Hercules: His 12 Quests
Like Perseus, Hercules was required to perform the miracu-lous. But instead of having to bring only one mission to a successful close, Hercules was ordered to complete twelve great tasks, which are often referred to in literature as “the labors of Hercules.” This is how the challenge came about.
Hercules was the son of Jupiter and Alcmene, daughter of the king of Mycenae. When Hercules was born, Juno in a jealous anger sent two serpents to destroy him in his cradle. But Hercules, even then showing the strength for which he later became famous, strangled them. Juno’s hatred, however, was not easily appeased. She waited until Hercules reached manhood and had achieved some fame; then she placed a spell on him that made him insane. In his fit of madness he slew his wife and children. But he was cured by Minerva and saved by her from shedding more blood. In payment for his crime, for which he had really not been responsible, he was made the servant of his cousin, King Eurystheus of Argos, whose commands he was compelled to obey. (Juno’s hand was in this, too.) Eurystheus thought up twelve tasks that seemed clearly impossible of fu~llment.
The Nemean Lion. Eurystheus first ordered Hercules to kill the Nemean lion, a terrible beast that had defied all would-be captors. The combat between Hercules and the lion was brutal and cruel. .Seeing that his club and arrows were of no avail in the battle, Hercules grasped the lion in his hands and strangled it to death. He returned to Eurystheus, wearing the skin of the lion as a cloak and the head as a helmet.
The Hydra, or Water SerpenL Hercules was ordered next to slay the Hydra, a many-headed water serpent that had taken a heavy toll in the country of Argos. The middle head of the Hydra was immortal, indestructible. Hercules attacked the monster valiantly, but as he struck off one head, two others grew in its place. Hercules realized that he must change his plan of attack. With the assistance of his faithful nephew, he built a huge fire and burnt away the many heads before they could multiply further. The middle head, which was immortal, he buried under a rock.
The Arcadian Stag. Eurystheus commanded Hercules to capture the Arcadian stag, a magnificent beast with antlers of gold and hoofs of brass. Its speed was far beyond that of the swiftest beast known. Hercules pursued it in vain for a year before he succeeded in inflicting a slight wound. Thus handicapped, the stag was captured by Hercules, who carried it, on his shoulders, to his tyrant cousin.
The Boar of Eiymanthus. Like the Hydra and the Nemean lion, a huge boar had been laying waste the peaceful countryside. Eurystheus commanded Hercules to capture the beast. He pursued the boar relentlessly, finally captured it in a huge net, and carried it to his cousin.
The Augean Stables. For thirty years the stables of Augeas, king of Elis, had been neglected. Hercules was commanded to clean these stables, which housed three thousand oxen. He succeeded in doing s~in a single day. How? He simply diverted two rivers so that they them. Juno’s hatred, however, was not easily appeased. She waited until Hercules reached manhood and had achieved some fame; then she placed a spell on him that made him insane. In his fit of madness he slew his wife and children. But he was cured by Minerva and saved by her from shedding more blood. In payment for his crime, for which he had really not been responsible, he was made the servant of his cousin, King Eurystheus of Argos, whose commands he was compelled to obey. (Juno’s hand was in this, too.) Eurystheus thought up twelve tasks that seemed clearly impossible of fulfillment.
The Man-Eating Birds. In Arcadia there lived a strange flock of birds. Their wings, claws, and beaks were of brass and they used their feathers as arrows. Their favorite food being human flesh, they preyed upon the hapless inhabitants of the country. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to destroy these man-eating birds. As the renowned hero approached the flock, he made a noise with a great rattle. The birds took flight, and Hercules, whose prowess as a marksman evidently equaled his strength, was able to slay them as they flew.
The Cretan Bull. The Cretan bull was a magnificent but terrible brute owned by King Minos of Crete. When it got out of control, Hercules was ordered to capture it. Once again, having used his great strength and skill to advantage, Hercules entered the halls of Eurys-theus with a huge beast draped over his broad shoulders!
The Horses of Diomedes. Diomedes, the cruel king of Thrace, fed his horses on human flesh. They were swift, beautiful beasts, but violent and difficult to restrain. Hercules was ordered to snatch them from their owner. He succeeded in capturing them, but Diomedes and his men pursued him. Hercules turned on his pursuers. They fought, and he was victorious. He threw the body of Diomedes to the horses. After they had eaten their master, they became tame, and Hercules had no trouble leading them back to Eurystheus.
The Girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons, a band of warrior women whose reputation for courage was untar-nished. Among the Amazons only female children were raised; the boys were either put to death or given to neighboring tribes. Hercules was ordered to secure the girdle of the warrior queen. Because of Hercules’ great reputation, Hippolyta received him with respect and kindness. She promised to help him by presenting him with the girdle. But again Hercules’ chief foe, Juno, seized an opportunity to cause Hercules difficulty. Disguising herself as an Amazon, she spread a rumor among Hippolyta’s subjects that Hercules was planning to carry off their queen. Enraged by this story, the Amazons attacked Hercules, who, in turn, suspected Hippolyta of treachery. He repulsed the attacks of the warrior women, slew Hippolyta, seized her girdle, and set out for home, once more victorious against great odds.
The Oxen of Geryon. Geryon was a frightful monster with three heads (or, as some accounts put it, three bodies). Armed with mighty weapons and assisted by another giant and his two-headed dog,
Myths ofAncient Greece and Rome29would pass through the stables, cleansing them thoroughly by the flow of clean water. After the stables had been cleaned in this way, he redirected the rivers to their beds.
The Golden Apples. For his eleventh task, Hercules was ordered by Eurystheus to bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides. (The Hesperides were the daughters of Hesperus, god of the West. They were charged by Juno with the care of certain golden apples that had been given her as a wedding present. The apples hung on a tree in the Hesperides’ garden, where they were watched over by a dragon.) Now this task was the most difficult set so far, for Hercules did not know in what part of the world these apples were to be found.He wandered far and wide, seeking inf6rmation from everyone. In the course of his travels, he came upon Prometheus, chained to the mountain), and set him free. In gratitude, Prometheus directed him to Atlas, who, he said, knew where the apples were. (Atlas was one of the Titans who had been on the losing side in the battle with Jupiter. As a penalty he had been ordered to support the heavens forever on his shoulders.) Atlas promised to fetch the golden apples if Hercules would take his place and tem-porarily bear the weight of the sky on his shoulders. Hercules agreed and Atlas went off to keep his part of the bargain. He slew the dragon guarding the apples and plucked them from the tree. While he was returning to Hercules, it occurred to him that freedom was too sweet to relinquish and that it would be nice if someone else were to assume the burden of supporting the heavens, at least for a few centuries. So he stepped up to Hercules and said, slyly, “I’ll take the apples to Eurystheus for you.But Hercules was clever, too. Pretending to accept the proposal, he requested Atlas to resume the burden of the sky just for a moment, so that he, Hercules, could adjust his lion skin as a pad. Atlas agreed, dropped the apples, and groaned as he once again bent over to receivethe weight of the heavens. When the load was safely shifted, Hercules politely thanked Atlas, picked up the apples, and went on his way.
Cerberus, the Guardian of Hades. Eurystheus was desperate, for there was just one more task to be assigned to Hercules. Therefore he devised one that he was sure Hercules would not be able to perform. He commanded Hercules to descend to Hades and to capture Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the land of the dead. Un-daunted, Hercules set out. Assisted by Minerva and Mercury, he reached the throne of Pluto. Pluto agreed to permit him to take Cerberus to the upper world, but only on condition that Hercules use no weapons against the monster. Hercules consented; after a terrible battle, he subdued the beast. He carried Cerberus, snarling and frothing, to Eurystheus, who was so terrified when he saw Cerberus that he begged Hercules to restore the monster to Hades.
Other Exploits. Thus Hercules finished his twelve labors and was allowed to roam the earth at will, once again a free man. But he did not return to a life of ease and quiet. Before his death, he had many more thrilling adventures, among them participation in the quest of the Golden Fleece After his death Hercules was made immortal. The constellation of Hercules forever circles through the sky. Among other constellations associated with the legends of Hercules are Hydra (the water serpent), Leo (the Nemean Lion), and Taurus the Bull (for the oxen of Geryon). Indeed one explanation associates the twelve constellations of the zodiac with the twelve labors.
There is an interesting postscript to the Hercules story. One of the most persistent themes in folktales is the theme of the fatal gift. Someone sends a gift to a supposed friend, but the gift is actually deadly. Sleeping Beauty falls into a long sleep after pricking her finger with a spindle.Snow White eats a poisoned apple and falls down as if dead. Jason’s wife dies after putting on a poisoned wed-ding robe. Hercules, too, suffered from a fatal gift. Here’s how it came about.
Hercules and his wife Deianira were crossing a stream. Nessus was a centaur, half man and half horse. He offered to carry Deianira across, but he tried to kidnap her. Hercules shot the centaur and retrieved his bride. Before his death, however, Nessus told Deianira his blood would forever preserve Hercules’ love. Later, when Hercules fell in love with another, Deianira gave Hercules a shirt that had been steeped in Nessus’ blood. Hercules died in agony but was carried off to be with the immortals.