When you think of Hercules, traits like strength, bravery and virility (rumor has it he fathered more than 50 children by the time he was 19) might come to mind. What you may have missed in the popular, Disney-fied version of Hercules (the Roman version of the Greek hero Herakles) is the tale of his 12 labors, a series of seemingly impossible feats which he had to perform as repentance for murdering his family. Let's unpack that.
Hercules was born a demigod — the son of Zeus, the king of all gods, and the mortal princess, Alcmene. While that may sound like an idyllic domestic unit, Zeus was actually married to someone else: Hera, the goddess of women. Hera wasn't super thrilled with her husband's infidelity, and since Hercules reminded her of Zeus' indiscretions, she did everything she could to eliminate the freakishly strong half-god (in the world of superhuman beings, this included sending snakes into his crib).
"Zeus one time had declared that whichever son of his was going to be born on that day would rule over everything," says Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in Classics at Stanford University. "Hera, who was jealous and angered by her husband's extramarital flings, trickily delayed the birth of Heracles, his son-to-be by the mortal woman Alcmene, so that Eurystheus' mother would give birth first. Hercules came second — the next day — and lost out. Even after his birth and youth, Herakles was always hounded by Hera. It's a surprise then that his name means 'Glory of Hera' — but then again, without her constant prodding and threats, he would not have achieved his own glory."
None of Hera's attempts to off Hercules worked out, so, playing the long game, she waited until he was happily married with kids and then used her powers to make him murder his loved ones in a fit of madness. When he came to his senses, he was so overcome with grief that he asked Apollo, the god of healing, for some guidance. Apollo told Hercules he could make up for his horrendous crimes, but he'd have to do it by serving his cousin, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns. In one last-ditch effort to destroy Hercules, Hera suggested to Eurystheus that he force the demigod to complete 12 unfeasible labors.
"Several of his labors involve trips to the far reaches of the known world, including at least two to the Far West," Martin says. "Because he was thought to have gone farther than any mortal in that direction, the rocky promontories at the straits of Gibraltar (where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean) were called the Pillars of Heracles — that's how far he traveled."
Here are those 12 labors and how they went:
1. Slay the Nemean Lion
The town of Nemea was being terrorized by an invincible lion, so, naturally, Eurystheus demanded Hercules destroy him and bring back his skin. He nailed it. Hercules choked the feline to death and delivered his pelt to the king. "It is interesting that his first labor was another place associated with a well-known athletic event, the district of Nemea in the Northeast Peloponnese," Martin says. "The University of California and a Greek team is still excavating this important competition and festival site, with its stadium, running track and all. Heracles killed a threatening lion there, and thereafter wore its skin as an invulnerable protection."
2. Slay the Nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
Eurystheus then commanded Hercules to take on another creature terrorizing a local town. "The same sort of strategic intelligence is on display when he does away with the Hydra ('water snake') of the swamp near Lerna, a monster that grew two heads every time you cut off one," Martin says. "With the help of his companion Iolaus, Herakles [Hercules] takes a torch and cauterizes the neck-like stump immediately after each beheading — all the while being chased and nipped at by a large crab that Hera sent to annoy him."
3. Capture the Ceryneian Hind
Hercules was then tasked with taking down a sacred female deer (known as a hind) in the Greek town of Ceryneia. "Another surprising thing is that many of his labors involve a kind of catch-and-release tactic," Martin says. "He does not kill the animal, but brings it back alive to his cousin, who is often depicted as being terrified — on some ancient vase-paintings of the episodes, Eurystheus desperately hides in a big pot as Heracles approaches him with the Erymanthian boar or the three-headed hound of Hades, named Cerberus. He drives back a bull from Crete, alive, in this way. Same story with the Ceryneian hind which was sacred to the goddess Artemis and so fast that it could outrun an arrow-shot."
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
In the mountains of Erymanthos lived a wild boar that Eurystheus figured Hercules could never capture. But Hercules visited his centaur friend, Pholos, and when they ate and drank together, their festivities attracted other centaurs to the cave. Hercules shot the centaurs with his arrows, Pholos accidentally poisoned himself to death and eventually Hercules captured the boar. That one is a bit of a long, twisted tale, but the point is, he nailed another task.
5. Clean the Augean Stables in One Day
King Augeas had a stable that housed an insane amount of cattle, so cleaning up the mess in a day was another unfathomable task Erymanthos assigned to Hercules. He accomplished it, of course — all he had to do was bore openings in the stables and reroute the two main rivers, Alpheus and Peneus, to rush through the stables and flush out all the junk. "When he cleansed the stables of the king Augeas by redirecting the course of two rivers to wash the accumulated dung of 3,000 cows, Heracles was showing off that kind of 'cunning intelligence' (mêtis) yet again," Martin says.
6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds
"Hercules is not just a brutal hunter or killer when it comes to the animals he faces," Martin says. "He is also a clever strategist. For example, when some magical birds were destroying the crops of people who lived near Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia (central part of the Peloponnese), and were in the habit of firing off their brass feathers against people, Hercules used a bronze clapper (given to him by Athena) to scare the birds and then shoot them on the wing."
7. Capture the Cretan Bull
King Minos of Crete gave Hercules permission to take away a bull that was destroying the city and wreaking havoc on residents. Hercules wrestled the animal to the ground and brought him back to Eurystheus.
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes
King Diomedes of Thrace had an interesting habit of training mares to eat human flesh, and Hercules was tasked with swiping the scary animals. He brought along his friend, Abderus, who was killed in the process. Hercules buried Abderus and established the city of Abdera in his honor, killed King Diomedes, and simply gave the mares some snacks to satisfy their hunger so he could bring them back to Eurystheus.
9. Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte
Hercules' ninth labor involved retrieving the belt (or girdle) of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. The leather piece of armor was gifted to the queen by the god of war, Ares, for her victories in battle. Hippolyte wasn't really willing to loan out her prized possession, so she commanded the army to charge Hercules on horseback. He drew his sword, killed Hippolyte, and snatched the belt for Eurystheus to give to his daughter.
10. Obtain the Cattle of the Monster Geryon
"On the western trip that led to his reaching Gibraltar, Hercules took a herd of sacred cattle from their triple-bodied giant guardian named Geryon," Martin says. Stealing the cattle wasn't nearly as difficult as getting to the island of Erythea, near the boundary of Europe and Libya. Along the way, he encountered and killed a variety of wild beasts, was attacked by a two-headed dog, and came up against other intense obstacles. Once he got the cattle, he made it all the way to the edge of the Ionian Sea before Hera sent a gadfly to attack them in order to impede his success. Hercules, however, managed to gather the spooked cows and brought them back to Eurystheus.
11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides
"His other major western journey was to fetch the Apples of the Sun from the daughters of Night called the Hesperides (the name is related to a Greek word for 'evening' which has a Latin equivalent, 'vesper' — that's where we get 'vespers' meaning 'prayers at evening')," Martin says. "He kills a dragon guarding the tree and brings the fruit back home."
12. Capture and Bring Back Cerberus
As you might expect, Eurystheus saved the toughest task for last, ordering Hercules to the underworld to kidnap a three-headed dog called Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades. After battling a long list of beasts and monsters to get to the underworld, Hercules asked Hades if he could take Cerberus back with him. Hades agreed as long as Hercules could do it without weapons. Spoiler alert: he did it.