Heracles was the most famous and most popular of all the Greek heroes*. The son of the god Zeus and Alcmene, a human woman, Heracles was well known for his many adventures and was worshiped all over Greece. He was the only Greek hero to become a god after his death. Heracles was honored in Rome as well, where he was known as Hercules.
Although his name means “the glory of Hera,” Heracles was persecuted his entire life by the goddess Hera (Zeus’s wife). Heracles’ first heroic act was as a baby, when he strangled two snakes that were sent by Hera to kill him in his cradle. Among his many other exploits, Heracles accompanied Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. His most famous adventures, however, were his Twelve Labors.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
The Twelve Labors. Driven insane by Hera, Heracles killed his wife and his children. To atone for this act, he had to perform 12 difficult tasks demanded of him by King Eurystheus of the city of Tiryns in Argos. If he fulfilled the Twelve Labors, however, he would become a god. The first six of Heracles’ labors took place in the Peloponnese*, and the other six occurred in lands farther away. For his final labor, Heracles was sent to the underworld*.
Heracles’ first labor involved fighting the Nemean lion, whose skin was so tough it could not be penetrated by arrows. Heracles strangled the lion with his bare hands and skinned it using the lion’s own claws. In classical* art, Heracles is usually depicted wearing the skin of the slain lion. For his second labor, Heracles slew the Hydra of Lerna, which was a monstrous water-serpent with a hound’s body and nine heads and lived in the swamps of Argos. Heracles cut off and seared the Hydra’s eight mortal heads and buried its one immortal head under a rock. As elsewhere during his labors, Hera opposed Heracles, while the goddess Athena supported him.
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
* classical relating to the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome
For his third labor, Heracles hunted the golden-horned Cerynitian Hind. Heracles chased the hind (female red deer) for a year before catching it in a net while it slept. Since the hind was sacred to the goddess Artemis, she scolded Heracles for its capture. After Heracles explained that he was simply obeying King Eurystheus, Artemis allowed him to take the hind back to Tiryns, as long as he set it free unharmed. Heracles’ fourth labor required him to catch a huge boar that lived on Mt. Erymanthus in Arcadia. After chasing the boar into the snow, Heracles captured it in his net and brought it back to King Eurystheus.
For his fifth labor, Heracles had to clean, in a single day, the dung-filled stables of the vast herds of cattle belonging to King Augeas of Elis. Heracles accomplished this feat by knocking holes in the walls of the stables and diverting the waters of the Alpheus River through them. After the river water had cleaned out the stables, Heracles returned the river to its normal course and repaired the holes. Although Augeas had agreed to pay Heracles one-tenth of his cattle for the work, he refused to honor his promise. Later, Heracles returned to Elis, killed Augeas, and placed Augeas’s son on the throne. The sixth labor—the final labor performed in the Peloponnese—involved removing the troublesome birds that lived on the shores of Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia. Heracles frightened the birds away with a bronze rattle made by the god Hephaestus and given to him by Athena.
Heracles traveled to the island of Crete for his seventh labor. King Minos owned a dangerous bull, which he was supposed to sacrifice* to the god Poseidon. Heracles captured the bull and took it back to Tiryns, where he released it. Heracles’ next labor sent him to Thrace, where he captured the man-eating mares of Diomedes, king of the Bistonians. When Diomedes attacked him, Heracles fed him to the mares. Heracles brought the mares back to Tiryns and set them free.
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
AFRAID OF ANIMALS
After Heracles completed his first labor by killing the Nemean lion with his bare hands, he delivered the lion's skin to King Eurystheus. The king was so frightened that he hid inside a bronze storage jar. He told Heracles that, in the future, he was to leave what he captured outside the city. Heracles did not always do this. When he returned with the Erymanthian boar for his fourth labor, Eurystheus jumped into his bronze jar once again. For Heracles' final labor, he captured the watchdog Cerberus from the underworld. The dog was so monstrous and fearsome that Eurystheus was hiding in his jar long before Heracles arrived with him.
The last four labors took Heracles even farther away from the known Greek world. For his ninth labor, Eurystheus sent Heracles to retrieve the belt of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. The Amazons were a mythical tribe of women warriors who lived on the north coast of Asia Minor.Hippolyta willingly agreed to give the belt to Heracles, which angered Hera. Hera convinced the other Amazons to turn against Heracles. Convinced that Hippolyta had betrayed him, Heracles killed her, took her belt, and brought it back to Tiryns. Heracles next traveled to the mythical island of Erytheia in the ocean off Spain, where he captured the cattle belonging to the three-headed monster Geryon. Heracles drove the cattle back through many lands, including Italy. Since Heracles was gone for such a long time, Eurystheus was surprised to see him when he finally arrived back in Tiryns.
For his eleventh labor, Heracles retrieved the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. These apples, which grew in a garden at the edge of the earth, were wedding presents to the goddess Hera. To accomplish this task, Heracles asked the help of the Titan* Atlas, offering to relieve Atlas’s burden of holding up the sky if Atlas would get the apples from his three daughters who guarded the tree. Atlas returned with the apples but refused to take back the sky, whereupon Heracles tricked him and made off with the apples. When Heracles presented the apples to Eurystheus, the king immediately returned them because the apples were too holy to keep. For his twelfth and final labor, Heracles traveled to the underworld. His assignment was to return to Tiryns with Cerberus, the threeheaded watchdog who guarded the gate of the underworld. Hades, the god of the dead, allowed Heracles to capture the dog—as long as he could do so without weapons. Heracles caught Cerberus and brought him to Eurystheus. Afterwards, he returned the fearsome dog to Hades as he had agreed.
* Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth before the Olympian gods
The Rest of Heracles’ Life. Although he was now assured of becoming a god, Heracles had to meet further challenges and difficulties. Heracles fought with the god Apollo until Zeus intervened. He also sought revenge on various people who had wronged him, fighting a series of battles against his enemies.
Obeying the command of the oracle* of Delphi, Heracles built a funeral pyre* and climbed upon it. The flames burned his mortal* body, and he ascended to Mt. Olympus, where he then lived as a god. He finally made peace with Hera and married her daughter Hebe. (See also Divinities; Heroes, Greek; Minos; Myths, Greek; Religion, Greek.)
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* pyre pile of wood used to bum a dead body
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die