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Who was Hercules? - Myths & Overview

Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

During this lesson, we will learn who Hercules was and take a closer look at his history and legacy as well as the myths surrounding him. Let's look closely at the Twelve Labors of Hercules and the ways in which the myths intertwine with one another.

Background

Hercules was the Roman name for Greek mythological hero Heracles. He is depicted throughout history as a man with immeasurable strength, far-reaching wisdom and fascinating journeys.

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Childhood

Hercules was the son of Zeus and a mortal Alcmene. This birth angered Zeus's wife Hera. Therefore, she sent two serpents to Hercules's cradle to kill him. Hercules strangled both serpents with his bare hands. Hercules thereafter had a curious childhood, learning the rules of battle as well as the art of music and singing.

When Hercules turned eighteen the anger of Hera had not dissipated. He sought help from a priestess who then instructed him to go and work for Eurystheus who was a King. Eurystheus, a friend of Hera, would impose upon Hercules the Twelve Labors of Hercules. The priestess stated that upon the completion of these twelve labors, Hercules would be considered a son of Zeus and could be counted among the immortal gods.

Twelve Labors of Hercules and Various Myths

The first labor was to slay the Nemean Lion. The lion had been scaring the citizens of Nemea for a long time. He found the lion and strangled it. He then returned and threw it down in front of Eurystheus, who was so frightened that he forbade Hercules from ever coming to the town again. Eurystheus then built an underground chamber to hide in should he need it.

The second labor was to slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra. The Lernaean Hydra was a water snake that lived in a lake near the town of Erystheus. Eight of the heads of the snake were alive but one was immortal. Hercules found the snake and began striking the heads with his club. However, every time he was able to kill one of the heads two grew in that place. Hercules had his driver, Iolaus, light a fire. He then took a stick from the fire and seared the place where he had cut off a head. This prevented the head from growing back. He continued on until all eight were gone. The last immortal head he chopped off and buried apart from the body. The rest of the body he cut up; he dipped all of his arrows in the poison that was in the snake's belly.

The third labor was capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis. Artemis, a goddess, had a deer that she especially loved and gave golden horns to. Eurystheus asked that Hercules deliver this hind to him alive. He was able to capture the hind by injuring her shoulder and delivered her to Erystheus.

The fourth labor was capturing the Erymanthian Boar. This mean and deadly boar lived in the northwestern section of Arcadia where the Golden Hind of Artemis lived. When Hercules came upon the boar, instead of shooting it, he began yelling at it. This yelling confused the boar and he then ran into a snowdrift. This gave Hercules time to tie him up. He then brought him to Eurystheus, who hid in his underground chamber when he heard Hercules was coming.

Although Hercules scared Eurystheus, he still continued with assigning the twelve labors. The fifth labor was to clean the Augean Stables in a single day. A very rich king owned the stables and had never cleaned them. Hercules went to the king and told him that he would clean the stalls if the king would give him 1/10 of the herd. The king, not knowing the labor had been bestowed on Hercules by Erystheus, agreed. Hercules rerouted a river that flowed near the stable to flow through the stable and pushed out all the manure into a different stream. This was all done in one day. The next day the king upon learning that the act was bestowed upon Hercules by Eurystheus, refused to keep his end of the bargain. Before the matter could go to trial the king banished Hercules from town. Eurystheus refused to count this labor because Hercules had done it for pay.

The sixth labor was to slay the Stymphalian Birds. The birds lived at a lake in Arcadia. They were mean birds that would attack and slay hunters in the area. The goddess Athena gave Hercules the idea to scare the birds with loud noises. Hercules made such loud noises that it echoed off of the mountains and so scared the birds that they all went up into the air, and Hercules was then able to shoot them.

The seventh labor was to capture the Cretan Bull. This bull was considered to be insane and angry. Hercules found the bull and bound it together. He then brought the bull to Eurystheus. A few days afterward, Hercules let the bull go and it disappeared.

The eighth labor was to steal the Mares of Diomedes. These were violent, man-eating horses that were kept by the giant Diomedes, who was a half-god. Hercules fed the giant to his own horses and then, because the flesh was part god, the horses became calm. Hercules brought the horses to Eurystheus.

The ninth labor was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons - a female warrior tribe. Hercules talked with Hippolyta and told her his story. She felt so badly that she gave him the girdle - which was a belt. He then sailed and gave Eurystheus the belt.

The tenth labor was to obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon. Geryon was three-headed and six-legged. He was dangerous. It took Hercules a very long time to find the monster and along the way he became so hot, thirsty, and tired that he shot an arrow at Helios, which was the sun. Instead of getting angry, Helios instead praised Hercules for his efforts and gave him a golden cup that would quickly hasten his journey. Upon arriving, Hercules killed Geryon with the arrows poisoned from the Lernaean Hydra. Hera twice tried stopping Hercules from making it back to Eurystheus with the cattle, but she was unsuccessful.

The eleventh labor was to steal the apples of the Hesperides. The apples were said to grant immortality if eaten. Hercules found Atlas - who was holding the weight of the world. Hercules offered to hold the world for Atlas if he went and fetched Hercules a few apples. Atlas agreed and Hercules was able to return to Eurystheus with three apples.

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