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The Life of Hercules is one in the true tradition of Greek myths - consisting of battles, love and a suitably tragic death. However, Heracles (or Hercules to give his Latin moniker) is also famous for the 12 labours he was urged to perform by the oracle at Delphi.
The First Labour - the Nemean Lion
The Nemean (or Cleonaean) lion was an enormous beast which was depopulating the area of Nemea. His pelt was proof against iron, bronze and stone.
Heracles first tried shooting the lion with arrows, which bounced off harmlessly. Next he tried his sword, which bent and also had no effect. Heracles attempted hitting the lion over the head with his club, which shattered, and left the lion with ringing in its ears. Finally, he started to wrestle with it, choking it to death but losing a finger in the course of the fight. Heracles flayed the lion using its own razor-sharp claws, and was subsequently able to use the skin as invulnerable armour, and its head as a helmet.
A possible historical context to the First Labour is that ritual combat with wild beasts formed a part of the sacred king's coronation ritual in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria.
The Second Labour - the Lernean Hydra
The Lernean Hydra was a monster born of Typhon (another monster) and Echidne. The Hydra terrorised the area around Lerna, near Argos. It had a dog-like body and most likely eight or nine heads, one of them immortal, although some versions of the story claim that the Hydra had anything from 50 to 1000 heads. It was so venomous that its breath, or even the smell of its tracks, could kill a man.
Heracles had help from both the god Athene and Iolaus, a charioteer, in defeating the Hydra. He drove it out from its lair by attacking it with flaming arrows, and held his breath while battering its heads with his club. However, as fast as he was able to crush them, more heads sprouted in place of the old ones.
Heracles' foot was nipped by a great crab, which was sent by Hera to hinder Heracles and go to the Hydra's aid. Heracles shouted to Iolaus for help, and he used blazing torches to cauterise the Hydra's head-stumps and prevent them from growing back. Then he chopped off the immortal head and buried it, still hissing, under a heavy rock. Having disembowelled the carcass, he dipped his arrows in its gall, making his arrows lethal, even from the slightest scratch.
Hera set the crab, which had been crushed by Heracles, in the stars as part of the zodiac.
The Second Labour may record the suppression of the Lernean fertility rites, with the number of heads relating to priestesses.
The Third Labour - the Ceryneian Hind
Heracles' third task was to capture the Ceryneian Hind, and to bring her alive to Mycenae. She had brazen hooves and golden horns like a stag and was sacred to Artemis. Other accounts tell of her being a ravaging monster which Heracles killed.
As he did not want to hurt the Hind, Heracles chased her for a year, capturing her (when she was exhausted) by shooting an arrow which pinned her forelegs together without drawing blood as it passed between bone and sinew. He then carried it on his shoulders to Mycenae. Artemis was apparently cross with him for misusing her sacred animal, but he pleaded that he had no choice and she then forgave him.
The Fourth Labour - the Erymanthean Boar
The Erymanthean Boar1, again of enormous proportions, lived on the slopes of Mount Erymanthis, ravaging the surrounding countryside and Heracles' task was to capture it alive.
Heracles was involved in some fighting at the beginning of this Labour, killing a bandit (Saurus). While celebrating with one of the centaurs, he opened a jar of wine, the smell of which brought angry centaurs in a fighting mood. Heracles killed several of them and by mistake hit his friend Cheiron in the knee. Cherion, being immortal, could not die and was left in agony, so with Zeus' agreement, he gave his immortality to Prometheus so that he himself could die.
Heracles meanwhile chased the boar and drove it into a snow drift. There he jumped on its back, bound it with chains and carried it on his shoulders to Mycenae.
The Fifth Labour - the Stables of Augeias
This task was to clean out the filthy stables of King Augeias in a single day. They had not been cleaned in many years and the stench from them was spreading disease for many miles around, although the cattle themselves were not affected by it. The valley pastures were so deep in dung that they could not be ploughed.
Heracles swore an oath to King Augeias that he would complete the task in a day. Heracles was then attacked by one of the stables' guard bulls, Phaethon, in mistake for a lion because of his headdress, and Heracles wrestled it to the ground.
Heracles accomplished the cleansing of the stable by putting two holes in the walls and diverting two nearby rivers so that they not only cleared the stables, but washed the dung from the pastures as well.
King Augeias, on hearing that Heracles was already tasked by Eurystheus to clear the stables, refused to pay the agreed reward and Eurystheus in his turn, on hearing of the bargain with King Augeias, refused to count this labour as one of the ten.
The Sixth Labour - the Stymphalian Birds
The birds of this task were crane-sized, brazen-beaked, brazen-clawed, brazen-winged man-eating birds, which lived on the Stymphalian Marsh. They killed people by shooting/showering them with brazen feathers. Their excrement also contained a powerful poison, which blighted the crops. Heracles' Labour was to remove these birds, which were sacred to Ares.
As there were too many birds on the marsh to shoot with his arrows and the marsh was too treacherous to stand on, Heracles made a very loud noise with either a pair of castanets or a rattle, given to him by Athene, which frightened them into the air. He then shot dozens of them2.
The Seventh Labour - the Cretan Bull
This task was to capture the Cretan Bull, which may have been the one which sired the Minotaur. In Crete, it was ravaging the land, belching flames, rooting up crops and levelling orchard walls.
Although assistance was offered, Heracles wanted to catch the bull on his own, which after a long struggle, he did. He then brought it back to Mycenae, where it was dedicated to Hera and set free.
Hera, though, was not pleased and drove the bull through many lands, where it was eventually dragged by Theseus to Athens as a sacrifice to Athene.
The Eighth Labour - the Mares of Diomedes
King Diomedes kept four savage man-eating mares, who were the scourge of Thrace. Hercules' task was to capture them.
Hercules rounded up some volunteers and set off for Thrace, where he drove the mares down to the sea and left them in the charge of an underling, Abderus. He then knocked Diomedes out with a blow from his club, took him to the mares, where he fed him, still living, to them. As the mares had already eaten the poor Abderus, their hunger was satisfied and Heracles was able to master them without any problems.
The Ninth Labour - Hippolyte's Girdle
Hippolyte was Queen of one of three tribes of Amazons and she wore the golden girdle of Ares. Eurystheus set Heracles the task of bringing back the girdle for his daughter, Admete3. The Amazons were children of Ares by the naiad4 Harmonia. In Amazon society, men carried out the household tasks and women fought and governed. They were said to have broken the arms and legs of boy children to prevent them travelling and fighting.
Heracles got together a band of volunteers including the faithful Iolaus and, some say, Theseus of Athens, and set off in a ship for the River Thermodon.
When the ship dropped anchor in the river, Hippolyte came to visit them and offered Heracles her girdle as a love gift, as she admired his muscular body. Meanwhile, Hera disguised herself as an Amazon and began to spread rumours that the men were going to capture Hippolyte, whereupon the Amazons attacked them on horseback. Heracles, thinking treachery was afoot, killed Hippolyte straight away and seized her girdle, axe and other weapons. There was then a pitched battle in which the Amazon leaders were killed, along with many more of the women. Heracles then took the girdle back to Mycenae, where it was given to Admete.
It is said that the Amazons fled to Albania, settling by the foot of the Caucasus Mountains.
The Tenth Labour - The Cattle of Geryon
Geryon was said to be the strongest man alive and had three bodies, joined at the waist, and therefore three heads and six arms. This task was to fetch Geryon's famous cattle without demand or payment from the island of Erytheia. The cattle were guarded by a herdsman and a two-headed watchdog, Orthus, another offspring of Typhon and Echidne.
On the way, Heracles is said either to have cut a channel through to separate Europe and Asia, or to have pushed the two continents closer together to prevent whales or other sea monsters from entering the straits.
When he arrived, the two-headed dog ran at him, barking, but Heracles killed him with a blow to the head from his club. The herdsman died in the same manner. As Heracles was driving the cattle away, Geryon got to hear of it and came prepared for battle. Heracles killed him with a single arrow which pierced all three bodies. Hera came to Geryon's aid and Heracles shot her in the right breast with an arrow and she ran off. So Heracles gained the cattle without demand or payment.
The 11th Labour - the Apples of the Hersperides
Heracles had originally been set ten Labours, which took him eight years and a month to complete, but Eurysteus, rather meanly, discounted two of them (the second and the fifth) and set him two more.
The 11th task was to fetch golden apples from the tree which Mother Earth had given as a wedding gift to Hera. The tree was on the slopes of Mount Atlas and was looked after originally by the Hesperides, Atlas' daughters, and later by the dragon Ladon.
Not knowing where the garden of the Hesperides were, Heracles found the sea-god Nereus asleep and clinging to him through many bodily changes, forced him to tell him its location. He also advised Heracles to get Atlas to pick the apples.
When Heracles arrived at the garden, he offered to take Atlas' burden for an hour if he would pick the apples, and Atlas duly did, but only after Heracles had killed the dragon Ladon with an arrow, returning with three apples.
Atlas asked Heracles to carry on holding up the heavens while he delivered the apples. However, Heracles had been warned that if this happened, he would end up holding them forever. He therefore pretended to agree, but asked if Atlas would take them back for a moment, while he got a pad for his head. Atlas agreed, and as soon as he had taken back his burden, Heracles picked up the apples and bid him goodbye.
Heracles then gave the apples to Eurystheus, who gave them back to him; he gave them to Athene and she gave them back to the nymphs.
On his way back, feeling thirsty, he stamped his feet and a stream of water gushed out, which later saved the lives of the Argonauts when they were stranded in the Libyan desert.
The 12th Labour - the Capture of Cerberus
The final and most difficult task was for Heracles to bring the dog Cerberus up from Tartarus (the Underworld). For this he had to undergo purification rites, these being the Mysteries of Eleusis.
Following this purification, Heracles descended into Tartarus, guided by Athene and Hermes. Charon, terrified by Heracles' scowl, ferried him across the River Styx. He found two of his friends chained up by the Gates of Tartarus, but was only able to free one of them, Theseus.
When Heracles demanded Cerberus from Hades, he was told that he could have him if he could master him without using either his club or his arrows. Heracles grabbed the dog round the throat, and held fast when it lashed him with its barbed tail, protected by his lion skin, and eventually the dog yielded.
On the way back, Heracles made himself a wreath from the white poplar, or aspen tree. The outer leaves are black, signifying the Underworld and the ones next to his brow went silver white from his sweat. The tree became sacred to him, showing that he had laboured in both the worlds of the living and the dead.
Cerberus was far from happy being dragged along in the sunlight, which hurt his eyes, and some say that from his slaver, grew the poisonous plant Aconite5.