Greek and Roman Mythology > Hercules


Hercules (in Greek, Heracles) was the son of Jupiter and Alemena.
As Juno was always hostile to the offspring of her husband by
mortal mothers, she declared war against Hercules from his birth.
She sent two serpents to destroy him as he lay in his cradle, but
the precocious infant strangled them with his own hands. (On
this account the infant Hercules was made the type of infant
America, by Dr. Franklin, and the French artists whom he employed
in the American Revolution. Horatio Greenough has placed a bas-
relief of the Infant Hercules on the pedestal of his statue of
Washington, which stands in front of the Capitol.) He was
however by the arts of Juno rendered subject to his cousin
Eurystheus and compelled to perform all his commands. Eurystheus
enjoined upon him a succession of desperate adventures, which are
called the twelve "Labors of Hercules." The first was the fight
with the Nemean lion. The valley of Nemea was infested by a
terrible lion. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the skin
of this monster. After using in vain his club and arrows against
the lion, Hercules strangled the animal with his hands. He
returned carrying the dead lion on his shoulders; but Eurystheus
was so frightened at the sight of it and at this proof of the
prodigious strength of the hero, that he ordered him to deliver
the account of his exploits in future outside the town.

His next labor was to slaughter the Hydra. This monster ravaged
the country of Argos, and dwelt in a swamp near the well of
Amymone, of which the story is that when the country was
suffering from drought, Neptune, who loved her, had permitted her
to touch the rock with his trident, and a spring of three outlets
burst forth. Here the Hydra took up his position, and Hercules
was sent to destroy him. The Hydra had nine heads, of which the
middle one was immortal. Hercules struck off its head with his
club, but in the place of the head knocked off, two new ones grew
forth each time. At length with the assistance of his faithful
servant Iolaus, he burned away the heads of the Hydra, and buried
the ninth or immortal one under a huge rock.

Another labor was the cleaning of the Augean stables. Augeas,
king of Elis, had a herd of three thousand oxen, whose stalls had
not been cleansed for thirty years. Hercules brought the rivers
Alpheus and Peneus through them, and cleansed them thoroughly in
one day.

His next labor was of a more delicate kind. Admeta, the daughter
of Eurystheus, longed to obtain the girdle of the queen of the
Amazons, and Eurystheus ordered Hercules to go and get it. The
Amazons were a nation of women. They were very warlike and held
several flourishing cities. It was their custom to bring up only
the female children; the boys were either sent away to the
neighboring nations or put to death. Hercules was accompanied by
a number of volunteers, and after various adventures at last
reached the country of the Amazons. Hippolyta, the queen,
received him kindly, and consented to yield him her girdle; but
Juno, taking the form of an Amazon, went among the other Amazons
and persuaded them that the strangers were carrying off their
queen. The Amazons instantly armed and came in great numbers
down to the ship. Hercules, thinking that Hippolyta had acted
treacherously, slew her, and taking her girdle, made sail

Another task enjoined him was to bring to Eurystheus the oxen of
Geryon, a monster with three bodies who dwelt in the island
Erytheia (the red), so called because it lay at the west, under
the rays of the setting sun. This description is thought to
apply to Spain, of which Geryon was said to be king. After
traversing various countries, Hercules reached at length the
frontiers of Libya and Europe, where he raised the two mountains
of Calpe and Abyla, as monuments of his progress, or according to
another account rent one mountain into two and left half on each
side, forming the Straits of Gibraltar, the two mountains being
called the Pillars of Hercules. The oxen were guarded by the
giant Eurytion and his two-headed dog, but Hercules killed the
giant and his dog and brought away the oxen in safety to

The most difficult labor of all was bringing the golden apples of
the Hesperides, for Hercules did not know where to find them.
These were the apples which Juno had received at her wedding from
the goddess of the Earth, and which she had intrusted to the
keeping of the daughters of Hesperis, assisted by a watchful
dragon. After various adventures Hercules arrived at Mount Atlas
in Africa. Atlas was one of the Titans who had warred against
the gods, and after they were subdued, Atlas was condemned to
bear on his shoulders the weight of the heavens. He was the
father of the Hesperides, and Hercules thought, might, if any one
could, find the apples and bring them to him. But how to send
Atlas away from his post, or bear up the heavens while he was
gone? Hercules took the burden on his own shoulders, and sent
Atlas to seek the apples. He returned with them, and though
somewhat reluctantly, took his burden upon his shoulders again,
and let Hercules return with the apples to Eurystheus. (Hercules
was a descendant of Perseus. Perseus changed Atlas to stone.
How could Hercules take his place? This is only one of the many
anachronisms found in ancient mythology.)

Milton in his Comus makes the Hesperides the daughters of
Hesperus, and nieces of Atlas:

"----- amidst the gardens fair
Of Hesperus and his daughters three,
That sing about the golden tree."

The poets, led by the analogy of the lovely appearance of the
western sky at sunset, viewed the west as a region of brightness
and glory. Hence they placed in it the Isles of the blest, the
ruddy isle Erytheia, on which the bright oxen of Geryon were
pastured, and the isle of the Hesperides. The apples are
supposed by some to be the oranges of Spain, of which the Greeks
had heard some obscure accounts.

A celebrated exploit of Hercules was his victory over Antaeus.
Antaeus, the son of Terra (the Earth) was a mighty giant and
wrestler, whose strength was invincible so long as he remained in
contact with his mother Earth. He compelled all strangers who
came to his country to wrestle with him, on condition that if
conquered (as they all were), they should be put to death.
Hercules encountered him, and finding that it was of no avail to
throw him, for he always rose with renewed strength from every
fall, he lifted him up from the earth and strangled him in the

Cacus was a huge giant, who inhabited a cave on Mount Aventine
(one of the seven hills of Rome), and plundered the surrounding
country. When Hercules was driving home the oxen of Geryon,
Cacus stole part of the cattle, while the hero slept. That their
foot-prints might not serve to show where they had been driven,
he dragged them backward by their tails to his cave; so their
tracks all seemed to show that they had gone in the opposite
direction. Hercules was deceived by this stratagem, and would
have failed to find his oxen, if it had not happened that in
driving the remainder of the herd past the cave where the stolen
ones were concealed, those within began to low, and were thus
discovered. Cacus was slain by Hercules.

The last exploit we shall record was bringing Cerberus from the
lower world. Hercules descended into Hades, accompanied by
Mercury and Minerva. He obtained permission from Pluto to carry
Cerberus to the upper air, provided he could do it without the
use of weapons; and in spite of the monster's struggling he
seized him, held him fast, and carried him to Eurystheus, and
afterwards brought him back again. When he was in Hades he
obtained the liberty of Theseus, his admirer and imitator, who
had been detained a prisoner there for an unsuccessful attempt to
carry off Proserpine.

Hercules in a fit of madness killed his friend Iphitus and was
condemned for this offence to become the slave of Queen Omphale
for three years. While in this service the hero's nature seemed
changed. He lived effeminately, wearing at times the dress of a
woman, and spinning wool with the handmaidens of Omphale, while
the queen wore his lion's skin. When this service was ended he
married Dejanira and lived in peace with her three years. On one
occasion as he was travelling with his wife, they came to a
river, across which the Centaur Nessus carried travellers for a
stated fee. Hercules himself forded the river, but gave Dejanira
to Nessus to be carried across. Nessus attempted to run away
with her, but Hercules heard her cries, and shot an arrow into
the heart of Nessus. The dying Centaur told Dejanira to take a
portion of his blood and keep it, as it might be used as a charm
to preserve the love of her husband.

Dejanira did so, and before long fancied she had occasion to use
it. Hercules in one of his conquests had taken prisoner a fair
maiden, named Iole, of whom he seemed more fond than Dejanira
approved. When Hercules was about to offer sacrifices to the
gods in honor of his victory, he sent to his wife for a white
robe to use on the occasion. Dejanira, thinking it a good
opportunity to try her love-spell, steeped the garment in the
blood of Nessus. We are to suppose she took care to wash out all
traces of it, but the magic power remained, and as soon as the
garment became warm on the body of Hercules, the poison
penetrated into all his limbs and caused him the most intense
agony. In his frenzy he seized Lichas, who had brought him the
fatal robe, and hurled him into the sea. He wrenched off the
garment, but it stuck to his flesh, and with it he tore away
whole pieces of his body. In this state he embarked on board a
ship and was conveyed home. Dejanira on seeing what she had
unwittingly done, hung herself. Hercules, prepared to die,
ascended Mount OEta, where he built a funeral pile of trees, gave
his bow and arrows to Philoctetes, and laid himself down on the
pile, his head resting on his club, and his lion's skin spread
over him. With a countenance as serene as if he were taking his
place at a festal board, he commanded Philoctetes to apply the
torch. The flames spread apace and soon invested the whole mass.

Milton thus alludes to the frenzy of Hercules:

"As when Alcides (Alcides, a name of Hercules; the word means
"descendant of Alcaeus"), from OEchalia crowned
With conquest, felt the envenomed robe, and tore,
Through pain, up by the roots Thessalian pines
And Lichas from the top of OEta threw
Into the Euboic Sea."

The gods themselves felt troubled at seeing the champion of the
earth so brought to his end; but Jupiter with cheerful
countenance thus addressed them; "I am pleased to see your
concern, my princes, and am gratified to perceive that I am the
ruler of a loyal people, and that my son enjoys your favor. For
although your interest in him arises from his noble deeds, yet it
is not the less gratifying to me. But now I say to you, Fear
not. He who conquered all else is not to be conquered by those
flames which you see blazing on Mount OEta. Only his mother's
share in him can perish; what he derived from me is immortal. I
shall take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I
require of you all to receive him kindly. If any of you feel
grieved at his attaining this honor, yet no one can deny that he
has deserved it." The gods all gave their assent; Juno only
heard the closing words with some displeasure that she should be
so particularly pointed at, yet not enough to make her regret the
determination of her husband. So when the flames had consumed
the mother's share of Hercules, the diviner part, instead of
being injured thereby, seemed to start forth with new vigor, to
assume a more lofty port and a more awful dignity. Jupiter
enveloped him in a cloud, and took him up in a four-horse chariot
to dwell among the stars. As he took his place in heaven, Atlas
felt the added weight.

Juno, now reconciled to him, gave him her daughter Hebe in

The poet Schiller, in one of his pieces called the Ideal and
Life, illustrates the contrast between the practical and the
imaginative in some beautiful stanzas, of which the last two may
be thus translated:

"Deep degraded to a coward's slave,
Endless contests bore Alcides brave,
Through the thorny path of suffering led;
Slew the Hydra, crushed the lion's might,
Threw himself, to bring his friend to light,
Living, in the skiff that bears the dead.
All the torments, every toil of earth
Juno's hatred on him could impose,
Well he bore them, from his fated birth
To life's grandly mournful close.
Till the god, the earthly part forsaken,
>From the man in flames asunder taken,
Drank the heavenly ether's purer breath.
Joyous in the new unwonted lightness,
Soared he upwards to celestial brightness,
Earth's dark heavy burden lost in death.
High Olympus gives harmonious greeting
To the hall where reigns his sire adored;
Youth's bright goddess, with a blush at meeting,
Gives the nectar to her lord."
S. G. Bulfinch

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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