The Labors of HerculesThe goddess Hera, determined to make trouble for Hercules, made him lose his mind. In a confused and angry state, he killed his own wife and children.
|Hofburg - Labours of Hercules (Photo credit: asw909)|
As part of his sentence, Hercules had to perform twelve Labors, feats so difficult that they seemed impossible. Fortunately, Hercules had the help of Hermes and Athena, sympathetic deities who showed up when he really needed help. By the end of these Labors, Hercules was, without a doubt, Greece's greatest hero.
His struggles made Hercules the perfect embodiment of an idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which would lead to fame and, in Hercules' case, immortality.
|Beham, (Hans) Sebald (1500-1550): Hercules killing the Nemean Lion 1548, from The Labours of Hercules (1542-1548). Engraving. B. 106, Holl. 99 possibly i/ii. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The Nemean LionInitially, Hercules was required to complete ten labors, not twelve. King Eurystheus decided Hercules' first task would be to bring him the skin of an invulnerable lion which terrorized the hills around Nemea.
Setting out on such a seemingly impossible labor, Hercules came to a town called Cleonae, where he stayed at the house of a poor workman-for-hire, Molorchus. When his host offered to sacrifice an animal to pray for a safe lion hunt, Hercules asked him to wait 30 days. If the hero returned with the lion's skin, they would sacrifice to Zeus, king of the gods. If Hercules died trying to kill the lion, Molorchus agreed to sacrifice instead to Hercules, as a hero.
When Hercules got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered his arrows were useless against the beast. Hercules picked up his club and went after the lion. Following it to a cave which had two entrances, Hercules blocked one of the doorways, then approached the fierce lion through the other. Grasping the lion in his mighty arms, and ignoring its powerful claws, he held it tightly until he'd choked it to death.
Hercules returned to Cleonae, carrying the dead lion, and found Molorchus on the 30th day after he'd left for the hunt. Instead of sacrificing to Hercules as a dead man, Molorchus and Hercules were able to sacrifice together, to Zeus.
When Hercules made it back to Mycenae, Eurystheus was amazed that the hero had managed such an impossible task. The king became afraid of Hercules, and forbade him from entering through the gates of the city. Furthermore, Eurystheus had a large bronze jar made and buried partway in the earth, where he could hide from Hercules if need be. After that, Eurystheus sent his commands to Hercules through a herald, refusing to see the powerful hero face to face.
Many times we can identify Hercules in ancient Greek vase paintings or sculptures simply because he is depicted wearing a lion skin. Ancient writers disagreed as to whether the skin Hercules wore was that of the Nemean lion, or one from a different lion, which Hercules was said to have killed when he was 18 years old. The playwright Euripides wrote that Hercules' lion skin came from the grove of Zeus, the sanctuary at Nemea:
Hercules slaying Nemean Lion – First Labor (1565), Villa d'Este, Tivoli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First he cleared the grove of Zeus of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws.
Euripides, Hercules, 359
The Lernean HydraThe second labor of Hercules was to kill the Lernean Hydra. From the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna, the hydra would rise up and terrorize the countryside. A monstrous serpent with nine heads, the hydra attacked with poisonous venom. Nor was this beast easy prey, for one of the nine heads was immortal and therefore indestructible.
Hercules set off to hunt the nine-headed menace, but he did not go alone. His trusty nephew, Iolaus, was by his side. Iolaus, who shared many adventures with Hercules, accompanied him on many of the twelve labors. Legend has it that Iolaus won a victory in chariot racing at the Olympics and he is often depicted as Hercules' charioteer. So, the pair drove to Lerna and by the springs of Amymone, they discovered the lair of the loathsome hydra.
|Hercules slaying the Lernaean Hydra I (Photo credit: kajojak)|
First, Hercules lured the coily creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, though, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules' foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! To make matters worse, the hydra had a friend of its own: a huge crab began biting the trapped foot of Hercules. Quickly disposing of this nuisance, most likely with a swift bash of his club, Hercules called on Iolaus to help him out of this tricky situation.
Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra's heads, Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of the neck. The flames prevented the growth of replacement heads, and finally, Hercules had the better of the beast. Once he had removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, Hercules chopped off the ninth, immortal head. This he buried at the side of the road leading from Lerna to Elaeus, and for good measure, he covered it with a heavy rock. As for the rest of the hapless hydra, Hercules slit open the corpse and dipped his arrows in the venomous blood.
Eurystheus was not impressed with Hercules' feat, however. He said that since Iolaus had helped his uncle, this labor should not count as one of the ten. This technicality didn't seem to matter much to anyone else: the ancient authors still give Hercules all of the credit. Even so, Pausanias did not think that this labor was as fantastic as the myths made it out to be: to him, the fearsome hydra was just, well, a big water snake.
At the source of the Amymone grows a plane tree, beneath which, they say, the hydra (water-snake) grew. I am ready to believe that this beast was superior in size to other water-snakes, and that its poison had something in it so deadly that Heracles treated the points of his arrows with its gall. It had, however, in my opinion, one head, and not several. It was Peisander of Camirus who, in order that the beast might appear more frightful and his poetry might be more remarkable, represented the hydra with its many heads.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.37.4
The Hind of Ceryneia
Diana's Pet Deer
Diana's Pet Deer
|Michaelerplatz - Labours of Hercules (Photo credit: asw909)|
Ceryneia is a town in Greece, about fifty miles from Eurystheus' palace in Mycenae.
A hind is simply a female red deer. You'd think it would have been easy for a hero like Hercules to go shoot a deer and bring it back to Eurystheus, but a few problems made things complicated. This was a special deer, because it had golden horns and hoofs of bronze. Not only that, the deer was sacred to the goddess of hunting and the moon, Diana; she was Diana's special pet. That meant that Hercules could neither kill the deer nor hurt her. He couldn't risk getting Diana angry at him; he was already in enough trouble with Hera.
Hercules set out on this adventure, and he hunted the deer for a whole year. At last, when the deer had become weary with the chase, she looked for a place to rest on a mountain called Artemisius, and then made her way to the river Ladon. Realizing that the deer was about to get away, Hercules shot her just as she was about to cross the stream. He caught the deer, put her on his shoulders and turned back to Mycenae. As Hercules hurried on his way, he was met by Diana and Apollo.
Diana was very angry because Hercules tried to kill her sacred animal. She was about to take the deer away from Hercules, and surely she would have punished him, but Hercules told her the truth. He said that he had to obey the oracle and do the labors Eurystheus had given him. Diana let go of her anger and healed the deer's wound. Hercules carried it alive to Mycenae.
The Erymanthian BoarFor the fourth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the Erymanthian boar alive. Now, a boar is a huge, wild pig with a bad temper, and tusks growing out of its mouth.
This one was called the Erymanthian boar, because it lived on a mountain called Erymanthus. Every day the boar would come crashing down from his lair on the mountain, attacking men and animals all over the countryside, gouging them with its tusks, and destroying everything in its path.
On his way to hunt the boar, Hercules stopped to visit his friend Pholus, who was a centaur and lived in a cave near Mount Erymanthus. Everyone knows that centaur is a human from his head to his waist, and a horse for the rest of his body and his legs. Hercules was hungry and thirsty, so the kindly centaur cooked Hercules some meat in the fireplace, while he himself ate his meat raw.
When Hercules asked for wine, Pholus said that he was afraid to open the wine jar, because it belonged to all the centaurs in common. But Hercules said not to worry, and opened it himself.
Soon afterwards, the rest of the centaurs smelled the wine and came to Pholus's cave. They were angry that someone was drinking all of their wine. The first two who dared to enter were armed with rocks and fir trees.
Hercules grabbed burning sticks from the fireplace and threw them at the centaurs, then went after them with his club.
He shot arrows at the rest of them and chased after them for about twenty miles. The rest of the centaurs fled in different directions. One of the centaurs, Chiron, received a wound that no amount of medicine would heal...but what happened to Chiron is another story.
While Hercules was gone, Pholus pulled an arrow from the body of one of the dead centaurs. He wondered that so little a thing could kill such a big creature. Suddenly, the arrow slipped from his hand. It fell onto his foot and killed him on the spot. So when Hercules returned, he found Pholus dead. He buried his centaur friend, and proceeded to hunt the boar.
It wasn't too hard for Hercules to find the boar. He could hear the beast snorting and stomping as it rooted around for something to eat. Hercules chased the boar round and round the mountain, shouting as loud as he could. The boar, frightened and out of breath, hid in a thicket. Hercules poked his spear into the thicket and drove the exhausted animal into a deep patch of snow.
Then he trapped the boar in a net, and carried it all the way to Mycenae. Eurystheus, again amazed and frightened by the hero's powers, hid in his partly buried bronze jar.
The Augean StablesFor the fifth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean up King Augeas' stables. Hercules knew this job would mean getting dirty and smelly, but sometimes even a hero has to do these things. Then Eurystheus made Hercules' task even harder: he had to clean up after the cattle of Augeas in a single day.
Hercules Cleans Up
Hercules Cleans Up
Now King Augeas owned more cattle than anyone in Greece. Some say that he was a son of one of the great gods, and others that he was a son of a mortal; whosever son he was, Augeas was very rich, and he had many herds of cows, bulls, goats, sheep and horses.
Every night the cowherds, goatherds and shepherds drove the thousands of animals to the stables.
Hercules went to King Augeas, and without telling anything about Eurystheus, said that he would clean out the stables in one day, if Augeas would give him a tenth of his fine cattle.
Augeas couldn't believe his ears, but promised. Hercules brought Augeas's son along to watch. First the hero tore a big opening in the wall of the cattle-yard where the stables were. Then he made another opening in the wall on the opposite side of the yard.
Next, he dug wide trenches to two rivers which flowed nearby. He turned the course of the rivers into the yard. The rivers rushed through the stables, flushing them out, and all the mess flowed out the hole in the wall on other side of the yard.
When Augeas learned that Eurystheus was behind all this, he would not pay Hercules his reward. Not only that, he denied that he had even promised to pay a reward. Augeas said that if Hercules didn't like it, he could take the matter to a judge to decide.
The judge took his seat. Hercules called the son of Augeas to testify. The boy swore that his father had agreed to give Hercules a reward. The judge ruled that Hercules would have to be paid. In a rage, Augeas ordered both his own son and Hercules to leave his kingdom at once. So the boy went to the north country to live with his aunts, and Hercules headed back to Mycenae. But Eurystheus said that this labour didn't count, because Hercules was paid for having done the work.
The Stymphalian BirdsAfter Hercules returned from his success in the Augean stables, Eurystheus came up with an even more difficult task. For the sixth Labor, Hercules was to drive away an enormous flock of birds which gathered at a lake near the town of Stymphalos.
Arriving at the lake, which was deep in the woods, Hercules had no idea how to drive the huge gathering of birds away. The goddess Athena came to his aid, providing a pair of bronze krotala, noisemaking clappers similar to castanets. These were no ordinary noisemakers. They had been made by an immortal craftsman, Hephaistos, the god of the forge.
Climbing a nearby mountain, Hercules clashed the krotala loudly, scaring the birds out of the trees, then shot them with bow and arrow, or possibly with a slingshot, as they took flight.
Some versions of the legend say that these Stymphalian birds were vicious man-eaters. The 2nd century A.D. travel writer, Pausanias, trying to discover what kind of birds they might have been, wrote that during his time a type of bird from the Arabian desert was called "Stymphalian," describing them as equal to lions or leopards in their fierceness. He speculated that the birds Hercules encountered in the legend were similar to these Arabian birds.
These fly against those who come to hunt them, wounding and killing them with their beaks. All armor of bronze or iron that men wear is pierced by the birds; but if they weave a garment of thick cork, the beaks of the Stymphalian birds are caught in the cork garment... These birds are of the size of a crane, and are like the ibis, but their beaks are more powerful, and not crooked like that of the ibis.Pausanias also saw and described the religious sanctuary built by the Greeks of Stymphalos and dedicated to the goddess Artemis. He reported that the temple had carvings of the Stymphalian birds up near its roof. Standing behind the temple, he saw marble statues of maidens with the legs of birds.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.22.5
The Cretan BullAfter the complicated business with the Stymphalian Birds, Hercules easily disposed of the Cretan Bull.
At that time, Minos, King of Crete, controlled many of the islands in the seas around Greece, and was such a powerful ruler that the Athenians sent him tribute every year. There are many bull stories about Crete. Zeus, in the shape of a bull, had carried Minos' mother Europa to Crete, and the Cretans were fond of the sport of bull-leaping, in which contestants grabbed the horns of a bull and were thrown over its back.
Minos himself, in order to prove his claim to the throne, had promised the sea-god Poseidon that he would sacrifice whatever the god sent him from the sea. Poseidon sent a bull, but Minos thought it was too beautiful to kill, and so he sacrificed another bull. Poseidon was furious with Minos for breaking his promise. In his anger, he made the bull rampage all over Crete, and caused Minos' wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the animal. As a result, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Minos had to shut up this beast in the Labyrinth, a huge maze underneath the palace, and every year he fed it prisoners from Athens.
When Hercules got to Crete, he easily wrestled the bull to the ground and drove it back to King Eurystheus. Eurystheus let the bull go free. It wandered around Greece, terrorizing the people, and ended up in Marathon, a city near Athens.
The Athenian hero Theseus tied up some loose ends of this story. He killed the Cretan Bull at Marathon. Later, he sailed to Crete, found his way to the center of the Labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur.
The Man-Eating Horses of DiomedesAfter Hercules had captured the Cretan Bull, Eurystheus sent him to get the man-eating mares of Diomedes, the king of a Thracian tribe called the Bistones, and bring them back to him in Mycenae.
According to Apollodorus, Hercules sailed with a band of volunteers across the Aegean to Bistonia. There he and his companions overpowered the grooms who were tending the horses, and drove them to the sea. But by the time he got there, the Bistones had realized what had happened, and they sent a band of soldiers to recapture the animals. To free himself to fight, Hercules entrusted the mares to a youth named Abderos.
Unfortunately, the mares got the better of young Abderos and dragged him around until he was killed.
Meanwhile Hercules fought the Bistones, killed Diomedes, and made the rest flee. In honor of the slain Abderos, Hercules founded the city of Abdera.
The hero took the mares back to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus set them free. The mares wandered around until eventually they came to Mount Olympos, the home of the gods, where they were eaten by wild beasts.
Euripides gives two different versions of the story, but both of them differ from Apollodorus's in that Hercules seems to be performing the labor alone, rather than with a band of followers. In one, Diomedes has the four horses harnessed to a chariot, and Hercules has to bring back the chariot as well as the horses. In the other, Hercules tames the horses from his own chariot:
He mounted on a chariot and tamed with the bit the horses of Diomedes, that greedily champed their bloody food at gory mangers with unbridled jaws, devouring with hideous joy the flesh of men.
Euripides, Hercules, 380
Hippolyte's BeltFor the ninth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the belt of Hippolyte [Hip-POLLY-tee]. This was no ordinary belt and no ordinary warrior. Hippolyte was queen of the Amazons, a tribe of women warriors.
Hercules Fights the Amazons
Hercules Fights the Amazons
These Amazons had nothing to do with the Amazon river in South America. Their name comes from a Greek word meaning "missing one breast." This is because an Amazon's right breast got in the way when she threw a spear.
The Amazons lived apart from men, and if they ever gave birth to children, they kept only the females and reared them to be warriors like themselves.
Queen Hippolyte had a special piece of armor. It was a leather belt that had been given to her by Ares, the war god, because she was the best warrior of all the Amazons. She wore this belt across her chest and used it to carry her sword and spear. Eurystheus wanted Hippolyte's belt as a present to give to his daughter, and he sent Hercules to bring it back.
Hercules' friends realized that the hero could not fight against the whole Amazon army by himself, so they joined with him and set sail in a single ship.
After a long journey, they reached the land of the Amazons and put in at the harbor. When Hercules and the Greeks got off the boat, Hippolyte came down to visit them.
She asked Hercules why he had come, and when he told her, she promised to give him the belt. But the goddess Hera knew that the arrival of Hercules meant nothing but trouble for the Amazons. Disguised as an Amazon warrior, Hera went up and down the army saying to each woman that the strangers who had arrived were going to carry off the queen. So the Amazons put on their armor. The women warriors charged on horseback down to the ship.
But when Hercules saw that they were wearing their armor and were carrying their weapons, he knew that he was under attack. Thinking fast, he drew his sword and killed Hippolyte.
Then he undid her belt and took it away from her.
Hercules and the Greeks fought the rest of the Amazons in a great battle. When the enemy had been driven off, Hercules sailed away. After a stopover at the city of Troy, Hercules returned to Mycenae, and he gave the belt to Eurystheus
- Labor 1: The Nemean Lion
- Labor 2: The Lernean Hydra
- Labor 3: The Hind of Ceryneia
- Labor 4: The Erymanthean Boar
- Labor 5: The Augean Stables
- Labor 6: The Stymphalian Birds
- Labor 7: The Cretan Bull
- Labor 8: The Horses of Diomedes
- Labor 9: The Belt of Hippolyte
- Labor 10: Geryon's Cattle
- Labor 11: The Apples of the Hesperides
- Labor 12: Cerberus