Hercules: An All Time Hero!

Hercules as a young man


Hercules (or Heracles as he is better known by the Greeks), was the greatest, most glorious and best loved of all heroes of Greek Mythology. Although his myths revolved around Thebes or Argos , the tales of his exploits were known throughout the ancient Greek world.

A national hero of the Dorians, Hercules is a purely greek hero who represents human power to tame nature - a power that is nonetheless combined with benevolence and justice, and is thus able to free humankind from its torments.

The hero was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. After his death, he ascended to Mount Olympus and became a god. His cult was spread throughout the Greek world as the Dorians expanded their domain.

Click on the following links to go directly to the relevant chapter:

Birth and Childhood

The hero's training

Marriage and Madness

The Twelve Labors

Thrown Into Slavery

The Trojan Campaign

The Olympic Games

The tragic death and apotheosis

Birth and Childhood

Hercules's family origin comes from Argos, since his mother was Alcmene, daughter of the Mycenaean king Electryon (the son of Perseus and Andromeda). Alcmene was married to her cousin Amphitryon whose father Alcedes was also a son of Perseus and Andromeda. Alcmene and Amphitryon had been forced to flee Argos because Amphitryon had killed his father-in-law. The family thus settled in Thebes. There, Zeus came to earth and disguised as gold snow, lay with Alcmene, who became pregnant. By a slightly different version, Zeus impersonated Amphitryon - who was away fighting the Taphians- and seduced Alcmene, whom he convinced he was truly her husband. Zeus is said to have stayed with Alcmene for three whole nights, which is why the hero is sometimes called triesperos (from tria, or three, and esperos, or evenings). As the myth goes, Zeus had the sun god Helius unharness his chariot for a day. So the world remained dark an extra 24 hours, and Zeus romanced Alcmene for the length of a 36 hour night.

The next day, when the real Amphitryon returned, learned what had happened from the seer Teiresias. Amphitryon and Alcmene also lay together on his return and from the union, Iphicles was conceived.

Just before the hero was born, Hera overheard Zeus bragging that a son of his blood would be born that day, who would rule over the house of Perseus . Having received Zeus's assurance that this would be true, Hera then delayed Alcmene's labor and shortened by two months the pregnancy of the wife of Sthenelus, who was also a descendant of Perseus. Thus, the prematurely born Eurystheus was born first and became king of the Mycenaenans.

One of the mythological accounts that mentions Alcmene's difficulties while in labor, says Hera had sent the childbirth goddess Eileithyia to sit cross-legged in Alcmene's room (the ancient Greeks believed that sitting cross-legged prevented childbirth). But then, a childhood friend of Alcmene's, Galanthis, tricked Eileithyia by opening the door to the room and announcing that Alcmene is giving birth to a son, by the will of Zeus. Panic stricken, Eileithyia rose from her position and thus the spell was broken. Alcmene then went immediately into labor and gave birth to Hercules and his twin brother, Iphicles.

Hera did not rest after the hero's birth and relentlessly pursued the infant in an attempt to kill him. When the baby was eight months old, she sent two enormous snakes to stangle him. As soon as Iphicles saw the snakes, he was terrified and began to wail. His brother, however, grabbed them by the neck and choked them

According to a different myth, in an attempt to trigger motherly insticts on Hera, Zeus enlisted the aid of Athena to trick Hera into suckling the infant. Athena found the infant outside the walls of Thebes, where Alcmene had abandoned him in fear of Hera's jealousy. Athena showed the child to Hera and urged the goddess to take pity on the neglected infant. Without thinking, Hera bared her breast to the baby, but he sucked with such force that she tore him from her breast. The milk that spurted from the breast across the sky, is the Milky Way .

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The hero's training

Amphitryon and Alcmene made various arrangements for the education of their child, whom they had initially named Alcaeus:

  • Linos, a son of Apollo, tutored him in music and taught him to read and write.
  • Amphitryon taught him how to drive a chariot.
  • Autolycus, son of Hermes and a notorious thief, taught him how to wrestle.
  • Eurytus, king of Oeschalia and a renowned bowman, taught him archery.
  • Castor, a renowned horseman, tutored him in combat strategy, cavalry tactics and in the art of fencing.
  • Cheiron, one of the Centaurs (half human, half horse creatures)taught him to be virtuous and fair.
.But one day, the young Hercules was angered when admonished by Linos, so he threw an object at his tutor. Linos was killed on the spot and Amphitryon, fearing a similar fate, sent Hercules off to Mount Cithaeron.

Hercules reached manhood on the mountain. He grew to four pychis (about twelve feet)tall and became very strong.

After completing his training, Hercules received warfare gifts from some of the Olympian gods:

  • Zeus gave him an unbreakable shield, made by Hephaestus
  • Athena gave him a helmet and a coat of arms.
  • Apollo gave him a bow and a quiver.
  • Hermes , gave him a sword.
  • Hephaestus, provided him a golden breastplate and protective footwear.
  • Poseidon , offered him a beautiful team of horses.
As Prodicus, one of the sophists or traveling teachers that flourished in Athens writes, during this period the hero chose the long and rough path of Virtue rather than the easy and hedonistic path of Evil.

When Hercules turned eighteen, he fathered his first child with one of Thespius's, king of Thespia, fifty daughters. The king of Thespiae extended his hospitality to Hercules for fifty nights, sending a different daughter to his bed each night, even though he mistakenly thought he was sleeping with the same woman. Thespius explained his actions by stating that he wanted all of his daughters to bear a child by the son of Zeus.

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Marriage and Madness

On his way back to Thebes from Mount Cithaeron, the hero ran into the emissaries of Erginus, king of Orchomenus, who were on their way to Thebes to collect the annual tax of one hundred cattle imposed on the Thebans, after their defeat by the Minyans of Orchomenus. Hercules cut off their noses and ears, tied their hands and sent them back to Erginus, with the message that this was his response to their demand.

This insult triggered a war between Orchomenus and Thebes, during which both Erginus and Amphitryon were killed. Thanks to Hercules and the support of the goddess Athena, the Thebans won and were thus released from having to pay this hefty duty. In return for his assistance, Creon, the king of Thebes, gave the hero the hand of his daughter Megara, while his brother Iphicles, married Megara's sister and Alcmene married Rhadamanthys.

Hercules acquired many children from his marriage to Megara. But Hera, whose jealousy had not subsided, drove him insane so that in a crazed fit he threw all of his children and two of his brother's children into the fire.

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The Twelve Labors

When he came to his senses and realized what he had done, he left Thebes and went to Thespiae to be purified in Boeotia. He then went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek Apollo's advice on what he should do and where he should settle.

Pythia called him Hercules - the hero had been known as Alcaeus until then- and ordered him to go to Mycenae to serve Eurystheus for twelve years, executing whichever commands he was given. The oracle assured the hero that after completing these tasks, he would become immortal. Eurystheus, of course, was none other than the son of Sthenelus, whose birth Hera had expedited after making Zeus swear that he would rule all the peoples around him.According to the ancient writing of Apollodorus the Athenian, all of the twelve labors were completed in eight years and one month. Click here to find a detailed account of the hero's twelve labors.

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Thrown Into Slavery

After completing his twelfth labor, Hercules was free. He returned to Thebes where he married off his wife Megara to Iolaus and left for Oechalia.

Eurytus, who was the hero's tutor in archery, was king in Oechalia. He declared that he would give the hand of his beautiful blonde daughter Iole as a prize to anyone who would compete against him and defeat him in archery.The hero defeated Eurytus, but the king refused to keep his promise and threw the hero out of his kingdom. Hercules then went to Tiryns. There he met Eurytus son, Iphitus. The king's son demanded that the hero return Eurytus's cattle, as the king was convinced that he had stolen them. Angered, Hercules threw Iphitus off the walls of Tiryns.

After this murder, the hero went to Delphi to be purified, but Apollo condemned him to be sold as a slave. The money earned would be given to Eurytus as compensation for his son's death.Hercules was sold by Hermes to the queen of the Lydians, Omphale for three years. During this time, he performed several feats:

  • He captured midget-thieves Cercopes;
  • he killed Syleus who forced strangers to work in his vineyards;
  • he tossed the giant Lytiersus, son of Midas, into the river Maenander because the giant killed strangers after forcing them to plow his fields.

Omphale admired the hero's daring and courage, so she freed him earlier than the time they had agreed he would remain in her service. According to the latin poets, Hercules became soft living with the Lydian queen and succumbed to various pleasures, such as wearing women's garments while Omphale wore his famed lion's pelt.

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The Trojan Campaign

Some writers claim the hero set off for Troy after completing his ninth labor -retrieving Hippolyte's belt- while others claim he set off for Troy after being granted his freedom by Omphale. The cause of his war against Troy was the refusal of king Laodemon to compensate Apollo and Poseidon for the construction of the city's wall. The two gods were enraged and punished him: Apollo sent the plague and Poseidon sent a sea monster that devoured the citizens of Troy. Laomedon sought advice from oracles, which suggested that Laodemon sacrifice his daughter Hesione to Poseidon to appease the sea god. Thus, the young woman was tied to a rock to await her end.

Hercules appeared at that very moment. He promised her father that he would kill the sea monster and free Hesione, but requested in exchange that Laomedon would give him the magnificent horses the king had received from Zeus, as compensation for the abduction of Ganymede. Laodemon agreed and the hero killed the monster and saved Hesione. But then the king forfeited on his promise. Hercules was enraged and thus he went to war against Troy. After defeating the city, he gave Hesione as a trophy to Telamon, who had entered the city first. Telamon allowed the girl to choose one of her compatriots to take with her. Hesione chose her brother Priam and purchased his freedom with a golden veil. She then married Telamon and bore him a son, Teucer.

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The Olympic Games

After the adventure in Troy, Hercules went to war against Elis and king Augeias seeking vengeance for the king's refusal to honor a promise to pay him a fee for cleaning the stables.

Hercules killed the king and his sons. He then went to Olympia where he organized a foot race with a kotinos, or wreath of wild olive branches, as the prize. He thus founded the Olympic Games and raised temples dedicated to the twelve gods of Mount Olympus and the hero Pelops.

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The tragic death and apotheosis

After taking part in so many wars and becoming involved in so many amorous adventures, the hero went to Aetolia to seek the hand of Deianeira, daughter of king Oeneus of Calydon.

After defeating the river god Achelous who was his rival for Deianeira's hand, Hercules married his love. The couple lived for a while in Calydon, where they had their first son, Hyllus. However, after the hero's campaign against the Thesprotians and the accidental murder of Eunomus, a relative of his father-in-law, the family was forced to move to Trachis near king Ceyx.

On the way to Trachis, they came to the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus would ferry travelers across for a fee. Hercules asked the centaur to take Deianeira across while he swam. But halfway across the river, the centaur tried to rape Deianeira. As soon as the hero realized this, he shot Nessus with an arrow, mortally wounding him. Before dying, Nessus told Deianeira to collect his sperm and blood and smear them on her husband's tunic, to ensure his life-long fidelity and love. Being naive and in love, Deianeira believed him and created, as she would soon find out, a lethal potion.

At Trachis, Hercules helped his friend Ceyx, in his fight against the Dryopes who had settled the slopes of Mount Oeta. He also helped the Dorian king Aegimius, against the Lapiths and killed king Amyntor in a duel that took place in Thessaly. He then raised an army and struck out against Eurytus, who many years ago forfeited on his promise to give Hercules the hand of his daughter Iole. As a consequence, Eurytus and his sons were killed and Iole was taken as a prisoner.

On the journey home, the hero made a stopover on Cape Cenaeum in northwestern Euboea, where he built an altar, in order to make a sacrifice to his father Zeus. For this purpose he sent his assistant Lichas to Trachis to bring him a white tunic. Learning that her husband had Iole with him, Deianeira became crazed with jealousy and decided to win back his love. She thus used to potion that Nessus gave her.

Back at the altar, as soon as the garment warmed to the touch of the hero's skin, the centaur's poisonous blood entered his body. Seared by pain, Hercules flung Lichas into the sea as he tried to tear the tunic off, but the venom had seeped into his skin. He was then taken back to Trachis. Seeing what she had done, Deianeira commited suicide. Hercules ordered his son Hyllus to marry Iole and then climbed Mount Oeta where he collected timber for the funerary pyre. Once the pyre was lit and the flames started to engulf the hero, a cloud came down from the sky and the pyre was struck by a lightning bolt, which snatched Hercules.

The hero was thus raised to Mount Olympus, where he became immortal. There, he was finally reconciled with Hera and married her daughter Hebe, with whom he had two sons: Alexiaris and Anicetus.






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