Heracles is arguably the most famous figure from Greek mythology, with the importance of the demi-god referenced by the fact that his life was incorporated wholesale into Roman mythology, where the son of Zeus was known as Hercules.
Heracles is remembered for his legendary strength, and is remembered for undertaking 12 Tasks or Labours. Most people though are probably unaware of why the Labours of Heracles were set, or who set them.
Why Twelve Labours for Heracles?
The person who set the Labours of Heracles was King Eurystheus of Mycenae, and his story we will come on to shortly; as to why the Labours were set are in essence an act of penance for Heracles.
Heracles was the son of the supreme deity Zeus, and the mortal queen Alcmene, and the birth of Heracles was a clear sign of the infidelity of Zeus. Hera, the wife of Zeus, therefore did everything she could to get rid of Heracles. One plan put in place by Hera saw the goddess Lyssa dispatched to the home of Heracles; Lyssa was the goddess of raging madness, and under her influence, Heracles killed his wife Megara and his children.
When he came back to his sense Heracles visited the Oracle of Delphi to find out how to atone for his crime, and it was the Pythia who told the demi-god to place him in the servitude of King Eurystheus for a period of time (either 10 or 12 years).
King Eurystheus and Heracles
An Early Prophecy
The lives of King Eurystheus and Heracles had been intertwined since before they were born.
Zeus had made a proclamation that on a certain day a new king of Mycenae would be born from the line of Perseus; and of course, Zeus intended that his new king was to be his unborn son Heracles. Hera though had other plans, and the goddess sought to manipulate the proclamation.
Hera would cause the wife of Sthenelus to give birth early to her son (Sthenelus being the son of Perseus and Nicippe), whilst at the same time, the goddess delayed Alcmene (the granddaughter of Perseus and wife of Amphitryon), from giving birth to Heracles and Iphicles.
Zeus could not change his proclamation, and so from that day forth, Eurystheus was just a pawn indebted to Hera.
The Twelve Labours of Heracles
- the killing of the Nemean Lion
- the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra
- the capture of the Golden Hind
- the capture of the Erymanthian Boar
- the cleansing of the Augean stables
- the killing of the Stemphalian Birds
- the capture of the Cretan Bull
- the theft of the Mares of Diomedes
- the gaining of the Girdle of Hippolyta
- the capture of Geryon’s cattle
- the theft of the Hesperides’ apples
- the capture of Cerberus
The 12 Labours Set by King Eurystheus
When Heracles arrived in Mycenae, King Eurystheus set about allocating tasks for him to complete. Each task was prompted by the cajoling of Hera, and each task was assumed to be impossible and in most cases deadly.
Whilst not necessarily easy, none of the Labours proved to be deadly, and although King Eurystheus would discount the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra and the cleansing of the Augean Stables, prompting two more Labour to be enacted, eventually the 12 year servitude of Heracles came to an end.
Faced with many of the beasts captured by Heracles, King Eurystheus had shown a cowardly streak, and now with Heracles’ penance paid, the King of Mycenae was afraid that he would lose his kingdom to the son of Zeus. Thus, King Eurystheus banished Heracles from the whole of the Argolis region.
Eurystheus Hiding in a Jar
The Downfall of King Eurystheus
Heracles would go on to complete many other adventures, but King Eurystheus was always fearful of his return, and even when news of the death of Heracles reached Mycenae, the fear did not abate. Eurystheus would gather a large army and set out to kill all of the descendents of Heracles (the Heraclids/Heracleidae).
One of the most important of the Heraclids was Hyllus, the oldest son of Heracles and Deianira, and he along with several other Heraclids, fell back to Athens, in search of sanctuary.
When Eurystheus arrived at Athens, the Athenians refused to surrender their protectees, and so a battle followed. It was though the Mycenaean army which was bested in the fight, and at Athens King Eurystheus was killed.
Whilst Hyllus was unable to take the throne of Mycenae subsequently, myth and history would become intertwined, for eventually Dorian kings, claiming to be themselves descendents of Heracles, would take the thrones of Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae.