The 12 labors of Hercules do not only stand for a man’s sojourn seeking penance, but is also a tale of a man’s resilience and unflagging perseverance. Besides everything else the story of the twelve labors of Hercules makes for a fantastic mythological lore. Read the following article to find out why the term ‘Herculean task’ came into being…
Ever wondered why people always referred to relatively difficult jobs as “Herculean tasks”? I mean where does it stem from? Well, to find out the true roots of this question one has to study the life of the Greek hero Herakles, popularly known by his Roman name, Hercules, laying special stress on the 12 labors of Hercules. Discover adventure in the following paragraphs, as you read through the life and the impossible tasks of the man who rose to become the greatest of all Grecian heroes.
How it All Started…
In soothe, the problems for Hercules started from the very day he was conceived. The story about his birth narrates that the Greek God Zeus was so smitten by the princess of Mycenae and daughter of Perseus, the mortal Alcmene that he adopted the avatar of Amphitryon, a Theban general and mated her. This led to the nascence of Hercules and gravely enraged the divine wife of Zeus, Hera (Roman Juno). Zeus tried to pacify the Goddess by rechristening the child from Alcides to Hercules after Hera but that did nothing to calm the scorned goddess down. To further worsen things, Zeus, in a bid to immortalize Hercules, left him to suckle milk from the breast of Hera, while she was asleep.
Absolutely mad with rage, Hera started to employ ways to get rid of Hercules. She sent fatally venomous serpents to kill the baby in his crib but the child’s enormous strength left the serpents limp and dead. Hercules grew up as a strong young man, seeking glory and fame in an effort to leave his name etched in history in letters of gold. But like his father, he too was given to foul temper at times. He killed the son of Apollo, Linus in a fit of anger when the later pointed out errors in the singing ways of Hercules. He killed his teacher with Linus’ own lyre and was thus punished by Amphitryon, who banished him to the hills to tender to kine. In the countryside, he was visited by two nymphs, Pleasure and Virtue, who offered Hercules with two choices. The former said that she could bless him with a leisurely, comfortable life and the latter promised an adventurous, hard life, fraught with challenges but assured glory in the end. Choosing the boon of the latter, Hercules traveled to Thebes where he vanquished the foes of the Thebans and thus won over the hand of the Theban princess Megara, daughter of Creon.
Megara and Hercules had two beautiful children, a daughter and a son. But the anger of the cheated Goddess had not been quelled even after all these years. She manipulated the sanity of Hercules and thus rendered the great warrior mad. In this possessed and tranced state, Hercules murdered his own children and fell into a slumberous stupor. On waking up, he saw the hell he had wrecked and descended into abysmal depths of grief and dismay. Seeking a way to purge his grieving soul, he sought the help of the Oracle of Delphi. Unfortunately, the Oracle was not only under the reins of Hera, but was also puppet-ed by the King of Mycenae and enemy of Hercules, Eurystheus. Naturally, the Oracle bid Hercules to serve Eurystheus for 12 long years if he wished to expiate his infernal sins.
Hercules did accept this penance and went to the court of Eurystheus. The king had his own vested devious intentions of eradicating Hercules and so, he made a list of the 10 most operose, or rather impossible feats to be performed by Hercules if he sought absolution.
Next Came the 12 Labors of Hercules…
The Greeks knew about the twelve tasks of Hercules from the 600 BC epic poem of Peisander. But unfortunately all written accounts of that text indited by Peisander of Camirus now exist no more. There are a lot of feats associated with Hercules but not all form a part of the 12 labors of Hercules. The 12 labors of Hercules list that was once engraved onto the doric metope in between 470 and 456 B.C., in the Olympian temple of Zeus. Even though there is some debate regrading the order of the tasks that Hercules performed, I shall give you the 12 labors of Hercules in order of Apollodorus of Athens (180 – 120 BC), also described intricately in the Bibliotheke most probably composed by Diodorus Siculus, the pseudo-Apollodorus.
It is also necessary to inform at this juncture that Eurystheus had initially planned only 10 tasks for Hercules, any of which had he not expected Hercules to survive.
Herculean Labor I ~ Slaying of the Nemean Lion
As the first task, Eurystheus commanded Hercules to bring him the hide of the much dreaded beast, the lion of Nemea, favored with a supernatural genealogy. According to the legend, the Nemean lion was fathered by the goliath known as Typhon, who had rebelled against the Almighty. Even though Typhon and his beastly aides were harnessed by the Titans and buried with the depths of Mount Etna, they still were potent enough to tremble the floor of the earth with their contend for freedom from underneath and breathe molten lava through volcanoes. Besides the parentage of Typhon and Echidna, the noisome issues of Gaia, some accounts also indicate that this lion was the issue of Zeus and Seléne, the ancient lunar deity. Either way, the lineage was a potent one. With such a filiation, the Namean lion, was a torturous, gruesome beast with a hide that was impermeable with arrows, knives or any earthly weapon. It was believed that it could shape shift and often lured in young men into its cave by adopting the form of a damsel in distress.
When Hercules was sent off to slay this beast, he initially arrived at a town named Cleonae, where he stayed with and learnt all about his competitor from an impoverished laborer called Molorchus. The poor man not only helped Hercules out with information but also offered to sacrifice and animal for the victory of Hercules. To this Hercules prayed to him to wait for another 30 days. If he failed to return with the set time period then Molorchus could indulge in bestial sacrifice to Hercules, as a hero. But if he returned then the two of them together would sacrifice a beast, offering it to Zeus.
Saying this, Hercules set off. On reaching the cave, Hercules obstructed on of the outlets of the cavern with a huge boulder and entered it with the only other one. He attacked the ferocious lion vehemently with bare hands, knowing that his olive wood club would be of no use. Ultimately, he asphyxiated the beast to death, in spite of its vicious claw attacks and returned to Cleonae, where he made the promised offering to Zeus.
He then mounted the pelt of the lion upon his back, like a coat and used its head as a helmet. Academicians say that it had taken the 18 year old Hercules about 3 months to complete this labor.
When Hercules finally reached the castle of Eurystheus, the monarch was so fright stricken by the powers of the hero that he prohibited Hercules from entering his city premises. From then onwards he sent Copreus, son of Pelops the Elean, to relay the task to Hercules and had a bronze vessel or pithos carved out for himself to hide in, partially immersed in earth.
Herculean Labor II ~ Killing of the Lernaean Hydra
The second task to be accomplished by Hercules was obliterating another issue of Typhon and Echidna, half woman and half snake, multi-headed chthonic beast who lived within the depths of Lake Lerna in the Argolid. This hydra was believed to possess 9 heads, though some ancient writers claimed as many as ten thousand. Not only did it breathe venom but what made it so invincible was the fact that out of the nine deadly heads, one could not subjected to death at all and the other eight were blest with the botanical quality of growing back, when abscised.
As per Greek Mythology, this beast rose occasionally from its sub-water den within the spring of Amymone, from where it carried on with its duty of warding the doorway to the underworld, marauding the village inhabitants of Lema.
So, on his voyage to slay this raptorial beast, he arrived at the Lake of Lerna. But this time he was not alone. Knowing the difficulty level of the labor, Hercules asked the son of his twin Iphicles and an Olympic champion charioteer, Iolaus. Hercules had immense faith on his nephew and trusted his expertise as an able warrior. Hercules also tied a cloth on his face, to protect his nose and mouth from getting affected by the virulent poisonous breath of the monster.
When the two neared the lair of the rapacious monster, Hercules rained a volley of flaring arrows into the hydra’s cavern and tempted it to emerge. But as soon as the hydra egressed, it meandered one of it innumerable coils around the foot of the hero, rendering him stationary. It also called upon an equally predaceous ally of its, a giant crab, which was mordacious enough to injure his trapped foot. But problems for Hercules grew when the beast kept springing two new heads, every time one of its heads was hacked off. As he got increasingly entangled in the coily body of the hydra, he summoned his nephew for help. Iolaus sprang to action with a flaming torch in his hand which he used to cauterize the tendons and regenerative tissues of the necks which his uncle kept beheading. This way, finally Hercules harnessed this deadly beast as well as buried and placed a boulder over the immortal head on the way from Lerna to Elaeus. Finally he slit open the lifeless body of the hydra and dipped the tips of his arrows and his steel in its venomous gore. This was the first instance in Hercules’ process of lethalizing his weapons.
When he reached Tiryns again, Eurystheus denied to accept this labor of Hercules as accomplished because he had not done it alone and had the aid of a potent ally. So, now he was expected to perform one more task.
Pausanias is one historian, who however seemed to believe that it was the work of Peisander to have exaggerated this episode in order to heighten the striking quotient of his epic. The hydra he believed was nothing more than a gigantic, venomous water serpent which was mono headed.
Herculean Labor III ~ Seizing the Ceryneian Hind
After seeing that Hercules could vanquish the deadliest and the most invincible of beasts, this time Eurystheus decided to get Hercules into divine trouble. He asked the Grecian hero to get him the female reindeer or hind that lived in the wilderness of Ceryneia, about 50 miles away from Eurystheus’ manor in Mycenae. The catch here was that this hind was not only the fastest reindeer on earth, blessed with antlers of gold and hooves of bronze, but it as also the pet of the Goddess Artemis, the Roman Diana, who was the virgin deity of the moon and the hunt. So, slaying the deer would only attract wrath of the goddess.
Hercules decided to keep away from trouble trying to capture the hind sans arrows at first. But chasing it for not less than an annum, over regions encompassing Greece, Thrace, Istria and the northern Hyperborean demesne, didn’t yield any result. But finally weariness got the better of the deer and it sought a place to rest on Mount Artemisius. Just as she was treading the banks of Ladon, Hercules shot an arrow (not one immersed in the gall of the hydra) at it, making sure that the animal was only rendered lame and not dead. He then ventured to carry it back to the castle of Eurystheus.
But on his way back, he met an enraged Artemis, accompanied by her twin sibling Apollo. In order to mollify the fury of the deity, Hercules humbly accepted his blasphemous behavior and explained that he was only doing all this in a bid fulfill his penance and also swore to set the hind free once he had proven to the king of Mycenae that he has caught the hind and finished his task. At this Artemis calmed down, healed this injury of her pet and allowed Hercules to go on. Obviously Eurystheus’ intention of attracting the deity’s anger at the hero had failed and so the king said that he would keep the hind in his personal zoo. But Hercules knew he had to set the deer free as per his promise. So, he posed a condition in front of the monarch saying that he would personally have to collect it from the arms of Hercules. When the king arrived, Hercules carefully let go off the deer a tad bit before the king could take it into his arms and the hind sprinted away immediately. All Hercules had to say then was that it was not his error at all as the king had not held it fast enough.
There is another version of the story where it is believed that Hercules had captured the hind when it had tired enough to settle down for a sleep.
Before actually heading out to capture the Erymanthian boar, albeit an easy task for the hero by now, Hercules paid a visit to his centaur friend, Pholus, who resided in a cave and was exceptionally receptive towards Hercules. Pholus cooked some meat for the Grecian champion while he feasted on the raw flesh. At this juncture, Hercules wished to quench his thirst with some wine. As tragedy would have it, Pholus had only one bottle of wine, the same that Dionysus, the deity of wine, had gifted to all centaurs. Pholus knew that only centaurs were rightful owners of it but Hercules’ adamant persuasion led him to uncork it. The strong aroma of the drink naturally attracted other centaurs and all of them not only got besotted but went into a drunken frenzy. They launched an attack on Hercules, demanding why he had diluted his wine with water. The Grecian hero retaliated by shooting at the poisoned arrows and ran into the jungle after them, who in turn sought protection in the cavern of Chiron. Seeing the number of centaurs fall due to the arrows, Pholus too took picked up an arrow to see was made them so lethal. But accidentally the centaur dropped it and the arrow pierced his foot, envemoning and killing him n the process.
In the meantime, as Hercules chased after the centaurs, one of his arrows brushed through the surface of Chiron. Chiron was not only Hercules’ guide who enlightened him on how to overpower the boar, but also the immortal centaur holding the highest position amongst his brethren. The arrow left just so much as a scratch on Chiron’s knee but even that was potent enough to leave him in writhing pain. He wanted to die but couldn’t so ultimately, Prometheus the damned offered to take on his immortality so that Chiron could die and relieve himself from the undescribable pain. Hercules was greatly grieved at his undoing and therefore immediately left to catch the boar.
Herculean Labor IV ~ Wresting the Erymanthian Boar
Having overpowered three invincible animals already, capturing the boar of Mount Erymanthos was his next task. This particular boar was an animal with a foul temper and huge tusks and another favorite of Artemis. Inhabiting the forest lands of Arcadia, this was the boar sent by Artemis’ twin Apollo to slay Adonis, the love of Aphrodite’s life, who had rendered Apollo’s son blind for watching her while she bathed. As for Artemis, “When the goddess turned a wrathful countenance upon a country, as in the story of Meleagros, she would send a raging boar, which laid waste the farmers’ fields.”
Before Hercules went in search for this boar he sought the advise of his guide, Chiron, who told him to make the boar run into a snow laden region, which would make it cold and tired. Hercules did so and then carried the animal to Eurystheus. This time the king literally begged the hero to drive the animal away from him and sat hiding in the bronze vessel, refusing to come out.
Herculean Labor V ~ Cleansing the Augean Stables
Going mad devising ways to punish and overpower Hercules, Eurystheus this time asked the son of Zeus to go and clean up the stables of Augeas. Now the stables of the the husband of Epicaste and the monarch of Elis, Augeas were the biggest in all of Greece as he possessed the largest number of cattle, goat, sheep, horses and bulls in the country. Moreover, due to Augeas’ divine genealogy, his animals were of robust health and thus passed out a very handsome quantity of excreta everyday. Given the size of the stables, they had never been stripped and the stench hassled all of Peloponnese. So, cleaning the length and breadth of such a stable and that too in a span of a day, was mortally improbable.
But Hercules was no ordinary mortal. Through the completion of this task he proved his intellectual prowess along with his physical strength. He simply marched into the court of Augeas and in the presence of the king’s son Phyleus, claimed to be able to clean the Augean stables completely, in a single day, if the king promised to give him one tenth of his best kine as payment. Hercules mentioned nothing of his penance here. Augeas was pretty shocked but agreed nevertheless.
So, accompanied by Phyleus for supervision, Hercules started by making two large hollows on the two opposing walls of the stables. He then dug out ditches near two rivers called Alpheus and Peneus two divert their courses in such a way that they were forced to flow through the stables, entering from the hollow in one wall and leaving through the other, washing away all the dung with it.
But by the time Hercules and accomplished all this Augeas had collected that the hero was under the command of Eurystheus to perform this as a task and was not in a position to seek any reward at all. So, he happily denied Hercules any cattle. But Hercules dragged him to a judge to seek justice and this time it was Phyleus who testified that Augeas had indeed agreed to pay earlier. Augeas then was compelled to pay Hercules but then banished both the hero and his son from Elis. But Hercules killed Augeas and throned Phyleus instead.
Back in Tiryns, Eurystheus refused to accept this task as an acceptable one since not only had Hercules been paid but also had help from the gushing waters of the two rivers. And thus the initial 10 labors was increased to 12 labors of Hercules.
As exemplifies earlier Hercules was attracted to fine feasting and mindless carousing in life and had asked for the cattle primarily for the meat!
Herculean Labor VI ~ Dispelling the Stymphalian Birds
This task needed Hercules to cater to a pack of cannibalistic avians which devoured on men. These birds were huge in size, had plumes of bronze, which then flung to disarm their victims, and metallic big beaks. Pets of the War God Ares, these birds had been driven away by wolves and had eventually settled down in the marshy Arcadian lake Stymphalia, and preyed on local inhabitants. Even their excreta was venomous. Pausanias described them as, “These fly against those who come to hunt them, wounding and killing them with their beaks. All armor of bronze or iron that men wear is pierced by the birds; but if they weave a garment of thick cork, the beaks of the Stymphalian birds are caught in the cork garment… These birds are of the size of a crane, and are like the ibis, but their beaks are more powerful, and not crooked like that of the ibis.” They multiplied very fast and were a nuisance to agriculture. So, naturally Eurystheus asked Hercules to drive these beastly birds away.
On reaching lake Stymphalia, Hercules found himself in a rather dicey position as he could neither cross the marsh on foot as he was to heavy, nor could he swim through the quaggy swamps. At this juncture, the Greek goddess Athena: the goddess of wisdom and war, came to his rescue and handed him a brass krotala, especially created by the deity of forge, Hephaistos. These cymbal like instrument was potent enough to create a loud, pandemonium like noise enough to scare away the terrifying birds. Hercules made a huge ruckus with the krotala and then shot poisoned arrows at the birds as they took flight.
Herculean Labor VII ~ Harnessing the Cretan Bull
Next he was sent on a voyage to Crete. The Cretan king, Minos was a very influential king at that point of time and his lands were being ravaged by a very powerful bull who breathed fire. This Cretan bull was believed to have been sent by Poseidon: God of the sea, for Minos to sacrifice the bull at his altar. Minos refused to kill the Cretan bull as it was so healthy and beautiful. Minos did sacrifice another bull but Poseidon was furious and thus made Minos’ queen, Pasiphae fall in love and mate the Cretan bull. They also had the monster Minotaur, as their issue. But this Cretan bull continued destroying the crops in Crete. So, Hercules was sent to harness and bring this bull back to Mycenae.
It was really no big deal for Hercules to fulfill this labor, after all that he had already done. He attacked the bull from behind, caught it in a deathly grip and then sailed back to Mycenae. It was there that Eurystheus intended to sacrifice the bull to Goddess Hera. But Hera didn’t want this ritual killing to be performed as it was smeared with the glory of Hercules. The bull was therefore released and it is believed to have found its way to Grecian Marathon through Sparta, Arcadia and Attica, later killed by Theseus who also slay his son Minotaur in Greek mythology.
It is also said that the Cretan bull could also have referred to the avatar of Zeus where he had disguised himself as a bull to carry away, Minos’ mother, Europa to Crete.
Before setting forth on his next labor for Thrace, Hercules went to visit an old friend, Admetus. On reaching his household, Hercules beheld an atmosphere of great mourning at the demise of a family member. The wife of Admetus, called Alcestis had given up her life in a bid to save her husband’s life. But Admetus lied to Hercules saying that an unimportant person was deceased. Hearing this Hercules was much tranquilized and immediately indulged into a bingeing and drinking session. This terribly scandalized the people around.
After a little while, one of the domestic helps informed him about the true identity of the deceased person and Hercules grew greatly ashamed of his conduct. He undertook a journey to the Underworld instantaneously. There he combatted with the don of Nyx, Thanatos, the Greek personification of death and brought back Alcestis to earth with him. After that he set sail with his crew again.
Herculean Labor VIII ~ Reining in the Mares of Diomedes
This labor of Hercules needed him to bring back the four fire breathing, cannibalistic mares of Diomedes, the son of war God Ares and Cyrene and the monarch of the Thracian Bistone tribe, to Eurystheus. These mares named Podagros or the fast, Lampon meaning the sheeny, Xanthos or the blond and Deinos, the terrible, were kept shackled to their heavy mangers made of bronze given their restless, irrepressible and hyper dispositions, induced by a human flesh diet. Legend had it that whenever some unexpected, unknown visitor hit upon the shores of Bistonia, Diomedes would allow the horses to dine on the unfortunate stranger.
On arriving at Bistonia, with a fleet of a few men and a loyal minion named Abderus, son of Hermes, Hercules immediately went over to the stables of these mares and not knowing of their violent ways, released them, obviously vanquishing the hostlers first. His crew then directed these mares towards the sea in order to board these horses onto the ships and then sailing off. But something tipped the Bistonians off and they came back to fight Hercules and his men, led by King Diomedes himself. A battle ensued, during which the Grecian hero asked Abderus to guard the mares. But these mares started to show their true colors by then and started to run, dragging Abderus behind them, killing him in the process and then devouring him.
In the mean time, Hercules defeated Diomedes, and returned to convey the news to Abderus. Greatly grieved at seeing the sorry state of his favored friend, he fed the corpse of Diomedes to the mares, sealed of their mouths once their hunger was satiated and built the city of Abdera in memoriam of his dear friend.
He then sailed back to Mycenae, to give Eurystheus what he wished to have. But the the king wanted nothing to do with them and asked the mares to be set free, since their desire for human flesh had been quenched once and for all.
The problem with this labor of Hercules, lies with the fact that there are so many versions of it. Euripides’ version is different from that of the Apollodorus and the former himself has two versions of it. In one, Euripides says that Hercules was to bring back the chariot of Diomedes to which were fastened the mares, in the other he vouches for the fact that Hercules had traveled to the land of Bistonia all alone, sans a fleet. There are other historians who recite the story a little differently wherein the Grecian hero spent the night without sleep in a bid to keep Diomedes from cutting open his throat. He then drove the mares to a peninsular highland, dug out a deep ditch around them with an axe and filled the ditch with water. He then slay Diomedes and fed the mares on their masters remains.
Even the end of this episode is variant in variant sources. While the Apollodorus narrates that the tamed mares roamed Argos for some time and then embarked upon Olympus unknowingly, where Zeus sent beasts by the likes of lions, bears and wolves to feast on them, other informants tell another tale. According to them, Eurystheus consecrated the mares to his deity, Hera. In other accounts, the Mycenaean monarch sent them to Olympus as tributes to be sacrificed in the honor of Zeus. Zeus refused the tributes and thus sent the beasts to tear the mares to pieces. It is believed that Alexander, the Great’s horse, Bucephalus shared the bloodline of these mares.
After returning from his eight expedition, Hercules was immediately set off at the bidding of Eurystheus’ daughter, Admete’s demand for Hippolyte’s girdle. Hippolyte was the Queen of the Amazons, a fierce tribe of female warriors. Fearing the battle that could ensue when Hercules would venture into their territory, some of Hercules’ warrior comrades, including Telamon, son of king Aeacus, decided to accompany the Grecian hero in the adventure of his. However, on his way, his ship anchored in the isle of Paros, where lived a few issues of the Cretan king, Minos. On seeing the men of Hercules, some of the sons of the Cretan king attacked them and in the struggle killed two of the warriors. This greatly aggravated the Grecian hero who in turn slew two of Minos’ sons and declared that he would wipe out the entire population if his men were not compensated for. To this, the threatened villagers offered to send Alcaeus and Sthenelus with him, who were grand children to Minos. And they set sail again.
But enroute to Themiscyra, the home of Hippolyte, the crew stopped once again in the domain of the monarch Lycus. The timing was just correct as Lycus had a war impending with Bebryces. Hercules easily won the war for Lycus, killed the Bebrycean monarch, Mygdon and handed over all the latter’s territories to his friend. Lycus renamed his newly acquired land to Heraclea as a mark of gratefulness and the fleet was on the sea again.
Herculean Labor IX ~ Obtaining Hippolyte’s Girdle
The Amazons were chronicled as a belligerent tribe comprising only women who were talented archers, effortless fencers and pioneers of combating on horsebacks. Such was their loyalty to their art that these women were believed to have only a single breast, the left one as the right one was obstructed the casting of a spear. They got their names from this physical feature of theirs as amazon in Greek translates to missing a breast. They only nurtured female babies and then trained them in the vocation of warfare.
Among them was a Queen called Hippolyte, the best and the bravest of them all. Such was her skill that even the God of war, Ares was mesmerized by her. This fascination for her talents led him to gift her with a special girdle or belt made of leather. Wearing this armor on her chest, she used it to carry her spear and steel.
Now when Hercules reached the land of the Amazons, news had traveled and Hippolyte welcomed the guests warmly with all the possible warmth possible. On hearing the reason behind Hercules’ extensive ocean trip to her land, she happily agreed to give him what he dearly sought. But Hera had other plans for this otherwise peaceful rendezvous. She knew about Hippolyte’s past wherein the queen had been carried away by Theseus, king of Athens, who had then impregnated her with a son named Hippolytus and had been ruthlessly cast off when Theseus’ preferences shifted to Phaedra, the daughter of Minos. They Amazonians were gravely distraught and touchy about such injustice inflicted on their leader. So, Hera planned to play up on these very emotions of these women. She adopted the avatar of an Amazonian and then went about crying out loud as to how Hercules conspired to abduct their queen. This news spread like fire and the warrior women attacked Hercules’ fleet. Thinking that this was a result of Hippolyte’s betrayal and secret mal-intentions, he plunged his sword into the flesh of the queen, removed the belt from her lifeless body and then sailed away.
They then sailed for days on end and docked on Trojan shores. On reaching Troy, Hercules saw that great gloom hung over the region. The reason for their sufferance was the doing of their leader Laomedon, who had refused to pay the due wages to two laborers, who had incidentally been Apollo and Poseidon in disguise. Angered by Laomedon’s dishonesty, Apollo, the god of light and Poseidon, the lord of the sea had sent an infectious pestilence and a sea beast, respectively, to plague the city. Seeking the aid of an oracle had only told the inhabitants that the gods could only be pacified if Laomedon’s daughter, Hesione was sacrificed to the sea beast. So, the people tied the girl to some seaside boulders and waited for the beast to predate on her.
On his arrival, Hercules offered to help if Laomedon would give him the mares given by Zeus in compensation for kidnapping his son, Ganymede arbitrarily. Laomedan agreed and Hercules effortlessly killed Poseidon’s creature. But after the victory, Laomedan went back on his word. Angered, Hercules annihilated him along with all his sons other than Podarge, who aided the Grecian hero and handing Hercules with Hesione’s hand made golden veil. Ganymede was also spared given that he was not present at the scene and was at Mt. Olympus with Zeus. Telamon married Hesione and then the crew set sail again to give Admete what she sought, Hippolyte’s girdle. He also encountered and slew Sarpedon, the son of Zeus who was the monarch of Lycia and an ally of Trojans, and the sons of Proteus, the shape shifting prophetic servant of Poseidon.
Enroute to the isle of Erytheia, to accomplish his next labor, Hercules had to travel through the desert of Libya. Unable to stand the extreme heat of the heat and gravely daunted by it, Hercules thought of teaching Helios the Sun god or the Roman Sol, a lesson. He fired an arrow at the sun in his discomfort. Amazed at his bravery, the ancient god of the sun gifted him with his magical aureate goblet which he used to travel from west to east during the night, instead of getting angry. It is believed that Hercules mounted this very cup to finish the rest of his difficult journey.
Herculean Labor X ~ Wresting the Red Kine of Geryón
Geryón, was the grandson of the chthonic gorgon Medusa and was described as a hideous warrior beast with three bodies and six legs joined at the waist along with two arms. This three headed monster was also privy to a ferocious two-headed dog for a pet, Orthrus, another one of Typhon on Echidna’s offsprings. But it was really Geryón’s herd of red kine that Hercules had been bidden to fetch.
When he reached his destination, Orthrus attacked the hero but was soon killed by a strike from the hero’s club. Next the herd’s guardian Eurytion obstructed Hercules’ path but was also smashed to death. At this Geryón woke up and he emerged armed with triple shafts, shields and protected by three helmets. The two battled for some time until Hercules shot him in the forehead with one of his lethal arrows, by the River Anthemus. The shot was so potent that the “Bibliotheke” narrated that “Geryon bent his neck over to one side, like a poppy that spoils its delicate shapes, shedding its petals all at once”.
But things got all the more difficult while Hercules tried to get back to Greece. First, two of Poseidon’s sons, Albion and Dercynus, tried to snatch the herd and so Hercules had to vanquish them. Next he lost a bull when one jumped into the sea at Rhegium, and reached Sicily in the process. The bull then crossed over to the conterminous nation today called Italy, probably named after the same bull which is an “italus” in Italian. Their one of The sea god’s issues, Eryx, the ruler of Elymi, caught hold of it and included it in his personal cattle herd.
In the meanwhile, worried about the loose animal, Hercules went looking for the animal after asking Hephaestus, lame god of fire and metalworking, to tend to the rest of the flock. He located it in Eryx’s herd but was challenged to a wrestling match by Poseidon’s son. After defeating Eryx not more than thrice, Hercules slew him, collected the bull and then went over to Hephaestus.
Hercules then set off with the cattle and reached sea of Ionia but Hera struck again to seek vendetta. First she made the herd restless with a gadfy, which led the cows to disperse in myriad directions. When Hercules gathered them again after almost a year’s work, Hera then made the Strymon river in Thrace unnavigable by raising its levels. This made crossing over impossible. So, Hercules sought to reduce the depth of the river by throwing boulders into it. He then reached Mycenae but even then Eurystheus killed all the cattle and dedicated them to Hera.
The Apollodorus also narrates that in a bid to leave a mark of his long arduous sojourn through the desert, the Grecian hero constructed two gigantic mounds one each in Libya and Europe. Some say he just dissevered one huge mountain to create two of them, today known as the gates or pillars of Hercules. This disseverance created the Strait of Gibraltar. As for the physical description of Geryón accounts clash regarding the number of legs he had. Some say he had only two whereas others say three sets.
Legend has it that it had taken Hercules 8 years and a month to accomplish these 10 tasks. As told earlier, Eurystheus did not count the killing of the Lernaean hydra and cleaning of the Augean stables as parts of Hercules’ accomplished labors as he had help. So, he had to make up by performing two more tasks. Among them, the first or technically the eleventh labor of Hercules involved obtaining the golden apples that immortalized anybody who consumed them, from the garden of Hesperides. Situated in the west, nigh the Atlas mountains in Moroccan Tanger, the garden had obtained the name from the group of 3 to 7 nymphs who guarded these apples that Gaea gave as a wedding gift to Hera.
Hercules’ problem began with the fact that he did not know the exact location of this garden that housed these apple groves. So, he journeyed extensively. During his sojourn he came upon the banks of the river Eridanus he was met with the son of war god Ares and Pyrene, Cycnus who was hell bent upon fighting with Hercules. The two started to wrestle but their fight was interrupted by a thunderbolt from the Heavens that struck the ground between the two warriors. The two broke up and Hercules went to Illyria walking. When he neared river Eridanus, the nymphs who were children of Themis and Zeus, revealed to him that Nereus knew where this Garden was located. It was there that he literally clasped Nereus, Old Man of the Sea, who resided in the Aegean Sea and was the son of Gaea and Pontus, the sea, as he slumbered. Nereus was not only privy to the secret emplacement of the garden but was also blessed with the ability to shape shift. So, as Hercules tried to get the position of the garden out of him, Nereus tried to adopt myriad shapes to wriggle out of Hercules’ deathly clasp. Finally, the god gave in and squeaked out the location of this much sought after garden. It is believed that Hercules had to answer 3 riddles of Nereus first, though.
As if he was not hindered enough, Hercules’ was next confronted by Antaeus, the goliath who inhabited in Libya, the husband of Tinjis and son of Poseidon and Gaea. Antaeus was invincible as long as one part of his body stayed in touch with the earth. His strength levels enhanced themselves every time he touched earth. So, Hercules just lifted him off the ground and squeezed him to death in a in a grand wrestling hold with arms locked tightly around the opponent. One more challenger down, Hercules touched Egypt where, as per Greek historian Herodotus, he had to deal with Busiris, one more of Poseidon’s and Epaphus’ daughter Lysianassa’s son.
Busiris was the Egyptian monarch at the time was faced with a grave problem of a nine year long paucity. So, he sought the advise of Phrasius, a Cyprian oracle, who recommended that Busiris sacrifice one human at the shrine of Zeus annually. So, Busiris immediately took the oracle’s advice and made Phrasius the first victim of the ritualistic killing. Then onwards he seized any stranger who visited his lands and therefore Hercules was captured to meet with the same fate. But the Grecian hero was no ordinary hero and he broke his shackles with all his strength and then not only slew Busiris but also his heir Amphidamus.
Hercules then reached the Asian hot springs of Lindian Thermydrae, and gave in to his bouts of feasting. In fact he snatched a bull from a cattleman and fed merrily on it.
It is said that greatly terrorized Hercules’ great size and strength, the cattleman couldn’t say anything and instead, saddened by his lost bull, stood on a mound and uttered obscenities. And so even today sacrifices to the Grecian hero is accompanied by great rounds of cursing.
Hercules then traversed across Arabia and during that slew Tithonus and Eos’ son, Emathion, the monarch of Ethiopia, and using the goblet of Helios, crossed the outer sea and reached the Caucasian mountains where he came face to face with Prometheus, the one who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Now Prometheus was doomed for a lifetime for this sacrilegious deed of his wherein Zeus tied him onto the mount and cursed that he would grow a liver everyday and a great big eagle named Caucasus, one more of Echidna and Typhon’s issues, would come and eat it up everyday. So, Prometheus endured this ordeal everyday wherein his liver rejuvenated everyday for the eagle to feast on it. But with the arrival of Hercules, Prometheus’ fate changed. Hercules killed Caucasus and as a act of grace, Prometheus told Hercules how to obtain the golden apples without aggravating Hera’s wrath any further.
Herculean Labor XI ~ Obtaining the Golden Apples of Atlantides
Prometheus told Hercules that the Hesperides were the daughters of Hisperis and Atlas, the Titan, who was condemned by Zeus to bear the weight of the entire sky or the Ouranos. So, instead of the Grecian hero going himself, he should send Atlas as naturally it would be easier for him to persuade his daughters, the nymphs also called the Atlantides, and fetch the apples. So, on reaching the region of the Hyperboreans, where stood Atlas, Hercules made the request to this Titan. As expected, Atlas immediately agreed, too happy to get the burden off his shoulders.
Now this garden of Atlantides was not only bound by extremely high walls, but given the purloining habits of the nymphs, Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa, Hera had also placed an immortal dragon called Ladon, one more of Echidna and Typhon offspring, with a hundred heads. But with his daughters there, Atlas returned with three golden apples in no time at all. But Atlas was not very eager to give up on his freedom from his burden just yet. So, in return he offered to carry back the apples to Eurystheus himself. But Hercules was too intelligent for this ploy. He pretended to be in agreement with the offer but asked Atlas to carry the sky just for a bit, so that Hercules could buffer his shoulder in order to make it easier on his back. As soon as Atlas fell for this and took back his burden, Hercules made away with the apples.
However, on his way back, Athena intercepted the hero and took away the apples as they weren’t for mortal use and restored them in the garden
In other versions, Hercules was believed to vanquish Ladon himself and obtained the apples himself.
Herculean Labor XII ~ Fetching Cerberus, the Hound of Hades
The last of Herculean labors was to get the guardian dog of the underworld Kerberos or Cerberus: three headed dog in Greek Mythology back for the Mycenaean king. Cerberus was the sibling of Geryón’s hound, Orthrus and so again an offspring of Typhon and Echidna. This hellhound was the guardian of the doorway to the underworld, by the river Acheron, and its primary duty was to prevent anyone from leaving the underworld and could only be calmed with the music from a lyre and honey and poppy seeds filled cakes. Armed with three heads replete with razor sharp dentitions, this dog had a dragon head for a tail and a back full of variant snakes growing out of it. Greek poet Hesiod however, said that, “A monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong.” He even said that the median head was that of a lion’s. Horace went on to ascribe a hundred heads to the hound.
Hercules was aware that anyone who entered the underworld couldn’t join the living again. So, as a guard, he went to Eleusina, became the adoptive son of Pylius as it was not lawful for foreigners to be initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, so that he could tread the underworld alive and thus Eumolpus, rid him off the sins he committed by slaying centaurs and then told him how to carry on into the land of the dead.
So, Hercules went to Taenarum, Laconia and descended into Hades. There he first crossed the river Acheron, also referred to as river Styx, and with the aid of Athena, convinced Charon, the ferryman of the river. This river Acheron had to be crossed in order to enter the underworld and the ferryman Charon was a tough nut to crack. He took bribes from souls in the form of a obulus or danake silver coins, placed beneath the tongue of the dead given that anyone seeking entry was actually dead. Those unable to pay him were left uncrossed, in between the two worlds. But Hercules had the aid of Athena and a frightful temper of his own to render Charon subservient. After he crossed the river, when he reached the cavern, he saw the souls of Theseus and Pirithous, magically bound to a workbench, begging to be released. These two people had been shackled by Hades, when they came to court Persephone, the Mistress of the Underworld and Hades’ or Pluto’s spouse. Hercules managed to release Theseus, even though his thighs got severed from his body and remained attached to the bench, but an earthquake initiated when he pulled Pirithous and so he let go. Seeing the blood thirsty spirits Hercules even advanced to sacrifice one of the cattle of Hades but Ceuthonymus’s son and cattle herder of Hades, Menoetes engaged the hero into a fight. Hercules burst his ribs but kept from slaying him at the request of Persephone. At last he met Hades, sibling of Zeus, who told him to freely take Cerberus with him, given that he could harness the hound sans the use of arms. Garbed with the impermeable pelt of the Nemean lion and a body armor, Hercules embraced the hound from behind, not letting any of the heads move and eventually quietened the dog to submission. He then threw it over his back and exited from the underworld, this time helped by Hermes, god of commerce, cunning, invention and theft.
He rose through a fissure in northeastern Peloponnese in a place called Troezen, took the hound to Eurystheus. At this the Mycenaean monarch took refuge in his pithos and asked Hercules to release the beast and also freed the hero from his duty to serve him any further. Hercules then set Cerberus to defend one of Demeter, goddess of Fertility’s orchards. Later Cerberus escaped to Hades again to resume his previous duties.
With his penance complete the 12 labors of Hercules came to an end. Tragically, the death of this great warrior who is also rumored to have accompanied the Argonauts to wrest the golden fleece and killed the fire breathing son of Vulcan, Cacus, was quite ironic. It is believed that Hercules espoused Deianeira, who was beautiful and had managed to enamor Nessus, the centaur. So, under the excuse to ferry her safely across the river, he tried to kidnap her. But Hercules slew it with one of his lethal arrows, dipped in the gall of the Lernaean hydra. But before breathing his last, the centaur tricked Deianeira into treasuring some of his gore as if Hercules’ love for her ever faltered, she would be able to restore it with the centaur’s blood. Deianeira believed him and saved some in a vial. Days passed and one day, Deianeira heard that Hercules’ blood was warm for some other lady. She immediately smeared a tunic with the centaur’s gore and sent it for the hero to don it. But as soon as Hercules put it on his body began to incinerate with the venom of the blood scathing him, the same way as it had killed Hercules’ friend Pholus, the centaur and Chiron, his teacher. All his aides then built a funeral pyre of olive and oak and then bid goodbye to a great hero. However, he was taken to Olympus after his demise where he espoused Hebe, the deity of Youth. Deianeira means ‘destroyer of her husband’ and was Hercules’ third wife.