13 February 2015

Crossed-Dressed Lovers: Omphale and Hercules

Omphale is best known as the woman who subjugated the mighty Hercules. After all the recent fuss in the media about fantasies of female oppression—er, “submission”—it may be salutary to consider the opposite: a man enslaved to a woman.

Slavery, it must be said, is the far from ideal footing on which to base a relationship. Hercules didn’t exactly take to the idea of bondage but he’d made his bed. He would have to lie in it—for three years (give or take).

After murdering his friend Iphitus and stealing the Delphic tripod, Hercules had a lot on his conscience. Driven by remorse, he sought out an oracle to find out what must be done to redeem himself.  The oracle turned him over to Hermes, who sold him to Omphale, a queen. 

Despite her royal status, Omphale would not have been considered worthy of Hercules.  She was a mere woman. He was a demigod. Hercules slayed monsters, brought scoundrels to justice, and displayed immense courage.  He was the embodiment of the noble warrior. After her husband was gored to death by a bull, Omphale ruled over the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor. Greeks had a word for such people, particularly those who hailed from Asia Minor: “barbarians.”  Hercules enslavement to a barbarian queen was a form of public shaming. By his own hand, he had debased himself—and he would have to suffer the consequences. 

Myths evolve over time and the story of Omphale and Hercules is no different. Hercules’ enslavement has its roots in ancient Greek storytelling; it took Roman poets and playwrights to popularize the tale.  Once in Omphale’s possession, our hero becomes the queen’s domestic servant.  He works the loom, holds her mirror—and is forced to wear women’s clothing.  He serves the queen in bed as well.

As lovers, Omphale and Hercules appear to thwart the conventions of power and gender. Omphale is often depicted draped in Hercules’ lion skin and holding his club (his defeat of the Nemean lion being one of his most famous victories).  While a man donning female dress is not unheard of in Greek and Roman culture, Hercules is no doubt one of the more famous heroes to do so.  Many artists have tried to create a true romance from this myth.  Hercules represents the slave bound not only by contract but love. Omphale wields complete power over him, making outrageous and transgressive demands as a way of testing his devotion.

The mistress/slave relationship lives on in cult classics. Readers of Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs will recognize Severin and Wanda, the gender-bending protagonists of the novel as a variation of the myth of Omphale and Hercules. Readers have observed that it is Severin, the male protagonist, who brings out the dominatrix in Wanda—thus confirming the predominant belief that women are deeply uncomfortable in positions of power. They find release in fantasies of subjugation because it coincides with entrenched ideas about femininity. But Wanda is far from conflicted. Her role in Masoch’s narrative, which is three parts fairy tale, comedy, and erotic fantasy, is to redeem Severin.  She must bring him back into line with societal norms—and to that end, has him yoked to plow and thrown into a pit. Given Severin’s persistence, Wanda is forced to go to extremes to beat some sense into him.  When she runs off with another man, Severin decides he has had enough.  

Omphale is the prototype for women who must save their men from erotic impulses that defy societal norms. She represents the barbarous side of Hercules’ nature that must be tamed.  When he has been sufficiently restored to his senses, he moves on—leaving Omphale behind and their child. (Women take note.)

What are we to make of this story of these two star-crossed, cross-dressed lovers? Social convention and morality trumps sexual abandon, that much is certain. And yet, Omphale and Hercules, with their exchange of masculine and feminine roles, serve as a reminder that normative conceptions of gender, while serving male interests, may be subverted if women so desire.

As for love?  The heart wants what it wants. 

Kathryn A. Kopple, author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.