The Twelve Labors of Hercules

Updated March 10, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The Greatest of the Greek Heroes

In Greek mythology, the stories can be broken apart by the generations of heroes. In each generation, there is usually a king or hero who is the greatest among his peers. In the first generation there was Perseus, son of Zeus and founder of the leading city of Mycenae. After Perseus was Theseus, son of Poseidon and King of Athens. Then is Heracles, the great-grandson of Perseus and son of Zeus.

Heracles, (also Herakles, or Hercules to the Romans) appears in countless myths in Greek mythology. Unlike most demigods, Heracles was eventually elevated to godhood. Many of the great families of Greece and Rome traced their ancestry back to Heracles.

The most famous of all his myths are the Twelve Labors. The story goes that in a fit of madness (inflicted on him by Zeus's wife Hera), Heracles killed his wife Megara. He asked the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi how he could atone. He was told to travel to Tiryns and do the tasks asked of him by King Eurystheus (his cousin through his mortal mother). For twelve years, he traveled all over to complete these incredible tasks. NOTE: Because different Ancient Greek poets gave their own accounts of Hercules's labors, some details may vary.

One: Kill the Nemean Lion

The first task was traveling to Nemea and slaying the Nemean Lion, a fierce beast terrorizing the countryside. This monster of a lion had a hide was so tough that no arrow could pierce it. Heracles stunned the beast with his olive-wood club and then strangled it with his bare hands. Athena urged him to skin the lion, using the lion's own sharp claws. He wore the lion skin for the rest of his days. In many versions of the story, he wears the pelt into Eurystheus's court to frighten him. This inspired Eurystheus to try and take vengeance on his cousin by issuing more and more dangerous challenges.

Two: Kill the Lernaean Hydra

The second task was the kill the evil, snakelike Hydra. The beast had nine heads, each with lethal venom. And, if one got hurt, two more heads would grow in its place. Heracles was able to overcome its natural healing by clubbing off the heads, then having his charioteer, Iolaus, seal the wounds with a torch. Again inspired, Heracles envenomed a quiver of arrows with the hydra's blood.

Three: Capture the Ceryneian Hind

Angered by Heracles' success, Eurystheus tried to set his cousin against the gods. The goddess Artemis loved and protected a little deer with gold horns, known as the Ceryneian Hind. Eurystheus tasked Heracles with bringing him the animal; when the hero shot the deer, he would incur Artemis's wrath. But, Heracles undertook the challenge of capturing the delicate hind without hurting it. After following the hind for an entire year, he safely carried it away.

Four: Capture the Erymanthian Boar

The people of Mount Erymanthus lived in fear of this deadly animal. Eurystheus challenged his cousin to capture it, rather than kill it; fierce as it was, this should prove a bigger challenge. Heracles chased the wild boar up the mountain and into a snowdrift. He then took it in a net and brught it to the king of Tiryns, who was so frightened of the beast that he hid in a huge bronze jar. This deepened the enmity between Eurystheus and Heracles.

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Five: Clean the Augean Stables

The deadly challenges so far hadn't stopped him, so Eurystheus instead set him an arduous challenge instead. Thousands of animals lived in these stables belonging to King Augeas. They had not been cleaned in 30 years, but Heracles was told to clean them completely in a single day. To do so he made two rivers bend so that they flowed into the stables, sweeping out the filth. Later on, Eurystheus would claim that this didn't count, as the rivers cleaned the stable rather than Heracles.

Six: Kill the Stymphalian Birds

These murderous birds lived around Lake Stymphalos. Their claws and beaks were sharp as metal and their feathers flew like darts. Heracles scared them out of their nests with a rattle and then killed them with the poison arrows he had made from the Hydra's blood.

Seven: Capture the Cretan Bull

This savage bull, kept by King Minos of Crete, was said to be insane and breathe fire. Heracles wrestled the mad beast to the ground and brought it back to King Eurystheus. Unfortunately, the king set it free, and it roamed Greece, causing terror wherever it went.

Eight: Capture the Horses of Diomedes

Eurystheus' eighth task was to try and retrieve the unruly horses of King Diomedes, leader of the Bistones. Diomedes fed his bloodthirsty horses on human flesh, making them wild and nearly impossible to corral. Heracles and his men fought and killed King Diomedes and fed the king to his man-eating horses. This made the horses tame, so that Heracles was able to lead them to King Eurystheus.

Nine: Take the Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons

Heracles went to the land of the Amazons, where the queen Hippolyta (or Hippolyte) welcomed him and agreed to give him her girdle for Eurystheus's daughter. But Hera spread the rumor that Heracles came as an enemy. In the end he had to conquer the Amazons and steal the golden belt.

Ten: Capture the Cattle of Geryon

Geryon, a winged monster with three human bodies, had a herd of beautiful red cattle. He guarded his prized herd with the help of a giant and a vicious two-headed dog. Heracles killed Geryon, the giant, and the dog and brought the cattle to King Eurystheus.

Eleven: Take the Golden Apples of the Hesperides

The Hesperides were nymphs. In their garden grew golden apples protected by Ladon, a dragon with a hundred heads. Heracles struck a bargain with Atlas, who held up the earth. Heracles shouldered the Earth while Atlas, the nymphs' father, fetched the apples from Erytheia. Atlas then tried to foist the job permanently onto Heracles, but was either tricked or persuaded into resuming his post.

Twelve: Capture Cerberus

Heracles was ordered to capture Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the underworld, without using weapons. Heracles wrestled down the dog's wild heads, and it agreed to go with him to King Eurystheus. Cerberus was soon returned unharmed to Hades.

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