Hercules: Mythical Hero and Dragon-Slayer
Hercules is born a demi-god.
Hercules (Herc) might just be the biggest hero in all of Greek mythology. He is a demi-god. His father was Zeus and his mother was a mortal woman, Alcemena, granddaughter of Perseus (Percy) and Andromeda (Andi). (Percy was also fathered by Zeus. The old guy, the king of the Gods, was a great philanderer who didn’t mind keeping it all in the family. (The rules are different if you are a god.) Hera, Zeus’ wife, has it in for Herc because he was born from her husband’s adultery.
When Herc is still a baby, Hera sends two serpents to kill the child in his crib. Herc grabs the snakes, one in each hand, and strangles them. This is a definite harbinger of things to come.
I’ve given some of the characters in the story nicknames. I find it easier to keep everyone straight if I give them English names instead of their actual Greek names.
A Bust of Hercules
Hercules must perform 12 labors—two of them involve killing dragons.
Hercules grows to adulthood, marries, and has three sons. Hera, out of spite, drives Hercules temporarily insane. In a fit of madness, Herc kills his wife and sons. The Oracle of Delphi says that Herc must expiate his guilt with a penance and sends him to his cousin, King Ureystheus (Uri), King of Mycenae. Uri decides that Herc must perform “Ten Labors.” (The 10 labors become 12 because Uri tacks on two extra ones because he decided that Herc had flunked two of the first ten.)
King Uri sure was hard to please because one of the labors Herc flunked –Labor 2--was killing Hydra, a multi-headed sea dragon (or sea serpent or sea monster) that was terrorizing the countryside around the town of Lerna. Since Herc had his nephew Iolaus (Ira) help him, Uri said killing a dragon with nine serpent heads, one of which was immortal, and who could kill a man with her poisonous breath, didn’t really count.
For Labor 11, Herc had to go to the Garden of the Hesperides (Heathers) and retrieve three golden apples. The garden was maintained by the Heathers, but it was guarded by the dragon, Ladon, a dragon with 100 heads.
Trailer for the 2014 movie " Hercules"
The Killing of Hydra
Herc and Ira hopped into the family chariot and headed off to Lerna to find Hydra. (Ira often came along with Herc on his labors to keep him company and to drive the chariot.) Herc lured Hydra out into the open by shooting flaming arrows into her den.
It’s not clear if Hydra was the dragon’s name or if it was simply a term used to describe a type water serpent (dragon), but I will call her Hydra. Once Hydra emerged, Herc began beheading her with his sword—one head at a time. Another version of the story says he used a club and just knocked her heads off. However Herc removed the heads, it wasn’t working out too well for him--every time removed a head, two more sprung up in its place. Furthermore, Hydra had gotten hold of Herc’s foot and sent a monster crab to bite at his heel. Things were going from bad to worse. Herc called to Ira for help.
Ira was a smart lad and he arrived with a flaming torch. As Herc removed each head, Ira cauterized the neck so new heads couldn’t grow back. When the eight mortal heads were dispatched, Herc used a sword on the last head, the immortal one. He buried this head and placed a rock over the grave. Then he slit Hydra’s gut and dipped his arrows into the blood, making his arrows poisonous. You never know when you will need a poison arrow.
Hercules Kills Hydra
Finding the Garden of the Heathers
For Labor 11, Uri demanded that Herc get three golden apples from the Garden of the Heathers which was guarded by the hundred-headed dragon, Ladon. By the way, these apples had been Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus, so stealing those apples is sure to make Hera hate Herc more than she already does.
Herc first had to find the Garden of the Heathers. Herc had quite a time finding the garden, getting into quite a few fights and scrapes on the way. Herc could never walk away from a fight—he was a bit of a hot-head-- but he was strong enough to win every fight he ever got into.
Herc eventually found the sea-god Nereus (Ned) who knew where the garden was. Herc seized him and Ned kept shape-shifting in an attempt to get free. Herc held on tight so eventually Ned had to tell him where the Garden of the Heathers was.
Herc had a few more adventures before he reached the Garden of the Heathers, getting into all kinds of battles, but escaping each time. One day, he happened upon Prometheus, the god who had given fire to mankind against the wishes of Zeus and who was now chained to a cliff as punishment .Each day a giant eagle would come and peck at his liver. Each night his liver would regenerate and the next day the punishment would begin anew. Herc freed Prometheus.
Hercules Obtains the Golden Apples
Hercules slays Ladon.
In one version of the story, Prometheus tells Herc that he must get Atlas to retrieve the apples for him. Atlas stands outside the Garden of the Heathers holding the world and the heavens upon his shoulders for all eternity. The Heathers, who are Atlas’s daughters, tend the garden and live in harmony with the dragon.
Herc asks Atlas to get the apples. Atlas says there are two problems—the dragon Ladon and the fact that he must carry the heavens. Herc solves the first problem by throwing his spear over the wall to kill Ladon. He solves the second by offering to hold up the heavens while Atlas get the apples for him. When Atlas comes back with the apples, Atlas says he’s done holding up the world, and he will take the apples to King Uri himself. Herc agrees, but asks if Atlas could just hold the world for a second—Herc explains that he needs to pad his head and shoulders to get a little more comfortable since he is strong, but not as big and strong as Atlas. When Atlas took the world back, Herc grabbed the apples, and skedaddled.
In another version, Herc goes to the Garden of the Heathers and grabs Ladon around the neck and strangles him. No mention of Atlas. This version seems to fit with another story concerning Perseus (Percy) and Atlas. In this story, Percy meets Atlas in his travels and Atlas refuses to offer him hospitality. In revenge for this insult, Percy holds up the head of Medusa turning Atlas to stone.
If Percy, Herc’s great-grandfather, has already turned Atlas to stone, Atlas can’t be helping Herc get the apples, can he?
However it is accomplished, Herc gets the apples and brings them to King Uri, but Athena takes them back to the Garden of the Heathers. The apples belong to Zeus and Hera, and nobody wants any more trouble with the gods.
Hercules Slays Ladon
Hercules kills another dragon
Hercules traveled to Troy and found the city in a state of crisis. The king of Troy, King Laomedon, had cheated Poseidon and Apollo by failing to pay them for building the walls of the city. For punishment, Poseidon had sent a large sea dragon (monster), who would only be appeased by devouring the princess. Hercules killed the dragon by bravely allowing himself to be swallowed by the monster, whom he then killed from the inside.
The death of Hercules.
Hercules had remarried and his wife becomes jealous when she thinks Herc might be stepping out on her. She gives Herc a gift of a cloak onto which she has rubbed a balm that she believes will make him love her again. When Herc puts it on, his skin begins to burn with excruciating pain. He can neither remove the cloak nor die. The burning pain is intolerable. He asks to be burned in a funeral pyre so he can die.
Zeus tells Hera that Herc has suffered enough. Hera agrees, and Athena arrives and takes Herc to Mount Olympus in her chariot.
Eventually Herc is placed in the heavens as a constellation with his club in his hand. His foot rests against the head of Draco, the dragon, constellation.
© 2014 Catherine Giordano