Hercules: The Legendary Hero of Greece and Rome
Hercules: The Legendary Hero of Greece and Rome
One hero is remembered more than any other in ancient mythology. We’re talking about Hercules, the world famous hero who became an Olympic god!
When you think of heroes from the ancient world, Hercules is almost certainly one of the first names that comes to mind. His famous twelve labors and the many other adventures he went on made him the epitome of strength and courage.
Hercules, however, is the Roman name for this great Greek hero. Roman emperors compared themselves to Hercules, hoping to emulate his position in the minds of their people.
Hercules was so popular in ancient Rome that their name for the Greek hero is still the one used most often today. The Greeks held just as much love for him, though.
The Greeks knew him as Heracles, a name that paid honor to his stepmother, Hera. He was one of the many sons of Zeus who rose to prominence in Greek legends.
That name did him little good, however. Throughout his life Hera would seek to utterly destroy her stepson in any way she could.
The stories of Hercules are filled with adventure, danger, romance, and cleverness. Is it any wonder the hero was so revered that he came to be worshiped as a god?
The Birth and Childhood of Hercules
Hercules was one of many Greek heroes who was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods.
While Zeus was married to Hera, he was notorious for his many affairs with both goddesses and human women. One of these women was Alcmene, the human princess of Tiryns and Mycenae and the granddaughter of Perseus.
Alcmene was married to Amphitryon, but her exceptional beauty attracted Zeus’s attention. Knowing she would never betray her husband, the king of the gods devised a scheme to make the mortal woman his lover by deception.
While Amphitryon was away on a military campaign, Zeus visited Alcmene in disguise as her husband. Convinced he was her husband returning from battle, she spent three nights with Zeus without discovering his deception.
Afterward, the real Amphitryon returned. He was surprised to hear that his wife believed he had already been home for more than three days.
The blind seer Tiresias revealed the truth. It was also soon revealed that Alcmene was pregnant.
As Alcmene went into labor, Zeus announced to the gods on Olympus that a grandson of Perseus was about to be born that would one day rule over everyone around him. Hera, angered by her husband’s repeated infidelities and the honors that were given to his sons, sought to prevent Alcmene’s baby from fulfilling that prophecy.
She intervened so that Eurystheus, another grandson of Perseus, would be born two months prematurely while Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, delayed Alcmene’s labor. Eurystheus became a powerful king, and the enmity between Hera and Hercules began in earnest.
Alcmene gave birth to twin sons. One was the child of Zeus while the other was the son of her mortal husband, but no one could be certain which was which.
Alcmene believed the larger twin, who she had named Alcides, was Zeus’s son. Fearing the revenge that Hera might bring upon her, she left the baby to die of exposure.
He was found by Athena and given to Hera, who did not recognize him. Out of pity for the abandoned child, she breastfed the very baby she had tried to prevent from being born.
Hera’s nurturing gave the child supernatural powers. Athena, the patroness of heroes, eventually returned Alcides to his parents.
Zeus’s wife had not forgotten about Alcmene’s son, though. Not knowing which child was the demigod, she sent a pair of serpents into the crib that they both shared.
Iphicles cried in fear. Alcides, however, grabbed ahold of the snakes and strangled them.
Amphitryon again consulted Tiresias, who said that the serpents would only be the first of many monsters Zeus’s son would kill in his lifetime.
At just eight months old, Alcides had proven himself to be the son of Zeus. In an attempt to mollify Hera, Alcmene and Amphitryon renamed him Heracles, “glory of Hera.”
The Hero’s Famous Labors
When Hercules had grown he married Megara, the princess of Thebes. Hera, however, had not been pacified by his renaming.
She sent a fit of madness to overtake the young man. In his insanity, Hercules murdered his wife and children.
When he was eventually cured of his madness, Hercules was horrified by what he had done. He consulted an oracle to learn how he could make amends for his terrible crime.
The oracle instructed him to offer himself in servitude to his cousin, Eurystheus, for a period of ten years. He was to perform any task set for him and only then could he earn redemption.What Hercules did not know, however, was that both the oracle and Eurystheus were in the service of Hera. Click To Tweet
Because of Hera’s intervention, Eurystheus had become a powerful king. He was thus absolutely loyal to the goddess and joined in her attempts to make Hercules suffer.
Together, the king and the goddess devised ten nearly impossible tasks for Hercules.
His first job was to defeat the Nemean Lion, a vicious monster that had terrorised the city of Nemea. Its magical hide made it impervious to weapons, so Hercules was forced to fight it with his bare hands.
When he had strangled the monster, he attempted to skin it but could not get his knife to cut through its skin. Athena came to his aid and from then on he wore the lion’s impenetrable skin as a cloak to protect himself from attack.
His second labor was to slay the Lernean Hydra, a multi-headed serpent whose heads regenerated as they were cut off. His nephew Iolaus held a flaming torch to cauterize each neck to prevent new heads from growing to replace the ones Hercules cut off.
The Hydra spat a vicious poison that Hercules had the foresight to dip his arrows in. These poisoned arrows would prove helpful in his later quests.
His third task was to capture the Cerynian Hind, a creature that ran so quickly that it could outpace an arrow. Eurystheus had hoped that this would anger Artemis, but after Hercules chased the hind for a full year Artemis forgave him for hunting her sacred animal and even aided him in its capture.
His fourth job was to bring back the fearsome Erymanthian Boar.
Along the way, he encountered trouble while visiting a group of centaurs. Not understanding that wine had to be diluted with water, the centaurs became aggressively drunk and Hercules was forced to kill them all with poisoned arrows.
He succeeded, however, in bringing the boar back to Eurystheus. The king was so terrified of the monstrous animal that he hid and begged Hercules to take it away.
The next task was the clean the stables of King Augeas. The king owned a thousand immortal cattle and the filthy stables had not been cleaned in thirty years.
The job was meant to humiliate Hercules more than test his valor, but he was not dissuaded. He rerouted two nearby rivers to flush the muck out of the stables, cleaning it in under a day.
Augeus had agreed to pay Hercules one tenth of his herd if the task could be completed in a single day, but refused to pay when it was done. The hero took him to court and ultimately had to kill the duplicitous king.
Labor six was to drive off the man-eating Stymphalian birds.
Hephaestus and Athena gave him a set of bronze rattles to startle the birds. He shot down many as they flew and the rest never returned.
He next had to capture the Cretan Bull, father to the Minotaur. King Minos was happy to see the animal go.
Stealing the crazed, flesh-eating mares of Diomedes was the eighth task assigned to Hercules. The horses were driven mad by their diet, supplied to them by the murders of visitors to Thrace.
Flesh also subdued them, however. Hercules was able to pacify the animals long enough to bind their mouths by feeding them their own wicked owner.
He was next sent to bring back the belt of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, as a gift for his cousin’s daughter.
The warrior women were amenable until Hera, in disguise as one of them, spread a rumor that Hercules meant to abduct their queen. When they attacked, Hercules killed Hippolyta.
The tenth task was to steal the cattle that belonged to the giant Geryon. To do so, he first had to kill Geryon as well as his two-headed guard dog Orthrus.
When he did so easily, Hera sent a gadfly to chase the cattle off. It took Hercules a year to round them all up again.
The ten tasks had been completed, and Hercules should have been free of his obligation to Eurystheus. The king and Hera, however, resorted to trickery in a final attempt to destroy the hero.
They declared that two of the tasks did not count. Iolaus had helped Hercules slay the Hydra, and he had been paid for cleaning the Augean stables while the rivers did the work for him.Eurystheus demanded that Hercules perform two additional tasks. These were designed to lead to almost certain death. Click To Tweet
Hercules was told to steal one of the golden apples of the Hesperides. These apples, which granted immortality to anyone who ate them, were guarded by nymphs loyal to Hera and a dragon named Ladon.
On the way to their garden, Hercules passed the place where Prometheus was chained to the rocks. Seeing the great Caucasian eagle ripping out the Titan’s liver, he shot the bird with his poisoned arrows and ended the eternal torture.
In gratitude, Prometheus advised the hero on a way to avoid the dangers of the garden. His brother Atlas was the father of the Hesperides, and could thus enter the garden without difficulty.
Atlas, however, had been given the job of holding the dome of the sky aloft as punishment for fighting against Zeus. Hercules offered to relieve him of the terrible burden while he fetched one of his daughters’ apples.
Atlas agreed but attempted to trick Hercules into keeping the job when he returned. Hercules pretended to accept, but tricked Atlas into taking the weight back and made his escape.
His twelfth and final labor for Eurystheus would be to go to the underworld and bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded its gates. It was a task that Hera was sure would lead to her stepson’s death.
Hercules found an entrance to the underworld and began secretly moving through it. He eventually found Hades and, rather than simply steal the monstrous dog, he asked permission to borrow it.
The god of the underworld gave his permission, provided the hero was able to capture and subdue the dog without the use of weapons and without injuring it. He did so and carried it out and back to Eurystheus.
The king was again terrified of the monster and begged Hercules to send it back to the underworld. Cerberus was released and found his way back to his post.
Hercules had become one of the few people to travel to and from the underworld. He had also finally won redemption for the crime of killing his family.
Hercules Represented More than Just Strength
As one of Greece’s great cultural heroes, and eventually a god, the adventures of Hercules were interpreted as more than just stories of strength and heroism.
His incredible physical powers were certainly notable, and perhaps his defining feature. But the twelve labors of Hercules showed more than just his physical abilities.Hercules would never have been able to complete all twelve labors had he also not been an exceptionally clever man. Click To Tweet
Cleaning the stables, for example, would have taken years had he done it by hand, but he was intelligent to recognize that rerouting the rivers to run through them would be much more efficient.
His patroness was Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Hercules often received aid and inspiration from her. The implication was that the hero shared in some portion of the goddess’s skill for strategy and tactical thinking.
Over time, the belief in his intellect grew. In the 1st century BC, for example, credit for devising a way to scare off the Stymphalian birds was given to him directly rather than to the master craftsman Hephaestus:
Herakles then received a Command to drive the Birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art of by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country roundabout. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them.
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 13. 2 (trans. Oldfather)
The Greeks also admired his perseverance. Accomplishing impossible tasks over the course of twelve long years showed a determination beyond the scope of most mortal men.
His later adventures also showed Hercules to be a passionate defender of his friends, as well as any who were weaker than himself. When Admetus, for example, showed the hero hospitality he went so far as to wrestle Thanatos, the spirit of death, on his behalf.
When Prometheus aided him on his quest for the golden apple, Hercules returned the favor. Not only did he kill the giant eagle that had tortured the Titan for ages, but many accounts say that he freed Prometheus as well.
While Hercules was famed for his strength of body, he was also honored for his strength of character.
The Parerga and Other Adventures
The adventures of Hercules did not end with the twelve labors assigned to him by Eurystheus. The hero went on to live a long life filled with many amazing tales.
In addition to the great twelve labors, there were more minor labors assigned to Hercules through the years. Along with the other adventures he was said ot have had, they made for a colorful and full life.
The minor labors are sometimes referred to as the Parerga. They were great works not included in the usual listings of the twelve labors, but of similar scope.
- The Sea Monster of Troy – The beast was sent against Troy when Laomedon refused to properly pay Poseidon for helping to build the city’s defensive walls. Hercules agreed to kill the monster in exchange for the magical horses the king possessed. When Laomedon refused to pay him as well, he put the city under siege for a year and sacked it.
- The Cercopes – These were a pair of monkey-like thieves who caused trouble wherever they went. Hercules captured them but was so amused by their antics that he set them free unharmed.
- Achelous – The river god competed with Hercules for the hand of Princess Deianira. During their wrestling match Hercules ripped off one of his horns, which became the cornucopia or Horn of Plenty.
- Antaeus – The giant of Libya challenged all who passed his lands to a wrestling match, and the skulls of those he defeated were used to build a temple to his father, Poseidon. Hercules learned that the giant drew his strength from Gaia, so he held him in the air and away from the earth to weaken him until he could crush his ribs.
- The Centaur Eurytion – When the centaur tried to force kindly King Dexamenus to allow him to marry his daughter, Hercules killed the centaur and saved the young woman.
- Alcyoneus – The giant was immortal when he was within his homeland. When he attacked Hercules as he travelled with Geryon’s cattle, the hero knocked him senseless with his club and dragged him out of his lands so he would die.
- Albion and Bergion – The two giant sons of Poseidon challenged their cousin to a wrestling match. He defeated both of them on his own.
Hercules fulfilled the prophecy of Tiresias by killing many of the world’s most feared monsters. His contribution to the safety of mankind was so great that he was revered as a savior figure.
He was such a great hero that he appeared in the stories of other legendary figures as well as his own.
Hercules was said to have sailed with Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the golden fleece. Some said that he was only with them for a short time, though, before being asked to leave the crew to avoid bringing Hera’s anger down on the company.
The Loves of Hercules
Many of the great adventures of Hercules involved the women he married and seduced.He was very much like his father in his love for beautiful princesses. He was married four times, and had many affairs besides. Click To Tweet
After the death of his first wife, Megara, Hercules would not be free to marry again until after his servitude had ended. His next marriage, however, would also involve being bound in service.
Hercules was again ordered into servitude, this time for one year, for the accidental killing of a companion. He would be in the service of Omphale, the queen of Lydia.
He was forced to wear women’s clothing and carry out the household tasks usually assigned to female servants. The queen, meanwhile, carried his great club and wore the skin of the Nemean lion.
Omphale eventually freed Hercules and married him. Their descendants became the kings of a great dynasty of Lydian rulers.
Outside of marriage, Hercules matched the Greek ideal of a virile man. In what was sometimes called his thirteenth labor, he impregnated all fifty daughters of King Thespius in a single night.
Hercules developed almost as much of a reputation for lustfulness and seduction as his father. He sired several sons, many of which became kings or the founders of nations.
One of his affairs even gave birth to a goddess. Eucleia, the personification of good repute and glory, was his daughter.
His final human marriage was to the beautiful Deianira. Sadly, it would end with his death.
After that, he would marry a goddess.
The Hero’s Death and the God’s Cult
Hercules had fought a river god for the hand of Deianira, a princess of Calydon.
Deianira was not like most princesses of Greece, though. She was described as a warrior who drove a chariot and practiced with weapons.
She was a great match for Hercules, but would sadly lead to his death.
Shortly after their marriage, Hercules and his wife were travelling and came to a dangerous river. The centaur Nessus offered to help the woman across.
Once he had forded the river, however, Nessus attempted to run off with Deianira. To save his new bride from abduction, Hercules quickly shot one of the arrows he had dipped in the blood of the Hydra.
The poison killed Nessus, but in his dying moments the centaur devised his revenge. He told Deianira that his blood was a love potion and, by rubbing just a bit of it onto his clothes, she could ensure that Hercules would never stray.
Deianira held on to the tunic for many years. Her husband had many affairs and fathered many children, but she never used the supposed love potion.
Eventually, however, Hercules fell in love with one of his mistresses. Deianira feared that he meant to abandon her in favor of Iole.
She smeared some of the centaur’s blood on her husband’s tunic. When he put it on, though, she learned that it was not a love potion.
Nessus had known that the Hydra’s poison had contaminated his blood. Just a few drops against a man’s skin meant certain death.
The poison burned Hercules so badly that his skin tore off when he attempted to remove the poisoned tunic. He screamed in agony as the poison ate away at his flesh.
Driven almost mad by pain, he chose to bring about his end more quickly. He quickly built a funeral pyre and threw himself onto it, ending his mortal life.
His death was not the end of his story, however.The human part of Hercules had been killed, but the immortal part remained. Click To Tweet
By completing his twelve labors and earning the respect of the gods, Hercules had secured his place on Mount Olympus. When the pyre burned away the last of his humanity, he was taken up to the company of the gods.
As a peer, Hera ended her lifelong campaign against her stepson. In fact, he married her daughter Hebe.
Hercules was revered as both a cultural hero and a member of the pantheon of gods.
In the Greek world, prayers could be said to both heroes and gods. There was some debate as to which Hercules was.
In some places he was honored as a heroic son of Zeus. In others he received all the sacrifices and reverence proper for a god of Olympus.
Hercules the Hero and the God
Hercules was, ultimately, one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. The son of Zeus and the mortal princess Alcmene, he was destined for greatness from birth.
The circumstances of his birth, however, drew the enmity of Zeus’s wife Hera. Throughout his life, his stepmother would seek out ways to destroy him and cause suffering.
When she inflicted him with insanity so that he killed his wife and children, Hercules was assigned a serious of difficult labors to earn redemption. Although Hera designed the tasks to be nearly impossible, he was able to complete each one.
Hercules went on to perform great deeds throughout Greece. He also took many lovers, becoming the ancestor of many kings.
Hercules was renowned for his intelligence, loyalty, and the protection he offered his friends as well as his physical strength. With all these qualities, he ascended to Mount Olympus after his death to take his place as one of the gods.