Hercules (or Heracles) is thought to be one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. The name Heracles itself is significant since it means “The Glory of Hera“.
It is believed that Heracles was not the name of a god, but perhaps a ritual name, deliberately adopted by a votary of the goddess or assigned by sacerdotal tradition to a “consort” of the great goddess Argos. Although there seems to be no definitive explanation of either the origin or the genuine character of Hercules, it appears unlikely that he was either a fallen god or a historic figure magnified to epic proportions.
The more likely possibility seems that the character of Hercules is the result of a vast mythical synthesis that mingled and blended local legends and sacerdotal traditions from Hera’s sanctuary at Argos and pre-Hellenic elements of every kind, perhaps from Syria, if as few claim Hercules was similar to Melqart.
Even though the origins of Hercules are uncertain, some biographical facts are known while others are surmised.
Ancient mythologists claim Hercules was not the real name of the hero; rather it was Alceides. They further state that name of Hercules would have been bestowed on him by Apollo when he became Hera’s servant.
Through his mother Alcmene and his father Amphitryon, Hercules was descended from Persus, since his two grandfathers, Alcaeus and Electryon, were both sons of Persus and Andromeda.
So he is of pure Argive blood, and it was by accident that he was born at Thebes. Most of his adventures occurred in the Peloponnesus, and his descendants returned and settled there much later on. Amphitryon had to leave Thebes because of an accidental murder. Zeus took advantage of his absence ((he being away on an expedition against the Teleboans) and seduced Alcmene, but could do so only by disguising himself as Amphitryon for one night, whereby fathering Hercules.
In the morning Amphitryon returned and the result of their union was Iphicles.
However, even before Hercules’ birth Hera’s jealousy was felt. Zeus had unwisely stated that “the next child to be born a descendant of the Perseidae would rule Argos”.
Hera then managed to retard the birth of Hercules and to arrange that another descendant of Persus should be born first; this was Eurystheus, who came only after seven months, and qualified by the virtue of Zeus’ sacred world for the title of king of Argos and master of Hercules.
When Hercules was eight months old Hera sent two serpents to his room to suffocate and choke him in his cradle. They found him lying with his twin Iphicles. Hercules quickly seized the serpents by the throat and strangled them.
Being as an ordinary Greek child, Linus, the musician, taught Hercules the rudiments of music and the arts, but his pupil lacked self-control, and one day, when his master was correcting him, Hercules struck him with a stool and killed him.
The child was sent into the country where he became a shepherd. There he also became a skilled archer through the teaching of Teutarus, the Scythia. When at eighteen, he stopped growing and stood four cubits and one foot tall, he was first successful in the face of danger as he killed a lion that was ravaging the countryside around Mount Cithaeron.
In reward for this the local king, Thespius, gave him his fifty daughters, for he wanted grandsons by the hero. These fifty sons of Hercules later colonized Sardinia.
On his return from hunting this lion, Hercules met the envoys of King Erginus of Orchomenus, who were coming to claim the tribute paid to their master by the Thebans. Hercules cut off the noses and ears of the members of this embassy; then later, when Erginus marched against Thebes with his army, he challenged him and imposed on him twice the tribute that Erginus had previously demanded from Thebes.
Creon, the king of Thebes, then gave the hero the hand of his daughter, Megara, who bore him five children, but Hera made Hercules go mad and he killed all the children. This was Hera’s way of reminding Hercules that he was to begin serving Eurystheus. Hercules obeyed and the Herculean Labors begun.
These twelve exploits, performed at the order of Eurystheus, were sometimes regarded as expiation for the murder of the children born him by Megara.
At this time Hercules either made or was given his special weapons: he fashioned his club in the valley of Nemea from the trunk of a wild olive; Hermes gave him a sword; and Apollo gave him a bow and arrows. According to other traditions he received everything from his protectress Athena.
The Nemean lion: The first Herculean labor was to hunt the Nemean Lion, a prodigious animal, son of Orthrus and brother to the Sphinx of Thebes.
The lion dwelled in a double-mouthed cave; Hercules blocked off one entrance of the cave and then wrestled the beast until he choked it to death. When the lion was dead, Hercules used the animal’s own paws to remove the pelt, which became his armor, and its head served as his helmet.
The hydra of Lerna: The second labor was the destruction of the Hydra of Lerna, the daughter of Echidna and Typhon, who had been reared by Hera herself. The hydra was a hundred-headed serpent whose breath was so venomous that it could destroy life.
When Hercules cut off the hideous heads they immediately grew back again, so he commanded his nephew Iolaus, who was with him, to seal each wound with a flaming brand. Then he dipped his arrows into Hydra’s blood to make them poisonous.
The boar of Erymanthus: On Mount Erymanthus lived a monstrous boar, which Hercules forced to come out of its liar, and when it did he pushed it into a deep snow that covered the entire countryside. Then, when the animal was tired, he captured it and carried it alive to Eurystheus, who was so afraid that he took refuge in a sunken jar.
The hind of Ceryneia: At Oenoe, near the Hill of Ceryneia, a gigantic hind as destroying crops; she was sacred to Artemis, and it was a sacrilege to touch her.
Hercules hunted for one entire year, when finding her he wounded her slightly with his arrow and carried her across his shoulders.
As he crossed Arcadia he met Artemis and Apollo, who wanted the hind back and accused him of intending to kill a sacred animal. But Hercules extricated himself by saying the affair was the responsibility of Eurystheus, for he was only acting on the king’s commands.
The birds of Stymphalus: In the region of lake Stymphalus in Arcadia a dense forest sheltered countless birds, which had originally flocked there when frightened by wolves. They had begun to devour all the fruit and even attacked passers-by.
Eurystheus ordered Hercules to destroy these birds. He could not get them to leave the forest until he had recourse to bronze castanets given to him by Athena, which were made by Hephaetus. When hearing the castanets the birds took flight, thus allowing Hercules to kill them with his arrows.
According to another version the birds were vultures that devoured men, and they used their steel feathers to pierce their victims.
The stables of Augeias: At Elis in the Peleponnesus there was a king called Augeias, who was a son of the Sun. He inherited a great fortune of flocks and herds from his father, but he never removed the dung from his stables, which eventually spread and made the country sterile. Hercules was given the task of cleaning these stables.
First he made the king promise that he would pay him a certain sum if he did it in one day. Hercules succeeded by dint of diverting two rivers, Alpheius and Peneius, through the palace yard. However, Augeias refused to pay the certain sum and banished Hercules.
The Cretan bull: This, the seventh labor, took place in Crete where a monstrous bull was running wild. Its nature was uncertain, perhaps Zeus had disguised himself when he abducted Europa; perhaps it was the animal who Pasiphae had fallen in love with; or, perhaps it was a present from Poseidon that Minos had kept in his herd instead of sacrificing it to the god as agreed. However, the bull had to be brought back alive to Eurystheus.
Hercules went to Crete and obtained permission from Minos to capture the bull on the run. Then he brought it back to Greece (some say he swam with it) where he presented it to his master.
Eurystheus then offered it to Hera, but the goddess refused to accept it as a gift and set it free. This was the bull that Theseus had to later conquer on the plain of Marathon as a task set for him by Medusa.
The horses of Diomedes: Diomedes, the king of Thrace and son of Ares, possessed four mares that fed on human flesh. Hercules went to Thrace and set Diomedes himself before the mares, and they devoured him.
The girdle of the Amazon: Eurystheus had a daughter, Admete, who wanted the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Ares himself had given this girdle to the queen. Hercules set off with some companions for the Amazons.
Hippolyta willingly agreed to give him her girdle, but Hera provoked a quarrel between the Amazons and Hercules’ followers. A battle erupted, Hercules, thinking Hippolyta had betrayed him, killed her.
The cattle of Geryon: The final three labors took Hercules far from the known world. Eurystheus sent him to seek the cattle of Geryon, the son of Chrysaor. The herdsman Eurytion and his dog Orthrus guarded the cattle on the island of Eurytheia.
This island lay in the far west, beyond Oceanus. To cross the ocean, Hercules barrowed the “goblet of the Sun,” in which the solar star sailed back to his palace every evening on the other side of the world. Hercules had to threaten the Sun with his arrows before he was offered the loan of the goblet.
In the same way he had to intimidate Oceanus to avoid being pitched about violently by the waves during the crossing.
Finally he reached the sacred island, where he struck Orthrus, the “sheep-dog,” with his club and killed him. In the end Geryon, the cattle owner himself, came to the aid of his men and was slain in similar fashion.
Then Hercules returned as he had come, disembarking at Tartarus Tartessus. There he set up two pillars, which marked the edge of Oceanus (the “Pillars of Oceanus,” which are currently called the Rock of Gibraltar and Cape Ceuta).
Then he set out on a long journey through Spain and Gaul on his way back to Greece. He was attacked on the way by innumerable brigands, particularly in the region of Liguria, in the plain of Crau, where he stoned his enemies with bolders given to him by Zeus, and which even today bestrew the countryside. At Rome he had to fight Cacus, the brigand of Aventine Forest. When finally reaching Argos, he offered the rest of Geryon’s herd as sacrifice to Hera.
The dog Cerberus: The eleventh labor took Hercules to the underworld to seek the three-headed dog Cerberus. Before his departure he was initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, so to know how to reach the kingdom of Hades, and more important to know how to get back.
Hercules went through the “jaws of Hell,” which lay off Cape Taenarum. A few spirits of the dead tried to block his way, notably the Gorgon Medusa, but the hero surmounted the obstacles, and presented himself to Hades.
The latter agreed to let him have Cerberus if he could master him with his own hands. This Hercules did. Whereupon he returned with his prisoner to Eurystheus, who in fear and trembling had taken refuge in his sunken jar. Hercules, not knowing what to do with the dog, took it back to Hades.
The apples of the Hesperides: As the final labor, Eurystheus demanded “golden apples” from the garden of the Hesperides. The Hesperides, whose name means “the nymphs the evening,” had set a hundred-headed dragon to watch over their garden; it was the offspring of Echidne and Typhon. Hercules set off. As he crossed Macedonia he met Cycnus, son of Ares, and killed him.
Then he went through Illyria and reached the mouth of the Eridanus (the Po), where nymphs told him that the only creature who knew the way he must take was the sea-god Nereus. He gained access to Nereus, took him prisoner, put him in chains and forced him to speak.
From that point on Hercules’ itinerary becomes about impossible to follow. He went to Liberia, where he had to combat the giant, Anteus, the son of Earth, who renewed his strength every time he touched the ground. Hercules could only defeat him by raising him in his arms.
Then he crossed Egypt, where he killed King Busiris, who offered all strangers in sacrifice to the gods; then he was to be found in Arabia, where he killed Emathion, son of Tithonus.
Reaching the Red Sea, he embarked again in the “goblet of the Sun” and came to the Caucasian Mountains, where he freed Prometheus by killing the eagle that gnawed away perpetually at its victim’s liver.
In gratitude Prometheus helped him by divulging that he would not be able to pick the marvelous apples himself, but would need to get Atlas to pick them for him.
So he went to find Atlas, who had the task of holding the sky on his shoulders, and he offered to take his place while he went to pick the desired fruit.
Atlas acquiesced, brought back the apples and then declared that he would go and give them to Eurystheus himself. Hercules pretended to agree, but simply asked Atlas to slip a cushion on his shoulder.
The latter did so without suspecting a trick, but while holding the sky Hercules escaped with the apples, leaving Atlas with his burden.
When Eurystheus was given the marvelous apples he offered them in sacrifice to Athena, who asked Hercules to return them, for Fate had decreed that they should not be found anywhere else on earth.
There are varied descriptions of the many other adventures and expeditions that Hercules participated in. In one military expedition he fought against Troy.
He had saved Hesione, the daughter of King Laomedon, and for this the king had promised Hercules some sacred mares, a promise that the king did not fulfill. Hercules rescued the daughter when returning from his war with the Amazons.
Later Hercules returned with a fleet of eighteen ships; and attacked the city. Telamon, one of Hercules most faithful companions, scaled the wall and was first in the city. Laomedon and all of his children, except the youngest, were killed; and Hesione later married Telamon.
How did Hercules die
According to legend the death of Hercules was predestined by previous events in his life. On his earlier visit to the underworld Hercules met his friend Meleager, who asked him to marry his sister Delaneira, when he returned to earth. Hercules agreed and won the girl’s hand after fighting the river-god, Achelous, who also wanted to marry her.
After the marriage Hercules remained with his father-in-law, King Oeneus, for some time at Calydon. But while there he accidentally killed a young relative of the king and thought best to go into exile. So he set off with Delaneira and their son Hyllus.
A centaur named Nessus took travelers across the river Evenus. Hercules crossed first. When Nessus had Delaneira in his boat alone he attempted to violate her. She cried for help and Hercules killed the centaur with an arrow.
In his dying moments Nessus advised Delaneira to soak a piece of cloth in his blood and make a tunic with it; and if her husband ever ceased to love her, she was to dress him in this garment.
Some writers have been inclined to portray Hercules as an attendant of Omphale, waiting on her, exchanging costume with her, and spinning at her feet, which are echoes perhaps some Lydian myth in which a goddess was waited upon by an effeminate consort.
This enslavement lasted three years. However, on his return Hercules, who had asked for the hand of Iola, the youngest daughter of Eurytus, made her his concubine. Then Delaneira remembered the love-charm that Nessus had given her and decided to make use of it.
Immediately after returning from his victory over Eurytus Hercules wanted to consecrate an altar to Zeus, and for this purpose sent to Delaneira asking for a garment. She sent him the tunic impregnated with the blood of Nessus.
When Hercules put it on the poisoned blood burnt him unbearably. He tried tearing it off but injured himself even more because it was so firmly stuck to his skin. Then he was taken to Delaneira at Trachis. Upon seeing what she had done, she committed suicide.
Hercules entrusted Iola to his son Hyllus, asking him to marry her. Then he went upon Mount Oeta, having built a high pyre and mounted it.
He commanded his servants to set it afire, but all refused except Philoctetes, who resigned himself to the task and was given Hercules’ bow and arrows as a reward. The pyre was still burning when a thunderclap was heard, and the hero, freed of his mortal self, was taken up into the sky.
He became reconciled with Hera when reaching Olympus. A ceremony was enacted portraying his birth (that is, his emergence from the bosom of the goddess) and he married Hebe, the personification of youth.
Being worshipped from about 800 BC to the Christian era, around 400 AD, Hercules became the god ancestor of the Dorian kings.
Alexander the Great incorporated his image in his coinage. In one legend Deianeira contrived Hercules’ death in a fit of jealous pique with a rope tainted with the poison blood of a centaur, ironically from one of Hercules’ own arrows, which inflicted such torture upon him that he committed suicide by self-immolation on Mount Oita, near Trachis. In various locations he enjoyed many cult centers, with the notable exception of Crete.
At the major sanctuaries on Thasos and Mount Oita, every fourth year, the death of this god was marked by a sacrificial fire festival. These rites often became huge feasts. Similar festivals were held for the god Sandon.
In Roman Hercules became Hercules. In the fifth century BC, Pindar called Hercules heros theos, “heroes god.” Later, without hesitation, the Romans adopted Hercules as the god of physical strength. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 140-146 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 143-144
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, “Herakles,” pp. 101-102