Heracles was a divine hero in Greek mythology, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, and the foster son of Amphitryon. He was a great-grandson and half-brother (as they are both sired by the god Zeus) of Perseus, and similarly a half-brother of Dionysus. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes, the ancestor of royal clans who claimed to be Heracleidae, and a champion of the Olympian order against chthonic monsters. In Rome and the modern West, he is known as Hercules, with whom the later Roman emperors, in particular Commodus and Maximian, often identified themselves. The Romans adopted the Greek version of his life and works essentially unchanged, but added anecdotal detail of their own, some of it linking the hero with the geography of the Central Mediterranean. Details of his cult were adapted to Rome as well.
Driven mad by Hera, Heracles slew his own children. To expiate the crime, Heracles was required to carry out ten labors set by his archenemy, Eurystheus, who had become king in Heracles' place. If he succeeded, he would be purified of his sin and, as myth says, he would become a god, and be granted immortality.
Other traditions place Heracles' madness at a later time, and relate the circumstances differently. In some traditions there was only a divine reason for Heracles twelve labors: Zeus, in his desire not to leave Heracles the victim of Hera's jealousy, made her promise that, if Heracles executed twelve great works in the service of Eurystheus, he should become immortal. In the play Herakles by Euripides, Heracles is driven to madness by Hera and kills his children after his twelve labors.
Despite the difficulty, Heracles accomplished these tasks, but Eurystheus in the end did not accept the success the hero had with two of the labors: the cleansing of the Augean stables, because Heracles was going to accept pay for the labor; and the killing of the Lernaean Hydra, as Heracles' nephew, Iolaus, had helped him burn the stumps of the multiplying heads.
Eurystheus set two more tasks, fetching the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capturing Cerberus. In the end, with ease, the hero successfully performed each added task, bringing the total number of labors up to the magic number twelve.
Not all versions and writers give the labors in the same order. The Bibliotheca (2.5.1–2.5.12) gives the following order:
1. Slay the Nemean Lion
Heracles defeated a lion that was attacking the city of Nemea with his bare hands. After he succeeded he wore the skin as a cloak to demonstrate his power over the opponent he had defeated.
2. Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
a fire-breathing monster with multiple serpent heads that when one head was cut off, two would grow in its place. It lived in a swamp near Lerna. Hera had sent it in hope it would destroy Heracles' home city because she thought it was invincible. With help from his nephew Iolaus, he defeated the monster and dipped his arrows in its poisoned blood, thus envenomizing them.
not to kill, but to catch, this hind that was sacred to Artemis. A different, but still difficult, task for a hero. It cost time but, having chased it for a year, Heracles wore out the Hind. Artemis intervened, but as soon as Heracles explained the situation to her, she allowed him to take it, and he presented it alive to Eurystheus.
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
a fearsome marauding boar on the loose. Eurystheus set Heracles the Labor of catching it, and bringing it to Mycenae. Again, a time-consuming task, but the tireless hero found the beast, captured it, and brought it to its final spot. Patience is the heroic quality in the third and fourth Labors.
5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day
the Augean stables were the home of 3,000 cattle with poisoned feces which Augeas had been given by his father Helios. Heracles was given the near impossible task of cleaning the stables of the diseased feces. He accomplished it by digging ditches on both sides of the stables, moving them into the ditches, and then diverting the rivers Alpheios and Peneios to wash the ditches clean.
6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds
these aggressive man-eating birds were terrorizing a forest near Lake Stymphalia in northern Arcadia. Heracles scared them with a rattle given to him by Athena, to frighten them into flight away from the forest, allowing him to shoot many of them with his bow and arrow and bring back this proof of his success to Eurystheus.
7. Capture the Cretan Bull
the harmful bull, father of the Minotaur, was laying waste to the lands round Knossos on Crete. It embodied the rage of Poseidon at having his gift (the Bull) to Minos diverted from the intention to sacrifice it to himself. Heracles captured it, and carried it on his shoulders to Eurystheus in Tiryns. Eurystheus released it, when it wandered to Marathon which it then terrorized, until killed by Theseus.
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes
stealing the horses from Diomedes' stables that had been trained by their owner to feed on human flesh was his next challenge. Heracles' task was to capture them and hand them over to Eurystheus. He accomplished this task by feeding King Diomedes to the animals before binding their mouths shut.
9. Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
Hippolyta was an Amazon queen and she had a girdle given to her by her father Ares. Heracles had to retrieve the girdle and return it to Eurystheus. He and his band of companions received a rough welcome because, ordered by Hera, the Amazons were supposed to attack them; however, against all odds, Heracles completed the task and secured the girdle for Eurystheus.
10. Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
the next challenge was to capture the herd guarded by a two-headed dog called Orthrus, which belonged to Geryon; a giant with three heads and six arms who lived in Erytheia. While traveling to Erytheia, he passed through the Libyan dessert and was so annoyed by the heat he shot an arrow at Helios, the sun. Helios, impressed, lent him his giant cup which Heracles used to find Orthrus, the herdsman Erytion and the owner, Geryon. He killed the first two with his club and the third with a poisoned arrow. Heracles then herded the cattle and, with difficulty, took them to Eurystheus.
11. Steal the golden apples of the Hesperides
these sacred fruits were protected by Hera who had set Ladon, a fearsome hundred-headed dragon as the guardian. Heracles had to first find where the garden was; he asked Nereus for help. He came across Prometheus on his journey. Heracles shot the eagle eating at his liver, and in return he helped Heracles with knowledge that his brother would know where the garden was. His brother Atlas offered him help with the apples if he would hold up the heavens while he was gone. Atlas tricked him and did not return. Heracles returned the trickery and managed to get Atlas taking the burden of the heavens once again, and returned the apples to Mycenae.
12. Capture and bring back Cerberus
his last labor and undoubtedly the riskiest. Eurystheus was so frustrated that Heracles was completing all the tasks that he had given him that he imposed one he believed to be impossible: Heracles had to go down into the underworld of Hades and capture the ferocious three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates. He used the souls to help convince Hades to hand over the dog. He agreed to give him the dog if he used no weapons to obtain him. Heracles succeeded and took the creature back to Mycenae, causing Eurystheus to be fearful of the power and strength of this hero.
Rescue of Prometheus
Hesiod's Theogony and Aeschylus' Prometheus Unbound both tell that Heracles shot and killed the eagle that tortured Prometheus (which was his punishment by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals). Heracles freed the Titan from his chains and his torments. Prometheus then made predictions regarding further deeds of Heracles.
Temple of Heracles in the Valle dei Templi, Sicily, Italy (from 6th century BCE). (685k) Metope from the Temple of Zeus, showing one of the tasks of Heracles, getting the golden apples of the Hesperides. Heracles is in the center, holding up the sky. Athena is on the left, helping Heracles. Atlas is on he right holding the golden apples. From Olympia, Greece. (602k) Metope from the Temple of Zeus, showing one of the tasks of Heracles, capture Cerberus from the Underworld. From Olympia, Greece. (502k) Metope from the Temple of Zeus, showing one of the tasks of Heracles, cleaning the Augean stables. Athena is on the right. From Olympia, Greece. (593k) Metope from the Temple of Zeus, showing one of the tasks of Heracles, killing the Stymphalian Birds. Athena is on the left, receiving the dead birds. From Olympia, Greece. (577k) Metope from the Temple of Zeus, showing one of the tasks of Heracles, capture the Cretan Bull. From Olympia, Greece. (549k) Terracotta figurine of Heracles, from Pella, Greece (between 4th and 1st century BCE). (585k) Terracotta figurine of reclining Heracles, from Pella, Greece (between 4th and 1st century BCE). (713k) Head of a terracotta figurine of Heracles, from Pella, Greece. (471k) Semicircular marble base with depictions of ten Gods and Heroes of the Greek Pantheon, from Nikopolis, Greece. Heracles is second from left. (1027k) Closer view of Heracles, from Nikopolis, Greece. (890k) Heracles, Corinth, Greece. (764k) Heracles and the Horses of Diomedes, Corinth, Greece. (720k) Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar, Corinth, Greece. (719k) Heracles and the Stymphalian Birds, Corinth, Greece. (720k) Heracles and Triton, Acropolis Athens, Greece. (674k)
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