Classical Mythology: Beastly Chores: The First Four Labors

Beastly Chores: The First Four Labors

When Heracles reported to Eurystheus at Tiryns, the king assigned him his first labor: the killing of the Nemean lion. This beast would provide a great challenge for the young hero, because its invulnerable skin could not be pierced with either stone or metal.

After traveling to Nemea, a region of the northeastern Peloponnesus, Heracles found his arrows, his sword, and his club useless, and so was forced to engage in hand-to-paw combat. After sealing off one entrance to the lion's two-mouthed cave, Heracles entered the other unarmed. He wrestled the beast to the ground, wrapped his mighty arms around it, and squeezed the lion until it choked to death.

Using the lion's own claws to cut off its skin, Heracles fashioned a cloak from its invulnerable hide and a helmet from its head. Returning triumphantly to Tiryns, he so frightened Eurystheus with this get-up that the king ordered him to leave all future trophies outside the city's gates. Eurystheus then had a large, bronze jar forged and buried it in the earth. Thereafter, whenever Heracles approached, the cowardly Eurystheus hid in this jar and had a messenger relay his next orders to the hero.

Eurystheus directed Heracles to kill the Lernaean Hydra (water snake) as his second labor. A child of the monsters Typhon and Echidna—whom Apollodorus credits with begetting the Sphinx and the Nemean lion as well—the Hydra had a huge dog-like body and many serpentine heads (some say as few as seven; others claim 10,000), one of which was immortal. The beast was so deadly that even its breath was poisonous.

Heracles arrived quickly in Lerna, a coastal town just south of Argos. The hero first tried a straightforward attack, holding his breath and hacking off the Hydra's heads with his sword or crushing them with his club. His attack only made the monster more deadly, for when one head was destroyed, two more grew in its place. Heracles ultimately defeated the beast by calling on his friend and charioteer Iolaus (the son of the hero's half-brother, Iphicles) to sear each new wound with burning branches. This checked the flow of blood and prevented the growing of new heads. Heracles then slew the beast by chopping off its immortal head and burying the still-hissing head under a rock.

Before returning to Tiryns, Heracles dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. Thereafter, anyone wounded with one of these arrows would die.

Unfortunately, Eurystheus refused to credit him with accomplishing this labor since, although Heracles had defeated the Hydra, he had relied on the help of Iolaus to complete it. Eurystheus next commanded Heracles to capture the Erymanthian boar. This savage beast haunted Arcadia in central Peloponnesus near Mount Erymanthus, a mountain sacred to Artemis.

On his way to Arcadia, Heracles accepted the hospitality of a Centaur named Pholus. When Pholus offered the Centaurs' communal wine to his guest, the other Centaurs smelled the strong wine and went mad. Heracles killed many of the attacking Centaurs and drove the rest to a new home on Mount Malea, where their king Cheiron lived.

One of Heracles' arrows, however, passed through his intended victim and struck his old friend and teacher, Cheiron. Though Cheiron was immortal, the poisoned arrow brought so much pain that the king of the Centaurs wished he were dead. (The Titan Prometheus later assumed the burden of Cheiron's immortality so that the Centaur could go to Hades.)

The poisonous arrows of Heracles soon claimed another of his friends as a victim. His kindly host Pholus was examining them when he dropped one on his foot and died instantly.

Mythed by a Mile

One version of this myth says that Heracles shot an arrow with such skill that it pierced both of the deer's forelegs, pinning them together without drawing a single drop of blood. Then he carried the hind back to Tiryns.

Heracles once again set out for Mount Erymanthus. There, he trapped the vicious boar in deep snow, captured it with chains, and brought it back alive.

For his fourth labor, Heracles was ordered to capture the Ceryneian hind alive. A wonderful deer with golden antlers and brass hoofs, this hind roamed the hills of Ceryneia between Arcadia and Achaea, in central Peloponnesus. Because the hind was sacred to Artemis, the goddess of hunting, Heracles hoped to capture it unharmed.

What a Life!

A beautiful young man, Hylas was the son of Theiodamas, king of the Dryopes. Heracles killed Theiodamas when the king refused him the gift of an ox. Infatuated with the son of his victim, however, Heracles carried Hylas away with him, making the boy his servant and lover.

Heracles pursued the deer for a full year. He then either netted the beast or seized it while it slept. While returning to Tiryns with the deer on his shoulders, Heracles met Artemis and Apollo. Artemis chastised Heracles, but let him pass with her sacred deer when he insisted that it was Eurystheus, the man who had ordered him to complete this task, who bore the blame for this insult.

Heracles then took a sabbatical from his labors to join Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts). The Argonauts asked him to be their captain, but Heracles properly deferred to Jason. Heracles quit the voyage before long, however. When the Argo (Jason's ship) stopped in Mysia, on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor, nymphs of the spring, infatuated with Heracles' squire and lover Hylas, dragged the boy down into the water. While Heracles searched in vain for Hylas, the Argo left without him.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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