"I'm Not Hercules!" - Vulcan at Grand Central Terminal

"I'm Not Hercules!" - Vulcan at Grand Central Terminal

I'm basically an easy-going guy, but there are a few things that really annoy me: Charmin bath tissue commercials, pop songs longer than 4 minutes, and, most of all, misidentifying the seated guy in the huge sculpture group, Glory of Commerce, at Grand Central Terminal.

Everything I've found, whether in print or online, refers to Glory of Commerce as depicting Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules. Mercury and Minerva, for sure, but Hercules? Surely not!

I dont know where this case of mistaken identity originated, but I suspect there is an urtext from sometime in the last 23 years from whence this case of mistaken identity originated and spread. I pick that time frame, as it corresponds to the popularization of the World Wide Web, which, although a wonderful development, also makes it easy to spread questionable or inaccurate information.

Hercules is the man, according to my 2002 editon of Michelin the Green Guide New York City. Likewise, every web article or post that mentions the subject of the sculpture. Here, for example, is the relevant section of Wikipedias article on Grand Central (my emphasis added):

Outside the station, the clock in front of the Grand Central facade facing 42nd Street contains the worlds largest example of Tiffany glass and is surrounded by sculptures carved by the John Donnelly Company of Minerva, Hercules, and Mercury and designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan. At the time of its unveiling (1914) this trio considered to be the largest sculptural group in the world. It was 48 feet (14.6 m) high, the clock in the center having a circumference of 13 feet (4 m).

Those two sentences are enlightening and entirely correct, except for that one name, Hercules. Hercules it aint.

How can I be so sure? Most figures of mythology has one or more iconographic attributes. What are these attributes for Hercules?

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles. From classical times onward, Hercules has been associated with two iconographic attributes: His lion skin and his club.The lion skin was a trophy he carried after killing the dreaded Nemean lion.

In almost all depictions of Hercules, whether in sculpture, painting, or mosaic, we see him with the skinned lion over his shoulders or arm, or wearing it as a sort of hellenistic hoodie, with the lions head and mouth covering Hercules scalp. In addition, hes aways shown carying, or in proximity to, his club, a huge, rusticated Peloponnesian Slugger.

So lets take a close look at the photo I took last Saturday of the alleged Hercules at the Grand Central scupture and look for the lion skin and club.

First of all, youll notice, not a club in sight. So much for that one. Now if you look carefully at what this fellow has over his right thigh and covering his naughty bits, I concede that it does look a bit hairy around the edges and might be a piece of some sort of animal skin but it could also just be the unraveled edges of a woven rug or even a wooly lambskin. In any event, it certainly has no trace of lion parts and anyway, Hercules didnt use the skin to hide his schmeckle; he carried or wore it on his head.

Also, in the words of this observant Flickr photographer, this is seriously the scrawniest depiction of Hercules I have ever seen.  Hes right on. Hercules  was basically supposed to be the strongest semi-mortal on the planet, and is always depicted with a bodybuilders physique.

So now that Ive established that the figure is not Hercules, who exactly is it?

Well, lets look again at the photo. Notice that we see that Mr. Im-Not-Hercules is holding a hammer in his right hand. And not just a 20-ounce Stanley from Home Depot, but a honking big forging hammer. And what do we see behind his right calf but an anvil! So this guy is somesort of blacksmith.

Well, who, in classical mythology, is a blacksmith? That would be Vulcan, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hephaestus, who was the Olympian in charge of, inter alia,  technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, and metallurgy.

Notice that on his side of the sculpture group there are other objects that make sense in the context of Hephaestus/Vulcan. The anchor and gear, symbols of commerce and industry of the time, are both items that require casting, forging, machining, etc all technologies that are within the ambit of Vulcans patronage. Likewise, the sickle in Vulcans left hand is another product of blacksmithing.

(By the way, just because Vulcan holds a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other, dont get the idea that sculptor, M. Coutan, was some kind of Commie. The Soviet Union was still several years away, and the sickle simply ties Vulcan to the stalks of wheat, representing midwest grain arriving at Grand Central via Commodore Vanderbilts New York Central Railroad.)

So just to summize, the iconography of the figure on the north side of Glory of Commerce is all about blacksmithing, metalworking, craftsmanship, technology so this guy must be Vulcan, and not Hercules.

Lets hope this post can start moving things in the right direction in correcting this case of mistaken identity.

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