Greek Myths: Heracles

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Greek Myths: The Origins | Centaurs | The 12 Olympians | Achilles
Gods of Greek Mythology | Heroes of Greek Mythology | The Trojan War
Heracles | Sirens | Prometheus | Perseus | Pygmalion and Galatea
Jason and the Argonauts | The Children of Nyx | Death and the Underworld

The Greek hero Heracles was known to the Romans as Hercules, and his most well known feature is his enormous strength, which he inherited from his father.

Many of his exploits can be read as being historical representations of actual events, eg the transition from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one. These include descriptions of earlier ceremonies and rituals and their suppression1.

Birth and childhood of Heracles

Mother = Alcmene2, celibate and pious wife of Amphitryon, off to the wars. She was sulking until he avenged the death of her eight brothers (don't ask!).

Father = Zeus (in disguise, pretending to be her husband Amphitryon, who had by now avenged her brothers)3. Zeus persuaded Helios, the sun-god to take some time off and the moon to go slowly and thus extended the night to 36 hours.

Zeus could not keep his mouth shut and nine months later was boasting that his child was about to be born and that it would be called 'Heracles', literally, 'Glory of Hera' (his wife's name).

Hera was none too pleased on hearing these rumours. Zeus wanted his new son to be High King of the House of Perseus. Hera made him swear an unbreakable oath that any prince born before nightfall would become High King and managed to delay Heracles' birth and bring about the birth of the child of Nicippe, then seven months pregnant and wife of King Sthenelus, who was named Eurystheus.

On finding out that he Eurystheus had been born an hour before Heracles, Zeus fell into a towering rage. Although he could not go back on his oath, and let Heracles rule the House of Perseus, he persuaded Hera to agree to Heracles becoming a god, if he could perform any twelve labours that Eurystheus might set him.

Exposed in a field by his mother, who feared Hera's jealousy, Heracles was found by Athene (who had been primed by Zeus) and Hera. Put to the breast of Hera, the child sucked so hard that Hera threw him off and a spurt of milk flew into the air, becoming the Milky Way. However, Heracles had now become immortal and was returned to Alcmene by a smiling Athene.

At the age of around 10 months, when Heracles was asleep with his twin brother Iphicles (Amphitryon's actual son, not important to the story), they awoke to find two terrible serpents, who had been sent by Hera to destroy Heracles. Iphicles was terrified, but Heracles was found smiling and strangling both snakes4

Whilst he was growing up, Heracles had good teachers. Amphitryon taught him to ride a chariot. Castor gave him lessons in using weapons and strategy. He was taught boxing, archery (which he was very good at), to sing and play the lyre, literature and augury.

When Heracles was 18, King Thespius, who had 50 daughers, decided that he wanted each one to have a child by Heracles and every night one of the daughers visited him - although some say he bedded the all except one in a single night! The all had one child each, except the oldest and the youngest, who both had twins.

After defeating the enemies of King Creon of Thebes, Heracles was given his eldest daughter, Megara, in marriage as a reward. They had several sons, known as Alcaids. Some say that he had three, four or even eight.

The madness of Heracles

Hera drove Heracles mad and in his madness, he attacked and killed six of his sons, mistaking them for enemies and threw their bodies into a fire, together with two of Iphicles' sons. They had been performing martial arts together.5

The Thebans are said to have held funeral games afterwards in honour of the victims.

Apparently madness is the traditional 'excuse' for the sacrifice the sacred king's boy-surrogates who were burned alive, the actual king being in hiding for 24 hours, before coming out and reclaiming the throne!

When he recovered his sanity, according to some accounts, Heracles approached the Pythoness at Delphi, who advised him to serve Eurystheus for twelve years and to carry out tasks that he might set. Other accounts have the madness happening after his return from Tartarus and say that he killed his wife Megara as well.

The first Labour: the Nemean Lion6

The Nemean or Cleonaean lion was an enormous beast, whose pelt was proof against iron, bronze and stone which was depopulating the neighbourhood of Nemea.

Heracles first tried shooting it with arrows, which bounced off harmlessly, leaving the lion licking its chops, yawning. Next he tried his sword, which bent like lead. The he hit it on the head with his club, which shattered, and left the lion with ringing in its ears. Finally, he started to wrestle with it and it bit off one of his fingers before Heracles choked it to death.

Heracles scratched his head thinking of how to flay it, until he had the bright idea of using its own razer sharp claws. Afterwards, he used the skin as invulnerable armour and its head as a helmet.

The second Labour: the Lernean Hydra7

The Lernean Hydra was a monster born of Typhon (another monster) and Echidne, which terrorised the area around lerna, near Argos. It had a dog-like body and eight or nine heads, one of them immortal, although some say it had 50 and others up to 1000! It was so venomous that its breath, or the smell of its tracks could kill a man.

Heracles had help from both Athene and Iolaus, a charioteer, in defeating the Hydra. He drove it out from its lair by pelting it with flaming arrows and held his breath whilst battering its heads with his club. However as fast as he crushed them, even more grew back in their place.

Heracles' foot was nipped by a great crab, which came to the Hydra's aid. Heracles shouted to Iolus for help and he used blazing torches to cauterize the 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 third Labour: the Ceryneian Hind

This task was to capture alive the Ceryneian Hind and 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 forgave him.

The fourth Labour: the Erymanthean Boar8

This animal, again of enormous proportions, lived on the slopes of Mount Erymanthis, ravaging the countryside around and Heracles' task was to capture it alive.

Heracles was involved in some fighting at the beginning of this Labour, killing a bandit, Saurus, and, whilst celebrating with one of the Centaurs, opened a jar of sine, 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 and with Zeus' agreement, gave his immortality to Prometheus so that he could die.

Heracles chased the boar and drove it into a snow drift and jumped on its back, bound it with chains following a difficult struggle and carried it on his back 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 would 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 and brazen-winged man eating birds, which lived on the Stymphalian Marsh. The 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 them9.

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, Heracled 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 and 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, Admete10. The Amazons were children of Ares by the Naiad Harmonia. In Amazon society, men carried out the household tasks and women fought and governed.They were said to hve 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, setlling by the foot of the Caucasian 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 dog ran at him, barking, and 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 eleventh 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 eleventh 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's 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 twelfth Labour: The capture of Cerberus

The final and most difficult task was for Heracles to bring up 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 Aconite11.

Heracles' life after the labours

His labours over, Heracles decided to give away his wife to his nephew and to look for a younger wife. He set his eyes on Iole, daughter of Eurytus, son of Melanius, King of Oechalia. Eurytus set him an archery challenge, which he completed, but then refused to honour the agreement, after finding out about Megara.

This set in train a series of events, in which Heracles was falsely accused of stealing horses, murdered one of Eurytus' sons, who was a guest in his house, and was sentenced to a year's slavery to atone for his wrongdoing. He was bought by Ommphale, Queen of Lydia, by whom he had either three or four sons. She discovered who he was after he had killed a giant snake and set him free, loading him with gifts.

Heracles was supposed to have taken off his lion pelt and put on a turban, jewels and women's clothing and to have taken up weaving. However it seems that he and Omphale had exchanged clothing following union and Pan, coming upon them in the dark, tried to have his way with the owner of the silk clothing, getting a nasty shock and a kick up the backside from Heracles, who laughed mightily. So Pan spread rumours about him in revenge.

Heracles was involved in a number of further adventures including:

  • Rescuing Hesione, daughter of Laomedon, King of Troy, who had been chained, stark naked (except for her jewels) to a rock as an offering to a sea-monster, sent by Apollo. Heracles jumped down the monster's throat and took three days to kill it, although he came out bald!

  • At Zeus's invitation, putting his lion pelt round the newly born son of Telemon's wife, Pereboea - mighty Ajax, making him invulnerable, except in his neck and armpit;

  • Making war on Troy and putting Priam on the throne;

  • Being thrown off course in a ship at Hera's instigation, whereupon Zeus, in a temper, chained Hera to some rafters by the wrists and put anvils on her ankles. He also threw Hephaestus to earth and the other gods around Olympus until Heracles was rescued.

  • Getting the title Buphagus, or 'Ox-eater' after completing the challenge of throwing the discus, drinking bucket after bucket-full of water and then eating a whole ox.

Heracles' death and beyond

Heracles died a rather horrible death after his second wife Deianeira gave him a shirt which she thought contained a fidelity potion. It actually contained gorgon's blood and when he put it on at a ceremony, it acted like acid, corroding his flesh, exposing his bones. When he jumped in a river, it burned even worse. His wife, on hearing about it, committed suicide. Heracles made a funeral pyre and lay on it and thunderbolts from Zeus reduced the lot to ashes.

After his son's physical death, Zeus got all the gods, including Hera to agree to accept him. So as not to have to demote any of the existing twelve gods, he persuaded Hera to adopt Heracles by a ceremony of rebirth, in which he hid under Hera's skirts and she pretended to go through labour. He married her daughter Hebe and had two children and became the porter of heaven. His mortal shade walked around Tartarus, with his bow drawn and an arrow fitted.

1 See the book The Greek Myths: 2 by Robert Graves ISBN no 0-14-020509-8 for more information on both Heracles and the historical context.2Alcmene 'Strong in wrath' will according to Robert Graves have been a Mycenaean title of Hera, whose sovereignty Heracles protected against her Achaean enemy Perseus 'destroyer'. When these triumphed, they claimed Heracles as a member of the usurping House of Perseus.3When the real husband returned, having indeed avenged her brothers, he was given a less than warm welcome, and when he found who had been laying with his wife, dare not lay with her again ever!4 In all probabilty the story of the snakes has been mistinterpreted. More likely the snakes were licking out his ears 5The eight Alcaids may have been part of a sword dance team like the eight morris dancers in the Mummers team, which ends in the victim's resurrection.6Ritual combat with wild beasts was part of the sacred king's coronation ritual in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria, one for each season of the year.7The destruction of the Hydra may record the suppression of the Lernean fertility rites, with the number of heads relating to priestesses.8The boar was sacred to the moon because of its crescent-shaped tusks. It was forbidden to eat boar except at Midwinter.9This story may be grounded in the massacre and suppression of a college of priestesses worshipping the Triple Goddess. The name Stymphalus suggests erotic practices.10Admete is another name for Athene.11Aconite was used by Thessalian witches in their flying ointment. It numbed their hands and feet and gave the sensation of flying.

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