Heracles

Heracles was the greatest of the Greek heroes. Upon his death he was welcomed into Olympus, becoming the gatekeeper of heaven, and the god of strength and heroic endeavour and the averter of evil.

Residence: Mount Olympus
Symbols: Club, Nemean Lion, bow and arrows
Parents: Zeus and Alcmene
Siblings: Aeacus, Angelos, ApolloAresArtemisAthenaDionysusIlithyiaEnyo, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirae
Consort: Hebe
Children: Telephus, Hyllus, Tlepolemus, Alexiares and Anicetus
Roman equivalent: Hercules

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The Farnese Hercules, Roman marble statue on the basis of an original by Lysippos, 216 AD. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Birth

Heracles was the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. Zeus had seduced her after disguising himself as her husband, Amphitryon, home early from war. Amphitryon did return later the same night, and Alcmene became pregnant with his son at the same time, a case of heteropaternal superfecundation, where a woman carries twins sired by different fathers.

On the night the twins Heracles and Iphicles were to be born, Hera, knowing of her husband Zeus‘ adultery, persuaded Zeus to swear an oath that the child born that night to a member of the House of Perseus would become King of the Argolis. Hera did this knowing that while Heracles was to be born a descendant of Perseus, so too was Eurystheus, his cousin. Once the oath was sworn, Hera hurried to Alcmene’s dwelling and slowed the birth of the twins by forcing Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to sit cross-legged, thereby causing the twins to be trapped in the womb. Meanwhile, Hera caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely, making him king in place of Heracles. She would have permanently delayed Heracles’ birth had she not been fooled by Galanthis, Alcmene’s servant, who lied to Ilithyia, saying that Alcmene had already delivered the baby. Upon hearing this, she jumped in surprise, uncrossing her legs and inadvertently allowing Alcmene to give birth to Heracles and Iphicles.

Fear of Hera’s revenge led Alcmene to expose the infant Heracles, but he was taken up and brought to Hera by his half-sister Athena, who played an important role as protector of heroes. Hera did not recognize Heracles and nursed him out of pity. Heracles suckled so strongly that he caused Hera pain, and she pushed him away. Her milk sprayed across the heavens and there formed the Milky Way. But with divine milk, Heracles had acquired supernatural powers. Athena brought the infant back to his mother, and he was subsequently raised by his parents.

The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto.

The child was originally given the name Alcides by his parents. He was renamed Heracles in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. He and his twin were just eight months old when Hera sent two giant snakes into the children’s chamber. Iphicles cried from fear, but his brother grabbed a snake in each hand and strangled them. He was found by his nurse playing with them on his cot as if they were toys. Astonished, Amphitryon sent for the seer Tiresias, who prophesied an unusual future for the boy, saying he would vanquish numerous monsters.

Heracles strangling snakes  from an Attic red-figured stamnos, c. 480–470 BC.

Youth

 Heracles married King Creon’s daughter, Megara. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles killed his children and Megara. After he realized what he had done, he fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. He was directed to serve King Eurystheus for ten years and perform any task Eurystheus required of him.

Hercules Furens Mosaic
Mosaic panel depicting the madness of Heracles (Hercules furens), from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD. National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal.

The Twelve Labours

Despite the difficulty, Heracles accomplished these tasks, but Eurystheus in the end did not accept the success the hero had with two of the Labours: the cleansing of the Augean stables, because Heracles was going to accept pay for the Labour; and the killing of the Lernaean Hydra, as Heracles’ nephew, Iolaus, had helped him burn the stumps of the multiplying heads. Eurystheus set two more tasks, fetching the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capturing Cerberus. In the end, with ease, the hero successfully performed each added task, bringing the total number of Labours up to the magic number twelve.

(1) The Nemean Lion.

It was a large lion whose hide was impervious to weapons. It plagued the district of Nemea in the Argolis. King Eurystheus commanded Heracles to destroy the beast as the first of his Twelve Labours. The hero cornered the lion in its cave and seizing it by the neck wrestled it to death. He then skinned its hide to make a lion-skin cape, one of his most distinctive attributes.

The fight of Heracles and the Nemean lion is one of his most famous feats. Side B from a black-figure Attic amphora, c. 540 BC.

(2) The Lernaean Hydra.

It was a gigantic, nine-headed water-serpent, which haunted the swamps of Lerna. Heracles was sent to destroy her but for each of her heads that he decapitated, two more sprang forth. So with the help of Iolaus, he applied burning brands to the severed stumps, cauterizing the wounds and preventing the regeneration. In the battle he also crushed a giant crab beneath his heel which had come to assist the Hydra. After he accomplished his Labour, he dipped his arrows in the Hydra‘s poison.

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria, Valencia.

(3) The Ceryneian Hind.

It was a golden-horned deer sacred to the goddess Artemis. Eurystheus ordered that he bring it to him. After chasing the animal for a full year he finally captured it on Mount Artemision in Arcadia. The goddess Artemis complained about the treatment of her deer whose horn had broken off by the hero in the struggle. He nevertheless managed to persuade her to let him borrow it for the completion of his Labour.

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Heracles breaking off the golden antler of the Ceryneian Hind, while Athena (left) and Artemis look on. Black-figure amphora, c. 540–30 BC.

(4) The Erymanthian Boar.

It was a gigantic boar which ravaged the farmlands of Psophis in western Arcadia. Heracles was sent to capture it. After chasing the boar through the deep winter snows of Mount Erymanthus, he netted it and brought it back alive to Eurystheus. The king, terrified at the sight of the deadly beast, leapt into a buried pithos jar for safety.

Herakles Eurystheus boar Louvre F202.jpg
Heracles, Eurystheus and the Erymanthian boar. Side A from a black-figured amphora, painted by the Antimenes painter, c. 525 BC, from Etruria. Louvre Museum, Paris.

(5) The Augean Stables.

Augeas was a king of Elis in the western Peloponnese, who possessed an immortal herd of 3,000 cattle. Heracles was commanded by King Eurystheus to clean Augeas’ stables, which had not been for thirty years. The hero accomplished this by diverting the waters of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the plain, washing the manure away.

Heracles rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus, to clean out the Augean stables. Roman mosaic, 3rd c. AD.

(6) The Stymphalian Birds.

They were a flock of man-eating birds which haunted Lake Stymphalis in Arcadia. Heracles’ destroyed them employing a rattle to rouse them from the thick vegetation surrounding the lake and then felling them with his arrows tipped with the Hydra‘s poison or a sling.

Heracles killing the Stymphalian birds with his sling. Attic black-figured amphora, c. 540 BC. Said to be from Vulci.

The surviving birds made a new home on an island of Aretias in the Euxine Sea. The Argonauts later encountered them there.

(7) The Cretan Bull.

It was a handsome bull sent forth from the sea by Poseidon. Queen Pasiphae of Crete lusted after the animal and coupled with it by hiding inside a wooden cow crafted by the artificer Daedalus. She later gave birth to the Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull.

Heracles was commanded to fetch the Cretan Bull. Upon completion of this task he set the creature free and it eventually found its way to the Athenian town of Marathon where it laid waste to the countryside. There it was finally destroyed by the hero Theseus.

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Hercules capturing the Cretan Bull. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria, Valencia.

(8) The Mares of Diomedes.

Diomedes was a barbaric king of the Bistonian tribe of Thrace who fed his mares on a diet of human flesh. Heracles was sent to fetch these horses. He captured the beasts alive and left them in the care of his young squire Abderus while he went off to deal with King Diomedes. He returned to discover the boy had been devoured by the mares and in anger fed them their master’s corpse which stilled their unnatural appetites.

Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (M.A.N. Madrid) 08.jpg
Hercules and the Mares of Diomedes. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria, Valencia.

(9) The Belt of Hippolyta.

Hippolyta was the Amazonian queen, who possessed a magical girdle (belt) given to her by her father Ares, the god of war. He was sent to retrieve it for Admete, the daughter of King Eurystheus. Hippolyta was so impressed with Hercules that she gave him the girdle without argument. Then the goddess Hera, making herself appear as one of the Amazons, spread a rumour among them that Heracles and his crew were abducting their queen, so the Amazons attacked them. In the fray that followed, Heracles slew Hippolyta, stripped her of the belt, fought off the attackers, and sailed away.

Hercules battles the Amazons. Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 510-500 BC.

(10) The Cattle of Geryon.

Geryon was a three-bodied, four-winged giant who lived on the island of Erythea in the westernmost reach of the earth-encircling river Oceanus. He possessed a fabulous herd of cattle whose coats were stained red by the light of the sunset. Herakles was sent to fetch these.

The hero reached the island by sailing across Oceanus in a golden cup-boat borrowed from the sun-god Helius. There he encountered and slew the cattle-herder Eurytion, the two-headed guard dog Orthrus, and finally the three-bodied Geryon himself. With this task complete the hero herded the cattle into his boat and led them back to the Greek Peloponnese.

Heracles fighting Geryon, amphora by the E Group, c. 540 BC, Louvre.

(11) The Golden Apples of the Hesperides.

The Hesperides were the nymphs of evening and the golden light of sunsets. They were the daughters of either Nyx or the heaven-bearing Titan Atlas. The Hesperides were entrusted with the care of the tree of the golden apples which was had been presented to the goddess Hera by Gaia on her wedding day. They were assisted by a hundred-headed guardian dragon, Ladon.

Heracles was sent to fetch the apples and, upon slaying the serpent, stole the precious fruit. Athena later returned the golden apples to the Hesperides.

Hercules stealing the golden apples. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria, Valencia.

(12) Cerberus.

It was the gigantic, three-headed hound of Hades, which guarded the gates of the underworld and prevented the escape of the shades of the dead.

Heracles was sent to fetch Cerberus and bring him to Eurystheus, a task which he accomplished with the aid of the goddess Persephone. He then returned him to the Underworld.

Heracles, wearing his characteristic lion-skin, club in right hand, leash in left, presenting a three-headed Cerberus, snakes coiling from his snouts, necks and front paws, to a frightened Eurystheus hiding in a giant pot. Caeretan hydria (c. 530 BC) from Caere.

The Other Labours

Heracles had many other adventures in addition to the Twelve Labours. The Greeks called these minor labors the Parerga.

Achelous

Achelous was a River-God of Aetolia in central Greece. As the deity of the largest river in the region he was often portrayed as the god of fresh-water in general.

Achelous competed with Heracles for the hand of the Aetolian princess Deianeira. During their wrestling match the hero tore off one of the god’s horns forming the legendary Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty.

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Heracles wrestling with Achelous.

Alcyoneus

Alcyoneus was the King of the Thracian Giants, who was immortal within the confines of his homeland of Pallene.

Heracles encountered Alcyoneus during his travels. He sneaked up on the giant as he slept and disabled him with a volley of arrows and blows from his club. The hero then dragged the wounded giant beyond the confines of Pallene where he died. Alcyoneus‘ seven mourning daughters were transformed into a flock of kingfishers (Greek alkyones).

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Heracles, Alcyoneus and Hypnus, Athenian black-figure lekythos, c. 6th BC, Toledo Museum of Art.

Antaeus

Antaeus was a Libyan Giant, who forced travelers passing through his land to compete with him in a wrestling match. He overwhelmed them all and used their skulls to roof the temple of his father, Poseidon.

Antaeus was a son of Gaia, and it was from her that he drew his invincible strength. When Heracles encountered him in the ring, Athena advised the him to lift the giant up from the earth in the contest. He did so, and weakening the monster was able to crush his ribs and kill him.

Heracles and Antaeus, red-figured krater by Euphronios, c. 515–510 BC, Louvre.

The Caucasian Eagle

It was a gigantic eagle sent by Zeus to feed upon the ever-regenerating liver of the Titan Prometheus after he was chained to a peak of the Caucasus Mountains as punishment for stealing fire from the gods.

When Heracles set out to free Prometheus from his bonds, he felled the eagle with a volley of arrows.

Heracles freeing Prometheus from his torment by the eagle. Attic black-figure cup, c. 500 BC.

The Peloponnesian Centaurs

They were a tribe of half-man, half-horse Arcadian wild-men, who fought Heracles for the wine of their hospitable brother, Pholus. Most of them were slain in the battle which ensued, felled by poisoned arrows. The few survivors fled south to the Malean peninsular or Eleusis where they were given refuge by Poseidon.

Arcadian Centaur | Athenian-red figure kylix C6th B.C. | British Museum, London
Arcadian Centaur. Athenian red-figure kylix, c. 6th BC, British Museum.

Eurytion

He was a Peloponnesian Centaur, who forced King Dexamenus of Olenos to agree to let him marry his daughter, Deianeira. However, when the centaur came to collect his bride, Heracles slew him.

Heracles and the centaur Eurytion | Athenian black-figure amphora C6th B.C. | The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu
Heracles and the centaur Eurytion. Athenian black-figure amphora c. 6th BC, Getty Museum.

Nessus

Nessus was one of Thessalian Centaurs. He fled his homeland after the Lapith war and made his way to the Aetolian river Evenus, where he set himself up as a ferryman. When Heracles arrived with his new bride Deianeira, Nessus carried her across the river on his back. The sight of the beautiful woman, however, inflamed him with passion and he attempted to seduce her. Heracles heard her cries and slew Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As he was dying the centaur persuaded Deianeira to take some of his poisoned blood as a love charm should Heracles ever prove unfaithful. This dupe worked and eventually resulted in the hero’s death.

Heracles, Nessus and Deianeira | Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C. | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Heracles, Nessus and Deianeira. Athenian red-figure kylix c. 5th BC, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

The Cercopes

They were a pair of monkey-like thieves which plagued the land of Lydia in western Anatolia. They were once captured by Heracles, for stealing his weapons, he was so amused with their jokes that he set them free unharmed. The pair later ran afoul of the god Zeus who transformed them into monkeys, or else turned them to stone, as punishment for their crimes.

Heracles and the Cercopes. Metope from Paestum.

The Trojan Cetus

It was a giant sea-monster sent by Poseidon to plague the land of Troy as punishment for King Laomedon’s refusal to pay him for the building of the city’s walls. An oracle declared that the only way to be rid of the beast was to offer the king’s daughter as sacrifice. Laomedon did so, chaining Hesione to the rocks. Heracles happened to arrive and agreed to kill the monster if Laomedon would give him the horses received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus‘ kidnapping Ganymede. Laomedon agreed. Heracles killed the monster, but Laomedon went back on his word.

Heracles, Hesione and the Sea-Monster | Corinthian black-figure krater C6th B.C. | Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Heracles, Hesione and the Sea-Monster. Corinthian black-figure krater c. 6th BC, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Accordingly, in a later expedition, Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked it. Then they slew all Laomedon’s sons present there save Podarces, who was renamed Priam, who saved his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil Hesione had made.