Reader's Encyclopedia

Heracles (Latin name Hercules)

A mythical Greek hero of fabulous strength. Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmena, who caught Zeus ' notice when her husband, Amphitryon, was away from Thebes. Amphitryon, however, returned the same night that Zeus had visited her, and in good time she gave birth to twins, Heracles and Iphicles, who was merely the son of Amphitryon. Hera, who had done everything possible to prevent the birth, did not give up. She sent two snakes to attack the twins, but Heracles strangled them in his crib. Heracles married the Theban king's daughter Megara, but, driven mad by Hera, he killed Megara and all their children. When he returned to his senses, he went into exile and bound himself to serve his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, for twelve years. At the end of this time he would become immortal. Although he traveled far and wide for many of the famous Labors, Heracles ' own home seems to have been at Tiryns. His Labors were as follows:

  1. Killing the Nemean lion. This frightful beast, sent by Hera to ravage the Nemean plain and to annoy Heracles, he killed by clubbing and strangling it, although it was supposedly invulnerable. Henceforward he wore its skin.

  2. Killing the Hydra. This tremendous snake, one of the many delightful monsters spawned by Echidna, inhabited the Lernaean swamps. As soon as one of its numerous heads was lopped off, others grew in its place. Heracles persuaded his friend Iolaus to burn the stumps before the heads could grow and thus they disposed of the beast, as well as a crab sent by Hera to help it out. This crab became the constellation of Cancer.

  3. Capturing the Erymanthian boar. Heracles brought this redoubtable beast back to Eurystheus and nearly scared him out of his wits.

  4. Capturing the Hind of Artemis. Heracles succeeded in capturing this sacred animal after a year's search, and Artemis permitted him to carry it off to Argos if he promised to let it go, which he did.

  5. Killing the man - eating Stymphalian birds. Heracles chased them from their hiding in the woods by banging a bronze rattle, then shot them down one by one.

  6. Cleansing the Augean stables. These stables, belonging to King Augeas of Elis, had never been cleaned. Heracles accomplished the task in a day by redirecting a river through them.

  7. Capturing the Cretan Bull. This bull, which may have been the father of the Minotaur, was taken alive and shown to Eurystheus, like the Hind, then released.

  8. Capturing the horses of Diomedes, son of Cyrene and Ares. These horses were fed on human flesh by their owner, the king of the Bistonians. They suddenly became tame when Heracles fed their master to them. He then took them back to Eurystheus and dedicated them to Hera.

  9. Capturing the girdle of Hippolyta. Either alone or with an army, Heracles defeated the Amazons and either killed Hippolyta or secured the girdle by holding one of her generals, Melanippe, for ransom.

  10. Killing the monster Geryon. Heracles threatened Helios with his bow until the god gave him his golden cup, in which Heracles sailed the river Oceanus to the far west. There, after disposing of the herdsman Eurytion and the ferocious dog Orthrus, he killed Geryon himself, stole his cattle, and returned with them, either in the cup or by a long and arduous route through Spain, France, and Italy.

  11. Capturing Cerberus. Heracles made his way down to Hades, dragged up Cerberus, the three - headed dog that watches the gates, showed him to Eurystheus, and duly returned him to his proper place. According to one story, Heracles actually fought with and wounded Hades himself.

  12. Stealing the apples of the Hesperides. These apples grew on a tree guarded by a terrible dragon and belonged to the Hesperides, daughters of Night, who lived near the Atlas Mountains. There are various tales as to how Heracles plucked the apples: He either killed the snake or put it to sleep and took the apples him self, or he sent Atlas for them, holding the sky on his shoulders meanwhile.

    Heracles had innumerable other adventures, either separately or incidentally to his main labors. He eventually died after donning the poisoned shirt dipped in the blood of the centaur Nessus, which his wife Deianira had given him. He built himself a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta and persuaded Poeas with the gift of his bow and arrows to set it afire. After this he ascended to Olympus and married Hebe.

    The last three labors of Heracles seem to indicate that he achieved immortality by his feats. A very considerable number of his adventures were added to his saga to explain the many places in which his cult flourished. Some authorities believe that the root of the Heracles saga is the adventures of an actual Mycenaean king of Tiryns who performed mighty feats at the bidding of his overlord, the high king of Mycenae. His feats were a favorite subject of art among the Greeks and in the Renaissance.

    Heracles appears in two tragedies by Sophocles, Trachiniai (The Trachinian Women) and Philoctetes; in two by Euripides, Alcestis and Heracles mainomenos (The Madness of Heracles); and in Seneca's Hercules furens. Euripides' Herakleidai (The Children of Heracles) tells of the final defeat of Eurystheus, who had continued to persecute Heracles' family after his death.