Hercules, known as Herakles in the original Greek, is perhaps one of the most popular heroes in classical mythology. His is a tale of great misfortune and redemption. He was the son of Alcmene and Zeus and was meant to be the high king, but Hera tricked Zeus into promising the kingdom to the first-born of the royal house and slowed down Herakles’ birth so that Eurystheus, his cousin, became king instead.
Hera is well known to hold great prejudice against the illegitimate children of her husband and so Alcmene abandoned Herakles for fear of her wrath but was later found by Athena, who then took him to Hera and tricked her into breastfeeding him, giving him great strength. When Athena returned Herakles to Alcmene, Hera sent two giant serpents to kill him but he squeezed them to death. This breastfeeding story is where he gets the name Herakles (Alcmene had named him Alcaeus), which means “glory by the aid of Hera”.
His Twelve Labours
Later in life, Hera drove Herakles temporarily insane, and drove him to killing his wife and children. When he recovered, he was devastated and visited Delphi to ask the oracle how he could atone for what he had done. It sent him to be at the service of Eurystheus (his cousin and king of Tiryns and Mycenae) and perform whatever labours he was tasked with. The labours were originally meant to be ten but Eurystheus refused to recognize two of them and so Herakles spent the next twelve years performing these twelve labours. He was to be granted immortality when he completed them.
Labour 1: Killing the Nemean Lion
For this labour Herakles had to go the Nemea to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people there for Eurystheus. He soon discovered that arrows were useless against the lion’s fur, so he trapped it in a cave with two entrances, one of which he blocked, and stunned the lion with his olive club and strangled it. He tried to skin it with a knife but he did not succeed and according to some he skinned it with its’ own claws as he was told by Athena.
When he returned to Mycenae with the hide, King Eurystheus was amazed and terrified, and forbade Herakles from ever entering the city again in fear. Henceforth, he was to present the fruits of his labours outside the gates and his labours would be dictated to him through by herald. He also had a Bronze jar (pithos) made to use in case he ever needed to hide from Herakles.
Labour 2: The Lernean Hydra
The hydra was a water dwelling venomous serpent with 9 (or a hundred, sources differ) heads. Only one of these was immortal, however, once you cut off one of the others, two more would grow back. First, he lured the creature out with flaming arrows. He then tried to cut off its heads and soon realized that it was futile, so he called upon Iolaus, his nephew and eromenos, to help him. Iolaus used fire to burn the necks of the heads Herakles severed and this prevented them from growing back.
Herakles finally cut off the last immortal head using a golden sword given to him by Athena. He buried the head and dipped arrows into the hydra’s venomous blood. Upon returning to Eurystheus, the King declared that this did not count as one of the ten labours since he had received help from Iolaus, so he had gone through all that trouble for nothing.
This was another aspect that the Ancient Greek and Romans respected: Herakles accepted the labours his king set him without becoming angry or rebellious, even when he was made to struggle and gain nothing in return. He simply accepted his fate. This was particularly admired by the Romans whose most important value was Pietas, the duty to family and homeland.
Labour 3: The Hind of Ceryneia
The Hind of Ceryneia was a red doe with golden horns and bronze hoofs. It was the favoured pet of Artemis and was said to be faster than an arrow. The difficulty of this labour was in that he had to capture the hind alive. Eurystheus realized that Herakles was very capable of killing most creatures so he was instead told to capture it. Eurystheus hoped this would incur Artemis’ wrath and that she would kill him.
Herakles chased the hind for a year after which it got tired and slowed down to rest. It was now that Herakles wounded the doe (with a net or arrow) and caught it. On his way back to Mycenae, he encountered Artemis and Apollo, and he begged Artemis for forgiveness and explained how this was a part of his penance and that he would return the hind to her once he had shown it to the King.
When he arrived at the gates he was told the King wanted to keep the hind in his stables, Herakles realized that this would make Artemis angry so he told the King that if he wanted it he would have to get it himself. When he arrived Herakles released the deer, which ran back to its owner. Herakles then jokingly reproached Eurystheus for not been quick enough to stop it.
Labour 4: The Erymanthian Boar
For this labour Eurystheus told Herakles to bring him the Erymanthian boar alive. While Herakles was going up the mountain where the boar dwelled, he came across a friend, a centaur named Pholus. Pholus cooked for Herakles but ate his meat raw. After the meal, Herakles asked for wine and Pholus told him the only wine he had was a sacred gift, given to the centaurs by Dionysius. After being prompted by Herakles he opened the wine whose scent drew in the other centaurs. They attacked Herakles and he drove them away with the arrows dipped in hydra venom.
He then went up to capture the boar by chasing it around the mountain and he managed to frighten it into a deep patch of snow which Chiron, his old teacher, told him would enable him to catch the boar. Having achieved his success, Herakles took it back to Eurystheus who was so frightened by the boar that he hid in his little bronze jar.
In the meantime, Pholus grabbed an arrow, wondering how something so small could kill something so large, and he dropped it on his foot and died instantly.
Labour 5: Augean Stables
Herakles was tasked with cleaning the stables of King Augeas, who owned over a 1000 immortal cattle, in a day. These stables had not been cleaned in thirty years! Herakles succeeded by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash away the dung. This task was intended to be extremely humiliating for Herakles but he succeeded without humiliation.
However, Herakles had not told King Augeas that Eurystheus had commanded him to do this task, and bet Augeas that he could clean the stables in a day tin return for a tenth of his herd. The King agreed but later refused to pay the price once he found out that Eurystheus had sent Herakles. Augeas’ son, Phyleus, defended Herakles in court and in a rage Augeas banished them both. Herakles returned, killed the King and gave his kingdom to Phyleus. The success of this labour was discredited by Eurystheus since he didn’t clean the stables himself and was eventually paid for his labour.
Labour 6: Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian birds were animals sacred to Ares and had bronze beaks, toxic dung, metallic feathers, which they could hurl at their victims, and ate the flesh of man (according to Pausanias, these birds are originally from Arabian countries). They had gathered at a lake in Arcadia and were destroying crops and terrorizing the people so Eurystheus tasked Herakles with driving them away.
Herakles was at a loss and so Athena came to his aid by giving him a rattle, called a krotala, which had been made by Hephaestus. He rattled the krotala and disturbed the birds from their trees and proceeded to shoot them down with bow and arrows, successfully completing his labour.
Labour 7: The Cretan Bull
Herakles was tasked with killing the white bull, which Poseidon had sent to King Minos of Crete, who was in turn meant to sacrifice it to Poseidon but did not. Poseidon cursed Minos, causing his wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull and give birth to the Minotaur. The bull was terrorizing Crete and Herakles was tasked with bringing it to Eurystheus. He caught it by pummeling it with his bare fists, stopping right before he killed it, and took it to Eurystheus, who hid in his little jar. Eurystheus was going to sacrifice the bull to Hera but she refused, since that would reflect glory on Herakles. And so the bull was released to terrorize Greece and ended up in Marathon, where Theseus later killed it.
Labour 8: Mares of Diomedes
Diomedes was a King of Thrace and had trained four horses, Podargos (swift-footed), Lampon (shining), Xenthos (blonde), and Deinos, (terrible) to eat human flesh. Some say they could even breathe fire. They were bound in bronze because their unnatural diet had driven them mad. Herakles did not know this and entrusted their care to his most trusted companion, Abderus, while he went to fight Diomedes.
They trampled Abderus and when Herakles returned, he fed them Diomedes and this calmed them down enough for him to bind them again. He then founded the city of Abdera in honour of his friend (according to Apollodorus).
Labour 9: The Belt of Hippolyta
Eurystheus’ daughter wanted the belt of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, which had been a gift from her father. So Eurystheus sent Herakles to get it for her. The Amazons were women warriors and their name meant “missing one breast”, reflecting the fact that they used to cut off one of their breasts at a very young age because it would get in the way when they threw their spears. They lived apart from men, and if they gave birth they kept only the females and raised them as warriors.
Herakles set sail with a band of men and when they reached the land of the amazons, Hippolyta came down to the harbour to ask what they were doing there. Herakles explained to Hippolyta what happened and she agreed to give him the belt. Hera disguised herself as an Amazonian warrior and told the Amazonians that Herakles was there to take their queen. So they put on their armour and charged for Herakles and his men.
When he saw them, Herakles accused Hippolyta of planning to attack him from the start and that she never intended to give him the belt in the first place so he killed her, took the belt and went back Eurystheus.
Labour 10: Cattle of Geryon
For this labour, Herakles had to bring Geryon’s herd of cattle to Eurystheus. Geryon lived on an island named Erythia which was behind the straits of Gibraltar. Geryon had three heads and three sets of arms. When Herakles arrived at the place where Europe met Libya he built two mountains to commemorate his journey (according to Apollodorus).Others say he split a mountain in half and the space in between became the straits of Gibraltar and the mountains became known as the Pillars of Hercules.
The herd was guarded by Cerberus’ brother, a two-headed dog named Orthus. Herakles killed him with a blow of his olive branch club and did the same to a shepherd named Eurythion. In the meantime, Geryon had been warned and came ready to fight Herakles, who killed him with his poisoned arrows. He then proceeded to start to herd the cattle back to Greece and Eurystheus.
Labour 11: The Apple of the Hesperides
The Hesperides were nymphs of the sunset and evening, and they tended a blissful garden at the western edge of the world. Herakles was tasked with stealing a golden apple from their garden. Since he did not know the location of the garden, he captured Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea, who was a shape shifter) and bound him until he told him where the garden was.
He arrived at the garden, which was guarded by a 100-headed dragon named Ladon. He slew the dragon and then encountered Prometheus. Herakles killed the eagle that was eating his liver and, in thanks, Prometheus told him that the only way to get the apples was if Atlas, the Titan who held up the sky, got them for him.
Herakles then approached Atlas and asked him to get him the apple for him. In exchange, Herakles offered to hold up the sky in his stead. Atlas agreed because he hated the burden so much and when he got the apple he told Herakles that he would take the apple to Eurystheus for him. Herakles, however, tricked him by agreeing but saying that first he wanted Atlas to hold the sky while Herakles put some padding on his shoulders. Atlas agreed and Herakles ran off with the apple.
Labour 12: Cerberus
Herakles’ final labour was also the most dangerous labour. He had to bring Cerberus himself, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, back to Eurystheus. Herakles got to the underworld and came across several heroes, monsters and ghosts. It is said he freed Theseus here. He eventually came to Hades and asked him for Cerberus. The god agreed, on the condition that Herakles had to overcome the dog with only his brute strength. Herakles succeed, took Cerberus to Eurystheus, who once again got so scared that he hid in his pithos, and returned him to Hades. Once he had completed his final labour, Herakles was granted immortality.