Seamus Heaney, Hercules, and Antaeus

With Seamus Heaney’s recent publication of Human Chain, we hope you’d also enjoy hearing a little insight into his career as a poet. You can read along with the pdf of the entire speech here.

Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s Birthday Speech: 13th APRIL 2009

“In Greek mythology, Antaeus was a giant who was born out of the earth and who consequently derived all his strength and prowess from contact with the earth. This meant that every time he was brought to the ground in a fight or a wrestling match, every time he seemed to be beaten, he wasn’t beaten at all; instead, he was gathering strength, recharging his batteries, getting ready to rise again, refreshed and fighting fit.

I identified with this earthman because I saw myself as something of an earthman, somebody with his poetic feet very much on the local ground. At that stage I too felt fighting fit, having just written a book that began with images of a man digging, ‘going down and down for the good turf,’ and ended with my young poet self looking deep into the ‘trapped sky’ at the bottom of a well. I therefore regarded Antaeus as something of a guardian spirit, an emblem of whatever poetic gift I might have. But at the same time I was also aware that Antaeus, for all his strength, was far from invulnerable; I knew indeed that he would be defeated in the end by another hero, the mighty Hercules.

Hercules turned out to be a match for Antaeus in brawn and more than his match in brain, for he realized in the course of their wrestling match that the way to defeat the giant was to hold him high rather than hammer him down. The way to bring him low was to elevate him. So instead of throwing his adversary, Hercules lifted him up until all the strength drained out of him. Which is why I made Antaeus voice his anxiety in these final lines of the poem:


Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
Into that realm of fame


Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
My elevation, my fall.


The import of the story about Hercules and Antaeus is complicated but potent. It tells us that we are made to live in at least two places at one time, in two domains that march each other. We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us.”

~~ Seamus Heaney

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