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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?

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.

Heracles and the Nemea Lion by Peter Paul Rubens

Heracles and the Nemea Lion by Peter Paul Rubens ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Hercules the Hunter

Others, on the other hand, required the hero to capture certain creatures alive. These include the Ceryneian Hind, the Erymanthian Boar, and Cerberus. These too might not seem such insurmountable tasks but of course they too had a twist. How hard can it be to catch a hind (a female deer)? Well, of course it was no ordinary deer – this one had golden horns and bronze hoofs for a start. Not much advantage with those one would guess, but a sign that all might not be normal. Indeed, the deer was sacred to the goddess of hunting Diana, someone whose pet you would be advised not to injure. As Hercules had already discovered, it was best not to get on the wrong side of a goddess. Hercules tracked the deer for a year without being able to trap it and eventually capitulated and shot and injured the deer. He escaped the wrath of Diana by telling her the truth about the labors he had been tasked with and she forgave him and healed the deer herself.

Hercules Captures the Golden Hind of Ceryneia by Adolf Schmidt

Hercules Captures the Golden Hind of Ceryneia by Adolf Schmidt ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Hercules Gets His Hands Dirty

One of the more bizarre tasks given to Hercules was the cleaning of the Augean Stables. This belonged to Augeus, the King of Elis, and housed huge herds of cattle and other livestock. In some versions of the story, the animals were immortal, and produced lots of dung. Moreover, the stables are said to have not been cleaned in the last 30 years. Hercules was given this task as it was humiliating, as well as impossible, since he was required to complete it in a day. Before undertaking this task, Hercules asked Augeus to give him a tenth of the animals as payment should he succeed. Believing that Hercules would not be able to keep his part of the deal, the king happily agreed. By diverting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus, Hercules cleaned the stables in several hours. At the end of the story, Augeus is killed by Hercules, as he refused to keep his promise. This was one of the labors that Eurystheus refused to recognise. According to one version, this was due to the fact that Hercules requested a payment for his work. According to another version, it was discounted as the task was completed by the rivers, rather than by the hero himself.

Hercules Enlists Help

The other task that Eurystheus refused to acknowledge as completed by Hercules was the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra. This was a ferocious serpent-like beast that had nine heads, one of which was immortal. Each time a head was cut off, three would grow in its place. In order to defeat this creature, Hercules sought the aid of his nephew, Iolaus. After the hero decapitated one of the beast’s heads, Iolaus would burn the neck, thus preventing the heads from growing anew. Finally, the immortal head was chopped off, and buried. As Hercules received help from Iolaus, Eurystheus declared that this labor did not count.

Hydria (ceramic water container) with Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra from Etruria, attributed to the Painter of Aquila, 530-500 BC

Hydria (ceramic water container) with Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra from Etruria, attributed to the Painter of Aquila, 530-500 BC ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Having completed the extra two tasks assigned to him by tricking Atlas out of apples and visiting the underworld. Thus, though some clever tactics, a little assistance and unhuman feats of strength Hercules was able to complete all 12 labors. This process of a virtuous struggle against the odds is an excellent example of the Greek idea of pathos which brought Hercules not only this everlasting fame but immortality.

It is without doubt that the myth of the 12 Labors of Hercules have entertained people over the centuries, as it still does today. These labors have been illustrated in countless instances on pottery, in paintings, sculptures and storytelling for way over two millennia. But these stories contain moral lessons as well. In the cleaning of the Augean Stables, for instance, one is reminded of the importance of keeping promises. Another example may be seen in the 8 th Labor, in which Hercules had to capture the Mares of Diomedes. Towards the end of the story, Diomedes is torn apart by his man-eating mares, a lesson in karma, perhaps, considering that he had enjoyed feeding strangers and prisoners to these creatures.

Top image: Hercules and the Leraean Hydra by John Singer Sargant ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

References

Gill, N., 2017. All About the 12 Labors of Hercules. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/all-about-the-12-labors-of-hercules-121394

http://www.crystalinks.com, 2017. 12 Labors of Hercules. [Online]
Available at: http://www.crystalinks.com/12laborshercules.html

igreekmythology.com, 2009. The Labors of Hercules. [Online]
Available at: http://www.igreekmythology.com/labors-of-Hercules.html

Karas, M., 2017. Labors of Heracles. [Online]
Available at: https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/The_Myths/Labors_of_Heracles/labors_of_heracles.html

Lendering, J., 2017. Heracles. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/mythology/heracles/?

www.perseus.tufts.edu, 2017. The Labors of Hercules. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/labors.html

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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