Heracles – or Hercules as he has been more popularly known ever since the Roman times – was the greatest of all Greek heroes, “one who surpassed all men of whom memory from the beginning of time has brought down an account.” A half-god of superhuman strength and violent passions, Heracles was the epitome of bravery and masculinity in the ancient world and the most notable champion of the Olympian order, which he staunchly protected from various chthonic monsters and earthly villains. Even though his short temper and lack of composure did cause both him and quite a few innocent mortals undeserved trouble, the magnitude of his labors was of such an order that it earned him the prize of immortality. The protagonist of hundreds of myths – the chronology of which is impossible to figure out – Heracles is undoubtedly one of the most iconic figures in all of Greek mythology.
Birth and Childhood
A demigod sired by Zeus, Heracles showed immense promise ever since birth: he strangled two snakes sent by Hera in his cradle. He had the very best teachers in his childhood, and by the time he reached his teenage years, he had already outdone all of them in both stature and strength.
As is almost typical in the case of heroes, Heracles was the product of a union of a mortal woman (Alcmene) and a god (Zeus). In Heracles’ case, even his mother was of a noteworthy parentage: Alcmene was the granddaughter of Perseus, possibly Greece’s greatest hero before Heracles.
Disguised as her husband Amphitryon, Zeus slept with Alcmene on the same night that Amphitryon himself did. Nine months later, Alcmene gave birth to twin sons: Iphicles to her husband and Heracles to Zeus. Angry at Zeus’ infidelity – and not knowing which of Alcmene's boys was Zeus’ – Hera secretly put two snakes in the twins’ cradle; Iphicles started crying at the very sight, but Heracles strangled them in an instant. Now, it was suddenly obvious who was the god and who the mortal of the two.
Interestingly enough, the sending of the snakes was not the first misdeed of Hera against Heracles – and it would certainly not be the last. Namely, just before Heracles’ birth, Hera had persuaded Zeus to promise that the next child to be born in the House of Perseus would become a High King – and the following one his servant. Truth be told, it wasn’t that difficult for Hera to convince the Supreme God to make such an oath since that next-to-be-born child should have been Heracles. However, once Zeus gave his word, Hera ordered Eileithyia to delay Heracles’ coming to the world until Eurystheus’ premature birth – an event which would eventually lead to Heracles’ celebrated labors.
Heracles had a number of mentors. His father Amphitryon taught him to drive a chariot; Autolycus, Odysseus’ grandfather, tutored him in wrestling; Eurytus, the king of Oechalia, instructed Heracles in archery; Castor, the mortal Dioscuri twin, trained Heracles in fencing and Harpalycus of Phanotè, a fearsome son of Hermes, in boxing. He acquired the art of writing and learned the secrets of literature from Linus, a Muse’s son, who may have as well taught Heracles the lyre; others say that Heracles’ music-teacher had been, in fact, Eumolpus, the son of Philammon. Either way, Heracles’ education was entrusted to the best of the best; even as a child, Heracles outdid them all.
Heracles’ adventures started in the eighteenth year of his life when he killed the Lion of Cithaeron; an exceptional specimen of manhood and virility, by the time he was nineteen, he had already fathered more than fifty children and bested a whole army!
The Lion of Cithaeron
The Lion of Mount Cithaeron preyed on the flocks of both Amphitryon and Thespius, the king of Thespiae; while staying with the latter, Heracles killed the beast after hunting it ferociously for fifty days straight. Having vanquished the lion, Heracles dressed himself in his skin and ever since then wore the lion’s scalp as his helmet.
Amazed at the boy’s power and determination – and wishing that all of his daughters should have a child by him – night by night, Thespius managed to send each of his fifty daughters to Heracles’ bed. Thinking that his bedfellow was always one and the same, Heracles had intercourse with all of them and fathered at least a child to each.
The Heralds of Erginus
Coming back triumphantly from the hunt, Heracles encountered the heralds of Erginus, sent by the Minyan king to collect the annual Theban tribute of one hundred cows. After learning of their intentions, Heracles – as one of our sources tells us – “cut off their ears and noses and hands, and having fastened them by ropes from their necks, he told them to carry that tribute to Erginus and the Minyans.” Furious, Erginus gathered the Minyan army and marched against Thebes – but instead found his death at the hands of Heracles, who afterward compelled the Minyans to pay double the original tribute to the Thebans.
Out of a profound sense of gratitude, Creon, the Theban king, gave Heracles his eldest daughter Megara, with whom Heracles had at least two and as many as eight children. Either way, after being struck with madness by the jealous Hera, Heracles killed them all. To purify himself from this horrible sin, he was instructed by the Delphic oracle to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, for the next twelve years of his life and carry out all of the tasks he would be imposed with. Initially ten, these would eventually become the famous Twelve Labors of Heracles.
The Twelve Labors of Heracles
Heracles is most famous for a cycle of twelve labors he did while serving his cousin Eurystheus; here these are only listed; you can read more about each of them in the relevant article (Labours of Heracles).
The Initial Ten Labors
1. to kill the Nemean Lion,
2. to kill the Lernaean Hydra,
3. to capture the Ceryneian Hind,
4. to capture the Erymanthian Boar,
5. to clean the stables of Augeas in one day,
6. to kill the Stymphalian Birds,
7. to capture the Cretan Bull,
8. to steal the Mares of Diomedes,
10. to steal the cattle of the monster Geryon.
The Final Two Labors
After Heracles completed the last of these ten labors, Eurystheus gave him two more, since, in his opinion, the second and the fifth one couldn’t accurately count as done by Heracles himself: the hero killed the Hydra with the help of Iolaus and cleaned the Augean stables by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus.
The final two labors Heracles was tasked with were possibly the most dangerous of them all:
11. to steal the Hesperidean Apples,
12. to capture Cerberus, guardian of the Underworld
Heracles’ Other Exploits
Sometimes referred to as Alexikakos – that is, “The Averter of Evil” – Heracles didn’t take any rest even after completing these twelve labors, which would have surely guaranteed him immortality by themselves. In fact, some say that he was busy fighting monsters and villains even in between exhausting exploits, spending basically every spare moment of his life purging the world of evil – even if often he was the one to decide what is evil and what is not. It would be impossible to list – let alone describe – all of Heracles’ endeavors and victims in such a short space – the brief catalog which follows doesn’t do any of them even the slightest bit of justice.
Killing the Prometheus’ Eagle
On his road to the westernmost end of the world where the golden apples of the Hesperides grew, Heracles happened upon the chained Prometheus and shot the giant eagle which had tormented the Titan for centuries; in return, Prometheus gave him instructions on how to get Atlas on his side and effortlessly fetch the golden apples for his eleventh labor.
Busiris, Emathion, and Antaeus
During this same journey, Heracles killed Busiris, the king of Egypt, and Emathion, the king of Arabia; afterward, he defeated the giant Antaeus whom he reared and locked in a bear hug so that he is unable to draw strength from his mother, the Earth – a trait which had practically made him invincible in the past.
Freeing Theseus from Hades
While trying to capture Cerberus from the Underworld, Heracles came across Theseus and Pirithous, eternally glued to two seats in Hades because of their misguided attempt to abduct Persephone; he successfully managed to raise Theseus from his seat and free him, but he was warned by an earthquake to stop there and leave Pirithous behind him.
Murdering Iphithus and Fighting Apollo
After Eurythius, Heracles’ former trainer in archery, declined to give the hero his daughter Iole in marriage – even though Heracles had won her hand fair and square in an archery match – Heracles savagely killed Iphithus, Eurythius’ son and Iole’s brother. Because of the murder, Heracles was afflicted with a terrible disease, so he went to the Oracle of Delphi to get some advice on what to do. When he received no answer, he grabbed the tripod of the Oracle and would have broken it if Apollo hadn’t intervened; a fight broke out between the two and who knows what would have happened if Zeus hadn’t hurled a thunderbolt to separate the mighty opponents.
Now, Heracles got his answer: once again he was supposed to be someone’s servant as an act of expiation for the murder of Iphithus. This time, however, he was the slave of a queen – more specifically the Queen of Lybia, Omphale. While in Omphale’s employ, Heracles did many courageous feats, ranging from the capture of Cecropes to the annihilation of Lybia’s fiercest enemies, the Itones.
About this time, Heracles decided to join the Argonautic expedition. Quite naturally, he was unanimously elected to be the captain of the journey, but he, nevertheless, decided to step down in favor of Jason. Soon after finding out that his beloved Hylas had been kidnapped by nymphs, Heracles left the expedition altogether.
Death and Apotheosis
The Shirt of Nessus
Heracles’ second wife was Deianira, sister of the mighty hero Meleager. Soon after their marriage, Deianira was sinisterly attacked by the Centaur Nessus, whom Heracles subsequently killed with his unerring arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. With his dying breath, Nessus convinced Deianira to take his blood-covered (and, thus, poisonous) shirt and use it as a love-charm for whenever she feels as if her husband is about to be unfaithful. Deianira kept the shirt of Nessus for years before she finally gave it to Heracles, fearing that he has fallen in love with Iole. However, the moment Heracles had put on the shirt on himself, the poison started eating up his flesh, causing the mighty hero such pain that even he was unable to bear it.
The Funeral Pyre
In agony, Heracles built himself a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta and mounted it, waiting for someone to set it alight. Nobody was willing to, but, fortunately, his friend Poeas happened to pass by and, after some convincing, agreed to set light to the pyre. In return, he got Heracles’ bow and arrows. Heracles, on the other hand, was taken up to Olympus, wedded to Hebe, and turned into a deity.
The Ghost of Heracles
However, at least if we are to trust Homer’s account of Odysseus’ descent in the Underworld, it seems that some phantom of the mighty Heracles – probably remnants of his mortal part – did remain stuck in Hades for some time; and even it was formidable enough to cause fear and trembling all around the Underworld.
“About him,” informs us Odysseus in a rather chilling manner, “rose a clamor from the dead, as of birds flying everywhere in terror; and he like dark night, with his bow bare and with arrow on the string, glared about him terribly, like one in act to shoot. Awful was the belt about his breast, a baldric of gold, whereon wondrous things were fashioned, bears and wild boars, and lions with flashing eyes, and conflicts, and battles, and murders, and slayings of men.”
For a relatively brief and nicely structured recounting of Heracles’ life and deeds, consult either or Diodorus Siculus’ “Library of History” or Apollodorus’ “Library” (on which our article above is based). Unsurprisingly, Heracles appears in numerous other sources, and it is difficult to even list them here. Even so, you’ll make no mistake if you spend some time with the great tragedians: Euripides dramatizes Heracles’ madness and his murder of his wife and children in “Heracles,” and Sophocles recounts Heracles’ death in “Women of Trachis.”