Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 4

Heracles and the Twelve Labors

Zeus (as is well established by now) was quite the playboy. How he ever got anything done between his affairs is astounding. However, one of his many children would come to be known as the divine hero. Quite possibly the most famous of Zeus’s mortal children would be the one known as Heracles.

Heracles (the original figure from whom Hercules was adapted) was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Zeus disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, returning from the war of the time. He lied with her and swiftly departed. Later on that same evening, the real Amphitryon returned home. His wife, already impregnated by Zeus with Heracles, became pregnant that same night with the child of Amphitryon.

The hatred of Hera toward Heracles is legendary. This began its manifestation during Alcmene’s pregnancy. Hera convinced Zeus to declare that the next high king would be of the house (a descendant of) Perseus (the founder of Mycenae, and the hero who beheaded the gorgon Medusa). Unbeknownst to Zeus, another child of that house was nearing its birth.

To ensure that the product of Zeus’s infidelity would not become high king as intended, Hera went to Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, and tied Ilithyia’s clothing in knots, her legs crossed. As no mortal could be born with Ilithyia in such a position without the intervention of a god, Heracles and his unborn twin half-brother were stuck in the womb of Alcmene.

Hera, in order to ensure the succession of another high king, caused the child Eurystheus to be born prematurely. He was now the one destined to become the high king while Heracles and his brother remained unborn.

Hera never intended for Heracles to be born at all. It was when one of Alcmene’s servants came to Ilithyia and lied to the goddess, saying that the twins had indeed been born. Ilithyia, overcome by surprise, reacted with such a startled gesticulation at the news that her bonds were broken, thus allowing the twins to be born.

Alcmene offered up the child Heracles in an attempt to escape the goddess’s wrath, however, when he was brought before her by Athena, Hera didn’t know the child’s identity. She nursed him, but the child’s incredible strength caused Hera pain while nursing. She removed the suckling child from her breast (the milk coming out to form the Milky Way).

Though Hera cast the child aside, he had consumed some of the milk, and with that, he acquired his powers. He was brought back to the house of Alcmene, and would be raised by them. Still fearing Hera’s wrath, the child (who had originally been named Alcides by his mortal parents) was renamed Heracles.

This was not to be the end of Hera’s attempts on the boy, however. When he was less than one year old, Hera sent two snakes to kill the young Heracles. Although his brother cowered, Heracles took the beasts to be playthings. He strangled them and played with them in his crib.

Heracles would grow to adulthood and marry a woman named Megara. The two had children, and life was good until Hera decided to intervene yet again. Sources differ upon exactly when, but what is consistent is that Hera caused Heracles to go insane. He believed that he was being attacked by evil spirits. He fought back against these dark beings, the battle ending in their easy slaughter. The problem was, these were no demons. In his madness, he had killed his children (in some myths he also killed Megara, however others have her departing and marrying his charioteer and nephew Iolaus).

Just as he was about to kill his mortal pater Amphitryon, Athena, known for her protectiveness of heroes, cast a stone into Heracles’s chest, causing him to lose consciousness.

Now guilty of a sin which would require absolution, Heracles went before the oracle of Delphi, not knowing that the oracle was under the influence of his evil step-mother (history has a lot of those) Hera. The oracle advised Heracles to go before the high king and serve him in whatever way he should require. If he did so, Heracles was promised immortality, and a seat at Olympus.

The high king Eurystheus, an ally of Hera, was all too eager to have such a mighty servant. Although Eurystheus originally said that the debt of Heracles would be considered cleansed after performing ten heroic tasks, his requirements of the budding hero would come to be known as the twelve labors of Heracles.

The first labor was to kill the Nemean Lion, a ferocious beast with nearly impenetrable skin. Not only this, he was given only thirty days to complete the task. Let’s just say Heracles and Eurystheus had issues. Heracles gathered arrows in order to slay the lion but the arrows bounced harmlessly from the lion’s tough hide. Stories differ on whether he was finally able to strangle the lion to death, or whether he shot an arrow through the lion’s mouth. Regardless, Heracles had indeed passed his first test.

Heracles tried to skin the lion, but could not break through its thick skin. It was only when Athena guided him to use the lion’s own claws, that he was able to achieve the task. Heracles skinned the lion, and fashioned a cloak of armor from its impenetrable hide.

The king, upon seeing Heracles returning and carrying the dead beast on the thirtieth day, was petrified. He forbade Heracles to enter the city again, and communicated the remainder of the tasks through use of a messenger.

The second labor of Heracles was to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a nine headed serpent. The hydra was spawned by Hera (surprise, surprise) in order to kill Heracles. Slaying the beast would prove to be an even more difficult trial than the Nemean lion.

The Bibliotheca (fallaciously attributed to Apollodorus) gives a detailed account of the bout. The hydra began with nine heads, poisonous breath and even its tracks could kill a man. Heracles covered his mouth and nose to protect himself from the miasma of poisonous gas.

Heracles quickly went to work, decapitating the heads of the hydra one-by-one. Much to his dismay, however, with every beheading, the hydra would sprout two to replace the stump. He called for his charioteer (some say nephew) Iolaus for help. A new approach was developed including both of the men. Heracles would sever each head, and Iolaus would quickly cauterize the stump before two new heads could be sprouted.

This method worked quite effectively, although Hera wasn’t done yet. She sent forth a crab to distract Heracles so that the hydra would be able to defeat the hero. Heracles, undaunted, stomped the crab beneath his foot.

The final head of the hydra became immortal, however Heracles was able to sever it with the use of a golden sword which Athena had given to him. The beast was slain. Heracles, always an opportunist, dipped the tips of his arrows in the blood of the poisonous blood of the hydra.

Unfortunately for Heracles, upon completing his tenth task, Eurystheus declared the slaying of the hydra improperly completed as the hero had the help of his nephew and charioteer.

The third task of Heracles was to be different. Heracles had proven himself against the fiercest of Hera’s creations, and so Eurystheus set the next task to be the capturing of the Ceryneian Hind, an animal sacred to Artemis, able to outrun an arrow.

Heracles awoke one morning to glimpse the light reflected from one of its antlers. He gave chase to the animal, but it was indefatigable. He would chase it for the space of one year.

He eventually caught it, but on his return was confronted by Artemis and her brother Apollo. Heracles quickly explained and apologized for the situation. Artemis agreed to forgive him, so long as he let it go upon proving the hind’s capture. Heracles agreed and, upon reaching the gates of the city, insisted that Eurystheus come and behold the animal for himself.

When Eurystheus came outside the city gates, Heracles, true to his promise let the hind go. He taunted Eurystheus, saying that the king had been too sluggish, and that it was his fault that the hind had escaped. It’s not like the two were friends, but Eurystheus became more determined than ever to foil the hero’s quest to become immortal.

The fourth labor of Heracles was to capture the Erymanthian Boar. He consulted a centaur for guidance, and was told to lead the boar into thick snow. By these means, he was able to capture the animal. He returned to the centaur. The centaur was overcome with fear at the sight of it. He begged Heracles to dispose of the boar, and Heracles obliged.

As the fifth labor, Eurystheus decided to not only present Heracles with a near impossible task, but to humiliate him in the process. The fifth labor was to clean the stables of Augeas in one day. Augeas, no doubt excited to learn that his stables would finally be cleaned, offered Heracles one-tenth of his herd, should the hero be able to finish the job in the space of a day.

While certainly being demeaning work, Eurystheus felt that the labor would be futile, as the stable housed over a thousand immortal cattle which produced an epic amount of droppings. To add further difficulty, the stables had not been cleaned in over thirty years.

Heracles, always persistent, rerouted two rivers, the Peneus and the Alpheus to run through the stables, thus washing them clean. Augeas, thinking the task impossible in such a short time-frame, rescinded his offer to the hero, claiming that he had already been instructed to carry out the cleaning anyway. In many myths, upon completion of his labors, Heracles would return to kill the reneging stable-owner.

After his tenth labor was complete, Eurystheus would declare this task to be forfeit as the slaying of the hydra, due to the fact that it was not Heracles, but the rivers which cleaned the stables.

The sixth labor of Heracles was to kill or drive away the Stymphalian birds. These, true to form, were no ordinary birds, but creatures with bronze beaks, and metallic feathers which the birds could use as projectiles to fend off any possible predators. And, as if Heracles hadn’t waded through enough feces, the droppings of the birds were poisonous.

Heracles went to the swamp where the birds dwelled, however, he was unable to make his way closer to them as he would sink in the soft ground. Athena came to the rescue once again, presenting Heracles with a rattle, made by Hephaestus. Upon shaking it, the birds were frightened and took wing. He killed many of them with his bow, while the rest would fly away.

The seventh labor was to capture, but not kill, the Cretan bull. This bull had been causing all sorts of havoc in Crete. The king of the time (mythical King Minos) was quick to offer his aid, but Heracles refused. He was able to come up behind the bull and beat it to within an inch of its life.

He had the bruised and beaten bull sent back to Eurystheus who intended to sacrifice it to Hera. The goddess, however, refused the sacrifice, and Eurystheus let the beast go.

The eighth labor was to capture Diomedes’s horses. The task may have seemed simple at first, but Heracles soon came to the knowledge that the mares were wild, likely caused by a steady diet of human flesh.

Diomedes was hardly keen to have his horses taken. In a common version of the myth, Heracles refused to sleep during the night, fearing that Diomedes would try to kill him in his sleep. He snuck in and severed the chains which held the horses.

He then spooked them to the top of a peninsula, took his axe and cut the land around the peninsula and thus trapped the horses on his self-made island. Heracles killed Diomedes and fed him to his horses which calmed the man-eaters down enough for the hero to bind their mouths and return them to Eurystheus.

The ninth labor was a task for the petulant king’s petulant daughter. She coveted the girdle of Hyppolyta, the queen of the Amazons, and so her father Eurystheus commanded the retrieval of the belt to be the ninth labor.

Heracles set sail with some of his companions and, upon landing on the shores of the Amazon’s territory, told the Amazonian queen of his task. The queen was impressed, and offered to give the girdle to Heracles without protest, even though it had been a gift to her by the god of war Ares.

Hera, however, just couldn’t stay out of things, and disguised herself, slandering Heracles to the Amazons. She told them that his real purpose was to kidnap their queen and the Amazons quickly attacked him and his ship.

Heracles fought off the Amazons, killing their queen and taking the girdle from around her. He set sail, and delivered the belt to Eurystheus.

The tenth labor (which was supposed to be his last) was for Heracles to return with the cattle of the monster Geryon. This task was in a far off land, and so Heracles had to do some traveling.

He reached the desert of Libya and, while trudging through it, became angry at the excessive heat. To vent his displeasure, he shot an arrow at Helios, the Titan who carried the sun through the sky. While the arrow missed its target, Helios was so impressed by the feat that he offered his golden cup to assist Heracles in his travels through the desert. This cup was the means of by which Helios made his conveyance from the west (at the end of the day) to the east (to begin the next day). By using this cup, Heracles was able to reach the land of Erytheia where Geyron and his cattle lived.

Upon disembarking, Heracles encountered a two-headed dog named Orthrus. He made short work of the animal, killing it with his club. The herdsman in charge of the cattle tried to join Orthrus in fending off the hero, but was himself slain.

Alerted by the sounds of fighting, Geryon sprang into action. The monster, depending on the source, either had three heads and one body, or one head and three bodies, either two or six legs; various combinations of Geryon’s anatomy are recorded.

The monster donned his armor and set off to attack Heracles. The hero, however, shot Geryon with one of his hydra-poisoned arrows with a force that sent the arrow through the monster’s forehead, killing him.

Now at his leisure, Heracles collected the cattle and traveled back to Eurystheus. In one version of the story, the cattle are stolen by a giant named Cacus while Heracles is sleeping. The giant dragged the cattle backward so as to confuse the hero, should he go looking for them.

Heracles would find the trail, finding a cave with an enormous stone set in front of it (by Cacus). Heracles, quite the strong figure himself simply tore the top from the mountain and did battle with the giant. He slayed his foe, but Hera turned herself into a gadfly and proceeded to bite the cattle, causing them to scatter. Over the space of a year, Heracles would find all of the cattle, and so he made his way back to Eurystheus, thinking it to be for the last time.

Eurystheus, however, rejected two of the labors (the killing of the hydra and the cleaning of the stables), and insisted that Heracles was not yet finished. He therefore set two more tasks ahead of the hero.

The eleventh labor of Heracles was to gather the golden apples from the garden of Hesperides. The Hesperides were nymphs who tended the garden where the golden apples grew. According to one myth, these golden apples would grant the one who ate of them immortality for the space of one day. An individual could, in theory, eat an apple a day and become immortal. (There’s a rhyme in that somewhere).

Upon reaching the garden, Heracles came across Anteus, a being who was immortal unless he was separated from his mother Gaia. Heracles, upon discovering this, lifted his foe from the ground and crushed him in his strong arms.

Heracles reached the garden, but was unable to retrieve the apples on his own. He went to Atlas, the Titan holding up the sky, and made a deal with him. Heracles would hold up the sky and Atlas would receive a rest from his duties for the time it took the Titan to retrieve the apples (I think we see where this is going). Atlas quickly agreed and Heracles took to holding Uranus from Gaia.

Upon Atlas’s return, however, the Titan refused to return to his post. Heracles, not willing to give up his quest and acquiesce to being the new form of separation between the sky and the earth, tricked Atlas into resuming his duty by asking the Titan if he would hold the sky long enough for Heracles to adjust his cloak. Atlas agreed (and I think we see where this one’s going too) and Heracles quickly made off with the apples.

The hero returned, giving Eurystheus the golden apples, ready for his twelfth and final labor.

The twelfth labor of Heracles was to capture, but not kill Cerberus, the three-headed dog which guarded the underworld. Heracles was also not allowed to use any weapons in the tri-headed dog’s capture.

The hero set out. He went to Eleusis in order to gain the knowledge of how to enter and exit the underworld while retaining his life. With the help of Hermes and Athena, he was able to enter the gates of the underworld at Tanaerum. He traversed the river Styx and, upon arriving in the underworld, opened up a dialog with Hades.

Hades agreed to allow Heracles to take Cerberus so long as he could capture the dog(s) without hurting him, and return the guardian dog(s) safely after the labor was complete. Heracles agreed.

Either before or after his conversation with Hades, Heracles came upon two men who were bound to chairs in the underworld. The men were Pirithious and Thesius, two men who had endeavored to kidnap Persephone so that Pirithious could take her as his wife.

Heracles was able to wrest Thesius from his chair, leaving a portion of the latter’s thigh. Heracles was unsuccessful freeing Pirithious, however. It was said that the attempt shook the earth.

Heracles would finally come upon Cerberus. He was able to capture the Cerberus and didn’t harm the dog in the process. He took Cerberus before Eurystheus, but when the king beheld the guardian of the underworld, he is said to have died of fright. (According to some myths, he simply cowered and told Heracles to return the dog to the underworld). Regardless what happened to Eurystheus, Heracles was now free of his debt for killing his children (and possibly wife).

The journey of Heracles was far from over, but he was finally free.

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