The Twelve Labours of Herakles

The infant Herakles strangling the serpents sent to kill him. A Roman marble sculpture of 2nd Century CE, Capitoline Museum
The infant Herakles strangling the serpents sent to kill him. A Roman marble sculpture of 2nd Century CE, Capitoline Museum | Source

The Birth of Herakles

Herakles (Hercules was his Roman name) was the son of Zeus the king of the Gods and a mortal woman called Alcmene, who was married to Amphitryon, a prince of the great city of Mycenae.

While Amphitryon was away, fighting in a war to avenge Alcmene’s brothers, Zeus visited Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon and spent the night with her. In order to make the most of this opportunity, Zeus prolonged the night to three times its normal length!

Alcmene was astonished when the real Amphitryon returned to her the following evening and was convinced with difficulty that this time it was really her husband.

As a result of those two nights, Alcmene conceived twins; one of them was Herakles whose father was Zeus while the other was Iphicles, son of the mortal Amphitryon.

The Vengeance of Hera

When Hera, Zeus’ wife and the Queen of the Gods, realised that Alcmene would be bearing Zeus’ son she was extremely angry and jealous. Throughout Herakles’ mortal life, the Goddess would be his enemy, constantly throwing obstacles and challenges into his path. There is an interesting irony then in his name, which means ‘glory of Hera’.

Hera’s machinations against Herakles began before he was even born.

Zeus boasted that one of his descent who was to be born on a certain day would be a great ruler. To prevent Herakles from being the one to fulfill the prophecy, Hera delayed Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth from helping Alcmene and instead hastened the birth of Eurystheus, a relative of Herakles and a grandson of Zeus, so that he was born first and thus became heir to the kingdom of Tiryns instead of Herakles. It was Eurystheus for whom Herakles later performed the twelve labours.

Not content with destroying Herakles’ chances of becoming a great king, Hera sent a pair of snakes to kill the baby in his cradle. In the morning they found Iphicles crying with fear while the infant Herakles was smiling and laughing; he had strangled the serpents. This was the first sign that Herakles was no ordinary mortal.

The Madness of Herakles and the Start of the Twelve Labours

Later, Herakles married a woman called Megara and had children with her. In one of her darkest acts against him, Hera drove Herakles mad so that he murdered his wife and their children without understanding what he was doing.

Overcome with horror and trying to come to terms with his terrible actions, Herakles visited the Delphic Oracle, where the priestess informed him that he must go to King Eurystheus and humble himself to act as his servant for twelve years, performing all the tasks he sets him. At the end of this period of servitude, Herakles will be rewarded with immortality.

Eurystheus, who became king of Tiryns instead of Herakles, because Hera caused him to be born at the right time, was a mediocre and fearful man, which made it all the more galling for Heracles to have to serve him.

Eurystheus set Herakles twelve fiendishly dangerous and difficult tasks - the famous Twelve Labours.

The Nemean Lion
The Nemean Lion

The First Labour: The Nemean Lion

Herakles’ first task was to bring Eurystheus the hide of the huge and savage Nemean Lion. Because the lion was invulnerable to being killed by weapons, Herakles had to strangle it with his bare hands and used its own claws to remove the hide.

Later, Herakles wore the lion’s pelt as a cloak and this lion skin forms part of his traditional, recognisable image, together with his club.

The Lerneian Hydra
The Lerneian Hydra

The Second Labour: The Lerneian Hydra

This was a nine-headed serpent that lived in the swamp of Lerna, near Argos. It was very hard to kill because each time one head was destroyed, two more grew in its place. One head was completely immortal. To make matters worse, Hera provided the Hydra with an ally; a huge, hostile crab.

Herakles killed the crab successfully and then tackled the Hydra with the help of his young nephew Iolaus, son of his twin, Iphicles. Every time Herakles cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, Iolaus burnt the stump with a burning brand to prevent the new heads growing in its place. Eventually, the Hydra was defeated and Herakles placed the last immortal head - still hissing angrily - under a large rock. Hera turned the giant crab into the constellate of Cancer.

The Cerynean Hind
The Cerynean Hind

The Third Labour: The Cerynean Hind

This was a deer with golden horns sacred to Artemis, goddess of the woodland and the hunt and protector of wild creatures. The task was to capture it and bring it to Eurystheus. The animal was itself harmless. The difficulty was in capturing the creature unharmed and later returning it safely to the wild. Artemis could be a savage and unforgiving deity, if she was angered.

It took Herakles a year to hunt the deer down and capture it.

According to the poet Pindar, Herakles had to go as far as the mythical country of the Hyperboreans at the very end of the world to find it. As he was bringing the hind back to present to Eurystheus, Heracles was confronted by Artemis, who was angry that her deer had been captured. When Herakles explained his predicament, however, and laid the blame with Eurystheus, Artemis was appeased and let him pass.

The Erymanthian Boar
The Erymanthian Boar

The Fourth Labour: The Erymanthean Boar

This was a ferocious creature which Eurystheus demanded Herakles bring back alive from Mount Erymanthus. Herakles used nets to capture it in deep snow. When he brought the giant, furious boar before Eurystheus, the king was so terrified by the animal that he hid in a giant storage jar.

Cleaning the Augean Stables
Cleaning the Augean Stables

The Fifth Labour: The Augean Stables

Augeus was King of Elis and also the son of Helios, the Sun God. He owned great herds of cattle and their stables had never been cleaned.

Humiliatingly, the cowardly Eurystheus set the mighty Herakles the task of clearing up a vast amount of cattle dung. Rather than simply setting to with a pitchfork, Herakles applied some thought to the problem as well as his great strength. He diverted two rivers, Alphaeus and Peneus so that they flowed through the stables, washing them clean.

The Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian Birds

The Sixth Labour: The Stymphalian Birds

These were aggressive, man-eating birds with bronze feathers which they used to fire like darts. They were also very numerous. Herakles’ task was to destroy the birds utterly.

Athene, Goddess of wisdom and craft came to Herakles' help; she instructed Hephaestus, the Smith God to construct great bronze rattles for Heracles. The terrible noise Herakles made with the rattles sent the birds all flying out of the trees at once, making it easy for Herakles to shoot them down.

The Cretan Bull
The Cretan Bull

The Seventh Labour: The Cretan Bull

King Minos of Crete was once presented by Poseidon, God of the Sea, with a most beautiful white bull, for him to offer for sacrifice. Foolishly, Minos admired the bull so much that he chose not to sacrifice it, but instead let it roam free.

As punishment for this action, Poseidon caused Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull. To enable her to satisfy her desires, Daedalus the craftsman constructed her a wooden cow-suit which successfully attracted the bull’s attention. The Minotaur was the progeny of this grotesque union.

After Herakles had brought the bull alive to Eurystheus, he set it free. It ravaged the countryside until it was finally killed by the hero Theseus.

This painting by Gustave Moreau (1865) shows Diomedes being devoured by his mares.
This painting by Gustave Moreau (1865) shows Diomedes being devoured by his mares.

The Eighth Labour: The Mares of Diomedes

King Diomedes of Thrace was the son of Ares, God of war. He kept a herd of man-eating mares, to whom he fed his enemies. Herakles fed the bloodthirsty Diomedes to his own mares and then brought them to Eurystheus.

Later the mares were let loose and perished in the wild.

Heracles battles with an Amazon warrior.
Heracles battles with an Amazon warrior.

The Ninth Labour: The Girdle of Hippolyta

Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazons, a race of women warriors. Eurystheus demanded that Herakles bring him her girdle.

Meeting Hippolyta, Herakles persuaded her to make a present of her girdle, but Hera would not allow Herakles to triumph so easily. She set a rumour among the Amazon warriors that Herakles was planning to abduct their queen. Furiously they attacked him, and Hippolyta was killed in the battle. Herakles then brought her girdle to Eurystheus.

The Triple Bodied Geryon
The Triple Bodied Geryon

The Tenth Labour: The Cattle of Geryon

Geryon was a giant with three bodies, a child of the ocean nymph Callirhoe. He lived on the island of Erythia in the far west. He had a herd of cattle which he tended with the help of a giant herdsman called Eurytion and a two headed dog called Orthus. Herakles' task was to take the cattle from Geryon and bring them back to Eurytheus.

To enable Herakles to reach Geryon on Erythia, Helios the Sun God loaned Herakles the miraculous cup in which he sailed back across the ocean every night. Herakles used it to sail across the Ocean. Having killed Geryon and his helpers, Herakles sailed back to land in Spain.

Returning the cup to Helios, Herakles drove the cattle back to Greece to present to Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Hera.

The Apples of the Hesperides
The Apples of the Hesperides

The Eleventh Labour: The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

The Hesperides were three sisters who guarded an apple tree at the ends of the Earth, with the help of a hundred headed and unsleeping serpent called Ladon who coiled round the tree. The tree was a wedding gift from Gaia, Mother Earth to Hera and bore golden apples. Herakles' task was to bring some of the golden apples back to Eurystheus.

In order to find out the whereabouts of the tree, Herakles had to question the Old Man of the Sea, Nereus, who turned into many different shapes in order to evade him. Finally, when he saw that Herakles would not let him go, whatever shape he changed into, Nereus told him what he needed to know.

To obtain the apples, Herakes enlisted the help of the Giant Atlas, father of the Hesperides, who supported the whole heavens on his shoulders. To enable him to go and get the apples from his daughters, Herakles took Atlas’ burden and for a time carried the heavens himself.

When Atlas returned, he was understandably reluctant to take that great weight of the heavens on his shoulders again and would have left Herakles under it forever. Herakles pretended to agree to this and merely asked Atlas to take the burden back for a moment while he placed a cushion on his head to make the weight easier to bear. Slow-wittedly, Atlas agreed and took the burden back. Of course, Herakles then departed with the apples.

Athene later returned the apples to the care of the Hesperides.

The Capture of Cerberus - note Eurysteus hiding in his jar!
The Capture of Cerberus - note Eurysteus hiding in his jar!

The Twelfth Labour: Cerberus

Cerberus was the terrible three-headed hound that guarded the Underworld, the land of the Dead. Herakles' task was to steal the watchdog of Hell itself and bring him back alive to Eurystheus. This was the greatest challenge of all and even Herakles needed the help of the Gods Hermes and Athene to achieve it.

In order to enter and leave the Underworld alive, Herakles had himself initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, a religious ritual that was said to offer its participants the knowledge that guaranteed immortality.

In the Underworld, Hades, the God of the Dead, agreed that Herakles could borrow Cerberus if he were able to take him without using a weapon. Herakles wrestled and subdued the great three-headed dog with his bare hands.

While Herakles was in the Underworld, he incidentally rescued his friend Theseus who was imprisoned there for attempting to abduct Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

When Herakles brought the snarling, many-headed Hell Hound back to Eurystheus, the man was so terrified that he released Herakles from any further obligation on condition that he took the monstrous beast away again. The Labours were complete.

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