Hercules - Greek Mythology - Labors of Hercules
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Baby Hercules
Hercules as a baby

You might think you already know all about Hercules (the Greeks called him Herakles) from watching the Disney movie, but if you read this you'll see that the Greeks told this story very differently!

According to the Greeks, Hercules was the son of a woman named Alcmene and the god Zeus. He was a great hero, and very strong. Even when he was only a few days old, Hercules was very strong. The goddess Hera was angry, because Zeus was her husband and she didn't want him to have children with other women. So she sent two huge snakes to strangle the little baby. But Hercules just sat up and grabbed those snakes and strangled them!

When Hercules was still a little boy, he got into trouble with another god, Apollo.

woman looking sad and a man with a club
Hercules goes nuts on Megara and a kid
(from Lusitania, modern Portugal)

But when Hercules grew up, he was really the strongest man in the world. He married a woman named Megara and they had two children, whom he loved very much. But Hera was still angry at Hercules. One day she sent a madness on him, so that he went crazy. He was so crazy that he killed his own children, and also his wife Megara.

When Hera let Hercules come to his senses, he screamed, "What have I done?!" He needed to find some way for the gods to forgive him for this terrible crime. He went to Delphi and asked Apollo what to do. Apollo said the gods would forgive Hercules if he did twelve hard jobs for Eurystheus (YER-iss-THEY-oos), the king of Argos - we call these the twelve labors of Hercules.

Not all the Greeks agreed on exactly what the twelve labors were, or what order they came in. So if you include them all, there are more than twelve labors. They are:

  1. Nemean Lion (most people agreed that this one came first)
  2. Hydra
  3. Keryneian Stag
  4. Erymanthian Boar
  5. Augean Stables
  6. Stymphalian Birds
  7. Cretan Bull
  8. Diomedes' Mares
  9. Hippolyta's Belt
  10. Geryon's Cattle
  11. Antaeus
  12. Golden Apples of the Hesperides
  13. Cerberos

(Notice how much trouble Hercules has with snakes? That's because his main enemy is Hera, and she's an Earth goddess so snakes like her).

Here's a video showing some of Hercules' labors.

When Hercules was done with the twelve labors, Apollo said he was free again, he was done being sorry for having killed his wife and children. In addition, for doing all those labors, he was going to be a god after he died!

centaur carries a woman while a man lifts a club
Nessus kidnaps Deianira (Athens, ca. 420 BC,
now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Hercules married another woman, Deianira (day-ann-EYE-rah), and they were happy for a short time. But then a bad centaur, Nessus, kidnapped Deianira. Hercules got Deianira back, of course, and shot Nessus dead with an arrow. As he was dying, Nessus told Deianira that if she smeared his blood on Hercules it would make Hercules love Deianira forever. Deianira smeared the blood all over Hercules' new cloak, and then she gave it to Hercules as a present. But when Hercules put on the cloak, the centaur's blood began to burn him all over! It turned out to be a poison really. Hercules suffered and suffered, and could not find a way to stop the burning. Finally he decided to kill himself and end the pain. He went up to Mt. Olympos and became a god.

Learn by doing: check out some snakes
More about Hercules

Bibliography and further reading about Hercules:

Twelve Labors of Hercules (Step into Reading, Step 3), by Marc Cerasini. Very easy, for beginning readers.

The Story of Hercules (Dover Children's Thrift Classics), by Robert Blaisdell (1997). , very cheap.

Hercules, by Nancy Loewen (1999). Still for kids, but more sophisticated, with a look at how the myth was passed on and what it meant to people, as well as the story itself.

D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire. (Look under Heracles).

The Myths of Herakles in Ancient Greece, by Mark W. Padilla (1998). By a specialist, for adults.

More about Hercules
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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