A Brief History
Whether you know this Greek Hero as Herakles, Heracles, or Hercules, and whether you picture him as played by Arnold Schwarzenneger or Kevin Sorbo, this man who has come to symbolize all that is strong and heroic did not always have it so good himself.
Born of the God Zeus and a mortal mother, this demi-god was hated by Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, although at first his true identity was hidden from Hera, who nursed him as a baby. Possessing incredible strength even then, the little Hercules sucked so hard that Hera’s milk spewed across the heavens to form the Milky Way.
Growing into a strong, witty, and attractive man, Hercules took a wife and had children, but in a fit of madness put upon him by the vengeful Hera murdered his entire family. When free of the madness, Hercules consulted the Oracle at Delphi to find out how he could atone for so grave a sin. Again, with Hera’s influence, Hercules was given to King Eurystheus to serve at the King’s pleasure. Hercules was to be given 10 tasks known as The Labours of Hercules. Each of these labours was either incredibly difficult, dangerous, or both, and would require all of Hercules intellect as well as strength. Hercules was cheated out of credit for 2 of the tasks and therefore had to complete a total of 12 Labours. These labours are:
1. Slay the Nemean Lion.
Unable to penetrate the lion’s magical hide with his arrows, Hercules clubbed it senseless and strangled it with his tremendous strength.
2. Slay the Lernaean Hydra.
Using a golden sword given to him by Athena, as Hercules cut off each head of the multi-headed monster 2 new ones would grow back. He then used a burning torch to burn each neck stump as he cut each head off to keep it from regrowing extra heads. Hercules finally cut off the last, immortal head. Just for good measure, Hercules dipped his supply of arrows in the poisonous blood of the Hydra to create poisoned arrows for use in later tasks.
3. Capture the Ceryneian Hind.
Faster than an arrow, this female deer owned by Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt. After chasing the Hind for over a year, Hercules captured it either while sleeping, or with a net, or with an arrow shot between both forelegs. An angry Artemis agreed to allow him to take the Hind back to Eurystheus as long as it would be released. Hercules brought the Hind back, but made sure it could escape when he handed it over to the King.
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
This next monster to be conquered was kept by bloodthirsty Centaurs, who Hercules killed with his poisoned arrows. He then captured the boar by driving it into deep snow where it struggled helplessly.
5. Clean the Augean Stables.
Not exactly dangerous, but a daunting task nonetheless, these stables were home to over 1000 cattle (and perhaps other critters) and had not been cleaned for over 30 years. The accumulated filth would have taken years to clean by any normal methods. Hercules used his ingenuity to divert a river through the stables to wash away the filth and complete the task. Hercules has wisely bargained with Augeas for a tenth of the cattle if Hercules could complete the task.
6. Kill the Stymphalian Birds.
These man eating bird with metallic feathers that protected them and could be flung at people like arrows were sacred to Ares, God of War, and had highly toxic dung as well. Hercules tricked them into flight with a magic rattle and shot his arrows into their unprotected parts as they flew, killing many and driving the rest away. (These surviving birds would later battle Jason and the Argonauts.)
7. Capture the Cretan Bull.
This giant, rampaging creature was devastating the countryside of King Minos realm. Hercules captured it by sneaking up behind it and choking it just short of death. On return with his prize, Hercules gave it to a cowering King Eurystheus who let it loose where it became the Marathon Bull. (There is no record of Schlitz Brewing ever to have taken ownership.)
8. Bring Back the Mares of Diomedes.
Firebreathing, man-eating horses owned by the King of Thrace, Hercules isolated them by digging a ditch around them effectively putting them on an island. After killing Diomedes, Hercules bound the mouths of the mares and drove them back home where Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice them to Zeus, who refused the sacrifice and sent wolves, bears, and lions to kill them instead.
9. Retrieve the Belt of Hippolyta.
Sent on a perilous journey to bring back the belt of the Amazon Queen for the daughter of Eurystheus, Hercules established a cordial relationship with the warrior Queen who agreed to just give him the belt. Hera got up to her tricks, and sowed discontent among the Amazons who then confronted Hercules. Our hero then killed the Amazons, including Hippolyta who he wrongly thought had plotted against him and took her belt.
10. Bring Back the Cattle of Geryon.
On another epic journey far across the Libyan desert, Hercules traveled to steal the cattle of the monster Geryon. In a tremendous battle, Hercules prevailed by using his poisoned arrows to kill the giant. Just to make things harder for Hercules, Hera sent biting flies to torment the cattle as Hercules drove them back to Eurystheus causing him extra time and effort in this task.
11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
Eurystheus declared the 10 labours incomplete, claiming that Hercules had profited by the cleaning of the Augean Stables (and the river did the work, anyway) and that killing the Hydra did not count because Hercules had the help of a boy to burn the neck stumps. Hercules convinced Atlas to retrieve the apples for him, by offering to hold up Atlas’s massive burden of the Heavens while Atlas got the apples. Of course, Atlas laughed at Hercules once the switch was made, and had no intention of resuming his eternal role of supporting the Heavens. Hercules tricked Atlas by agreeing to take over the task permanently, but could Atlas please take the load for a minute while Hercules adjusted his cloak to pad his shoulders? Atlas fell for the trick, and Hercules left with the apples.
12. Capture Cerberus.
The ferocious 3 headed monster dog that guarded the entrance to the Underworld, Cerberus was owned by Hades, God of the Underworld. Hades agreed to let Hercules take the Hell Hound only if Hercules could subdue the creature without using weapons. The might Hero managed to do just that, and returned triumphantly with his last prize. The coward Eurystheus was so afraid of Cerberus, that he begged Hercules to return the monster to the Underworld.
After fulfilling his obligation by successfully completing each task, Hercules was free to go about his heroic life, and he joined with Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Today Hercules has become synonymous with “strong man” and has been the subject of numerous television and movie characters, even cartoons, as well as appearing in many written stories over the centuries. He even had a thirteenth and final labor in God of War III (2010). Watch the following video to see if he succeeded:
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For more information, please see…
Cerasini, Rc. Twelve Labors of Hercules (Step into Reading, Step 3, paper). Random House Books for Young Readers, 1997.
Haus, Estudio and Blake Hoena. The 12 Labors of Hercules: A Graphic Retelling (Ancient Myths). Capstone Press, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen of the front panel from a sarcophagus with the Labours of Heracles (from left to right, the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Ceryneian Hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Girdle of Hippolyta, the Augean stables, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes), has been released by the copyright holder of this work into the public domain worldwide.