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For the son of Alexander the Great, see Heracles (Macedon).

In Greek mythology, Heracles, or HeraklÍs ("glory of Hera") was the demigod son of Zeus and Alcmene, the grand-daughter of Perseus and the wife of Amphitryon. In Roman mythology he was called Hercules. He was, arguably, the greatest of the mythical Greek heroes, best known for his superhuman strength and many stories are told of his life. The most famous group of stories tell of The Twelve Labors of Hercules. His Etruscan equivalent was Hercle, a son of Tinia and Uni. He was also identified with Heryshaf (Egyptian mythology).

Table of contents
1 Birth and childhood
2 Adulthood
3 Marriage, sex and death
4 Modern and ancient intepretations
5 External links

Birth and childhood

Heracles was a son of Zeus and Alcmene. A major factor in the tragedies surrounding Heracles stem from Hera's hatred of him; as the wife of Zeus she often hated his mortal offspring, especially so in Heracles' case. While Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera tried to prevent her from giving birth. She was foiled by Galanthis, her servant, who told Hera that she had already delivered the baby. Hera turned her into a weasel. Heracles was named in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. A few months after he was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as a he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys. One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles: discovering who he was, she had pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can be seen to this day.

According to Greek tradition, probably based on Libanius, "Oration" XII, 99, or on the Epitome of the Library of Apollodorus, Heracles was conceived in the womb when Cronos, god of time, extended the night during his parents' nuptial. That miraculous event may have been a solar eclipse near daybreak, which took place on September 7, 1251 BCE. It lasted from 6:51 to 9:41 in the morning at Sparta, with 75.9% magnitude. The Legend has it that Heracles was born in Thebes, Greece, where Alcmene and Amphitryon lived. The eclipse could well be visible there also.


He continued to perform such feats, such as slaying a lion that was preying on the local flocks and defending Thebes against a neighbouring army. For the latter he was awarded the King of Thebes' (Creon) daughter, Megara. However, in a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realising what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his brother Iphicles) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi.

The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks set by the man he hated the most, King Eurystheus. There was enmity between Eurystheus and Heracles as by right Heracles should have been king but Eurystheus's birth was induced early by Hera, and Heracles' delayed, so that Heracles would not be king. This came to be when Zeus, having impregnated Alcmene, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king; Hera, hearing this caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Heracles was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done Zeus was furious, however, his rash proclamation still stood.

The Twelve Labors

Note: Heracles was accompanied by his friend, Licymnius, on many of these labors.

First Labor: the Nemean Lion

The first task was to slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its hide. This lion was far more fearsome than the one slain by Heracles in his youth. Its hide was impervious to any blade and Heracles' club splintered upon the first strike.

Heracles defeated the beast by throttling it with his bare hands. Its skin was so thick that neither his bow-and-arrow, club (made from an olive tree he pulled out of the ground), nor bronze sword were effective against it. Heracles spent hours trying to skin the lion unsuccessfully, gradually growing angrier as it appeared he would be unable to complete his first task. Eventually, Athena, in the guise of an old crone, helped Heracles to realize that the best tools to cut the hide were the creature's own claws. Thus, with a little divine intervention, he completed his first task.

From that moment forth he wore the impenetrable hide as armour, and Eurystheus was so scared by Heracles' fearsome guise that he hid in a bronze jar. From that moment forth, all labors were communicated to Heracles through a herald.

Second Labor: the Lernean Hydra

His second labor was to slay the Lernean Hydra, a formidable snake-like beast that possessed nine (usually nine, it ranged from five to one hundred) heads and poisonous breath. For this task Heracles took his nephew, Iolaus, with him as a charioteer.

Upon reaching the swamp near Lake Lerna, where the Hydra dwelt, Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes and fired flaming arrows into its lair to draw it out. He then confronted it, but upon cutting off one of its heads he found that it (or two) grew back, the same happened again upon cutting off a second head; realising that he could not defeat the hydra in this way Heracles called on Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a burning firebrand to sear the neck stumps after decapitation and handed him the blazing brand. Heracles cut off each head and Iolaus burned the open stump leaving the hydra dead. Taking its one immortal head, he placed it under a great rock, dipped his arrows in the hydra's poisonous blood, and so his second task was complete. In an alternate version, Hera sent a crab to bite his feet and bother him, hoping to cause his death. When Eurystheus found out that it was Heracles' nephew who had handed him the firebrand he declared that the labour had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the ten labors set for him.

Third Labor: the Cerynian Hind

Eurystheus was greatly angered to find that Heracles had managed to escape death for a second time and so decided to spend more time thinking up a third task that would spell doom for the hero. The third task did not involve killing a beast, as it had already been established that Heracles could survive even the most fearsome opponents, so Eurystheus decided to make him capture the Cerynian Hind, a beautiful creature sacred to Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt and moon. The hind possessed hooves of bronze and antlers of gold and it was said that it could outrun an arrow in flight. Heracles pursued the hind for a year, when he awoke from sleep he could see it from the glint on its antlers; upon finally catching the animal (sometimes by shooting it with an arrow) he was confronted by Artemis who wanted to know what he was doing with it. Heracles explained that he had to catch it as part of his penance, but he promised to return it. Upon bringing the hind to Eurystheus, he was told that it was to become part of the King's menagerie. Heracles knew that he had to return the hind as he had promised to Artemis, so he agreed to hand it over on the condition that Eurystheus himself came out and took it from him. The King came out, but the moment Heracles let the hind go it sprinted back to her mistress, and Heracles left saying that Eurystheus had not been quick enough.

Fourth Labor: the Erymanthian Boar

His fourth labor was to capture the Erymanthian Boar.

On the way there, Heracles visited Pholus, a kind centaur and old friend. Heracles ate with him and asked for wine; Pholus had only one jar of wine, a gift from Dionysus to all the centaurs on Mt Erymanthus. Heracles convinced him to open it, and the smell attracted the other centaurs, who attacked, angry that their wine had been opened. Heracles shot at them with his poisonous arrows, and the centaurs retreated to Chiron's cave. Chiron was another wise centaur, and Heracles' old mentor. A stray arrow hit Chiron and killed him. Pholus died the same way.

After Heracles caught the Erymanthian Boar, he went back to Eurystheus who was frightened and hid in a large jar. He begged Heracles to get rid of the beast; Heracles obliged.

Fifth Labor: the Augean Stables

The fifth task set to Heracles was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. The reasoning behind this labor was twofold: firstly, all the previous labors only exalted Heracles in eyes of the people so this one would surely degrade him; secondly, the stables of Augeas (King of Elis) housed the single greatest number of cattle in the country and, having never been cleaned, this task was surely impossible. Heracles, however, rerouted two rivers (Alpheus and Peneus) and cleaned the stables quickly and easily. Augeas was irate because he had promised Heracles one-tenth of his land if the job was finished in one day. He refused to honor the agreement and was killed by Heracles, who gave his kingdom to Augeas' son, Phyleus, who had been exiled for supporting Heracles against his father.

According to the poet Pindar, Heracles then founded the Olympic Games:

Of that light in the life of a man before all other deeds, that first
of contests, the ordinances of Zeus[4] have stirred me to sing, even
the games which by the ancient tomb of Pelops the mighty Herakles
founded, after that he slew Kleatos, Poseidon's goodly son, and slew
also Eurytos, that he might wrest from tyrannous Augeas against his
will reward for service done[5].

(extracted from The Extant Odes of Pindar, translated and annotated by Ernest Myers [1])

Sixth Labor: the Stymphalian Birds

The Stymphalian Birds lived by Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia. They had migrated there to escape a pack of wolves. They bred quickly and took over the countryside. They had sharp metallic feathers that they shot at people, and they destroyed local crops and fruit trees. Some sources claim these were the same birds that attacked the Argonauts.

The forest around Lake Stymphalus was very dense and too dark to see much. Athena and Hephaestus helped Heracles kill the birds. Hephaestus made huge bronze clappers to drive the birds into flight, and Heracles shot them with his arrows or a catapault. The birds that survived never returned to Greece.

Seventh Labor: the Cretan Bull

For his seventh labor, Heracles was told to capture the Cretan Bull. According to various sources, it was the bull that carried away Europa or the bull Pasiphae fell in love with.

Minos, the King of Crete, gave Heracles permission to take the bull away, as it had been wreaking havoc on Crete. Heracles used a lasso and rode it back to Eurystheus. Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice bull to Hera, but she refused the sacrifice because it reflected glory on Heracles. The bull was released and wandered to Marathon, becoming known as the Marathonian Bull.

Eighth Labor: the Mares of Diomedes

The eighth labor of Heracles was to steal the Mares of Diomedes. Heracles was not aware, however, that the four magnificent horses were kept tethered to a bronze manger because they were wild, man-eating and uncontrollable.

When Heracles arrived, he threw Diomedes into the bronze manger, where he was eaten by his own horses. This made the horses calmer and Heracles easily took them back to King Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera and allowed them to roam freely around Argos. Bucephalus, Alexander the Great's horse, was said to be descended from these mares.

In another version of the story, Heracles brought Abderus, one of his many male beloveds (eromenos), and some other youths to help him. They took the mares and were chased by Diomedes and his men. Heracles left Abderus in charge of the horses and fought Diomedes. Abderus was eaten. In revenge, Heracles fed Diomedes to his own horses, then founded Abdera next to the boy's tomb.

Ninth Labor: the Girdle of Hippolyte

Heracles' ninth task was to acquire the magical belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons at the request of Admete, Eurystheus' daughter. He took Theseus and Sthenelus along with him. He had succeeded, but at the last moment Theseus kidnapped Antiope, Hippolyte's sister. The Amazons attacked (because Hera spread a rumor that Heracles was there to attack them or to kidnap Hippolyte) but Heracles and Theseus made it away with the girdle and Antiope, whom Theseus later married. The Amazons then attacked Athens to get Antiope back but lost.

At this point in the story, versions vary:

  1. Heracles kidnapped Hippolyte's sister, Melanippe, and demanded the girdle as the ransom. Hippolyte complied and Heracles released her.
  2. Heracles kills Hippolyte as they flee with the girdle.
  3. Antiope is killed in the battle for the girdle or for Athens.
  4. Antiope and Theseus both survive and marry each other (son: Hippolytus). Theseus eventually leaves her for Phaedra.
  5. Hippolyte and Theseus both survive and marry each other (son: Hippolytus). When Theseus left Hippolyte for Phaedra, she brought her warriors into their wedding and promised to kill everyone present; she instead was killed by Theseus' men or accidentally by Penthesilea, another Amazon.
  6. Theseus marries Hippolyte, who gives birth to Hippolytus but dies before Theseus marries Phaedra.

Tenth Labor: the Cattle of Geryon

For his tenth labor, Heracles had to obtain the Cattle of Geryon. The Cattle of Geryon each had three sets of legs and three bodies, all joined at the waist, and his hound was Orthrus the two headed brother of Kerberos. Alternatively, Menoetius, Hades' shepherd, warned Geryon of Heracles' thievery.

While Heracles traveled to Erytheia, he crossed the Libyan desert and was so frustrated at the heat that he shot an arrow at Helios, the sun. Helios begged him to stop and Heracles demanded the golden cup which Helios used to sail across the sea every night, from the west to the east. Heracles used this golden cup to reach Erytheia.

Heracles killed Orthrus and then Eurythion. Heracles killed Geryon and tore his body into three pieces. Heracles then had to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus. On the Aventine hill in Italy, Cacus stole some of the cattle stolen from Geryon as Heracles slept. He made the cattle walk backwards so they left no trail. Heracles drove his remaining cattle past a cave, where Cacus was hiding the stolen ones, and they began calling out to each other. Heracles then killed Cacus. Alternatively, Caca, Cacus' sister, told Heracles where he was. According to the Romans, after Heracles killed Cacus, he founded an altar where the Forum Boarium, the cattle market, was later held.

To annoy Heracles, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them and scatter them. Hera then sent a flood which rose the water level of a river so much Heracles could not ford the cattle. He piled stones into the river to make the water shallower. Heracles then had to kill a monster that was half-woman and half-serpent. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.

Eleventh Labor: the Apples of the Hesperides

Although he was only supposed to perform ten labors, Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, as he was assisted, or the Augean stables as he received payment for his work. According to some versions, the Augean stables were not counted as it was the rivers that did the work, not Heracles.

For the eleventh labor, Heracles had to steal the Apples of the Hesperides, a wedding gift from Hera to Zeus. They were guarded by the dragon Ladon, who never slept, and the Hesperides, nymphs who were the daughters of Atlas. Heracles first had to catch Nereus, the shape-shifting sea god, to learn where the Garden of the Hesperides was located. Along the way, he liberated Prometheus and killed Antaeus, who was invincible as long as he touched his mother, Gaia, the earth. Heracles then stopped in Egypt, where King Busiris decided to make Heracles the yearly sacrifice. Heracles burst out of his chains and finally made his way to the Garden of the Hesperides. Heracles tricked Atlas into retrieving some of the golden apples for him by offering to hold the heavens for a little while. Upon his return with the apples, Atlas decided not to take the heavens back from Heracles. Heracles tricked him again by agreeing to take his place if he would only take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. Atlas agreed and Heracles left him.

Twelfth Labor: Kerberos

His final labor was to capture Kerberos, the three headed hound that guarded the entrance to Hades, the Underworld. First, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He did this to absolve himself of guilt for killing the centaurs and to learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive. He found the entrance to the underworld at Tanaerum. Athena and Hermes helped him through and back from Hades. Heracles asked Hades for permission to take Kerberos. Hades agreed as long as Heracles didn't harm him, though in some versions, Heracles had already shot Kerberos with an arrow. When Heracles dragged the dog out of Hades, he passed through the cavern Acherusia.

While in Hades, Heracles freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, so Heracles left him behind. They had been imprisoned by Hades because they attempted to kidnap Persephone. Theseus and Pirithous were seated on a bench to which they were magically bound. The magic was so strong that when Heracles pulled Theseus free part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench, explaining why his descendants were noted for their lean thighs.

Later adventures


Omphale was the Queen of Lydia. As penalty for a murder, Heracles was her slave. He was forced to do women's work and wear women's clothes, while she wore the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried his olive-wood club. Some sources mention a son fathered on Omphale who is variously named. For further details see Omphale.

It was at that time that the cercopes, mischievous wood spirits, stole Heracles' weapons. He punished them by tying them to a stick with their faces pointing downward.


While walking through the wilderness, Heracles was set upon by the Dryopians. He killed their king, Theiodamas, and the others gave up and offered him Prince Hylas. He took the young man on as his weapons bearer, and the two soon fell in love and were together "morning, noon and night." Heracles took the young man with him on the Argo, making Hylas and Heracles two of the Argonauts. On this trip, Hylas was kidnapped by a nymph. Heracles, heartbroken, searched for a long time along with Polyphemus, but Hylas had fallen in love with the nymphs and never showed up again. The ship set sail without them.


King Eurytus of Oechalia promised his daughter, Iole, to whoever could beat his sons in an archery contest. Heracles won but Eurytus abandoned his promise. Heracles killed him and his sons and abducted Iole.

Killing various giants

Heracles killed the giants Cycnus, Porphyrion and Mimas.


Before the Trojan War, Poseidon sent a sea monster to attack Troy.

Laomedon planned on sacrificing Hesione to Poseidon in the hope of appeasing him. Heracles happened to arrive (along with Telamon and Oicles) and agreed to kill the monster if Laomedon would give him the horses received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus' kidnapping Ganymede. Laomedon agreed.

Heracles killed both the monster but Laomedon went back on his word.

Accordingly in a later expedition Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked it and slew all Laomedon's sons present there save Podarces, who saved his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil Hesione had made. Telamon took Hesione as a war prize and she gave birth to Teucer by him.

Marriage, sex and death

Heracles had countless affairs, with men as well as with women. He naturally had a great many children from various women, collectively referred to as the Heracleidae (most notable: Macaria). One event that stands out was his stay at the palace of King Thespios, who liked his build and encouraged Heracles to make love to his daughters, all fifty of them in one night. They all got pregnant and all bore sons. Many of the kings of ancient Greece traced their lines to one or another of these, notably the kings of Sparta and Macedon.

During the course of his life, Heracles married twice. His first marriage was to Megara, whose two children he murdered in a fit of madness and whom he later gave in marriage to his ex-boyfriend Iolaus, because the sight of her was too painful. He then married Deianira, for whom he had to fight the river god Achelous. (Upon Achelous' death, Heracles removed one of his horns and gave it to some nymphs who turned it into the cornucopia.) Soon after they wed, Heracles and Deianira had to cross a river, and a centaur named Nessus offered to help Deianeira across but then attempted to rape her. Enraged, Heracles shot the centaur from the opposite shore with a poisoned arrow (from the Lernean Hydra) and killed him. As he lay dying, Nessus told Deianira that if she ever wanted to make sure of Heracles' love, she should gather up his blood and spilled semen and save them. Later, when Deianira suspected that Heracles was preferring the company of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture. Heracles' servant, Lichas, brought him the shirt and he put it on. Instantly he was in agony, as the shirt burned into his flesh and ripped it from his bones. Heracles died a voluntary death, asking that a pyre be built for him to end his suffering. After his death on the pyre the gods transformed Heracles into an immortal. He then married Hebe.

No one but Heracles' friend Philoctetes (in some versions: Iole or Poeas) would light his funeral pyre. For this action, Philoctetes (or Poeas) received Heracles' bow and arrows, which were later necessary for the Greeks to defeat Troy in the Trojan War.

Acca Larentia

In Roman mythology, Acca Larentia was Hercules' mistress. She was married to Tarutius, a wealthy merchant. When he died, she gave his money to charity. In another version, she was the wife of Faustulus.

Heracles' boyfriends

Plutarch, in his Eroticos, maintains that Heracles' male lovers were so numerous they were beyond counting. Here is a partial list:
Abderus (entrusted with - and slain by - the carnivorous mares of Thracian Diomedes. Hercules founded the city of Abderus in Thrace in his memory, where he was honored with games.)
  • Admetus (assisted in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar; also a beloved of Apollo, as per Plutarch and Callimachus)
  • Adonis
  • Corythus
  • Elacatas ( Spartan eromenos, honored there with a sanctuary and yearly games, according to Sosibius)
  • Euphemus
  • Hylas (Loved him for his beauty; taught him military skills; crewed together on the Argo. His myth enacts the cycle of probatory homosexuality in adolescence, followed by relations with the opposite sex upon reaching adulthood.)
  • Iolaus (Theban, helped Hercules in many labors. Plutarch reports that down to his own time lovers and their beloveds would go down to his tomb in Thebes to swear an oath of loyalty to him.)
  • Iphitus
  • Jason (late mention, may be literary conceit)
  • Nestor (Loved him for his wisdom)
  • Nireus
  • Philoctetes (according to Martial. He is also heir to the hero's bow and is the one who lights his pyre. Later he is the initiator of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.)
  • Phrix

  • (Collected by Bernard Sergent in Homosexuality in Greek Myth, Beacon Press, 1986

    Modern and ancient intepretations

    Later interpretations of Heracles' legend cast him as a wise leader and a good friend (many of the movie and TV adaptations cast him in this light, especially the recent syndicated TV series ), but in the original legend Heracles was as often foolish as wise; he was often seen as rash, egotistical, prone to wild berserker rages, and petty. While he was a champion and a great warrior, he was not above cheating and using any unfair trick to his advantage. This hardly put him on a level below the Greek gods themselves, as their faults were certainly on par with Heracles. However, he was renowned as having made the world safe for man by destroying many dangerous monsters, and he was also held up as an example for never having attacked first, but for having conquered all merely by defending himself when attacked. His legend endures, though often co-opted to suit the political fashion of the day.

    As a public domain character Hercules or Heracles have appeared in several comic book adaptations; see: Hercules (comics)

    See also: sword and sandal (film genre); Maciste; The Sons of Hercules; The Mighty Hercules

    External links