|The Real Herakles|
|The Son of Zeus and Alkmene|
|Murder and Redemption|
|The Twelve Labors of Herakles|
|The Deeds of Herakles|
|The Encounter with the Kerkopes|
|Herakles and Alkestis|
|Syleus of Aulis|
|The Fight With Kyknos|
|Herakles and Iole|
|Herakles and Telamon|
|The Death of Herakles|
|Herakles, the Man|
|Herakles in The Iliad (reference)|
|Herakles in The Odyssey (reference)|
|Other Texts References|
|Images of Herakles|
Who exactly was the real Herakles? The common misconception is that there was a semi-divine man named Herakles who was fathered by Zeus and born to a mortal woman. This Herakles died just prior to the Trojan War. The Labors of Herakles and the Quest for the Golden Fleece were the highlights of Herakles's life but as we dig deeper into his other deeds, we are confronted with fact the Herakles also unchained Prometheus from the Caucasus Mountains. The encounter with Prometheus took place at the dawn of human existence and can in no way be reconciled with the time in which the traditional Herakles lived. There must therefore have been an ancient Herakles who freed Prometheus and lived tens of thousands of years before the traditional Herakles. With those facts in mind, we can assume that the deeds and exploits of the two Herakles's have been blended and blurred to reflect the life of one individual.
The historical facts seem to get more and more counterintuitive as we dig deeper into the life of Herakles. There were at least two and possibly three hero/gods named Herakles. To say that there were three Herakles's is within the realm of possibility but the number two is more likely and seems sufficient to account for the ancient and traditional deeds attributed to Herakles.
The historian Herodotus mentions the probability that in addition to the traditional Herakles there was also an ancient Herakles. Diodorus Siculus agrees that there was an ancient and traditional Herakles but also extends the possibility that there was a third hero/god named Herakles. This third Herakles would have lived several generations before the traditional Herakles and tens of thousands of years after the ancient Herakles. Diodorus Siculus does not specifically say that this Herakles was a son of Zeus.
Herodotus relates an incident in Tyre, Phoenicia were he saw, circa 450 BCE, a temple dedicated to Herakles which the priests said was established when the city was first founded ... that would be 2,300 years prior to Herodotus' inquiry. Herodotus also visited the island of Thasos where he was told that their temple of Herakles was established five generations before Herakles, the son of Alkmene (Alcmene), was born.
Diodorus Siculus states his belief that there were three different hero/gods named Herakles. The first Herakles was descended from the Heifer-Maiden Io in Egypt ... he traveled the inhabited world and exceeded all men in his strength and valor. He inflicted punishment on the unjust and killed the wild beasts which made the various lands uninhabitable. The second Herakles was one of the Idaean Daktyls who were named after the mountain on which they lived ... Mount Ida ... they were best known as metal workers and magicians. The third Herakles was the son of Alkmene and emulated the life-plan of his predecessors to such an extent that many of the deeds of the first and second Herakles were in time transferred to the third Herakles.
To make a crude estimate as to the times in which the three Herakles's lived we might consider the following:
The ancient Herakles - This Herakles killed the eagle which Zeus had sent to torment Prometheus ... he then broke the chains which held Prometheus to the crag of the Caucasus Mountains. As ordained by Zeus, Herakles was born thirteen generations after the Heifer-Maiden Io settled in Egypt.
An interesting way to establish the age in which Prometheus lived is to consider the creation of Pandora ... the first woman. Zeus had Pandora made by the other Immortals and she was the first human female to exist. When Pandora was given to Prometheus's brother Epimetheus she was the first of her kind and was therefore created at the very beginnings of the human race. The creation of Pandora must have taken place approximately 40,000 years ago.
The second Herakles - The only clue we have in order to fit this Herakles into a time frame is that he lived at least five generations before the traditional Herakles. This would place him in the time period preceding 1450 BCE.
The traditional Herakles - This is the Herakles of legend ... the Herakles of the Twelve Labors and one of the Argonauts who went in search of the Golden Fleece. This Herakles died shortly before the beginning of the Trojan War which would place his birth at approximately 1300 BCE.
Herakles was perhaps the most renowned and important Hero in ancient Greece. His semi-divine heritage and his insatiable thirst for adventure made him one of the most popular men of his time but his reputation and spirit did not fade when he cast off his mortal body and ascended to the heights of Mount Olympos (Olympus) to live among the Immortals. His name literally means, Hera's Glory, implying the dominion she had over him.
Herakles is the beloved son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Alkmene. Herakles was the archetype for bravery and living proof that might-makes-right. According to the poet Hesiod, Alkmene bore two sons, not twins but brothers by blood. Herakles was fathered by Zeus and Iphikles (Iphicles) was fathered by Alkmene's mortal husband, Amphitryon. (Shield of Herakles, line 51)
Since Herakles was not the son of Hera, he was subject to her rage. From the very beginning, his life was affected by Hera's vengeance and hostility. When Alkmene was pregnant with Herakles, Hera cleverly made Zeus swear a solemn oath that the next son born in the line of Perseus would become the ruler of Argos. Zeus was sure that his son, Herakles, would be that ruler but Hera delayed the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, from attending Alkmene and allowed Eurystheus to be born before Herakles. Herakles was later bound to Eurystheus and required to perform the labors which have become known as the Twelve Labors of Herakles.
The second act of revenge directed towards Herakles by Hera was when she put two deadly snakes in his crib. Although Herakles was a mere infant he managed to strangle the snakes with his bare hands. In many cases, the artwork depicting this event curiously shows Herakles, not as an infant, but as a mini-man, i.e. a miniature version of the adult he was eventually to become.
Even without the cruel intervention of Hera, Herakles was quite able to cause death and destruction wherever he went. As part of his education, he and his brother, Iphikles, studied music from a master named, Linus. Linus is said to be the innovator of melody and rhythm and also taught the greatest musician to ever live, Orpheus. During one of the lessons, Linus struck Herakles as punishment for his inattention and the youthful Herakles flew into a rage and beat Linus to death with a stool.
By the time the exploits of Herakles were committed to paper, i.e. after 480 BCE, his adventures were greatly exaggerated and diluted but the essence of the ultimate hero was still preserved in the somewhat artificial classifications of: Labors, Incidentals and Deeds. The Labors (athloi) were twelve tasks that Herakles was obliged to undertake for his cousin, Eurystheus, the king of Argos. The Incidentals (parerga) were adventures Herakles had during the course of his Labors. The Deeds (praxeis) were various other feats and adventures that punctuated Herakles's glorious, yet troubled, mortal existence.
With armor and shield forged by Hephaistos (Hephaestus), Herakles was more than a match for men and gods alike. He set off into the world with Hera snapping at his heels and the lust for adventure in his heart. Herakles lived during the Age of Heroes, i.e. the fourth generation of mortal men on the earth. Half-man and half-god, he was the focus of considerable wrath and love from the Immortals.
Herakles's life was one of self sacrifice and sadness. Strangely enough, Herakles (his "shade," that is) met and recognized Odysseus while Odysseus was in the Underworld seeking an oracle. Odysseus noted Herakles's terrible glance and his war costume. Herakles's belt and golden baldric were artistically designed with all manner of vicious beasts and graphic acts of manslaughter. Odysseus secretly hoped that the artist who designed those horrid images would never again display his craft. Herakles told Odysseus of the time he was sent to the Underworld to fetch the Hell Hound, Kerberos (Cerberus). He asked Odysseus if he too was the victim of some wretched destiny, which of course, he was. Why else would he be in the Underworld while he was still living? Herakles described Eurystheus as "A man far worse than I, a rough master." (Odyssey, book 11, lines 601 and 614)
The life of Herakles was documented in artwork that predates any written account by as much as four hundred years. For this reason I have compiled this brief explanation of his Labors, Incidentals and Deeds from the surviving artwork rather from the later, understandably, embellished, written versions.
The infant Herakles fights the snakes that Hera sent to kill him as his brother Iphikles tries to escape.
One of the most disturbing events of Herakles's troubled life was the murder of his children. While still a teenager, Herakles settled a dispute for Kreon (Creon), the king of Thebes, and as a reward for his services, Herakles was allowed to marry the king's daughter, Megara. After he and Megara had produced several children, the goddess Hera could not contain her contempt for the son of Zeus and cast a spell of confusion and rage on Herakles. With uncontrolled fury, he proceeded to kill his children. Some accounts say that Herakles also killed Megara but different authors and examples of ancient artwork dispute that accusation.
After this tragic episode, Herakles went to the Oracle at Delphi to try and find redemption for this horrific crime. The Pythia, i.e. priestess of Apollon, did several surprising things: 1) she told him to present himself to his cousin, Eurystheus, and do his bidding and 2) she changed his name from his birth name of Alkeides (Alceides) to his immortal name, Herakles. The tasks assigned to him by his cousin, Eurystheus, are collectively known as The Labors of Herakles. The name, Herakles, means Hera's Glory and signifies the power the goddess wielded over him.
The chronology of the Twelve Labors is rather arbitrary but, since the time of the Greek grammarian, Apollodorus Dysklus (circa 140 BCE), the numbering of the Labors has become, literally, written in stone. On the Temple of Zeus, built in the mid-fifth century BCE, the only metope that depicts Herakles as beardless (i.e. young) is the scene where he stands with his foot on the dead lion of Nemea. For that reason it is understandable why killing of the lion of Nemea was considered to be the First Labor of Herakles. The ordering of the other Labors is not quite so obvious but we will yield to the authority of Apollodorus Dysklus.
Nemea was a valley in southeast Greece, in ancient Argos. According to the poet Hesiod, the Nemean lion was the predatory offspring of the two-headed dog, Orthos, and the half-nymph/half-serpent, Echidna, and presumably, the sister of the deadly Sphinx of the city of Thebes and the half-sister of Kerberos, the watchdog at the gates of the Underworld. As you can deduce from her family, this was no ordinary beast which terrorized the travelers and livestock in the peaceful countryside around Nemea.
Eurystheus sent Herakles to kill the lion of Nemea as the first of his Twelve Labors. Herakles wrestled with the lion and strangled it to death. Early artistic renderings of this wrestling match showed the lion on its hind feet fighting Herakles in the same manner that two men would grapple but after circa 530 BCE the lion and Herakles were usually shown on the ground fighting like animals.
According to Hesiod, the Hydra was the offspring of the half-nymph/half-serpent, Echidna, and the snake-bodied, Typhaon (Typhon), but he fails to describe the Hydra in detail. However, the Hydra's actual appearance was well documented in ancient artwork as a large multi-headed snake. This description agreed with later writers who said that the Hydra had a huge body with eight mortal heads and one immortal head. The creature lurked in the swamps of Lerna, which was a marshy region near ancient Argos in southeast Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The artistic representations of this Labor date back to the end of the eighth century BCE, where a bearded Herakles was almost always assisted by his devoted nephew, Iolaos.
The Hydra was very hard to kill because each time one of the serpent-like heads was hacked off, two new heads grew to replace it. Also, the blood of the Hydra was a deadly poison.
With the help of Iolaos (and with Athene watching the battle to lend her protection) Herakles attacked the Hydra. He used either a sword or a sickle to hack at the heads while a giant crab, sent by the vengeful Hera to distract him, snapped at his heels. To prevent the heads from growing back two-fold, Herakles succeeded in cauterizing the squirming necks with fire as he cut off each head. After the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood ... an act he would regret during his Fourth Labor.
According to the chronology of Apollodorus, the Third Labor that Eurystheus commanded of Herakles was the capture of the Keryneian Hind. This Labor is the subject of Attic artwork dating back to the mid-sixth century BCE and perhaps, but not definitely, to the eighth century. The hind, i.e. female deer, was portrayed with golden horns which is indicative of a male deer but such sexual ambiguity was not uncommon in Greek mythology (see Labor Number 8).
The Keryneian Hind was sacred to Artemis and was named after a Peloponnesian river. Herakles spent a year searching for the elusive deer before he was able to capture it. Later versions of this Labor show Herakles breaking off the horns of the hind and writers, such as Euripides (circa 480-406 BCE), say that the hind was killed, not captured, by Herakles.
While returning the hind to Eurystheus, Herakles encountered Apollon and Artemis. They demanded the return of the sacred creature but Herakles successfully argued the justice of his quest and was allowed to complete his Labor. Several depictions of this encounter show Herakles and Apollon struggling over the hind in a sort of tug-of-war.
While representations of this Labor appear on the metopes of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the topic is not to be found in non-Attic artwork before circa 350 BCE.
This, the Fourth Labor of Herakles, has the distinction of being the most tragic and comic of the Labors. It is tragic because it caused the death of two renowned centaurs, Cheiron (Chiron) and Pholos, and comic because when Herakles took the boar to Mycenae he threatened to drop the fierce beast on his cousin, Eurystheus, as he cowered in a pithos, i.e. a very large earthenware jar used to store wine, food and, sometimes, bury the dead.
Erymanthos is a mountain in southern Greece on the northwest Peloponnesian Peninsula. To be rid of the deadly wild boar that was menacing the countryside around the mountain, Eurystheus commanded Herakles to capture the beast and deliver it to Mycenae alive. During his search for the boar, Herakles stopped at the dwelling of the centaur, Pholos. When Pholos opened the wine pithos so that he and Herakles could drink, the other, less civilized centaurs started a ruckus. Herakles used his bow to drive off the intruders and accidentally wounded the noble centaur Cheiron with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. In the confusion of the confrontation Pholos dropped one of the poisoned arrows on his foot ... both centaurs died from the poisonous Hydra blood.
Artwork depicting the death of the centaurs, Cheiron and Pholos, dates back to the early sixth century BCE including a frieze on the Temple of Athene at Assos. Representations of the capture of the boar date back to the late seventh century and often include Iolaos and Athene. Herakles is shown in various poses with the boar clutched to his breast, thrown over his shoulder; and holding the boar's hind feet and walking it like a wheelbarrow.
Arriving at Mycenae, Herakles presented the savage boar to Eurystheus who was hiding in a half-buried pithos in fear of the grisly beast ... a comic ending to an otherwise tragic Labor.
Augeas was the king of Elis which was a country in western Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the site of the ancient Olympic Games. Eurystheus gave Herakles the lowly, but formidable, task of cleaning the king's stables in a single day.
The only surviving artwork of this Labor is the metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and dates from the mid-fifth century BCE. For obvious reasons (lack of glamour, minimal manliness and no grandiose heroic ideals), this Labor did not seem to be a lively theme for ancient artists.
Herakles undertook this Labor with the same shrewd combination of brain and brawn that characterized his other Labors. With the help of his protector, Athene, he diverted the rivers Alpheios (Alpheius) and Peneios (Peneus) to the stables and, using a large wrecking bar, knocked a hole in the wall allowing the torrential waters to flush out the accumulated detritus.
The first six Labors of Herakles are commonly called the Peloponnesian Group because they were all done on Peloponnesian Peninsula. This, the Sixth Labor, is the last of the Peloponnesian Group and took place near Stymphalos (Stymphalus), in Arcadia. Herakles was sent to kill the Stymphalian Birds either because they were a nuisance or, as later writers profess, because they were man-eaters.
I personally believe that the classical Greeks, Romans and later writers (up to the present) weren't satisfied with the fragmentary condition of the ancient myths and sacrificed symbolism and subtlety for the sake of drama (like man-eating birds!) and thus inflicted their personal literary preferences on posterity ... for that reason I have tried to recount the earliest versions of the myths in the hopes of preserving the simple beauty and, sometimes, confusing nature of the fragments we still possess.
Herakles entered the woods around the lake near Stymphalos with his bow and a pair of krotalas ... krotalas were castanet-like clappers that were made by Hephaistos and given to Herakles by Athene ... the idea was to frighten the birds with the krotalas and then shoot them with his bow when they took flight. This Labor doesn't seem too dangerous or laborious but we can only assume the task was beyond the abilities of other men simply because Herakles was sent to do it.
There are a few black-figure vases portraying this Labor that date back to the mid-sixth century and also a metope on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (mid-fifth century) with Herakles giving what appears to be dead birds to Athene.
In this Labor Herakles had to go to the island of Crete and bring back a savage bull to Eurystheus, in Mycenae. The principal aspect of this Labor is simply the size and strength of the bull. It seems likely that Eurystheus wanted the bull brought to him to symbolize his virility as a leader of men and, perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate his dominance over the son of Zeus, Herakles.
The earliest depiction of this Labor seems to be from 550 BCE. However, there are numerous Attic black-figure vases from the late sixth century and early fifth century with Herakles either fighting or leading the bull. Some versions of this Labor indicate that after the bull was presented to Eurystheus it was set free and made its way to the fields of Marathon where it was finally captured by the Athenian hero, Theseus, and sacrificed to Apollon.
Diomedes was the king of Bistones, in Thrake (Thrace). He was also a son of Ares (god of War) and true to his bloodthirsty heritage and to keep his mares battle-keen, Diomedes fed the mares human flesh. It's not clear whether Herakles accomplished this Labor alone or if he enlisted a group of soldiers to assist him. It's also not clear whether Diomedes was killed defending his horrible horses or if Herakles fed him to the mares as a just desert. Regardless, Diomedes died for his savage behavior and Herakles took the mares back to Eurystheus, in Mycenae.
The earliest artistic depiction of this Labor appears on archaic Attic vases and cups. The Archaic Period was roughly from the sixth century BCE until the sack of Athens by the Persians in 480 BCE. On some of the archaic cups (circa 520 BCE) the mares of Diomedes are clearly stallions ... again, as with the Keryneian Hind, we have deliberate sexual ambiguity. This ambiguity was not restricted to animals ... even the beautiful goddess Artemis was sometimes called "The Bull Goddess."
Hippolyte was the queen of the Amazons but, as we will see, she was as much a mystery as the legendary Amazons she represented. The Amazons were a tribe (or society, if you prefer) of female warriors who lived at the fringe of the civilized world beyond the shores of the Euxine (Black Sea). Herodotus (Histories 4.110) said that the Scythians called the Amazons Oeorpata which is the equivalent of "mankillers" ... Orer being the Scythian word for "man" and Pata for "kill. "
In this, the Ninth Labor of Herakles, we are faced with several questions for which there are no definite answers: 1) did Herakles go on this Labor alone or did he take other soldiers with him, 2) did Herakles kill the Amazon queen or did he simply subdue her and take her belt (the mid-fifth century metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles standing over the fallen queen with his club raised as if to strike her), and 3) was the queen of the Amazons named Hippolyte, Andromeda or Andromache?
Judging by the surviving artwork of this Labor it seems to be almost as popular as the First Labor, i.e. the Killing of the Lion of Nemea, which was by far the most popular artistic theme associated with Herakles. The oldest definite depiction of the Ninth Labor shows Herakles with the Amazon queen, Andromeda, on a late seventh century Corinthian alabastron (a jar for oils, ointments and perfumes) ... later Attic depictions name the queen as Andromache. The first written accounts of this Labor did not appear until hundreds of years later ... by then the queen was named Hippolyte. The early representations of this Labor always show Herakles taking the belt by force but by circa 430 BCE the encounter with the Amazons became quite peaceful showing the Amazons in Persian attire (instead of Greek garments or Scythian war-gear) and entertaining Herakles as if he had dropped by for tea ... this seems completely out of character for both Herakles and the Amazons. The "belt" is often referred to as a girdle but it was probably more like an abbreviated cuirass, i.e. armor worn around the mid-section instead of completely covering the chest and back.
Sthenelos (Sthenelus), the son of Aktor (Actor), accompanied Herakles on this Labor but died on the shores of the Euxine before he could return home. After Herakles left the company of Jason and the Argonauts to complete his Labors, the Argo sailed past Sthenelos's burial mound. Persephone allowed Sthenelos's "shade" to rise from the Underworld and gaze upon the heroes and their ship. Orpheus dedicated his lyre to Sthenelos and, thereafter, the land was named Lyra.
When Herakles was returning from the land of the Amazons he stopped at Troy just in time to save the king's daughter from one of Poseidon's ketos, i.e. sea monsters. King Laomedon (whose great-great grandfather, Dardanos, was a son of Zeus) had neglected to give proper tribute to Poseidon and, as punishment, his daughter, Hesione, was to be sacrificed to one of Poseidon's beastly minions. There is a wonderful proto-Corinthian krater from circa 560 BCE which shows Herakles shooting arrows at the giant skull-faced monster while Hesione stands face-to-face with the foul creature bravely throwing rocks.
Hesione was saved and the Belt of the Amazon Queen, whatever her name may have been, was delivered to Eurystheus.
Geryon was a three-bodied warrior, the son of the spawn of Medusa, Chrysaor, and the Okeanid, Kallirhoe (Callirhoe). Geryon grazed his cattle in the far-western land of Erytheia. He was depicted in a variety of forms because the ancient artists weren't quite sure how a three-bodied man might look ... he's shown with three heads and six feet, one head with three faces and six feet, three winged bodies and other equally unlikely combinations. The written accounts go back as far as Hesiod (eighth century BCE) but the artistic record is much more extensive. This Labor seems to have been a popular theme for the mid-sixth century Attic black-figure vase painters as well as red-figure vases from the end of the fifth century. Several sixth century lekythoi (vases used for oils and ointments) and a seventh century Corinthian pyxis (a container for salves) also show the fight for Geryon's cattle.
On the long journey to Erytheia, Herakles became so weary of the burning heat of Helios, he raised his bow and shot an arrow at the Lord Sun. Helios was so amused at Herakles's impudence that he gave the hero a golden bowl to traverse the western sea. Upon arrival in Erytheia, Herakles promptly slew Geryon's two-headed dog, Ortho, and after a fierce fight he also killed Geryon and his herdsman, Eurytion. Herakles loaded the cattle into the golden bowl and sailed back to Eurystheus, in Mycenae.
Two sons of Poseidon, Alebion and Derkynus (Dercynus), tried to steal Geryon's cattle from Herakles and died for their efforts.
After he took the cattle of Geryon (Geryones), Herakles was stranded in the land that was later called Scythia. A son of Herakles became the first king of Scythia by a simple test of strength which Herakles prescribed.
Before Herakles ventured into the land it was desolate ... when he arrived, it was winter so he wrapped himself in his lion skin and went to sleep. During the night, some unidentified divine presence drove away his horses. When Herakles awoke, he began searching for his mares ... in a part of the country called Woodland, Herakles found a strange female creature in a cave. She was half-woman and half-snake. Herakles was amazed to see her but asked if she had seen his horses. She said that she knew where the horses were but she would only tell him their location if he would mate with her ... Herakles agreed.
It soon became clear that the snake-woman was not going to return Herakles's horses until she was ready ... after Herakles and the snake-woman had three sons, it was time for Herakles to leave. The snake-woman asked what she should do with the three children when they became young men ... Herakles gave the snake-woman his second bow and his belt and told her that whichever of his three sons could string the bow should wear his belt and become ruler of the land ... Herakles also commanded that the other two sons were to be driven from the county.
The boys were named Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes ... of the three, only Scythes was able to string his father's bow ... Agathyrsus and Gelonus were cast out by their mother ... Scythes became king and the country was named Scythia after him.
The Scythians became a race of notable archers and were easily identified by their belts which had a flask attached in the same fashion as the belt which Herakles left for his son.
This, the Eleventh Labor of Herakles, was perhaps the most symbolic and definitely the most convoluted of all the Labors. In order to get the Apples of the Hesperides, Herakles had to: 1) find the sea god, Nereus, 2) fight the giant, Antaios, 3) escape death in Egypt at the hands of king Busiris, 4) free Prometheus, from bondage, 5) seek out Atlas, and 6) return the Apples of the Hesperides to Eurystheus.
All of the aspects of this Labor tend to make this the work of the ancient Herakles. Diodorus Siculus states that the deeds of the ancient Herakles were centered in Egypt and freeing Prometheus from the mountain is obviously well before the time of the traditional Herakles. As for the encounter with Atlas and the Hesperides, this too could have very easily been a deed of the ancient Herakles.
The Golden Apples were originally a wedding gift from the primeval goddess of earth, Gaia, to Olympian Hera. They grew in a garden which was cultivated by three nymphs collectively known as the Hesperides (Aegle, Eretheis and Hespere). The Garden of the Hesperides could easily be imagined as an idyllic grove with beautiful nymphs basking in eternal spring but this fanciful scene is quickly dispelled by the sight of the multi-headed dragon, Ladon, poised in the background.
In order to find the Garden of the Hesperides, Herakles first had to trap the Ancient of the Sea, Nereus, and force him to reveal the garden's location. Herakles found Nereus asleep and pounced on the ancient god. Nereus struggled to get free by shape-shifting ... he assumed the appearance of various animals and forces of nature but Herakles was dauntless. Nereus finally relented and reluctantly told Herakles the secret location of the Hesperides's garden.
Herakles proceeded to Libya (which at that time comprised all of northern Africa west of Egypt) where he encountered the giant son of Poseidon, Antaios. Antaios would not let Herakles pass without a fight ... it's not clear whether Antaios was killed or simply defeated but, in the end, only Herakles was left standing.
Herakles wrestling with Antaios
After the fight with Antaios, Herakles traveled east into Egypt. The king of Egypt, Busiris (also a son of Poseidon), had been advised by an oracle that to end his nation's drought he must sacrifice a stranger ... it seemed to Busiris that Herakles was the perfect stranger. In ancient Greece, strangers were always treated with respect because the Immortals would often assume disguises and roam the countryside or city streets seeking adventure or distraction ... you never knew if the stranger at your door was a mere human or a divine wanderer ... to be on the safe side, all strangers were welcomed until they proved themselves either unappreciative or unworthy. Busiris, as an Egyptian, had no similar tradition to guide him. As the priests were leading Herakles to the sacrificial alter he realized their true intent and, in a fit of rage, killed Busiris and the priests.
The historian and traveler Herodotus raises serious doubts about Herakles's encounter with King Busiris. Herodotus admits that the Egyptians engaged in blood sacrifice but he also states that the Egyptians did not indulge in human sacrifice. He also doubts that Herakles could have killed the thousands of Egyptians necessary to make his escape.
After leaving Egypt, Herakles traveled to the Caucasus Mountains where he found Prometheus chained to the mountainside. Prometheus had defied Zeus by giving fire and other gifts to the mortals of earth ... for such an affront to Zeus's authority, Hephaistos chained Prometheus to the mountain where an eagle would ravage Prometheus's immortal flesh. Herakles, as a son of Zeus, was the only one who could break the chains and free Prometheus. In gratitude, Prometheus advised Herakles to seek out Atlas for assistance. Atlas, a brother of Prometheus, stood on a mountain in northwestern Africa and supported the heavens on his shoulders. Atlas agreed to retrieve the Golden Apples from the Hesperides if Herakles would assume his burden and hold up the sky until he returned with the apples.
Later writers imagined that Atlas tried to betray Herakles ... they insist that he never intended to resume his burden and that Herakles had to trick him into fulfilling his oath of assistance. The metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia seems to exonerate Atlas ... it shows Herakles with the sky on his shoulders while Atlas stands before him placidly offering the Golden Apples ... what really makes this scene dynamic is the figure of Athene standing behind Herakles with one graceful arm extending upwards effortlessly helping to support the weight of the heavens.
Knowing the troubles that Hera had inflicted on Herakles, I'm surprised that Eurystheus would want to risk her anger by possessing the Golden Apples which were rightfully hers ... perhaps he thought that Hera would blame Herakles for the theft of the Golden Apples and that the insult would provide her with more fuel for the fire of her hatred for the son of Zeus's infidelity.
This, the last Labor of Herakles, was the most dangerous and supernatural Labor that Eurystheus forced Herakles to endure. In The Odyssey by Homer (end of book 11), Herakles's "shade" told Odysseus, "I brought back the beast (Kerberos) from the Underworld; Hermes and gray-eyed Athene showed the way."
Kerberos, another offspring of the half-nymph/half-serpent Echidna and the snake-bodied Typhaon (Typhon) is the ferocious watchdog of the Underworld and was usually depicted having three heads, a dragon tail and snakes writhing from his body. The artistic and written descriptions of Kerberos differ as to the number of heads but the common theme is constant in that he was a beast of untamed savagery who only obeyed the voice of Hades, lord of the Underworld.
Herakles descended into the Underworld and confronted his uncle, Hades. Either through consideration for Herakles or fear of Zeus's wrath, Hades agreed to let Herakles temporally take Kerberos into the sunlight on the condition that no weapons be used to subdue the beastly hound. Exactly how Herakles was able to capture and chain Kerberos is not known but with Hermes, who guided the dead to the Underworld, and Athene, Herakles's constant protector, Kerberos was led to the court of Eurystheus. Eurystheus was so terrified at the sight of Kerberos that, as in the Fourth Labor, he hid in a giant pithos buried in the ground.
The mid-fifth century metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles pulling Kerberos from a hole in the ground with Hermes watching, presumably to be sure that no harm came to Hades's immortal watchdog.
While still working to complete his Labors, Herakles joined the crew of the Argo to help Jason recover the Golden Fleece from the distant land of Kolchis (Colchis). When the Argonauts landed on the island of Chios, one of the crewmen, Hylas, went ashore for fresh water at the spring of Pegae (the spring that the flying horse Pegasos (Pegasus) had created by striking his hoof on the earth). The nymphs of the spring were attracted to Hylas because of his beauty and would not allow him to leave. Herakles stayed to search for Hylas but when he could not find him, went to the nearby city of Mysia and ordered the inhabitants to establish an annual sacrifice to Hylas at the spring. Herakles and another sailor, Polyphemos (Polyphemus), refused to leave the island without Hylas and the Argo sailed without them.
When the Argonauts were stranded in the Libyan desert after stealing the Golden Fleece, they encountered the Hesperides. Aegle appeared as the trunk of a willow tree, Eretheis as an elm tree and Hespere as a poplar tree. Aegle told the story of how Herakles had killed the dragon, Ladon, and had created a spring of fresh water by kicking a rock. She showed the Argonauts the spring that Herakles had created and the Argonauts drank their fill before they continued through the inhospitable desert.
Upon the completion of the Twelve Labors, Herakles was free of the authority of his cousin. Eurystheus. Without the comfort of a wife or children, he ventured out into the world, not necessarily seeking adventure but, more likely, to live a life that was not dominated by vengeful Immortals or vindictive relatives.
Artwork from the early sixth century BCE has a trivial story that was surprisingly popular throughout Greece (with the exception of Athens) and southern Italy for over two hundred years. As Herakles was sleeping under a tree, two mischievous characters, known as the Kerkopes, stole his bow ... their names were Passalus and Akmon (Acmon). Herakles caught the barbaric looking brothers and tied them upside-down to a pole which he carried on his shoulders. The Kerkopes were not only unrepentant but highly amused by their plight ... as they dangled behind Herakles they began making disparaging comments about Herakles's hairy posterior. Our hero, who was so accustomed to sorrow and brutality, couldn't resist the infectious good humor of the Kerkopes and set them free. It's assumed that this tale was never very popular in Athenian artwork because of their aristocratic sense of humor but they weren't immune to ribald satyr plays which, among other topics, often belittled the Labors and Deeds of Herakles.
Apollon, in repayment of a debt of gratitude, arranged for a goodly man named Admetos to marry a lovely woman named Alkestis (Alcestis).
When Apollon found out that Admetos was destined to die immediately after the marriage, he wooed the Eumenides (Furies) with wine until they agreed to allow Admetos to live. The Eumenides were not easily persuaded ... they would only allow Admetos to live on the condition that someone else volunteer to die in his place. Alkestis loved her husband so much that she agreed to die for him.
When Herakles was entertained as the guest of Admetos, he heard the story of Alkestis's noble sacrifice and was so moved by such an act of selflessness that he intercepted Thanatos (Death) as he was escorting Alkestis to the Underworld and returned her to the land of the living and reunited her with Admetos.
Syleus of Aulis was a villain who made the fatal mistake of trying to force Herakles to work in his vineyard. It's assumed that it was the regular practice of Syleus to stop travelers passing by his farm and force them to toil in his vineyard or be beaten for their refusal. You can certainly guess the outcome of this story ... Syleus tried to force Herakles to work ... Syleus, his family and all his vines died in the inevitable conflagration.
The artwork of this simple story dates back to the early fifth century BCE but writers, such as Euripides (circa 480-406 BCE), infused the plot with divine intervention as the primary motivation instead of letting it stand as a straight-forward morality tale.
During the course of his Twelve Labors, Herakles had a deadly encounter with a son of Ares named Kyknos. Kyknos had been stealing sacrificial animals that were being taken to the Temple of Apollon at Delphi. The story of Kyknos's violent death was recorded in the poem Shield of Herakles by Hesiod and, as the title implies, the poem deals primarily with the shield that Herakles carried into battle against Kyknos ... it also gives a thrilling account of Herakles's confrontation with Kyknos, and then with Ares. The name Kyknos literally means Swan and is the origin of the Swan-Song, i.e. death-song.
Athene, Herakles, Kyknos and Ares
Herakles and Kyknos met in a grove sacred to Apollon and for Apollon, Athene (Athena) and Zeus, there was no doubt as to the outcome of the contest ... Kyknos was going to die and his father Ares could do nothing about it. Herakles was accompanied by his cousin Iolaos (Iolaus) ... they entered the grove in a chariot pulled by the horse Arion. Kyknos was with his father Ares and, despite his obvious doom, thought he could kill Herakles and Iolaos and take their armor.
Herakles had been given an incomparable shield by the immortal artificer, Hephaistos (Hephaestus). The technical intricacy and supernatural countenance of the shield gave Herakles the advantage in the mortal combat. Before the two heroes came to blows, the goddess Athene appeared beside Herakles's chariot and informed him that after he killed Kyknos, he could take Kyknos's armor and horses ... to be certain that Herakles and Iolaos understood, Athene shook her aegis and the earth trembled.
Herakles called to Kyknos and asked him to turn aside and avoid the fight ... he reminded Kyknos of the time he had bested Ares in single combat but Kyknos would not be dissuaded from the fight. Zeus thundered and rained drops of blood as a signal to Herakles that the contest should begin ... the two heroes shouted so loudly that their war-cries echoed through the neighboring hills.
The two men dismounted from their chariots and Kyknos was the first to strike ... he stabbed at Herakles but the divinely crafted shield turned the blow away. Herakles stabbed upwards with his spear and caught Kyknos under the chin with a mighty blow ... Kyknos died before he hit the ground ... he collapsed like a fallen tree ... his bronze armor clashed about him.
As soon as Kyknos fell dead, Ares rushed at Herakles with murderous intent but Herakles stood his ground. Athene raised her aegis and confronted Ares ... she told him that it was not ordained that he should kill Herakles or take his armor as a prize ... she warned Ares not to withstand her but he did not heed her warning and hurled his spear at Herakles. Athene reached out and turned the force of the spear aside. Ares pulled his sword and resumed the attack ... Herakles stabbed Ares in the thigh with his spear and knocked the god to the ground. Ares's sons, Phobos and Deimos, rushed to their father's aid ... they placed him in their chariot and rushed him to the safety of Mount Olympos (Olympus). As was customary, Herakles and Iolaos stripped the armor from Kyknos's dead body.
Kyknos was given a proper burial by King Keyx in Trachis with many people attending the ceremonies but Apollon would not put aside his anger ... he asked the river Anauros (Anaurus) to obliterate Kyknos's grave and memorial so that no trace of the impious man would remain on the earth. Kyknos died ingloriously at the hands of Herakles and would have been utterly forgotten if not for the poem, Shield of Herakles.
The prince of Oichalia (Oechalia), Eurytos, was seeking a manly husband for his daughter, Iole. Eurytos sponsored an archery competition in which the winner would marry the fair Iole. Herakles, as subtle with his bow as he was brutal with his club, entered the contest and won. Eurytos must have known that Herakles had murdered his children and perhaps his first wife, Megara, so it's difficult to blame Eurytos when he refused to allow Iole to marry Herakles ... Herakles did not see it that way ... with no hesitation, Herakles killed Eurytos and his sons and, to add to Iole's dishonor and sorrow, Herakles took her as his mistress instead of his wife.
During his many travels, Herakles was the guest of Telamon. While Herakles was being entertained by Telamon, he prayed that his host would have an outstanding son. At that moment, Zeus sent an omen in the form of an eagle to signify his blessing. Telamon's son, Aias (Ajax) was to become the largest and, second only to Achilles, the most fierce Greek warrior at the battle for the city of Troy. The name Aias is taken from the word for eagle, i.e. aetos.
Herakles had competed for Iole and had intended to marry her but the treachery of her father stilled his desire to make her his wife. The desire to marry and have a family was rekindled by another woman, Deianeira. She was from Kalydon (Calydon) and the daughter of Oineus.
The river god, Archelaos (Acheloos), was already courting Deianeira and he refused to step aside for Herakles ... a fight began. Artwork as old as 570 BCE documents the struggle between Herakles and the bull-like Archelaos ... throughout the centuries his appearance varied from bull-like with human features to human-like with bull horns but the bull countenance was always persistent. The two grappled until Herakles broke off Archelaos's horns and ended the fight.
Herakles fighting Acheloos
With the blessing of Deianeira's father and the protection of Athene and Nike, Herakles and Deianeira were married and had a son, Hyllos (Hyllus). Sometime later, while they were traveling, they came to the river Evenus where they met the centaur, Nessos. Nessos offered to carry Deianeira across the river on his back while Herakles waded across with Hyllos. Nessos quickly transported Deianeira across the river and, with unbridled depravity, tried to forcibly seduce her. Herakles fell on the centaur with savage fury and moments later Nessos lay bleeding to death on the riverbank. Before he died he managed to commit one last act of malice ... he secretly told Deianeira that his blood was a powerful love potion ... he said that if she were to put the magic blood on Herakles it would bind him to her forever. Deianeira collected some of Nessos's blood and put it on Herakles's cloak. The result was disastrous ... the blood was poison to Herakles ... it burned him like acid. Deianeira was horrified ... she had mortally wounded the man she had hoped to bind with love ... she killed herself in desperation.
In agony, Herakles made his way to Mount Oita and prepared himself for death. As with all the ancient myths, there are many elements that will always remain nebulous ... the death of Herakles is no exception. Later writers said that Herakles killed Nessos with an arrow dipped in the poisonous Hydra blood and that the combination of the Hydra blood and the centaur's blood synergized to make a poison deadly enough to kill the semi-divine Herakles. However, artwork which predates the literary sources by several hundred years, shows Herakles killing Nessos with a sword and not arrows.
Herakles laid upon his self-constructed funeral pyre and begged for someone to light the fire ... either the renowned archer, Philoktetes, or his father, Poias, finally lit the blaze. In gratitude for the release from his pain and suffering, Herakles gave Philoktetes (or Poias) his famous bow and quiver. Before the flames could consume his essence, Athene (or Nike) lifted Herakles from the fire and took him to Mount Olympos. Philoktetes took Herakles's bow to fight with the Greeks during the siege of Troy ... using the fall of Troy as a datable historical fact, this would put the end of Herakles's mortal life at circa 1240 BCE.
After his death, Herakles was granted godhood and was welcomed to Mount Olympos by all the Immortals. Even Hera put aside her jealously to receive our Hero. After he was on Mount Olympos, Herakles married the sweet stepping goddess Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera. He and Hebe had one son, Alexiares.
The idea that Herakles was nothing more than a myth seems a bit too simplistic to me. Supposedly, the Heraklidae, i.e. the descendants of Herakles, ruled parts of Greece and Asia Minor for 505 years after his death. I find it hard to dismiss the possibility that Herakles was a flesh and blood man who's exploits were real in a very literal way. His adventures may have been exaggerated and other hero's exploits were probably superimposed on Herakles's deeds but the possibility remains that he was a real man and did many of the things attributed to him.
The ancient Greeks had no doubts as to his reality. Historians like Herodotus (Histories, book 4, chapter 82) and Xenophon (Anabasis, book 6, chapter 2) mentioned him with no hesitation and recounted his exploits as actual historical events. Herodotus tells of the time when he was visiting the river Tyras in Scythia and was shown a footprint in a rock that was said to have been left by Herakles. Although Herodotus may have doubted the authenticity of the footprint, he had no doubt about physical reality of Herakles. Xenophon went to the hole in the ground where Herakles was said to have emerged from the Underworld after subduing Hades's dog, Kerberos (Cerberus). Likewise, Xenophon may have questioned the fact that the particular hole he was shown was used by Herakles but he did not have the slightest misgiving about the reality of Herakles.
The line numbers listed here correspond fairly well with the Lattimore and Murray/Wyatt translations of The Iliad. Other translations (Fitzgerald, Fagles et al) do not correspond as well but, with a small amount of effort, you should be able to find the reference you need regardless of the translation you use.
(Loeb Classical Library vol. 57, Hesiod)
(Loeb Classical Library vol. 57, Hesiod)
(Loeb Classical Library vol. 503, Hesiod II)