Heracles, also known as Hercules in Greek texts, is one of the most recognised and famous of the divine heroes in Greek mythology. The son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, he was considered the greatest of the heroes, a symbol of masculinity, sire of a long line of royal clans and the champion of the Olympian order against terrible monsters.
Heracles was known for his extraordinary strength, courage and cleverness. When his brawn would not suffice, he would call upon his wits to outsmart the King Augeas of Elis or tricking Atlas into taking the weight of the heavens once again. With Hermes, Heracles was the patron and protector of gymnasia, and he was a playful individual playing games and entertaining children. He was often portrayed with a lion skin and a club. The most famous stories of his life were The Twelve Labours of Heracles.
Heracles was born to the mortal woman Alcmene and Zeus, who disguised himself as her husband Amphitryon home early from the war. Heracles’ existence was proof of Zeus’ illicit affairs and Hera, his wife, enraged by this conspired against him as revenge for her husband’s infidelities.
Heracles was born with a mortal twin, Iphicles, whose father was the real Amphitryon. Fearful of Hera’s revenge, Alcmene exposed Heracles but he was taken to Hera by Athena (the protector of heroes), and Hera not recognising him nursed him out of pity.
With this divine milk, Heracles acquired supernatural powers and Athena returned him back to his parents who raised him and named him Alcides, and it was only later that he would become known as Heracles as an attempt to pacify Hera. This attempt did not work, and when Heracles and Iphicles were eight months old, Hera sent two giant snakes to their chambers. Heracles, even at a young age, was, able to grab and strangle the snakes.
In Thebes, Heracles married King Creon’s daughter Megara. Hera, still spiteful, induced a fit of madness in Heracles and he killed his children. After his madness had been cured by hellebore, he fled, ashamed, to the Oracle, of Delphi. Unfortunately for Heracles, Hera guided the Oracle, and he was directed to serve his sworn enemy, King Eurystheus for ten years and perform any task asked of him in repayment for his crime of killing his children.
The Twelve Labours of Heracles
Heracles was given Twelve Labours which would purify him of his sins and grant him immortality. The Twelve Labours were:
- Slay the Nemean Lion
- Kill the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
- Capture the Golden Hide of Artemis
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar
- Clean the Augean stables in a single day
- Slay the Stymphalian Birds
- Capture the Cretan Bull
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes
- Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
- Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
- Take the apples of the Hesperides
- Capture and bring back Cerberus, the Guardian of the Underworld
After completing this tasks, with help and encounters from numerous prominent figures in Greek mythology, Heracles joined the Argonauts in a search for the Golden Fleece. Heracles would fall in love with Princess Iole of Oechalia, her father King Eurytus promised her hand in marriage to anyone who could beat his sons in an archery contest. Heracles won, but the King abandoned his commitment, and Heracles advances were spurned by the King and his sons, except for the son Iphitus.
Heracles killed the king and his sons, abducted Iole and Iphitus became Heracles best friend. However, once again, Hera would drive Heracles mad, and he threw his best friend over the city wall to his death. To purify himself of this sin Heracles served Queen Omphale of Lydia for three years dressed in women’s clothes and doing women’s work. Eventually, he was freed and married his captor, some sources mention a son born to the two of them.
Heracles would go on to be apart of many more adventures and tribulations; his life ended when he was married to Deianira, who tricked by a former foe of Heracles, accidently poisoned her husband via a shirt dipped in venom. Since Heracles was a demi-god, he suffered a painful and slow demise. He would go on to climb Mount Etna where he built his funeral pyre and lay down with his head resting on his club and Nemean lion’s skin covering him. Eventually, Zeus enveloped him in a cloud and took him to dwell in the stars amongst the constellations.
Other Interesting Facts:
- In Rome and the modern West, he is known as Hercules with whom Roman emperors including Commodus and Maximian would identify themselves with
- The Romans adopted the Greek stories describing Heracles life to their mythology and details of his cult were adapted in Rome as well, of course, some anecdotal details have been changed and modified to better support the Roman life and legacy
- In Hesiod’s Theogony, he recorded that Heracles shot and killed the eagle that tortured Prometheus (the hero who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mortals), freeing the hero and Prometheus, in turn, made predictions regarding the future great deeds of Heracles
- Heracles was the only hero in Greek mythology who had cults established all over Greece dedicated to him, his super feats in overcoming monsters made him a protector of many city states
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