Hercules and the Leraean Hydra by John Singer Sargant

A Herculean Effort: What Led to the 12 Labors of Hercules and How Did He Succeed?

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Classical mythology is full of heroes but Hercules (known to the Greeks as Heracles) is undoubtedly the most celebrated of them all. Although his heroic life was packed with daring escapades from beginning to end, rescuing maidens in need, fighting immortals and even giants, he was the go to guy when it came to taking care of risky business. Probably his most famous legend is of The Twelve Labors of Hercules, tasks so difficult as to be considered impossible for mortal men and even a demi-god such as he. What were these feats and why was Hercules bound to achieve them?

Hercules is Assigned his 12 Labors

Many stories have been told about the feats performed by this demi-god around the Mediterranean. One of the most renowned of these tales is known as the 12 Labors of Hercules. In brief, these were a set of impossible tasks given to Hercules by Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, who was also the hero’s cousin. These labors were undertaken by Hercules as he wanted to atone for a grievous sin he had committed.

Mosaic with the Labors of Hercules, 3rd century AD, found in Liria (Valencia), National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid

Mosaic with the Labors of Hercules, 3rd century AD, found in Liria (Valencia), National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The story of the 12 Labors begins with the murder of Hercules’ wife, Megara, and their children by the hero himself! This occurred as a result of a temporary madness inflicted upon Hercules by the goddess Hera, who never liked the hero. When Hercules snapped out of his insanity, he was filled with remorse. He consulted the Oracle of Delphi to find out what he could do in order to atone for his crime. The hero was told to go to serve Eurystheus, Hercules’ cousin, and the king of Tiryns, for 12 years. As Hercules considered Eurystheus to be an inferior man to himself, he was not too happy with this arrangement. Still, he was desperate to atone for his heinous acts, and did as he had been directed, and traveled to Tiryns to do whatever was his cousin’s bidding.

Hercules brings Eurystheus the belt of the queen of the Amazons by Daniel Sarrabat

Hercules brings Eurystheus the belt of the queen of the Amazons by Daniel Sarrabat ( Public Domain )

It was Eurystheus who came up with the 12 labors. Initially, the king had decided to give Hercules a series of ten tasks. Later on, however, the king refused to recognise two of the tasks as being completed by the hero. Therefore, Eurystheus gave Hercules two more tasks to perform, hence constituting 12 labors in total. By completing these impossible tasks, Hercules would not only atone for his crime, but would also earn immortality and his rightful place amongst the Olympian gods.

Front panel from a sarcophagus with the Labours of Heracles: from left to right, the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Ceryneian Hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Girdle of Hippolyta, the Augean stables, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes. Luni marble, Roman artwork from the middle 3rd century AD. National Museum of Rome

Front panel from a sarcophagus with the Labours of Heracles : from left to right, the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Ceryneian Hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Girdle of Hippolyta, the Augean stables, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes. Luni marble, Roman artwork from the middle 3rd century AD. National Museum of Rome ( Public Domain )

The 12 Labors of Hercules

1. The Nemean Lion

2. The Lernaean Hydra

3. The Ceryneian Hind

4. The Erymanthian Boar

5. The Augean Stables

6. The Stymphalian Birds

7. The Cretan Bull

8. The Mares of Diomedes

9. The Belt of Hippolyta

10. The Cattle of Geryon

11. The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

12. The Capture of Cerberus 

Roman sarcophagus depicting Labors of Hercules - defeat of Erymanthian Boar, Hind of Ceryneia and Birds of Stymphalus 240-250 AD

Roman sarcophagus depicting Labors of Hercules - defeat of Erymanthian Boar, Hind of Ceryneia and Birds of Stymphalus 240-250 AD (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Hercules the Killer

The tasks given to Hercules by Eurystheus varied in nature. Some, for instance, involved killing a deadly beast(s). This, for instance, can be seen in the slaying of the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and the Stymphalian Birds. These beasts were not ordinary. For example, Hercules was to bring the skin of the lion that had terrorized the region around Nemea. This was no ordinary lion, but a lion deemed invulnerable and Hercules arrows were ineffective against the beast. Mighty Hercules overcame this problem by tracking the lion to its cave and choking it with his bare hands.

Comments

The legend is to reinforce the zodiac constellations with an interesting story, that appeals to Greeks. These constellations appear each month on the horizon at sunrise as they circle the heavens each year. The story refers to previous more ancient conventions. See: https://archive.org/stream/starloreofallage00olco/starloreofallage00olco...

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