History of Literature



Ancient Greek literature



Heracles and his Twelve Lamors





Type of work: Classical myth
Source: Folk tradition
Type of plot: Heroic adventure
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Mediterranean region
First transcribed: Unknown


Not born a god, Hercules achieved godhood at the time of his death because he devoted his life to the service of his fellowmen. Some authorities link Hercules with the sun, as each labor took him farther from his home and one of his tasks carried him around the world and back. Whatever their origin, the adventures remain fascinating stories which can support varied interpretations.


Principal Characters

Hercules (пйг'куэ-lez), the son of Jupiter and Alcmena. He is a mortal. As a child, he is the object of Juno's jealousy. Through her influence he is commanded to carry out twelve labors, in hopes that he will be killed in accomplishing one of them:

(1) he must strangle the Nemean lion;
(2) he must kill the nine-headed hydra;
(3) he must capture the dread Erymanthian boar;
(4) he must capture a stag with golden antlers and brazen feet;
(5) he must get rid of the carnivorous Stymphalian birds;
(6) he must cleanse the stables of Augeas;
(7) he must capture the sacred bull of Minos;
(8) he must drive away the carnivorous mares of Diomedes;
(9) he must secure the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons;
(10) he must bring back the oxen belonging to the monster Geryoneus;
(11) he must bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides; and
(12) he must bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld.

Jupiter, (jod'pa-tar), king of the gods, Hercules' father.
Alcmena (alk-тё'пё), a mortal woman, Hercules' mother.
Juno (joo'no), Jupiter's wife. Jealous of mortal Alcmena, she hopes to cause Hercules' death and thus be avenged.
Eurystheus (убо-rls'thoos), Hercules' cousin. Acting for Juno, he assigns the twelve labors.
Rhadamanthus (rad'aman'thss), Hercules' tutor, killed by Hercules when he punishes the boy.
Amphitryon (am-fit'ri-эп), Hercules' foster father. He rears the boy as a shepherd, high in the mountains.


The Story

Hercules was the son of a mortal, Alcmena, and the god Jupiter. Because Juno was hostile to all children of her husband by mortal mothers, she decided to take revenge upon the child. She sent two snakes to kill Hercules in his crib, but the infant strangled the serpents with ease. Then Juno caused Hercules to be subject to the will of his cousin, Eurystheus.

As a child, Hercules was taught by Rhadamanthus, who one day punished the child for misdeeds. Hercules immediately killed his teacher. For this act, his foster father, Amphitryon, took Hercules away to the mountains to be reared by rude shepherds. Early in youth, Hercules began to attract attention for his great strength and courage. He killed a lion single-handedly and took heroic part in a war. Juno, jealous of his growing success, called on Eurystheus to use his power over Hercules. Eurystheus then demanded that Hercules carry out twelve labors. The plan was that Hercules would perish in one of them.
In the first labor Juno had sent a lion to eat the people of Nemea. The lion's hide was so protected that no arrow could pierce it. Knowing that he could not kill the animal with his bow, Hercules met the lion and strangled it with his bare hands. Thereafter he wore the lion's skin as a protection when he was fighting, for nothing could penetrate that magic covering.
In the second labor, Hercules had to meet the Lernaean hydra. This creature lived in a swamp, and the odor of its body killed all who breathed its fetid fumes. Hercules began the battle but discovered that for every head he severed from the monster two more appeared. Finally he obtained a flaming brand from a friend and burned each head as he severed it. When he came to the ninth and invulnerable head, he cut it off and buried it under a rock. Then he dipped his arrows into the body of the hydra so that he would possess more deadly weapons for use in future conflicts.
Hercules captured the Erymanthian boar in his third labor and brought it back on his shoulders. The sight of the wild beast frightened Eurystheus so much that he hid in a large jar. With a fine sense of humor, the hero deposited the captured boar in the same jar. While on this trip, Hercules incurred the wrath of the centaurs by drinking wine which they had claimed for their own. In order to escape from them, he had to kill most of the half-horse men.
In the fourth labor, Hercules had to capture a stag with antlers of gold and hooves of brass. In order to capture this creature, Hercules pursued it for a whole year.
In the fifth labor, Hercules faced the carnivorous Stymphalian birds. Hercules alarmed them with a bell, shot many of them with his arrows, and caused the rest to fly away.
In the sixth labor, Augeas, king of Elis, had a herd of three thousand oxen whose stables had not been cleaned for thirty years. Commanded to clean the stables, Hercules diverted the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through them and washed them clean in one day. Augeas refused the agreed payment and as a result, Hercules later declared war on him.
In the seventh labor, Neptune had given a sacred bull to Minos, king of Crete. Minos' wife, Pasiphae, fell in love with the animal and pursued it around the island. Hercules overcame the bull and took it back to Eurystheus by making it swim the sea while he rode upon its back.
Hercules' eighth labor was to drive away the mares of Diomedes fed on human flesh. Usually Diomedes found food for them by feeding to them all travelers who landed on his shores. Diomedes tried to prevent Hercules from driving away his herd. He was killed, and his body was fed to his own beasts.
In his ninth labor, Admeta, daughter of Eurystheus, persuaded her father to send Hercules for the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The Amazon queen was willing to give up her girdle, but Juno interfered by telling the other Amazons that Hercules planned to kidnap their queen. In the battle that followed, Hercules killed Hippolyta and took the girdle from her dead body.
In the tenth labor, Geryoneus, a three-bodied, three-headed, six-legged, winged monster possessed a herd of oxen. Ordered to bring the animals to Eurystheus, Hercules traveled beyond the pillars of Hercules, now Gibraltar. He killed a two-headed shepherd dog and a giant herdsman, and finally slew Geryoneus. He loaded the cattle on a boat and sent them to Eurystheus. He returned afoot across the Alps. He had many adventures on the way, including a fight with giants in the Phlegraean fields, near the present site of Naples.
His eleventh labor was more difficult, for his task was to obtain the golden apples in the garden of the Hesper-ides. No one knew where the garden was, and Hercules set out to roam until he found it. In his travels, he killed a giant, a host of pygmies, and burned alive some of his captors in Egypt. In India he set Prometheus free. At last, he discovered Atlas holding up the sky. Hercules assumed this task, releasing Atlas to go after the apples. Atlas returned with the apples and reluctantly took up his burden. Hercules brought the apples safely to Eurystheus.
His twelfth, however, was his most difficult labor. After many adventures, he brought the three-headed dog Cerberus from the underworld. He was forced to carry the struggling animal in his arms because he had been forbidden to use weapons of any kind. Afterward, he took Cerberus back to the king of the underworld. So ended the labors of this mighty ancient hero.


Critical Evaluation

Hercules (Latin form of Greek "Herakles," meaning "Hera's, or Juno's, fame") rightfully deserved to rule Mycenae and Tiryns, but because of the machinations of Juno, his cousin Eurystheus had become his lord. Driven mad by Juno, Hercules killed his own wife and children and was required by the Delphic oracle to atone for his crime by becoming King Eurystheus' vassal. Eurystheus originally assigned ten athloi (ordeals for a prize), but he refused to count both the killing of the hydra, since Hercules had been assisted by his nephew Iolaus, and the cleansing of the Augean stables, since Hercules had demanded payment. These athloi required twelve years and are described above essentially according to Apol-lodorus, the first or second century mythographer (the third and fourth labors are reversed as are the fifth and sixth). Sometimes the last two labors are reversed, which subtracts from the supreme accomplishment of conquering death, as it were, by returning from Hades. The same twelve exploits were sculpted nearly life-size on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the mid-fifth century B.C.; four scenes have been reconstructed from the fragments. Euripides perhaps reflects an earlier tradition, which begins with Homer, when he lists encounters with the Centaurs, with Cycnus the robber, and with pirates in place of the boar, the stables, and the bull (Herakles Mad).
Nevertheless, the twelve labors are not the extent of Hercules' fame. Apollodorus, Pausanias, and Diodorus Siculus detail the "life" of this folk hero; Ovid briefly recounts the labors and death of the hero in book 9 of the Metamorphoses (c. A.D. 8). From their accounts, and from numerous other sources, readers have a wealth of exploits accomplished before, during, and after the labors. Among those before is Hercules' fathering a child by each of the fifty daughters of King Thespius. During the labors, Hercules performed a number of well-known parerga, or "side deeds," such as joining Jason's Argonauts in quest of the Golden Fleece. He never completed the journey, however, since he was left at Mysia looking for his lost squire and boy-love Hylas. Among other parerga are his rescue of Alcestis from Death after she had volunteered to die in place of her husband, King Admetus of Pherae (see Euripides' Alcestis). He also rescued Hesione, daughter of King Laomedon of Troy, who was to have been sacrificed to Poseidon's sea-monster. In Italy he killed the fire-breathing Cacus who had stolen the cattle of Geryon(es) which Hercules was driving back to Eurystheus (see Vergil's Aeneid). In Libya, he lifted the giant Antaeus from his mother Earth, from whom he derived his strength, and crushed him. He rescued Prometheus from the rock in the Caucasus and Theseus from the Underworld.
After the labors, Hercules sought to marry Iole, daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia, and the man who had taught him archery. Eurytus refused, and Hercules killed the king's son, for which he was sold into slavery to Omphale, queen of Lydia. There he performed numerous feats, including killing a great snake, fathering a child on Omphale, and burying the body of the fallen Icarus, who had flown too near the sun. Freed, Hercules went on to seek revenge on Laomedon and Augeas for their refusal to honor their debts for services rendered. He later married Deianira, whom he soon had to rescue from the lustful Nessus, who instructed Deianira to dip Hercules' tunic into the dying centaur's blood. The wearing of the tunic, she was told, would prevent Hercules (notorious for his amours) from loving another. Soon Hercules returned to Oechalia, where he murdered Eurytus and abducted Iole. In desperation and ignorance, Deianira sent the tunic, and as soon as Hercules put it on it began to sear his flesh (since Nessus' blood had been poisoned by an arrow which long ago had been dipped in the Hydra's blood). Hercules' horrible death is vividly described in Euripides' Trachiniae.
By the twelve labors, Hercules earned the immortality promised by the Delphic oracle, and so when Hercules died (having mounted his own funeral pyre), Jupiter persuaded all the gods, including Juno, to accept him into the pantheon. He took Hebe ("Youth") to wife and was thereafter universally honored. If Hercules' mythic origins are indeed solar, it is appropriate that he enjoyed apotheosis, or deification, and allegorical union with Youth, since the sun, having passed through the twelve zodiacal constellations, returns each year, renewed in strength. On the other hand, Hercules may well have been the original male consort to a pre-Greek mother goddess (Hera), as his name would imply. Whatever his origins, throughout the ancient world in religion and literature, he was welcomed as the ultimate folk hero, simple but not obtuse, powerful but humane, whose myths symbolized the pains and indignities that even great men, beloved of Jupiter, must undergo to attain undying glory. On him, the Athenians modeled their local hero, Theseus. Numerous other localities variously worshipped Hercules as a hero, if not a god. The Cynics and Stoics admired his attention to duty and hardy self-reliance.
In art, Hercules is a favorite subject—his broad, muscled shoulders draped with the skin of a Nemean lion. Although he gained fame for his archery and physical strength, he is usually represented wielding a knotted club. In Roman art representations of his strength tend toward brutishness, so that he becomes more the gladiator than the noble demigod who courageously submitted to the will and whims of the lesser. More than any other figure, Hercules drew together the mythic experiences of Olympians and Titans, monsters and men, death and immortality.



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