Classical Mythology: The Labors of Heracles

The Labors of Heracles

If you saw the 1997 Disney movie called Hercules, forget almost everything you think you know about the hero (called Heracles by the Greeks). Disney skipped virtually all of the labors of Heracles, gave him at least one new parent, reduced his many teachers to one, limited him to just one wife (and no concubines), and ignored his tragic death altogether.

What's more, Hollywood created a new villain for the piece, an archenemy who conforms more closely to our current conceptions of Satan: Hades. This casting of the villain gave the climactic battle that pitted Hercules and the gods against Hades and the Titans (rather than the Giants) more echoes of Milton's Paradise Lost than of classical mythology.

Virtually the only element of the Heracles myth that Disney depicted faithfully was the overall theme: The story of Heracles centers on a hero who gains immortality through accomplishments in the mortal sphere.

The Wonder Years: The Birth and Youth of Heracles

Like so many Greek heroes, Heracles was a son of Zeus by a mortal woman. Alcmene, the daughter of King Electryon of Argos, married her cousin Amphitryon. (Electryon and Alcaeus, Amphitryon's father, were sons of the hero Perseus: see The Model Hero: Perseus.) Before they could consummate their marriage, however, Amphitryon accidentally killed his father-in-law. His uncle Sthenelus accused Amphitryon of murder and forced him into exile.

Alcmene fled to Thebes with her husband, but refused to share his bed until he had avenged the murder of her eight brothers by pirates. Amphitryon gladly did so. But as Amphitryon journeyed homeward after his victory, Zeus impersonated him, told Alcmene in great detail how “he” had avenged her brothers and took her to bed. Zeus had the sun god Helius unharness his chariot for a day. So the world remained dark an extra 24 hours, and Zeus romanced Alcmene for the length of a 36-hour night.

When Amphitryon arrived home the following evening, his wife's lack of ardor disappointed him. Alcmene, for her part, grew impatient at hearing her husband recount the same stories “he” had told her the night before. Puzzled, Amphitryon consulted the blind seer, Teiresias, who told them what had happened. Since Zeus had deceived Alcmene, Amphitryon quickly forgave her for her unwitting adultery. Indeed, after his first night home, Amphitryon—fearful of inciting Zeus to jealousy—never slept with his wife again.

The Labors of Alcmene

Just before Heracles was born, Zeus boasted on Olympus that a son of his blood would be born that day who would rule over the House of Perseus. The always jealous Hera, who knew of her husband's tryst with Alcmene, made Zeus swear to this boast.

Thwarting Zeus's plans, Hera arranged with Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to delay Alcmene's delivery. Eileithyia sat outside Alcmene's bedroom with her legs and fingers tightly crossed and her clothing tied into knots, a charm that effectively blocked the delivery. Meanwhile Hera hastened the labor of Nicippe, the wife of King Sthenelus, who had driven his nephew Amphitryon from Argos. As the grandson of Perseus (see The Model Hero: Perseus), this premature child, Eurystheus, was indeed a son of Zeus's blood. Reluctantly, Zeus kept his vow to make this child the ruler of Argos, Tiryns, and Mycenae.

What a Life!

Iphicles was born on the same day as his more famous half-brother Heracles. Alcmene and her husband had conceived Iphicles on the night Amphitryon returned home—the night after Alcmene and Zeus had conceived Heracles.

Zeus then enlisted the aid of Athena to trick Hera into suckling the infant Heracles. Athena “found” the infant Heracles outside the walls of Thebes, where Alcmene had abandoned him in fear of Hera's jealousy. Athena showed the child to Hera and urged the goddess to pity the beautiful child so cruelly neglected. Without thinking, Hera bared her breast to the baby, but Heracles sucked with such force that she tore him from her breast. (The milk that spurted across the sky became the Milky Way.)

The suckling of the infant Heracles apparently awoke none of Hera's maternal instincts. She would remain for the rest of Heracles' life a hostile stepmother. Still jealous of Alcmene, the goddess sent two poisonous serpents with flaming eyes to destroy both Heracles and his half-brother Iphicles. Yet the mighty infant seized one in each hand and easily strangled the serpents.

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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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