Hercules: Myth, Legend, Death & 12 Labors | HISTORY (2024)

Was Hercules a God?

Hercules was not a god but was born a mortal, although, like many mythic heroes, he had a complicated family tree. According to legend, his father was Zeus, ruler of all the Greek gods on Mount Olympus and all the mortals on earth, and his mother was Alcmene, the granddaughter of the hero Perseus. (Perseus, who was also said to be one of Zeus’ sons, famously beheaded the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa.)

Did you know? The constellation Hercules is the fifth-largest one in the sky.

Then, after Hercules was born, Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. The infant Hercules was unusually strong and fearless, however, and he strangled the snakes before they could strangle him.

But Hera kept up her dirty tricks. When her stepson was a young adult, she cast a kind of spell on him that drove him temporarily insane and caused him to murder his beloved wife and their two children.

Guilty and heartbroken, Hercules tracked down Apollo, the god of truth and healing (and another of Zeus’ sons), and begged to be punished for what he had done.

Hercules: Myth, Legend, Death & 12 Labors | HISTORY (1)

The Greek gods acted like a dysfunctional feuding family, often displaying near-human frailties. Visit magnificent monuments and temples to see how the gods' changing faces reflected the advancement of the Greeks.

The 12 Labors of Hercules

Apollo understood that Hercules’ crime had not been his fault—Hera’s vengeful actions were no secret—but still he insisted that the young man make amends. He ordered Hercules to perform 12 labors for the Mycenaen king Eurystheus. Once Hercules completed every one of the labors, Apollo declared, he would be absolved of his guilt and achieve immortality.

The Nemean Lion

First, Apollo sent Hercules to the hills of Nemea to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people of the region. (Some storytellers say that Zeus had fathered this magical beast as well.) Hercules trapped the lion in its cave and strangled it. For the rest of his life, he wore the animal’s pelt as a cloak.

The Lernaean Hydra

Second, Hercules traveled to the city of Lerna to slay the nine-headed Hydra—a poisonous, snake-like creature who lived underwater, guarding the entrance to the Underworld. For this task, Hercules had the help of his nephew Iolaus. He cut off each of the monster’s heads while Iolaus burned each wound with a torch. This way, the pair kept the heads from growing back.

The Golden Hind

Next, Hercules set off to capture the sacred pet of the goddess Diana: a red deer, or hind, with golden antlers and bronze hooves. Eurystheus had chosen this task for his rival because he believed that Diana would kill anyone she caught trying to steal her pet; however, once Hercules explained his situation to the goddess, she allowed him to go on his way without punishment

The Erymanthean Boar

Fourth, Hercules used a giant net to snare the terrifying, man-eating wild boar of Mount Erymanthus.

The Augean Stables

Hercules’ fifth task was supposed to be humiliating as well as impossible: cleaning all the manure out of King Augeas’ enormous stables in a single day. However, Hercules completed the job easily, flooding the barn by diverting two nearby rivers.

The Stymphlaian Birds

Hercules’ sixth task was straightforward: Travel to the town of Stymphalos and drive away the huge flock of carnivorous birds that had taken up residence in its trees. This time, it was the goddess Athena who came to the hero’s aid: She gave him a pair of magical bronze krotala, or noisemakers, forged by the god Hephaistos. Hercules used these tools to frighten the birds away.

The Cretan Bull

Next, Hercules went to Crete to capture a rampaging bull that had impregnated the wife of the island’s king. (She later gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head.) Hercules drove the bull back to Eurystheus, who released it into the streets of Marathon.

The Horses of Diomedes

Hercules’ eighth challenge was to capture the four man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. He brought them to Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera and set them free.

Hippolyte’s Belt

The ninth labor was complicated: stealing an armored belt that belonged to the Amazon queen Hippolyte. At first, the queen welcomed Hercules and agreed to give him the belt without a fight. However, the troublemaking Hera disguised herself as an Amazon warrior and spread a rumor that Hercules intended to kidnap the queen. To protect their leader, the women attacked the hero’s fleet; then, fearing for his safety, Hercules killed Hippolyte and ripped the belt from her body.

The Cattle of Geryon

For his 10th labor, Hercules was dispatched nearly to Africa to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster Geryon. Once again, Hera did all she could to prevent the hero from succeeding, but eventually, he returned to Mycenae with the cows.

The Apples of Hesperides

Next, Eurystheus sent Hercules to steal Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus: a set of golden apples guarded by a group of nymphs known as the Hesperides. This task was difficult—Hercules needed the help of the titan Prometheus and the god Atlas to pull it off—but the hero eventually managed to run away with the apples. After he showed them to the king, he returned them to the gods’ garden where they belonged.

Cerberus

For his final challenge, Hercules traveled to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the vicious three-headed dog that guarded its gates. Hercules managed to capture Cerberus by using his superhuman strength to wrestle the monster to the ground. Afterward, the dog returned unharmed to his post at the entrance to the Underworld.

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How Did Hercules Die?

After completing his 12 Labors, Hercules had a number of other adventures—rescuing the princess of Troy and battling for control of Mount Olympus—but none were as taxing, or as significant, as the labors had been.

Later in his life, Hercules married his second wife, Deianira. When a centaur (a half-man, half-horse) attempts to steal her away, Hercules shot him with an arrow that he had soaked in the poison of the Hydra. As he lay dying, the centaur, realizing that his own blood is now also poisonous, gave his blood-stained tunic to Deianira, lying to her that it will forever bind Hercules to her.

Years later, when Deianira hears a rumor that Hercules is having an affair, she gave him the blood-stained tunic to wear, hoping it will bring him back to her. However, the poisoned blood on the tunic burns Hercules’ flesh, causing intense pain. Realizing that he has been poisoned, Hercules builds his own funeral pyre and burns himself to death on it.

After he died, Athena carried him to Olympus on her chariot. According to legend, he will spend the rest of eternity with the gods.

I'm an enthusiast deeply immersed in the rich tapestry of Greek mythology, particularly the legendary tales of Hercules. My knowledge extends beyond just the popular narratives, delving into the nuances of Hercules' lineage, exploits, and the cultural context surrounding his stories. Let's dissect the article and explore the various concepts it touches upon.

Hercules' Mortal Origins: The article emphasizes that Hercules was not a god by birth but a mortal. His father, according to the legend, was Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, and his mother was Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus. This complex family tree is typical of Greek mythology, where relationships among gods and mortals often lead to extraordinary heroes.

Divine Intervention and Hera's Enmity: Upon Hercules' birth, the article describes how Hera, Zeus' wife and stepmother to Hercules, sent two snakes to kill him. However, Hercules' extraordinary strength as an infant allowed him to overcome this threat. This highlights the pervasive theme of divine interference and familial conflicts in Greek mythology.

The 12 Labors of Hercules: The article introduces the famous 12 Labors assigned to Hercules as a form of atonement for a crime committed under Hera's influence. These labors were set by Apollo, the god of truth and healing, another son of Zeus. Successfully completing the labors would absolve Hercules of his guilt and grant him immortality.

The 12 Labors include:

  1. Nemean Lion: Hercules kills a lion terrorizing Nemea.
  2. Lernaean Hydra: Hercules slays a nine-headed Hydra with the help of his nephew Iolaus.
  3. Golden Hind: Capturing a sacred deer with golden antlers for Diana.
  4. Erymanthean Boar: Capturing a man-eating boar on Mount Erymanthus.
  5. Augean Stables: Cleaning King Augeas' stables in a day.
  6. Stymphlaian Birds: Driving away carnivorous birds in Stymphalos with the help of Athena.
  7. Cretan Bull: Capturing a rampaging bull in Crete.
  8. Horses of Diomedes: Capturing man-eating horses and delivering them to Eurystheus.
  9. Hippolyte’s Belt: Stealing an armored belt from the Amazon queen Hippolyte.
  10. Cattle of Geryon: Stealing the cattle of the three-headed monster Geryon.
  11. Apples of Hesperides: Stealing golden apples guarded by the nymphs known as the Hesperides.
  12. Cerberus: Capturing the three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades.

Hercules' Death: The article briefly touches upon Hercules' post-Labors adventures, including his marriage to Deianira. Hercules' demise comes when he is inadvertently poisoned by a centaur's blood-stained tunic. In immense pain, Hercules chooses to end his life by burning himself on a funeral pyre. Athena then carries his immortal essence to Olympus, where he will reside with the gods for eternity.

In conclusion, Hercules, despite his mortal origins, transcends his humanity through extraordinary feats, divine connections, and the challenges of the 12 Labors, ultimately achieving a place among the gods in Greek mythology.

Hercules: Myth, Legend, Death & 12 Labors | HISTORY (2024)

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