The greatest of all heroes in Greek mythology, Heracles was the strongest man on earth. Besides tremendous physical strength, he had great self-confidence and considered himself equal to the gods. Heracles (called Hercules by the Romans) was not blessed with great intelligence, but his bravery made up for any lack of cunning. Easily angered, his sudden outbursts of rage often harmed innocent bystanders. When the fury passed, though, Heracles was full of sorrow and guilt for what he had done and ready to accept any punishment for his misdeeds. Only supernatural forces could defeat him, and it was magic that ended his mortal life. In Greek mythology, only two figures with half-mortal, halfgod parentage—Heracles and Dionysus— became fully immortal and were worshipped as gods.
Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmena, the wife of Amphitryon, a distinguished Greek warrior and heir to the throne of Tiryns. One night while Amphitryon was away, Zeus came to Alcmena disguised as her husband. The next day, the real Amphitryon returned and slept with his wife. Concerned that Amphitryon did not remember being with Alcmena on both nights, the couple consulted the blind prophet Tiresias, who could see the workings of the gods. He told them that Zeus had slept with Alcmena the first night and predicted that she would bear a child who would become a great hero.
Alcmena bore twin boys—Heracles, the son of Zeus, and Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon. When the goddess Hera discovered that Zeus had seduced Alcmena and fathered Heracles, she was furious. Hera was fiercely jealous of Zeus’s lovers and children and pursued them mercilessly. She tried to kill the infant Heracles by having two poisonous snakes placed in his crib one night. However, the infant grabbed the snakes and strangled them. Though Hera failed to kill Heracles, she persecuted him throughout his life, causing many of the events that led to his great suffering and punishments.
As a young boy, Heracles became aware of his extraordinary strength—and his temper. Like most Greek youths, he took music lessons. One day Linus, his music master, was teaching Heracles to play the lyre. Heracles became frustrated, flew into a rage, and banged the lyre down on Linus’s head. The blow killed Linus instantly. Heracles was shocked and very sorry. He had not meant to kill his teacher. He just did not know his own strength.
Madness and the Death of Megara
While still a young man, Heracles went to fight the Minyans, a group that had been forcing the people of Thebes to pay money to them. As a reward for conquering the Minyans, the king of Thebes gave Heracles the hand of his daughter, Megara. Heracles was devoted to Megara and the three children she bore him.
One day after Heracles returned home from a journey, Hera struck him with a fit of madness during which he killed his wife and children. When he came to his senses, Heracles was horrified by what he had done. Devastated with sorrow and guilt, the hero went to the oracle at Delphi, where humans could communicate with the gods, to ask how he could make up for his crime. The oracle told him to go to King Eurystheus of Tiryns and submit to any punishment asked of him. The oracle also announced that if Heracles completed the tasks set before him, he would become immortal.
The Twelve Labors
King Eurystheus gave Heracles a series of twelve difficult and dangerous tasks. Known as the Twelve Labors of Heracles, these were his most famous feats. The hero’s first task was to kill the Nemean Lion, a monstrous beast that terrorized the countryside and could not be killed by any weapon. Heracles strangled the beast with his bare hands and made its skin into a cloak that made him invulnerable, or unable to be harmed.
For his second labor, the hero had to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a creature with nine heads that lived in a swamp. One of the beast’s heads was immortal, and the others grew back when cut off. With the help of his friend Iolaus, Heracles cut off the Hydra’s eight heads and burned each wound, which prevented new heads from growing back. Because he could not cut off the ninth head, he buried the creature under a great rock.
The next task was to capture the Cerynean Hind, a golden-horned deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. After hunting the animal for a year, Heracles finally managed to capture it. As he was taking it to Tiryns, Artemis stopped him and demanded that he return the deer. The hero promised that the sacred animal would not be harmed, and she allowed him to continue on his journey.
The fourth labor of Heracles was to seize the Erymanthian Boar, a monstrous animal that ravaged the lands around Mount Erymanthus. After forcing the animal from its lair, Heracles chased it until it became so exhausted that he could catch it easily.
The hero’s fifth task was to clean the Augean Stables in one day. King Augeas, the son of the sun god Helios, had great herds of cattle whose stables had not been cleaned for many years. Heracles accomplished the task by diverting rivers to run through the filthy stables and wash them clean.
The sixth task involved driving away the Stymphalian Birds, a flock of birds with claws, beaks, and wings of iron that ate humans and that were terrorizing the countryside. Helped by the goddess Athena, Heracles forced the birds from their nests and shot them with his bow and arrow.
Eurystheus next ordered Heracles to seize the Cretan Bull and bring it back to Tiryns alive. This savage bull had been a gift from Poseidon to King Minos of Crete. The king gave Heracles permission to catch it and take it away.
For his eighth task, Heracles was ordered to capture the Mares of Diomedes, a herd of horses that belonged to King Diomedes of Thrace and that ate human flesh. Heracles killed Diomedes and fed him to the mares. Then the hero tamed the horses and brought them back to Eurystheus.
The ninth labor consisted of obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta greeted Heracles warmly and agreed to give him the girdle. But then Hera caused trouble, making the Amazons think that Heracles planned to kidnap their queen. They attacked, and Heracles killed Hippolyta and took the girdle.
For his tenth labor, Heracles had to capture the Cattle of Geryon, a monster with three bodies that lived in the far west on the island of Erythia. After a difficult journey by sea and across the desert, Heracles killed Geryon, a herdsman, and an enormous guard dog. He then took the cattle and returned with them to Tiryns.
The eleventh labor involved bringing back the golden Apples of the Hesperides, a group of nymphs— female nature deities—who lived in the far west. According to one account, Heracles requested help from the Hesperides’ father, the giant Atlas, who held up the sky. Heracles offered to take Atlas’s place under the sky if he would fetch the apples from his daughters. Atlas agreed and obtained the apples, but then he refused to take back the sky. Heracles asked Atlas to hold the sky for just a moment while he got a pad to ease the burden on his shoulders. Atlas agreed. But as soon as Atlas took back the sky, Heracles grabbed the apples and fled. In another version of this story, Heracles obtained the apples by himself after killing a dragon that stood guard over the tree on which they grew.
Heracles’ final task was one of the most difficult and dangerous. He had to descend to the kingdom of Hades and capture Cerberus, the fierce three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld. Hades said Heracles could take Cerberus if he used no weapons to overcome the beast. Heracles wrestled Cerberus into submission or gave him drugged food and carried him to Eurystheus.
Other Adventures and Later Life Heracles had many other adventures during his lifetime. He killed other beasts and monsters, engaged in numerous battles against his enemies, joined the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts and even fought the god Apollo Throughout, he faced the hatred of Hera, who continued to persecute him because he was the son of Zeus.
Later in his life, Heracles married Deianira, a princess whose hand he had won by fighting the river god Achelous. Heracles also saved Deianira from a centaur—half-human, half-horse—named Nessus, who tried to harm her. As Nessus lay dying from Heracles’ arrows, he urged Deianira to take some of his blood, telling her it would act as a magic potion that could secure her husband’s love forever.
Some years later, fearing that Heracles had fallen in love with another woman, Deianira took the potion and smeared it on a robe for her husband. The potion was really a terrible poison, and when Heracles put on the poisoned garment, it burned his skin, causing an agonizing pain that could not be stopped. When Deianira discovered what had happened, she killed herself.
The dying Heracles ordered his son to build a funeral pyre, a large pile of burning wood used in some cultures to cremate a dead body, and the hero lay down upon it. As the flames of the pyre grew, a great cloud appeared, a bolt of lightning struck, and the body of Heracles disappeared. Heracles, now an immortal god, had been taken to Mount Olympus to be with his father, Zeus, and the other gods. Even Hera welcomed him and allowed him to marry her daughter Hebe.
HERACLES IN CONTEXT
The astounding popularity of Heracles throughout the ancient world has been the source of much speculation about his appeal. Some have argued that his virtuous nature, combined with his marginal intelligence and brute strength, made him a more accessible character than even many of the gods. It has also been suggested that, since he is primarily known as a conqueror of beasts instead of men, people of all regions can appreciate his feats; this is in direct contrast to some heroes who are popular only within a local area, due to their battles against a particular group generally viewed as enemies. He was worshipped in temples as far away as Egypt, and the Greeks honored his death with a festival known as the Herakleia. Heracles was also popular because he was a man who overcame the cruel whims of the gods to earn his place as an immortal.
After the time of Alexander the Great, when kingdoms developed out of the lands conquered by Alexander, Heracles came to represent the model king, a man who lived his life in service to the people. Overlooking the violent aspects of the life of Heracles, the focus was on his good deeds in ridding the Greek countryside of dangerous beasts. His deeds were so great that the gods elevated him to the level of a deity, although the Greeks worshipped him more as a hero than as a god. In similar fashion, kings began to claim that the deceased founders of their realm had become gods, and then the kings claimed that they were gods, too. Roman leaders adopted the idea of worshipping dead emperors, but stopped short of claiming that living rulers were also gods. The connection between gods and rulers would develop later as the “divine right” of European kings; although they did not claim to be gods, kings claimed that God deliberately appointed them to rule over the people, which meant that their rule could not be questioned or overthrown.
KEY THEMES AND SYMBOLS
Heracles is a symbol of pure physical strength. He was often pictured in artwork holding a club, usually fighting one of the many beasts he encountered during his twelve labors. He is so strong that he can only be destroyed by trickery and magic. Heracles also demonstrates success against all odds. His twelve fabled tasks are all virtually impossible, yet he perseveres and prevails.
An important theme found in the myths of Heracles is ill-fated romantic relationships. Heracles is driven by Hera to kill his wife and children in a fit of madness; this happens because of Hera’s jealousy over Zeus having a son with a human woman. In addition, Deianira accidentally poisons Heracles because she is insecure about their relationship.
HERACLES IN ART, LITERATURE, AND EVERYDAY LIFE
In modern times, Heracles—usually called by his Roman name, Hercules—is one of the most recognized figures in all of Greek mythology. He has appeared as a character in countless books, films, and television shows. He was the focus of the long-running television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with Kevin Sorbo starring as the hero. His myth was famously retold—with some alterations—in the 1997 Disney animated film Hercules.
READ, WRITE, THINK, DISCUSS
Heracles was unique in Greek mythology because he was a hero who ultimately became recognized as a god. In modern times, people continue to recognize heroes as special or different from the average human. These heroes, of course, might be sports stars, political activists, or soldiers, to name a few possibilities. Can you think of a modern-day hero, living or dead, who has earned a larger-than-life status? In what way is this person treated differently than others? Is this person already the subject of any myths or legends (anything that cannot be verified historically)?