What Were the Twelve Labors of Hercules?
The twelve labors of Hercules were the hero’s most famous quests, but can you name all the jobs given to Zeus’s son?
Hera hated her stepson from the moment he was born. In her jealousy, she inflicted him with madness.
In a frenzied state, the son of Zeus killed his own wife and children. When he returned to his senses he consulted an oracle to ordered him to cleanse himself by entering into the service of his cousin, King Eurystheus of Mycenae, for ten years.
Hercules was unaware that both the oracle and the king were in the service of Hera. Eurystheus assigned him ten seemingly impossible tasks to earn atonement.
The list was later expanded to twelve when the king declared two of the tasks had been done incorrectly.
The twelve labors of Hercules came to be known as his most famous adventures.
The Most Famous Quests of Hercules
The labors of Hercules were
1. To Kill the Nemean Lion
The Nemean Lion was a vicious predator who no hunters had been able to kill. Its hide was virtually impenetrable, so it destroyed anyone who tried to get close to it.
Hercules quickly realized that his arrows were of little use against the lion’s thick skin. Even his club did not injure it.
Because his weapons were of no use, Hercules fought the beast with his bare hands. He was able to strangle it.
Once it had been killed, Hercules wanted to take the pelt as a trophy. He could not cut it with any knives, however, until Athena advised him to use the animal’s own claws.
Thereafter, Hercules wore the lion’s skin as a cloak instead of conventional armor. The lion’s pelt became one of his most identifiable attributes.
2. To Defeat the Lernean Hydra
The Hydra was a many-headed serpent that was impossible to kill.
The central head was immortal and the others, whose numbers varied by writer, were capable of rejuvenation. Whenever a head was cut off, more would grow back in its place.
Hercules soon realized that the only way to defeat the Hydra was to stop it from growing more heads. His nephew Iolaus assisted with a burning torch that he used to cauterize the stumps before they could regenerate.
With the multiple heads defeated, Hercules was able to remove the final, immortal one. He buried it nearby so it could not pose a threat to anyone else.
The Hydra’s powerful venom proved to be a valuable tool, however. Hercules dipped his arrows in it, making poisoned weapons that could kill any foe.
Many years later, this would end his own life, however. The Hydra’s potent venom was applied to his own lionskin cloak to kill him in an agonizing manner.
3. To Capture the Cyrinithian Hind
The golden-horned deer was sacred to Artemis. It was elusive and said to be so fast that it could outrun even an arrow.
Hercules did not want to shoot the deer, though, out of respect for Artemis. Instead, he chased it on foot for a full year.
Exhausted by the hunt, Hercules finally slowed his quarry by wounding it slightly with an arrow. Artemis was furious, but allowed him to borrow the deer to complete his task regardless.
4. To Subdue the Erymanthian Boar
The enormous boar descended from Mount Erymanthus to destroy the nearby farmlands. Hercules was ordered to bring the beast back alive, so he could not risk wounding it.
He found the boar in a grove of trees during the winter and shouted at it. When the startled animal ran away, the hero gave chase.
Hercules chased the giant boar through the snow until it was exhausted. Eventually, it slowed enough that the hero was able to capture it with a net.
Hercules dragged the boar back to Mycenae. Eurystheus was so frightened of the animal that he jumped into a buried storage jar to hide himself.
5. To Clean the Stables of Augeas
King Augeas of Elis was the owner of an enormous herd of immortal cattle. The animal’s stables had not been cleaned for several years.
Hercules did not tell Augeas of his quest, but offered to clean the stables on his own. The king said that if the monumental task could be accomplished in a single day, he would give Hercules one-tenth of the herd as payment.
The job was meant to humiliate the great hero by making him do dirty, menial labor. Instead, however, he found a shortcut.
He diverted a nearby river to run through the stables. The running water washed the filth away in a matter of moments, leaving the stables as clean as the day they were built.
Augeas, however, tried to go back on his promised payment. Hercules could do nothing while he was bound in service to his cousin, but returned years later to lay siege to the city and collect his payment.
6. To Drive Away the Stymphalian Birds
The man-eating Stymphalian birds were a flock that terrorized the people of Arcadia. According to some accounts, they had feathers made of bronze which they could shoot at people below like arrows.
While the birds nested they were impossible to reach, so Hercules had to drive them off before he could kill them. Hephaestus designed a rattle for this purpose that frightened the birds into flight.
As they flew away, Hercules shot them down with his venom-laced arrows. Only a few escaped, to be later encountered by Jason and the Argonauts.
7. To Capture the Cretan Bull
The Cretan Bull had been sent by Poseidon many years before and had wreaked havoc on the island of Crete ever since. Although King Minos’s lands had been terrorized by the animal, he refused to help Hercules catch it.
Instead, the hero tracked and wrestled the bull on his own. He was able to subdue it and drag it back to Mycenae.
Once it had been retrieved, no one seemed to know what to do with the animal. It was set loose and wandered mainland Greece, destroying many fields and towns before finally being killed by Theseus.
8. To Fetch the Mares of Diomedes
Diomedes was a wicked king who fed his chariot horses human flesh to make them run faster. Hercules traveled to Thrace and was able to catch the animals with relative ease.
He left his squire, Abderos, to guard the beasts while he fetched their murderous master. When he returned, he discovered that the horses had killed and eaten his young companion.
Furious, Hercules threw Diomedes to the mares. The king of Thrace was killed by the monsters he had created.
The meal ended the horses’ unnatural appetites. Some legends say they made their way to Olympus, while others claim that the breed of unusually swift horses lived on until the time of Alexander the Great.
Abderos was honored with a city in his name and a great festival in which every sport was celebrated except horse racing.
9. To Bring Back the Belt of Hippolyta
Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, was the daughter of Ares. Her father had given her a wonderful girdle, or belt, which she always wore.
Hercules approached the queen in peace and asked for her help in completing his task. She was happy to lend him the belt.
Hera, however, was angry that the job had been so easy to complete. She disguised herself as an old woman and spread rumors among the Amazons that Hercules meant to entrap their queen.
The warrior women attacked and Hercules and his companions had no choice but to fight their way out of the city. Hippolyta was killed in the battle and her sister was taken captive.
10. To Steal the Cattle of Geryon
The giant Geryon kept a magnificent herd of cattle on an isolated island in Oceanus. Helios lent the hero a golden cup-shaped boat to allow him to sail along the great river to reach the island near the sunset.
He was only sent to steal the herd, but was confronted by the herdsman and the three-headed guard dog Orthrus. He had to kill both to reach the animals.
Hercules finally killed the giant himself, who was said to have three bodies. He packed the cattle into Helios’s golden boat and sailed back to Greece.
11. To Fetch the Apples of the Hesperides
Stealing Geryon’s herd was meant to be the hero’s final task, but Eurystheus and Hera conspired to keep him in service. They claimed that because he had received help in fighting the Hydra and asked for payment to clean the Augean stables, those labors would not count in his favor.
He was given the additional task of stealing the magical life-giving apples from the garden of the Hesperides. The nymphs who guarded them were in service to Hera, and neither they nor the serpent Ladron would let the hero entire the hidden garden.
In searching for a way to the garden, Hercules happened to come across Prometheus. Seeing the giant eagle attacking him, he shot the bird and ended the bound Titan’s eternal torment.
In thanks, Prometheus told Hercules how he could access the apples. His brother, Atlas, was the father of the Hesperides and would be allowed to enter the garden without issue.
Atlas, however, had been sentenced to hold up the dome of the sky. Hercules offered to take up the burden himself if the Titan would go to the garden for him.
Atlas agreed and set aside his heavy duty for the first time since the Titanomachy. After fetching the apples, however, he tried to force Hercules to hold the dome forever.
The hero pretended to accept the task, provided Atlas take it back for just a moment so he could adjust his position. When Atlas accepted the dome once more, Hercules ran back to Mycenae with the apples and left the Titan with his burden.
12. To Bring Cerberus to Earth
The final labor was meant to finally kill the son of Zeus. He was told to journey to the underworld and bring back the hound of Hades, Cerberus.
The brother of Orthrus was another three-headed dog. Rather than guarding cows, however, he guarded the souls of the dead.
Hercules went to the realm of the dead and petitioned its queen, Persephone, for help. She convinced Hades to allow his nephew to take the dog.
Hades would only let Cerberus go, however, if the dog was uninjured and no weapons were used against it. Hercules wrestled the monster in a chokehold until it was unconscious and could be taken to the surface.
Eurystheus was once again terrified enough to hide in his jar. He ordered Hercules to leave and take the monstrous dog with him, saying he was free of his service and was never to return.
My Modern Interpretation
The labors of Hercules are legendary, but a closer look shows that they could have more mundane origins than it seems.
There is a popular theory among some historians that Hercules may have been inspired by retellings of a real person’s story. That ancient man, who would have probably lived in the Neolithic Era, was so highly regarded by his people that his exploits became legendary.
The stories of this unknown prehistoric hero were passed on, becoming more fantastic and elaborate over time. By the time the Greek writers first recorded them, the labors of Hercules were the exploits of a near-godly hero.
Many of the beasts faced by Hercules, however, are obviously based on real animals and threats.
From the Nemean Lion to the wild horses of Diomedes, the greatest beasts faced by Hercules are exaggerated versions of more common creatures. The Hydra is an exaggerated poisonous snake, while the Stymphalian birds may have once devoured crops instead of men.
The real Hercules, if he existed, may have been a particularly accomplished hunter. Lions and wild boar were dangerous prey and an ancient hunter who managed to take them down would have earned praise from his community.
The amazing labors of Hercules are, at their root, adventurous but not impossible tasks. Fighting a warrior tribe and stealing a herd of prized cattle would earn a mortal man accolades, but when made more daring and massive they became the heroic quests of a demi-god.
Even the weapons and clothing carried by Hercules hints at a pre-Greek origin. Rather that weapons of forged metal he carries a simple club and arrows and he wears an animal skin instead of Greek textiles.
These images may be remnants of pre-Bronze Age tradition. If a historical Hercules existed, he could have used simple wood and stone weapons instead of bronze or iron.
The labors of Hercules show possible real-world roots for some of Greek mythology’s most famous legends. When stripped of divine influence, they can all be read as the impressive, but not impossible, feats of a skilled Stone Age hunter.
The twelve labors of Hercules were devised by Hera and her human servants to both test and punish the son of Zeus. While he believed he was earning atonement for the murders of his children, Hera was actually hoping the tasks would ead to his demise.
Even when sent to the underworld, however, Hercules was able to complete the impossible tasks he was given. From hunting unkillable monsters to stealing well-guarded property, the hero always emerged victorious.
The twelve labors of Hercules show his heroism and strength, but when the supernatural elements are removed they seem more like the actions of a real hunter than a demi-god.
The animals Hercules hunts are obviously exaggerated versions of real creatures, and his other tasks are similarly based in more common events.
This gives credence to the theory that the legends of Hercules may have originated long before Greek mythology as the exploits of a real man. Sometimes during the Stone Age, a real hunter may have won renown for hnting dangerous beasts, waging war against nearby tribes, and stealing the prized possessions of others.
While the details of the stories were exaggerated over time, at their heart the twelve labors of Hercules can be seen as entirely plausible events.