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Greek Mythology: The Twelve Labours of Heracles

Mosaic depicting the twelve labors of Hercules held at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Carole Raddato (Photographer)

Mosaic depicting the twelve labors of Hercules held at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Carole Raddato (Photographer)

While he may be better known by the Roman name, Hercules, this popular heroic figure was actually known as Heracles, to the people of ancient Greece. As a child of Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus, Heracles naturally became the focus of many stories that emphasised his formidable strength, and the bravery he displayed on his various exploits.

As a child of the mortal woman Alcmene, though, Heracles was also yet another example of Zeus's persistent infidelity—and, as such, he almost immediately became a target for Hera, the Queen of Mount Olympus. Hera's antagonism of Heracles actually began before he was even born—when Hera actively worked to delay the demi-gods birth, forcing Alcmene to endure an extended period of painful labour.

Hera's reason for this, in some versions of the story, was due to a vow made by Zeus that a descendant of the hero, Perseus, born on a certain day would be destined to become a king. Zeus, it seems, had clearly intended for this child to be Heracles—who was descended from Perseus, on his mother's side. By chance, though, Hera knew of another descendent—Eurystheus, the unborn child of Sthenelus and Nicippe. By delaying the birth of Heracles, while also hastening the birth of Eurystheus so that he was born two months premature, Hera was able to twist Zeus's own words. As a result, Heracles was destined to become a subject of his frail and sickly cousin.

This was not enough to satisfy Hera, though. Her next act came as a much more overt attack, when she sent a pair of venomous snakes after the newborn baby. Even at such a young age, though, Heracles's strength was already so formidable that the serpents posed no real threat to him. The child was later found playing with the bodies of the snakes, as though they were toys.

Hera's most effective act against Heracles can later in life, though. Once Heracles had grown into adulthood, and had already proven himself to be a formidable hero, Heracles was married to Megara, a princess of Thebes. With her, he had three sons—and, it seems, he was content to live out the rest of his life in peace, with his family. It was at this point, though, that Hera struck—inflicting Heracles with a madness that drove him to murder both his wife and his young sons.

Once this period of madness passed, Heracles was consumed by grief at what he had done. Eventually finding his way to the Oracle of Delphi, Heracles was told to offer his service to his cousin, Eurystheus—who, at this point, had become king of Tiryns, a stronghold in Mycenae—and, complete any task that was set before him. If he were to succeed in this, then he will have effectively cleansed himself of the guilt and shame that he carried.

Whether due to Hera's influence, or his own initiative, Eurystheus soon came to see Heracles' service as a way to eliminate a potential rival. As such, he made certain to set only the most difficult and dangerous tasks for Heracles. Eurystheus initially demanded that Heracles should complete ten labours during his period of service—though, for reasons that will soon become clearly, this number was ultimately increased to twelve.

The Nemean Lion

Heracles's first task was to hunt down, and slay, the Nemean lion—a massive beast whose hide was said to be impervious to any weapon. The lion had been terrorising a region to the north of Mycenae for some time—so, its death was certain to earn Heracles the admiration of the people who lived there. Of course, Eurystheus secretly hoped that the beast may prove to be too much for him.

As Heracles set out, he soon made his way to a small town called Cleonae. There, Heracles stayed with an elderly shepherd named Molorchos, who offered to bless Heracles's efforts with the sacrifice of a ram. Heracles declined, though—instead, requesting that the shepherd wait for thirty days. In Heracles returned in that time, then the two would make a sacrifice to Zeus, together—though, if he did not, her asked that Molorchos offer sacrifice in Heracles's honour, as an act of mourning.

Heracles then set out once more—tracking the beast for many days, before finally catching sight of it. Seeking to test the tales he had heard of the lion's invulnerability, Heracles first drew his bow and fire an arrow—only to see it harmlessly bounce off of the beast's hide.

Realising that the tales he had heard were clearly true, Heracles settled on a more direct approach. Tracking the lion back to the cave where it made its home, Heracles entered—blocking the entrance behind him with a large boulder. The lion attacked instantly, though Heracles was able to momentarily stun it with a blow to the head from his club. Wrapping his arms around the lion's neck, Heracles held on as the beast thrashed and struggled until, eventually, he was able to strangle it to death.

Of course, Heracles was almost immediately presented with another problem. Eurystheus had demanded that Heracles bring the belt of the Nemean lion as proof of his success—but, the beast's hide proved to be just as impenetrable in death as it was in life, and his knife was simply not up to the task. Fortunately, a solution eventually presented itself, as the increasingly frustrated demigod realised that the lion's own claws were sharp enough to cut through its hide.

By the time that Heracles returned to Cleonae, thirty days had passed—and, he found Molorchos in the process of preparing a sacrifice in his honour. The elderly shepherd was thrilled to see Heracles return alive, though—and, instead, the pair celebrated his victory with a sacrificial offering to Zeus.

When Heracles finally returned to report his success, Eurystheus was so amazed and horrified that, from that point on, he refused to meet with Heracles face-to-face. Instead, Eurystheus would only communicate with Heracles through a herald. Heracles kept the skin of the Nemean lion for himself—wearing it draped over his shoulders throughout all of his future adventures.

The Lernean Hydra

Despite Heracles's success against the Nemean lion, Eurystheus still hoped that his next challenge might prove to be more than the demigod could handle. In the swamps near a place called Lerna, a monstrous creature lurked. A poisonous serpent with nine heads, known as the Hydra, had been terrorising the countryside for some time—and, it was Heracles's task to see that it was slain. As Heracles set out, though, he did not go alone—this time travelling in the company of his nephew, Iolaus.

Making their way through the marshland where the Hydra made its home, Heracles and Iolaus soon found themselves outside the creature's lair. Knowing how dangerous it would be to confront a creature such as this in the confined space of its own lair, though, Heracles instead sought to provoke it into coming out into the open by firing burning arrows into its lair.

As the creature emerged, though, its speed and its ferocity proved to be a formidable challenge, even for the powerful demigod. Even worse, when Heracles did finally manage to sever one of the creature's head, he was surprised to see two more quickly grow from the bleeding stump. Each time Heracles managed to sever another head, this process was repeated—and, Heracles found himself increasingly overwhelmed.

Observing from a safe distance, though, Iolaus had an idea. Joining the battle with a lit torch in hand, Iolaus was able to sear the creature's flesh with fire, just as his uncle severed another head. While Iolaus had no way of knowing if his plan would work, the pair were still relieved to see that no new heads grow from the cauterised stump.

Working together, now, Heracles and Iolaus were able to repeat this process again and again—until only a single head remained. Heracles had been warned that this final head was said to be immortal, though. So, once it was also severed from the creature's body, Heracles made certain to see that it was buried—placing a large boulder over the creature's grave to ensure that it would remain trapped. At the same time, Heracles also took the opportunity to dip his arrows in the creature's potent venom.

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When Heracles returned to report his victory over the Hydra, Eurystheus was dismissive of his efforts—mockingly pointing out that the creature had only been defeated with the aid of Iolaus. To make matters worse, Eurystheus also claimed that, since Heracles had accepted help from Iolaus, the slaying of the Hydra should not be counted as one of the ten labours they had agreed to.

Hercule et l'Hydre de Lerne, Gustave Moreau, 1876

Hercule et l'Hydre de Lerne, Gustave Moreau, 1876

The Ceryneian Hind

With Heracles's success against both the Nemean lion and the Hydra, Eurystheus was forced to concede that the powerful demigod was certain to be more than a match for any for any other monstrous creatures. As a result, Eurystheus was forced to be a little more creative with the rest of the labours that he set before Heracles. For this reason, the next task that he presented to Heracles was to capture the Ceryneian hind—an extraordinarily beautiful deer said to possess golden antlers and hooves made of bronze.

As Heracles considered this new task, he realised that there were two significant challenges that immediately presented themselves. First, the hind was said to be remarkably swift, and easily capable of outrunning any arrow. Second, the hind was also sacred to Artemis—meaning that Heracles risked earning the anger of another powerful goddess, if the animal were to be harmed. This was, of course, exactly what Eurystheus hoped for.

Heracles had no real say in the matter, though. So, despite his concerns, he set out to track the animal down. The hind proved to be remarkably elusive, though—leading Heracles on a year-long chase that only came to an end when the demigod had finally exhausted the animal.

As Heracles brought the hind back to Mycenae, to present it to Eurystheus, he was confronted by Artemis. While Eurystheus had clearly been hoping for a violent confrontation between the two, though, this did not prove to be the case. Instead, Heracles responded to Artemis's demands with an honest explanation of the atonement he hoped to find in his service to Eurystheus, along with a promise to see that the hind would be released once his task was complete. In response, Artemis allowed Heracles to pass.

Once Heracles presented the hind, though, Eurystheus immediately ordered that it should be taken to his personal menagerie. Knowing that this would anger Artemis, Heracles quickly came up with a plan. Stating that he would only turn over the hind of Eurystheus came to claim it, himself, Heracles waiting until the king had presented himself before releasing the hind. The very moment that the hind was free, it immediately fled, as Heracles knew that it would—escaping before Eurystheus, or any of his guards or servants, even had a chance to react.

Eurystheus was furious, of course—but, Heracles was unimpressed. Instead, Heracles simply pointed out that he had done his part, and it was hardly his fault that Eurystheus had not been fast enough to catch the hind.

The Erymanthian Boar

In contrast to his year-long pursuit of the Ceryneian hind, the next labour presented to Heracles actually proved to be surprisingly simple. Hoping to present Heracles with another difficult pursuit of a wild animal, Eurystheus demanded that Heracles should travel to Mount Eurymanthos, where a massive boar had been seen, and bring that boar back to Mycenae alive.

In a stroke of good fortune, though, Heracles arrived at Mount Eurymanthos in the middle of winter. So, it actually proved to be a relatively simple task to chase the massive boar into a deep snowdrift, where it became stuck. Trapping the boar in a net, Heracles was then able to carry it back to Mycenae, to present it to Eurystheus. Unlike with the hind, though, Eurystheus was so terrified of the massive beast that he immediately ordered it be taken away and released.

The Augean Stables

The next labour presented to Heracles was of a very different sort to the ones that preceded it. Heracles was ordered to travel to the distant city of Elis, where King Augeas kept a massive herd of cattle in his stables. Eurystheus demanded that, not only was Heracles to clean these stables for King Augeas, but that he was also ordered to complete the task in a single day. Eurystheus believed that this would be an impossible task, even for someone like Heracles—more than that, though, he also clearly hoped to humiliate the renowned hero, by ordering him to engage in such menial labour.

When Heracles arrived in Elis, he requested a tenth of King Augeas's herd of cattle as payment for the task. Once King Augeas agreed, Heracles set to work. Rather than cleaning the stables, though, Heracles instead set himself to the task of digging massive trenches that served the divert the course of nearby rivers. As the water from these rivers rushed through King Augeas's stables, the accumulated dung was flushed away in an instant, leaving the stables clean. Once the task was complete, Heracles then filled in the trenches he had dug, and returned each river to its original course.

While King Augeas was satisfied with the state of his stables, he still refused to pay Heracles what they had agreed to—claiming that it was actually the rivers that had done the work, rather than Heracles. To add even further insult, on his return to Mycenae, Eurystheus also claimed that, by attempting to demand payment for the task he had set, Heracles had rendered it invalid.

The Stymphalian Birds

Hercules's next labour took him to Lake Stymphalia, where a large flock of man-eating birds made their home. Breeding quickly, the increasing number of these birds posed a significant threat to the countryside—with the birds destroying local crops, and even carrying off, and devouring, nearby townspeople.

As Heracles made his way to the lake, he realised that he would too deeply into the swamps where the birds made their home, as there was nothing to support his weight. With his progress stalled, Heracles was at a loss about how he could possible drive the dangerous birds away. Fortunately, the goddess Athena had begun to take an interest in Heracles's exploits, by this point, and she came to him with a potential solution. Athena presented Heracles with a rattle made by Hephaestus. This rattle made enough noise that it was able to scare the birds into taking flight—and, when they did, Heracles was able to pick them off with his bow. He repeated this process again and again, each time killing many birds—until, finally, the last remaining birds fled, seeking out a safer and quieter location to build their nests.

Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, Studio of Jacob van der Borght the Elder, 1699.

Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, Studio of Jacob van der Borght the Elder, 1699.

The Cretan Bull

Heracles's seventh labour was another that proved to be relatively simple for the renowned hero. On the island of Crete, there was a massive white bull that wreaked havoc about the island—uprooting crops and knocking down walls and trees, as it terrorised the people of Crete.

This was the same bull which, in another story, King Minos of Crete was supposed to offer as a sacrifice to Poseidon. When King Minos refused, Poseidon cursed his wife, Pasiphae, with an unnatural lust for the animal that ultimately resulted in the birth of the bull-head Minotaur. The bull's rage, as it rampaged across Crete, was also said to be a part of Poseidon's punishment.

When Heracles arrived on Crete, though, the massive beast proved to be no match for his formidable strength—and, it proved to be a simple task to sneak up behind it, and wrestle it to the ground. From there, Heracles was able to have the bull shipped back to Mycenae, where it was to be presented to Eurystheus.

Much like with the Erymanthian boar, though, Eurystheus was terrified of the massive beast, and immediately ordered it to be taken away and released. Once freed, the bull continued its rampage across the countryside—eventually making its way to the city of Marathon, where it was ultimately killed by another Greek hero, Theseus.

The Horses of Diomedes

Heracles's eighth labour was another that took him far from Mycenae. King Diomedes of Thrace had in his possession four mares that were said to have been raised on a diet of human flesh—making them strong, swift, and incredibly ferocious. There were the perfect mounts to ride into battle—and, as such, Eurystheus was determined to have them for his own. He was so desperate to possess these mares, in fact, that he did not even object when Heracles chose to make the journey with team of volunteers.

Upon arriving in Thrace, Heracles and his band were easily able to sneak into King Diomedes's stables and overpower the grooms responsible for caring for the mares. The four mares proved to be even more savage and unpredictable than even Heracles was prepared for, though—and, in the commotion caused by trying to lead them away, the alarm was raised. King Diomedes, himself, rode out in pursuit—accompanied by his finest soldiers.

Among those who had volunteered to accompany Heracles was a youth named Abderus. He was the least experienced of the band but, over the course of the journey, Heracles had still grown to be rather fond of him. Not wishing to see the boy harmed, Heracles ordered that he should remain with the mares while the rest of the band turned back to deal with their pursuers.

With Heracles leading them, the band were easily able to drive off Diomedes's soldiers—and, Heracles was able to capture the king, himself. On returning to where they had left Abderus, though, they were horrified to discover that the boy had not been able to control the savage animals. They had managed to overpower him—knocking him to the ground, and consuming him. In his fury, Heracles fed Diomedes to his own mares, also.

From that point on, with their hunger satisfied, the mares proved to be much easier to control—to the extent that, by the time Heracles's band returned to Mycenae, they were effectively tamed. For perhaps the first time, Eurystheus was genuinely thrilled by Heracles's success. He immediately ordered that the mares should be mated with his own stallions—creating a new generation of horses that were said to be the finest in all of Greece.

Diomedes King of Thrace Killed by Hercules and Devoured by his own Horses, Jean Baptist Marie Pierre, 1742.

Diomedes King of Thrace Killed by Hercules and Devoured by his own Horses, Jean Baptist Marie Pierre, 1742.

The Girdle of Queen Hippolyta

Heracles's next labour was one performed on behalf of Eurystheus's daughter, Admete. Admete wished to possess a famous girdle worn by Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons, which had been given to her by Ares, the god of war. With a formidable hero like Heracles at her father's command, she saw an opportunity that she could not let pass.

So, Heracles was sent out once more—once again travelling with a band of companions. Heracles had no way of knowing what sort of reception he would receive from the Amazons, or what he might have to do to claim Hippolyta's girdle. Upon arriving, though, Heracles was immediately given the opportunity to meet with Hippolyta, herself—and, she proved to be so impressed by him that she was willing to give him the girdle as a gift.

By this point, though, Hera had grown increasingly frustrated by Heracle's continued success. Taking on the form of an Amazon, Hera began to spread rumours that Heracles actually intended to kidnap Queen Hippolyta. The Amazons were so enraged by this that the immediately took up their weapons and launched an attack on Heracles, and his men. Believing that the attack was clear indication of Hippolyta's betrayal, Heracles killed her and took the girdle—before fighting his way back to their ship alongside his men, and retreating with the girdle in his possession.

The Cattle of Geryon

Heracles's tenth labour required him to travel further than ever before—to the island of Erytheia, located far to the west of Mycenae. There, a massive giant with three heads called Geryon lived, watching over a herd of cattle that Erystheus wanted for his own.

The journey was long and difficult, requiring Heracles to cross a desert where, becoming so angered by the persistent heat, he drew his bow and fired an arrow at the sun. As he did this, Heracles was confronted by Helios, the god of the sun. After receiving an apology from Heracles for his angry outburst, Helios offered the loan him the chariot that he used to draw the sun across the sky. With the chariot, Heracles was able to complete the rest of his journey in a single day.

Upon arriving at Erytheia, Heracles was first confronted by Orthrus, the two-headed dog that Geryon used to guard his herd. The hound attacked instantly, but Heracles was able to kill it with a single blow from his club. Next, Heracles was confronted by Eurytion, the herdsman employed by Geryon. They fought, but Heracles was able to dispose of the herdsman just as easily as he did the hound. Finally, Geryon came out to confront Heracles, himself—gripping weapons in each of his six hands as he attacked the demigod. They fought, and Heracles was initially driven back—but, he was eventually able to slay the giant with an arrow coated in the Hydra's poisoned blood.

From there, though, Heracles was confronted with the arduous task of driving Geryon's herd of cattle all the way back to Mycenae. This task was further complicated by Hera, who sought to harass him throughout the long journey—sending gadflies to bite at the cattle, and drive them to scatter, and raising a river to block his path.

Despite her efforts, though, Heracles was ultimately able to return to Mycenae with Geryon's herd. Once the cattle came into Eurystheus's possession, though, he immediately ordered that the entire herd should be offered as a sacrifice to Hera.

This was to be Heracles's last labour. However, since Eurystheus insisted that neither the slaying of the Hydra or the cleaning of Augeas's stables should be counted, he demanded that Heracles should complete two more.

The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

Heracles had only just returned with the cattle of Geryon, when Eurystheus insisted that he set out once more. This time, though, Eurystheus had chosen a task that he was certain would prove to be impossible. Heracles was to travel west once more—this time seeking out the famed garden of the Hesperides, which was tended by a trio of beautiful nymphs said to represent the golden light of the setting sun. Once he had found his way to the garden, Heracles was to steal three of the precious golden apples that grew there, and bring them to Euystheus. Before Heracles could even attempt to recover the apples, though, he had to learn the garden's location. This was an especially challenging prospect, since the garden belonged to Hera—and, it was said that only she know of its exact location.

The demigod spent many weeks travelling, seeking out any information that might lead him to the garden's location. Finally, he was informed that the sea-god Nereus, sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea, was rumoured to know the garden's location. Seeking out Nereus, Heracles found him to be reluctant to part with whatever information he may have possessed—but, by this point, Heracles was in no mood for any further delays. Grabbing hold of Nereus, Heracles attempted to force him to reveal what he knew. Nereus possessed the ability to alter his form, and he did so many times as he attempt to escape from the powerful demigod—but, Heracles maintained his grip until the sea-god was forced to relent.

With Nereus finally pointing him in the right direction, Heracles continued on his way. As Heracles approached the garden, though, he came upon Atlas—the Titan condemned by Zeus the bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. At this point, Heracles was still uncertain about how he would gain access to the garden. Atlas provided him with a potential solution, though. Revealing that the nymphs who cared for Hera's garden were actually his own daughters, Atlas offered to enter the garden on Heracles's behalf. In return, all Heracles had to do was agree to take on Atlas's burden for a short time.

Heracles agreed—and, true to his word, Atlas entered the garden and returned with three of the golden apples. Finally free from burden, though, Atlas proved to be very reluctant to take his place, once more. Rather than expression his outrage at the betrayal, though, Heracles seemed resigned to his fate—agreeing to remain where he was, on the condition that Atlas give him a moment to adjust his cloak. Perhaps moved by guilt and sympathy, Atlas agreed—taking on the weight of the heavens once more. As soon as he had done so, though, Heracles took up the golden apples and left. As Heracles made his way back to Mycenae, Atlas was left to ponder his own foolishness.

The Garden of the Hesperides, Edward Burne-Jones, circa 1869-73.

The Garden of the Hesperides, Edward Burne-Jones, circa 1869-73.

The Capture of Cerberus

The twelfth, and final, labour presented to Heracles was also the most dangerous. This time, Heracles was ordered to travel all the way to the underworld, the realm of Hades, in order to capture Cerberus—the three-headed dog that served as the guardian of its gates. Once he had done this, Heracles was to bring Cerberus back to the realm of the living, and present the massive beast to Eurystheus.

Before Heracles could even hope to make such a journey, though, it was necessary for him to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. In doing so, Heracles would be able to learn the secrets of how a living person could enter the realm of the dead, and leave again. Once he had done this, Heracles's next task was the discover a means of entering the underworld. For this task, Heracles called on Hermes and Athena to act as his guides.

Within the depths of the underworld, Heracles met with Hades. Not willing to risk earning the anger of such a powerful god, Heracles explained why he had come, and asked for permission to take Cerberus back to the realm of the living. Hades granted his permission—but, only on the condition that Heracles subdue the beast bare-handed. It was a long and difficult struggle—but, the impenetrable skin of the Nemean lion protected Heracles from Cerberus's bites. Finally, Heracles was able to subdue the massive hound.

Binding Cerberus, Heracles carried the beast back into the realm of the living, where he presented it to Eurystheus. Eurystheus was so horrified that he once again refused to meet with Heracles face-to-face. Instead, he begged the demigod to return Cerberus to where he belonged—offering to release Heracles from any further service, provided that he did so immediately.

Heracles was, of course, happy to oblige. Making one more journey into the underworld, Heracles set Cerberus free. As Heracles returned to the realm of the living once again, he did so knowing that he was finally free—not just from his service to Eurystheus, but also from the guilt and shame that he had carried with him for so long.

© 2020 Dallas Matier

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