BirthHercules was the Roman namefor the greatest hero of Greekmythology -- Heracles. Like mostauthentic heroes, Heracles had agod as one of his parents, beingthe son of the supreme deityZeus and a mortal woman.Zeuss queen Hera was jealousof Heracles, and when he wasstill an infant she sent twosnakes to kill him in his crib.Heracles was found prattlingdelighted baby talk, a strangledserpent in each hand.
The Labors• When he had come of age andalready proved himself anunerring marksman with a bowand arrow, a champion wrestlerand the possessor ofsuperhuman strength, Heracleswas driven mad by Hera. In afrenzy, he killed his ownchildren. To atone for this crime,he was sentenced to perform aseries of tasks, or "Labors", forhis cousin Eurystheus, the king ofTiryns and Mycenae. By rights,Hercules should have been kinghimself, but Hera had tricked herhusband Zeus into crowningEurystheus instead.
Labor One: The Nemean LionAs his first Labor, Heracles waschallenged to kill the Nemean lion.This was no easy feat, for the beastsparentage was supernatural and itwas more of a monster than anordinary lion. Its skin could not bepenetratedby spears or arrows.Heracles blocked off the entrancesto the lions cave, crawled into theclose confines where it would haveto fight face to face and throttled itto death with his bare hands. Everafterwards he wore the lions skin asa cloak and its gaping jaws as ahelmet.
Labor Two: The Hydra• King Eurystheus was so afraid of hisheroic cousin that when he saw himcoming with the Nemean lion on hisshoulder, he hid in a storage jar.From this shelter he issued the orderfor the next Labor. Heracles was toseek out and destroy the monstrousand many-headed Hydra. Themythmakers agree that the Hydralived in the swamps of Lerna, butthey seem to have had troublecounting its heads. Some said thatthe Hydra had eight or nine, whileothers claimed as many as tenthousand. All agreed, however, thatas soon as one head was beatendown or chopped off, two moregrew in its place.
Labor Two: The Hydra (continued)• To make matters worse, the Hydrasvery breath was lethal. Even smellingits footprints was enough to kill anordinary mortal. Fortunately,Heracles was no ordinary mortal. Hesought out the monster in its lair andbrought it out into the open withflaming arrows. But now the fightwent in the Hydras favor. It twinedits many heads around the hero andtried to trip him up. It called on anally, a huge crab that also lived in theswamp. The crab bit Heracles in theheel and further impeded his attack.Heracles was on the verge of failurewhen he remembered his nephew,Iolaus, the son of his twin brotherIphicles.
Labor Two: The Hydra (concluded)• Iolaus, who had driven Heracles toLerna in a chariot, looked on inanxiety as his uncle becameentangled in the Hydras snakyheads. Finally he could bear it nolonger. In response to his unclesshouts, he grabbed a burning torchand dashed into the fray. Now, assoon as Heracles cut off one of theHydras heads, Iolaus was there tosear the wounded neck with flame.This kept further heads fromsprouting. Heracles cut off the headsone by one, with Iolaus cauterizingthe wounds. Finally Heracles loppedoff the one head that wassupposedly immortal and buried itdeep beneath a rock.
Labor Three: the Cerynitian HindThe third Labor was the capture ofthe Cerynitian hind. Though afemale deer, this fleet-footed beasthad golden horns. It was sacred toArtemis, goddess of the hunt, soHeracles dared not wound it. Hehunted it for an entire year beforerunning it down on the banks of theRiver Ladon in Arcadia. Takingcareful aim with his bow, he fired anarrow between the tendons andbones of the two forelegs, pinning itdown without drawing blood. Allthe same, Artemis was displeased,but Heracles dodged her wrath byblaming his taskmaster Eurystheus.
Labor Four: the Erymanthian BoarThe fourth Labor took Heracles backto Arcadia in quest of an enormousboar, which he was challenged tobring back alive. While tracking itdown he stopped to visit thecentaur Pholus. This creature -- half-horse, half-man -- was examiningone of the heros arrows when heaccidentally dropped it on his foot.Because it had been soaked inpoisonous Hydra venom, Pholussuccumbed immediately. Heraclesfinally located the boar on MountErymanthus and managed to drive itinto a snowbank, immobilizing it.Flinging it up onto his shoulder, hecarried it back to Eurystheus, whocowered as usual in his storage jar.
Labor Five: The Augean StablesEurystheus was very pleased withhimself for dreaming up the nextLabor, which he was sure wouldhumiliate his heroic cousin. Heracleswas to clean out the stables of KingAugeas in a single day. Augeaspossessed vast herds of cattle whichhad deposited their manure in suchquantity over the years that a thickaroma hung over the entirePeloponnesus. Instead of employinga shovel and a basket as Eurystheusimagined, Heracles diverted tworivers through the stableyard andgot the job done without gettingdirty. But because he had demandedpayment of Augeas, Eurystheusrefused to count this as a Labor.
Labor Six: The Stymphalian Birds• The sixth Labor pitted Heraclesagainst the Stymphalian birds, whoinhabited a marsh near LakeStymphalus in Arcadia. The sourcesdiffer as to whether these birdsfeasted on human flesh, killed menby shooting them with feathers ofbrass or merely constituted anuisance because of their number.Heracles could not approach thebirds to fight them - the ground wastoo swampy to bear his weight andtoo mucky to wade through. Finallyhe resorted to some castanets givento him by the goddess Athena. Bymaking a racket with these, hecaused the birds to take wing. Andonce they were in the air, he broughtthem down by the dozens with hisarrows.
Labor Seven: the Cretan Bull• Queen Pasiphae of Crete had beeninspired by a vengeful god to fall inlove with a bull, with the result thatthe Minotaur was born -- a monsterhalf-man and half-bull that hauntedthe Labyrinth of King Minos.Pasiphaes husband wasunderstandably eager to be rid ofthe bull, which was also ravaging theCretan countryside, so Hercules wasassigned the task as his seventhLabor. Although the beast belchedflames, the hero overpowered it andshipped it back to the mainland. Itended up near Athens, where itbecame the duty of another hero,Theseus, to deal with it once more.
Labor Eight: the Mares of DiomedesNext Heracles was instructed tobring Eurystheus the mares ofDiomedes. These horses dined onthe flesh of travelers who made themistake of accepting Diomedeshospitality. In one version of themyth, Heracles pacified the beastsby feeding them their own master.In another, they satisfied theirappetites on the heros squire, ayoung man named Abderus. In anycase, Heracles soon rounded themup and herded them down to sea,where he embarked them forTiryns. Once he had shown them toEurystheus, he released them. Theywere eventually eaten by wildanimals on Mount Olympus.
Labor Nine: Hippolytes BeltThe ninth Labor took Heracles to theland of the Amazons, to retrieve the beltof their queen for Eurystheus daughter.The Amazons were a race of warriorwomen, great archers who had inventedthe art of fighting from horseback.Heracles recruited a number of heroesto accompany him on this expedition,among them Theseus. As it turned out,the Amazon queen, Hippolyte, willinglygave Hercules her belt, but Hera was notabout to let the hero get off so easily.The goddess stirred up the Amazonswith a rumor that the Greeks hadcaptured their queen, and a great battleensued. Heracles made off with the belt,and Theseus kidnapped an Amazonprincess.
Labor Ten: the Cattle of GeryonIn creating monsters and formidablefoes, the Greek mythmakers used asimple technique of multiplication. ThusGeryon, the owner of some famouscattle that Heracles was now instructedto steal, had three heads and/or threeseparate bodies from the waist down.His watchdog, Orthrus, had only twoheads. This Labor took place somewherein the country we know as Spain. Thehound Orthrus rushed at Heracles as hewas making off with the cattle, and thehero killed him with a single blow fromthe wooden club which he customarilycarried. Geryon was dispatched as well,and Heracles drove the herd back toGreece, taking a wrong turn along theway and passing through Italy.
Labor Eleven: the Apples of theHesperidesThe Hesperides were nymphs entrustedby the goddess Hera with certain appleswhich she had received as a weddingpresent. These were kept in a grovesurrounded by a high wall and guardedby Ladon, a many-headed dragon. Thegrove was located in the far-westernmountains named for Atlas, one of theTitans or first generation of gods. Atlashad sided with one of his brothers in awar against Zeus. In punishment, he wascompelled to support the weight of theheavens by means of a pillar on hisshoulders. Heracles, in quest of theapples, had been told that he wouldnever get the them without the aid ofAtlas.
Labor Eleven: the Apples of theHesperides (concluded)The Titan was only too happy tooblige. He told the hero to hold thepillar while he went to retrieve thefruit. But first Heracles had to killthe dragon by means of an arrowover the garden wall. Atlas soonreturned with the apples but nowrealized how nice it was not to haveto strain for eternity keeping heavenand earth apart. Heracles wonderedif Atlas would mind taking back thepillar just long enough for him tofetch a cushion for his shoulder. TheTitan obliged and Heracles strolledoff, neglecting to return.
Labor Twelve: the Capture of CerberusAs his final Labor, Heracles wasinstructed to bring the hellhoundCerberus up from Hades, the kingdom ofthe dead. The first barrier to the soulsjourney beyond the grave was the mostfamous river of the Underworld, theStyx. Here the newly dead congregatedas insubstantial shades, mere wraiths oftheir former selves, awaiting passage inthe ferryboat of Charon the Boatman.Charon wouldnt take anyone acrossunless they met two conditions. Firstly,they had to pay a bribe in the form of acoin under the corpses tongue. Andsecondly, they had to be dead. Heraclesmet neither condition, a circumstancewhich aggravated Charons naturalgrouchiness.
Labor Twelve: the Capture of Cerberus(concluded)But Heracles simply glowered so fiercelythat Charon meekly conveyed him acrossthe Styx. The greater challenge wasCerberus, who had razor teeth, three (ormaybe fifty) heads, a venomous snakefor a tail and another swarm of snakesgrowing out of his back. These lashed atHeracles while Cerberus lunged for apurchase on his throat. Fortunately, thehero was wearing his trusty lions skin,which was impenetrable by anythingshort of a thunderbolt from Zeus.Heracles eventually choked Cerberus intosubmission and dragged him to Tiryns,where he received due credit for thisfinal Labor.
DeathHeracles had a great many otheradventures, in after years as well asin between his Labors. It waspoisonous Hydra venom thateventually brought about hisdemise. He had allowed a centaur toferry his wife Deianara across a river,and the centaur had attacked her onthe other side. Heracles killed himwith an arrow, but before he died hetold Deinara to keep some of hisblood for a love potion. Deinaraused some on Heracles tunic tokeep him faithful, little realizing thatit had been poisoned with Hydravenom from the arrow. Heraclesdonned the tunic and died in agony.
Afterlife• Heracles was the only hero tobecome a full-fledged god uponhis demise, but even in his casethere was his mortal aspect to bedealt with. By virtue of hisspectacular achievements, evenby heroic standards, he wasgiven a home on Mount Olympusand a goddess for a wife. Butpart of him had come not fromhis father Zeus but from hismortal mother Alcmene, andthat part was sent to theUnderworld. As a phantasm iteternally roams the Elysian Fieldsin the company of other heroes.