Odysseus and Herakles are two of the best known heroes in Greek mythology, both of whom had one important common experience, they each had to endure a series of twelve tests. However, although different versions of the narratives are to be found with understandable variations in the detail, the two stories remain substantially the same.
The two tales have been generally interpreted geographically although a minority view is that an astronomical/astrological interpretation was intended, as the use of twelve events in both accounts would seem to point to a connection with the zodiac!
Alice A. Bailey is probably the best known regarding Hercules in her book The Labours of Hercules, while Kenneth & Florence Wood have also proposed Homer’s work as a repository of astronomical data. Bailey’s work is available as a pdf file(d).
In geographical terms, Herakles and Odysseus share something rather intriguing. Nearly all of the ‘labours’ of Herakles (Peisander c 640 BC) and all of the ‘trials’ of Odysseus (Homer c.850 BC) are generally accepted to have taken place in the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the first map of the geography of the Odyssey, was produced by Ortelius in 1597, which situated all of the locations in the central and eastern Mediterranean(e).
However, in both accounts, there is a suggestion that they experienced at least one of their adventures in the extreme western Mediterranean, at what many consider to be the (only) location of the Pillars of Heracles as defined by Eratosthenes centuries later (c.200 BC). Significantly, nothing happens over the 1100 mile (1750 km) journey on the way there and nothing occurs on the way back!
I think it odd that both share this same single, apparently anomalous location. I suggest that we should consider the possibility that the accounts of Heracles and Odysseus are possibly distorted versions of each other and that, in the later accounts of their exploits, the use of the extreme western location for the trial/labour is possibly only manifestations of a blind acceptance of the geographical claims of Eratosthenes or a biased view that this was always the case. A credible geographical revision of the location of those inconsistent activities by Odysseus and Heracles to somewhere other than the Gibraltar region would add weight to those, such as myself, that consider a Central Mediterranean location for the ‘Pillars’ more likely.
The German historian, Armin Wolf, relates how his research over 40 years unearthed 80 theories on the geography of the Odyssey, of which around 30 were accompanied by maps. In 2009, he published, Homers Reise: Auf den Spuren des Odysseus, a German language book that expands on the subject, concluding that all the wandering of Odysseus took place in the central and eastern Mediterranean. In a fascinating paper(a) he reviews many of these theories and offering his own ideas on the subject along with his own proposed maps, which exclude the western Mediterranean entirely. Wolfgang Geisthövel adopted Wolf’s conclusions in his Homer’s Mediterranean .
With regard to Hercules the anomalous nature of the ‘traditional’ location of Erytheia for his 10th ‘labour’ is evident on a map(b), while the 11th could be anywhere in North Africa.
Further study of the two narratives might offer further strong evidence for a central Mediterranean location for the ‘Pillars’ around the time of Solon! For example, “map mistress” places Erytheia in the vicinity of Sicily(c), while my personal choice would be the Egadi Islands further to the north, Egadi being a cognate of Gades, frequently linked with Erytheia.