrancy of odours, how you may enjoy the embraces of the fair, repose on the softest beds, render your slumbers sweet and easy, and by what means enjoy, without even the smallest care, all those glorious and mighty blessings.
“And, for fear you suspect that the sources whence you are to derive those invaluable blessings might at some time or other fail, and that you might, of course, be obliged to acquire them at the expense of your mind and the united labour and fatigue of your body, I beforehand assure you that you shall freely enjoy all from the industry of others, undergo neither hardship nor drudgery, but have everything at your command that can afford you any pleasure or advantage.”
“‘Hercules, hearing the lady make him such offers, desired to know her name, to which she answered, “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, and whom I have conducted, call me Happiness; but my enemies, and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Vice.”
“‘In the meantime, the other lady approached, and in her turn accosted him in this manner:—“I also am come to you, Hercules, to offer my assistance; I, who am well acquainted with your divine extraction and have observed the excellence of your nature, even from your childhood, from which I have reason to hope that, if you would follow the path that leadeth to my residence, you will undertake the greatest enterprises and achieve the most glorious actions, and that I shall thereby become more honourable and illustrious among mortals. But before I invite you into my society and friendship I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labour. The gods have set a price upon every real and noble pleasure. If you would gain the favour of the Deity you must be at the pains of worshipping Him; if you would be beloved by your friends you must study to oblige them; if you would be honoured by any city you must be of service to it; and if you would be admired by all Greece, on account of your probity and valour, you must exert yourself to do her some eminent service. If you would render your fields fruitful, and fill your arms with corn, you must labour to cultivate the soil accordingly. Would you grow rich by your herds, a proper care must be taken of them; would you extend your dominions by arms, and be rendered capable of setting at liberty your captive friends, and bringing your enemies to subjection, you must not only learn of those that are experienced in the art of war, but exercise yourself also in the use of military affairs; and if you would excel in the strength of your body you must keep your body in due subjection to your mind, and exercise it with labour and pains.”
“‘Here Vice broke in upon her discourse—“Do you see, my dear Hercules, through what long and difficult ways this woman would lead you to her promised delights? Follow me, and I will show you a much shorter and more easy way to happiness.”
“Alas!” replied the Goddess of Virtue, whose visage glowed with a passion made up of scorn and pity, “what happiness can you bestow, or what pleasure can you taste, who would never do anything to acquire it? You who will take your fill of all pleasures before you feel an appetite for any; you eat before you are hungry, you drink before you are athirst; and, that you may please your taste, must have the finest artists to prepare your viands; the richest wines that you may drink with pleasure, and to give your wine the finer taste, you search every place for ice and snow luxuriously to cool it in the heat of summer. Then, to make your slumbers uninterrupted, you must have the softest down and the easiest couches, and a gentle ascent of steps to save you from any the least disturbance in mounting up to them. And all little enough, heaven knows! for you have not prepared yourself for sleep by anything you have done, but seek after it only because you have nothing to do. It is the same in the enjoyments of love, in which you rather force than follow your inclinations, and are obliged to use arts, and even to pervert nature, to keep your passions alive. Thus is it that you instruct your followers—kept awake for the greatest part of the night by debaucheries, and consuming in drowsiness all the most useful part of the day. Though immortal, you are an outcast from the gods, and despised by good men. Never have you heard that most agreeable of all sounds, your own praise, nor ever have you beheld the most pleasing of all objects, any good work of your own hands. Who would ever give any credit to anything that you say? Who would assist you in your necessity, or what man of sense would ever venture to be of your mad parties? Such as do follow you are robbed of their strength when they are young, void of wisdom when they grow old. In their youth they are bred up in indolence and all manner of delicacy, and pass their old age with difficulties and distress, full of shame for what they have done, and oppressed with the burden of what they are to do, squanderers of pleasures in their youth, and hoarders up of afflictions for their old age.
“On the contrary, my conversation is with the gods, and with good men, and there is nothing excellent performed by either without my influence. I am respected above all things by the gods and by the best of mortals, and it is just I should. I am an agreeable companion to the artisan, a faithful security to masters of families, a kind assistant to servants, a useful associate in the arts of peace, a faithful ally in the labours of war, and the best uniter of all friendships.
“My votaries, too, enjoy a pleasure in everything they either eat or drink, even without having laboured for it, because they wait for the demand of their appetites. Their sleep is sweeter than that of the indolent and inactive; and they are neither overburdened with it when they awake, nor do they, for the sake of it, omit the necessary duties of life. My young men have the pleasure of being praised by those who are in years, and those who are in years of being honoured by those who are young. They look back with comfort on their past actions, and delight themselves in their present employments. By my means they are favoured by the gods, beloved by their friends, and honoured by their country; and when the appointed period of their lives is come they are not lost in a dishonourable oblivion, but live and flourish in the praises of mankind, even to the latest posterity.”
“Thus, my dear Hercules, who are descended of divine ancestors, you may acquire, by virtuous toil and industry, this most desirable state of perfect happiness.”
“Such was the discourse, my friend, which the goddess had with Hercules, according to Prodicus. You may believe that he embellished the thoughts with more noble expressions than I do. I heartily wish, my dear Aristippus, that you should make such an improvement of those divine instructions, as that you too may make such a happy choice as may render you happy during the future course of your life.”
The Memorabilia, by Xenophon
Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns, (1838-1911)
First Published 1897 by Macmillan and Co.
Memoirs of Socrates and Oeconomicus
Translated by Edgar Cardew Marchant
from Xenophon in Seven Volumes, v.4
Book II, Chapter 1
The Memorabilia, by Xenophon
Even a Blind Pig...
The TdM Love card is not a very clear representation of this allegory and, typically, occultists have not bothered to search for cognate images to justify their assertions. However, a 1580 painting by Paolo (Cagliari) Veronese does have elements reminiscent of the common Chosson/Conver style card. Vice is shown with a throne supported by a feminine sphinx, another motif familiar to occult Tarot. The moral lesson of the picture is indicated by the engraved legend in the upper-left corner:
Honor and Virtue Flourish after Death.
[HO]NOR ET VIRTUS
[P]OST MORTE FLORET
That motto is, of course, consistent with the moral stance of the trump cycle, both in terms of virtue and death. The hot curvy blond with the bare back and harlot-scarlet dress has apparently ripped his stocking, and he seeks refuge with the plain brunette, in her virtuous-green and royal-purple dress and Minerva's laurel wreath. In the Tarot card the figures of Virtue and Vice are reversed L-R from the painting. The key elements of the comparison are the attractiveness and stylish hair of Vice, the wreath of Virtue, and the gestures made by the three figures. Cupid, naturally enough, is aiming his arrow to the side of Vice/Venus. The central figure's body is turned slightly toward Vice/Venus although he pushes her away with his left hand -- she stands on his "sinister" side. His head, naturally enough, is turned toward Virtue/Minerva. So it appears that the old adage about the occasional luck of blind pigs is true of occultists too, and the comparison seems apt in any case.
12/23/09 Postscript: My favorite example of the Hercules' Choice genre is that by Jan van den Hoecke, a follower of Rubens. In his 1635 painting we find Venus and Minerva backed up with fairly conventional depictions of Love and Time/Death. However, the Cupid who attempts to chase Minerva away with a Y-shaped stick, gestures above, as if to suggest Caritas rather than Cupiditas. Minerva is gesturing downward, indicating perhaps a worldly virtue. A second Cupid in the background appears to be aiming his arrow at a couple in the shadows, so we may have both sacred and profane Love being illustrated, with Virtue as a middling choice rather than the highest. In any case, although giving Venus a longing look, Hercules is turned toward Minerva. (The head-versus-body orientation is reversed from the TdM Lovers card, but in keeping with the Paolo Veronese painting.) He takes her hand and, with his other hand over his heart as if to explain his departure, appears to have decided in Virtue's favor. The great white horse, (like the chariot, a symbol of triumphal entries), suggests that Minerva's path leads to glory.