In Greek mythology, Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the grand-daughter of Perseus and the wife of Amphitryon. In Roman mythology he is called Hercules. He was, arguably, the greatest of the mythical Greek Heroes and many stories are told of his life. The most famous group of stories tell of The Twelve Labours of Hercules which were
- The Nemean Lion
- The Lernaean Hydra
- The Cerynian Hind
- The Erymanthian Boar
- The Stymphalian Birds
- The Stables of Augeias
- The Cretan Bull
- The Horses of Diomedes
- The Belt of Hippolyta
- The Cattle of Geryon
- The Apples of the Hesperides
- The Chaining of Cerberus
These tasks were set for Heracles by King Eurystheus.
However there are many other stories associated with him.
A major factor in the tragedies surrounding Heracles stem from Hera's hatred of him; as the wife of Zeus she often hated his mortal offspring, especially so in Heracles' case. A few months after he was born she sent to serpents to kill him as a he lay in his cot. Heracle's throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys.
He continued to perform such feats, such as slaying a lion that was preying on the local flocks and defending Thebes against a neighbouring army. For the latter he was awarded the King of Thebes' (Creon) daughter, Megara. However, in a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed and realising what he had done he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his brother Iphicles?) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi.
The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks set by the man he hated the most, King Eurystheus. There was an enmity between Eurystheus and Heracles as by right Heracles should've been king but Eurystheus's birth was induced early by Hera and Heracles' delayed so that Heracles would not be king. This came to be when Zeus, having impregnated Alcmene proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king; Hera, hearing this caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus (though evidently not in character!), while Heracles was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done Zeus was furious, however, his rash proclamation still stood.
The first task was to slay the Nemean lion and bring back its skin, this lion was far more fearsome than the one slain by Heracles in his youth. Its hide was impervious to any blade and his club splintered upon the first strike. Heracles defeated the beast by throttling it with his bare hands. Heracles spent hours trying to skin the lion unsuccessfully, and gradually growing angrier as it appeared he would be unable to complete his first task. Eventually Athene, in the guise of an old crone, helped Heracles to realise that the best tool to cut the hide were the creatures own claws and so with a little divine intervention he completed his first task. From that moment forth he wore the impenetrable hide as armour, and Eurystheus was so scared by Heracle's fearsome guise that he hid in a bronze jar and from that moment forth all labours were communicated to Heracles through a herald.
His second labour was to slay the Lernean Hydra, a formidable snake-like beast that possessed nine heads and poisonous breath. For this task Heracles took his nephew, Iolaus, with him as a charioteer. Upon reaching the swamp where the Hydra dwelt Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes and fired flaming arrows into its lair to draw it out. He then confronted it, but upon cutting off one of its heads he found that two grew back, the same happened again upon cutting off a second head; realising that he could not defeat the hydra in this way Heracles called on Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athene) of using a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after decapitation and handed him the blazing brand. Heracles cut off each head and Iolaus burned the open stump leaving the hydra dead and taking its one immortal head he placed it under a great rock, and dipped his arrows in the hydra's poisonous blood, and so his second task was complete...or so he thought. When Eurystheus found out that it was Heracles nephew who had handed him the firebrand he declared that the labour had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the ten labours set for him.
Eurystheus was greatly angered to find that Heracles had managed to escape death for a second time and so decided to spend more time upon thinking up a third task that would spell doom for the hero. The third task did not involve killing a beast, as it had already been established that Heracles could survive even the most fearsome opponents, so Eurystheus decided to make him capture the Cerynian Hind, a beautiful creature sacred to Artemis the chaste goddess of the hunt and moon. The hind possessed hooves of bronze and antlers of gold and it was said that it could outrun an arrow in flight. Heracles pursued the hind for a year, when he awoke from sleep he could see it from the glint on its antlers; upon finally catching the animal he was confronted by Artemis who wanted to kow what he was doing with it. Heracles explained that he had to catch it as part of his penance, but he promised to return it. Upon bringing the hind to Eurystheus, he was told that it was to become part of the King's menagerie. Heracles knew that he had to return the hind as he had promisde to Artemis, so he agreed to hand it over on the condition that Eurystheus himself came out and took it from him. The King came out but the moment Heracles let the hind go, it sprinted back to her mistress, and Heracles left saying that Eurystheus had not been quick enough.
His fourth Labour was to capture the Erymanthian Boar
The fifth task set to Heracles was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. The reasoning behind this labour was twofold, firstly, all the previous labours only exalted Heracles in eyes of the people so this one would surely degrade him; secondly, the stables of Augeas housed the single greatest number of cattle in the country and having never been cleaned this task was surely impossible.
For his sixth task Heracles had to drive away the Stymphalian Birds, fearsome creatures with bronze beaks that terrorised the lake that they had come to inhabit some years previously. Some accounts say that they had razor sharp feathers that could be fired at attackers.
For his seventh labour Heracles was told to capture the Cretan Bull, a monstrous fire-breathing beast, the same that fathered the Minotaur.
The eigth labour of Heracles was to steal the Mares of Diomedes, however, Heracles was not aware that the magnificent horses were man-eating.
Although he only had to perform ten labours, Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra as he was assisted, or the Augean stables as he recieved payment for his work. For the eleventh labour Heracles had to steal the Apples of the Hesperides, a wedding gift from Hera to Zeus, guarded by the dragon Ladon who never slept and the Hesperides, nymphs who were the daughters of Atlas.
His final labour was to capture Cerberus, the three headed hound that guarded the entrance to Hades. It is also said that Cerberus had a mane of serpents and a snake for a tail.
Heracles had many other adventures after his labours, eventually culminating in his death (inadvertently) at the hands of his own wife who doubted his love for her. Heracles had a great many children from various women, collectively referred to as the Heraclidae, and many of the kings of ancient Greece traced their lines to one or another of these, notably the kings of Sparta.