published on 09 July 2012
The pan-Hellenic mythological hero Hercules (or Herakles) was famed for his great strength and endurance and celebrated as an extraordinary mortal who, through success in seemingly impossible labours, won his immortal place amongst the Olympian gods. Being the greatest of Greek mythological heroes, he has been ascribed a multitude of adventures and heroic exploits over the centuries which were probably originally connected to lesser, more local figures.
Hercules’ mortal father was Amphitryon (nephew of Elektryon, ruler of Mycenae) and his mother was Alkmene; both were from Argos. However, following a violent quarrel between Amphitryon and his uncle, resulting in the accidental death of the latter, the family fled to Thebes where Hercules was born. In mythology, though, it was Zeus who lay with Alkmene and so fathered Hercules, explaining the origin of Hercules’ great strength. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was (understandably) always jealous of Hercules and made life difficult for him from an early age. The goddess delayed his birth so that his cousin Eurystheus would be born first and so become the ruler of Greece according to Zeus’ decree. Hera also sent two snakes to kill the new-born Hercules, but the baby easily strangled them. On the other hand, Hercules generally enjoyed divine favour from the Olympian gods - he did, after all, help them in their battle against the Giants - and he was particularly favoured by Athena.
Hercules’ youth was spent in the hands of the best teachers in Greece. His father taught him to ride chariots and tame horses. His music teacher was Linus, son of Apollo, although Hercules’ quick temper was demonstrated when he killed Linus with a blow from his stool (or lute). He was then sent to live with herdsmen in the mountains to toughen him up, and there he came into contact with the wise centaur Cheiron.
Hercules married Megara, the daughter of Kreo, King of Thebes, and together they had five children. Hera once more interfered and drove Hercules insane so that he killed his wife and children. In desperate remorse he sought the advice of Apollo via his oracle at Delphi. The advice was for Hercules to offer his services to his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos. Hera once more influenced events by persuading Eurystheus to set the hero difficult and dangerous tasks - the famous twelve labours of Hercules:
To kill the Nemean Lion.
A lion with a hide impervious to weapons was terrorizing the region of Nemea, in some accounts because of a lack of piety from the inhabitants. Hercules strangled the lion with his bare hands and forever after wore its pelt as a protective cloak.
To kill the Lernaian Hydra
A fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head and a body of many snakes which dwelt in a swamp near Lerna, close to Argos, was sent by Hera to torment Hercules’ home town. Hercules fought the creature but was hampered by a giant crab which bit his foot and by the fact that every time he cut off one of the snake heads, another two grew in its place. Helped by his faithful companion and nephew Iolaos, who used fire to stop the heads re-growing, Hercules eventually killed the Hydra and dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood.
To capture the Keryneian Hind
Sacred to Artemis and with golden horns, the hind took its name from the nearby Mount Kerynea close to Argos. Hercules, having to capture this famously swift-footed animal and present it alive to Eurystheus, was successful only after a lengthy, perhaps one-year, chase which exhausted the animal.
To capture the Erymanthian Boar
The area of Mount Erymanthos in Arcadia was plagued by a huge, ferocious boar and Hercules was set the task of capturing it and taking it to Mycenae. Goading the animal into a lengthy chase, Hercules again exhausted his prey, captured it, tied its feet, and carried it to Mycenae on his shoulders. It was during this labour that a fight with the centaurs over a broached wine cask resulted in Hercules accidentally killing Cheiron with one of his poisoned arrows.
To clear the Augean Stables
Augeias, the king of Elis, possessed a herd of animals given to him by his father Helios. The herd was so vast that the excrement it produced threatened the health of the city. Hercules’ seemingly impossible task was to clear the herd’s stables in a single day. To accomplish the task, Hercules dug ditches on either side of the stables, shovelled the dung into them and then diverted the rivers Alpheios and Peneios to wash the ditches clean.
To kill the Stymphalian Birds
These were aggressive (possibly even man-eating) birds which inhabited a forest near Lake Stymphalia in northern Arcadia. Hercules used brass castanets or clappers (krotala) given to him by Athena to startle the birds into flight, allowing him to shoot them down with his arrows.
To kill the Cretan Bull
A destructive bull was troubling the inhabitants of Knossos on Crete and was of two possible origins: either it was the animal ridden by Europa to the island or it was the bull which mated with Pasiphae (the wife of King Minos) and created the Minotaur. In some versions Hercules does not kill the bull but captures it and takes it to Mycenae.
To capture the Mares of Diomedes
Diomedes, son of Ares and King of Thrace, had in his stables horses which fed on human flesh. Hercules had to capture them and hand the horses over to Eurystheus. In some accounts Hercules pacified the horses by feeding them either the body of Diomedes or their groom.
To steal the Girdle of Hippolyta
Hippolyta was an Amazon queen and her girdle had been given to her by her father Ares. With his faithful companions, Hercules travelled to the home of the Amazons in the city of Themiskyra near the Black Sea. They received a hostile welcome from the Amazons who had been persuaded by Hera to attack the heroes; however, ultimately Hercules secured the girdle for Eurystheus.
To capture the Cattle of Geryones
This herd of cattle on the island of Erythia was guarded by the formidable trio of: three-bodied Geryones; Orthros - a dog with two heads and a serpent’s tail; and the herdsman Eurytion, son of Ares. However, they were no match for Hercules who defeated them with his trusty club and captured the herd. It was on his journey to this island in the western ocean that he set markers in the Strait of Gades which thereafter became known as the Pillars of Hercules.
To take the Apples of the Hesperides
The Hesperides lived in a far away garden on the outer edges of the known world in which grew trees which bore golden apples. These sacred fruit were protected by Hera who had set Ladon, a fearsome hundred-headed dragon, as their guardian. Hercules first sought the advice of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, as to the exact location of the garden. On his way to the garden Hercules came across Prometheus who was bound to a rock. As punishment for having stolen fire from Hephaistos’ workshop and given it to mankind, Zeus sent an eagle everyday to eat his liver. Hercules shot down the eagle with one of his arrows and freed Prometheus; in return, Prometheus informed him that his brother Atlas (and in some accounts the father of the Hesperides) would show him how to reach the sacred garden. Atlas was then holding the heavens on his shoulders (as punishment from Zeus for supporting the Titans in their battle against the Olympian Gods), but he offered to get the apples himself if Hercules would support the heavens in his absence. Hercules agreed and was assisted by Athena in bearing the tremendous weight. Bringing back the apples, Atlas was (understandably) reluctant to take back his place. However, Hercules, under the pretext of getting cushions for his shoulders, tricked Atlas into temporarily taking back the heavens. Once Hercules was free he took the apples and returned to Mycenae. In an alternative version, Hercules subdued Ladon by giving it an intoxicating herb and then took the apples himself.
To capture Kerberos from Hades
By this time Eurystheus was becoming increasingly frustrated with Hercules’ success, and so the final task had to be impossibly difficult. This was to descend into the underworld of Hades and capture the ferocious three-headed dog Kerberos who guarded the gates. On his journey in Hades, the hero encounters many souls and persuades the god Hades to allow him to take Kerberos provided he does so without weapons. Hercules succeeds and takes the creature back to Mycenae, causing Eurystheus to jump inside a jar in fear.
Whilst performing his labours, Hercules is involved in many more secondary exploits such as fighting Hades to rescue Alcestis from the Underworld, killing Kyknos who waylaid pilgrims to Delphi, and joining the search for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts.
Hercules also went to Troy to save Hesione, daughter of the king, Laomedon. Following Laomedon’s failure to pay homage to the deeds done by Poseidon and Apollo for the city, the gods respectively sent a sea-monster and a plague to wreak havoc with the city. The Delphic oracle stated that only the sacrifice of Hesione would avert disaster for Troy. Laomedon complied but offered his celebrated immortal horses (a gift from Zeus to Laomedon’s father Troas) as a reward for anyone who could save his daughter. Hercules took up the challenge, killed the sea-monster and rescued Hesione. However, Laomedon reneged on his promised reward, and years later Hercules returned with an army, sacked Troy and killed the king (thereby making his son Priam ruler) and gave Hesione to his friend Telamon.
On the successful completion of his twelve labours, Hercules started a new life. During his exploits in Hades he had met Meleager who told him he should marry his sister Deianeira, daughter of Oineus, King of Kalydon. On arrival in Kalydon, though, Hercules found that Deianeira was betrothed against her will to Acheloos, the river god. Winning the affections of Deianeira, Hercules wrestled Acheloos into submission and married the princess himself. Deciding to settle in Tiryns, the couple had to cross the River Eunos. It was here that they encountered the centaur Nessos who carried people across the river. However, mid-crossing he unwisely molested Deianeira and Hercules fatally shot the centaur with one of his poisoned arrows. Unfortunately for Hercules, though, just before he died, Nessos lied to Deianeira and told her that his blood had aphrodisiac properties and she should collect some and keep it.
Following some years of peaceful marriage during which the couple had a son, Hyllos, Hercules decided to enter an archery competition where the prize was Iole, daughter of Eurytos, King of Oichalia. Naturally, Hercules won the competition but was refused the prize because he was already married. Piqued, Hercules then stole the horses of Eurytos and took them back to Tiryns. Iphitos then visited Tiryns to demand his father’s horses back but was killed by Hercules.
Forced to flee from his homeland, Hercules once more had to seek expiation from the oracle at Delphi. However, as he was tainted with murder the oracle refused to advise him; consequently, Hercules stole the sacred tripod of Apollo in an attempt to set up his own oracle at Pheneos. Apollo and Hercules then became enemies and only Zeus’ thunderbolt was able to separate them.
Hercules then fled to Trachis from where he went to serve Omphale, Queen of Lydia, at the orders of Zeus. He also destroyed Oichalia and took Iole as his servant. Suspecting amorous motives and seeking to win back the affections of her husband, Deianeira decided to use the blood of Nessos, covered a cloak in it and gave it to a messenger to take to Hercules. The hero wore it but the impregnated cloak caused his skin to burn terribly. Deianeira took her own life in remorse and Hercules, seeing no future for himself, instructed his son Hyllos to take him to Mount Oite and burn his body on a funeral pyre. In the event, Hyllos was unable to start the fire, and it was left to Philokretes (in exchange for Hercules' bow and arrows) to seal the hero’s fate. Immortality was assured, though, when Athena descended in her chariot and took Hercules from the flames to Mount Olympus where he married the goddess Hebe, was given the gift of eternal youth, and permitted to reside with the gods for all time.
In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art Hercules is often depicted carrying a knotted club, a quiver full of arrows, and wearing a lion’s pelt with sometimes also a lion’s head helmet. He is usually bearded (until the late 5th and 4th centuries BCE when he is more often depicted beardless) and has very large eyes. The earliest complete depiction of Hercules’ twelve labours is from the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (completed in 457 BCE). In Greek Classical comic plays he is often somewhat parodied as a party reveller. On Greek coins (notably 5th century BCE Theban ones) the infant Hercules strangling two snakes was an oft used design. Hercules was particularly esteemed in Athens, which is reflected in his frequent depiction on Attic black- and red-figure pottery in a multitude of mythological scenes, but his presence on pottery from all over Greece is evidence of the wide-ranging popularity of this Greek hero par excellence.
- Carabatea M. Greek Mythology. Pergamos, Peania, 2007.
- Hesiod. Hesiod. Loeb Classical Library, 2007.
- Homer. The Iliad. Penguin Classics, 1998.
- Hope Moncrieff A.R. Classical Mythology. Senate, London, 1994.
- National Geographic. National Geographic Essential Visual History of World Mythology. National Geographic, 2008.
- T. H. Carpenter. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. Thames & Hudson, 2012.
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600 BCE - 500 BCE