Twelve Labors of Hercules: Origin Story, Meaning, & Significance
Hercules is a Roman god and a hero. He is the son of Jupiter (Zeus) and Alcmene (a mortal). In Greek mythology, Hercules is equivalent to the demigod and hero Heracles. Similar to his father, Zeus, Hercules possessed extraordinary strength and god-like powers.
His sheer strength was unmatched and far beyond any man of his days, according to ancient Greek myths. With these semi-divine powers, Hercules embarked on several arduous and extremely risky adventures. He was a multi-talented man with contradictory features. This enabled different artists to choose their own way of depicting him in their artworks. Symbolically, Hercules (a god of strength and heroes) is represented by a club, bow and arrow, and the Nemean lion.
Hercules’ name is typically associated with the 12 very great, but extremely difficult adventures. The adventures were described as the twelve impossible labors.
Although, the list of the Twelve Labors of Hercules varies slightly across different myths, the generally accepted version of the order of Hercules’ list of labors is as follows:
Slaughtered the Nemean Lion
This was a strong lion which could not be killed with any weapon. Hercules used his power to trap the lion in a cave. He then killed it by strangling it with his bare hands. After killing the lion, Hercules removed its skin and used it as his cloak.
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the Nemean Lion was one of the numerous monstrous children of Typhon and Echidna. What this means is that his siblings are: Orthrus, the two-headed dog that guarded the Cattle of Geryon on the island Erytheia; Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound and Hades’ lap dog; the Chimera, a powerful fire-breathing creature that was half lion and half goat with a snake’s tail; the Lernaean Hydra, the multiheaded water serpent whom for every head that was cut off, two grew in its place.
Murdered a monster named Hydra
Hydra was a nine-headed monster with unimaginable venom. It has been said that the moment a head of Hydra was cut off, two or more heads sprung up to replace the one that was cut. Legend has it that, Hercules successfully cut off every single one of Hydra’s heads while his nephew Lohaus burnt its neck. This prevented the heads from growing back again.
Captured the Cerynitian Hind
This was female a deer with golden horns which was sacred to Artemis – the goddess of the hunt and the moon. Hercules toiled for more than a year to capture the deer alive. Subsequently, the deer met its sad fate after it was brought down by Hercules’ arrow. Artemis, however, hesitated to allow Hercules to have it.
Captured the Erymethian Boar
Hercules traveled to Centaurs and used wine to attract a boar. When the boar attacked Hercules, he caught it alive and brought it to Eurystheus.
Used one day to clean the Stables of Augeius
Augeius had a plentiful herd of horses such that no one could finish cleaning the stable in one month. Hercules convinced Augeius that he could do the job within one day, based on the condition that Augeius would give him one-tenth of the herd. Hercules surprised Augeius by diverting two rivers to flow through the stable. The stables were cleaned in one day.
Killed the Stymphalian Birds
These were birds which destroyed the countryside. Hercules used a rattle given to him by Athena to achieve this mission. The rattle made some noise which made the birds fly away. Hercules shot some of them down with his arrow.
Captured the Cretan Bull
This bull was owned by King Minos of Crete. The bull mysteriously impregnated the wife of Minos and gave birth to a Minotaur. King Minos decided to give out the bull to Hercules who rode the bull through seawaters and brought it to Eurystheus.
Restored the Mares of the Diomedes
Diomedes was a king who used human flesh to feed his horses (mares). In an interesting turn of events, Hercules used Diomedes to feed the horses fully. He then brought the horses back to Eurystheus.
Obtained the Girdle of Hippolyta
A queen of the Amazons named Hippolyta had a belt (girdle) which symbolized her right to rule. The Amazons invited Hercules to their place, but Hera disguised herself as one of the Amazons and spread falsehoods that Hercules was there to steal the girdle. A fight broke out and Hippolyta got killed. Hercules took the belt away.
Retrieved the Cattle of Geryon
Geryon was a king of Cadiz (Spain) who had a lot of cattle. Hercules planned some side-adventures for this labor, including his threat to shoot down the down sun. He claimed it made him too hot. Hercules had a tough time trying to gather the cattle when they reached Cadiz. It wasn’t easy to round up the entire herd without leaving some behind.
When Hercules succeeded in bringing the cattle to Greece, Hera sent flies to sting the cattle and scatter them. A princess of Celtine got attracted to Hercules and hid the cattle so that Hercules would have sex with her before she would release the cattle. Hercules obeyed; they gave birth to Celtus. Hercules then took the cattle back to Eurystheus who endorsed the labor as legit.
Stole the Golden Apples of Hesperides
Hercules went to a sacred grove to harvest apples which didn’t belong to him. On his way to the grove, Hercules freed Prometheus who was bound to a rock. Prometheus revealed a secret to Hercules that the apples were guarded by Ladon – an undefeated dragon.
The demigod Hercules sought assistance from the titan Atlas (a god who held up the heavens with his shoulders). Before Atlas could get the apples for Hercules, Hercules had to bear the weight of the earth on his shoulders. When Atlas returned from collecting the apples, he did not want to take back the weight of the world. Hercules deceived Atlas to take back the weight. He picked his apples and vanished.
Captured and restored Cerberus
Eurystheus gave Hercules another mission which he deemed would be impossible to achieve. Hercules was asked to fetch a three-headed dog named Cerberus – a fierce dog that guarded the Underworld realm. When Hercules reached the underworld, Hades (the Greek god of the Underworld) promised to allow him to take the dog if only he would not harm it. Hercules wrestled the dog with his strength and brought it back to Eurystheus. Eurystheus was fearful of the dog, so he concluded that all the labors were done.
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Questions and Answers about the 12 Labors of Hercules
The Labors of Hercules are widely recognized as one of the most famous legends in Greek mythology. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the Twelve Labors:
Who assigned the 12 labors to Hercules?
The Labors of Hercules, also known as the Twelve Labors of Hercules or the Herculean Labors, are a series of mythological tasks that the ancient Greek hero Hercules (Heracles) was commanded to complete as a form of penance.
These daunting tasks were assigned to Hercules by his cousin, King Eurystheus, as punishment for the killing of his wife and children in a fit of madness, which had been induced by the goddess Hera.
Known as the wife of Zeus, Hera is best known as the queen of Olympus as well as her unbridled jealousy and mischievous plots to ruin the lives of Zeus’ children born from extramarital affairs. Hercules was just one of the children of Zeus that Hera wanted to destroy.
Read More: Most Famous Sons of Zeus in Greek Mythology
How did Hercules enter to the service of his cousin, King Eurystheus?
After recovering from the bout of madness that was inflicted upon him by Hera, Hercules went into exile and was consumed by a severe depression. His depression was lifted after he consulted the Oracle of Delphi. Pythia, the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, told the hero to commit himself into the service of King Eurystheus for ten years. The oracle told Hercules that upon completion of his service he would be blessed with immortality and even greater strength. It was during this time that Hercules was tasked by Eurystheus to perform the 12 daunting labors.
Who is King Eurystheus?
In Greek mythology, King Eurystheus was the king of Tiryns, a city in the northeastern Peloponnese region of Greece. According to the myth, Eurystheus was the cousin of Hercules (Heracles) and the son of Sthenelus and Nicippe. Eurystheus is the paternal grandparents were Andromeda and Perseus. The latter, a famous Greek hero, was the legendary founder of Mycenae and the Persied dynasty.
His paternal uncles were: Perses, Alcaeus, Mestor, Electryon, Cynurus, Heleus, Gorgophone and Autochthoe.
Eurystheus’ father, Sthenelus of Mycenae, was killed by Hyllus, son of Hercules and Deianira.
How were Hercules and King Eurystheus related?
Both Hercules and Eurystheus were the descendants of the great hero Perseus. Hercules was born to the mortal woman Alcmene, who was the daughter of Electryon, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. Eurystheus, on the other hand, was born to King Sthenelus and Nicippe. Electryon and Sthenelus were the children of Perseus.
Basically, Hercules and King Eurystheus were cousins.
Why did Eurystheus assign those very difficult labors to Hercules?
Eurystheus assigned the Labors to Hercules, hoping that the dangerous and impossible tasks would lead to his demise. However, Hercules successfully completed all the Labors, showcasing his strength, courage, and wit. Each time Hercules completed a Labour, he returned to Eurystheus to present evidence of his accomplishment.
How did the labors increase from ten to twelve?
In the myths, King Eurystheus originally tasked Hercules with ten labors. The labors became 12 as Eurystheus added two more because he rejected the second (i.e. the Lernaean Hydra) and fifth (i.e. cleaning the Augean stables) labors. The king argued that Hercules received help [from his nephew Iolaus] in the accomplishment of the second labor; while the fifth labor saw Hercules receive payment for its completion.
How beneficial were the labors?
The Labors of Hercules were meant to test Hercules’s physical and mental abilities, and Eurystheus served as the overseer and judge of his progress. Eurystheus would often hide inside a large jar (or in some accounts, a bronze vessel) out of fear and cowardice when Hercules returned to Tiryns.
Despite Eurystheus’s attempt to defeat or humiliate Hercules through the Labors, the demigod ultimately fulfilled his tasks and became one of the most renowned heroes in Greek mythology.
OTHER GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS/STORIES ABOUT HERCULES
In addition to the above 12 labors, here are some very spectacular feats of achievements and famed stories associated with Hercules:
- He killed a fire-breathing giant called Cacus.
- When he was an infant, he strangled a snake which was sent to kill him.
The term ‘herculean task’, which means a difficult mission, owes its origin to Hercules’ remarkable exploits and labors.
After successfully accomplishing those mind-boggling twelve labors, one would have expected Hercules to retire. He did exactly the opposite. He endured a lot of additional troubles, most notable among them was the killing of the prince of Ochaelia.