Heracles | The deified Greek Hero & his Twelve Labours

heracles-and-hippolyta-amazons

Heracles (also known as Herakles and Hercules) is the most important hero in Greek mythology. He features in many myths and plays, and various monsters in Greek mythology are created specifically to battle the heroic demi-god.

 

Heracles is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene – considered to be the most beautiful and wise woman of her time. The hero is iconic for his Twelve Labours, but this version is actually an invention of later writers. Heracles as a mythological figure had already been around for millennia before the classical Greek period, and there were countless stories about him, albeit with lots of overlap. Later writers collated and refined these, and ended up with the classic twelve.

 

We’ve put together the most popular tellings of Heracles’ Twelve Labours, as well as what led our hero to perform these death-defying feats. And then, moving past myth, we’ve also included Heracles’ deification and his worship as a god.

 

Heracles kills his wife and children

 

Hercules Furious. Roman mosaic panel, 3rd – 4th century AD

 

Hera, queen of the gods and unhappy wife to Zeus, is Heracles’ enemy throughout his story. Because Heracles is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, Hera greatly resents him. So, even when he is just a baby, Hera sends snakes into his crib to poison him. But born with his father’s superhuman strength, the infant strangles them.

 

Heracles grows up and marries the Theban princess Megara, and the two have three sons together (although the number is different according to different sources). But Hera never forgives the hero for his father’s indiscretion, and she sends him into a fit of violent madness. In this state, Heracles throws his sons into a fire, or shoots them with arrows, depending on the source. He also kills his loving wife. And then the madness abates, and the poor man is left horrified by his inexplicable actions.

 

It is this terrible murder that sets Heracles on his labours as penance.

 

The twelve labours of Heracles

 

Front panel from a sarcophagus with the Labours of Heracles. Roman artwork, c. 3rd century AD

 

After killing his family, Heracles sets out to atone for his actions. He is purified by King Thespius, and then treks to the Oracle of Delphi to ask Pythia, the oracle’s high priestess, how he can atone. The oracle sends him to King Eurystheus, his cousin, to serve him for twelve years.

 

But here too, Heracles cannot escape Hera’s wrath! The vengeance-seeking goddess influences King Eurystheus so that he sets for Heracles twelve impossible tasks. Tasks that would kill anyone. But Heracles welcomes the challenge, hoping that they will put his heart at ease and, perhaps, not minding too much if he does die in the process.

 

These labours don’t exist in full and in order in any early text – but later historians put them together in the widely accepted order below. Athena, Heracles’ patron goddess, aided him in some of his tasks, along with the mischievous god Hermes.

 

1: Slay the Nemean Lion

 

Heracles and the Nemean Lion. Side B from an black-figure Attic amphora, ca. 540 BC.

 

The Nemean Lion is a beast that terrorized the town of Nemea (sent, in most accounts, by Hera). It’s golden hide was impenetrable and its claws so sharp that they could pierce any armour. In most versions of the myth, Hera sent the lion here specifically so that it would fight Heracles, and hopefully kill him.

 

When Heracles found the lion, he first fired arrows at the beast before realising the strength of its hide. Thinking quickly, he then lured it into its cave, which had two entrances, and blocked off the one. He walked into the other, and there, in close and dark quarters, Heracles clubbed the beast, stunning it. Before it could recover, he wrapped his mighty hands around its neck and strangled it.

 

Athena then recommended the hero skin the Nemean Lion using one of its own sharp claws. In other versions, he was specifically tasked with bringing the lion’s skin back to Eurystheus.

 

After thirty days, Heracles returned to the king carrying the lion’s carcass on his shoulders. The king was terrified, and ordered Heracles to display his labours outside of the city gates in future. He then sent him off on his next quest, the hero wearing the lion’s pelt as a cloak ever after. The cloak and club are Heracles’ key identifying features in artworks, making him one of the most easily identifiable figures.

 

2: Slay the Lernean Hydra

 

Heracles slaying the Hydra – you can spot a crab (the Hydra’s accomplice) in the left corner. 3rd century BC

 

The Lernean Hydra, a serpentine water monster, dwelt in the swamps of Lerna, a place reputed to be an entrance to the Underworld. This fearsome monster had poisonous breath and many heads, and in later versions of the myth, if you cut one off, two would grow in its place. As long as one head remained, the creature remained immortal.

 

The Hydra, too, was sent by Hera to kill Heracles.

 

In this labour, Heracles had the help of his younger cousin, Iolaus. When the two found the Hydra’s lair, they covered their faces, and Heracles went ahead. The monster emerged, immense and frightening. And Heracles leapt at it, lopping off a few of its heads. But these quickly grew two for each one lost, and our hero despaired at the idea of trying to defeat it.

 

Iolaus had an idea though – Heracles could attack the creature, chopping off its heads, and he, Iolaus, would follow him, cauterising the open necks with fire before they could grow back. So, the two lept into action, and soon they had sliced every head off, cauterised them, and killed the beast.

 

Heracles dipped his arrows into the Hydra’s poison and used these to defeat later enemies during his Labours.

 

3: Capture the Golden Hind

 

Herakles captures the Hind of Keryneia while Athena (on the left) and Artemis (on the right) look on. Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 540–530 BC

 

When Hera and King Eurystheus saw that Heracles had beaten both fearsome monsters, they changed tack. Heracles next task would be to capture the Golden Hind, a deer so fast that no arrow was fast enough to pierce it. And more importantly, a deer under Artemis’ protection. The hind had golden antlers and hooves of bronze, and it was very precious to the goddess of the wilderness and wild creatures.

 

I’ll just mention here, that bronze was the super-material of the time – steel literally didn’t exist yet. It’s like how action movies now are all “titanium alloy” this and “hardened superalloy” that. Bronze was the strongest material imaginable at the time.

 

So Hera set this task, hoping that he would never be able to catch something so fast – and if he did, that Artemis would be enraged and smite him.

 

Heracles tracked the deer for a full year before finally managing to catch it as it slept, setting a net trap over it. As he was bringing it to show to the king, he came across Artemis and her brother Apollo, who demanded to know what he was doing with the sacred deer. Heracles apologised and told them his tragic story and his labours, and they forgave him. He could take the deer – as long as he returned it.

 

When Heracles brought the hind to King Eurystheus, the king told him that he intended to keep it in his menagerie. But Heracles knew that he must ensure it returned to Artemis. So as he handed the beast over to the king, he let it go just a moment early. With its incredible speed, it bounded away, and Heracles could simply say “sorry, you’re just too slow”.

 

4: Capture the Erymanthian Boar

 

The Erymanthian Boar was a giant boar that would often run from its lair on Mount Erymanthus and attack men and animals all over the nearby countryside. Its immense, sharp tusks gouged through man and beast alike, and it was a violent menace.

 

Heracles’ fourth task was to capture this beast and bring it back to the king. On his way, Heracles came across a friend – the centaur named Pholus. He spent the evening eating and drinking with him, and got into a good bit of trouble, getting the centaurs drunk and having to kill some of them. But that’s a story for another time.

 

So, leaving a bit of havoc behind him, Heracles continued his journey. When he came to the area around Erymanthus he soon found the boar, following the sounds of its snorting and stomping. Heracles chased it around and around the mountain, before driving it into a deep patch of snow (something Pholus recommended). He could then easily capture the boar, throw it around his shoulders, and carry it to Eurystheus.

 

5: Clean the Augean Stables

 

This is a rather unusual one! But the point of the tasks were for them to be impossible, and this one certainly fit the bill. Hera and her king were also pretty frustrated by Heracles’ successes by this point, and so this task was also designed to be humiliating, knocking the demigod down a peg.

 

King Augeas’ stables housed over a thousand divine cattle, and had not been cleaned for over thirty years. But still, Heracles proposed a bet – that he would clean the stables in a single day, and in return he would receive a 10th of the cattle. King Augeas agreed.

 

Heracles had a plan – he rerouted the area’s two main rivers, Alpheus and Peneus, to pour into the stables, flushing them clean. This way, he didn’t dirty his hands at all, and when it was done he rerouted the rivers again.

 

But Augeas found out that Heracles had already been ordered by Eurystheus to clean the stables, and he refused to pay him. Heracles took the matter to court, and won his case – but when he returned to King Eurystheus, it was determined that this labour did not count because of the payment, and another task was tacked on.

 

6: Defeat the Stymphalian Birds

 

Heracles killing the Stymphalian birds with his sling. Attic black-figured amphora, ca. 540 BC

 

The fierce Stymphalian birds were man-eating fowl who dwelled in the swamps of Stymphalia. Sacred to Ares, the god of war, or Artemis, goddess of the hunt, the birds had beaks of bronze, poisonous dung, and feathers so strong and sharp that the birds could use them to strike and kill people.

 

They had overtaken the Stymphalian countryside, killing people and destroying crops. Heracles was sent to defeat them and send them away as his sixth labour.

 

Heracles tried to approach the birds in their swamp, but found that the marshy ground could not hold his weight. Here Athena aided her hero again, giving him a rattle that Hephaistos made for the occasion. Heracles used this rattle to startle the birds into the air, where he shot at them with his hydra-dipped arrows.

 

He slew some of the birds this way, and the rest flew away, never to return. And he carried off a few of the dead birds to show Eurystheus.

 

7: Capture the Cretan Bull

 

Heracles and the Cretan Bull – a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

 

This capture was an easy task for Heracles, but the Cretan Bull has a very interesting story!

 

Minos, King of Crete, prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull. Minos would sacrifice this bull to the god of the sea, thus confirming his right to rule over Crete. So Poseidon sent the handsome bull, but it was such a fine specimen that Minos foolishly could not bring himself to sacrifice it, and sacrificed a different, inferior bull instead. Big mistake.

 

Poseidon was enraged that Minos broke his promise. So he had Aphrodite, goddess of love, cause Minos’ wife Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull. The Queen went so far as to mate with the bull, and gave birth to the half-human half-bull, the Minotaur!

 

Minos built a labyrinth under his palace for the Minotaur to wander through, at the advice of the Oracle. Meanwhile, Poseidon put his rage into the Cretan Bull, and it rampaged around Crete, destroying crops and causing havoc.

 

This is where Heracles comes in! But only briefly – basically, he just caught the bull. He wrestled it to the ground, carried it to Eurystheus, and then let it go again, and it caused havoc in Marathon before the later hero Thesues caught and killed it.

 

8: Capture and return the Mares of Diomedes

 

The Mares of Diomedes were man-eating horses, wild and violent. They belonged to Diomedes, King of Thrace and the son of the war god Ares and a mortal woman, Cyrene.

 

There are a few versions of this myth, but this is the most popular. The four mad mares were chained with bronze chains to keep them from wreaking havoc and eating the citizens. In one story, Heracles broke these chains and drove the mares down to the sea. Unaware that they were man-eating, the demigod left them in the charge of his friend Abderus while he went to find and kill Diomedes.

 

Heracles had no trouble dispatching Diomedes, but when he returned, the horses had attacked and eaten his friend. As revenge, he fed the king to his own horses, and this so calmed them that he could then bind their mouths shut and walk them back to King Eurystheus.

 

Finally, Eurystheus sacrificed the mares to Zeus at Olympus, but the god refused the gift and sent lions, wolves and bears to kill them. Truly not a lot of respect for animals so connected to Ares!

 

9: Obtain the Belt of Amazon Queen Hippolyta

 

Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, with Herakles between Amazons. Fragment of a Greek red-figure krater, circa 330–310 BC

 

Hippolyta was the fearsome queen of the Amazon warrior women. In many tales, she is the daughter of Ares and a mortal woman, and his skill and bloodlust courses through her.

 

Heracles’ ninth task was to obtain the Amazon queen’s belt – given to her by Ares, this leather belt, slung from her shoulder to her hip, served both to protect her and as a symbol of her power and position. King Eurystheus wanted this token as a gift for his niece, and so he sent Heracles to get it.

 

Our hero sailed to the Amazons’ island with some friends, and as they reached the shore, Hippolyta actually strolled down to greet them warmly. She chatted with Heracles, and he told her about his mission and how he’d been sent to take her belt. And the noble queen took pity, and told him that she would give it to him, he need only ask.

 

But cruel Hera was not happy to let Heracles get through his task so easily. So she disguised herself as an Amazon, and walked among the warrior women, telling them that Heracles had come to kidnap their queen. Quickly worked into a rage through her wily words, the Amazons charged down the hill to rescue their queen.

 

In a panic and desperate to escape a bloody battle, Heracles betrayed Queen Hippolyta. He stabbed her, killing the unsuspecting woman, and grabbed her belt before pushing off from the shore just in time to escape the enraged Amazons – who now truly had good reason for their anger.

 

10: Capture the Cattle of Geryon

 

Hercules and the Cattle of Geryones. From the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

 

Heracles’ tenth labour was certainly one of his hardest, and Hera sent multiple extra annoyances to slow him down – but our brave hero overcame everything.

 

His task was to capture and herd back the Cattle of Geryon, a three-headed-six-legged giant. This giant lived in a mythical land called Erythea, in the far West. Heracles had to journey for almost a year, crossing the Libyan desert (which to the Greeks meant pretty much the entirety of North Africa west of Egypt) and slaying beasts and shooting arrows at the sun, just to get there.

 

When Heracles came across the mountain where Europe met Libya, he tore the mountain into two rather than climbing over it – once called the Pillars of Heracles, this rift is now known as the Strait of Gibraltar!

 

Finally Heracles reached Erythea and the cattle, having ridden the last leg of the race in Helios’ golden cup which was given to him in admiration for brazenly shooting at the sun. Here, he found Orthrus, the two-headed dog and brother to Cerberus, keeping guard. He didn’t come this far for a fight though, and one hard thwack from his club took the dog out. Next he faced Eurytion, the cattle’s shepherd, but this man quickly met the same fate.

 

Heracles was escaping with the cattle when Geryon arrived, having been notified by a nearby herdsman. The hero fought hard against his immense foe, before managing to fell him with a hydra-poisoned arrow through one of his great heads.

 

His adventures weren’t over yet, though! On the long journey home, some of the cattle went missing, others were stolen, he had to fight a king for possession of one stolen cow, and kill others for their thievery. Worst of all, when he neared his destination, Hera sent a gadfly to disturb the cattle and scattered them, and it took Heracles a very long time to gather them all together again.

 

Finally though, he made it to Eurystheus, and the king sacrificed the animals to Hera, who I’m sure was not too pleased to receive them.

 

11: Take the Golden Apples of the Hesperides

 

Hesperides, Dance around the Golden Tree. Edward Calvert (1799-1883)

 

Heracles labours were initially supposed to be only ten, and these ten, according to some writers, took him over eight years to accomplish. But because he’d been a bit tricksy, both the Hydra and the Augean Stables were not counted as properly accomplished, and he was assigned two more to his penance.

 

His task was to steal three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides at the end of the earth. The Hesperides were nymphs of evening and sunset light, and the daughters of the Titan Atlas. And Heracles had no idea where their garden was. He went in search of them and journeyed far, travelling around the world and experiencing a great deal of adventures. It could be a whole post of its own, this task! But I’ll keep it short.

 

Eventually, Heracles came across Prometheus, who had been chained to a rock long before for giving fire to man. Every day his liver was pecked out by an eagle, and every day it regenerated, making his punishment eternal. But when he saw the Titan’s plight, Heracles slew the cruel eagle.

 

To thank him, Prometheus gave the mighty warrior the secret to obtaining the golden apples. He could send Atlas to the garden in his stead, since he was the Hesperides’ father; Heracles could hold up the earth while he went.

 

So, Heracles went to Atlas and asked whether he’d be willing. Atlas loathed his heavy burden, and gladly accepted, heaving the world onto Heracles’ shoulders. But when he’d fetched the apples, the poor Titan didn’t want to take back the earth, and offered to take the apples to Eurystheus himself. But Heracles smelt a trick, so he cooked up one of his own. He told Atlas sure, great idea, but could you just allow me to pad up my shoulders a bit for while you’re gone? Atlas agreed, and Heracles passed the world back onto his shoulders. But once it was there, there was no chance Heracles was taking it back, and he loped away, apples in hand.

 

12: Capture Cerberus

 

Hans Sebald (1500-1550): Hercules capturing Cerberus, 1545

 

Our hero’s final task was to capture the frightful monster of the Underworld – Cerberus, Hades’ hound, and guard of the realm of the dead. ‘An impossible creature, unspeakable, the ravening Cerberus, Hades’ dog with a voice of bronze’ (Hesiod)

 

Cerberus had many heads – in most cases three – and a snake for a tail (surprisingly common in Greek mythology). He was undefeated – but it was also super difficult to get to him, it being the Underworld and all! But the Greek Underworld actually has various physical access points from the mortal realm.

 

So Heracles arranged to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, made some plans to try to return from the death realm, and then headed down. It was quite an adventurous trip, but eventually he found the enigmatic Hades and asked if he could please borrow his dog.

 

Hades agreed to let Heracles take Cerberus – if he could defeat the beast with his bare hands. So, with this daunting task a-looming, Heracles went in search of the great dog. When he found it, the two battled; Cerberus’ snake tail bit Heracles, he scored him with scratches, but in the end, our hero won, wrestling the hound into submission.

 

And so, at last finished with his years of long tasks, Heracles presented Cerberus to his patron king. The monster was feared and admired, and then let go, and it returned home with a little wounded pride but nothing else amiss.

 

Heracles’ death & deification

 

The Apotheosis of Hercules by Noël Coypel, 1700 AD

 

Of course, there are just as many versions of Heracles’ death as many of his labours. They do, however, all follow very much the same event, just with tweaks and alterations.

 

Heracles’ death story starts years before the event, when he marries his second wife (not the one he kills). Trying to get across a river, the happy pair meet the centaur Nessus, who offers to carry Deianeira across while Heracles swims it. They agree, but Nessus soon tries to rape or abduct Deianeira.

 

Enraged, Heracles shoots the centaur with one of his Hydra-blood-tipped arrows. Nessus dies, but first he exacts his revenge by giving the new wife his cloak, soaked in his Hydra-tinged blood, and telling her that if her husband’s love for her ever weakens, this will strengthen her. Clearly unable to spot a very clear play, Deianeira takes the cloak.

 

Years later, Deianeira grows concerned that Heracles is interested in another woman. That’s not, of course, paying too much attention to the many male and female lovers Heracles takes over the years. But his wife remembers the cloak she was given, and sends it to him, hoping it will reignite his love for her.

 

When Heracles dons the cloak, it begins to burn him excruciatingly. But he cannot throw it off, and eventually the pain grows so great that he rips down trees and builds his own funeral pyre. His friend lights the pyre for him, and as our hero burnt to death, Zeus came and gathered his soul. He deified his son then, and even brought him to live on Mount Olympus.

 

And there, finally, Heracles was accepted by the cruel Hera!

 

His worship as a god

Heracles is the ultimate pan-Hellenic god, having travelled and laboured so extensively. He is the model of physical and psychological strength, and the symbol of (Greek) civilization over barbarian forces in the forms of many different monsters.

 

His cult was spread around ancient Greece, with altars, temples, and games held in his name. The largest and most famous place of worship in his name was in Thebes, Heracles’ place of birth. He was worshipped from the Late Archaic period, usually as a protector and supporter of humans among the gods.

 

Many Greek cities also associated their own distant past with the clan of Heracles. Even Alexander the Great derived his descent from the hero in order to strengthen his position.

 

Final thoughts on the Great Hero

 

Heracles and Athena, his patron goddess. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 480–470 BC

 

So, now that we know some of Heracles’ greatest adventures, I think we can all understand why the demigod would be so revered and just so enjoyed in ancient Greek storytelling and worship. He is the ultimate superhero, who can do absolutely anything and look good doing it.

 

Of course, because so many sources have written about Heracles, there are a lot of different versions of the stories above. You may remember the tales going a slightly different way, and you wouldn’t be wrong! But if you notice any issues in my telling of the tales beyond that, please let me know!

 

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