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The Greek Myth of Heracles

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Greek Myths: The Origins | Centaurs | The 12 Olympians | Achilles
Gods of Greek Mythology | Heroes of Greek Mythology | The Trojan War
Heracles | Sirens | Prometheus | Perseus | Pygmalion and Galatea
Jason and the Argonauts | The Children of Nyx | Death and the Underworld

Heracles depicted in the Ancient Grecian style

Heracles, known to the Romans as Hercules, was a Greek hero whose most well known feature was his enormous strength inherited from his father, Zeus. Many of his exploits can be read as being historical representations of actual sociological development, for example the transition from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one. These include descriptions of earlier ceremonies and rituals and their suppression1.

Heracles' Birth and Childhood

Alcmene2 - Heracles' mother - was the celibate and pious wife of Amphitryon, who had gone off to avenge the deaths of her eight brothers.

Zeus went to Alcmene in disguise, pretending to be her husband Amphitryon (who had by this point avenged her brothers3). Zeus persuaded Helios, the Sun god, to take some time off, which meant the Moon had to orbit slowly, and thus the night was extended to 36 hours.

Zeus could not keep his mouth shut and nine months later was boasting that his child was about to be born and that it would be called 'Heracles', literally, 'Glory of Hera' (his wife's name).

Hera was none too pleased on hearing these rumours. Zeus wanted his new son to be High King of the House of Perseus. Hera made him swear an unbreakable oath that any prince born before nightfall would become High King and managed to delay Heracles' birth and bring about the birth of the child of Nicippe (then seven months pregnant and wife of King Sthenelus) who was named Eurystheus.

On finding out that Eurystheus had been born an hour before Heracles, Zeus fell into a towering rage. Although he could not go back on his oath and let Heracles rule the House of Perseus, he persuaded Hera to agree to Heracles becoming a god, if he could perform any 12 labours that Eurystheus might set him (see below).

Exposed in a field by his mother, who feared Hera's jealousy, Heracles was found by Athene (who had been primed by Zeus) and Hera. Put to the breast of Hera, the child sucked so hard that Hera threw him off and a spurt of milk flew into the air, becoming the Milky Way. However, Heracles had now become immortal and was returned to Alcmene by a smiling Athene.

At the age of around ten months, when Heracles was asleep with his twin brother Iphicles (Amphitryon's actual son, not important to the story), they awoke to find two terrible serpents, who had been sent by Hera to destroy Heracles. Iphicles was terrified, but Heracles was found smiling and strangling both snakes4.

While he was growing up, Heracles had good teachers. Amphitryon taught him to ride a chariot. Castor gave him lessons in using weapons and strategy. He was taught boxing, archery (which he was very good at), to sing and play the lyre, and was instructed in literature and augury.

When Heracles was 18, King Thespius, who had 50 daughters, decided that he wanted each one to have a child by Heracles and every night one of the daughters visited him - although some say he bedded them all except one in a single night. They all had one child each, except the oldest and the youngest, who both had twins.

After defeating the enemies of King Creon of Thebes, Heracles was given his eldest daughter, Megara, in marriage as a reward. They had several sons, known as Alcaids. Some say that he had three, four or even eight.

The Madness of Heracles

Hera drove Heracles mad and in his madness, he attacked and killed six of his sons, mistaking them for enemies and he threw their bodies into a fire, together with two of Iphicles' sons. They had been performing martial arts together5. The Thebans are said to have held funeral games afterwards in honour of the victims.

Apparently madness is the traditional 'excuse' for the sacrifice of the sacred king's boy-surrogates, who were burned alive. At the time, the actual king went into hiding for a day before coming out and reclaiming the throne.

When he recovered his sanity, according to some accounts, Heracles approached the Pythoness at Delphi, who advised him to serve Eurystheus for 12 years and to carry out tasks that he might set. Other accounts have the madness occuring after his return from Tartarus and say that he killed his wife, Megara, as well.

The 12 Labours of Heracles

Below you will find short descriptions of the tasks doled out to Heracles. Check out the in-depth entry on The 12 Labours of Heracles for more information on the individual tasks.

  • The First Labour - the Nemean Lion - The Nemean, or Cleonaean, lion was an enormous beast, whose pelt was proof against iron, bronze and stone, and which was depopulating the area of Nemea.

  • The Second Labour - the Lernean Hydra - The Lernean Hydra was a monster born of Typhon, another monster, and Echidne. The Hydra terrorised the area around Lerna, near Argos. It had a dog-like body and most likely eight or nine heads, one of them immortal, although some versions of the story claim that the Hydra had anything from 50 to 1,000 heads. It was so venomous that its breath, or even the smell of its tracks, could kill a man.

  • The Third Labour - the Ceryneian Hind - Heracles' third task was to capture the Ceryneian Hind, and to bring her alive to Mycenae. She had brazen hooves and golden horns like a stag and was sacred to Artemis. Other accounts tell of her being a ravaging monster which Heracles killed.

  • The Fourth Labour - the Erymanthean Boar - The Erymanthean Boar6, again of enormous proportions, lived on the slopes of Mount Erymanthis, ravaging the surrounding countryside and Heracles' task was to capture it alive.

  • The Fifth Labour - the Stables of Augeias - This task was to clean out the filthy stables of King Augeias in a single day. They had not been cleaned in many years and the stench from them was spreading disease for many miles around, although the cattle themselves were not affected by it. The valley pastures were so deep in dung that they could not be ploughed.

  • The Sixth Labour - the Stymphalian Birds - The birds of this task were crane-sized, brazen-beaked, brazen-clawed, brazen-winged man-eating birds, which lived on the Stymphalian Marsh. They killed people by shooting/showering them with brazen feathers. Their excrement also contained a powerful poison, which blighted the crops. Heracles' labour was to remove these birds, which were sacred to Ares.

  • The Seventh Labour - the Cretan Bull - This task was to capture the Cretan Bull, which may have been the one which sired the Minotaur. In Crete, it was ravaging the land, belching flames, rooting up crops and levelling orchard walls.

  • The Eighth Labour - the Mares of Diomedes - King Diomedes kept four savage man-eating mares, who were the scourge of Thrace. Hercules' task was to capture them.

  • The Ninth Labour - Hippolyte's Girdle - Hippolyte was Queen of one of three tribes of Amazons and she wore the golden girdle of Ares. Eurystheus set Heracles the task of bringing back the girdle for his daughter, Admete7. The Amazons were children of Ares by the Naiad (water nymph) Harmonia. In Amazon society, men carried out the household tasks and women fought and governed. They were said to have broken the arms and legs of boy children to prevent them from travelling and fighting.

  • The Tenth Labour - the Cattle of Geryon - Geryon was said to be the strongest man alive and had three bodies, joined at the waist, and therefore three heads and six arms. This task was to fetch Geryon's famous cattle without demand or payment from the island of Erytheia. The cattle were guarded by a herdsman and a two-headed watchdog, Orthus, another offspring of Typhon and Echidne.

  • The 11th Labour - the Apples of the Hersperides - Heracles had originally been set ten Labours, which took him eight years and a month to complete, but Eurysteus, rather meanly, discounted two of them (the second and the fifth) and set him two more. The 11th task was to fetch golden apples from the tree which Mother Earth had given as a wedding gift to Hera. The tree was on the slopes of Mount Atlas and was looked after originally by the Hesperides, Atlas's daughters, and later by the dragon Ladon.

  • The 12th Labour - the Capture of Cerberus - The final and most difficult task was for Heracles to bring up the dog Cerberus up from Tartarus (the Underworld). For this he had to undergo purification rites, these being the Mysteries of Eleusis.

Heracles' Life after the Labours

His labours over, Heracles decided to give away his wife to his nephew and to look for a younger wife. He set his eyes on Iole, daughter of Eurytus, son of Melanius, King of Oechalia. Eurytus set him an archery challenge, which he completed, but then refused to honour the agreement, after finding out about Megara.

This set in chain a series of events, in which Heracles was falsely accused of stealing horses and murdering one of Eurytus' sons, who was a guest in his house. He was sentenced to a year's slavery to atone for his wrong-doing. He was bought by Ommphale, Queen of Lydia, by whom he had either three or four sons. She discovered who he was after he had killed a giant snake and set him free, loading him with gifts.

Heracles was supposed to have taken off his lion pelt and put on a turban, jewels and women's clothing and to have taken up weaving. However it seems that he and Omphali had exchanged clothing following union and Pan, coming upon them in the dark, tried to have his way with the owner of the silk clothing, getting a nasty shock and a kick up the backside from Heracles, who laughed mightily. So Pan spread rumours about him in revenge.

Heracles was involved in a number of further adventures including:

  • Rescuing Hesione, daughter of Laomedon, King of Troy, who had been chained, stark naked (except for her jewels) to a rock as an offering to a sea-monster, sent by Apollo. Heracles jumped down the monster's throat and took three days to kill it, and came out of the confrontation bald!

  • At Zeus' invitation, he put his lion pelt round the newly born son of Telemon's wife, Pereboea - the mighty Ajax, making him invulnerable, except in his neck and armpit.

  • Making war on Troy and putting Priam on the throne.

  • Being thrown off course in a ship at Hera's instigation, whereupon Zeus, in a temper, chained Hera to some rafters by the wrists and put anvils on her ankles. He also threw Hephaestus to earth and the other gods around Olympus until Heracles was rescued.

  • Getting the title Buphagus, or 'Ox-eater' after completing the challenge of throwing the discus, drinking bucket after bucket of water and then eating a whole ox.

Heracles' Death and Beyond

Heracles died a rather horrible death after his second wife Deianeira gave him a shirt which she thought contained a fidelity potion. It actually contained hydra's blood and when he put it on at a ceremony, it acted like acid, corroding his flesh and exposing his bones. When he jumped in a river, it burned even worse. His wife, on hearing about it, committed suicide. Heracles made a funeral pyre and lay on it and thunderbolts from Zeus reduced the lot to ashes.

After his son's physical death, Zeus got all the gods (including Hera) to agree to accept him into their fold. So as not to have to demote any of the existing 12 gods, he persuaded Hera to adopt Heracles by a ceremony of rebirth, in which he hid under Hera's skirts and she pretended to go through labour. He married her daughter Hebe and had two children and became the Porter of Heaven. His mortal shade walked around Tartarus, with his bow drawn and an arrow fitted.

1See the book The Greek Myths - 2 by Robert Graves, ISBN 0-14-020509-8 for more information on both Heracles and the historical context.2According to Robert Graves, Alcmene, meaning 'strong in wrath' was a Mycenaean name for Hera, whose sovereignty Heracles protected against her Achaean enemy, Perseus (which means 'destroyer'). When Perseus' forces triumphed, they claimed Heracles as a member of the usurping House of Perseus.3When Amphitryon returned, having avenged her brothers, he was given a less than warm welcome, and when he found out who had been laying with his wife, he dare not lay with her again - ever!4In all probability the story of the snakes has been misinterpreted. More likely the snakes were licking out his ears.5The eight Alcaids may have been part of a sword dance team like the eight morris dancers in the Mummers team, which ends in the victim's resurrection.6The boar was sacred to the Moon because of its crescent-shaped tusks. It was forbidden to eat boar except at Midwinter.7Admete is another name for Athene.

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