Heracles, known by the Romans as Hercules, was
the most famous of all the Greek heroes.
Heracles' Early Life
Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmena, so like Theseus and Perseus he was the son of a god and a mortal woman. Unlike his twin brother Iphicles Heracles was born with superhuman strength.
Hera was jealous of her husband's love affair, and when Heracles was eight months old she sent enormous snakes into their cradle to kill them. Heracles was already so strong that he strangled the snakes with his bare hands.
Heracles was raised in Thebes and helped them in their wars. He married Megara and had several children with her. One day Hera sent a fit of madness upon him so that he killed all his own children.
To purify himself of this terrible crime, Heracles agreed to perform the famous Twelve Labours. These were ordered by King Eurystheus, but were really Hera's idea.
The Twelve Labours
The labours of Heracles were an old traditional story which only became twelve when twelve metopes showing the labours were carved on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about 460BC.
1. The Nemean Lion
An enormous, ferocious lion was terrorising the plain of Nemea in the Peloponnese. Heracles attacked with arrows, club and sword, but the weapons bent. He strangled it to death, then skinned it with its own claws, and from then on wore the skin to protect himself.
2. The Hydra of Lerna
The Hydra was a monster with the body of a serpent and nine terrible heads which breathed a poisonous stench. Each time Heracles cut off one head another grew. Eventually Heracles burned each stump to stop it growing back and slew the monster.
3. The Erymanthean Boar
Heracles' third task was to capture and bring back to Mycenae a giant savage boar.
4. The Cerynitian Hind
Heracles captured the giant hind (stag) of Cerynaia by chasing it for a whole year.
5. The Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian birds had sharp feathers that speared to death anyone who came near. Athena who was Heracles' main helper, asked Hephaestos to make a huge bronze clapper. Heracles used this to startle the birds, and they flew off so Heracles was able to pick them off with his arrows.
6. The Augean Stables
The stables of king Augeas were enormous and his great herds of
cattle had produced vast amounts of dung. To
clean them Heracles diverted the waters of two rivers, washing away the
filth in one day.
7. The Cretan Bull
Heracles 7th task was to capture the giant savage bull of Crete. He did so and Eurystheus intended to sacrifice it to Hera, but she instead released it.
8. The Horses of Diomedes
Diomedes, King of Thrace, kept four savage mares and fed them the flesh of any passing stranger. Heracles' job was to tame them. He fed Diomedes to his own beasts which was the only way to tame them.
9. The Girdle of Hippolyte
Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons (warrior women) owned a girdle which was a symbol of her power. Heracles' job was to get the girdle. He travelled to the Amazons with companions including Theseus.
Hippolyte would gladly have given him the girdle, but Hera sowed seeds of discord, and a battle followed in which Heracles slew Hippolyte.
10. The Cattle of Geryon
Geryon was a three-bodied monster who owned an enormous herd of cattle. Heracles was required to kill Geryon and capture the cattle.
11. The Capture of Cerberus
For the 11th labour Heracles had to descend into the underworld and capture Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog which protected the kingdom of the dead, stopping people from entering - or leaving. Heracles wrestled the dog and brought it to Eurystheus, who told him to send it back again.
12. The Apples of the Hesperides
Heracles' last task was to gather fruit from the golden apple tree of the Hesperides, the Nymphs of the Evening. After a long search Heracles found the garden. He then told Atlas, whose job was to hold up the heavens on his shoulders, that he would take his burden for a while of Atlas would get him some of the apples. Atlas agreed and got the apples, but refused to take back the sky. Heracles tricked Atlas by asking him to hold the sky for a moment while he adjusted his cushion to make it more comfortable. Atlas agreed but then Heracles was freed to return to Mycenae with the Apples.
Heracles Becomes a god
When Heracles died, Athena carried Heracles to Olympus, and he lived there with the immortal gods, making up with Hera at last, and marrying Hera's daughter Hebe.
Heracles wrestles the Nemean lion
Heracles battles the Hydra
Heracles and the horses of Diomedes
Heracles calms Cerberus