The 12 Labors of Hercules (In Order)

Updated July 28, 2023 | Infoplease Staff
Hercules beats the centaur
Source: Getty Images

Most people are familiar with the heroic figure of ancient folklore, Hercules. Whether you have studied Greek epics or recently rewatched Disney’s interpretation of them in 1997’s “Hercules”, the man, the myth, and the legend is still well-known today.

But did you know about the twelve impossible tasks that Hercules had to complete to atone for the murder of his family? These labors or trials of Hercules are where we get the phrase “Herculean task” and have gone down in history as some of the greatest feats of any hero.

Who Was Hercules?

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 there 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. He is one of the most famous demigods of legend, as his father was a god and his mother was a mortal woman known for her beauty, and his feats were virtually unbeatable from a young age.

Unlike most demigods, Heracles was eventually elevated to be a Greek god, and later, a Roman deity. Many of the great families of Greece and Rome traced their ancestry back to Heracles and set up temples to the hero.

Why Did Hercules Do the 12 Labors?

The most famous of all Hercules’ myths are the Twelve Labors. They began with Hera, the queen of the gods and Olympus, who was continuously jealous of her godly husband Zeus, his dalliances, and his illegitimate offspring — such as Hercules. And so she resolved to get her revenge.

In a fit of madness spurred by Hera, Hercules killed his wife Megara and his children. He asked the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi how he could atone and was told to travel to Tiryns and do the tasks asked of him by King Eurystheus (who was his cousin through his mortal mother, Alcmene). However, Hera influenced the Oracle’s decree, choosing the most difficult tasks for the hero. But Hercules was unaware, and for twelve years, he traveled all over the ancient world to complete these incredible tasks.

It is important to note that because different Ancient Greek poets gave their own accounts of Hercules's labors, some details may vary, but the following Herculean tasks are generally agreed upon by scholars.

What Were the 12 Labors of Hercules in Order?

The dozen impossible tasks that were set for Hercules revolved around the most dangerous, volatile, or difficult mythological figures in the ancient world. These include:

  1. The Nemean Lion
  2. The Learnaean Hydra
  3. The Ceryneian Hind
  4. The Erymanthian Boar
  5. The Augean Stables
  6. The Stymphalian Birds
  7. The Mares of Diomedes
  8. The Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
  9. The Cattle of Geryon
  10. The Golden Apples of the Hesperides
  11. Cerberus

Each of these beasts and objects of lore was famously difficult to capture, defeat, or acquire, which is why the jealous Hera selected them for Hercules to attempt — and hopefully, for him to fail.

Classical Greek art
Source: Getty Images

Hercules’ First Labor: 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 that 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, and then wore its hide as his primary garment afterward.

Hercules’ Second Labor: Kill the Lernaean Hydra

Dwelling in Lerna, the evil, snakelike Hydra had nine heads. If one immortal head got hurt, two new heads would grow in its place.

But Heracles was fast on his feet and an even quicker thinker. Mid-battle, he swiftly sliced off the heads, while his charioteer, Iolaus, sealed the wounds with a torch. When the Hydra was dead, Heracles made his arrows poisonous by dipping them in the Hydra's venomous blood — and these same arrows would later come in handy with another labor and his later battle with Nessus, a centaur in Elis.

Hercules’ Third Labor: Capture the Ceryneian Hind

The goddess of the hunt and woodlands, Artemis, loved and protected this stubborn little deer, which had gold antlers. Heracles found it a challenge to capture the delicate hind without hurting it (and making Artemis angry). But after following the hind for an entire year, he safely carried it away, and the powerful goddess was placated.

Hercules’ Fourth Labor: Capture the Erymanthian Boar

The people of Mount Erymanthus lived in fear of this deadly animal. Heracles chased the wild boar up the mountain and into a snowdrift. He then took it in a net and brought it to the king of Tiryns, who was so frightened of the beast that he hid in a huge bronze jar.

Hercules’ Fifth Labor: Clean the Augean Stables

Thousands of cows 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.

Hercules’ Sixth Labor: Kill the Stymphalian Birds

These murderous birds lived around Lake Stymphalos in Arcadia. 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 blood of the Hydra's heads.

Hercules’ Seventh Labor: Capture the Cretan Bull

This savage bull, kept by King Minos of Crete, was said to be insane and breathe fire. It was also the father of the famed Minotaur, which would feature in a later Greek myth with Theseus and the labyrinth.

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.

Hercules’ Eighth Labor: Capture the Mares of Diomedes

King Diomedes, leader of the Bistones, fed his bloodthirsty horses on human flesh. Heracles and his men fought and killed King Diomedes and fed the king to his man-eating horses in an ironic twist. This made the horses tame so that Heracles was able to lead them to King Eurystheus.

Hercules’ Ninth Labor: 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, gifted to her by Ares, the god of war, for Eurystheus's daughter. But Hera, continuing in her campaign against the hero, spread a rumor that Heracles came as an enemy. In the end, he had to conquer the Amazons and steal the golden belt to be successful.

As for the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta’s end varies according to the version of the story. In one, she is slain by Hercules to get the belt. In another, she is captured by Hercules’ companion and abducted.

Hercules’ Tenth Labor: 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 named Orthrus, reminiscent of Cerberus, who Hercules would later face.

After crossing the Libyan desert and an ocean with the help of Helios, the sun god, and his chariot, Heracles killed Geryon, the giant, and the dog, and captured the cattle. However, as he rested, the giant Cacus attempted to steal them by using an old trick of Hermes: walking the cattle backward to confuse the tracker.

As you can guess, the ruse failed, as Hercules defeated Cacus and brought the cattle to King Eurystheus — where they were sacrificed to Hera to try and win her favor. We’ll let you decide if Hercules was successful in that!

Hercules’ Eleventh Labor: 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.

Hercules sought the advice of Prometheus, the man famed for defying the gods and bringing fire to the world of mortals, on how to enter the garden safely. On his word, the hero struck a bargain with Atlas, the titan who held up the earth. Heracles then shouldered the earth while Atlas, who was also the nymphs' father, fetched the apples from Erytheia, one of the islands of the Hesperidies.

Hercules’ Twelfth Labor: Capture Cerberus

Heracles was ordered to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of the underworld, without using weapons — a feat previously thought impossible. Heracles wrestled down the dog's wild and frothing heads, and it eventually agreed to willingly go with him to King Eurystheus. However, once this task had been completed, Cerberus was soon returned unharmed to Hades and his home in the underworld.

Hercules kills the hydra
Source: Getty Images

Hercules: The Greatest of the Greek Heroes

What happened to one of the most powerful demigods and popular heroes after he completed these labors? Well, it depends on which source you read.

For example, in the “Argonautica” by Apollonius of Rhodes, Hercules supposedly joined Jason’s crew and sailed with them for further adventures pursuing the Golden Fleece, happy with his successful atonement. But if you turn to “Herakles”, a tragic play by Euripides, the hero returned home to Thebes after his tasks, went mad again, and was finally exiled to Athens in shame and without his atonement.

So, whether you wish to believe that Hercules overcame his demons after completing his tasks or that he fell back into madness and despair, that is the beauty of Greek mythology — it’s widely interpretable and allegorically subjective.

Either way, the greatest of Greek heroes and demigods was certainly Hercules, and his efforts are the stuff of legends. If you want to test your new knowledge, Can You Recount Hercules’ Twelve Labors with our quiz?

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