The Story of Hercules – An Imperfect Hero

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 …

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Etruscan bronze coin, wheel/anchor series, 300-200 BCE. Museo Archeologico - Arezzo, Italy.

A Bastard of Zeus

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.

Statue of Hercules at rest leaning against his knotty club on which his lion skin is draped. A 216CE Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE, at Naples National Archaeological Museum
Statue of Hercules at rest leaning against his knotty club on which his lion skin is draped. A 216CE Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE, at Naples National Archaeological Museum. Ref: (a-27).

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? 

Hercules’ Case of Temporary Insanity

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

Nemean Lion from a 3rd century CE mosaic. Archaeological Museum of Paros, Lapidarium.
Nemean Lion from a 3rd century CE mosaic. Archaeological Museum of Paros, Lapidarium. Ref: (a-34).

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#2 – The Hydra of Lernea

Hercules defeats the Lernaean Hydra with help from Iolaus.
Hercules defeats the Lernaean Hydra with help from Iolaus. Reference: (a-14).

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#3 – The Cerynitian Hind (Red Female Deer with Golden Antlers)

Hercules captures the Hind of Artemis. Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 540–530 BCE said to be from Vulci. Located at the British Museum.
Hercules captures the Hind of Artemis. Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 540–530 BCE said to be from Vulci. Located at the British Museum. Ref: (a-35).

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#4 – The Boar of Erymanthus

Hercules captures the Erymanthian Boar.
Hercules captures the Erymanthian Boar. Reference: (a-30).

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#5 – King Augeas’ Cattle and Their Great Dung

Hercules cleans the Augean stables. Detail of The Twelve Labors Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain). Mosaic between 201 and 250 AD.
Hercules cleans the Augean stables. Detail of The Twelve Labors Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain). Mosaic between 201 and 250 AD. Ref: (a-38).

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#6 – The Birds of the Stymphalian Lake

Hercules drives away the Stymphalian birds. Attic black-figured amphora, ca. 540 BCE said to be from Vulci.
Hercules drives away the Stymphalian birds. Attic black-figured amphora, ca. 540 BCE said to be from Vulci. Ref: (a-37).

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#7 – The Bull of Crete

Hercules captures the Bull of Crete.
Hercules captures the Bull of Crete. Reference: (a-32).

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#8 – The Man-Eating Mares of Diomedes

Hercules corals Diomedes' man-eating mares. Drawing by Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630), Nicolo Van Aelst (Flanders, 1527-1612), from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Hercules corals Diomedes’ man-eating mares. Drawing by Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630), Nicolo Van Aelst (Flanders, 1527-1612), from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Ref: (a-36).

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#9 – The Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta

Hercules and the Amazon Queen Hippolyte by Vincenzo de' Rossi. Palazzo Vecchio - Florence, Italy.
Hercules and the Amazon Queen Hippolyte by Vincenzo de’ Rossi. Palazzo Vecchio – Florence, Italy. CC-BY-ND-4.0.

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#10 – The Cattle of Geryon

Geryon with 3 heads, 6 arms and 6 legs, and his 2-headed dog Orthus about to attack Hercules. Side B of an Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 540 BCE from Vulci.
Geryon with 3 heads, 6 arms and 6 legs, and his 2-headed dog Orthus about to attack Hercules. Side B of an Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 540 BCE from Vulci. Ref: (a-39).

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#11 – The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

Hercules at rest carrying the golden apples of the Hesperides in his right hand - detail from the sculpture Hercules Farnese, at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Hercules at rest carrying the golden apples of the Hesperides in his right hand – detail from the sculpture Hercules Farnese, at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Ref: (a-28).

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#12 – Three-Headed Cerberus from Hades

Hercules Captures Cerberos from Hades. Gate statue at Branicki Palace in Białystok, Poland.
Hercules Captures Cerberos from Hades. Gate statue at Branicki Palace in Białystok, Poland. Ref: (a-31).

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Hercules After the Labors

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.

The statue of Heracles with club, lion skin and golden apples was found buried near the Theatre of Pompey. Gilt bronze, Roman artwork of the 2nd century CE now located at the Pio Clementino Museum of the Vatican Museums.
The statue of Heracles with club, lion skin and golden apples was found buried near the Theatre of Pompey. Gilt bronze, Roman artwork of the 2nd century CE now located at the Pio Clementino Museum of the Vatican Museums. Ref: (a-29).

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.

Hercules died in a tragic incident when his wife Deianeira accidentally killed him. This, however, led to his ascension to Mt. Olympus to join the rest of the Olympian gods. Find out more in my post, Hercules and the Centaur At the Piazza della Signoria.

Etruscan bronze coin, wheel/anchor series, 300-200 BCE. Museo Archeologico - Arezzo, Italy.

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.

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