We see a lot of the demi-god Hercules in ancient and Renaissance potteries, paintings, and sculptures. He was so popular because he was the epitome of strength, virility, and wit. But did you know that Hercules suffered from bouts of temporary insanity in which dead bodies tended to pile up?
Featured photo: This sculpture shows a muscular Hercules resting on his knotty club on which is draped his trademark skin and head of the Nemean lion – the first conquest of his 12 Labors. Ref: (a-27).
What Do You Know About Hercules?
Many of us have heard about the half-mortal half-god Hercules and his fantastic exploits. Or, you may be familiar with the expression “Herculean” effort: what is required when something is exceedingly hard to do.
The ancient Greeks believed that Hercules (Herakles or Heracles in Greek, Hercle in Etruscan) – was a historical figure, and may have lived in the mid-13th century BCE. Many Greek leaders, including Alexander the Great claim descent from Hercules.
His popularity was such, that – even though he was Mycenaean (Greek) in origin – ancients such as Egyptians, as well as Etruscans and Romans, dedicated temples and altars in his honor. Throughout ancient times and during the Italian Renaissance, he was a remarkably popular subject in pottery, paintings, and sculpture.
So who was Hercules and why was he so popular? I found out that he wasn’t so perfect …
The union of Olympian gods Zeus and Hera was a model of an incredibly dysfunctional marriage. Libidinous Zeus seduced any mortal or immortal woman he fancied, while his vengeful wife, Hera, attempted to sabotage the life of the despoiled woman and any offspring from the illicit affair. Hercules was her most hated stepson, in as much as he was Zeus’ favorite bastard.
Hercules was the product of Zeus’ one-night stand with a mortal woman, Alcmene. She was his own great-grand-daughter, a descendant of his own son Perseus, famed slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.
Zeus seduced Alcmene by coming to her in the likeness of her husband so she would not resist him. Ancient writers claimed that when Zeus made love to her, he made the night three times longer so that the extended time of his procreation would give his offspring exceptional might.
Months later, Alcmene gave birth to twins: Hercules – a demigod sired by Zeus, and Iphicles – a mortal sired by her real husband.
In the Herculean stories, Hera played the Really Wicked Stepmother and masterminded much of Hercules’ travails from his cradle to his grave. It was said, that she planted 2 huge serpents in his crib. But baby Hercules crushed both snakes with his bare hands.
Virile and Clever, With a Touch of Madness
Hercules was the epitome of strength and virility. In works of art, he is often depicted naked, with rippling muscles tensed for action. Usually, he dons the pelt (skin) and head of a lion and carries a knotty club – his sartorial trademark.
He had a strong sense of justice and battled evil when he saw it. However, he not only used brute force but also his famed wit and cunning to solve problems.
Ancient generals, kings, emperors and other state leaders portrayed themselves as having the Herculean character.
Alexander the Great claimed descent from the demigod. Indeed, Hercules was said to have fathered dozens of children including, during his youth, 50 sons from the 50 daughters of the king of Thespiae.
But did you know that Hercules suffered from bouts of temporary insanity in which dead bodies tended to pile up?
It seemed that Hercules had many moments of madness, some of which were brought on by Hera.
In one instance of Hera-induced madness, Hercules killed his first wife, Megara and all their sons.
When he came-to and realized what he had done, he was filled with guilt, remorse, and a suicidal urge. His friend Theseus convinced him that suicide was a cowardly act and that he should go into self-exile instead. (Ref: 8-i).
The Oracle Gives a Prophecy
Hercules consulted the Oracle of Delphi on where he should go on his exile and how to atone for his murderous act.
The Oracle advised him to live in Tiryns and serve the king there, his uncle Eurystheus. King Eurystheus would give him 10 labors to atone for his crime.
Once he completed these labors he would receive the gift of immortality and reside in Olympus with his father Zeus, the Oracle told him.
A Wicked Stepmother and a Mean Uncle Plot the 12 Labors of Hercules
King Eurystheus was no fan of Hercules and he connived with Hera to destroy Zeus’ favorite bastard. He commanded Hercules to carry out impossible and dangerous tasks that would surely kill a normal man.
But Hercules was not any normal man – he was the strongest, most powerful and unbeatable hero there ever was.
Of the 10 Labors that Hercules performed, Eurystheus disqualified 2 and added 2 more. So there were actually “12 Labors of Hercules”.
The writings of ancient Greek writers, Apollodorus (or Pseudo-Apollodorus) and Diodorus Siculus are quite readable. (See Ref: 9-ii, and 10-i).
So let’s have them relate in their own translated words (with a few edits on my part) King Eurytheus’ commands to Hercules to procure, slay, or perform, the following:
#1 – The Lion of Nemea
First labor: get rid of the dastardly lion that was terrorizing the town of Nemea. Impenetrable skin? No problem – Hercules just used his strong arms and squeezed the life out of it.
D. Siculus:“The first Labour which he undertook was the slaying of the lion in Nemea. This was a beast of enormous size, which could not be wounded by iron or bronze or stone and required the compulsion of the human hand for his subduing. It passed the larger part of its time between Mycenae and Nemea, in the neighbourhood of a mountain which was called Tretus from a peculiarity which it possessed; for it had a cleft at its base which extended clean through it and in which the beast was accustomed to lurk.
Heracles came to the region and attacked the lion, and when the beast retreated into the cleft, after closing up the other opening he followed in after it and grappled with it, and winding his arms about its neck choked it to death. The skin of the lion he put about himself, and since he could cover his whole body with it because of its great size, he had in it a protection against the perils which were to follow.”
So now you know: when you see an artwork (painting or sculpture) with a man carrying, or else wearing the head of a lion with its open mouth, teeth and all, on his head, and the lion pelt (skin) around his body – that would be Hercules.
As for Eurystheus, he was so scared of Hercules’ deed and ability, that he forbade him from entering the city gates. Henceforward, he was to receive his assignments outside the gates of Tyrins.
Next task: kill the monster with nine heads. Other writers claimed it had 100 serpent heads. No matter – he killed them all.
P-Apollodorus: “As a second labour he ordered him to kill the Lernaean hydra. That creature, bred in the swamp of Lerna, used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the country. Now the hydra had a huge body, with nine heads, eight mortal, but the middle one immortal.
So mounting a chariot driven by Iolaus, he came to Lerna, and having halted his horses, he discovered the hydra on a hill beside the springs of the Amymone, where was its den. By pelting it with fiery shafts he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself about one of his feet and clung to him. Nor could he effect anything by smashing its heads with his club, for as fast as one head was smashed there grew up two.
A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting his foot. So he killed it, and in his turn called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus. But the body of the hydra he slit up and dipped his arrows in the gall.
However, Eurystheus said that this labour should not be reckoned among the ten because he had not got the better of the hydra by himself, but with the help of Iolaus.”
Although Eurytheus disqualified this labor, another trademark of Hercules came from this work. The god Apollo was said to have trained him to be a deadly shot with the bow and arrow.
Now, his arrows have become even deadlier, dipped in the hydra’s poison.
#3 – The Cerynitian Hind (Red Female Deer with Golden Antlers)
Usually, only male deer had horns, but this was a special deer of Artemis. It required a great deal of cunning to catch and deliver.
P-Apollodorus: “King Eurytheus ordered him to bring the Cerynitian hind alive to Mycenae. Now the hind was at Oenoe; it had golden horns and was sacred to Artemis; so wishing neither to kill nor wound it, Hercules hunted it a whole year.
But when, weary with the chase, the beast took refuge on the mountain called Artemisius, and thence passed to the river Ladon, Hercules shot it just as it was about to cross the stream, and catching it put it on his shoulders and hastened through Arcadia.
But Artemis with Apollo met him, and would have wrested the hind from him, and rebuked him for attempting to kill her sacred animal. Howbeit, by pleading necessity and laying the blame on Eurystheus, he appeased the anger of the goddess and carried the beast alive to Mycenae.”
This seemed like a simple hunt. In other versions of the story, someone advised Hercules to drive the boar into deep snow in order to catch it.
D. Siculus: “The Command which he received was the bringing back alive of the Erymanthian boar which lived on Mount Lampeia in Arcadia. This Command was thought to be exceedingly difficult, since it required of the man who fought such a beast that he possess such a superiority over it as to catch precisely the proper moment in the very heat of the encounter. For should he let it loose while it still retained its strength he would be in danger from its tushes, and should he attack it more violently than was proper, then he would have killed it and so the Labour would remain unfulfilled.
However, when it came to the struggle he kept so careful an eye on the proper balance that he brought back the boar alive to Eurystheus; and when the king saw him carrying the boar on his shoulders, he was terrified and hid himself in a bronze vessel.”
To make up for the simplicity of the boar hunt, the story was enhanced with an additional plot in which Hercules battled with some centaurs over some wine. He ended up killing many of them. Unfortunately, it also resulted in the accidental deaths (by hydra-poisoned arrows) of his centaur friends Pholus and Chiron.
It seemed that King Augeas had not cleaned the stables where he kept his cattle, for a very, very long time. Thus, there was a huge mass of mess requiring, what else, a Herculean effort to clean up.
P-Apollodorus: “The fifth labour he laid on him was to carry out the dung of the cattle of Augeas in a single day. Now Augeas was king of Elis; … and he had many herds of cattle.
Hercules accosted him, and without revealing the command of Eurystheus, said that he would carry out the dung in one day, if Augeas would give him the tithe of the cattle. Augeas was incredulous, but promised. Having taken Augeas’s son Phyleus to witness, Hercules made a breach in the foundations of the cattle-yard, and then, diverting the courses of the Alpheus and Peneus, which flowed near each other, he turned them into the yard, having first made an outlet for the water through another opening.
When Augeas learned that this had been accomplished at the command of Eurystheus, he would not pay the reward; nay more, he denied that he had promised to pay it, and on that point he professed himself ready to submit to arbitration. The arbitrators having taken their seats, Phyleus was called by Hercules and bore witness against his father, affirming that he had agreed to give him a reward. In a rage Augeas, before the voting took place, ordered both Phyleus and Hercules to pack out of Elis …
But Eurystheus would not admit this labour either among the ten, alleging that it had been performed for hire.”
Clever use of the two rivers to flush out the dirt, but it was another disqualified accomplishment.
D. Siculus: “Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country roundabout.
Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them.”
The background on this involves Crete’s King Minos’ failure to sacrifice the white bull to Poseidon. Poseidon’s punishment had Minos’ queen Pasiphae fall in love and mate with the Cretan Bull. Their union produced the notorious Minotaur. Further, Poseidon made the Cretan Bull wild.
P-Apollodorus: “The seventh labour he enjoined on him was to bring the Cretan bull. Acusilaus says that this was the bull that ferried across Europa for Zeus; but some say it was the bull that Poseidon sent up from the sea when Minos promised to sacrifice to Poseidon what should appear out of the sea. And they say that when he saw the beauty of the bull he sent it away to the herds and sacrificed another to Poseidon; at which the god was angry and made the bull savage.
To attack this bull Hercules came to Crete, and when, in reply to his request for aid, Minos told him to fight and catch the bull for himself, he caught it and brought it to Eurystheus, and having shown it to him he let it afterwards go free. But the bull roamed to Sparta and all Arcadia, and traversing the Isthmus arrived at Marathon in Attica and harried the inhabitants.”
The Cretan Bull – later called, the Marathon Bull was later killed by Hercules’ friend, Theseus. Theseus also killed the Minotaur, and shortly after, became the king of Attica (Athens).
Hercules’ sense of justice is demonstrated in this task.
D. Siculus: “The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of these horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men.
Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control. And when the horses were brought to Eurystheus he consecrated them to Hera, and in fact their breed continued down to the reign of Alexander of Macedon.”
Hera causes conflict where diplomacy could have reigned. Sadly, the fierce Amazon warriors were no match for the power of Hercules.
P-Apollodorus: “The ninth labour he enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest.
Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail…
Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt.”
This was one epic journey from the eastern to the westernmost side of the Mediterranean to a place we now call Cadiz, Spain. Once Hercules got the kine (cattle) of Geryon, he had to herd them over land and sea – all the way to Greece.
P-Apollodorus: “As a tenth labour he was ordered to fetch the kine of Geryon from Erythia. Now Erythia was an island near the ocean; it is now called Gadira. This island was inhabited by Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirrhoe, daughter of Ocean. He had the body of three men grown together and joined in one at the waist, but parted in three from the flanks and thighs.
He owned red kine, of which Eurytion was the herdsman and Orthus, the two-headed hound, begotten by Typhon on Echidna, was the watchdog. So journeying through Europe to fetch the kine of Geryon he destroyed many wild beasts and set foot in Libya, and proceeding to Tartessus he erected as tokens of his journey two pillars over against each other at the boundaries of Europe and Libya. But being heated by the Sun on his journey, he bent his bow at the god, who in admiration of his hardihood, gave him a golden goblet in which he crossed the ocean.
And having reached Erythia he lodged on Mount Abas. However the dog, perceiving him, rushed at him; but he smote it with his club, and when the herdsman Eurytion came to the help of the dog, Hercules killed him also.
But Menoetes, who was there pasturing the kine of Hades, reported to Geryon what had occurred, and he, coming up with Hercules beside the river Anthemus, as he was driving away the kine, joined battle with him and was shot dead. And Hercules, embarking the kine in the goblet and sailing across to Tartessus, gave back the goblet to the Sun.
And passing through Abderia he came to Liguria, where Ialebion and Dercynus, sons of Poseidon, attempted to rob him of the kine, but he killed them and went on his way through Tyrrhenia. But at Rhegium a bull broke away and hastily plunging into the sea swam across to Sicily, and having passed through the neighboring country since called Italy after it, for the Tyrrhenians called the bull italus, came to the plain of Eryx, who reigned over the Elymi. Now Eryx was a son of Poseidon, and he mingled the bull with his own herds. So Hercules entrusted the kine to Hephaestus and hurried away in search of the bull. He found it in the herds of Eryx, and when the king refused to surrender it unless Hercules should beat him in a wrestling bout, Hercules beat him thrice, killed him in the wrestling, and taking the bull drove it with the rest of the herd to the Ionian Sea.
But when he came to the creeks of the sea, Hera afflicted the cows with a gadfly, and they dispersed among the skirts of the mountains of Thrace. Hercules went in pursuit, and having caught some, drove them to the Hellespont; but the remainder were thenceforth wild. Having with difficulty collected the cows, Hercules blamed the river Strymon, and whereas it had been navigable before, he made it unnavigable by filling it with rocks; and he conveyed the kine and gave them to Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Hera.”
So many things happened on this journey, including the naming of Italy after the escaped bull.
Decades later, the Roman writers such as Virgil and Ovid embellished this story by adding a decidedly Roman tale. They inserted a story of Hercules’ stay in the Palatine hill – site of the future Rome – and how he vanquished the monster Cacus after the latter stole some of his cattle. Read my story about Hercules & Cacus here.
This episode tests Hercules’ strength and wit, when he takes the weight of the sky on his back from Atlas, who goes to fetch the apples from his daughters, the Hesperides…
P-Apollodorus: “When the labours had been performed in eight years and a month, Eurystheus ordered Hercules, as an eleventh labour, to fetch golden apples from the Hesperides, for he did not acknowledge the labour of the cattle of Augeas nor that of the hydra. These apples were not, as some have said, in Libya, but on Atlas among the Hyperboreans. They were presented to Zeus after his marriage with Hera, and guarded by an immortal dragon with a hundred heads, offspring of Typhon and Echidna, which spoke with many and diverse sorts of voices.
With it the Hesperides also were on guard, to wit, Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa …”
Here, Apollodorus goes into several paragraphs recounting how Hercules traversed many, many lands and got into several conflicts which he all won. One famous conflict was with Antaeus of Libya, who liked to wrestle with strangers and kill them. It seemed that he never ran out of energy and strength as long as his feet touched the earth. So, Hercules grabbed him and lifted him off the ground for a long time and broke him.
Then he reached the place where Prometheus was bound to a rock as punishment for giving man the gift of fire. Hercules shot down the eagle that was devouring Prometheus liver and then freed him …
“… Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere< he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules. And so Hercules picked up the apples and departed.
But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake.
And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere.“
A trip to the depths of Hades is very tricky since rarely did humans escape once they reached it. Hercules did it twice. His final labor involved descending into Hades, picking up a monstrous puppy, ascending back to the world of the living, then going back to Hades to return said dog.
P-Apollodorus: “A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes …
… And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it … When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass (i.e., body armour) and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen … Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades.”
Hercules’ 12 Labors cleansed him of his filicide (murder of his children) and uxoricide (murder of his wife Megara).
He went on to have many more adventures where he slew bad actors and saved cities. He even joined Jason and the Argonauts for a period of time.
He had many consorts – both women and young men. (Pederasty – educational + sexual relationships between an older and a younger man – was an accepted practice in ancient Greek society). He married mortal women 2 more times: Queen Omphale of Lydia and Deianeira of Calydon. His fourth wife was the immortal Hebe, Hera’s daughter.
He begot many more children – within and outside of his marriages. His numerous mortal children and descendants were called Heraclidae – many of whom became founders and rulers of Greek cities.
I derived this story based on the interesting works of ancient Greek writers who lived between the 5th and 1st century BCE: Sophocles (Trachinae), Pseudo-Apollodorus (Bibliotheke), and Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Historica) – Reference (8, 9, 10). For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.