Hercules, in Greek mythology, was a hero known for his strength and courage and for his legendary adventures. Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles. He was the son of the god Zeus and a human mother Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon. Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, was determined to kill Hercules, and after Hercules was born, she sent two great serpents to kill him.
Hercules, while he was still a baby, strangled the snakes. Hercules conquered a tribe that had been demanding money from Thebes. As a reward, he was given the hand in marriage of the Theben princess Megara and they had three children. Hera, still filled hatred of Hercules, sent him into madness, which made him kill his wife and children. In horror and remorse at what he did, Hercules was about to kill himself. But he was told by the oracle at Delphi that he should purge himself by becoming the servant of his cousin Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. Eurystheus, urged by Hera, planned as a punishment the 12 impossible tasks, the “Labors of Hercules.”
The Twelve Labors
The first task was to kill the lion of Nemea, a lion that could not be hurt by any weapon. Hercules knocked out the lion with his club first, then he strangled it to death. He wore the skin of the lion as a cloak and the head of the lion as a helmet, a trophy of his adventure.
The second task was to kill the Hydra that lived in a swamp in Lerna. The Hydra had nine heads. One head was immortal and when one of the others was chopped off, two grew back in its place. Cancer, one of the Hydra’s guards, bit Hercules on the foot when he came near, and was crushed by Hercules, but she was rescued by Hera. Hercules scorched each mortal neck with a burning torch to prevent it from growing two heads and he buried the immortal head under a rock. He then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood to make them poisonous.
Hercules’ next labor is to capture alive a stag with golden horns and bronze hoofs that was sacred to Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
The fourth labor was to capture a great boar in Mount Erymanthus. Hercules used the poison arrows with the Hydra’s blood to shoot at the Erymanthian boar. One of the poison arrows wounded Hercules’ friend Cheiron, an immortal centaur, half-horse and half-man. Cheiron feared the poison arrow would hurt him for eternity, but Zeus rewarded him for his service to the gods by changing him to Sagittarius the Archer. The boar got killed by the arrows.
In the fifth labor, Hercules had to clean up in one day the 30 years of filth left by thousands of cattle in the stables of king Augeas. He turns the streams of two rivers, making them flow through the stables.
For the next labor, Hercules has to drive off huge flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks, claws, and wings that lived near Lake Stymphalus. He shot them with poisonous arrows and killed them.
The seventh labor was to capture the man-eating mares of Diomedes, king of Thrace. To bring back the man-eating mares, Hercules killed king Diomedes, then drove the mares to Mycenae.
For the ninth labor, Hercules needed the girdle of Queen Hippolyta. Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, was willing to help Hercules with the ninth labor. When she was about to give Hercules her girdle, which Eurystheus wanted for his daughter, Hera made Hippolyta’s forces believe that Hercules was trying to abduct the queen. Hercules killed Hippolyta, thinking that she ordered the attack, and escaped the Amazon with the girdle.
On his way to the island of Erythia to capture the oxen of the three headed monster Geryon, Hercules set up two great rocks, the mountains Gibraltar and Ceuta, which now flank the Straight of Gibraltar, as a memorial of his journey of capturing the oxen.
The 11th labor was to steal the golden apples of Hesperides, the daughter of Atlas and husband of Hesperus. The apples grew in the garden of Hesperides, which is in the western edge of the world, beyond the Island of Hyperborea and on the border of Ocean. The garden is guarded by Ladon, the dragon with 100 heads. The apples were very important because they were grown by Mother Earth as a wedding present for Hera and Zeus. Hercules reached Ocean and found Atlas holding up the sky. Hercules offered to hold the sky while Atlas killed Ladon and got the apples. But Atlas was tired of holding the sky and told Hercules that he might continue holding it. Hercules pretended to agree but said the weight of the sky was hurting his shoulders and asked Atlas to take over for a while so he could make pads to protect his shoulders. When Atlas took over, he took the golden apples. Later he gave the apples to Athena, who returned them to Hesperides.
The 12th and most difficult labor was to bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog, from the underworld. Hades, lord of the underworld, allowed Hercules to take Cerberus if he used no weapons. Hercules captured Cerberus, brought him to Mycenae, and then carried him back to Hades, therefore, completing the Twelve Labors.
After completing the Twelve Labors, Hercules fought Antaeus, son of the sea god Poseidon, for the hand of Deianira. As he was taking her home, the centaur Nessus attacked Deianira. Hercules wounded him with an arrow poisoned in the blood of the Hydra. The dying centaur told Deianira to take some of his blood, which he said was a powerful love charm and anyone wearing clothing with his blood rubbed on it will love her forever. The centaur’s blood was actually a poison. Years later, Hercules fell in love with Iole, daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. Deianira found out about Iole and sent Hercules a tunic with the blood of Nessus. When Hercules put on the tunic, the pain caused by the poison was so great that he killed himself and was placed on a funeral pyre on Mt. Oeta. Hercules went to heaven, where he was approved by Hera and married to Hebe, goddess of youth.
Hercules was worshipped by the Greeks as both a god and a mortal hero. In Italy, he was worshipped as a god of merchants and traders, although others prayed to him for rescue from danger or good luck. The most famous statue of Hercules is in the National Museum in Naples.