The Labours of Hercules or Labours of Heracles (Greek: ἆθλοι, âthloi Latin: Labores) are a series of tasks carried out by Heracles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, whose name was later romanised as Hercules. They were accomplished at the service of King Eurystheus. The episodes were later connected by a continuous narrative.
The establishment of a fixed cycle of twelve labours was attributed by the Greeks to an epic poem, now lost, written by Peisander (7th to 6th centuries BC).
Having tried to kill Heracles ever since he was born, Hera induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children. Afterwards, Heracles went to the Oracle of Delphi to atone, where he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance. Heracles was told to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. During this time, he was sent to perform a series of difficult feats, called labours.
Heracles was the son born by the mortal woman Alcmene after her affair with Zeus, the king of the gods, who had disguised himself as her husband Amphitryon. Alcmene, fearing the jealousy of Zeus's wife Hera, exposed her infant son, who was taken by either Zeus or his daughter Athena (the protectress of heroes) to Hera, who did not recognize Heracles and nursed him out of pity. Heracles suckled so strongly that he caused Hera pain, she pushed him away, and her milk sprayed across the heavens, forming the Milky Way. But with divine milk, Heracles had acquired supernatural strength. Either Zeus or Athena brought the infant back to his mother, and he was subsequently raised by his parents. The child was originally given the name Alcides by his parents; it was only later that he became known as Heracles in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera, with Heracles meaning Hera's "pride" or "glory". He and his mortal twin, Iphicles, were just eight months old when Hera sent two giant snakes into the children's chamber. Iphicles cried from fear, but his twin brother grabbed a snake in each hand and strangled them. He was found by his nurse playing with them on his cot as if they were toys. Astonished, Amphitryon sent for the seer Tiresias, who prophesied an unusual future for the boy, saying he would vanquish numerous monsters.
Heracles married Megara, eldest daughter of King Creon of Thebes. However, in a fit of madness induced by Hera, Heracles killed Megara and their children. According to Euripides's play Herakles, however, it was not until after Heracles had completed his labours and on his return from the Underworld that he murdered Megara and his children.
After recovering his sanity, Heracles deeply regretted his actions; he was purified by King Thespius, then traveled to Delphi to inquire how he could atone for his actions. Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, advised him to go to Tiryns and serve his cousin, King Eurystheus of Mycenae, for twelve years, performing whatever labours Eurystheus might set him; in return, he would be rewarded with immortality. Heracles despaired at this, loathing to serve a man whom he knew to be far inferior to himself, yet fearing to oppose his father, Zeus. Eventually, Heracles placed himself at Eurystheus's disposal.
Of the twelve labours performed by Heracles, six were located in the Peloponnese, culminating with the rededication of Olympia. Six others took the hero farther afield, to places that were, according to Ruck and Staples, "all previously strongholds of Hera or the 'Goddess' and were Entrances to the Netherworld". In each case, the pattern was the same: Heracles was sent to kill or subdue, or to fetch back for Eurystheus (as Hera's representative) a magical animal or plant.
A famous depiction of the labours in Greek sculpture is found on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which date to the 460s BC.
Eurystheus originally ordered Heracles to perform ten labours. Heracles accomplished these tasks, but Eurystheus refused to recognize two: the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra, as Heracles' nephew and charioteer Iolaus had helped him; and the cleansing of the Augean stables, because Heracles accepted payment for the labour (in other versions it was the Stymphalian Birds that was discounted instead of the Augean stables, for the help of Athena giving Heracles bronze rattles). Eurystheus thus set two more tasks (fetching the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capturing Cerberus), which Heracles also performed, bringing the total number of tasks to twelve.
In his labours, Heracles was sometimes accompanied by a male companion (an eromenos), according to Licymnius and others, such as Iolaus, his nephew. Several of the labours involved the offspring (by various accounts) of Typhon and his mate Echidna, all overcome by Heracles.
The order of the labours given by the mythographer Apollodorus is:
Diodorus Siculus gives a similar sequence of the labours, in which the orders of the third and fourth, fifth and sixth, and eleventh and twelfth labours are swapped.
Main article: Nemean lion
Heracles wandered in the area until he came to the town of Cleonae. There he met a boy who said that if Heracles slew the Nemean lion and returned alive within 30 days, the town would sacrifice a lion to Zeus, but if he did not return within 30 days or if he died, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus. Another version claims that he met Molorchos, a shepherd who had lost his son to the lion, saying that if he came back within 30 days, a ram would be sacrificed to Zeus. If he did not return within 30 days, it would be sacrificed to the dead Heracles as a mourning offering.
While searching for the lion, Heracles fletched some arrows to use against it, not knowing that its golden fur was impenetrable. When he found and shot the lion, firing at it with his bow, Heracles discovered the fur's protective property as the arrow bounced harmlessly off the creature's thigh. After some time, Heracles made the lion return to his cave. The cave had two entrances, one of which Heracles blocked; he then entered the other. In those dark and close quarters, Heracles stunned the beast with his club and, using his immense strength, strangled it to death. During the fight the lion bit off one of his fingers. Others say that he shot arrows at it, eventually shooting it in the unarmored mouth. After slaying the lion, he tried to skin it with a knife from his belt, but failed. He then tried sharpening the knife with a stone and even tried with the stone itself. Finally, Athena, noticing the hero's plight, told Heracles to use one of the lion's own claws to skin the pelt. Others say that Heracles' armor was, in fact, the hide of the Lion of Cithaeron.
When he returned on the 30th day carrying the carcass of the lion on his shoulders, King Eurystheus was amazed and terrified. Eurystheus forbade him ever again to enter the city; from then on he was to display the fruits of his labours outside the city gates. Eurystheus would then tell Heracles his tasks through a herald, not personally. Eurystheus even had a large bronze jar made for him in which to hide from Heracles if need be. Eurystheus then warned him that the tasks would become increasingly difficult.
Main article: Lernaean Hydra
Heracles' second labour was to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a many-headed snake which Hera had raised with the sole purpose of slaying Heracles. Upon reaching the swamp near Lake Lerna, where the hydra dwelt. Heracles attacked the hydra's several heads, but each time one of its heads was removed, a new head (or two) would grow back. Additionally, during the fight, a giant crab came to assist the Hydra by biting Heracles on the foot. Heracles was able to kill the crab, but realizing that he could not defeat the hydra alone, he called on his nephew Iolaus (who had come with Heracles) for help. Working in tandem, once Heracles had removed a head (with his sword or club), Iolaus burned the stumps with a firebrand, preventing them from growing back. In such a way Heracles was able to kill the hydra, after which he dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. According to Apollodorus, one of the Hydra's (here nine) heads—the middle one—was immortal, so when Heracles cut off this head, Heracles buried it and placed a great rock on top of it.
Later, Heracles used one of his poisonous arrows to kill the centaur Nessus; and Nessus's tainted blood was applied to the Tunic of Nessus, by which the centaur had his posthumous revenge. Both Strabo and Pausanias report that the stench of the river Anigrus in Elis, making all the fish of the river inedible, was reputed to be due to the Hydra's venom, washed from the arrows Heracles used on the centaur.
Main article: Ceryneian Hind
Angered by Heracles' success against the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra, Eurystheus (advised by Hera) devised an altogether different task for the hero, commanding Heracles to capture the Ceryneian Hind, a beast so fast it could outpace an arrow.
After a long search, Heracles awoke one night and laid eyes on the elusive hind, which was only visible due to the glint of moonlight on its antlers. He then chased the hind on foot for a full year through Greece, Thrace, Istria, and the land of the Hyperboreans. How Heracles caught the hind differs depending on the telling; in most versions, he captured the hind while it slept, rendering it lame with a trap net.
Eurystheus commanded Heracles to catch the hind in the hope that it would enrage Artemis and lead her to punish the hero for his desecration of the sacred animal. As he was returning with the hind to present it to Eurystheus, Heracles encountered Artemis and her brother Apollo. He begged the goddess for forgiveness, explaining that he had snared the hind as part of his penance, but promised to return it to the wild soon thereafter. Convinced by Heracles' earnestness, Artemis forgave him, foiling Eurystheus' plan.
After bringing the hind to Eurystheus, Heracles was informed that it was to become part of the King's menagerie. Knowing that he must return the hind to the wild as he had promised Artemis, Heracles agreed to hand it over only on the condition that Eurystheus himself come out and take it from him. The King came forth, but the moment that Heracles let the hind go, it sprinted back to its mistress with unparalleled swiftness. Before taking his leave, Heracles commented that Eurystheus had not been quick enough, outraging the King.
Main article: Erymanthian Boar
Eurystheus was disappointed that Heracles had overcome yet another creature and was humiliated by the hind's escape, so he assigned Heracles another dangerous task. By some accounts, the fourth labour was to bring the fearsome Erymanthian Boar back to Eurystheus alive (there is no single definitive telling of the labours). On the way to Mount Erymanthos where the boar lived, Heracles visited Pholus ("caveman"), a kind and hospitable centaur and old friend. Heracles ate with Pholus in his cavern (though the centaur devoured his meat raw) and asked for wine. Pholus had only one jar of wine, a gift from Dionysus to all the centaurs on Mount Erymanthos. Heracles convinced him to open it, and the smell attracted the other centaurs. They did not understand that wine needs to be tempered with water, became drunk, and attacked Heracles. Heracles shot at them with his poisonous arrows, killing many, and the centaurs retreated all the way to Chiron's cave.
Pholus was curious why the arrows caused so much death. He picked one up but dropped it, and the arrow stabbed his hoof, poisoning him. One version states that a stray arrow hit Chiron as well. He was immortal, but he still felt the pain. Chiron's pain was so great that he volunteered to give up his immortality and take the place of Prometheus, who had been chained to the top of a mountain to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle. Prometheus' torturer, the eagle, continued its torture on Chiron, so Heracles shot it dead with an arrow. It is generally accepted that the tale was meant to show Heracles as being the recipient of Chiron's surrendered immortality. However, this tale contradicts the tradition that Chiron later taught Achilles. The tale of the centaurs sometimes appears in other parts of the twelve labours, as does the freeing of Prometheus.
Heracles had visited Chiron to gain advice on how to catch the boar, and Chiron had told him to drive it into thick snow, which sets this labour in mid-winter. Heracles caught the boar, bound it, and carried it back to Eurystheus, who was frightened of it and ducked down in his half-buried storage pithos, begging Heracles to get rid of the beast.
Main article: Augeas
The fifth labour was to clean the stables of King Augeas. This assignment was intended to be both humiliating and impossible, since these divine livestock were immortal, and had produced an enormous quantity of dung. The Augean (//) stables had not been cleaned in over 30 years, and over 1,000 cattle lived there. However, Heracles succeeded by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth.
Before starting on the task, Heracles had asked Augeas for one-tenth of the cattle if he finished the task in one day, and Augeas agreed, but afterwards Augeas refused to honour the agreement on the grounds that Heracles had been ordered to carry out the task by Eurystheus anyway. Heracles claimed his reward in court and was supported by Augeas' son Phyleus. Augeas banished them both before the court had ruled. Heracles returned, slew Augeas, and gave his kingdom to Phyleus.
The success of this labour was ultimately discounted as the rushing waters had done the work of cleaning the stables, and because Heracles was paid for doing the labour; Eurystheus determined that Heracles still had seven labours to perform.
Main article: Stymphalian birds
The sixth labour was to defeat the Stymphalian birds, man-eating birds with beaks made of bronze and sharp metallic feathers they could launch at their victims. They were sacred to Ares, the god of war. Furthermore, their dung was highly toxic. They had migrated to Lake Stymphalia in Arcadia, where they bred quickly and took over the countryside, destroying local crops, fruit trees, and townspeople. Heracles could not go too far into the swamp, for it would not support his weight. Athena, noticing the hero's plight, gave Heracles a rattle which Hephaestus had made especially for the occasion. Heracles shook the rattle and frightened the birds into the air. Heracles then shot many of them with his arrows. The rest flew far away, never to return. In some versions of this story instead of the Augean stables being discounted it was the Stymphalian Birds labour for getting the help of Athena. The Argonauts would later encounter them.
Main article: Cretan Bull
The seventh labour, also categorised as the first of the Non-Peloponneisan labours, was to capture the Cretan Bull, father of the Minotaur. According to Apollodorus, Heracles sailed to Crete, asked King Minos for help, but Minos told Heracles to capture the bull himself, which he did. After showing the bull to Eurystheus, Heracles released the bull which ended up at Marathon.
Main article: Mares of Diomedes
As the eighth of his labours Heracles was sent by King Eurystheus to steal the Mares of Thrace from Diomedes. The mares’ madness was attributed to their unnatural diet which consisted of the flesh of unsuspecting guests or strangers to the island. Some versions of the myth say that the mares also expelled fire when they breathed. The Mares, which were the terror of Thrace, were kept tethered by iron chains to a bronze manger in the now vanished city of Tirida and were named Podargos (the swift), Lampon (the shining), Xanthos (the yellow) and Deinos (or Deinus, the terrible). Although very similar, there are slight variances in the exact details regarding the mares’ capture.
In one version, Heracles brought a number of volunteers to help him capture the giant horses. After overpowering Diomedes’ men, Heracles broke the chains that tethered the horses and drove the mares down to sea. Unaware that the mares were man-eating and uncontrollable, Heracles left them in the charge of his favored companion, Abderus, while he left to fight Diomedes. Upon his return, Heracles found that the boy was eaten. As revenge, Heracles fed Diomedes to his own horses and then founded Abdera next to the boy's tomb.
In another version, Heracles, who was visiting the island, stayed awake so that he didn't have his throat cut by Diomedes in the night, and cut the chains binding the horses once everyone was asleep. Having scared the horses onto the high ground of a knoll, Heracles quickly dug a trench through the peninsula, filling it with water and thus flooding the low-lying plain. When Diomedes and his men turned to flee, Heracles killed them with an axe (or a club), and fed Diomedes’ body to the horses to calm them.
In yet another version, Heracles first captured Diomedes and fed him to the mares before releasing them. Only after realizing that their King was dead did his men, the Bistonians, attack Heracles. Upon seeing the mares charging at them, led in a chariot by Abderus, the Bistonians turned and fled.
In all versions the horses are calmed by eating human flesh, giving Heracles the opportunity to bind their mouths shut and easily take them back to King Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera. In some versions, they were allowed to roam freely around Argos, having become permanently calm, but in others, Eurystheus ordered the horses taken to Olympus to be sacrificed to Zeus, but Zeus refused them, and sent wolves, lions, and bears to kill them. Roger Lancelyn Green states in his Tales of the Greek Heroes that the mares’ descendants were used in the Trojan War, and survived even to the time of Alexander the Great. After the incident, Eurystheus sent Heracles to bring back Hippolyta's Girdle.
Main article: Hippolyta
As his ninth labour, Heracles travelled to the land of the Amazons to bring back the Belt of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. According to Apollodorus, the belt was gifted to Hippolyta by her father Ares, as an emblem of her position as queen. In his account, Eurystheus set Heracles the task because his daughter Admete wanted to have the belt for herself. In earlier sources, however, the purpose of the labour was seemingly for Heracles to overcome the Amazons, with Eurystheus requiring the belt as evidence of his success.
Accompanied by a group of companions, Heracles set sail for the land of Amazons, which was generally believed to be along the shore at the southern end of the Black Sea. Sources vary on who came with him: Hellanicus states that he was accompanied by all of the Argonauts, while Pindar mentions that Peleus came on the voyage, Philochorus considered Theseus to have been his companion, and an early Corinthian vase shows Iolaus and another figure named Pasimelon by his side. The number of ships they leave in also varies: Apollodorus says they went in a single ship, while Herodotus states that there were three, and in a late account there were nine. Apollodorus relates that on the way to Themiscryra, where the Amazons lived, he and his crew stopped at the island of Paros, where several of the sons of Minos lived; when these sons killed two of Heracles' companions, he retaliated by murdering them. When he began threatening others, he was offered two of Minos' grandchildren, Alcaeus and Sthenelus, who he took into his crew. Continuing on their voyage, they next arrived at the court of Lycus in Mysia; in a battle between Lycus and King Mygdon of Bebryces, Heracles killed the rival king and gained land from the Bebryces, and gifted it to Lycus, who named it Heraclea.
All would have gone well for Heracles had it not been for Hera. Hippolyta, impressed with Heracles and his exploits, agreed to give him the belt and would have done so had Hera not disguised herself and walked among the Amazons sowing seeds of distrust. She claimed the strangers were plotting to carry off the queen of the Amazons. Alarmed, the warrior women set off on horseback to confront Heracles. When Heracles saw them, he thought Hippolyta had been plotting such treachery all along and had never meant to hand over the belt, so he killed her, took the belt and returned to Eurystheus.
Main article: Geryon
The tenth labour was to obtain the Cattle of the three-bodied giant Geryon. In Apollodorus' account, Heracles had to go to the island of Erytheia in the far west. On the way he became so frustrated at the heat that he aimed an arrow at the Sun. The sun-god Helios, impressed by his audacity, gave Heracles the golden cup that Helios used to sail across the sea from west to east each night. Heracles took the cup and rode it to Erytheia.
When Heracles landed at Erytheia, he was confronted by the two-headed dog Orthrus. With one blow from his olive-wood club, Heracles killed Orthrus. Eurytion the herdsman came to assist Orthrus, but Heracles dealt with him the same way.
On hearing the commotion, Geryon sprang into action, carrying three shields and three spears, and wearing three helmets. He attacked Heracles at the River Anthemus, but was slain by one of Heracles' poisoned arrows. Heracles shot so forcefully that the arrow pierced Geryon's forehead, "and Geryon bent his neck over to one side, like a poppy that spoils its delicate shapes, shedding its petals all at once."
Heracles then had to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus. In Roman versions of the narrative, Heracles drove the cattle over the Aventine Hill on the future site of Rome. The giant Cacus, who lived there, stole some of the cattle as Heracles slept, making the cattle walk backwards so that they left no trail, a repetition of the trick of the young Hermes. According to some versions, Heracles drove his remaining cattle past the cave, where Cacus had hidden the stolen animals, and they began calling out to each other. In other versions, Cacus' sister Caca told Heracles where he was. Heracles then killed Cacus, and set up an altar on the spot, later the site of Rome's Forum Boarium (the cattle market).
To annoy Heracles, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them, and scatter them. Within a year, Heracles retrieved them. Hera then sent a flood which raised the level of a river so much that Heracles could not cross with the cattle. He piled stones into the river to make the water shallower. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.
Main article: Hesperides
After Heracles completed the first ten labours, Eurystheus gave him two more, claiming that slaying the Hydra did not count (because Iolaus helped Heracles), neither did cleaning the Augean Stables (either because he was paid for the job or because the rivers did the work).
The first additional labour was to steal three of the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. Heracles first caught the Old Man of the Sea, the shapeshifting sea god, to learn where the Garden of the Hesperides was located.
In some variations, Heracles, either at the start or at the end of this task, meets Antaeus, who was invincible as long as he touched his mother, Gaia, the Earth. Heracles killed Antaeus by holding him aloft and crushing him in a bear hug.
Herodotus claims that Heracles stopped in Egypt, where King Busiris decided to make him the yearly sacrifice, but Heracles burst out of his chains.
Heracles finally made his way to the garden of the Hesperides, where he encountered Atlas holding up the heavens on his shoulders. Heracles persuaded Atlas to get the three golden Apples for him by offering to hold up the heavens in his place for a little while. Atlas could get the apples because, in this version, he was the father or otherwise related to the Hesperides. When Atlas returned, he decided that he did not want to take the heavens back, and instead offered to deliver the apples himself, but Heracles tricked him by agreeing to remain in place of Atlas on the condition that Atlas relieve him temporarily while Heracles adjusted his cloak. Atlas agreed, but Heracles reneged and walked away with the apples. According to an alternative version, Heracles slew Ladon, the dragon who guarded the apples, instead. Eurystheus was furious that Heracles had accomplished something that Eurystheus thought could not possibly be done.
Main article: Cerberus
The twelfth and final labour was the capture of Cerberus, the multi-headed dog that was the guardian of the gates of the Underworld. To prepare for his descent into the Underworld, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries. He entered the Underworld, and Hermes and Athena were his guides.
While in the Underworld, Heracles met Theseus and Pirithous. The two companions had been imprisoned by Hades for attempting to kidnap his wife Persephone. One tradition tells of snakes coiling around their legs, then turning into stone. Another that Hades feigned hospitality and prepared a feast inviting them to sit; they unknowingly sat in chairs of forgetfulness and were permanently ensnared. When Heracles had pulled Theseus first from his chair, some of his thigh stuck to it (this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians), but the Earth shook at the attempt to liberate Pirithous, whose desire to have the goddess for himself was so insulting he was doomed to stay behind.
Heracles found Hades and asked permission to bring Cerberus to the surface, which Hades agreed to if Heracles could subdue the beast without using weapons. Heracles overpowered Cerberus with his bare hands and slung the beast over his back. He carried Cerberus out of the Underworld through a cavern entrance in the Peloponnese and brought it to Eurystheus, who again fled into his pithos. Eurystheus begged Heracles to return Cerberus to the Underworld, offering in return to release him from any further labours when Cerberus disappeared back to his master.
After completing the twelve labours, one tradition says that Heracles joined Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. However, Herodorus (c. 400 BC) disputed this and denied that Heracles ever sailed with the Argonauts. According to a separate tradition (e.g., Argonautica) Heracles accompanied the Argonauts but did not travel with them as far as Colchis.
According to Euripides's play Herakles, it is at this point after his labours are completed and he is returning home to meet his wife and family that Heracles is driven mad and kills them, after which he is exiled from Thebes and leaves for Athens.
Some ancient Greeks found allegorical meanings of a moral, psychological or philosophical nature in the Labours of Heracles. This trend became more prominent in the Renaissance. For example, Heraclitus the Grammarian wrote in his Homeric Problems:
I turn to Heracles. We must not suppose he attained such power in those days as a result of his physical strength. Rather, he was a man of intellect, an initiate in heavenly wisdom, who, as it were, shed light on philosophy, which had been hidden in deep darkness. The most authoritative of the Stoics agree with this account.... The (Erymanthian) boar which he overcame is the common incontinence of men; the (Nemean) lion is the indiscriminate rush towards improper goals; in the same way, by fettering irrational passions he gave rise to the belief that he had fettered the violent (Cretan) bull. He banished cowardice also from the world, in the shape of the hind of Ceryneia. There was another "labor" too, not properly so called, in which he cleared out the mass of dung (from the Augean stables) — in other words, the foulness that disfigures humanity. The (Stymphalian) birds he scattered are the windy hopes that feed our lives; the many-headed hydra that he burned, as it were, with the fires of exhortation, is pleasure, which begins to grow again as soon as it is cut out.— Donald Andrew Russell, David Konstan, Heraclitus: Homeric Problems 33 (2005)
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