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Heracles (or Herakles) is the traditional Greek name for Hercules, but is more commonly known to us as the latter. There are infinite variations of the story of Hercules in both Greek and Roman versions and within each culture. This is but one re-telling of the legend of Hercules.


Hercules was born between the Greek god Zeus and human woman named Alcmene. In doing this Zeus had betrayed his wife Hera, who was furious, but could do little to a god as powerful as Zeus. Instead, she decided she would torment Hercules instead, and upon his birth she placed two snakes in his crib. However Hercules, although still just a baby, was powerful enough to grab the snakes before they could attack him. With his strength he was able to grow into a fierce warrior and when he won a war against the Minyans, Hercules was rewarded with King Creon’s eldest daughter Megara.
Hercules and Megara had several children, but Hera returned to cause more harm. There are many variations of what Hera did, yet the most well-known is that Hera cursed Hercules with insanity. In his crazed state, Hercules had killed Hera and all of his children. When he came out of his mental madness he was struck with such horror and grief at what he had done. He begged Apollo, the god of truth and prophecy, for a punishment for his crimes. Apollo told Hercules to go to the oracle at the town of Delphi to receive his punishment.


When he arrived at Delphi, the oracle told Hercules to seek out his cousin, King Eurystheus of Tiryns, who was known to be a cruel man. Hercules was to be given 10 impossible tasks to complete as a way to redeem himself of the blood he has spilt.

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The First Labor was to slay a great lion terrorizing the town of Cleonae, and discovered quickly arrows did not pierce the hide of the great beast. So Hercules pursued the lion to a cave with two entrances. He blocked one of the entrances, and thus cornered the lion in the cave. Inside, Hercules fought the Nemean Lion with his hands and defeated it. Some stories say that his telltale lion’s cloak and helmet was made from the hide of the Nemean Lion.

 

On his Second Labor, Hercules was accompanied by his nephew Ioalus who carried a torch through the waters of Amymone in their search for the Lernean Hydra. The Lernean Hydra had nine heads, one of which was immortal; and every time Hercules severed a head, two would take its place. So with the help of Ioalus, everytime Hercules cut off a head, Ioalus burned the hydra’s neck. No new heads sprouted after that and Hercules buried the immortal head under a heavy rock.

 

Hercules’ Third Labor was to bring the Hind of Ceryneia, which was a sacred deer with gold antlers and bronze hooves- owned by the Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The deer was fast and crafty; evading Hercules’ arrows for over a year until one day it grew tired. While the deer rested, Hercules shot the deer with an arrow which made Artemis furious. Yet, when told of Hercules’ quest to redeem himself, she healed the deer and allowed him to take the Hind of Ceryneia alive.
His Fourth Labor required Hercules to slay the monstrous Erymanthian Boar that ravaged the country side with massive tusks and foul temper. Hercules chased the boar around the mountain, roaring as loudly and ferociously as possible to terrify the boar. Eventually the boar tried to hide in the thicket to rest and Hercules slayed the boar with a spear.

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The Fifth Labor was one of cleaning, not slaying, as he was charged to clean both King Augeas’ stables and all of his cattle. King Augeas had the most cattle in all the land and in order to clean all of them Hercules had to redirect two rivers through deep trenches he had dug. The trenches went through the stables and cattleyard, and the water carried off all the dirt and filth. King Augeas had promised Hercules that if he could clean all his cattle in a day, the King would give Hercules one-tenth of his cattle. Yet after seeing Hercules complete the feat, the King refused to pay Hercules. When brought before a judge to debate the matter; King Augeas’ son, who had watched Hercules, told the judge the truth. Thus the King was forced to give Hercules some of his cattle.


For his Sixth Labor, Hercules had to drive off a huge flock of Stymphalian birds that landed near the town of Stymphalos. Using loud noise makers that Athena had given him, Hercules scared the birds and then shot them down with his arrows.

 

On his Seventh Labor, Hercules was to bring a bull that Poseidon, the god of the sea, had given to King Minos of Crete. The bull was supposed to be sacrificed by the King in order to prove his claims to the throne, but the bull was too attractive a creature to kill. In response to his defiance, Poseidon sent the bull to destroy the villages and uproot the countryside. This is the very bull Hercules was sent to retrieve. With his amazing strength, Hercules drove the bull into the ground and took it back to Tiryns.


His Eighth Labor was to capture the man-eating horses owned by the King Diomedes. Hercules tried to sneak and steal the horses at night, but was attacked by the King’s soldiers. After defeating them, Hercules fought King Diomedes himself and easily won. Upon his victory, Hercules fed Diomedes to his flesh-eating horses that suddenly became calm after the consumption of their master. With their tempered behavior, Hercules was easily able to bring them back to King Eurystheus.


Hippolyte is the Queen of the Amazons who wore the belt as a sign of her status. For his Ninth Labor, King Eurystheus wanted Hercules to retrieve the belt for his daughter. So Hercules sailed with a band of Greek soldiers since the Amazons were known to be fierce female warriors. When Hercules arrived, Hippolyte greeted him and he explained the reason for his quest. She was more than happy to help and told Hercules she would willingly hand over her belt. Unfortunately, the goddess Hera still hated Hercules, and disguised herself as an Amazon warrior. She told the Amazon army that Hercules was trying to kidnap their queen. Upon seeing the Amazon army advancing, Hercules slayed Hippolyte, retrieved her belt, and fought off the Amazons. He then sailed home with belt in tow.

 

Hercules’ Tenth Labor required him to bring back the cattle of Geryon, a three bodied and four-winged giant on the island of Erytheia. In order to reach the island, Hercules borrowed a golden cup from the sun god Helios, and sailed across the waters. Upon his arrival he defeated Cerberus’s two-headed brother Orthos, and the Geryon easily. On his return home, one of the bulls escaped and was captured by Poseidon’s son, Eryx. In order to get the bull back, he had to wrestle Eryx. Hercules defeated Eryx three times and slew him. When he finally got all of the bulls back together, Hera sent gadflies who bit and harassed the cattle. The herd spread out and Hercules had to chase them and bring them back together so that he could finally complete this redemption.


Or so he thought at least. King Eurystheus had felt that two of his labors did not count, since he had accepted payment for his cleaning of the stables, and had help from Ioalus in slaying the Hydra. So Hercules had to perform yet two more impossible tasks.


His Eleventh Labor Hercules had to steal the golden apples that Hera was given as a wedding present, but were hidden in a garden somewhere defended by a hundred-head dragon named Ladon and wood nymphs called Hesperides. First Hercules had to learn the location of the garden which he discovered by holding the shape-shifting sea god Nereus who tried to escape his grasp. Once Hercules knew where the garden was located but did not know how to retrieve them. When Hercules slew a great eagle that was eating the liver of Prometheus (as punishment for introducing fire to humans), the man was so grateful that he told Hercules he needed Atlas’ help to retrieve the golden apples.

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Atlas, who held up the Earth and Sky (as punishment for fighting against Zeus) agreed to help Hercules, but Hercules had to hold the world for him. Atlas retrieved the apples and returned to Hercules, offering take the apples to King Eurystheus for him. Yet, Hercules could see that he was being tricked by Atlas so he would remain there holding up the world in Atlas’ place. So Hercules agreed with Atlas’ plan and asked Atlas if he could hold up the world a moment so that he could add some extra padding to his armor. With their roles switched, Hercules gathered up the apples and Atlas was left to his fate once more.

 

For his final and Twelfth Labor, Hercules had to bring Cerberus, guardian of the Underworld, into the realm of the living. So Hercules entered the Underworld and fought all sorts of ghosts and beasts, and made his way to Hades. He asked Hades if he could take Cerberus back with him to the living world. Hades agreed, but only if he beat Cerberus without any weapons. Hercules then approached Cerberus and-once again-easily defeated the three-headed dog.
With the completion of his Twelve Labors, Hercules was redeemed and achieved immortality, joining the ranks of the gods. Using his god-like strength he achieved his heightened status and Hera let go of her anger and hate. Hercules trials were recorded by the Greeks over 2,000 years ago on painted vases, and were retold through generations with different tales being told of the supposedly impossible deeds that he completed.

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