Heracles – The Strongest Hero of Ancient Greece

Heracles (Roman name/anglicized as Hercules) was the strongest and most worshiped hero of Ancient Greece. He is considered the greatest of the Greek heroes and the most powerful and popular hero who ever lived. Heracles made it clear from childhood that he was no ordinary mortal, but possessed extraordinary powers and divine gifts.

Birth of Heracles

Heracles was born in Thebes, Greece, when Zeus succeeded in seducing his lover, Alcmene, by transforming himself into her husband. Zeus’ affair with Alcmene led to the hatred of Hera , Zeus’ jealous wife. She was determined to destroy Heracles in any way possible.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tragedy of Heracles and the Labors

When he had reached manhood, Heracles married Megara, a princess of Thebes, and together they had five children. But Hera, who still had not avenged herself, cursed Heracles with a destructive fury. This in turn led him to kill both his wife and his children.

When Heracles realized what he had done, he turned remorsefully to the Delphic oracle. Through her he asked the Greek god Apollo what he must do to receive forgiveness for his mistakes. Apollo advised him to return to his place of origin and serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns near Mycenae. However, Eurystheus was on the side of Hera and wanted to destroy the hero. To this end, he assigned the hero twelve challenging tasks, the so-called “Labors of Heracles”.

The Deification of Heracles

When Heracles, the son of Alcmene, succeeded in his difficult work, the gods felt that he had accomplished a great task. So they gave him Hebe, daughter of the great Zeus and his wife Hera, in marriage, and Heracles went to snowy Olympus, happy to dwell among the immortals, unscathed by misfortunes and ageless forever.

The Twelve Labors and Other Myths of Heracles

While Heracles is widely known for his Twelve Labors, imposed upon him by King Eurystheus, there were other myths about him as well.

1. Labor – The Nemean Lion

As his first labor, Heracles was asked to kill a huge lion that dwelt in Nemea, southwest of Corinth. There it was mauling men and animals and terrorizing the population of the region. The lion was trained by goddess Hera and had a skin that was impervious even to iron weapons.

When Heracles encountered the lion, he tried to use his bow, however the arrows were unable to kill the lion. So Heracles had to use his club and followed it into a cave with two entrances.

Heracles covered one entrance with stones and entered through the other to find the lion. Without using his club, he grabbed the lion by the neck, spun him around, and strangled him to death with the immense strength of his hands.

Heracles then handed the lion over to Eurystheus and fashioned armor from its skin. To remember his work, Heracles opened the Nemean Games, to praise Zeus, king of the gods.

The body of the lion was transferred to the sky by the gods and formed the constellation known as Leo.

2. Labor – The Lernean Hydra

The Lernaean Hydra was a creature with nine serpentine heads and poisonous breath that lived in Lake Lerna of Argos. The Lernean Hydra was the offspring of Typhon, a monstrous serpentine giant and Echidna, The Mother of Monstrous, and the sister of Lion Nemea, which Heracles had slain in his first work.

With the help of his nephew Iolaos, Heracles found the monster in the spring Amimoni. With an ax he began to cut off its heads, but with each attempt two new ones always came out in their place. Heracles then ordered Iolaos to light a torch and burn the flesh immediately after he cut off the monster’s head. The idea of this was crowned with success, and no new ones could grow out.

When he had succeeded in cutting off the ninth head also, which was in the middle of the body and was immortal, Heracles buried it deep in the earth and placed a huge stone on top of it. Then he dipped his arrows into the gall of the Hydra, which was poisonous.

But King Evrystheas declared the work incomplete, with the excuse that Iolaos had helped Heracles. In modern everyday language, the Greeks call “Lernean Hydra” a problem so great that – in spite of all efforts to combat it – it keeps coming back powerfully.

3. Labor – The Ceryneian Hind

As a third labor, Eurystheus required Heracles to bring the Ceryneian hind to Mycenae.

The Ceryneian hind was a stag with golden horns dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Heracles had to capture the sacred animal, which was famous for its speed, without hurting it, because it was considered blasphemy to hurt or kill the animal.

The hero had to hunt the stag for a whole year until he finally fired an arrow to slow the animal down and catch it.

On his way to Mycenae, Heracles encountered the goddess Artemis with her brother Apollo. When Artemis noticed her sacred animal on the hero’s shoulder, she became very angry. But Heracles pleaded necessity and explained that the person responsible was Eurystheus, so he calmed the goddess and brought the hind to Mycenae.

4. Labor – The Erymanthian Boar

As a fourth labor, Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring him the Erymanthian boar alive.

The Erymanthian boar was a wild animal that lived in Mount Erymanthos southern Greece-an ominous threat to the people of Arcadia, for it caused immense damage to the villagers’ crops and tore their flocks with its tusks. To find the beast, Heracles had to wander the entire region, where he also had an encounter with the Centaurs, The Half-Human, Half-Horse Beings to learn details about the boar, which ended in a fight.

Then Heracles went out to hunt the boar, using the following technique: First he frightened it, then he chased it, and finally he led it to a snowy place and tied it in a snare. Then he tied up the defeated animal and carried it on his shoulders back to Mycenae. Later Heracles sent the boar’s teeth as a votive offering to the temple of Apollo.

5. Labor – The Augean Stables

As the fifth labor, Heracles was required to cleanse the stables of Augeias all by himself within a single day. It is said that these stables had not been cleaned for over thirty years.

Augeas was a king of Elis, in southern Greece. His father, the sun god Helios, endowed him with many herds, but unfortunately there were too many herds and the dung threatened the city with disease.

So Heracles went to the king and offered to remove the waste if only he would be given a tithe of his livestock. Augeas gave his word.

The hero completed the task very quickly thanks to the following technique: he cut a breach in the foundation of the wall that surrounded the courtyard. Then he diverted the course of two rivers that flowed nearby, Alpheios and Peneios, and led the water into the courtyard.

But when Augeas found out that Heracles was acting on behalf of Eurystheus, he refused to pay the reward, claiming that he had never made a promise. So the matter had to be brought to court, where Phyleus, the son of Augeas, testified against his father. When Augeas heard this, he became so enraged that he chased both Heracles and his son out of his kingdom.

Later, Heracles took revenge. He returned to the city with an army, conquered the city, and eventually killed Augeas and put his son Phyleus on the throne. However, back in Mycenae, Eurystheus decided to disregard the work, as Heracles was paid for the task.

6. Labor – The Stymphalian Birds

As the sixth labor, Heracles was charged with driving out the Stymphalian Birds. The Stymphalian birds were cannibalistic creatures with bronze beaks, claws, and feathers so sharp that they hurled them like arrows at their enemies. They lived on the shores of a lake called Stymphalia in Arcadia, in a deep forest to hide from other beasts.

As Heracles pondered how to chase them away, the wise goddess Athena came to his aid and gave the hero bronze castanets, forged in the workshop of the blacksmith Hephaistos. Heracles rattled the castanets on a hill by the lake and the birds, unable to bear the noise, flew up in fright, making it easy for the hero to destroy them with his arrows. According to a myth, some of the birds managed to escape, but they had become so frightened that they flew far and never appeared in the area again.

7. Labor – The Cretan Bull

As the seventh labor, Heracles was charged by Eurystheus to fetch the raging Cretan Bull, The Mighty Beast. According to one myth, this was the bull that had carried Europa across the sea; according to another, it was the bull sent up from the sea by Poseidon, the capricious god of the Seas, when King Minos promised to sacrifice to him whatever emerged from the sea. Minos, however, blinded by its beauty, sent the bull to his flocks and sacrificed another in its place. In anger, Poseidon punished Minos for his disobedience and drove the bull mad, so mad that fire came out of its nostrils.

Heracles sailed to Crete, where he asked Minos for help, but Minos refused. So Heracles faced the bull all by himself and eventually managed to capture it and bring it to Eurystheus in Mycenae. Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice the bull to Hera, the queen of the gods, but Hera resented Heracles and refused the offering, whereupon Eurystheus gave the bull back its freedom. In this way, the Cretan Bull wandered through Sparta and all of Arcadia, eventually arriving in Marathon, where he became Marathonian Bull and continued to harass the inhabitants. While in Marathon, he was slain by the hero Theseus.

8. Labor – The Mares of Diomedes

The eighth challenge which Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, made to Heracles was to capture the mares of Diomedes and bring them to him alive. Diomedes was the king of Thrace (Northern Greece) and a son of Ares, the god of war. He owned four wild mares that used to eat the flesh of any passerby.

Each mare had a name and, according to one myth, the horses of Alexander the Great were descendants of these mares. Heracles killed Diomedes and gave his flesh to the mares to eat. In this way, it is said, the mares were tamed and Heracles was able to give them to Eurystheus. Eurystheus then set them free at Mount Olympus, where they were devoured by the wild beasts.

9. Labor – The Girdle of Hippolyta

As the ninth labor Eyrystheus asked Heracles to bring to his daughter the jeweled girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons, the warlike warriors, and a daughter of Ares, the Greek god of war. The belt was a gift from her father, full of gold and precious stones, symbolizing her supremacy over the others.

So Heracles gathered some comrades, including Theseus, and marched against the city where the Amazons lived, near the Black Sea. At first Hippolyta was willing to hand over the belt, but Hera, queen of the Olympian gods, disguised herself as an Amazon, causing misunderstandings that led to war between the heroes and the Amazons, with casualties on both sides. In the end, Heracles managed to kill Hippolyte, steal her belt and depart.

10. Labor – The Cattle of Geryon

As the tenth labor, Eurystheus ordered Heracles to go to the island of Erytheia and bring him the cattle of the monstrous Geryon.

Heracles took many hardships to reach the island, which was located in the far west of the Mediterranean Sea, near the ocean (in modern Spain)… he was threatened by wild animals and overheated by the sun until, out of frustration, he turned his bow on Helios, the sun god. The sun god was so impressed with the hero that he lent him his golden cup to sail safely across the sea.

When he reached the island, it proved difficult to approach the cattle, as they were guarded by the herdsman Eurytion, a son of Ares, and Orthos, a dog with two heads and a serpent’s tail.

However, Heracles managed to defeat the dog with his club and also kill the shepherd. While trying to drive the cattle away, he encountered their master Geryon, who engaged him in a fight. With an arrow he also killed Geryon.

Heracles then placed the cattle in the golden cup, crossed the sea, and returned the cup to the sun god. Continuing his journey, Heracles went through more turbulence, which he skillfully managed when he finally reached Mycenae and gave the cattle to Eurystheas. The king sacrificed the cattle to Hera, the Queen of the gods.

11. Labor – The Apples of the Hesperides

The Hesperides were four maidens who lived in a sacred garden that was full of trees that bore golden apples. These apples were so precious that they were given by Gaea, Mother Earth, to Hera as a wedding gift. No one was allowed to cut the apples from the trees, so Hera had charged Ladon with guarding the garden – a monstrous serpent with a hundred heads that could speak in different voices.

On his way to the garden, Heracles passed by Mount Caucasus where he found the Titan Prometheus in chains and freed him. Gratefully, Prometheus, The Titan Who Defied Zeus informed the hero that his brother, the Titan Atlas, The Titan Who Held Up the Sky, would show him the way to the garden. However, he strongly advised the hero to send the Titan himself to fetch the apples.

Heracles met the Titan Atlas in the depths of the West, carrying Heaven on his shoulders, and decided to follow Prometheus’ advice: He agreed to take the sky from the Titan as long as he would bring him the apples. But when Atlas returned with three golden apples in his hand, he refused to give them to Heracles, saying he would carry the apples to Eurystheas himself. So Heracles deceived him by telling him to carry the heavens for a moment longer, until he had prepared a base for his head. Atlas consented, laid the apples on the ground, and took back the sky. At that moment Heracles grabbed the apples and disappeared.

Back in Mycenae, Heracles gave the apples to Eurystheas, who immediately returned the apples. Then Heracles gave the apples to the wise goddess Athena, who took them back to the garden, for it was unholy for them to be in any other place.

12. Labor – Cerberus the Dog of the Underworld

Eurystheus was disappointed that Heracles had successfully accomplished all the tasks he had set him, so the last thing he asked Heracles to do was something impossible: To fetch Cerberus, the watchdog of the underworld, from his master Hades.

Cerberus was a fearsome dog with three heads, the tail of a dragon, and snakes all over his body. No one had ever managed to escape this monster and the realm of Hades.

When he reached the point between the world of the living and the world of the dead, Heracles first gaped at Charon, The Solemn Ferryman of the Underworld, the ferryman of the dead, who sullenly ferried the hero across the Styx, The Goddess of the Underworld River and took him to the underworld.

There Heracles met many souls, including the Greek hero Theseus and Peirithoos, a man trapped in Hell because he had fallen in love with Hades’ wife. When they saw Heracles, they stretched out their hands to him, hoping he could bring them back to life. Heracles took Theseus by the hand, but when he tried to do the same to Peirithoos, the earth shook and he had to let him go.

Then Heracles reached the king of the underworld, where he humbly asked permission from Hades to give him his dog. Hades agreed on one condition: that Heracles would win a battle with the monster without weapons, clad only in a lion’s skin.

Heracles grabbed Cerberus’ head between his arms and strangled him. During the fight, the tail of Cerberus severely injured the hero, but eventually Heracles overpowered the beast and it surrendered.

After his victory, Heracles carried it all the way to Mycenae and showed it to King Eurystheus. The mere sight of the monster so frightened Eurystheus that he ran away and hid in a barrel. So Heracles returned the monster to Hades.

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Heracles and Athena

One day Heracles was walking along a road when he saw something on the ground that looked like an apple. He tried to crush it, but it only doubled in size. Seeing this, Heracles stomped on it even harder and hit it with his club. Suddenly the object swelled so much that it blocked the way. Full of astonishment, the hero threw away his club and stood speechless.

In the meantime, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, appeared to him and said, “Stop there, brother! This object is the spirit of strife and contention. Leave it alone and it will remain as it was before. However, if you fight it, you will see it swell!”

The First Feat of Heracles

In ancient times there lived in Thebes, Greece, a general. His name was Amphitryon, and he was the nephew of the king of Thebes. The wife of Amphitryon was the beautiful Alcmene.

Amphitryon and Alcmene had two twins, but they were not at all alike. One child, whose name was Iphicles, was whiny and his body was weak. The other was strong, brave, as if he were a child of the gods. His name was Heracles.

Indeed, Heracles was a child of the gods. Zeus, the king of the gods, had once taken the form of Amphitryon and slept with Alcmene. When the goddess Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, learned that her husband had a child with a mortal, she became angry. And because she couldn’t mess with Zeus, she decided to kill little Heracles.

One night, when the two boys were sleeping in their room, Hera sent two poisonous snakes to kill Heracles. At this point, Heracles was only eight months old. The snakes entered the room hissing. Iphicles noticed them first and, weak as he was, began to cry. Soon Heracles was awake too, and when he saw the two snakes coming towards his bed, he grabbed them by the neck and held them until he strangled them both.

Everyone in the area learned of Heracles’ incredible feat, and everyone said that this child would one day become a great man. And they were right. Heracles, the son of Zeus, would soon enough become a great hero and the strongest man in Ancient Greece.

Heracles and Hades – A fable by Aesop

There once came a day when Heracles, the strongest hero of Greece, became admitted to the ranks of the gods and was honored to seat himself at a banquet next to Zeus, the king of the gods. All gods came to greet him, and he responded amiably to every single one of them. However, he made one exception, and that was Hades, the god of wealth. Instead of greeting Hades, the hero lowered his eyes and turned away from him.

Zeus was taken by surprise and wanted to know the reason. After all, Heracles had been so friendly with all the other gods, why did he choose to avoid Hades?

“Zeus”, replied Heracles, “I will explain to you why I despise Hades. It is because, when we were together on earth, I always found him in the company of wicked men!”

This fable shows us that men who are rich in tangible, material things are not always rich at heart.

Heracles and the Egyptian Pharaoh

According to the legend, Heracles was once captured during a journey through Egypt. He was to be sacrificed at the behest of Pharaoh Busiris, a son of Poseidon.

The tyrant hoped with this gruesome human sacrifice to end a period of drought lasting for nine years. The men of Busiris arrested Heracles and then tied him up well with sheepskin straps to sacrifice him to Zeus.

At the altar however, Heracles tore apart his shackles and tied Busiris to the altar. He then killed him and his son Amphidamas as well as his entire retinue. and went on with his journey.

Heracles – How Barcelona got its Name

A myth attributes the foundation of the city to the strong hero Heracles. During his perilious fourth labour, Heracles joined Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. Together they crossed the Mediterranean in nine ships.

During a storm, one of the ships got lost in off the coast of Catalonia. After the storm, Jason, The Leader Of The Argonauts instructed Heracles to locate it. Heracles discovered the shipwreck at the base of a small hill (the Montjuic hill), but with the crew saved. Amazed by the beauty of the coastal landscape, they founded a city named Barca Nona (“Ninth Ship”) in this spot.

Furthermore, the ruins of another ancient Greek town called Gallipoli have been found a short distance away.

Featured Image Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of www.greek-gods.info which has been merged with Olympioi.com. She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.