Herakleswas the greatest and most celebrated hero in ancient Greece. He was born at Thebes and was the child of Zeus and Alcmene. His name literally means 'the one who became famous by Hera,' it portends on Hera's unforgiving hate on Herakles because of her jealousy of Zeus' affair with Alcmene. Zeus's wife, Hera, was furious when she learned that Alcmene was pregnant with Zeus's child. Before Herakles' birth, Zeus announced to the gods that a descendant of Perseus would be born, a hero destined to rule over the Perseides. Hating the unborn, she delayed his birth and hastened the birth of Eurystheus, who inherited the throne of Perseus. Later when Herakles was born, she sent two snakes to his crypt, but Herakles strangled them. For many years Herakles lived happily with his wife, Megara. and had three children with her. However, Hera, determined to make trouble for Herakles, caused him to lose his mind. In a fit of madness, which Hera sent to him, he killed his own wife and children and two children of his half-brother, Iphicles, mistaking them for his enemies.
The Twelve Labors of Heraklesare most often attributed by classical scholars to have been penance and atonement for Herakles' madness. When Herakles recovered his sanity, he went to Delphi to expiate himself from this horrible act, and was told by Apollo to go to Tiryns and serve his cousin, Eurystheus for twelve years, and to perform whatever labors might be determined for him. His payment for successfully completing these twelve glorious deeds was to be rewarded with immortality. Herakles was hindered at all times by Hera when trying to complete these labors, but was aided by others in the Greek Pantheon. The Labors took Herakles beyond the Greek world and into distant regions, as well as into the Underworld itself. The range of places, as well as the type of creatures Herakles encounters and defeats, are important in defining his nature as a hero.
The First Labor: The Nemean LionThe first labor imposed on Herakles by Eurystheus was the conquest of the Nemean lion. He was not an ordinary lion, but a child of Orthos and Echidna, thus a descendant of Poseidon and Medusa. When Herakles arrived in Nemea, in the hills north of the plain of Argos, and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered that his arrows were useless against the invulnerable beast, who had a pelt impervious to iron, bronze or stone. Herakles then followed the lion to a cave which had two entrances. He blocked one of the doorways with stones, 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 choked it to death. He then managed to skin it with its own claws. Thereafter, the lion's skin became Herakles' standard raiment. When Herakles returned to Mycenae, Eurystheus was incredulous that the hero had managed such an impossible task. The king became afraid of Herakles, 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 Herakles if need be. After that, Eurystheus sent his commands to Herakles through a herald, refusing to see the powerful hero face to face.
The Second Labor: The Lernaean HydraFrom the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna, on the coast road to Arcadia and Sparta, the hydra would rise up and terrorize the countryside. A monstrous serpent with nine heads, one of which was immortal and therefore indestructible, the hydra attacked with poisonous venom. Herakles nephew, Iolaus, accompanied him, as he did on many of his twelve labors. They discovered the lair of the loathsome hydra by the springs of Amymone. Herakles lured the creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the hydra emerged, Herakles seized it. However, the monster wound one of its coils around Herakles' foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. Herakles attacked the many heads of the hydra with his club, but as he smashed one head, two more emerged. Additionally, an enormous crab came to the aid of the hydra by nipping the trapped foot of Herakles. Finally, each time Herakles bashed one of the hydra's heads, Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of each neck, thus preventing the growth of replacement heads. Once he had removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, Herakles chopped off the ninth and buried it at the side of the road. Eurystheus, however, proclaimed that this labor did not count among the ten since Herakles had help from Iolaus, thus contributing to the revision from the original ten labors to twelve.
The Third Labor: The Cerynean HindHerakles set out on his adventure to Ceryneia, a town within the territory of Oenoe in north-west Argos, about fifty miles from Eurytheus' palace in Mycenae. He was required to capture the hind, a red deer with brazen hooves and golden horns, alive and bring it to Eurytheus. Additionally, this deer was sacred to Artemis, the goddess of hunting and the moon. Herakles chased the stag for one full year before she finally wearied and rested on a mountain called Artemisius. He ran the deer down beside the river Ladon, and carried it alive to Mycenae. It was then released.
The Fourth Labor: The Erymanthian BoarFor the fourth labor, Herakles was given the task of capturing alive the fierce boar which ravaged the slopes of Mt. Erymanthius in Psophis, a city in north-east Arcadia. The boar would come crashing down each day 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. Herakles heard the beast snorting and stomping as it rooted around for something to eat, and 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. Herakles poked his spear into the thicket, drove the exhausted animal into a deep patch of snow, and there captured it and bound it with a net. Eurystheus, again amazed and frightened by the hero's powers, hid in his partly buried bronze jar.
The Fifth Labor: The Augean StablesHerakles was ordered to clean the vast cattle stables of King Augeas, in which the accumulated filth of many years lay undisturbed. King Augeas, whose stables were located in Elis, in the western Peloponessos, agreed to Herakles' proposal of one-tenth of his fine cattle should he successfully clean out the stables in one day. Herakles then tore a huge opening in each wall on opposite sides of the cattle-yard where the stables lay. He dug wide trenches to the two rivers, Alpheus and Peneus which flowed nearby, thus changing 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 on the opposite side of the yard, effectively cleaning them in a single day. Eurytheus once again discounted this labor, claiming that Herakles was paid for having done the work, although King Augeas reneged on his promise when he learned of Eurystheus' involvement.
The Sixth Labor: The Stymphalian BirdsA thickly wooded marsh in Stymphalos in north-central Arcadia provided a natural refuge for an enormous flock of birds. These birds possessed razor-edged feathers and were known as man-eaters. Herakles was aided by the goddess Athena, who provided a pair of bronze krotala, castinets made by an immortal craftsman, Hephaistos, the god of the forge. Climbing a nearby mountain, Herakles clashed the krotala loudly, frightening the birds out of the trees and into the open where he shot them with bow and arrow as they took flight.
The Seventh Labor: The Cretan BullMinos, King of Crete, promised the sea-god Poseidon that he would sacrifice whatever the god sent him from the sea in order to prove his claim to the throne. Poseidon sent a bull, but Minos thought it too beautiful to kill, and so sacrificed another bull. Poseidon was furious with Minos for breaking his promise, and in his anger had the bull rampage throughout 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 secure this beast in the Labyrinth, a huge maze underneath the palace, and would feed it prisoners from Athens each year. When Herakles arrived in Crete, he easily wrestled the bull to the ground and drove it back to Tiryns to display to King Eurytheus, then set it free. The bull wandered around Greece, terrorizing people, and eventually ended up in Attica, to the plain of Marathon, where it was finally captured by the Athenian hero Theseus and sacrificed to Athena.
The Eighth Labor: The Mares of DiomedesIn this rather gruesome tale, Herakles is required to secure the four flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, the king of the Thracian tribe called the Bistones and son of the war-god Ares. Herakles overpowered the mares' grooms and drove the horses down to the sea. Turning back to deal with pursuers, he left the mares in the care of his current lover, Abderus. Upon his return, however, he found that Abderus had been dragged to his death by the mares. Herakles killed Diomedes and fed his body to his own horses. This act tamed the mares and enabled them to be brought safely to Mycenae where Eurytheus dedicated them to Hera and set them free on Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods, where they were ultimately eaten by wild beasts. Herakles founded the city of Abdera in honor of the slain Abderus.
The Ninth Labor: Hippolyte's GirdleHippolyte was the daughter of Ares and queen of the Amazons, a tribe of women warriors. 'Amazon' is derived from the Greek word meaning 'missing one breast,' as these fierce warriors removed one breast to enable them to deftly throw a spear. The Amazons lived apart from men, and should any have given birth to a child, only the females were retained and reared to be warriors like themselves. Queen Hippolyte wore a golden, magic girdle across her chest to carry her sword and spear. It was given to her by Ares to signify her superior skills as a warrior. Eurytheus charged Herakles with traveling to the Black Sea Area and obtaining this girdle as a present for his daughter. Hippolyte promised the belt to Herakles until Hera intervened, resulting in the Amazons taking up arms. After Herakles drew his sword and slayed Hippolyte and the Amazonian army, he seized the girdle from the fallen body of the queen.
The Tenth Labor: The Cattle of GeryonTo accomplish his tenth labor, Herakles had to journey to the end of the earth in a goblet known as the 'Golden Cup of the Sun,' given to him by the sun god Helios. Eurytheus ordered the hero to bring him the cattle of the monster-man Geryon, who possessed three heads and three sets of legs. Geryon was the son of Chrysaor, who sprung from the body of the Gorgon Medusa after Perseus beheaded her, and Callirrhoe, who was the daughter of two Titans, Oceanus and Tethys. Geryon lived in Erytheia, in the 'Farthest West,' now Cadiz in southern Spain. Geryon kept a herd of red cattle guarded by Orthus, a two-headed watchdog and the herdsman Eurytion, both of whom Herakles killed with his club before finally confronting Geryon. Herakles killed the monster with his arrows, loaded the vast herd of cattle aboard the 'Golden Cup' and returned to Greece where the herd was sacrificed to Hera.
The Eleventh Labor: The Apples of HersperidesHerakles was ordered to secure the holy, golden apples of the Hesperides. These apples were a wedding present to Hera. They were kept in a garden at the northern edge of the world, and were guarded not only by the ever-watchful hundred-headed dragon named Ladon, but also by the Hesperides, nymphs who were daughters of Atlas, the titan who held the sky and the earth upon his shoulders. After encountering much difficulty in locating the garden, Herakles came to the rock on Mount Caucasus where Prometheus was chained. Prometheus, a trickster who made fun of the gods and stole the secret of fire from them, was sentenced by Zeus to a horrible fate. He was bound to the mountain, while each day a monstrous eagle came and ate his liver, pecking away at Prometheus' tortured body. After the eagle flew off, Prometheus' liver grew back, causing him to endure the eagle's painful visit daily for 30 years, until Herakles showed up and killed the eagle. In gratitude, Prometheus told Herakles the secret to getting the apples, having to send Atlas after them instead of going himself. Atlas hated holding up the sky and the earth so much that he would agree to the task of fetching the apples in order to pass his burden over to Herakles. Everything happened as Prometheus had predicted, and when Atlas returned with the golden apples he told Herakles he would take them to Eurystheus himself, and asked him to stay there and hold the heavy load for the rest of time. Herakles slyly agreed, but fooled Atlas into taking the burden back again. The apples were uneventfully brought to Eurystheus, but they belonged to the gods and could not remain. Herakles dedicated them to Athena, who took them back to the Hesperides at the northern edge of the world.
The Twelfth Labor: The Capture of KerberosThe most dangerous labor of all was the twelfth and final one, requiring Herakles to invade the Underworld and kidnap the beast known as Kerberos. Possessing three heads of wild dogs, a dragon for a tail, and heads of snakes all over his back, Kerberos was charged with guarding the entrance to Hades and keeping the living from entering the world of the dead. The ancient Greeks believed that after a person died, his or her spirit went to the world below and dwelled for eternity in the depths of the earth. The Underworld was the kingdom of Hades and his wife, Persephone. Depending on how a person lived his or her life, they might or might not experience never-ending punishment in Hades. Near the gates of Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Underworld, Herakles encountered Kerberos, threw his strong arms around the beast, and wrestled him into submission. After the task was accomplished Kerberos was returned safely to Hades, where he resumed guarding the gateway to the Underworld.
As a result of this final labor, Herakles attained immortality himself. No other hero gained this honor. By the end of these Twelve Labors, Herakles was, without a doubt, Greece's greatest hero.