Of all the Greek heroes, Hercules was by far the most famous. He was a mortal man, who through hard work became immortal and joined the gods of Olympus. Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Alcmene’s husband Amphiteryon was out avenging her brother’s death at the hands of pirates. Zeus, disguised as Amphiteryon, came to her and told her stories of how he killed the pirates to avenge her brother’s death. That night Zeus went to bed with Alcmene and impregnated her. The next day the real Amphiteryon returned with his stories of avenging the pirates, and he could not understand why his wife was irritated with him and seemed disinterested in the stories. It was then that Amphiteryon consulted a blind seer and became aware of what Zeus did.
Zeus talked Athena into tricking Hera into suckling Hercules. As the story goes, Athena and Hera came upon a baby abandoned at the walls of Thebes. Athena suggested to Hera to suckle the poor abandoned baby. Hera did so, but the baby sucked so hard that she had to push him away. The force was so strong that the milk from her breast spurted out and became the Milky Way.
Hercules had several teachers in his youth who taught him well. Here is a partial list of his teachers and the areas they instructed him in:
Amphitrton – chariot driving
Autolycus – boxing
Castor – art of riding horses in battle
Cheiron – (centaur) politics, manners, and wisdom
Eumolpus – playing the lyre and singing
Eurytus – archery
Not only was he well trained, but Hercules also received lavish gifts from the gods of Olympus. He was well equipped with special swords, shields, bows, and horses.
Hercules, of all of Zeus’s illegitimate children seemed to be the focus of Hera’s anger. She sent a two-headed serpent to attack him when he was just an infant. He simply strangled the snake with one head in each hand. When Hercules married Megara of Thebes, Hera drove Hercules to madness. This madness caused Hercules to kill his wife and all of his children. He did not stop this killing streak until Athena struck him with a rock, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke, he realized what he had one and consulted the Oracle of Delphi to see how he could purify himself. The oracle instructed him to complete ten labors that King Eurystheus set before him, and he could be purified and also attain immortality.
Labor #1 Kill the Nemean Lion
The lion had a skin which could not be penetrated by any sword or spear. Hercules had to kill the lion with his bare hands.
Labor #2 Kill the Hydra of Lerna
Hercules attacked the Hydra and began to chop off its many heads. Yet each time he chopped off a head, the Hydra would grow two more in its place. He called on his friend Iolaus to burn each wound which did not allow the heads to grow back. In this way he defeated the Hydra. Eurystheus refused to count this labor because Hercules had help in completing it.
Labor #3 Capture the Cerynitian Hind
The Cerynitian Hind was a deer with golden antlers. Hercules hunted it for a year and finally captured it with a net while it was sleeping. After completing this Labor, Hercules joined Jason and the Argonauts for a period of time.
Labor #4 Capture the Erymanthian Boar
Hercules captured the boar in a snowdrift and brought it back in chains.
Labor #5 Clean the Stables of Augeas
The Stables of Augeas held thousands of cattle and had not been cleaned in thirty years. Hercules had to clean all of them in a single day. To accomplish this, Hercules diverted two rivers into the stables to carry away all the dung. He also made a deal with King Augeas to receive one tenth of the cattle as payment for his work. After completing the work, the King refused to pay. In addition, Hercules did not receive credit for the labor because Eurystheus stated he did the labor for profit.
Labor #6 Drive out the Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian Birds were man-eating birds. Hercules used a bronze rattle to confuse and drive out the birds.
Labor #7 Fetch the Cretan Bull
The bull was a beautiful creature given to King Minos of Crete by Poseidon. Hercules had a long struggle wrestling the bull, but he captured it, brought it to Tiryns, and released it.
Labor #8 Capture the Mares of Diomedes
Four mares of Diomedes were man eating animals. Hercules drove them down to the sea. Diomedes then to attacked Hercules. Hercules clubbed Diomedes and fed him to his horses. He then harnessed the horses, took them back to Tiryns, and then set them free on Mount Olympus.
Labor #9 Bring back the Amazon Girdle
Hercules simply asked the queen of the Amazons for the girdle, and she gave it to him. Hera was so angry at the ease in which he got the item that she disguised herself and warned the other Amazon women that Hercules planned to abduct the queen. When Hercules saw the army coming after him, he figured the queen had betrayed him. He than killed her and escaped with the girdle.
Labor #10 Steal Cattle of Geryon
Hercules had to defeat a son of Ares and several other monsters. In doing so, he was able to complete this task.
Labor #11 Retrieve the Golden Apples of Hesperides
Hercules convinced the Titan Atlas to help him with this task. Hercules agreed to take the weight of the world while Atlas retrieved the apples from his daughters. When Atlas returned, he did not want the weight of the world again. Hercules agreed to keep the world but asked Atlas to take it for just a minute so he could get some cushions for his head. Once Atlas took the weight again, Hercules took the apples and walked away. On the way back from this journey, Hercules came across the Titan Prometheus, who was chained to a rock. He killed the bird which came every day to feed on his liver, and freed Prometheus.
Labor #12 Retrieve Cerberus from the Underworld
Hercules had to fight Hades to get into the underworld. Hercules was able to injure Hades, who left for Mont Olympus to be healed. He then wrestled the three- headed dog Cerberus with his bare hands and took it back to Eurystheus. After seeing the dog, Eurystheus had Hercules return the creature to the underworld. With this last act, Hercules completed his tasks, was purified, and made immortal.
Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, Antico, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar, Laurent Delvaux, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Major Gods and Goddesses
Introduction | Creation Story | Olympians VS. Titans | Creation of Man | Revolt of Giants
Abduction of Persephone | The Underworld | Visitors to Underworld | Amzon Warriors
Ares vs. Athena | Daedalus and Icarus | Echo and Narcissus | Judgement of Paris
Perseus and Andromeda | Trojan War
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