Heracles: Ancient Greece’s Most Famous Hero

Greek mythology offers a panoply of heroic characters, from Achilles to the ideal Athenian man, Theseus, many of whom can claim a divine bloodline. And there is probably no hero in Ancient Greece as well known today as the mighty Heracles (or as he’s more commonly known by his Roman name, Hercules).

Heracles survives in popular culture right into the modern age as the very symbol of superhuman strength – indeed, in the heyday of the traveling carnival it would be rare to find one whose resident strongman didn’t use the name “Hercules”. And while other Greek heroes have had their moments in popular media, none have had the exposure (with sometimes . . . creative interpretations) that Heracles has enjoyed. So, let’s unpack the mythology of this enduring hero and his legendary journeys.

Heracles’ Origin

It’s no surprise that the greatest of Greek heroes would be the son of the greatest of Greek gods – Zeus, king of the Olympians. Zeus had a habit of fathering heroes, and in fact one of his earlier progeny – the hero Perseus – was the grandfather of Heracles’ mother, Alcmene.

Alcmene had been the wife of Amphitryon, an exiled prince of Tiryns who had fled with her to Thebes after accidentally killing his uncle. While he was away on a heroic journey of his own (avenging his wife’s brothers), Zeus visited Alcmene disguised as her husband.

From that tryst, Alcmene conceived Heracles, and when the real Amphitryon returned the same night, Alcmene conceived a son with him as well, Iphicles. An account of this origin story, in the form of a comedic play, can be found in Amphitryon by the Roman playwright Plautus.

The Wicked Stepmother

But from the very beginning, Heracles had an adversary – Zeus’ wife, the goddess Hera. Even before the child was born, Hera – in furious jealousy over her husband’s trysts – began machinations against Heracles by exacting a promise from Zeus that the next descendant of Perseus would be a king, while the one born after that would be his servant.

Zeus readily agreed to this promise, expecting that the next child born of Perseus’ line would be Heracles. But Hera had secretly beseeched her daughter Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth) to both delay Heracles’ arrival while at the same time cause the premature birth of Eurystheus, Heracles’ cousin and the future king of Tiryns.

Heracles’ First Battle

And Hera didn’t stop with simply trying to curtail Heracles’ destiny.  She also attempted to murder the child outright while he was still in the cradle, sending a pair of snakes to kill the infant.

This didn’t work out as she had planned, however. Instead of killing the child, she gave him his first chance to display his divine strength. The infant strangled both snakes and played with them like toys, slaying his first monsters before he was even weaned.

Heracles’ Birth Name and an Ironic Nursemaid

While Heracles is one of the most famous names of Greek Mythology, it’s interesting to note that he wasn’t known by that name initially. At birth, the child had been named Alcides. In an attempt to placate Hera’s wrath, however, the child was renamed “Heracles,” or “Hera’s glory,” meaning the hero was ironically named after his most enduring foe.

But in an even greater irony, Hera – who had already tried to kill the newborn Heracles once – saved the child’s life. Legend says that Alcmene had initially been so fearful of Hera that she had abandoned the infant outdoors, leaving him to his fate.

The abandoned infant was rescued by Athena, who took her half-brother to Hera herself. Not recognizing the sickly child as Zeus’ spawn, Hera actually nursed little Heracles. The infant suckled so hard it caused the goddess pain, and when she pulled him away her milk splattered across the sky, forming the Milky Way. Athena then returned the nourished Heracles to his mother, with Hera none the wiser that she had just saved the child she had so recently tried to kill.

An Excellent Education

As the son of Zeus and the stepson of Amphitryon (who became a prominent general in Thebes), Heracles had access to an array of impressive tutors both mortal and mythic.

His stepfather trained him in charioteering. Literature, poetry, and writing he learned from Linus, the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope. He learned boxing from Phanoté, son of Hermes, and swordsmanship from Castor, twin brother of another of Zeus’ sons, Pollux. Heracles also learned archery from Eurytus, king of Oechalia and wrestling from the grandfather of Odysseus, Autolycus.

Heracles’ Early Adventures

Once he grew to adulthood, Heracles’ adventures began in earnest, and one of his first deeds was a hunt. The cattle of both Amphitryon and King Thespius (ruler of a polis in Boeotia, in central Greece) were being harried by the Lion of Cithaeron. Heracles hunted the beast, pursuing it through the countryside for 50 days before finally slaying it. He took the lion’s scalp as a helmet and dressed himself in the creature’s hide.

Returning from the hunt, he encountered emissaries of Erginus, king of the Minyans (an indigenous people of the Aegean region), who had been coming to collect an annual tribute of 100 cows from Thebes. Outraged, Heracles mutilated the emissaries and sent them back to Erginus.

The enraged Minyan king sent an army against Thebes, but Heracles, as described in the Bibliotheke by Diodorus Siculus, caught the army in a bottleneck and slew King Erginus and most of his forces single-handedly. He then journeyed to the Minyan city of Orchomenus, burned the king’s palace, and razed the city to the ground, after which the Minyans paid double the original tribute to Thebes.

In gratitude, King Creon of Thebes offered Heracles his daughter Megara in marriage, and the two soon had children, though the number (between 3 and 8) varies depending on the version of the tale. The hero also received various rewards from Apollo, Hephaestus, and Hermes.

Heracles’ Madness

This domestic bliss would be short-lived, as Hera’s undying anger resurfaced to plague the hero again. While the other gods gave gifts, Hera, in her continuing campaign against Heracles, afflicted the hero with madness.

In his frenzied state, Heracles mistook his own children (and in some versions, Megara as well) for enemies and either shot them with arrows or cast them into a fire. After his madness had passed, Heracles was grief-stricken at what he had done.

Tricked into Servitude

Desperate for a way to cleanse his soul, Heracles consulted the Oracle at Delphi. But it is said Hera shaped the Oracle’s pronouncement to Heracles, telling him that he needed to bind himself in service to King Eurystheus to find redemption.

Whatever the case, Heracles followed the Oracle’s instruction and pledged himself in service to his cousin. And as part of this pledge, Heracles beseeched Eurystheus for some means by which he might expiate his guilt over his actions while in the grip of Hera’s madness.

The Twelve Labors of Heracles

Hera’s scheme to make Heracles the servant of his cousin Eurystheus was meant to undermine his legacy. Instead, it gave him the chance to establish it with what would be his most famous adventures – his Twelve Labors.

Eurystheus initially gave Heracles ten tasks to cleanse his soul for the murder of his family, missions believed by the king and Hera to be not only impossible, but possibly fatal. As we have seen before, however, Heracles’ courage, skill, and of course his divine strength was more than equal to Hera’s missions.

Labor #1: Slaying the Nemean Lion

The city of Nemea was beset by a monstrous lion said by some to be the offspring of Typhon. The Nemean Lion was said to have a golden coat impenetrable to mortal weapons, as well as claws no mortal armor could withstand.

Many versions of the story have Heracles initially attempting to slay the beast with arrows before realizing they were no use against the beast. He ultimately blocked up the creature in its own cave and cornered it. Having fashioned a great olive wood club (in some accounts, by simply ripping a tree from the ground), he clubbed and finally strangled the lion.

He returned with the carcass of the lion to Tiryns, and the sight so terrified Eurystheus he forbade Heracles entering the city with it. Heracles kept the pelt of the Nemean Lion and is often depicted wearing it as armor.

Labor #2: Slaying the Hydra

Eurystheus next sent Heracles to Lake Lerna where dwelt the terrible Hydra, an eight-headed water snake that was yet another offspring of Typhon and Echidna. Heracles’ next task was to slay this fearsome monster.

Heracles drew the creature from its lair with flaming arrows, but once he began lopping off heads, he quickly realized two heads grew back for each one he cut. Fortunately, he was accompanied by his nephew – Iphicles’ son Iolaus – who had the idea of cauterizing the stumps as each head was cut off, thus preventing the new ones from growing in.

The two worked in concert, with Heracles’ cutting off heads and Iolaus applying flame to the stump, until only one remained. This last head was immortal, so Heracles decapitated it with a golden sword from Athena and left it pinned forever under a heavy rock. As the blood of the Hydra was incredibly poisonous, Heracles dipped his arrows in it, and these poisoned arrows would serve him well in many later battles.

Labor #3: Capturing the Golden Hind

In Ceryneia, a polis (Greek for city) in ancient Achaea, there dwelt a fabulous hind. Though it was a female deer, it still sported impressive, golden antlers, and its hooves were either brass or bronze. The creature was said to be far larger than any normal deer, and it snorted fire and chased farmers from their fields.

The goddess of the hunt, Artemis, had supposedly captured four of the creatures to pull her chariot. As it was a sacred animal, Heracles had no desire to harm the Hind. This made the hunt especially challenging, and Heracles pursued the animal for a year before finally capturing it at the river Ladon.

Labor #4: Capturing the Erymanthian Boar

A terrible, giant boar lived on Mount Erymanthos. Whenever the beast roamed off the mountain, it laid waste to everything in its path, so Heracles’ fourth task was to capture the beast.

Heracles drove the beast out of the brush where it had the advantage and pursued it into deep snow where it would have difficulty maneuvering. Once he had the exhausted beast bogged down in the snow, he wrestled it down.

Heracles then bound the boar with chains and carried it on his shoulders all the way back to Eurystheus. The king was so terrified at the sight of Heracles carrying the boar that he hid in a bronze vessel until the hero took it away.

An Interlude

After the Fourth Labor, it is said, Heracles set out with the Argonauts on their adventure, taking along his companion Hylas, son of King Theiodamas. The two traveled on the Argo as far as Mysia, where Hylas was lured away by nymphs.

Unwilling to abandon his friend, Heracles searched for Hylas while the Argonauts continued on their voyage. Hylas, unfortunately, was utterly enchanted by the nymphs, and by the time Heracles found him he was unwilling to leave them.

Labor #5 Cleaning the Augean Stables in a Day

While the fifth Labor of Heracles wasn’t deadly, it was intended to be humiliating. King Augeas of Elis was famed for his stables, which held more cattle than any other in Greece, some 3,000 heads.

These were divine, immortal cattle which produced a prodigious amount of dung – and the stables had not been cleaned in some thirty years. So Eurystheus gave Heracles the task of cleaning the stables.

Furthermore, Augeas himself offered Heracles a tenth of his herd if he could complete the job in a single day. Heracles rose to the challenge, diverting two rivers – the Peneus and Alpheus – to wash out the stables with a flood.

Labor #6: Killing the Stymphalian Birds

Next, Heracles was tasked with slaying the Stymphalian Birds, which dwelt in a marsh in Arcadia. These birds were fearsome creatures, either believed to be pets of the goddess Artemis or creatures of the god Ares, and from the marshes of Arcadia they ravaged the countryside.

The birds were described by Pausanias in his Description of Greece, and were the size of cranes with bronze beaks that could pierce most armor and metallic feathers that made them tough to kill.  They were also capable of flinging those feathers at their targets, and they were known to be eaters of men.

While the ground of the marsh was too soggy for Heracles to enter, he had a small rattle called a krotala (another gift of Athena), the sound of which stirred the birds so that they took to the air. Then, armed with his poisoned arrows, Heracles killed most of the birds, with the survivors flying away never to return.

Labor #7: Capturing the Cretan Bull

Next, Heracles was sent to capture the Cretan Bull which had been gifted by Poseidon to King Minos of Crete to be used for sacrifice. Unfortunately, the king coveted the bull for himself, and substituted a lesser bull from his own herd.

As punishment, Poseidon had enchanted Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to couple with the bull and birth the fearsome minotaur. The bull itself then ran rampant across the island until Heracles wrestled it into captivity and took it back to Eurystheus. The king then released it into Marathon, where it would later be slain by another Greek hero, Theseus.

Labor #8: Stealing the Mares of Diomedes

Heracles’ next task was to steal the four mares of the giant Diomedes, King of Thrace, and these were no ordinary horses. Fed on a diet of human flesh, the Mares of Diomedes were wild and frenzied, and in some accounts even breathed fire.

To capture them, Heracles chased them onto a peninsula and quickly dug a channel to cut it off from the mainland. With the horses sequestered on this makeshift island, Heracles fought and slew Diomedes, feeding him to his own horses. With the horses calmed by the taste of human flesh, Heracles led them back to Eurystheus, who offered them in sacrifice to Zeus. The god rejected the foul creatures and sent beasts to slay them instead.

Labor #9: Taking the Girdle of Hippolyte

Queen Hippolyte of the Amazons had a leather girdle given to her by Ares. Eurystheus wanted this girdle as a present for his daughter, and tasked Heracles with retrieving it.

Since taking on the entire Amazon army would be a challenge even for Heracles, a party of the hero’s friends sailed with him to the land of the Amazons. They were greeted by Hippolyte herself, and when Heracles told her what he wanted, Hippolyte promised that she would give him the girdle.

Unfortunately, Hera interfered, disguising herself as an Amazon warrior and spreading word to the entire army that Heracles and his friends had come to kidnap their queen. Expecting a fight, the Amazons donned their armor and charged Heracles and his friends.

Quickly realizing he was under attack, Heracles slew Hippolyte and took the girdle. He and his friends found the charging Amazons, ultimately driving them off so they could set sail again and Heracles could bring the belt to Eurystheus.

Labor #10: Steal the Cattle of Geryon

The last of the original ten tasks was to steal the cattle of the monstrous giant Geryon, a creature with three heads and six arms. The herd was further guarded by the two-headed dog Othrus.

Heracles slew Orthrus with his club, then killed Geryon with one of his poisoned arrows. He then managed to round up Geryon’s cattle and took them back to Mycenae to present to Eurystheus.

The Additional Labors

While Heracles had completed the ten labors initially assigned to him by Eurystheus, the king refused to accept two of them. As Heracles had enlisted help from Iolaus in killing the Hydra and accepted payment for cleaning the Augean stables (though Augeas had refused to actually give Heracles the cattle after the task was completed), the king rejected those two tasks, and assigned two more in their place.

Labor #11: Stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides

Heracles was first sent to steal golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, or nymphs of the evening. The apples were guarded by a fearsome dragon, Ladon.

To find the garden, Heracles searched the world until he found the sea god Nereus and gripped him tight until the god revealed its location. He then journeyed to Mount Caucasus where Prometheus was trapped and slew the eagle that came daily to eat his liver. In gratitude, the Titan told Heracles that he needed to have Atlas (the father of the Hesperides) retrieve the apples for him.

This he did, bargaining with Atlas to hold up the world until he returned. Atlas at first attempted to leave Heracles in his place, but the hero tricked the Titan into taking back the burden, freeing him to return the apples to Eurystheus.

Labor #12: Capturing Cerberus

The final labor given to Heracles was to capture the three-headed dog Cerberus. This challenge was perhaps the simplest of all – Heracles traveled into the Underworld (rescuing the hero Theseus along the way) and simply asked Hades’ permission to borrow Cerberus briefly.

Hades agreed on the condition that Heracles use no weapons and not harm the creature. So, Heracles grabbed all three heads of the dog and choked it until it was unconscious and carried it to Mycenae.

When Eurystheus saw Heracles approaching with Cerberus, he hid behind his throne and bid the hero to take it away. Heracles then safely returned it home to the Underworld, thus completing the last of his labors.

After the Twelve Labors

Once Heracles successfully brought Cerberus back to Mycenae, Eurystheus had no further claim on him. Released from his service, and with his guilt for the frenzied murders of his children expunged, he was once again free to carve his own path.

One of the first things Heracles did when free was fall in love again, this time with Iole, daughter of King Eurytus of Oechalia. The king had offered his daughter to whoever could win an archery contest against him and his sons, all expert archers.

Heracles answered the challenge and won the competition with a perfect score. But Eurytus feared for his daughter’s life, thinking Heracles might succumb to madness again as he did before, and reneged on the offer. Only one of his sons, Iphitus, advocated for the hero.

Unfortunately, madness did afflict Heracles again, but Iole was not his victim. Rather, Heracles killed his friend Iphitus in his mindless rage by throwing him from the walls of Tiryns. Tortured by guilt again, Heracles fled the city seeking redemption through service, this time binding himself for three years to Queen Omphale of Lydia.

Service to Omphale

Heracles performed a number of services while in Queen Omphale’s service. He buried Icarus, the son of Daedalus who fell after flying too close to the son. He also killed Syleus, a vine grower who forced passers-by to work his vineyard, and Lityerses, a farmer who challenged travelers to a harvesting contest and beheaded those who couldn’t beat him.

He also defeated the Cercopes, mischievous forest creatures (sometimes described in accounts as monkeys) who roamed the land causing trouble. Heracles bound them, hanging upside down, to a wooden pole he carried on his shoulder.

At Omphale’s direction, he also went to war against the neighboring Itones and seized their city.  And in some accounts, Heracles – again, by his mistress’ order – completed all these tasks in women’s clothing, while Omphale wore the Nemean Lion hide and carried the hero’s club.

Further Adventures

Free once more, Heracles journeyed to Troy, where King Laomedon had been compelled to chain his daughter, Hesione, to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster sent by Apollo and Poseidon. Heracles rescued Hesione and slew the monster on the promise that Laomedon would pay him with sacred horses that had been gifted to the king’s grandfather by Zeus.

Once the deed was done, however, the king refused to pay, prompting Heracles to sack Troy and kill the king. He next set out to deal payback to another king who’d slighted him – Augeas, who’d refused the promised payment for cleaning his stables. Heracles slew the king and his sons, save for one son, Phyleus, who’d been the hero’s advocate.

Jealousy and Death

He also defeated the river god Achelous in a battle for the hand of Deianeira, daughter of the Calydonian king Oeneus. Journeying to Tiryns, however, Heracles and his wife had to cross a river, so they enlisted the help of a centaur, Nessus, to carry Deianeira across while Heracles swam.

The centaur attempted to abscond with Heracles’ wife, and the hero shot the centaur dead with a poison arrow. But the dying Nessus tricked Deianeira into taking his blood-soaked shirt, telling her his blood would inflame Heracles’ love for her.

Heracles then made his final act of revenge, setting out on a campaign against King Eurytus, who had unfairly denied him the hand of his daughter Iole. After slaying the king and his sons, Heracles abducted Iole and took her as his lover.

When Deianeira learned that Heracles was returning with Iole, she worried that she would be supplanted. Taking the blood of the Centaur Nessus, she soaked it into a robe for Heracles to wear when he made a sacrifice to Zeus.

But the blood was actually a poison, and when Heracles donned the robe, it caused him immense, unending pain. Seeing his terrible suffering, Deianeira hanged herself in remorse

In desperation to end his pain, Heracles commanded his followers to build a funeral pyre. The hero crawled onto the pyre and bid them to light it, burning the hero alive – though in most accounts, Athena descended in a chariot and bore him to Olympus instead.

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