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The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.


Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923.

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913.

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24.

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009.

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

De Ulyxis Erroribus

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Burney MS 114 f 132r (detail), British Library

ONE of the most popular and insightful psychological commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey is the essay, On the Wanderings of Ulysses, published by the English Neoplatonist, Thomas Taylor, in 1823.  In an earlier 1792 version of the essay, published as an extended footnote to his translation of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, Taylor mentioned having made use of a “small treatise in Greek” by “an anonymous author.”  His full remark is as follows:

I only premise, that I shall make use of a small treatise in Greek, on the wanderings of Ulysses, by an anonymous author, where he appears to have penetrated the sense of the allegory; and freely reject his interpretation, when foreign from the leading character of Ulysses, above mentioned, according to Numenius and Porphyry. (Taylor, 1792, n. 294f.).

The “above mentioned” material refers to Porphyry’s explanation of Numenius’ interpretation of Odysseus:

Indeed as it appears to me it was not without foundation that Numenius thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation; and thus arrives at that region, where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar. (Ibid., p. 294).

Though he did not, Taylor could easily have added the name of Plotinus to that of Porphyry and Numenius. In his treatise On Beauty (Enneads 1.6.8), Plotinus, Porphyry’s teacher, supplies what is the quintessential Platonic understanding of the moral-psychological meaning of the Odyssey.  There he writes, in words echoing Diotima’s famous ‘ascent of Love’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, that one should not love physical or bodily beauty, but rather follow Homer’s advice in the Iliad 2.140 and 9.27:

Let us flee to our dear homeland” (Φεύγωμεν δή φίλην ές πατρίδα) and imitate the example of Odysseus who fled far away from Circe and Calypso. … Our homeland is the place we come from, and the Father is there” (Πατρίς δή ήμΐν, δθενπερ ήλθομεν, καί πατήρ έκεΐ). (tr. Berthelot).

For Plotinus, then, the Odyssey is an allegory for the soul’s journey away from material concerns — and the numerous trials and tribulations associated therewith — to our native land of contemplation, serenity, peace and clarity.  Though Porphyry, Numenius and Taylor also find a metaphysical meaning in the Odyssey, they all also appear to agree with Plotinus on the psychological interpretation.

Taylor began the later, 1823 version of his essay as follows:

In my History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology [see Vo. II. of my Proclus on Euclid,] and in a note accompanying my translation of the treatise of Porphyry, on the Cave of the Nymphs, in that work, I attempted, from the hints afforded by Porphyry, and the work of an anonymous Greek writer, De Ulyxis Erroribus, to unfold the latent meaning of the wanderings of Ulysses, as narrated by Homer. But as, from my continued application to the philosophy of Plato for upwards of forty years, I now know much more of that philosophy than I then did, a period of thirty-five years having elapsed from that to the present time, I shall again attempt to explain those wanderings, rejecting some things, and retaining others which I had adopted before. (Taylor, 1823,  p. 241).

Here he again refers to an anonymous Greek source, but now supplies the Latinized title, De Ulyxis Erroribus.  It does not appear that this work’s author has previously been identified, or the work itself located. However it now seems likely that Taylor’s source was an eponymous essay authored by the Byzantine cleric, Manuel Gabalas (Matthew of Ephesus; c.1271−c.1359), or possibly his colleague, Nicephorus Gregoras (1295−1360).

The essay exists in two handwritten manuscripts of Gabalas.  One is part of the Codex Vindobonensis Theologici Graeci (Vindob. Theol. Gr.) 174 f. 116v−126r in Vienna. The second is part of the Burney MS 114, now held by the British Library.

Moreover, it has been printed five times:

  • A Greek version edited by Vincentius Opsopoeus and published in 1531;
  • A Latin translation by Conrad Gessner published in 1542;
  • Greek text with a new Latin translation by Johannes Columbus in 1678;
  • A reprint of the Columbus edition in 1745; and
  • A Greek edition by A. Westermann (1843; with corrections suggested by Hercher, 1853).

Recent translations have been made in French by Pralon (2004) and Van Kasteel (2012), and in Spanish by Juan-López (2019).

The Greek and Latin versions shows sufficient correspondences with portions of Taylor’s essay to make its identification as his source probable.

The British Library lists the editions of Opsopoeus, Gessner, and Columbus (1678 and 1745) in its catalogue, and, potentially, any or all of them could have been available for Taylor to consult. Kristeller (1987, p. 128) suggested that Gessner’s 1542 translation of Proclus’ defense of Homer in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, published in the same volume as the anonymous Odyssey essay, along with Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs, “seems to have been known to Thomas Taylor.”  If Taylor did indeed consult Gessner’s translation of Proclus (and/or Porphyry), he would therefore have seen the Odyssey essay. However, that was a Latin-only version, whereas in 1792 Taylor referred specifically to a “small treatise in Greek” (italics added).

Possibly Taylor also found the 1531 Greek edition of Opsopoeus in the British Library.  In any case, it does seem likely he consulted one of the Latin/Greek editions of Johannes Columbus.  Not only would these have been the most recent (and potentially the most widely disseminated) editions, but only they have the same words as Taylor’s title: De Ulyxis Erroribus.

We might wonder if Taylor saw the Burney manuscript version, as he was acquainted with the London classicist and collector, Charles Burney.  Had that been so, however, Taylor would have been able to connect the essay with Gabalas and Gregoras.

Doubtless most of Taylor’s essay reflects his own creative synthesis and insight gained by decades of close involvement with Greek texts and Platonist philosophy.  It would, nonetheless be interesting to see exactly what insights he gleaned from the Greek work, and what material he ignored.  We further have some obvious interest in approaching De Ulyxis Erroribus for its own sake — both for what it can tell us about the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, and the light it may shed on the Byzantine commentary tradition on Homer.

Readers should be expressly cautioned that there are other works on the Odyssey associated with Matthew of Ephesus (Browning, 1992; Vianès, 2003), with which this work should not be confused.


Berthelot, Katell. Philo and the allegorical Interpretation of Homer in the Platonic tradition (with an emphasis on Porphyry’s De antro nympharum). Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters (2012): 155-74.

Browning, Robert. A fourteenth-century prose version of the Odyssey. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 46, 1992, pp. 27–36.

Ford, Philip. Classical myth and its interpretation in sixteenth-century France. In: Sandy, Gerald N. (ed.). The Classical Heritage in France. Leiden: Brill, 2002. (pp. 331−349.)

Gabalas, Manuel (attr.). De Ulyssis erroribus. Burney MS 114, ff 132r-145v. Religious texts copied by Matthew, Metropolites of Ephesus, Volume III. British Museum. 2nd quarter of the 14th century.

Anonymous; Opsopoeus, Vincentius (ed.). Compendiosa explicatio in errores Ulyssis Odysseae Homericae, cum contemplatione morali elaborata. Printed with Xenophon: Symposium: eruditum, iucundum & elegans. Haguenau: Johann Setzer, 1531.

Anonymous; Gessner, Conrad (tr.). Moralis interpretatio errorum Ulyssis Homerici; Commentatio Porphyrii philosophi de nympharum antro in XIII. libro Odyssae Homericae, multiplici cognitione rerum variarum instructissima; Ex commentariis Procli Lycii, philosophi Platonici, in libros Platonis de repub. apologiae quaedam pro Homero & fabularum aliquot enarrationes. Zurich, 1542. (Latin translation only).

Anonymous; Columbus, Johannes (tr.). Incerti Scriptoris Graeci Fabulae Aliquot Homericae de Ulixis Erroribus Ethice Explicatae. Leiden, 1745; (orig. publ. J. G. Eberdt, 1678). (Greek and Latin translation.)

Hercher, R. Zu Nikephoros Gregoras De erroribus Ulixis. Philologus 8 (1853) 755−758.

Hunger H., Kresten O. & Hannick C. Katalog der griechischen Handscbriften der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek. Codices Theologici 101-200, III, 2. Vienna, 1984.

Juan-López, J. B. Allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s wanderings and his impassive philosophy, De Ulixis Erroribus. Presentation, 2018.

Juan-López, J. B. De Ulixis Erroribus. Spanish translation, notes and commentary. In press (2019), eClassica (?), Lisbon.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Proclus as a reader of Plato and Plotinus, and his influence in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Editions du CNRS, 1987.  Reprinted in: Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. IV, Rome, 1996.

Plotinus. Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.).  The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .

Pralon, Didier. Une allégorie anonyme de l’Odyssée: Sur les errances d’Ulysse. In: Brigitte Pérez-Jean, B. & Patricia Eichel-Lojkine, L’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Paris: Champion, 2004; pp. 189−208.

Schleyer, R. On the Wanderings of Ulysses in the Odyssey (incomplete fragment). Unpublished paper. September, 2014.

Taylor, Thomas. History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology. In: Philosophical and Mathematical Commentaries of Proclus on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements. Vol. II. London, 1792; note, pp. 294−307.

Taylor, Thomas. On the Wanderings of Ulysses. In Select Works of Porphyry. London, 1823; Appendix, pp. 241−272. (pdf version)

Van Kasteel, Hans (tr.). Matthieu d’Éphèse, Exégèse concise sur les errances d’Ulysse selon Homère, augmentée d’une explication éthique. In: H. Van Kasteel, Questions homériques. Physique et métaphysique chez Homère, Éditions Beya, Grez-Doiceau, 2012.

Vianès, Laurence. Les Errances d’Ulysse par Matthieu d’Éphèse, alias Manuel Gabalas (XIVe siècle). GAIA. Revue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce ancienne 7.1 (2003): 461-480.

Westermann, A. Μυθόγραφοι: Scriptores poeticae historiae Graeci. Brauschweig, 1843; pp. 329-344 & Pref. xvii); corrections proposed by Hercher, 1853.