Hercules (known in Greek as Heracles or Herakles) is one of the best-known heroes in Greek and Roman mythology. His life was not easy–he endured many trials and completed many daunting tasks–but the reward for his suffering was a promise that he would live forever among the gods at Mount Olympus.
Hercules had a complicated family tree. According to legend, his father was Zeus, ruler of all the gods on Mount Olympus and all the mortals on earth, and his mother was Alcmene, the granddaughter of the hero Perseus. (Perseus, who was also said to be one of Zeus’ sons, famously beheaded the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa.)
Hercules had enemies even before he was born. When Zeus’ wife Hera heard that her husband’s mistress was pregnant, she flew into a jealous rage. First, she used her supernatural powers to prevent the baby Hercules from becoming the ruler of Mycenae. (Though Zeus had declared that his son would inherit the Mycenaean kingdom, Hera’s meddling meant that another baby boy, the feeble Eurystheus, became its leader instead.) Then, after Hercules was born, Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. The infant Hercules was unusually strong and fearless, however, and he strangled the snakes before they could strangle him.
But Hera kept up her dirty tricks. When her stepson was a young adult, she cast a kind of spell on him that drove him temporarily insane and caused him to murder his beloved wife and their two children. Guilty and heartbroken, Hercules tracked down Apollo, the god of truth and healing (and another of Zeus’ sons), and begged to be punished for what he had done.
The Heroic Labors of Hercules
Apollo understood that Hercules’ crime had not been his fault—Hera’s vengeful actions were no secret—but still he insisted that the young man make amends. He ordered Hercules to perform 12 “heroic labors” for the Mycenaen king Eurystheus. Once Hercules completed every one of the labors, Apollo declared, he would be absolved of his guilt and achieve immortality.
The Nemean Lion
First, Apollo sent Hercules to the hills of Nemea to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people of the region. (Some storytellers say that Zeus had fathered this magical beast as well.) Hercules trapped the lion in its cave and strangled it. For the rest of his life, he wore the animal’s pelt as a cloak.
The Lernaean Hydra
Second, Hercules traveled to the city of Lerna to slay the nine-headed Hydra—a poisonous, snake-like creature who lived underwater, guarding the entrance to the Underworld. For this task, Hercules had the help of his nephew Iolaus. He cut off each of the monster’s heads while Iolaus burned each wound with a torch. This way, the pair kept the heads from growing back.The Golden HindNext, Hercules set off to capture the sacred pet of the goddess Diana: a red deer, or hind, with golden antlers and bronze hooves. Eurystheus had chosen this task for his rival because he believed that Diana would kill anyone she caught trying to steal her pet; however, once Hercules explained his situation to the goddess, she allowed him to go on his way without punishment.
The Erymanthean Boar
Fourth, Hercules used a giant net to snare the terrifying, man-eating wild boar of Mount Erymanthus.
The Augean StablesHercules’ fifth task was supposed to be humiliating as well as impossible: cleaning all the dung out of King Augeas’ enormous stables in a single day. However, Hercules completed the job easily, flooding the barn by diverting two nearby rivers.
The Stymphlaian Birds
Hercules’ sixth task was straightforward: Travel to the town of Stymphalos and drive away the huge flock of carnivorous birds that had taken up residence in its trees. This time, it was the goddess Athena who came to the hero’s aid: She gave him a pair of magical bronze krotala, or noisemakers, forged by the god Hephaistos. Hercules used these tools to frighten the birds away.
The Cretan Bull
Next, Hercules went to Crete to capture a rampaging bull that had impregnated the wife of the island’s king. (She later gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head.) Hercules drove the bull back to Eurystheus, who released it into the streets of Marathon.
The Horses of Diomedes
Hercules’ eighth challenge was to capture the four man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. He brought them to Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera and set them free.
The ninth labor was complicated: stealing an armored belt that belonged to the Amazon queen Hippolyte. At first, the queen welcomed Hercules and agreed to give him the belt without a fight. However, the troublemaking Hera disguised herself as an Amazon warrior and spread a rumor that Hercules intended to kidnap the queen. To protect their leader, the women attacked the hero’s fleet; then, fearing for his safety, Hercules killed Hippolyte and ripped the belt from her body.
The Cattle of Geryon
For his 10th labor, Hercules was dispatched nearly to Africa to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster Geryon. Once again, Hera did all she could to prevent the hero from succeeding, but eventually he returned to Mycenae with the cows.
The Apples of Hesperides
Next, Eurystheus sent Hercules to steal Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus: a set of golden apples guarded by a group of nymphs known as the Hesperides. This task was difficult—Hercules needed the help of the mortal Prometheus and the god Atlas to pull it off—but the hero eventually managed to run away with the apples. After he showed them to the king, he returned them to the gods’ garden where they belonged.
For his final challenge, Hercules traveled to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the vicious three-headed dog that guarded its gates. Hercules managed to capture Cerberus by using his superhuman strength to wrestle the monster to the ground. Afterward, the dog returned unharmed to his post at the entrance to the Underworld.
Later in his life, Hercules had a number of other adventures—rescuing the princess of Troy, battling for control of Mount Olympus—but none were as taxing, or as significant, as the labors had been. When he died, Athena carried him to Olympus on her chariot. According to legend, he spent the rest of eternity with the gods.