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Hercules

Hercules (hûrˈkyəlēzˌ) [key], Heracles, or Herakles both: hĕrˈəklēzˌ, most popular of all Greek heroes, famous for extraordinary strength and courage. Alcmene, wife of Amphitryon, made love to both Zeus and her husband on the same night and bore two sons, Hercules (son of Zeus) and Iphicles (son of Amphitryon). Hercules incurred the everlasting wrath of Hera because he was the child of her unfaithful husband. A few months after his birth Hera set two serpents in his cradle, but the prodigious infant promptly strangled them.

When he was a young man, Hercules defended Thebes from the armies of a neighboring city, Orchomenus, and was rewarded with Megara, daughter of King Creon. But Hera later drove Hercules insane, and in his madness he killed his wife and children. After he had recovered his sanity, he sought purification at the court of King Eurystheus of Tiryns for 12 years. During those years Hercules performed 12 arduous labors: he killed the Nemean lion and the Hydra; caught the Erymanthian boar and the Cerynean hind; drove off the Stymphalian birds; cleaned the stables of Augeas; captured the Cretan bull and the horses of Diomed; made off with the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyte; killed Geryon; captured Cerberus; and finally took the golden apples of Hesperides.

After his labors were completed, Hercules was involved in many other adventures and combats, including the Calydonian hunt and the Argonaut expedition. He killed Iphitus, son of the king of Oichalia, because the king would not give him his daughter Iole. When Neleus, king of Pylos, refused him absolution for that crime, Hercules sacked his kingdom and killed all his sons except Nestor. For that outrage the Delphic oracle bade him serve Omphale, queen of Lydia, who, in some legends, dressed him in women's clothes and had him work with her maids spinning wool. He later was her lover, but after he finished his servitude he returned to Oichalia and carried off Iole.

When his second wife, Deianira, daughter of King Oeneus, was seized by the centaur Nessus, Hercules killed Nessus with arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. As he died, Nessus told Deianira that blood from his wound would restore Hercules' love for her if ever it were to wane. Later, when Deianira sought to win back her husband's love, she contrived to have him don a robe smeared with the blood. The robe stuck fast to Hercules' skin, burning him unbearably. In agony, he built a huge pyre atop Mt. Oite and had it set afire. His mortal parts burned away, but the rest rose to heaven, where he was finally reconciled with Hera and married Hebe.

Although worshiped as a god, Hercules was properly a hero, frequently appealed to for protection from various evils. In art Hercules was portrayed as a powerful, muscular man wearing a lion's skin and armed with a huge club. Perhaps the most famous statue of him is the Farnese Hercules in the National Museum in Naples. He is the hero of plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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