The twelve labors of Heracles are one of the most famous quests in all of mythology. To atone for the crime of killing his children under the influence of madness, the hero had to commit himself to ten years of servitude.
In that time, he was given ten nearly impossible and highly dangerous tasks. He completed all of them but to his dismay was told that two would not be counted.
One of these was the slaying of the Lernean Hydra, a monster with deadly venom and the ability to regenerate whenever it was injured. The second labor would not be counted because Heracles had received help in completing it.
This help did not come in the form of another great hero, a king, or a god. Instead, his teenaged chariot driver figured out how to defeat the Hydra.
Iolaus was the hero’s nephew who accompanied him on many more adventures than just the fight against the Hydra. According to some writers, he was a lifelong companion who continued to help his family even after Heracles had died.
Iolaus is known for his help in killing the Lernean Hydra, but there is far more to his story than the fight against a single monster!
When Heracles set out on his twelve labors, he did not travel alone.
His nephew Iolaus was his chariot driver, companion and, according to some sources, his lover. Iolaus was the son of Heracles’s twin brother, Iphicles.
Iolaus is most well-known for his role in the fight against the Lernean Hydra. This was the second of the labors assigned to Heracles by King Eurystheus.
The Hydra was a monster that lived in the swamps of Lake Lerna, near Argos. While most accounts claimed that it could not be truly killed, Heracles was sent to defeat it.
The Hydra was an enormous, multi-headed serpent. Its venom was so potent that the fumes could kill a person if they even walked too close to the monster’s lair.
While ancient sources did not agree on exactly how many heads the Hydra had, most confirmed that they regenerated if they were destroyed. The extent of this regeneration grew over time until the standard story was that for every head that was cut off, two more would regrow from the stump.
Heracles was a skilled and fearless fighter, but the battle against the Hydra nearly proved to be beyond his capabilities. Although he fought well, he could not outpace the Hydra’s ability to regrow its severed heads.
Iolaus watched the fight from a short distance away, holding a torch that he had used to guide their way through the dark swamps. As he watched his uncle battle the monster, he came up with an idea to defeat the Hydra.
Iolaus, who was probably a teenager at the time, bravely jumped into the battle. When Heracles sliced off one of the Hydra’s heads, Iolaus used the torch to cauterize the stump.
Working quickly, Iolaus was able to burn the wounds before the Hydra could regrow a new head in its place. Heracles and Iolaus attacked the Hydra as a team and slowly began to gain ground against the monster.
Eventually, only one head remained. The Hydra’s main head was immortal, so Heracles buried it in a place where no one would ever dig it up. Before leaving, Heracles dipped his arrows in the monster’s blood to imbue them with its deadly venom.
Heracles continued with his labors, spending another eight years in the service of King Eurystheus. After many dangerous and trying adventures, he believed his servitude would be over.
Instead, however, he was told that two of his quests had been completed in the wrong way. Because of this, he would have to undertake two more labors, for a total of twelve, before earning his freedom and absolution for his crimes.
One of the tasks that Heracles had supposedly failed was the slaying of the Hydra. The monster had been killed with the help of Iolaus, so Eurystheus and Hera decreed that Heracles had not completed the task to their satisfaction.
Although the Hydra was destroyed, and although Heracles had gotten aid with some of his other tasks, too much of the credit for the fight could be given to Iolaus for it to count as a victory for Heracles.
The refusal to allow the victory against the Hydra to count as a completed task was, of course, a ploy by Hera and Eurystheus to put Heracles in even more danger. It does show, however, that Iolaus was far more than just the hero’s chariot driver.
Iolaus continued to appear in the legends of his uncle. He appeared to be more of a trusted advisor and close friend than the more servile role he is sometimes seen as playing.
In some versions of Heracles’s story, for example, his wife Megara survived the episode of madness that led to him killing the rest of their family. Rather than remain married to the woman whose children he had killed, Heracles gave her to Iolaus.
Megara and Iolaus had one daughter together, Leipephilene. A renowned beauty, she married the king of Ephyra.
One historian claimed that Heracles sent Iolaus to advise nine of his sons in establishing a new colony on Sardinia. Their descendants were the Iolei and a later writer said that their graves became the sites of well-regarded oracles.
Another writer claimed that Iolaus was buried on Sardinia as well. In recognition for his role in founding their culture, the Iolei built a shrine where he was buried.
Others said that Iolaus returned to Greece and was involved in the later adventures of Heracles and his children.
Some writers claimed that Iolaus was present when Heracles died. He was credited in some accounts with lighting the hero’s funeral pyre.
The playwright Euripedes made Iolaus a central figure in the Heracleidae, a play about the fate of the hero’s children after his death. In it, Iolaus is elderly and frail, but still committed to helping his uncle’s family.
Iolaus escorts and protects the children of Heracles and the hero’s mother, Alcmene, despite his advanced age. When the forces of King Eurystheus attack the city of Athens, which had given shelter to the Heracleidae, Iolaus insists on joining the battle.
With the intervention of Heracles’s divine wife, the youth goddess Hebe, Iolaus’s vigor and strength are restored to what they were in his youth. He captures Eurystheus and brings him into the city for justice to be done.
The mythology of Iolaus grew far beyond his role as a youthful charioteer. There is some evidence that the nephew of Greece’s most famous hero was regarded as a legend in his own right.
The people of Thebes seem to have been particularly devoted to Iolaus. Plutarch mentioned at least one shrine dedicated to Iolaus there, showing that he was regarded as a hero rather than just a companion.
Plutarch’s account also makes it clear what the people of Thebes thought the true relationship between Iolaus and Heracles was. His shrine, he said, was where male couples made vows to one another.
The local dialect of Thebes also used Iolaus’s name in their word for the gymnasium. For slaying the monster Hydra and other feats, he was considered important enough that annual athletic games were held in his honor, as they were elsewhere for gods and important founding heroes.
This may suggest that Iolaus was originally a local hero who was incorporated into the mythology of Heracles. In Thebes and on the island of Sardinia, he had far more importance than just as the young charioteer who helped to slay the Hydra.
Iolaus was the nephew of Heracles, the son of his twin half-brother Iphicles. He is most well-known for his role in the defeat of the Lernean Hydra.
Sent to face the monster as one of his infamous labors, Heracles was unable to overcome its regenerative ability. Every time he cut off one of its heads, more grew to continue fighting him.
His nephew Iolaus had accompanied the hero as his charioteer. It was he who had the idea to use a torch to cauterize the wounds, keeping the Hydra from growing new heads to replace those Heracles cut off.
With his help, Heracles was able to defeat the monster. Because he had assistance, however, King Eurystheus refused to give him credit for the quest.
Iolaus’s adventures with Heracles continued after the defeat of the Hydra. He married his uncle’s first wife Megara and, according to some sources, was with him at his death.
The playwright Euripedes claimed that Iolaus protected Heracles’s children from Eurystheus after the hero’s death. Even in his old age, he insisted on fighting to defend the Heraclidae.
Iolaus was credited, along with nine of Heracles’s sons, with establishing the first settlement on Sardinia. There, the site of his tomb was made into a temple.
In Thebes as well, he was seen as a more influential hero than the story of the Hydra suggests. He had a temple dedicated in his honor, perhaps as Heracles’s lover, and annual games were held in his name.
This suggests that the character of Iolaus may have originated as a local hero. His story was incorporated into that of Heracles, but he had his own hero cult in many parts of the Greek world.