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Labors of Herakles

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Herakles carries an olive wood club and wears a lion skin

The Labors of Herakles is a series of tasks performed by the Greek hero Herakles. He had committed a terrible crime and these tasks were a form of penance. They involved killing fierce animals and horrible monsters.

The Labors were devised by Hera, the Queen of Heaven and the goddess of marriage. She hated Herakles because he was a bastard son of her husband Zeus. She hoped these tasks would kill him.

Herakles however performed the Labors with great success, and became very famous. The Labors of Herakles probably had their origin in the religious and magical practices of prehistoric man.

Background[edit | edit source]

Mortals die, but gods live forever. Herakles was part mortal, part god. His father was the god Zeus and his mother was the mortal Alkmene.

Zeus' wife Hera was the Queen of Heaven and the goddess of marriage. She hated Herakles because he was one of her husband's bastards. She tried many times to kill him, even when he was a baby. He survived in spite of Hera's persecution and hatred, and did many great deeds as a young man.

Herakles married Megara, the daughter of a king. They became the parents of several children. Hera caused Herakles to go mad, and to kill his family.

The priestess of Delphi ordered Herakles to serve his cousin King Eurystheus of Tiryns as a penance for this crime. Eurystheus would present a series of tasks to Herakles. These tasks were designed by Hera herself in the hope that they would kill Herakles.

Labors of Herakles[edit | edit source]

There is no definite order for the Labors. Most of the time, however, the order is: Nemean Lion, Lernean Hydra, the Golden Hind, Erymanthian Boar, Augean Stables, Stymphalian Birds, Cretan Bull, the Mares of Diomedes, Girdle of Hippolyta, Cattle of Geryon, Apples of the Hesperides, and Kerberos.

The order here is that of the sculptures on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. These sculptures (made about 460 - 450 BC) were placed high on the outside of the temple. Their order was described by the ancient Greek geographer, Pausanias. Some of these metopes are used in this article to illustrate the Labors. The first group of six metopes are from the west end of the temple. The second group of six are from the east end. Some of the illustrations here are taken from Greek vase paintings. The Labours of Herakles became the subject of much ancient and modern art, and even movies such as Hercules (1958) starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves and the Walt Disney animated movie Hercules (1997).

Lion of Nemea[edit | edit source]

Herakles and the Nemean Lion on a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about 460 BC

A large and dangerous lion was terrorizing the people and animals near the city of Nemea. Weapons of iron, bronze, or stone could not pierce the lion's thick hide (skin). Eurystheus ordered Herakles to kill and skin this lion.[1]

Herakles went to the region of Nemea and stayed with a poor man named Molorchos at Kleonai. Molorchos' son had been killed by this lion. Molorchos wanted to sacrifice his only ram to Herakles, but Herakles asked him to wait thirty days. If he did not return within thirty days, the ram was to be sacrificed to him as a hero. If he returned within thirty days, the ram was to be sacrificed to Zeus the Deliverer.[2]

Herakles found the lion outside its lair on Mount Tretos. His arrows and sword were useless against the beast. He hit the lion with his club and the animal went into his lair. Herakles blocked one of the two openings to the cavern with nets, then entered the cavern. He wrestled the lion and choked it to death. The lion bit off one of his fingers. He returned to Molorchos' hovel with the lion's carcass on his back. The two men sacrificed to Zeus.[3]

When Herakles presented the dead animal to Eurystheus, the king was disgusted. He ordered Herakles to leave such things outside the gates of Tiryns in the future. Eurystheus then put a large bronze jar underground. This was the place where he would hide whenever Herakles returned to the city with some trophy of his Labors. Zeus put the lion among the stars as the constellation Leo.[4]

In the future, Eurystheus would only communicate with Herakles through Kopreus, his dungman. Herakles skinned the lion with one of its own claws. He wore the skin as a kind of armor and the lion's skull as a helmet.[5] Euripides wrote in his play Herakles:"First he cleared the grove of Zeus of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws."[6]

The origin of the Nemean Lion is not certain. Some say he was the son of either Typhon or the Chimera and the dog Orthros. Some say the moon goddess Selene gave birth to the lion and let it fall to Earth near a two-mouthed cave at Nemea. She set it against the people because they had failed to properly observe her worship. Some say that Hera had Selene create the lion from sea foam and that Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, carried it to Nemea.[7] Others say the lion was the son of the snake goddess Echidna and her son, the dog Orthos. This would make the lion a brother to the Sphinx of Thebes. Hera was said to have brought the lion from the eastern land of the Arimoi and to have released it near Nemea.[8]

Hydra of Lerna[edit | edit source]

Athena, Herakles, the Crab, the Hydra, Iolaos, and an unidentified character (possibly Zeus) on an amphora, ca. 540-530 BC

The Hydra ("water-snake") was a monster with many heads. She lived beneath a tree near the seaside city of Lerna.

The Hydra had a dog-like body. Its breath was poisonous. The head in the middle of the monster was immortal. It could not die.

Eurystheus ordered Herakles to kill this monster. Herakles and his nephew Iolaos drove to the swamp near Lerna in Herakles' war chariot.

Athena told Herakles to force the monster from the swamp with fire arrows. He did, but the monster twisted itself about his feet. He beat the heads with his club, but crushing one head only caused others to erupt.

A great crab crawled from the swamp to help the Hydra. It bit Herakles in the foot. He crushed its shell. Herakles called Iolaos for his help and cut the Hydra's heads off with his sword. Iolaos sealed the neck stumps with torches so other heads could not grow in their place.

At last, the Hydra was killed. Herakles cut off the immortal head and buried it under a heavy stone in the road. He dipped his arrowheads in the Hydra's poisonous blood. They became deadly.

Back in Tiryns, Eurystheus would not count this adventure as a Labour, because Herakles had had his nephew's help. He added another Labour to the list. Hera set the crab in the sky as a constellation.

Stymphalian Birds[edit | edit source]

Athena and Herakles on a metope depicting the Stymphalian Birds from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about 460 BC

The Stymphalian Birds were man-eating birds living on the shores of Lake Stymphalos in north-eastern Arcadia. The birds were sacred to Ares, the god of war. Their feces poisoned the land and crops would not grow. The birds attacked men with their bronze beaks and claws. They could rain down their sharp bronze feathers to kill men and their animals.[9]

Herakles failed to drive them off with his arrows. Athena gave him a set of metal castanets (or a rattle) made by the blacksmith of the gods, Hephaestus. Herakles climbed to a rocky place over the lake and made so much noise with the castanets that the birds flew as far as the Isle of Ares in the Black Sea. Herakles was able to kill many of them with his arrows as they flew away.[9]

Some say the birds were women. Artemis Stymphalia ruled the swamps about the lake. Her temple there had pictures of young girls with the feet of birds. These girls lured men to their deaths in the swamps. They were said to be the daughters of Stymphalos and Ornis. These two were killed by Herakles when they would not give him food, drink, and a place to rest.[10][11]

Cretan Bull[edit | edit source]

Heracules and the Cretan Bull in a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about 460 BC

The Cretan Bull rose from the sea. Poseidon, god of the sea, intended King Minos to sacrifice the bull, but it was so handsome that Minos kept it for himself. He sent it to mate with his cows, then sacrificed another bull to Poseidon. The god was angry and caused Minos' wife, Queen Pasiphaë, to develop a sexual desire for the animal.[12]

She mated with it and gave birth to a son. This son was the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Cretan Bull went mad. Heracules captured it by throwing a rope about its head and about a leg. Some say he wrestled it, or stunned it with his club.[12]

Minos let Heracules take the bull to Greece. Eurystheus wanted to give the bull to Hera but she would not take it because Heracules had captured it. She let it go and it wandered about Greece. Theseus of Athens finally captured it and sacrificed it to Athena, or some say, Apollo.[13] The bull had spent its days in Crete destroying crops and belching fire.[14]

Hind of Artemis[edit | edit source]

Artemis and Apollo try to take the hind from Herakles while Athena watches on an amphora dated to about 530 BC–520 BC

When Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was a child, she saw five hinds (female deer) grazing near the Anaurus River in Thessaly. Each was as large as a bull, each had hooves of bronze, and all had antlers of gold. She caught four of them, and used them to pull her chariot. The fifth escaped the goddess and lived on the Keryneian Hill in Arkadia. Hera planned to use this hind against Herakles someday.[15]

Eurystheus ordered Herakles to catch this hind and bring it alive to Tiryns. The danger in this Labor lay in pursuing the hind through wild lands from which no hunter ever returned.[16] Herakles hunted the hind for a year, chasing it through Istria and the Land of the Hyperboreans. The hind took refuge on Mount Artemision. Herakles let fly an arrow that pinned the hind's forelegs (front legs) together without drawing blood. He put the hind on his shoulders and took her back to Tiryns.[17]

Artemis and Apollo stopped Herakles on his way to Tiryns. On some vases, Apollo is seen trying to forcibly take the hind from Herakles. Herakles however lay the blame for the theft on Eurystheus. Artemis accepted this plea and allowed him to pass.[18] Some say Herakles used a net to capture the hind or captured her when she was asleep under a tree.[17]

Girdle of Hippolyte[edit | edit source]

Herakles and an Amazon on an amphora, about 530 BC–520 BC

Eurystheus' daughter Admete was a priestess of Hera.[19] She wanted the Golden Girdle (belt) of Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons. This girdle had been a gift to Hippolyte from her father, Ares, the god of war. The Amazons were all related to Ares. They hated men and mated only to make more female warriors. Baby boys were killed or crippled. The lives of these women were devoted to war.

Herakles and friends sailed to their land of Pontos on the Black Sea. The Amazons lived at the mouth of the Thermodon River.[12] Hippolyte welcomed Herakles. She fell in love with his muscles and his great fame. She promised him the girdle as a love token. Hera disguised herself as an Amazon. She whispered among others that Herakles was going to kidnap the Queen. The Amazons charged Herakles' ship on horseback. Herakles killed Hippolyte, and took the girdle. Many Amazons were killed.[20]

Some say Hippolyte would not part with the girdle. Herakles threw her from her horse and threatened her with his club. She would not ask for mercy. Herakles killed her.[21] Some say Hippolyte's sister Melanippe was taken prisoner. She was ransomed with the girdle. Some say Hippolyte herself was taken prisoner and ransomed with the girdle. Others say Theseus took Hippolyte prisoner and gave the girdle to Herakles.[20] Herakles gave the girdle to Eurystheus, who gave it to Admete.[22]

Erymanthian Boar[edit | edit source]

Herakles holds the boar above Eurystheus who is hiding in his jar with Iolaos (right) and Hermes (left) from a black-figure amphora, about 525 BC

A large and dangerous boar was living on Mount Erymanthos. Eurystheus ordered Herakles to catch this boar.[23] On Mount Erymanthos, Herakles forced the boar from the wood with his shouts. He then drove the boar into deep snow and jumped on its back. He put the boar in chains, placed it on his shoulders, and took it to Eurystheus. The king was so scared he hid in his bronze jar.[24][25] Herakles left the boar in the market square of Tiryns. He then joined the Argonauts on the Quest for the Golden Fleece.[26]

Mount Erymanthos took its name from a son of Apollo. Aphrodite blinded him because he saw her taking a bath. Apollo was angry. He turned himself into a boar and killed her boyfriend Adonis.[23]

Horses of Diomedes[edit | edit source]

Horse's head on an Attic black-figure amphora, about 550 BC

Eurystheus ordered Herakles to bring him the Horses of King Diomedes of Thrace. King Diomedes' horses were savage man-eaters, and were fed on the flesh of Diomedes' innocent guests. Herakles and his friends sailed to the coast of Thrace. Having found the stables of Diomedes, they killed the king's servants. They then put Diomedes before the horses. The animals tore him to pieces and ate him. The horses grew calm after feeding, and were led to the ship. Herakles sent them to Eurystheus.[27]

Diomedes was the son of Ares, the god of war, and the king of the Bistones, a Thracian tribe of warlike people. While travelling in connection with this Labor, Herakles visited King Admetos. His wife Alcestis had just died. Herakles wrestled Death for Alcestis and he won. Alcestis was returned to life. This event is the basis for Euripides' play Alcestis. Eurystheus dedicated the savage horses to Hera. They were said to have bred into the age of Alexander the Great.

Another story says Herakles captured the horses and drove them to his ship. Diomedes and his men chased the thieves. Herakles and his friends left the ship to fight the king and his men. The horses of Diomedes were left in the care of Abderos, Herakles' male lover. The horses ate him. Herakles built the city of Abdera in his memory. It was after this Labor that Herakles joined the Quest for the Golden Fleece. He dropped out of the search when his lover Hylas was lost on a strange island. Some say Herakles went on to Kolchis and rejoined the Quest. Others say he returned to Tiryns and the Labors.[28]

Cattle of Geryon[edit | edit source]

Herakles has killed Eurytion and meets Geryon on an amphora dated about 540 BC

Geryon was a very strong giant with three bodies, six hands, and three heads. He was the King of Tartessus in Spain.[29] He had wings, and the picture on his shield was an eagle.[30] He lived on an island called Erytheia. This island was far to the west in Okeanos, the river that circles the Earth. At night, the Sun sailed upon this river in a Golden Cup.[31]

Geryon had large herds of cattle.[31] They were watched over by Eurytion, Geryon's servant, and a huge two-headed dog named Orthrus, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.[29] King Eurystheus ordered Herakles to capture Geryon's cattle.[31]

Herakles crossed the Libyan desert. At the narrow channel that separates Europe and Africa, he built the Pillars of Herakles.[32] The Sun was hot and Herakles threatened to shoot him with his bow and arrows. The Sun asked him not to do this. Herakles agreed. He borrowed the Sun's Golden Cup and sailed away in it. The Titan Oceanus tested Herakles' seamanship by causing violent waves. Herakles threatened to shoot Oceanus, too. Oceanus calmed the waves. Some say Herakles sailed in an urn and used his lion skin as a sail.[33]

On Geryon's island, Herakles killed the two-headed dog Orthos and the servant Eurytion, who tried to help the dog. Herakles was driving the cattle to the Golden Cup when Geryon appeared, ready to fight. Herakles shot him down and sailed away with the cattle.[34] Herakles had many adventures on his return to Greece. On the Greek coast, Hera sent gadflies to drive the herd of cattle far and wide. Herkales managed to round-up a few and these he presented to Eurystheus. He sacrificed them to Hera.[35]

Apples of the Hesperides[edit | edit source]

Atlas gives the apples to Herakles in a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about 460 BC

Hera received golden apples as a gift when she married. She planted them in her garden far to the west near Mount Atlas. It was on this mountain that the Titan Atlas held the sky on his shoulders. He was being punished for having joined the other Titans in making war on Zeus. When Hera heard his daughters were stealing from the garden, she sent a one hundred-headed dragon called Ladon to the garden to protect the apples. Three nymphs called the Hesperides also guarded the apples.

Eurystheus wanted Herakles to bring him three golden apples. Herakles set off. The river god Nereus refused to give him directions and changed his shape again and again. Herakles tied him to a tree until he told the way. In the Caucasus, Herakles freed the Titan Prometheus, the fire-bringer, from his chains. Prometheus warned Herakles not to pick the apples himself, but to ask someone else to do it.

Herakles asked Atlas to pick the apples. The Titan agreed, but only if Herakles would kill the dragon and then take the sky on his shoulders. Herakles killed the dragon and took the sky on his shoulders. Atlas picked the apples but refused to take the sky again. He liked being free. Herakles tricked him. He asked Atlas to take the sky — only for a moment — while he put a cushion on his shoulders. Atlas took the sky. Herakles took the apples and headed for Tiryns. Eurystheus did not know what to do with the apples. He gave them to Herakles. Athena returned the apples to the garden, because they did, after all, belong to the gods.[36]

Kerberos[edit | edit source]

Herakles and Kerberus on an Attic red-figure amphora made sometime between 530–520 BC

Eurystheus ordered Herakles to bring him Kerberos, a three-headed dog-like monster with a dragon's tail and a mane of poisonous snakes. It guarded the entrance to the Underworld. The three heads could see the past, present, and future. Some say they represented birth, youth, and old age.[37] Kerberos allowed the dead to enter the Underworld, but anyone who tried to leave was eaten.[38] Kerberos was the offspring of Echidna, a monster part woman/part snake, and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant. Kerberos' brother was the two-headed dog Orthrus.[39]

Herakles' first step was to undergo the Mysteries of Eleusis. These rites would protect him in the land of the dead. They would also cleanse him of the massacre of the Centaurs. Athena and Hermes guided Herakles into the Underworld. He was ferried across the River Styx in Charon's boat. On the opposite shore, he met the Gorgon, Medusa. She was a harmless phantom and he passed her without trouble. He met Meleagros and offered to marry his sister, Deianeira. Eventually, he did. When Herakles asked Hades for Kerberos, Hades allowed him to take the monster, but only if he could do so without using his weapons. Herakles wrestled the monster and choked it. Once the monster had yielded, he led it away.

As they neared the Earth's surface, Kerberos tossed his three heads because he hated the sunlight. His spit flew in all directions. From that spit grew the poisonous plant, aconite. When Heracles arrived in Tiryns, Eurystheus was performing a sacrifice. The king gave the best cuts of meat to his relatives and only a slave's portion of meat to Herakles. Herakles was furious with this insult and killed Eurystheus' three sons. Eurystheus was terrified when presented with Kerberos and hid in his bronze jar. Herakles took Kerberos back to the Underworld. Another account says the monster escaped.[40][41][42] This Labor is the twelfth and last Labor in some accounts.

Augeian Stables[edit | edit source]

Herakles breaks a hole in the foundation of the stable with a crowbar while Athena points to the spot with her spear in a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

King Augeias of Elis lived on the west coast of the Peloponnese. He was a son of Helios, the sun god. It was said that the rays of the sun shone in his eyes.[43] Augeias had many cattle. His animals were always healthy, and gave birth to many young. His stables had not been cleaned in years and were thick with animal waste. The valleys were also full of waste. The smell of this waste poisoned the land. Eurystheus ordered Herakles to clean the stables in a day. He liked the thought of Herakles doing such dirty work.[44]

Herakles went to Elis. He did not tell Augeias that Eurystheus had ordered him to clean the stables.Instead, he made a bargain with Augeias. He promised to clean the stables if Augeias would give him some of his cattle. The bargain was made. Augeias' son Phyleos acted as witness. Herakles set to work. First, he made two holes in the stone foundation of the stables. Then he changed the paths of the Alpheios and Peneios Rivers. The rivers were made to flow through one hole and out the other. This is how the stables were washed clean.[45]

Augeias learned from Eurystheus' servant Copreus that Eurystheus had ordered Herakles to clean the stables.[46] He would not respect the bargain he had made with Herakles. Herakles took the case to court. Phyleos was called to court and told the truth about the bargain. Augeias was so angry he drove his son and Herakles out of the land. Back in Tiryns, Eurystheus said that the Labor did not count because Herakles had made a bargain with Augeias. Eurystheus also thought that the river gods had really done the work.[47][48]

This Labor was the last one presented in the frieze on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It was important to the Greeks because one day Herakles made war on Augeias and defeated him. Herakles then laid out the Olympian sanctuary in the land of King Augeias and started the Olympic Games.[49] It was said that Menedemus of Elis gave Herakles advice on this Labor and that the hero had the help of his nephew Iolaos.[46] While Augeias and Herakles were making their bargain, Phaeton, one of Augeias' twelve white bulls, charged Herakles. These white bulls guarded all the cattle against wild animals. Phaeton thought the hero was a lion. Herakles forced the bull to the Earth by twisting its horn.[50] Herakles was going to get Augeias' daughter as part of the bargain, but he did not. This was given as one reason for making war later on Augeias. He was also going to become Augeias' slave if the work was not done in one day.[45]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Graves 1960, p. 465
  2. Kerényi 1959, p. 141
  3. Graves 1960, p. 466
  4. Moroz 1997, pp. 21–22
  5. Graves 1960, p. 467
  6. The Nemean Lion, Perseus Project,, retrieved July 2, 2012
  7. Graves 1960, pp. 465–66
  8. Kerényi 1959, pp. 140–41
  9. 9.0 9.1 Moroz 1997, pp. 37–38
  10. Graves 1960, pp. 481–82
  11. Kerényi 1959, pp. 150–51
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Kerényi 1959, p. 159
  13. Moroz 1997, pp. 45–46
  14. Graves 1960, p. 483
  15. Graves 1960, p. 472
  16. Kerényi 1959, p. 147
  17. 17.0 17.1 Graves 1960, p. 473
  18. Kerényi 1959, p. 148
  19. Kerényi 1959, p. 162
  20. 20.0 20.1 Graves 1960, p. 488
  21. Moroz 1997, p. 54
  22. Graves 1960, p. 489
  23. 23.0 23.1 Graves 1960, p. 475
  24. Moroz 1997, p. 29
  25. Kerényi 1959, p. 150
  26. Graves 1960, p. 476
  27. Moroz 1997, pp. 49–50
  28. Kerényi 1959, pp. 154–58
  29. 29.0 29.1 Graves 1960, p. 494
  30. Kerényi 1959, p. 164
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Moroz 1997, pp. 59–60
  32. Moroz 1997, p. 60
  33. Graves & 1960 p495
  34. Kerényi 1959, p. 168
  35. Moroz 1997, pp. 61–64
  36. Moroz 1997, pp. 67{{subst:ndash}}71
  37. Bloomfield 2003, p. 8
  38. Allardice 1991, p. 52
  39. Cerberus, Perseus Project,, retrieved June 30, 2012
  40. Moroz 1997, pp. 75–77
  41. Graves 1960, pp. 514–17
  42. Kerényi 1959, pp. 177–82
  43. Kerényi 1959, p. 151
  44. Graves 1960, p. 478
  45. 45.0 45.1 Kerényi 1959, p. 152
  46. 46.0 46.1 Graves 1960, p. 479
  47. Moroz 1997, pp. 41–42
  48. Kerényi 1959, pp. 151–53
  49. Ashmole 1967, p. 29
  50. Graves 1960, pp. 478–79
  • Graves, Robert. 1955, 1960. The Greek Myths. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017199-1.
  • Kerényi, Karl. 1959. The Heroes of the Greeks. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27049-X.
  • Moroz, Georges. 1997. Hercules. Bantam Doubleday Dell. ISBN 0-440-22732-1.

More reading[edit | edit source]

  • Burkert, Walter. 1985. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press
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