The Story and Labors of Hercules

The Tower of Hercules overview / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most popular of Greek heroes, Hercules (“Herakles”) was celebrated in stories, sculptures, paintings, and even in the geography of the ancient world.

Perseus Project
Classics Department
Tufts University

The Life and Times of Hercules

Stories about the gods, called myths, were made up thousands of years ago. Was there a real Hercules, a man behind the stories? We will never know. Yet, his story is of a man who was so strong and courageous, whose deeds were so mighty, and who so endured all the hardships that were given to him, that when he died, Hercules was brought up to Mount Olympus to live with the gods.

Hercules was both the most famous hero of ancient times and the most beloved. More stories were told about him than any other hero. Hercules was worshipped in many temples all over Greece and Rome.

Berlin F 2278, Attic red figure kylix, c. 500 B.C.
Side B: Hercules, carrying his club and wearing his lion skin,
walks with a procession of gods and goddesses to Olympus.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung

Zeus and Alcmene

There are as many different versions of Hercules’ life story as there are storytellers. Differences between the Disney movie version and other versions include the explanation of who Hercules’ parents were, and why he had to perform the 12 Labors. Zeus, Hercules’ father, was the most powerful of the gods. That meant Zeus could do anything he pleased, but it also meant that sometimes Zeus was not a very good husband to his wife, Hera, the queen of the gods.

Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Greek woman named Alcmene [Alk-ME-ne]. When Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, was away, Zeus made her pregnant. This made Hera so angry that she tried to prevent the baby from being born. When Alcmene gave birth to the baby anyway, she named him Herakles. (The Romans pronounced the name “Hercules,” and so do we today.) The name Herakles means “glorious gift of Hera” in Greek, and that got Hera angrier still. Then she tried to kill the baby by sending snakes into his crib. But little Hercules was one strong baby, and he strangled the snakes, one in each hand, before they could bite him.

Louvre G 192, Attic red figure stamnos, c. 480-470 B.C.
The baby Hercules wrestles with the snakes Hera has sent to his crib.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Hera remained angry. How could she get even? Hera knew that she would lose in a fight, and that she wasn’t powerful enough to prevent Zeus from having his way. Hera decided to pay Zeus back for his infidelity by making the rest of Hercules’ life as miserable as she could.

Eurystheus and the 12 Labors

When Hercules grew up and had become a great warrior, he married Megara. They had two children. Hercules and Megara were very happy, but life didn’t turn out for them the way it does in the movie. Hera sent a fit of madness to Hercules that put him into so great a rage, he murdered Megara and the children.

When Hercules regained his senses and saw the horrible thing that he had done, he asked the god Apollo to rid him of this pollution. Apollo commanded the hero to do certain tasks as a punishment for his wrongs, so that the evil might be cleansed from his spirit.

Würzburg L 500, Attic red figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500 B.C.
The god Apollo.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg

Apollo had many divine responsibilities. As Phoebus, he was the sun god, and every day he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky. He was the god of healing and music. Finally, Apollo was a god of prophecy: the Greeks believed that Apollo knew what would happen in the future, and that he could advise people how to act.

Hercules hurried to the temple where Apollo gave such advice. It was in the town of Delphi and was called the Delphic oracle. Apollo said that in order to purify himself for the spilling of his family’s blood, he had to perform 10 heroic labors (this number would soon be increased to 12).

Delphi, view looking SE across the Temple of Apollo’s terrace toward the valley below.
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was built on a very steep hillside.
Photograph by Pamela Russell

Hercules got even more bad news. Apollo declared that he had to go to the city of Tiryns. The king of Tiryns was Eurystheus [You-RISS-theus]. Eurystheus had a reputation for being mean, and Hercules knew that the king would give him a tough time. The hero had to serve Eurystheus for twelve years while he performed the Labors. There was some good news, though. When the tasks were completed, Apollo said, Hercules would become immortal. Unlike other men, instead of dying and going to the Underworld of Hades, he would become a god.

Aerial view of the fortress-palace at Tiryns.
The citadel’s impressively thick fortress walls have stood for over thirty centuries.
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

You might want to explore the 12 Labors of Hercules, at this point, or you can continue to read about his life. Most of the pictures of Hercules shown at this web site were painted by the Greeks on vases around 2200 to 2500 years ago. Notice that Hercules wears a lion’s skin, the prize from his first Labor, and wields a huge club.

Further Adventures of Hercules

After he completed the 12 Labors, Hercules didn’t just sit back and rest on his laurels. He had many more adventures. One was to rescue the princess of Troy from a hungry sea-monster. Another was to help Zeus defeat the Giants in a great battle for the control of Olympus. You might want to read these other stories about Hercules now, or continue with the hero’s biography, below.

Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules sneaks up on a sleeping giant, Alkyoneus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Hercules on the Pyre

Hercules got married a second time, to the beautiful Deianira [Day-an-EE-ra]. When Hercules was returning from his last adventure, Deianira gave him a welcome-home present. This was a cloak which she had woven herself. Deianira had a magic balm which a centaur had given to her. The centaur told Deianira that anyone who put on the balm would love her forever. But actually the balm contained a caustic poison. This balm she now smeared into the cloak.

London E 370, Attic red figure pelike, c. 440-430 B.C.
Hercules trades in his old lionskin for the new cloak Deianira has woven him.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

When Hercules received the cloak and tried it on, his body immediately began to burn with excruciating pain. He tried to pull the cloak off, but the pain burned even harder and deeper. Death, thought Hercules, would be better than unendurable pain. Bellowing in agony, he asked his friends to build a huge pile of wood on the top of Mount Oeta. This would be Hercules’ funeral pyre. He laid himself upon the pyre, and told his friends to light it. As the fire began to burn Hercules alive, the great gods looked down from Olympus. Zeus said to Hera that Hercules had suffered enough. Hera agreed and ended her anger. Zeus sent Athena to take Hercules from the pyre, and she brought Hercules to Olympus on her chariot.

Munich 2360, Attic red figure pelike, c. 410 B.C.
Athena and Hercules leave the funeral pyre, headed for Mount Olympus.
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

Travels of Hercules

Map 1: Some of the places in Europe
mentioned in the stories of Hercules

Map 2: Some of the locations across Greece
that Heracles visited.
(See the map below for a closer view of the
of the area within the rectangular box.)

Map 3: A close-up view of the Pelopennese.
(The rectangular area in Map 2.)

Women and Hercules

Some of the most influential people in Hercules’ life were women, both mortals and goddesses. At nearly every turn, it seems, a woman was there, either to help or to hinder him.

Munich 2301, Attic bilingual amphora
Hercules feasting, with Athena.
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

Hera (Queen of the Gods) Made Hercules’ Life Difficult

Hera, queen of the gods, was Zeus’ wife, and the patron of marriage. She greatly affected the course of Hercules’ life, for reasons mentioned in the life and times section above. She hated the hero so much that she caused him problems at every opportunity.

RISD 25.078, Attic red figure lekythos, c. 500-475 B.C.
Hera seated on a throne.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Museum of Art, RISD, Providence, RI

Hera set in motion the events which led to his 12 Labors. During the course of the Labors, the goddess stepped in to make things harder, stirring up the Amazons against Hercules, or sending a gadfly to break up the herd of Geryon’s cattle.

Even after Hercules finished the Labors, and went on to other adventures, Hera got in his way. When the hero sailed from Troy, Hera sent violent storms that tossed the boat around like a toy. Zeus got so mad at Hera for causing trouble that he hung her off the edge of Mount Olympus.

Louvre CA 616, Attic black figure tripod kothon, c. 570-565 B.C.
The wedding of Zeus and Hera. The bride is veiled, and standing behind her husband in the chariot. Three women carry wreaths to the newlyweds.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Hercules did try to smooth things over with the angry queen of the gods; when he noticed that she had not opposed him during his fight against Hippocoon, he sacrificed goats to her, in thanks. When Hercules died, Hera’s anger finally cooled, and after the hero ascended to Olympus, he married Hera’s daughter, Hebe.

Dewing 2111, silver drachm from Amisos, c. 400-300 B.C.
Hera wearing a crown.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Numismatic Foundation

Athena (Goddess of Wisdom)

Though Hercules had an enemy, Hera, on Mount Olympus, he also had a friend.

Dewing 1595, silver Athenian tetradrachm (=4 drachmas), ca. 449 – 420 B.C.
The goddess Athena, wearing a helmet.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Greek Numismatic Foundation

Athena, the goddess of wisdom and military victory, and also the patron of the city of Athens, was Hercules’ half-sister. Her parents were Zeus and Metis, a nymph. Zeus heard a prophecy that the child Metis bore after she gave birth to Athena would become the lord of heaven, so, to prevent this from happening, he swallowed Metis while she was still pregnant with Athena.

When the time came for Athena to be born, the smith god, Hephaistos, opened Zeus’ head with an axe, and Athena stepped out, in full armor. The birth of Athena was a favorite topic of Greek vase painters.

Boston 00.330, Attic black figure panel amphora, c. 540 B.C.
The birth of Athena. The goddess leaps, wearing armor, from the head of her father, Zeus.
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. H. L. Pierce Fund

Athena often helped heroes, like Jason and Perseus. She wore an aegis, a goatskin shield which had a fringe of snakes. When Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa, whose face turned men to stone, he gave the gorgon head to Athena, and the goddess placed it on her aegis.

Toledo 1963.26, Attic black figure calyx krater, c. 520-515 B.C.
Athena wearing her aegis, with its snake-fringe and gorgon head
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

When Hercules went mad and killed his children, Athena stopped the disaster from getting worse. Just as the insane hero turned to kill Amphitryon, Athena threw a stone at Hercules, knocking him unconscious, so his mortal father was spared. Athena also helped Hercules at many points during his Labors. She provided him with the krotala he used to scare the Stymphalian Birds, and she carried the apples back to the garden of the Hesperides.

Megara (Hercules’ First Wife)

Acropolis of Minyan Orchomenos from the south
Photograph courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Saul S. Weinberg Collection

After defeating the Minyans at Orchomenos, King Creon offered his eldest daughter, Megara, to Hercules as a bride in reward for his prowess in battle. Together, Hercules and Megara had anywhere between three and eight children. Although many different versions of Hercules’ doomed marriage to Megara survive, Euripides’ Heracles is the most popular account. There still remains much debate surrounding the sequencing of events.

Louvre E 701
Main panel: Hercules and Kerberos
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

According to Euripides, when Hercules returned home from his trip to the underworld to fetch Cerberus, he found Greece in chaos. During his absence, Lycus had come to Eubea to overthrow Creon and murdered him. At the precise moment of Hercules’ return, Lycus was about to murder Megara and their children. Hercules rushed to the defense of his family and slew Lycus with an arrow. Just as Hercules was about to sacrifice to Zeus, however, Hera interfered, causing Hercules to fall into a state of delusion and rage. Hercules shot their children with his arrows, believing them to be Eurystheus’ sons and not his own. (Although Apollodoros reports that Megara escaped and married Iolaus, Euripides reports that Hercules shot Megara too.) As Hercules was about to kill his own adopted father, Amphitryon, thinking him to be Eurystheus’ father Sthenelus, Athena intervened and pelted Hercules on the chest with a rock, knocking him out cold and sending him into a deep sleep. Once Hercules awoke and realized what he had done, he was horrified by his actions and wanted to commit suicide. Luckily his friend Theseus was there to calm him down, eventually convincing Hercules to go into exile.

Dewing 2111, silver drachm from Amisos, c. 400-300 B.C.
Hera wearing a crown.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Numismatic Foundation

Traditionally, Hercules’ momentary insanity is explained by Hera’s desire to make Hercules commit a crime that would require atonement. Some versions say that following the murders, Hercules traveled to Delphi, and was instructed by the oracle to go to Tiryns and to serve Eurystheus for twelve years and perform any tasks that he might ask of him. If Hercules would complete these tasks and serve his sentence to Eurystheus in full, Hercules would be made immortal. The tasks that followed were to be known later as the labors of Hercules.

Omphale (The Barbarian Queen)

The Lydian queen Omphale actually owned Hercules, as a slave. She bought the hero from the god Hermes, who sold him following an oracle which declared that Hercules must be sold into slavery for three years.

Hercules had sought the oracle to find out what he had to do in order to purify himself, after he murdered his friend Iphitus and stole the Delphic tripod.

Berlin F 2180, Attic red figure calyx krater, ca. 510-500 B.C.
An athlete’s slave boy helps him prepare for competition.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung

The Athenian playwright Sophocles imagined Hercules feeling deep dishonor at being forced into slavery, “so stung was he by the shame of it.” Slaves in Greek society often came from non-Greek regions, so the enslavement of the great Hercules by a barbarian queen from Lydia would have seemed an especially outrageous reversal to the Greeks. During this time of servitude, the hero continued his amazing feats, ridding yet another part of the world of monsters.

…Lydia indeed obtained great peace and security; but in the regions of Hellas the old villainies burst forth and broke out anew, there being none to rebuke and none to restrain them.

Plutarch, Theseus 6.5

Lydia was an ancient kingdom in southwestern Asia Minor, in what is modern-day Turkey. The Lydians were not a Greek-speaking people, so they were considered barbarians by the Greeks. Lydia’s capital, the city of Sardis, was described as “rich in gold.” Sardis was built along the Pactolus River, which flowed from Mount Tmolus carrying deposits of gold. The Lydians built a gold refining operation on the banks of the Pactolus, and they became quite wealthy.

View from N peak of Mt. Pion, at Ephesos, toward W and the sea. Ephesos was in the region of Ionia, bordering Lydia.
Photograph by Don Keller

One Lydian king, Croesus, made a lavish display of his riches at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi, hoping to win Apollo’s favor (and show his neighbors how rich he was). Croesus sacrificed three thousand beasts, and burned enormous couches covered with gold and silver, golden goblets, and purple cloaks and tunics. The king’s sacrifices were so valuable that his name became synonomous with wealth; even today, we use the phrase, “rich as Croesus.”

Dewing 2423, electrum trite minted at Sardis, c. 737-560 B.C.
Obverse: lion’s head.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Greek Numismatic Foundation

The ancient historian Herodotus claims that the Lydians were the first people to use coinage, which they made from the gold they refined. Many Lydian coins were made of an alloy of gold and silver called electrum.

Deianira (Hercules’ Second Wife)

Hercules married a second wife, Deianira. He won her hand in marriage by wrestling with the river-god Acheloos, who took the form of a centaur. During the fight, Hercules broke off one of Acheloos’ horns.

Berlin F 1851, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules fighting Acheloos.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche Museen
zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung

Once, when Deianira and Hercules were traveling, they came to the Evenus River. A centaur, Nessos, had been appointed ferryman there. As he carried Deianira across, he tried to assault her, and Hercules, hearing her screams, ran to rescue his damsel in distress. Hercules shot the centaur in the heart with one of his arrows.

Munich 1428, Attic black figure Tyrrhenian amphora, c. 550-540 B.C.
Hercules fighting Nessos, who holds Deianira aloft.
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

Just before he died, Nessos set up his revenge by telling Deianira that the blood spilling from his wound could be used as a love potion, if need be. Deianira picked up some of the centaur’s blood and saved it. Later, she put it onto a cloak she’d woven for Hercules, hoping it would renew his love for her.

The blood, of course, was not a love potion, but a deadly poison instead, and its touch burned Hercules’ skin. His eventual death is described in the life and times section.

Poor woman, ill-fated, what a plan she devised! Widely powerful envy destroyed her…

Bacchylides, Odes 16.35

The story of Deianira and Hercules became the subject of one of Sophocles’ tragic plays, Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis). Like many Greek tragedies. this play explored the disruptive and horrible consequences when gods and mortals interacted.

Hebe (Cup-Bearer of the Gods)

After Hercules died, became a god, and ascended to Mount Olympus, he married yet again, to the goddess Hebe, who was the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe had the honor of being the gods’ cup-bearer, pouring and bringing them wine.

London 1971.11-1.1, Attic black figure dinos, c. 580 B.C.
Hebe, wearing a fancy embroidered tunic, sandals, and jewelry, with the god Dionysos. Note the inscription of her name next to her.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

Now the gods, seated by the side of Zeus, were holding assembly on the golden floor, and in their midst the queenly Hebe poured them nectar, and they with golden goblets pledged one the other…

Homer, Iliad 4.1

Hebe was worshipped as a goddess of pardons or forgiveness; freed prisoners would hang their chains in the sacred grove of her sanctuary at Phlius.

Philadelphia MS5462, Attic red figure pyxis, c. 350 B.C.
Hercules with his bride, Hebe
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum

And mighty Heracles, the valiant son of neat-ankled Alcmena, when he had finished his grievous toils, made Hebe the child of great Zeus and goldshod Hera his shy wife in snowy Olympus. Happy he! For he has finished his great work and lives amongst the undying gods, untroubled and unaging all his days.

Hesiod, Theogony 950

The Labors of Hercules

The goddess Hera, determined to make trouble for Hercules, made him lose his mind. In a confused and angry state, he killed his own wife and children.

When he awakened from his “temporary insanity,” Hercules was shocked and upset by what he’d done. He prayed to the god Apollo for guidance, and the god’s oracle told him he would have to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years, in punishment for the murders.

As part of his sentence, Hercules had to perform twelve Labors, feats so difficult that they seemed impossible. Fortunately, Hercules had the help of Hermes and Athena, sympathetic deities who showed up when he really needed help. By the end of these Labors, Hercules was, without a doubt, Greece’s greatest hero.

His struggles made Hercules the perfect embodiment of an idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which would lead to fame and, in Hercules’ case, immortality.

The Nemean Lion

Initially, Hercules was required to complete ten labors, not twelve. King Eurystheus decided Hercules’ first task would be to bring him the skin of an invulnerable lion which terrorized the hills around Nemea.

Nemea, Temple of Zeus and landscape
Overall view from SW
Photograph courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Saul S. Weinberg Collection

Setting out on such a seemingly impossible labor, Hercules came to a town called Cleonae, where he stayed at the house of a poor workman-for-hire, Molorchus. When his host offered to sacrifice an animal to pray for a safe lion hunt, Hercules asked him to wait 30 days. If the hero returned with the lion’s skin, they would sacrifice to Zeus, king of the gods. If Hercules died trying to kill the lion, Molorchus agreed to sacrifice instead to Hercules, as a hero.

Hercules wrestling the Nemean Lion
Philadelphia L-64-185, Attic red figure stamnos, ca. 490 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum

When Hercules got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered his arrows were useless against the beast. Hercules picked up his club and went after the lion. Following it to a cave which had two entrances, Hercules blocked one of the doorways, then approached the fierce lion through the other. Grasping the lion in his mighty arms, and ignoring its powerful claws, he held it tightly until he’d choked it to death.

Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion
Mississippi 1977.3.62, Attic black figure neck amphora, ca. 510-500 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

Hercules returned to Cleonae, carrying the dead lion, and found Molorchus on the 30th day after he’d left for the hunt. Instead of sacrificing to Hercules as a dead man, Molorchus and Hercules were able to sacrifice together, to Zeus.

When Hercules made it back to Mycenae, Eurystheus was amazed that the hero had managed such an impossible task. The king became afraid of Hercules, and forbade him from entering through the gates of the city. Furthermore, Eurystheus had a large bronze jar made and buried partway in the earth, where he could hide from Hercules if need be. After that, Eurystheus sent his commands to Hercules through a herald, refusing to see the powerful hero face to face.

Hercules wearing the lion skin
Boston 99.538, Attic bilingual amphora, ca. 525-500 B.C.
Photograph courtesy,Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. H. L. Pierce Fund

Many times we can identify Hercules in ancient Greek vase paintings or sculptures simply because he is depicted wearing a lion skin. Ancient writers disagreed as to whether the skin Hercules wore was that of the Nemean lion, or one from a different lion, which Hercules was said to have killed when he was 18 years old. The playwright Euripides wrote that Hercules’ lion skin came from the grove of Zeus, the sanctuary at Nemea:

First he cleared the grove of Zeus of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws.

Euripides, Hercules, 359

The Lernean Hydra

The second labor of Hercules was to kill the Lernean Hydra. From the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna, the hydra would rise up and terrorize the countryside. A monstrous serpent with nine heads, the hydra attacked with poisonous venom. Nor was this beast easy prey, for one of the nine heads was immortal and therefore indestructible.

Aerial view of site and bay, from E
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

Hercules set off to hunt the nine-headed menace, but he did not go alone. His trusty nephew, Iolaus, was by his side. Iolaus, who shared many adventures with Hercules, accompanied him on many of the twelve labors. Legend has it that Iolaus won a victory in chariot racing at the Olympics and he is often depicted as Hercules’ charioteer. So, the pair drove to Lerna and by the springs of Amymone, they discovered the lair of the loathsome hydra.

Munich 1416, Attic black figure amphora, ca. 510-500 B.C.
Side A: scene at left, Hercules and Iolaos in chariot
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

First, Hercules lured the coily creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, though, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules’ foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! To make matters worse, the hydra had a friend of its own: a huge crab began biting the trapped foot of Hercules. Quickly disposing of this nuisance, most likely with a swift bash of his club, Hercules called on Iolaus to help him out of this tricky situation.

Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra’s heads, Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of the neck. The flames prevented the growth of replacement heads, and finally, Hercules had the better of the beast. Once he had removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, Hercules chopped off the ninth, immortal head. This he buried at the side of the road leading from Lerna to Elaeus, and for good measure, he covered it with a heavy rock. As for the rest of the hapless hydra, Hercules slit open the corpse and dipped his arrows in the venomous blood.

Malibu 83.AE.346, Caeretan hydria, c. 525 B.C.
Main panel: Hercules slaying the Lernean hydra
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

Eurystheus was not impressed with Hercules’ feat, however. He said that since Iolaus had helped his uncle, this labor should not count as one of the ten. This technicality didn’t seem to matter much to anyone else: the ancient authors still give Hercules all of the credit. Even so, Pausanias did not think that this labor was as fantastic as the myths made it out to be: to him, the fearsome hydra was just, well, a big water snake.

At the source of the Amymone grows a plane tree, beneath which, they say, the hydra (water-snake) grew. I am ready to believe that this beast was superior in size to other water-snakes, and that its poison had something in it so deadly that Heracles treated the points of his arrows with its gall. It had, however, in my opinion, one head, and not several. It was Peisander of Camirus who, in order that the beast might appear more frightful and his poetry might be more remarkable, represented the hydra with its many heads.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.37.4

The Hind of Ceryneia (Diana’s Pet Deer)

For the third labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the Hind of Ceryneia. Now, before we go any further, we’ll have to answer two questions: What is a hind? and, Where is Ceryneia?

Ceryneia is a town in Greece, about fifty miles from Eurystheus’ palace in Mycenae.

Map of Southern Greece showing Ceryneia and Mycenae

A hind is simply a female red deer.

Deer pursued by hunters
Harvard 1960.390, Boeotian black figure kantharos, ca. 560-550 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums

You’d think it would have been easy for a hero like Hercules to go shoot a deer and bring it back to Eurystheus, but a few problems made things complicated. This was a special deer, because it had golden horns and hoofs of bronze. Not only that, the deer was sacred to the goddess of hunting and the moon, Diana; she was Diana’s special pet. That meant that Hercules could neither kill the deer nor hurt her. He couldn’t risk getting Diana angry at him; he was already in enough trouble with Hera.

Hercules with the hind of Ceryneia and the goddess Athena
Toledo 1958.69a+b, Attic black figure pointed amphora, ca. 510 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Hercules set out on this adventure, and he hunted the deer for a whole year. At last, when the deer had become weary with the chase, she looked for a place to rest on a mountain called Artemisius, and then made her way to the river Ladon. Realizing that the deer was about to get away, Hercules shot her just as she was about to cross the stream. He caught the deer, put her on his shoulders and turned back to Mycenae. As Hercules hurried on his way, he was met by Diana and Apollo.

Diana was very angry because Hercules tried to kill her sacred animal. She was about to take the deer away from Hercules, and surely she would have punished him, but Hercules told her the truth. He said that he had to obey the oracle and do the labors Eurystheus had given him. Diana let go of her anger and healed the deer’s wound. Hercules carried it alive to Mycenae.

Diana with a deer
Mississippi 1977.3.117, Attic red figure, white ground lekythos, ca. 480-470 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

The Erymanthian Boar

For the fourth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the Erymanthian boar alive. Now, a boar is a huge, wild pig with a bad temper, and tusks growing out of its mouth.

Dewing 2440, silver stater from Lycia in Asia Minor, c. 520-500 B.C.
Obverse: the forepart of a boar.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Numismatic Foundation

This one was called the Erymanthian boar, because it lived on a mountain called Erymanthus. Every day the boar would come crashing down from his lair on the mountain, attacking men and animals all over the countryside, gouging them with its tusks, and destroying everything in its path.

Malibu 86.AE.154, Attic black figure Siana cup, c. 580-570 B.C.
A boar hunt.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

On his way to hunt the boar, Hercules stopped to visit his friend Pholus, who was a centaur and lived in a cave near Mount Erymanthus. Everyone knows that centaur is a human from his head to his waist, and a horse for the rest of his body and his legs. Hercules was hungry and thirsty, so the kindly centaur cooked Hercules some meat in the fireplace, while he himself ate his meat raw.

London B 226, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 530-510 B.C.
Hercules and the centaur Pholos shaking hands.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

When Hercules asked for wine, Pholus said that he was afraid to open the wine jar, because it belonged to all the centaurs in common. But Hercules said not to worry, and opened it himself.

Soon afterwards, the rest of the centaurs smelled the wine and came to Pholus’s cave. They were angry that someone was drinking all of their wine. The first two who dared to enter were armed with rocks and fir trees.

RISD 22.215, Apulian red figure calyx krater, c. 430-420 B.C.
A centaur holds a rock, poised to attack Hercules.
Photograph by Brooke Hammerle, courtesy of the Museum of Art, RISD, Providence, RI

Hercules grabbed burning sticks from the fireplace and threw them at the centaurs, then went after them with his club.

Malibu 88.AE.24, Attic black figure amphora, c. 530-520 B.C.
Hercules rauses his club, about to hit a centaur.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

He shot arrows at the rest of them and chased after them for about twenty miles. The rest of the centaurs fled in different directions. One of the centaurs, Chiron, received a wound that no amount of medicine would heal…but what happened to Chiron is another story.

While Hercules was gone, Pholus pulled an arrow from the body of one of the dead centaurs. He wondered that so little a thing could kill such a big creature. Suddenly, the arrow slipped from his hand. It fell onto his foot and killed him on the spot. So when Hercules returned, he found Pholus dead. He buried his centaur friend, and proceeded to hunt the boar.

It wasn’t too hard for Hercules to find the boar. He could hear the beast snorting and stomping as it rooted around for something to eat. Hercules chased the boar round and round the mountain, shouting as loud as he could. The boar, frightened and out of breath, hid in a thicket. Hercules poked his spear into the thicket and drove the exhausted animal into a deep patch of snow.

Harvard 1960.314, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 510-500 B.C.
Hercules grabs the boar’s head and raises his club to strike it. On the right, the god Hermes offers assistance.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums

Then he trapped the boar in a net, and carried it all the way to Mycenae. Eurystheus, again amazed and frightened by the hero’s powers, hid in his partly buried bronze jar.

Mississippi 1977.3.63, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 540-520 B.C.
Hercules brings the boar to Eurstheus, carrying it on his shoulder. He rests his foot on the rim of the pithos, where Eurystheus cowers.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

The Augean Stables: Hercules Cleans Up

For the fifth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean up King Augeas’ stables. Hercules knew this job would mean getting dirty and smelly, but sometimes even a hero has to do these things. Then Eurystheus made Hercules’ task even harder: he had to clean up after the cattle of Augeas in a single day.

Now King Augeas owned more cattle than anyone in Greece. Some say that he was a son of one of the great gods, and others that he was a son of a mortal; whosever son he was, Augeas was very rich, and he had many herds of cows, bulls, goats, sheep and horses.

An aerial view of Olympia in Elis, where Augeas ruled his kingdom.
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

Every night the cowherds, goatherds and shepherds drove the thousands of animals to the stables.

Boston 13.195, Attic red figure lekythos, c. 530-500 B.C.
People leading cows.
From Caskey & Beazley, plate IV. With permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Hercules went to King Augeas, and without telling anything about Eurystheus, said that he would clean out the stables in one day, if Augeas would give him a tenth of his fine cattle.

Munich 2412, Attic red figure stamnos, c. 440-430 B.C.
A bull drinking water from a basin.
From Furtwängler & Reichhold, pl. 19

Augeas couldn’t believe his ears, but promised. Hercules brought Augeas’s son along to watch. First the hero tore a big opening in the wall of the cattle-yard where the stables were. Then he made another opening in the wall on the opposite side of the yard.

Next, he dug wide trenches to two rivers which flowed nearby. He turned the course of the rivers into the yard. The rivers rushed through the stables, flushing them out, and all the mess flowed out the hole in the wall on other side of the yard.

Mount Holyoke 1925.BS.II.3, Attic black figure skyphos, c. 500 B.C.
Hercules takes a break. The goddess Athena pours him a cup of wine.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

When Augeas learned that Eurystheus was behind all this, he would not pay Hercules his reward. Not only that, he denied that he had even promised to pay a reward. Augeas said that if Hercules didn’t like it, he could take the matter to a judge to decide.

The judge took his seat. Hercules called the son of Augeas to testify. The boy swore that his father had agreed to give Hercules a reward. The judge ruled that Hercules would have to be paid. In a rage, Augeas ordered both his own son and Hercules to leave his kingdom at once. So the boy went to the north country to live with his aunts, and Hercules headed back to Mycenae. But Eurystheus said that this labour didn’t count, because Hercules was paid for having done the work.

The Stymphalian Birds

After Hercules returned from his success in the Augean stables, Eurystheus came up with an even more difficult task. For the sixth Labor, Hercules was to drive away an enormous flock of birds which gathered at a lake near the town of Stymphalos.

Arriving at the lake, which was deep in the woods, Hercules had no idea how to drive the huge gathering of birds away. The goddess Athena came to his aid, providing a pair of bronze krotala, noisemaking clappers similar to castanets. These were no ordinary noisemakers. They had been made by an immortal craftsman, Hephaistos, the god of the forge.

Dancer with krotala, flute case, and walking stick
Philadelphia MS2445, Attic red figure kylix, ca. 480 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum

Climbing a nearby mountain, Hercules clashed the krotala loudly, scaring the birds out of the trees, then shot them with bow and arrow, or possibly with a slingshot, as they took flight.

Hercules and the Stymphalian birds
London B 163, Attic black figure amphora, ca. 560-530 B.C.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

Some versions of the legend say that these Stymphalian birds were vicious man-eaters. The 2nd century A.D. travel writer, Pausanias, trying to discover what kind of birds they might have been, wrote that during his time a type of bird from the Arabian desert was called “Stymphalian,” describing them as equal to lions or leopards in their fierceness. He speculated that the birds Hercules encountered in the legend were similar to these Arabian birds.

These fly against those who come to hunt them, wounding and killing them with their beaks. All armor of bronze or iron that men wear is pierced by the birds; but if they weave a garment of thick cork, the beaks of the Stymphalian birds are caught in the cork garment… These birds are of the size of a crane, and are like the ibis, but their beaks are more powerful, and not crooked like that of the ibis.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.22.5

Pausanias also saw and described the religious sanctuary built by the Greeks of Stymphalos and dedicated to the goddess Artemis. He reported that the temple had carvings of the Stymphalian birds up near its roof. Standing behind the temple, he saw marble statues of maidens with the legs of birds.

The Cretan Bull

After the complicated business with the Stymphalian Birds, Hercules easily disposed of the Cretan Bull.

At that time, Minos, King of Crete, controlled many of the islands in the seas around Greece, and was such a powerful ruler that the Athenians sent him tribute every year. There are many bull stories about Crete. Zeus, in the shape of a bull, had carried Minos’ mother Europa to Crete, and the Cretans were fond of the sport of bull-leaping, in which contestants grabbed the horns of a bull and were thrown over its back.

Bull fresco from the Palace of Minos in Knossos
Photograph courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Saul S. Weinberg Collection

Minos himself, in order to prove his claim to the throne, had promised the sea-god Poseidon that he would sacrifice whatever the god sent him from the sea. Poseidon sent a bull, but Minos thought it was too beautiful to kill, and so he sacrificed another bull. Poseidon was furious with Minos for breaking his promise. In his anger, he made the bull rampage all over Crete, and caused Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the animal. As a result, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Minos had to shut up this beast in the Labyrinth, a huge maze underneath the palace, and every year he fed it prisoners from Athens.

When Hercules got to Crete, he easily wrestled the bull to the ground and drove it back to King Eurystheus. Eurystheus let the bull go free. It wandered around Greece, terrorizing the people, and ended up in Marathon, a city near Athens.


[LEFT]: Hercules ropes the Cretan Bull
Mississippi 1977.3.61a and b, Attic black figure neck amphora, ca. 530-520 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

[RIGHT]: Hercules drives the bull back to Mycenae
Boston 99.538, Attic bilingual amphora, ca. 525-500 B.C.
From Caskey & Beazley, plate LXVII. With permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Athenian hero Theseus tied up some loose ends of this story. He killed the Cretan Bull at Marathon. Later, he sailed to Crete, found his way to the center of the Labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur.

Theseus fighting the Minotaur
RISD 25.083, Attic black figure amphora, ca. 550-530 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Museum of Art, RISD, Providence, RI

The Man-Eating Horses of Diomedes

After Hercules had captured the Cretan Bull, Eurystheus sent him to get the man-eating mares of Diomedes, the king of a Thracian tribe called the Bistones, and bring them back to him in Mycenae.

Warrior approaching grazing horse
Philadelphia MS4873, fragment of an Attic black figure amphora, ca. 540 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum

According to Apollodorus, Hercules sailed with a band of volunteers across the Aegean to Bistonia. There he and his companions overpowered the grooms who were tending the horses, and drove them to the sea. But by the time he got there, the Bistones had realized what had happened, and they sent a band of soldiers to recapture the animals. To free himself to fight, Hercules entrusted the mares to a youth named Abderos.

Horse and groom
Tampa 86.29, Attic black figure neck amphora, ca. 490-480 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Unfortunately, the mares got the better of young Abderos and dragged him around until he was killed.

Fallen archer trampled by horses
Tampa 86.41, Attic black figure oinochoe, ca. 510 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Meanwhile Hercules fought the Bistones, killed Diomedes, and made the rest flee. In honor of the slain Abderos, Hercules founded the city of Abdera.

Overall view of city gate from outside, from NW
Photograph by Beth McIntosh and Sebastian Heath

The hero took the mares back to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus set them free. The mares wandered around until eventually they came to Mount Olympos, the home of the gods, where they were eaten by wild beasts.

Euripides gives two different versions of the story, but both of them differ from Apollodorus’s in that Hercules seems to be performing the labor alone, rather than with a band of followers. In one, Diomedes has the four horses harnessed to a chariot, and Hercules has to bring back the chariot as well as the horses. In the other, Hercules tames the horses from his own chariot:

He mounted on a chariot and tamed with the bit the horses of Diomedes, that greedily champed their bloody food at gory mangers with unbridled jaws, devouring with hideous joy the flesh of men.

Euripides, Hercules, 380

Hippolyte’s Belt: Hercules Fights the Amazons

For the ninth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the belt of Hippolyte [Hip-POLLY-tee]. This was no ordinary belt and no ordinary warrior. Hippolyte was queen of the Amazons, a tribe of women warriors.

Mississippi 1977.3.57, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 530-520 B.C.
Side A: Amazon on left, detail
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

These Amazons had nothing to do with the Amazon river in South America. Their name comes from a Greek word meaning “missing one breast.” This is because an Amazon’s right breast got in the way when she threw a spear.

The Amazons lived apart from men, and if they ever gave birth to children, they kept only the females and reared them to be warriors like themselves.

Queen Hippolyte had a special piece of armor. It was a leather belt that had been given to her by Ares, the war god, because she was the best warrior of all the Amazons. She wore this belt across her chest and used it to carry her sword and spear. Eurystheus wanted Hippolyte’s belt as a present to give to his daughter, and he sent Hercules to bring it back.

Hercules’ friends realized that the hero could not fight against the whole Amazon army by himself, so they joined with him and set sail in a single ship.

London B 436, Attic black figure kylix, c. 540-500 B.C.
A warship with mast and sail. Its prow is in the form of a boar’s head, and it has a high fore-deck, steering oars and a landing ladder at the stern. Eight figures can be seen rowing the upper set of oars (there are at least as many people on the lower deck) and the sail is fully extended, giving the impression that the boat is moving “full speed ahead.”
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

After a long journey, they reached the land of the Amazons and put in at the harbor. When Hercules and the Greeks got off the boat, Hippolyte came down to visit them.

Philadelphia MS4832, Attic black figure amphora, c. 525-500 B.C.
Amazon running, with her dog along side.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania Museum

She asked Hercules why he had come, and when he told her, she promised to give him the belt. But the goddess Hera knew that the arrival of Hercules meant nothing but trouble for the Amazons. Disguised as an Amazon warrior, Hera went up and down the army saying to each woman that the strangers who had arrived were going to carry off the queen. So the Amazons put on their armor.

Malibu 77.AE.11, Attic red figure volute krater, c. 490 B.C.
Amazons arming.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

The women warriors charged on horseback down to the ship.

Mississippi 1977.3.243, Attic red figure white ground pyxis, c. 460-450 B.C.
Amazon on horseback.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

But when Hercules saw that they were wearing their armor and were carrying their weapons, he knew that he was under attack. Thinking fast, he drew his sword and killed Hippolyte.

Tampa 82.11.1, Attic black figure neck amphora, c. 510-500 B.C.
Hercules battles the Amazons. The Amazon has fallen to one knee, supported by the shield on her left arm. A wrapped object at her waist may represent the prized belt.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

Then he undid her belt and took it away from her.

Hercules and the Greeks fought the rest of the Amazons in a great battle.

Malibu 77.AE.11, Attic red figure volute krater, c. 490 B.C.
Hercules fighting the Amazons.
Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California

When the enemy had been driven off, Hercules sailed away. After a stopover at the city of Troy, Hercules returned to Mycenae, and he gave the belt to Eurystheus.

The Cattle of Geryon

To accomplish his tenth labor, Hercules had to journey to the end of the world. Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the cattle of the monster Geryon. Geryon was the son of Chrysaor and Callirrhoe. Chrysaor had sprung from the body of the Gorgon Medusa after Perseus beheaded her, and Callirrhoe was the daughter of two Titans, Oceanus and Tethys. With such distinguished lineage, it is no surprise that Geryon himself was quite unique. It seems that Geryon had three heads and three sets of legs all joined at the waist.

And the daughter of Ocean, Callirrhoe… bore a son who was the strongest of all men, Geryones, whom mighty Heracles killed in sea-girt Erythea for the sake of his shambling oxen.

Hesiod, Theogony,   980

Harvard 1972.42, Attic black figure amphora, c. 550-530 B.C.
Side A: Geryon
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums

Geryon lived on an island called Erythia, which was near the boundary of Europe and Libya. On this island, Geryon kept a herd of red cattle guarded by Cerberus’s brother, Orthus, a two-headed hound, and the herdsman Eurytion. Hercules set off on for Erythia, encountering and promptly killing many wild beasts along the way, and he came to the place where Libya met Europe. Here, Apollodorus tells us, Hercules built two massive mountains, one in Europe and one in Libya, to commemorate his extensive journey. Other accounts say that Hercules split one mountain into two. Either way, these mountains became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules. The strait Hercules made when he broke the mountain apart is now called the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco, the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Sailing in a goblet which the Sun gave him in admiration, Hercules reached the island of Erythia. Not long after he arrived, Orthus, the two-headed dog, attacked Hercules, so Hercules bashed him with his club. Eurytion followed, with the same result. Another herdsman in the area reported these events to Geryon. Just as Hercules was escaping with the cattle, Geryon attacked him. Hercules fought with him and shot him dead with his arrows.

Munich 2620, Attic red figure kylix, c. 510-500 B.C.
Side A: Hercules, Geryon, the dog Orthros
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

The stealing of the cattle was not such a difficult task, compared to the trouble Hercules had bringing the herd back to Greece. In Liguria, two sons of Poseidon, the god of the sea, tried to steal the cattle, so he killed them. At Rhegium, a bull got loose and jumped into the sea. The bull swam to Sicily and then made its way to the neighboring country. The native word for bull was “italus,” and so the country came to be named after the bull, and was called Italy.

The escaped bull was found by a ruler named Eryx, another of Poseidon’s sons, and Eryx put this bull into his own herd. Meanwhile, Hercules was searching for the runaway animal. He temporarily entrusted the rest of the herd to the god Hephaestus, and went after the bull. He found it in Eryx’s herd, but the king would return it only if the hero could beat him in a wrestling contest. Never one to shy away from competition, Hercules beat Eryx three times in wrestling, killed the king, took back the bull, and returned it to the herd.

RISD 26.166, Apulian red figure rhyton (drinking cup), c. 400-300 B.C.
Drinking cup in the shape of a bull’s head.
Photograph by Brooke Hammerle, courtesy of the Museum of Art, RISD, Providence, RI

Hercules made it to the edge of the Ionian Sea, with the end of his journey finally in sight. Hera, however, was not about to let the hero accomplish this labor. She sent a gadfly to attack the cattle, and the herd scattered far and wide. Now, Hercules had to run around Thrace gathering the escaped cows. Finally, he regrouped the herd and, blaming his troubles on the river Strymon in Thrace, he filled the river with rocks, making it unnavigable. Then, he brought the cattle of Geryon to Eurystheus, who sacrificed the herd to Hera. The ancients don’t tell us how long either Hercules or Europe took to recover from this eventful jaunt.

Possible return route of Hercules with the cattle of Geryon.

The Apples of Hesperides

Poor Hercules! After eight years and one month, after performing ten superhuman labors, he was still not off the hook. Eurystheus demanded two more labors from the hero, since he did not count the hydra or the Augean stables as properly done.

Eurystheus commanded Hercules to bring him golden apples which belonged to Zeus, king of the gods. Hera had given these apples to Zeus as a wedding gift, so surely this task was impossible. Hera, who didn’t want to see Hercules succeed, would never permit him to steal one of her prize possessions, would she?

These apples were kept in a garden at the northern edge of the world, and they were guarded not only by a hundred-headed dragon, named Ladon, but also by the Hesperides, nymphs who were daughters of Atlas, the titan who held the sky and the earth upon his shoulders.

The Hesperides in the garden. Here the apples are on a tree, and the dragon Ladon looks more like a single-headed serpent.
London E 224, Attic red figure hydria, ca. 410-400 B.C.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

Hercules’ first problem was that he didn’t know where the garden was. He journeyed through Libya, Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, having adventures along the way. He was stopped by Kyknos, the son of the war god, Ares, who demanded that Hercules fight him. After the fight was broken up by a thunderbolt, Hercules continued on to Illyria, where he seized the sea-god Nereus, who knew the garden’s secret location. Nereus transformed himself into all kinds of shapes,trying to escape, but Hercules held tight and didn’t release Nereus until he got the information he needed.

Hercules fighting Kyknos
Toledo 1961.25, Attic red figure kylix, ca. 520-510 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Continuing on his quest, Hercules was stopped by Antaeus, the son of the sea god, Poseidon, who also challenged Hercules to fight. Hercules defeated him in a wrestling match, lifting him off the ground and crushing him, because when Antaeus touched the earth he became stronger. After that, Hercules met up with Busiris, another of Poseidon’s sons, was captured, and was led to an altar to be a human sacrifice. But Hercules escaped, killing Busiris, and journeyed on.

Hercules wrestling Antaeus
Tampa 86.29, Attic black figure neck amphora, ca. 490-480 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Hercules came to the rock on Mount Caucasus where Prometheus was chained. Prometheus, a trickster who made fun of the gods and stole the secret of fire from them, was sentenced by Zeus to a horrible fate. He was bound to the mountain, and every day a monstrous eagle came and ate his liver, pecking away at Prometheus’ tortured body. After the eagle flew off, Prometheus’ liver grew back, and the next day he had to endure the eagle’s painful visit all over again. This went on for 30 years, until Hercules showed up and killed the eagle.

Eagle with wings outstretched.
Philadelphia MS553, Corinthian alabastron, ca. 620-590 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University of Pennyslvania Museum

In gratitude, Prometheus told Hercules the secret to getting the apples. He would have to send Atlas after them, instead of going himself. Atlas hated holding up the sky and the earth so much that he would agree to the task of fetching the apples, in order to pass his burden over to Hercules. Everything happened as Prometheus had predicted, and Atlas went to get the apples while Hercules was stuck in Atlas’s place, with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders.

Woman juggling apples.
Toledo 1963.29, Attic red figure, white ground pyxis, ca. 470-460 B.C.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

When Atlas returned with the golden apples, he told Hercules he would take them to Eurystheus himself, and asked Hercules to stay there and hold the heavy load for the rest of time. Hercules slyly agreed, but asked Atlas whether he could take it back again, just for a moment, while the hero put some soft padding on his shoulders to help him bear the weight of the sky and the earth. Atlas put the apples on the ground, and lifted the burden onto his own shoulders. And so Hercules picked up the apples and quickly ran off, carrying them back, uneventfully, to Eurystheus.

There was one final problem: because they belonged to the gods, the apples could not remain with Eurystheus. After all the trouble Hercules went through to get them, he had to return them to Athena, who took them back to the garden at the northern edge of the world.

Hercules in the garden of the Hesperides.
Sometimes the hero is portrayed in the garden, even though the story we have from Apollodorus is that he sent Atlas there instead of going himself.
London E 224, Attic red figure hydria, ca. 410-400 B.C.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London


The most dangerous labor of all was the twelfth and final one. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to go to the Underworld and kidnap the beast called Cerberus (or Kerberos). Eurystheus must have been sure Hercules would never succeed at this impossible task!

The ancient Greeks believed that after a person died, his or her spirit went to the world below and dwelled for eternity in the depths of the earth. The Underworld was the kingdom of Hades, also called Pluto, and his wife, Persephone. Depending on how a person lived his or her life, they might or might not experience never-ending punishment in Hades. All souls, whether good or bad, were destined for the kingdom of Hades.

Toledo 1969.371
Main panel:Hercules and Cerberus, upper half
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Cerberus was a vicious beast that guarded the entrance to Hades and kept the living from entering the world of the dead. According to Apollodorus, Cerberus was a strange mixture of creatures: he had three heads of wild dogs, a dragon or serpent for a tail, and heads of snakes all over his back. Hesiod, though, says that Cerberus had fifty heads and devoured raw flesh.

. . . A monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong.

Hesiod, Theogony   310

Cerberus’ parents were the monster Echinda (half-woman, half-serpent) and Typhon (a fire-breathing giant covered with dragons and serpents). Even the gods of Olympus were afraid of Typhon.

Among the children attributed to this awful couple were Orthus (or Othros), the Hydra of Lerna, and the Chimaera. Orthus was a two-headed hound which guarded the cattle of Geryon. With the Chimaera, Orthus fathered the Nemean Lion and the Sphinx. The Chimaera was a three-headed fire-breathing monster, part lion, part snake, and part goat. Hercules seemed to have a lot of experience dealing with this family: he killed Orthus, when he stole the cattle of Geryon, and strangled the Nemean Lion. Compared to these unfortunate family members, Cerberus was actually rather lucky.

Louvre F 204
Side A: Kerberos
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Before making the trip to the Underworld, Hercules decided that he should take some extra precautions. This was, after all, a journey from which no mortal had ever returned. Hercules knew that once in the kingdom of Hades, he might not be allowed to leave and rejoin the living. The hero went to Eleusis and saw Eumolpus, a priest who began what were known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The mysteries were sacred religious rites which celebrated the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The ancients believed that those who learned the secrets of the mysteries would have happiness in the Underworld. After the hero met a few conditions of membership, Eumolpus initiated Hercules into the mysteries.

Hercules went to a place called Taenarum in Laconia. Through a deep, rocky cave, Hercules made his way down to the Underworld. He encountered monsters, heroes, and ghosts as he made his way through Hades. He even engaged in a wrestling contest! Then, finally, he found Pluto and asked the god for Cerberus. The lord of the Underworld replied that Hercules could indeed take Cerberus with him, but only if he overpowered the beast with nothing more than his own brute strength.

A weaponless Hercules set off to find Cerberus. Near the gates of Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Underworld, Hercules encountered Cerberus. Undaunted, the hero threw his strong arms around the beast, perhaps grasping all three heads at once, and wrestled Cerberus into submission. The dragon in the tail of the fierce flesh-eating guard dog bit Hercules, but that did not stop him. Cerberus had to submit to the force of the hero, and Hercules brought Cerberus to Eurystheus. Unlike other monsters that crossed the path of the legendary hero, Cerberus was returned safely to Hades, where he resumed guarding the gateway to the Underworld. Presumably, Hercules inflicted no lasting damage on Cerberus, except, of course, the wound to his pride!

Louvre E 701
Main panel: Hercules and Kerberos
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Other Stories of Hercules

Hercules’ adventures didn’t begin and end with his 12 Labors. The hero’s life was non-stop action, from start to finish. Like Superman or Xena, Hercules faced a never-ending cast of villains and difficult situations.

Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules sneaking up on the unconscious giant, Alkyoneus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

He rescued more damsels in distress, including Hesione, the princess of Troy. He fought with other immortals, including Apollo. And he helped the gods in their epic battle against the Giants, who tried to take over Mount Olympus.

Hercules and Hesione, the Trojan Princess

The walls of Troy
Photograph by Don Keller

Hesione was the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. Hercules met Hesione after his year of enslavement to Omphale, when he set out for Troy. Hercules found Troy in a state of crisis, as King Laomedon had cheated Poseidon and Apollo by failing to pay them for building the walls. For punishment Poseidon had sent a large sea monster, who would only be appeased by devouring the princess, Hesione. Hercules sought to kill the monster and naturally expected a reward, such as Laomedon’s amazing horses. Hercules bravely killed the beast by allowing himself to be swallowed by the monster, whom he then killed from the inside. But once a cheat always a cheat: Laomedon skimped on paying Hercules too.

Boston 63.420, Corinthian column krater
Side A: Hercules, accompanied by Hesione, slaying the sea monster
Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

So Hercules raised an army, including such great men as Telamon, father of Ajax. When his army captured the city, Hercules gave Hesione in marriage to Telamon (they soon gave birth to another hero, Teucer). Hesione was given the opportunity to save any one of her fellow Trojan prisoners: she chose her brother Podarces, later known as Priam.

Hercules battling at Troy
From East Pediment 2 of the Temple of Aphaia at Aigina
Photograph by Maria Daniels, copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munchen

The Struggle for the Delphic Tripod

After completing his twelve labors, Hercules hit the road, once again. Somehow or another, Hercules caught wind that Eurytus, the prince of Oechalia, was offering his beautiful daughter, Iole, as a bride prize to any man who could best him and his sons in an archery contest. Upon hearing this, Hercules traveled to Oechalia and competed against Eurytus and his sons. Legend has it that Eurytus was the man who first schooled Hercules in the use of the bow. His was a challenge that pitted student against teacher. It should come as no surprise that Hercules defeated his fellow contestants with ease.

Louvre E 635, Corinthian krater, ca. 600-590 B.C.
Iole and Hercules after the archery contest, with King Eurytus and his other children
Courtesy of the MusŽe du Louvre

When it came time, however, for Eurytus to hand over Iole to Hercules, as his bride, Eurytus refused. In this decision he was supported by all of his sons except Iphytus. One may wonder why a prince would deny the strongest man in the world his daughter in marriage. For Eurytus, the reasoning was simple: he would not allow his beloved daughter to marry (and eventually have children with) a man who had a history of murdering his sons in a fit of rage (remember that whole Megara fiasco?), for fear that the same fate would befall his own grandchildren.

Boston 13.195, Attic red figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
A youth with cattle
From Caskey & Beazley, plate IV. With permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Crestfallen and dismayed, Hercules left Oechalia. Shortly after Hercules’ departure, some mares (or cattle, depending on the storyteller) were stolen by Autolycus from a local man. Eurytus instantly thought that Hercules was the culprit. Iphytus, however, refused to believe that Hercules was the thief and set out to pay him a visit at Tiryns (another version suggests Iphytus went to Tiryns to look for the cattle himself). Hercules received Iphytus in good cheer and the two men passed the time entertaining each other. Unfortunately for Iphytus, however, during the visit something went awry, and Hercules, in another fit of madness, hurled Iphytus to his death from the top of the walls of Tiryns.

The Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns: West walls from the southwest
Photograph courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Boston University,
Saul S. Weinberg Collection

Following the murder of Iphytus, Hercules contracted a terrible disease, as a result of his violent outburst. Hercules then journeyed to the oracle at Delphi, in hopes that the priestess there would advise him on how to cure himself. But Hercules was to be disappointed. When he questioned the Pythian priestess, she was unable to answer him in oracles. Hercules, outraged at priestesses unwillingness to help, began tearing the temple apart. When Hercules came upon the Delphic tripod, he started to make off with it, thinking that he would establish an oracle of his own.

Boston 63.1515, Attic red figure amphora, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules, Apollo, and the Delphic Tripod
Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Apollo, however, was not about to let Hercules carry off the prized tripod from his sacred site. He began to wrestle with Hercules over its possession; Apollo was supported by his sister, Artemis, while Hercules was supported by his patron, Athena. In the midst of their tug-of-war contest, Zeus dropped in and tried to break up the feuding brothers (Apollo and Hercules are, after all, half-brothers by Zeus). And as parents are often forced to do, Zeus decided that it would be best to separate the brothers, hurling one of his mighty thunderbolts between them. After the two siblings were pried apart, Hercules finally received an oracle, instructing him to be sold into slavery for a year, and to pay Eurytus in compensation for the loss of his son. The tripod remained at Delphi and Hermes sold Hercules to Omphale, Queen of Lydia, for whom he performed women’s work for his year of servitude.

Delphi, Siphnian Treasury Frieze–East
Above, East pediment, showing Zeus breaking up the fight between Hercules and Apollo for the tripod
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Delphi Museum

Hercules and the Giants

Zeus wasn’t always the king of the Greek gods. Ouranos was the king of the first generation of gods, but he was overthrown by Kronos, who was his son. Kronos was father to Zeus and the Olympians, and he, too, was overthrown by his son. Even after Zeus took charge, succeeding generations and different races of gods still competed for control of Olympus.

While Zeus was establishing himself, the Earth gave birth to a new, monstrous set of gods, the Giants, which were fathered by the Sky. The Giants were as tall as mountains and so strong as to be unbeatable. The Olympian gods were anthropomorphic, which means that they looked a lot like human men and women. But the Giants were frightening to look at. According to Apollodorus, their shaggy hair drooped from their heads and chins, and they had dragon scales on their feet.

Cleveland 78.59, Attic red figure lekythos, c. 480 B.C.
The shaggy giant Enkelados
Photograph courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

The mightiest Giants were Porphyrion and Alkyoneus. Alkyoneus could remain immortal as long as he fought in the land of his birth, Pallene, in the region of Thrace. A bold troublemaker, Alkyoneus dared to steal some cows owned by the Sun. The Giants tossed house-sized boulders and burning oak trees at Mount Olympus to pass the time. They were not yet ready for an all-out attack.

Long ago the gods had received an oracle, or prediction of the future. This oracle declared that the gods could kill the Giants only if they had the help of a mortal. This mortal was Hercules. The Earth, who was the mother of the Giants, learned this too, and she tried to prevent Hercules from going to help the gods.

But Zeus had a plan. First he forbade the Sun from shining, then the Moon and the Dawn. Before anyone knew what was happening, he sent Athena with her chariot to bring Hercules up to Mount Olympus.

Alkyoneus was climbing up Mount Olympus, leading the other Giants. Hercules came to the cliff where he could see the monstrous Giants approaching. He drew his bow and shot Alkyoneus with an arrow that sank completely into the giant’s shoulder. The giant lost his grip and fell to the ground unconscious, with an enormous crash.

Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
The giant Alkyoneus, unconscious at the base of Olympus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Soon Alkyoneus began to revive. But before he woke up completely, Athena told Hercules that Alkyoneus would not die unless he was outside of his birthplace, in Thrace. So Hercules dragged Alkyoneus far away, and there he died.

Munich 2590, Attic red figure kylix, c. 525 B.C.
Hercules sneaking up on the unconscious giant Alkyoneus, with Hermes helping at right
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

Meanwhile, Porphyrion had reached the top of Olympus. He had Hera cornered between the rocks and the sheer cliff. When Porphyrion began to attack the goddess, Hera called for help. Zeus cast his thunderbolt at Porphyrion, leaving him dazed, and Hercules, who had just rejoined the battle, shot him dead with an arrow.

Louvre G 204, Attic red figure Nolan amphora, c. 470-460 B.C.
Zeus with his thunderbolt
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Now all the gods and Giants entered the fight. Apollo shot one of the Giants in the right eye, and Hercules shot him in the left eye. Dionysos killed one by whacking him with his thyrsus, or staff. Hecate set another Giant on fire with torches. Hephaistos eliminated one by pelting him with white-hot metal.


Berlin F 2321, Attic red figure kyathos, c. 510 B.C.
Dionysos attacks the giant Eurytus, with help from a panther and a snake.
Photographs by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung

Two of the Giants turned to flee. Athena caught the first one and imprisoned him under the island of Sicily; Poseidon broke off a piece of the island of Cos and threw it at the other. Hermes wore Hades’ helmet and slew a Giant as he ran away, and Artemis killed another. Even the Fates killed a couple of Giants, fighting with clubs made of bronze.

Finally it was all over. Zeus had struck down the rest of the Giants with his thunderbolts, and Hercules finished them off where they lay.

Munich 596, Chalcidian black figure hydria, c. 540 B.C.
Typhon, the monstrous Giant
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München

Earth, who had seen her children slaughtered by Hercules and the gods, was enraged. She now brought forth Typhon, a super-Giant. Typhon was half man, half beast. He was larger and stronger that any of Earth’s other children. He was so tall that he towered over the highest mountains, and his head often brushed the stars. He was of human form down to his thighs, but he had huge snake coils instead of legs. When the coils were drawn out, they reached all the way to his head and let out a loud hissing. One of his hands reached out to the west and the other to the east, and from them projected a hundred dragons’ heads. His body was winged: scruffy hair streamed on the wind from his head and cheeks; and fire flashed from his eyes. There would be a final contest between Typhon and Zeus, but that is another story.