Heroes and Anti-Heroes

17 Heracles

Heracles sits wearing his lion skin and holding a cup. Athena stands before him pouring a liquid into his cup. Athena is wearing the aegis and holding a spear, and her helm rests beside her.
Athena and Heracles, red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)



Alcmene and Amphitryon

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder.

Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Alcmene was married to Amphitryon, the heir to the throne of Tiryns. But Alcmene refused to consummate her marriage until Amphitryon had avenged the murder of her brothers, who had been killed by Taphian Pirates. Consequently, Amphitryon traveled to the Taphian Islands (off the western coast of Greece, near Ithaca) and stayed there for several weeks, until he had killed all of the Taphian Pirates.

On the night before Amphitryon returned from his journey, Zeus came to Alcmene in the form of her husband. He told her that he had just returned from avenging her brothers. Alcmene was overjoyed and gladly allowed him into her bed. The next day when the real Amphitryon returned home, he wondered why she did not give him a hero’s welcome. After speaking with his wife, he discovered the truth: Alcmene had spent the previous night with someone else. Amphitryon did not believe Alcmene’s story, that the man she had been with had looked and sounded exactly like him, but the seer Teiresias told him that the interloper had been Zeus himself and that Alcmene’s story was true. Amphitryon believed her and they finally consummated their marriage. This early part of Heracles’ story was dramatized in the play Amphitryon, created by the Roman  playwright Plautus in the late 3rd century BCE.

Alcmene was pregnant with twins: one of them from Zeus and another one from Amphitryon. Upon discovering that Alcmene was carrying Zeus’ child, Hera grew irritated. When Alcmene went into labor, Hera sent Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent the birth from taking place. No birth can take place unless Eileithyia is physically present and allows the birth to proceed. Eileithyia sat outside the delivery room crossing her fingers and legs which halted the labour. Alcmene was close to breathing her last breath when her nurse, Galanthis, came up with a trick to break Eileithyia’s spell. She shouted that the baby had already come. Eileithyia, in confusion as to how this could have happened, jumped up and broke her spell, allowing Alcmene to deliver two baby boys. In her anger at being tricked, Eileithyia turned Galanthis into a weasel. The two babies were named Iphicles and Heracles. But the parents did not know which one of their sons was Zeus’ child and which one was the child of Amphitryon.


Homer, Iliad, Book 19 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek epic poem, 8th century BCE

In this passage from the Iliad, the trick that Hera plays on Zeus to delay the birth of Iphicles and Heracles is narrated.


[74-144] “Even Zeus, they say, was blinded by her [ Atë ] once, though he’s supreme among gods and men. It was Hera, a mere woman, cunningly tricked him, when Alcmene was due to bear the mighty Heracles in turreted Thebes. Zeus had made a proud boast to the immortals: ‘Listen, gods and goddesses, while I speak what my heart prompts. This very day Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, will bring a boy-child into the world, born of a race descended from me, who will hold power over all his neighbours. At that moment Queen Hera showed her cunning: ‘As usual, you’ll play the deceiver, and nothing will come of your words. So then, Olympian, give us instead your solemn oath that the man, born of your stock, who issues from between a woman’s thighs today, will indeed hold power over all his neighbours.’ Zeus, misled by her cunning, in his blindness swore a mighty oath. Then Hera darted swiftly from high Olympus to Argos in Achaea where she knew that Nicippe, noble wife of Sthenelus, Perseus’ son, was seven months pregnant with a boy-child. Hera induced the child prematurely, while restraining the Eileithyiae, and delaying Alcmene’s labour. Then she told Zeus, son of Cronus, the news: ‘Father Zeus, lord of the lightning-flash, a word with you. That mighty man is born indeed who shall rule the Argives, fitting, truly, for a child of your lineage. It is Eurystheus, a boy-child for Sthenelus, Perseus’ son.’ At her words he felt a sharp pain deep in his mind, and in a blaze of anger he at once seized Atë by her gleaming tresses, swearing a mighty oath that she who blinds us all should never again be found on Olympus or in the starry heavens. With that, he whirled her round and flung her from the sky down to the ploughed fields of men below. Zeus would think of her and groan later, whenever he saw his dear son Heracles toiling at Eurystheus’ labours.


Recovered from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad19.php#anchor_Toc239246275

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved.

Heracles and the Snakes

When they were about eighteen months old, Hera sent two snakes to kill both Iphicles and Heracles while they were sleeping in their crib. While Iphicles screamed in terror and cowered in the corner, Heracles grabbed hold of the snakes and strangled one in each hand. In doing so he also made clear that he was the son of Zeus.


Pindar, Odes, “Pythian 9” (trans. D.A. Svarlien)

Greek victory ode, 474 BCE

This poem was written to celebrate the victory of Telesicrates of Cyrene in the hoplite race at the Pythian games in 474 BCE. Here Pindar describes the circumstances of Heracles’ conception and birth.

Wise Alcmene lay with Amphitryon and with Zeus, and bore [85] in a single birth twin sons, strong and victorious in battle. Only a mute man does not have Heracles’ name on his lips, and does not always remember the waters of Dirce, which reared him and Iphicles.


Taken from: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DP.%3Apoem%3D9



Pindar, Odes, “Nemean 1” (trans. D.A. Svarlien, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek victory ode, 476? BCE

Pindar wrote this ode to celebrate the victory of Chromius of Aetna in chariot racing at the Nemean Games, probably in 476 BCE. He describes the episode with Heracles and the snakes sent by Hera.


But as for me, I cling to the theme of Heracles gladly, calling up an ancient story from among the great heights of his excellence, [35] of how, when the son of Zeus suddenly came out of his mother’s womb into the brilliant light, escaping her birth-pangs, with his twin brother, he did not escape the notice of gold-throned Hera when he was placed in his saffron swaddling-clothes. But the queen of the gods, [40] offended in her heart, immediately sent serpents. The doors opened, and they crept into the spacious inner-chamber, eager to coil their swift jaws around the babies. But Heracles lifted his head straight up, and had his first experience of battle, seizing [45] the two necks of the serpents in his two irresistible hands. When they were strangled, time squeezed the breath of life out of their unspeakable limbs. Unbearable fear struck the women who were then helping Alcmene at her bedside; [50] for she herself leapt to her feet from her bed, undressed as she was, and tried to ward off the violent attack of the monsters. And swiftly the chiefs of the Cadmeans rushed in together in their bronze armor, and Amphitryon came brandishing a sword drawn from its scabbard, overcome with sharp distress. For each man alike is oppressed by his own trouble, but the heart recovers quickly from someone else’s grief. [55] He stood, possessed by overwhelming astonishment and delight. For he saw the supernatural courage and power of his son; the immortals had turned the story of the messengers to falsehood for him. [60] And he called his neighbor, the outstanding prophet of Zeus the highest, the truthful seer Teiresias. And the prophet told him and all the men what fortunes the boy would encounter: how many he would slay on land, and how many lawless monsters at sea. And he told of a certain one, [65] most hateful, who walked with crooked insolence towards men, whom the boy would send to his doom. For he said that when the gods meet the giants in battle on the plain of Phlegra, the shining hair of the giants will be stained with dirt beneath the rushing arrows of that hero. But he himself [70] will have allotted to him in peace, as an extraordinary reward for his great hardship, continuous peace for all time among the homes of the blessed. He will receive flourishing Hebe as his bride and celebrate the wedding-feast, and in the presence of Zeus the son of Cronus he will praise the sacred law.


Taken from: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DN.



Early Adventures

Linus and Thespius

As he grew older, Heracles learned many important skills from great teachers, but he had a short temper and did not realize his own strength. When his music teacher, Linus, who was the brother of Orpheus, reprimanded him for not practicing enough, Heracles took his chair and smashed it over Linus’ head, killing him instantly. Amphitryon decided to send Heracles to live at his country estate to protect his family.

By the time Heracles was seventeen, he had grown to be a tall and strong young man. Around the same time, a lion was roaming in the area of Mount Cithaeron and was terrorizing the countryside. Thespius, the king of the area, asked Heracles to come and stay with him and help his men kill the lion. Thespius also happened to have fifty daughters. For fifty days Heracles went out to find the lion, and each night Thespius sent a different daughter in to sleep with Heracles, though Heracles thought it was the same daughter each night. After the fifty days, Heracles had killed the lion and all of Thespius’ fifty daughters were pregnant.


Heracles stayed in the area of Thebes long enough to distinguish himself in a war the Thebans were fighting against the Minyans, an autochthonous group that inhabited the Aegean region according to Greek mythology. The king of Thebes was so happy to have had Heracles’ help that he offered his daughter, Megara, to become Heracles´ wife. Megara and Heracles married and had two sons. They lived for a few years in peace, but Hera was still out to torment Heracles, so she sent him into madness. In his madness, Heracles killed his wife and children. When he regained his sanity, Heracles was devastated and decided to go to the Oracle at Delphi to ask Apollo how he could be purified for this murder. The Pythia told him that he had to go to Tiryns and perform twelve labours for the ruler, Eurystheus. If he could complete all twelve labours successfully, he would not only be purified of the murders, but he would also achieve immortality.


Euripides, Heracles, 1131-1339 (trans. E. P. Coleridge, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek tragedy, ca. 416 BCE

[content warning for the following source: infanticide, suicide]

This tragic play, written by Euripides, was likely performed in 416 BCE at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens.

While in most accounts of the myth of Heracles, it is the hero’s deranged killing of his wife, Megara, and their children (under the influence of madness sent by Hera) that initiates his undertaking of the twelve labours, in this play, Euripides has Heracles complete his twelve labours before killing Megara and the children. It is while he is performing the twelfth labour of bringing the three headed dog Cerberus up from Hades that the events of the play begin.

This scene, towards the end of the play, opens as Heracles, with the help of his mortal father, Amphitryon, is becoming aware of what he has done in his moment of madness.


[1131] See here the corpses of your children.


O horror! What sight is here? Ah me!


My son, against your children you have waged unnatural war.


War! what do you mean? Who killed them?


[1135] You and your bow and some god, whoever is to blame.


What are you saying? What have I done? Speak, father, you messenger of evil!


You were insane; it is a sad explanation that you are asking for.


Was it I that killed my wife also?


Your own arm alone has done all this.


[1140] Alas! A cloud of mourning wraps me round.


For this reason I lament your fate.


Did I break my house to pieces in my frenzy?


I know nothing but this: that you are utterly undone.


Where did the madness seize me? Where did it destroy me?


[1145] When you were purifying yourself with fire at the altar.


Ah me! Why do I spare my own life when I have become the murderer of my dear children? Shall I not rush to leap from some high rock, or aim the sword against my heart [1150] and avenge my children’s blood, or burn my body, which she [ Hera ] drove mad, in the fire and so avert from my life the infamy which now awaits me?

But here I see Theseus coming to check my deadly counsels, my kinsman and friend. [1155] Now shall I stand revealed, and the dearest of my friends will see the pollution I have incurred by my children’s murder.[1] Ah, woe is me! What am I to do? Where can I find freedom from my sorrows? Shall I take wings or plunge beneath the earth? Come, let me veil my head in darkness; [1160] for I am ashamed of the evil I have done, and, since for these I have incurred fresh blood-guiltiness, I do not want to harm the innocent.

Theseus and his retinue enter.


I have come, and others with me, young warriors from the land of Athens, encamped by the streams of Asopus, [1165] to bring an allied army to your son, old friend. For a rumour reached the city of the Erechtheidae, that Lycus had usurped the scepter of this land and had become your enemy even to battle. Wherefore I came making recompense for the former kindness of Heracles [1170] in saving me from the world below, if you have any need of such aid as I or my allies can give, old man.

Ha! why this heap of dead upon the floor? Surely I have not delayed too long and come too late to check new ills? Who slew these children? [1175] whose wife is this I see? Boys do not go to battle; no, it must be some other strange mischance I here discover.

In the following lines, Amphitryon makes sung responses to Theseus’ spoken questions.


O king, whose home is that olive-clad hill!


Why this piteous prelude in addressing me?


[1180] The gods have afflicted us with grievous suffering.


Whose are these children, over whom you weep?


My own son’s children, woe to him! he was their father and butcher both, hardening his heart to the bloody deed.


Hush! good words only!


[1185] I would I could obey!


What dreadful words!


Fortune has spread her wings, and we are ruined, ruined.


What do you mean? what has he done?


Slain them in a wild fit of frenzy [1190] with arrows dipped in the venom of the hundred-headed hydra.


This is Hera’s work; but who lies there among the dead, old man?


My son, my own enduring son, that marched with gods to Phlegra’s plain, there to battle with giants and slay them, warrior that he was.


[1195] Ah, ah! whose fortune was ever so cursed as his?


Never will you find another mortal that has suffered more or been driven harder.


Why does he veil his head, poor wretch, in his robe?


He is ashamed to meet your eye; [1200] his kinsman’s kind intent and his children’s blood make him abashed.


But I come to sympathize; uncover him.


My son, remove that mantle [1205] from your eyes, throw it from you, show your face to the sun. As a counterweight, fighting along with my tears, I entreat you as a suppliant, as I grasp your beard, your knees, your hands, and let fall [1210] the tear from my old eyes. O my child! restrain your savage lion-like temper, for you are rushing forth on an unholy course of bloodshed, eager to join woe to woe, child.


Enough! To you I call who are huddled there in your misery, [1215] show to your friends your face; for no darkness is black enough to hide your sad mischance. Why do you wave your hand at me, signifying murder? is it that I may not be polluted by speaking with you? [1220] If I share your misfortune, what is that to me? For once I had good fortune with you. I must refer to the time when you brought me safe from the dead to the light of life. I hate a friend whose gratitude grows old; one who is ready to enjoy his friends’ prosperity [1225] but unwilling to sail in the same ship with them when they are unfortunate. Arise, unveil your head, poor wretch! and look on me. The gallant soul endures such blows as heaven deals and does not refuse them.


O Theseus, did you see this struggle with my children?


[1230] I heard of it, and now I see the horrors you mean.


Why then have you unveiled my head to the sun?


Why have I? you, a mortal, can not pollute what is of the gods.


Try to escape, luckless wretch, from my unholy taint.


The avenging fiend does not go forth from friend to friend.


[1235] For this I thank you; I do not regret the service I did you.


While I, for kindness then received, now show my pity for you.


Ah yes! I am piteous, a murderer of my sons.


I weep for you in your changed fortunes.


Did you ever find another more afflicted?


[1240] Your misfortunes reach from earth to heaven.


Therefore I am resolved on death.


Do you think the gods pay attention  to your threats?


The god has been remorseless to me; so I will be the same to the gods.


Hush! lest your presumption add to your sufferings.


[1245] My ship is freighted full with sorrow; there is no room to stow anything further.


What will you do? Where is your fury drifting you?


I will die and return to that world below from which I have just come.


Such language is fit for any common fellow.


Ah! yours is the advice of one outside sorrow.


[1250] Are these indeed the words of Heracles, the much-enduring?


Though never so much as this. Endurance must have a limit.


Is this the benefactor and great friend to mortals?


Mortals bring no help to me; no! Hera has her way.


Never would Hellas allow you to die through sheer perversity.


[1255] Hear me a moment, that I may enter the contest with words in answer to your admonitions; and I will unfold to you why life now as well as formerly has been unbearable to me. First I am the son of a man who incurred the guilt of blood, before he married my mother Alcmena, [1260] by slaying her aged father. Now when the foundation is badly laid at birth, it is necessary for the race to be cursed with woe; and Zeus, whoever this Zeus may be, begot me as an enemy to Hera; yet do not be vexed, old man; [1265] for you rather than Zeus I regard as my father. Then while I was being suckled, that bedfellow of Zeus foisted into my cradle fearsome snakes to cause my death. After I took on a cloak of youthful flesh, [1270] of all the toils I then endured what need to tell? what did I not destroy, whether lions, or triple-bodied Typhons, or giants or the battle against the hosts of four-legged Centaurs? or how when I had killed the hydra, [1275] that monster with a ring of heads with power to grow again, I passed through a herd of countless other toils besides and came to the dead to fetch to the light at the bidding of Eurystheus the three-headed hound, hell’s porter. Last, ah, woe is me! I have dared this labor, [1280] to crown the sorrows of my house with my children’s murder. I have come to this point of necessity; no longer may I dwell in Thebes, the city that I love; for suppose I stay, to what temple or gathering of friends shall I go? For mine is no curse that invites greetings. [1285] Shall I go to Argos? how can I, when I am an exile from my country? Well, is there a single other city I can rush to? Am I then to be looked at askance as a marked man, held by cruel stabbing tongues: “Is not this the son of Zeus that once murdered children [1290] and wife? Plague take him from the land!” Now to one who was once called happy, such changes are a grievous thing; though he who is always unfortunate feels no such pain, for sorrow is his birthright.

This, I think, is the piteous pass I shall one day come to; [1295] for earth will cry out forbidding me to touch her, the sea and the river-springs will refuse me a crossing, and I shall become like Ixion who revolves in chains upon that wheel. And so this is best, that I should be seen by no one of the Hellenes, [1300] among whom in happier days I lived in bliss. What right have I to live? what profit can I have in the possession of a useless, impious life? So let that noble wife of Zeus dance, beating her foot in its shoe; [1305] for now has she worked her heart’s desire in utterly confounding the first of Hellas’ sons. Who would pray to such a goddess? Her jealousy of Zeus for his love of a woman has destroyed [1310] the benefactors of Hellas, guiltless though they were.


This is the work of none other of the gods than the wife of Zeus; you are right in that surmise.


I cannot counsel you . . . rather than to go on suffering. There is not a man alive that has wholly escaped misfortune’s taint, [1315] nor any god either, if what poets sing is true. Have they not intermarried in ways that law forbids? Have they not thrown fathers into ignominious chains to gain the sovereign power? Still they inhabit Olympus and brave the issue of their crimes. [1320] And yet what shall you say in your defence, if you, a child of man, take your fate excessively hard, while they, as gods, do not? No, then, leave Thebes in compliance with the law, and come with me to the city of Pallas. There, when I have purified you of your pollution, [1325] I will give you homes and the half of all I have. Yes, I will give you all those presents I received from the citizens for saving their fourteen children, when I slew the bull of Crete; for I have plots of land assigned me throughout the country; these shall henceforth [1330] be called after you by men, while you live; and at your death, when you have gone to Hades’ halls, the whole city of Athens shall exalt your honor with sacrifices and a monument of stone. For it is a noble crown of a good reputation [1335] for citizens to win from Hellas, by helping a man of worth. This is the return that I will make you for saving me, for now you are in need of friends. But when the gods honor a man, he has no need of friends; for the god’s aid, when he chooses to give it, is enough.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0102%3Acard%3D1131

The 12 Labours

Reconstructed tracings of twelve images, each depicting one of the twelve labours.
Heracles’ Twelve Labours, reconstruction of metopes from the Olympia temple of Zeus, ca. 457 BCE.


As a punishment for the murder of his own children, Heracles was told by the Pythia that he had to perform twelve tasks for Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns.  Eurystheus was also king of Mycenae. Eurystheus had inherited the throne of Mycenae from his father, Sthenelos, who had usurped it from Amphitryon, Heracles’ mortal father. Therefore, Heracles should really have been king of Mycenae instead of Eurystheus. Heracles had to perform any twelve tasks that Eurystheus set for him, even though Eurystheus had usurped Heracles’ throne and he was neither as strong nor as brave as Heracles. This subordinate relationship to Eurystheus was humiliating for Heracles, and that was obviously part of the punishment. While the first six of Heracles’ labours took place in the Peloponnese, the last six labours took place throughout the Greek world.


Euripides, Heracles, 348-425 (trans. E. P. Coleridge, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak

Greek tragedy, ca. 416 BCE

This tragic play by Euripides was likely performed in 416 BCE at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens. Early in the play, the chorus, made up of old men of Thebes, recounts some of Heracles’ previous labours.


[348] Phoebus is singing an elegy, after singing his happier songs, [350] for Linus dead in his beauty, playing his lyre in a key of gold; but I wish to sing a song of praise, a crown to all his labour, on the one who has gone to the gloom beneath the Netherworld, [355] whether I am to call him son of Zeus or of Amphitryon. For the virtue of noble works is a glory to the dead

First he cleared the grove of Zeus [360] of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws.

And then one day with a murderous bow he wounded [365] the race of wild Centaurs, that roam the hills, slaying them with winged shafts. Peneus, the river of lovely currents, knows him well, as do those far uncultivated fields, [370] the farms on Pelion, and the neighboring caves of Homole, from where the Centaurs rode forth to conquer Thessaly, arming themselves with pine trees.

[375] And he slew that dappled deer with horns of gold [ the Cerynitian hind ], that preyed upon the country-folk, glorifying Artemis, huntress queen of Oenoe.

[380] Next he mounted on a chariot and tamed the horses of Diomedes, that greedily chewed their bloody food in gory troughs with unbridled jaws, devouring with hideous joy the flesh of men; [385] then crossing the heights of Hebrus that flow with silver, he continued to labour for the tyrant of Mycenae.

And he came to those minstrel maids [ the Hesperides ], [395] to their orchard in the west, to pluck from golden leaves the apple-bearing fruit, when he had slain the tawny dragon, whose terrible coils were twined all round to guard it; [400] and he made his way into Ocean‘s lairs, bringing calm to men that use the oar.

And he stretched out his hands to uphold the sky, [405] seeking the home of Atlas, and on his manly shoulders took the starry mansions of the gods.

Then he went through the waves of heaving Euxine against the mounted host of Amazons living round Maeotis, [410] the lake that is fed by many streams, having gathered to his standard all his friends from Hellas, to fetch the gold-embroidered garment of the warrior queen, [415] a deadly quest for a girdle. Hellas won those glorious spoils of the barbarian maid, and they are safe in Mycenae.

[425] And many other glorious achievements he brought to a happy ending; to Hades‘ house of tears has he now sailed, the goal of his labours, where he is ending his career of toil, and he does not come back again.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0102%3Acard%3D348


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 2 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

[content warning for the following source: infanticide (2.4.12), sexual assault (2.7.6), graphic description of death (2.7.7), suicide (2.7.7)]
This section from Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca is the most comprehensive account of Heracles’ twelve labours and other myths about Heracles.

[2.4.8] But before Amphitryon reached Thebes, Zeus came in the night and, prolonging the one night so that is seemed like three, he assumed the appearance of Amphitryon and slept with Alcmene, relating to her what had happened concerning the Teleboans. But when Amphitryon arrived and saw that he was not welcomed by his wife, he inquired about the cause; and when she told him that he had come the night before and slept with her, he learned from Teiresias how Zeus had slept with her. And Alcmene bore two sons: Heracles, whom she had by Zeus and who was the elder by one night, and Iphicles, whom she had by Amphitryon. When the child [Hercules] was eight months old, Hera wished to destroy him, and sent two huge serpents to the bed. Alcmene called Amphitryon to her help, but Hercules arose and killed the serpents by strangling them with both his hands. However, Pherecydes says that it was Amphitryon who put the serpents in the bed, so that he would know which of the two children was his, and that when Iphicles fled, and Hercules stood his ground, he knew that Iphicles was begotten of his body.

[2.4.9] Hercules was taught to drive a chariot by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolycus, to shoot with the bow by Eurytus, to fence by Castor, and to play the lyre by Linus. This Linus was a brother of Orpheus; he came to Thebes and became a Theban, but was killed by Hercules with a blow of the lyre; for being struck by him, Hercules flew into a rage and slew him. When he was tried for murder, Hercules quoted a law of Rhadamanthys, who laid it down that whoever defends himself against a wrongful aggressor shall go free, and so he was acquitted. But fearing he might do the like again, Amphitryon sent him to the cattle farm; and there he was nurtured and outdid all in stature and strength. Even by the look of him it was plain that he was a son of Zeus; for his body measured four cubits, and he flashed a gleam of fire from his eyes; and he did not miss, neither with the bow nor with the javelin.

While he was with the herds and had reached his eighteenth year he slew the lion of Cithaeron, for that animal, coming from Cithaeron, plagued the cattle of Amphitryon and of Thespius.

[2.4.10] Now this Thespius was king of Thespiae, and Hercules went to him when he wished to catch the lion. The king entertained him for fifty days, and each night, as Hercules went forth to the hunt, Thespius made one of his daughters sleep with Hercules (fifty daughters having been borne to him by Megamede, daughter of Arneus); for he was anxious that all of them should have children by Hercules. Thus Hercules, though he thought that his bed-fellow was always the same, had intercourse with them all. And having vanquished the lion, he dressed himself in the skin and wore the scalp as a helmet.

[2.4.11] As he was returning from the hunt, he met heralds sent by Erginus to receive the tribute from the Thebans. Now, the Thebans paid tribute to Erginus for the following reason: Clymenus, king of the Minyans, was wounded by a stone thrown by a charioteer of Menoeceus, named Perieres, in a precinct of Poseidon at Onchestus. And, while being carried dying to Orchomenus, with his last breath he tasked his son Erginus to avenge his death. So Erginus marched against Thebes, and after slaughtering many of the Thebans, he concluded a treaty with them, confirmed by oaths, that they should send him tribute for twenty years, a hundred cattle every year. Falling in with the heralds on their way to Thebes to demand this tribute, Hercules outraged them; he cut off their ears and noses and hands, and having fastened them by ropes from their necks, he told them to carry that tribute to Erginus and the Minyans. Indignant at this outrage, Erginus marched against Thebes. But Hercules, having received weapons from Athena and taken the command, killed Erginus, put the Minyans to flight, and compelled them to pay double the tribute to the Thebans. And it chanced that in the fight Amphitryon fell fighting bravely. And Hercules received from Creon his eldest daughter Megara as a prize of valor, and by her he had three sons, Therimachus, Creontiades, and Deicoon. But Creon gave his younger daughter to Iphicles, who already had a son Iolaus by Automedusa, daughter of Alcathus. And Rhadamanthys, son of Zeus, married Alcmene after the death of Amphitryon, and dwelt as an exile at Ocaleae in Boeotia.

Having first learned from Eurytus the art of archery, Hercules received a sword from Hermes, a bow and arrows from Apollo, a golden breastplate from Hephaestus, and a robe from Athena; for he had himself cut a club at Nemea.

[2.4.12] Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans, Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; he thus he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and appealing to Delphi he inquired of the god [ Apollo ] where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for before this point he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years, and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.

[2.5.1] When Hercules heard that, he went to Tiryns and did as Eurystheus commanded. First, Eurystheus ordered him to bring the skin of the Nemean lion, an invulnerable beast begotten by Typhon. On his way to attack the lion he came to Cleonae and lodged at the house of a day-laborer, Molorchus; and when his host would have offered a victim in sacrifice, Hercules told him to wait for thirty days, and then, if he had returned safe from the hunt, to sacrifice to Saviour Zeus, but if he were dead, to sacrifice to him as to a hero. And having come to Nemea and tracked the lion, he first shot an arrow at it, but when he perceived that the beast was invulnerable, he heaved up his club and made after it. And when the lion took refuge in a cave with two mouths, Hercules built up the one entrance and came in upon the beast through the other, and putting his arm round its neck held it tight till he had choked it; so laying it on his shoulders he carried it to Cleonae. And finding Molorchus on the last of the thirty days about to sacrifice the victim to him as to a dead man, he sacrificed to Saviour Zeus and brought the lion to Mycenae. Amazed at his manhood, Eurystheus forbade him from then on to enter the city, but ordered him to exhibit the fruits of his labours before the gates. They say, too, that in his fear he had a bronze jar made for himself to hide in under the earth, and that he sent his commands for the labours through a herald, Copreus, son of Pelops the Elean. This Copreus had killed Iphitus and fled to Mycenae, where he was purified by Eurystheus and took up his abode.

[2.5.2] As a second labour he [ Eurystheus ] ordered him to kill the Lernaean hydra. That creature, bred in the swamp of Lerna, used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the country. Now the hydra had a huge body, with nine heads, eight mortal, but the middle one immortal. So, mounting a chariot driven by Iolaus, he came to Lerna, and having halted his horses, he discovered the hydra on a hill beside the springs of the Amymone, where its den was. By pelting it with fiery arrows, he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself about one of his feet and clung to him. Nor could he achieve anything by smashing its heads with his club, for as fast as one head was smashed, two grew back. A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting his foot. So he killed it, and in his turn called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus. But the body of the hydra he sliced up, and he dipped his arrows in the gall. However, Eurystheus said that this labour should not be counted among the ten because he had not defeated the hydra by himself, but with the help of Iolaus.

[2.5.3] As a third labour he ordered him to bring the Cerynitian hind alive to Mycenae. Now the hind was at Oenoe; it had golden horns and was sacred to Artemis; so wishing neither to kill nor wound it, Hercules hunted it a whole year. But when, weary with the chase, the beast took refuge on the mountain called Artemisius, and from there passed to the river Ladon, Hercules shot it just as it was about to cross the stream. He caught it and put it on his shoulders and hastened through Arcadia. But Artemis and Apollo met him, and would have wrested the hind from him, and rebuked him for attempting to kill her sacred animal. However, by pleading necessity and laying the blame on Eurystheus, he appeased the anger of the goddess and carried the beast alive to Mycenae.

[2.5.4] As a fourth labour he ordered him to bring the Erymanthian boar alive; now that animal ravaged Psophis, descending from a mountain which they call Erymanthus. So passing through Pholoe he was entertained by the centaur Pholus, a son of Silenus by a Melian nymph. He set roast meat before Hercules, while he himself ate his meat raw. When Hercules called for wine, he said he feared to open the jar, which belonged to the centaurs in common. But Hercules, bidding him be of good courage, opened it, and not long afterwards, scenting the smell, the centaurs arrived at the cave of Pholus, armed with rocks and firs. The first who dared to enter, Anchius and Agrius, were repelled by Hercules with a shower of brands, and the rest of them he shot and pursued as far as Malea. There they took refuge with Chiron, who, driven by the Lapiths from Mount Pelion, lived at Malea. As the centaurs cowered around Chiron, Hercules shot an arrow at them, which, passing through the arm of Elatus, stuck in the knee of Chiron. Distressed at this, Hercules ran up to him, drew out the shaft, and applied a medicine which Chiron gave him. But the hurt proved incurable, and Chiron retired to the cave. He wished to die there, but he could not, for he was immortal. However, Prometheus offered himself to Zeus to be immortal in his stead, and so Chiron died. The rest of the centaurs fled in different directions, and some came to Mount Malea, and Eurytion to Pholoe, and Nessus to the river Evenus. The rest of them Poseidon received at Eleusis and hid in a mountain. But Pholus, drawing the arrow from a corpse, wondered that so little a thing could kill such big fellows; however, it slipped from his hand and landed on his foot killed him on the spot. So when Hercules returned to Pholoe, he saw Pholus dead; and he buried him and proceeded to the boar hunt. And when he had chased the boar with shouts from a thicket, he drove the exhausted animal into deep snow, trapped it, and brought it to Mycenae.

[2.5.5] The fifth labour he laid on him was to carry out the dung of the cattle of Augeas in a single day. Now Augeas was king of Elis; some say that he was a son of the Sun, others that he was a son of Poseidon, and others that he was a son of Phorbas; and he had many herds of cattle. Hercules accosted him, and without revealing the command of Eurystheus, said that he would carry out the dung in one day, if Augeas would give him the tithe of the cattle. Augeas was incredulous, but promised. Having taken Augeas‘s son Phyleus to witness, Hercules made a breach in the foundations of the cattle-yard, and then, diverting the courses of the Alpheus and Peneus [rivers], which flowed near each other, he turned them into the yard, having first made an outlet for the water through another opening. When Augeas learned that this had been accomplished at the command of Eurystheus, he would not pay the reward; furthermore, he denied that he had promised to pay it, and on that point he professed himself ready to submit to arbitration. The arbitrators having taken their seats, Phyleus was called by Hercules and bore witness against his father, affirming that he had agreed to give him a reward. In a rage Augeas, before the voting took place, ordered both Phyleus and Hercules to leave Elis. So Phyleus went to Dulichium and lived there, and Hercules went to Dexamenus at Olenus. He found Dexamenus on the point of betrothing his daughter Mnesimache to the centaur Eurytion, and being called upon by him for help, he slew Eurytion when that centaur came to fetch his bride. But Eurystheus would not admit this labour either among the ten, alleging that it had been performed for hire.

[2.5.6] The sixth labour he enjoined on him was to chase away the Stymphalian birds. Now at the city of Stymphalus in Arcadia was the lake called Stymphalian, in the midst of a deep wood. To it countless birds had flocked for refuge, fearing to be preyed upon by the wolves. So when Hercules was at a loss how to drive the birds from the wood, Athena gave him bronze castanets, which she had received from Hephaestus. By clashing these on a mountain that overhung the lake, he scared the birds. They could not tolerate the sound, but fluttered up in a fright, and in that way Hercules shot them.

[2.5.7] The seventh labour he enjoined on him was to bring the Cretan bull. Acusilaus says that this was the bull that ferried across Europa for Zeus; but some say it was the bull that Poseidon sent up from the sea when Minos promised to sacrifice to Poseidon what should appear out of the sea. And they say that when he saw the beauty of the bull he sent it away to the herds and sacrificed another to Poseidon; at which the god was angry and made the bull savage. To attack this bull Hercules came to Crete, and when, in reply to his request for aid, Minos told him to fight and catch the bull for himself, he caught it and brought it to Eurystheus, and having shown it to him he let it afterwards go free. But the bull roamed to Sparta and all Arcadia, and traversing the Isthmus arrived at Marathon in Attica and bothered the inhabitants.

[2.5.8] The eighth labour he enjoined on him was to bring the mares of Diomedes the Thracian to Mycenae. Now this Diomedes was a son of Ares and Cyrene, and he was king of the Bistones, a very warlike Thracian people, and he owned man-eating mares. So Hercules sailed with a band of volunteers, and having overpowered the grooms who were in charge of the mangers, he drove the mares to the sea. When the Bistones in arms came to the rescue, he entrusted the mares to the guardianship of Abderus, who was a son of Hermes, a native of Opus in Locris, and a minion of Hercules; but the mares killed him by dragging him after them. But Hercules fought against the Bistones, slew Diomedes and compelled the rest to flee. And he founded a city Abdera beside the grave of Abderus who had been killed, and bringing the mares he gave them to Eurystheus. But Eurystheus let them go, and they came to Mount Olympus, as it is called, and there they were destroyed by the wild beasts.

[2.5.9] The ninth labour he enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt by the river Thermodon, a people great in war. They cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they raised the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be hindered by them when throwing javelins, but they kept the left breasts, so that they could suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares to show her superiority over all the others. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, wanted to have it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship, he set sail and put in to the island of Paros, which was inhabited by the sons of Minos: Eurymedon, Chryses, Nephalion, and Philolaus. But it happened that two of those in the ship landed and were killed by the sons of Minos. Indignant at this, Hercules killed the sons of Minos on the spot and besieged the rest, until they sent envoys to request that in the place of the murdered men he would take two of them, whomever he wanted. So he ended the siege, and taking on board Alcaeus and Sthenelus, the sons of Androgeus son of Minos, he came to Mysia, to the court of Lycus, son of Dascylus, and was entertained by him; and in a battle between him and the king of the Bebryces, Hercules sided with Lycus and slew many, amongst others King Mygdon, brother of Amycus. And he took much land from the Bebryces and gave it to Lycus, who called it all Heraclea.

Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he had come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera, in disguise as an Amazon, went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and landed at Troy.

But it happened that the city was then in distress, as a result of the wrath of Apollo and Poseidon. Because, wanting to put the wantonness of Laomedon to the test, Apollo and Poseidon assumed the appearance of men and undertook to fortify Pergamum for wages. But when they had fortified it, he [ Laomedon ] would not pay them their wages. Therefore Apollo sent a pestilence, and Poseidon a sea monster, which, carried up by a flood, snatched away the people of the plain. But as oracles foretold deliverance from these disasters if Laomedon would expose his daughter Hesione to be devoured by the sea monster, he exposed her by fastening her to the rocks near the sea. Seeing her exposed, Hercules promised to save her, on the condition that he would receive from Laomedon the mares that Zeus had given in compensation for the rape of Ganymede. When Laomedon‘s promised that he would give them, Hercules killed the monster and saved Hesione. But when Laomedon would not give the promies reward, Hercules set out to sea, after threatening to make war on Troy.

And he landed at Aenus, where he was hosted by Poltys. And as he was sailing away he shot and killed on the Aenian beach a rude man, Sarpedon, son of Poseidon and brother of Poltys. And he came to Thasos and subjugated the Thracians who lived on the island, then gave it [Thasos] to the sons of Androgeus to dwell in. From Thasos he proceeded to Torone, and there, being challenged to wrestle by Polygonus and Telegonus, sons of Proteus, son of Poseidon, he killed them in the wrestling match. And he brought the belt to Mycenae and gave it to Eurystheus.

[2.5.10] As a tenth labour he was ordered to fetch the cattle of Geryon from Erythia. Now Erythia was an island near the ocean; it is now called Gadira. This island was inhabited by Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirrhoe, daughter of Ocean. He had the body of three men grown together and joined in one at the waist, but separated in three from the hips and thighs. He owned red cattle, of which Eurytion was the herdsman and Orthus, the two-headed hound, begotten by Typhon and Echidna, was the watchdog. So journeying through Europe to fetch the cattle of Geryon, he destroyed many wild beasts and set foot in Libya. Proceeding to Tartessus, he erected as tokens of his journey two pillars over against each other at the boundaries of Europe and Libya. But being heated by the Sun on his journey, he aimed his bow at the god, who in admiration of his boldness, gave him a golden goblet in which he crossed the ocean. And having reached Erythia he camped on Mount Abas. However the dog, perceiving him, rushed at him; but he struck it with his club, and when the herdsman Eurytion came to help the dog, Hercules killed him also. But Menoetes, who was there pasturing the cattle of Hades, reported to Geryon what had occurred. He [ Geryon ], coming up to Hercules beside the river Anthemus, as he was driving away the cattle, joined battle with him and was shot dead. And Hercules, embarking the cattle in the goblet and sailing across to Tartessus, gave back the goblet to the Sun.

And passing through Abderia he came to Liguria, where Ialebion and Dercynus, sons of Poseidon, attempted to rob him of the cattle, but he killed them and went on his way through Tyrrhenia. But at Rhegium a bull escaped, and hastily plunging into the sea swam across to Sicily, and having passed through the neighboring country since called Italy after it, for the Tyrrhenians called the bull italus, came to the plain of Eryx, who reigned over the Elymi. Now Eryx was a son of Poseidon, and he joined the bull with his own herds. So Hercules entrusted the cattle to Hephaestus and hurried away in search of the bull. He found it in the herds of Eryx, and when the king refused to surrender it unless Hercules should beat him in a wrestling match, Hercules beat him three times, killed him in the wrestling, and took the bull and drove it with the rest of the herd to the Ionian Sea. But when he came to the creeks of the sea, Hera afflicted the cows with a gadfly, and they dispersed among the skirts of the mountains of Thrace. Hercules went in pursuit, and having caught some, drove them to the Hellespont; but the remainder were from then on wild. Having with difficulty collected the cows, Hercules blamed the river Strymon, and while it had been navigable before, he made it unnavigable by filling it with rocks; and he conveyed the cattle and gave them to Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Hera.

[2.5.11] When the labours had been performed in eight years and a month, Eurystheus ordered Hercules, as an eleventh labour, to fetch golden apples from the Hesperides, for he did not acknowledge the labour of the cattle of Augeas nor that of the hydra. These apples were not, as some have said, in Libya, but on Atlas among the Hyperboreans. They were presented <by Earth> to Zeus after his marriage with Hera, and guarded by an immortal dragon with a hundred heads, offspring of Typhon and Echidna, which spoke with many and diverse sorts of voices. With it the Hesperides Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa were also on guard. He journeyed and came to the river Echedorus. And Cycnus, son of Ares and Pyrene, challenged him to single combat. Ares championed the cause of Cycnus and marshalled the combat, but a thunderbolt was hurled between the two and parted the combatants. And going on foot through Illyria and hastening to the river Eridanus, he came to the nymphs, the daughters of Zeus and Themis. They revealed Nereus to him, and Hercules seized him while he slept, and though the god turned himself into all kinds of shapes, the hero bound him and did not release him until he had learned from him where the apples and the Hesperides were. With this information, he travelled across Libya. That country was then ruled by Antaeus, son of Poseidon, who used to kill strangers by forcing them to wrestle. Being forced to wrestle with him, Hercules hugged him, lifted him aloft, broke and killed him; for when he touched earth he grew stronger, for which reason some said that he was a son of Earth.

After Libya he travelled through Egypt. That country was then ruled by Busiris, a son of Poseidon by Lysianassa, daughter of Epaphus. This Busiris used to sacrifice strangers on an altar of Zeus in accordance with an oracle. For Egypt was visited with shortages for nine years, and Phrasius, a wise seer who had come from Cyprus, said that the shortages would end if they slaughtered a stranger in honour of Zeus every year. Busiris began by slaughtering the seer himself and continued to slaughter the strangers who landed. So Hercules also was seized and hauled to the altars, but he burst his bonds and killed both Busiris and his son Amphidamas.

And travelling across Asia he landed at Thermydrae, the harbor of the Lindians. And he freed one of the bullocks from the cart of a cowherd and he sacrificed it, and feasted. But the cowherd, unable to protect himself, stood on a mountain and cursed. For this reason, to this day, when they sacrifice to Hercules, they do it with curses.

And passing by Arabia he killed Emathion, son of Tithonus, and journeying through Libya to the outer sea he received the goblet from the Sun. And having crossed to the opposite mainland he shot on the Caucasus the eagle, offspring of Echidna and Typhon, that was devouring the liver of Prometheus, and he released Prometheus. He chose for himself the crown of olive branches, and to Zeus he presented Chiron, who, though immortal, agreed to die in his place.

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go after the apples himself, but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he had come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere <he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and asked Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by trickery in putting it on Atlas instead. At the advice of Prometheus, he begged Atlas to hold up the sky so that he could> put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules. And so Hercules picked up the apples and departed. But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And he brought the apples and gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, gave them back to Hercules, who gave them to Athena to bring back to the garden; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere.

[2.5.12] A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated [into the Eleusinian cult]. However it was not lawful for foreigners to be initiated, so he proposed to be initiated as the adoptive son of Pylius. But he was not able to see the mysteries because he had not been cleansed of the slaughter of the centaurs, and so he was cleansed by Eumolpus and then initiated. And he came to Taenarum in Laconia, where the mouth of the descent to Hades is, and he descended through it. But when the souls saw him, they fled, except for Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa. And Hercules drew his sword against the Gorgon, thinking she was alive, but he learned from Hermes that she was an empty phantom. And as he approached the gates of Hades, he found Theseus and Pirithous, him who courted Persephone when she was already married and was therefore imprisoned. And when they saw Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they would be raised from the dead by his might. And Theseus, indeed, he took by the hand and raised up. But when he would have brought up Pirithous, the earth quaked and he let go. And he also rolled away the stone of Ascalaphus. And wishing to provide the souls with blood, he slaughtered one of the cattle of Hades. But Menoetes, son of Ceuthonymus, who tended the king, challenged Hercules to wrestle, and, being seized around the middle, had his ribs broken; however, he was let off at the request of Persephone. When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal, on the condition that he master it without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found it at the gates of Acheron, and, armoured in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure until it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen. But Demeter turned Ascalaphus into a short-eared owl, and Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades.

[2.6.1] After his labours, Hercules went to Thebes and gave Megara to Iolaus. And, wishing to marry, he ascertained that Eurytus, prince of Oechalia, had proposed the hand of his daughter Iole as a prize to whoever vanquished himself and his sons in archery. So he went to Oechalia, and though he proved himself better than them at archery, he did not get the bride; for while Iphitus, the elder of Eurytus‘ sons, said that Iole should be given to Hercules, Eurytus and the others refused, and said they feared that, if he got children, he would again kill his offspring.

[2.6.2] Not long after, some cattle were stolen from Euboea by Autolycus, and Eurytus supposed that it was done by Hercules; but Iphitus did not believe it and went to Hercules. And meeting him, as he came from Pherae after having saved the dead Alcestis for Admetus, he [ Iphitus ] invited him [Hercules] to seek the cattle with him. Hercules promised to do so and entertained him; but going mad again he threw him from the walls of Tiryns. Wishing to be purified of the murder he went to Neleus, who was prince of the Pylians. And when Neleus rejected his request on the score of his friendship with Eurytus, he went to Amyclae and was purified by Deiphobus, son of Hippolytus. But being afflicted with a dire disease on account of the murder of Iphitus, he went to Delphi and inquired how he might be rid of the disease. As the Pythian priestess did not answer him with oracles, he wanted to plunder the temple, and, carrying off the tripod, to establish an oracle of his own. But Apollo fought him, and Zeus threw a thunderbolt between them. When they had thus been parted, Hercules received an oracle, which declared that the remedy for his disease was for him to be sold, and to serve for three years, and to pay compensation for the murder to Eurytus.

[2.6.3] After the delivery of the oracle, Hermes sold Hercules, and he was bought by Omphale, daughter of Iardanes, queen of Lydia, who had become head of state at the death of her husband. Eurytus did not accept the compensation when it was presented to him, but Hercules served Omphale as a slave, and in the course of his servitude he seized and bound the Cercopes at Ephesus; and as for Syleus in Aulis, who compelled passing strangers to dig, Hercules killed him with his daughter Xenodoce, after burning the vines with the roots. And having put in to the island of Doliche, he saw the body of Icarus washed ashore and buried it, and he called the island Icaria instead of Doliche. In return Daedalus made a portrait statue of Hercules at Pisa, which Hercules mistook at night for living and threw a stone and hit it. And during the time of his servitude with Omphale it is said that the voyage to Colchis and the hunt of the Calydonian boar took place, and that Theseus on his way from Troezen cleared the Isthmus of malefactors.

[2.6.4] After his servitude, having gotten rid of his disease, he mustered an army of noble volunteers and sailed for Ilium with eighteen ships of fifty oars each. And having come to port at Ilium, he left the guard of the ships to Oicles, while he and the rest of the champions set out to attack the city. However, Laomedon marched against the ships with an army and slew Oicles in battle, but the troops of Hercules drove him back and besieged him. Once the siege was set, Telamon was the first to breach the wall and enter the city, and after him Hercules. But when he saw that Telamon had entered it first, he drew his sword and rushed at him, not wanting anybody to be seen as a better man than he. Perceiving that, Telamon collected stones that lay to hand, and when Hercules asked him what he was doing, he said he was building an altar to Hercules the Glorious Victor. Hercules thanked him, and when he had taken the city and shot down Laomedon and his sons, except Podarces, he assigned Laomedon‘s daughter Hesione as a prize to Telamon and allowed her to take with her whicher of the captives she wanted. When she chose her brother Podarces, Hercules said that he must first be a slave and then be bought by her. So when he was being sold she took the veil from her head and gave it as a ransom; and so Podarces was called Priam.

[2.7.1] When Hercules was sailing from Troy, Hera sent terrible storms, which angered Zeus so much that he hung her from Olympus. Hercules sailed to Cos, and the Coans, thinking he was leading a squadron of pirates, tried to prevent his approach with a shower of stones. But he forced his way in and took the city by night, and killed the king, Eurypylus, son of Poseidon by Astypalaea. And Hercules was wounded in the battle by Chalcedon; but Zeus snatched him away, so that he was not harmed. And having laid waste Cos, he came through Athena‘s agency to Phlegra, and sided with the gods in their victorious war on the giants.

[2.7.2] Not long afterwards he collected an Arcadian army, and being joined by volunteers from the first men in Greece he marched against Augeas. But Augeas, hearing of the war that Hercules was preparing for, appointed Eurytus and Cteatus as generals of the Eleans. They were like two men in one, who surpassed all of that generation in strength and were sons of Actor by Molione, though their father was said to be Poseidon; Actor was a brother of Augeas. But it came to pass that on the expedition Hercules fell sick; so he made a truce with the Molionides [sons of Molione]. But afterwards, learning of Hercules’ illness, they [the Molionides] attacked the army and killed many. On that occasion, therefore, Hercules retreated; but afterwards at the celebration of the third Isthmian festival, when the Eleans sent the Molionides to take part in the sacrifices, Hercules waylaid and killed them at Cleonae, and marched on Elis and took the city. And having killed Augeas and his sons, he restored Phyleus and gave him the kingdom. He also celebrated the Olympian games and founded an altar of Pelops, and built six altars of the twelve gods.

[2.7.3] After the capture of Elis, he marched against Pylus, and having taken the city he killed Periclymenus, the most valiant of the sons of Neleus, who used to change his shape in battle. And he killed Neleus and his sons, except Nestor; for he was a youth and was being brought up among the Gerenians. In the fight he also wounded Hades, who was siding with the Pylians.

Having taken Pylus he marched against Lacedaemon, wishing to punish the sons of Hippocoon, because he was angry with them, both because they fought for Neleus, and because they had killed the son of Licymnius. For when he [the son of Licymnius ] was looking at the palace of Hippocoon, a Molossian hound ran out and rushed at him, and he threw a stone and hit the dog, which prompted the Hippocoontids to dart out and kill him with blows of their cudgels. It was to avenge his death that Hercules mustered an army against the Lacedaemonians. And having come to Arcadia he begged Cepheus to join him with his twenty sons. But fearing that, if he left Tegea, the Argives would march against it, Cepheus refused to join the expedition. But Hercules had received from Athena a lock of the Gorgon‘s hair in a bronze jar and gave it to Sterope, daughter of Cepheus, saying that if an army advanced against the city, she was to hold up the lock of hair three times from the walls, and that, as long as she did not look in front of her, the enemy would be turned to flight. That being so, Cepheus and his sons took the field, and in the battle he and his sons perished, and besides them Iphicles, the brother of Hercules. Having killed Hippocoon and his sons and subjugated the city, Hercules restored Tyndareus to power and entrusted the kingdom to him.

[2.7.4] Passing by Tegea, Hercules slept with Auge, not knowing her to be a daughter of Aleus. And she gave birth to her baby secretly and deposited it in the precinct of Athena. But when the country was ravaged by a pestilence, Aleus entered the precinct and on investigation discovered his daughter’s motherhood. So he exposed the babe on Mount Parthenius, and by the providence of the gods it was preserved: for a doe that had just cast her fawn gave it milk, and shepherds took up the baby and called it Telephus. And her father gave Auge to Nauplius, son of Poseidon, to sell far away in a foreign land; and Nauplius gave her to Teuthras, the prince of Teuthrania, who made her his wife.

[2.7.5] And having come to Calydon, Hercules courted Deianira, daughter of Oeneus. He wrestled for her hand with Achelous, who assumed the appearance of a bull; but Hercules broke off one of his horns. So Hercules married Deianira, but Achelous recovered the horn by giving the horn of Amalthea as a trade. Now Amalthea was a daughter of Haemonius, and she had a bull’s horn, which, according to Pherecydes, had the power of supplying meat or drink in abundance, whatever one wanted.

[2.7.6] And Hercules marched with the Calydonians against the Thesprotians, and having taken the city of Ephyra, of which Phylas was king, he had intercourse with the king’s daughter Astyoche, and became the father of Tlepolemus. While he stayed among them, he sent word to Thespius to keep seven of his sons, to send three to Thebes and to send the remaining forty to the island of Sardinia to plant a colony. After these events, as he was feasting with Oeneus, he killed with a blow of his knuckles the son of Architeles, when the boy was pouring water on his hands; the boy was a relative of Oeneus. Seeing that it was an accident, the boy’s father pardoned Hercules; but Hercules wished, in accordance with the law, to suffer the penalty of exile, and resolved to depart to Ceyx at Trachis. And taking Deianira with him, he came to the river Evenus, at which the centaur Nessus sat and ferried passengers across for hire, alleging that he had received the ferry from the gods for his righteousness. So Hercules crossed the river by himself, but when he was asked to pay the fare, he entrusted Deianira to Nessus to carry over. But he, in ferrying her across, attempted to rape her. She cried out, Hercules heard her, and shot Nessus in the heart when he emerged from the river. On the verge of death, Nessus called Deianira to him and said that if she would have a love charm to operate on Hercules she should mix the seed he had dropped on the ground with the blood that flowed from the wound inflicted by the arrow. She did so and kept it by her.

[2.7.7] As he was travelling through the country of the Dryopes, Hercules had a shortage of food. Hercules met Thiodamas driving a pair of bullocks; so he released and slaughtered one of the bullocks and feasted. And when he came to Ceyx at Trachis he was hosted by him and conquered the Dryopes.

And afterwards setting out from there, he fought as an ally of Aegimius, king of the Dorians. For the Lapiths, commanded by Coronus, were at war with him in a dispute about the boundaries of the country; and being besieged he called in the help of Hercules, offering him a share of the country. So Hercules came to his help and slew Coronus and others, and handed the whole country over to Aegimius free. He killed also Laogoras, king of the Dryopes, with his children, as he was banqueting in a precinct of Apollo; for the king was a violent person and an ally of the Lapiths. And as he passed by Itonus he was challenged to single combat by Cycnus a son of Ares and Pelopia; and closing with him Hercules killed him also. But when he came to Ormenium, king Amyntor took arms and prevented him from marching through; but because he would have hindered his passage, Hercules killed him also.

On his arrival at Trachis he mustered an army to attack Oechalia, wishing to punish Eurytus. Being joined by Arcadians, Melians from Trachis, and Epicnemidian Locrians, he slew Eurytus and his sons and took the city. After burying those of his own side who had fallen, to wit, Hippasus, son of Ceyx, and Argius and Melas, the sons of Licymnius, he pillaged the city and led Iole captive. And having put in at Cenaeum, a headland of Euboea, he built an altar of Cenaean Zeus. Intending to offer sacrifice, he sent the herald Lichas to Trachis to fetch fine garments. From him Deianira learned about Iole, and fearing that Hercules might love that damsel more than her, she supposed that the spilt blood of Nessus was really a love-charm, and she smeared the tunic with it. So Hercules put it on and proceeded to offer sacrifice. But no sooner was the tunic warmed than the poison of the hydra began to corrode his skin; and on that he lifted Lichas by the feet, hurled him down from the headland, and tore off the tunic, which clung to his body, so that his flesh was torn away with it. In such a sad plight he was carried on shipboard to Trachis: and Deianira, on learning what had happened, hanged herself. But Hercules, after charging Hyllus his elder son by Deianira, to marry Iole when he came of age, proceeded to Mount Oeta, in the Trachinian territory, and there constructed a pyre, mounted it, and gave orders to kindle it. When no one would do so, Poeas, passing by to look for his flocks, set a light to it. Hercules gave his bow to him. While the pyre was burning, it is said that a cloud passed under Hercules and with a peal of thunder wafted him up to heaven. Thereafter he obtained immortality, and being reconciled to Hera he married her daughter Hebe, by whom he had sons, Alexiares and Anicetus.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus2.html#4


Bacchylides, “Ode 5” (trans. D. A. Svarlien, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek victory ode, ca. 476 BCE

Bacchylides wrote this ode for the victory of Hieron of Syracuse in single horse racing at the Olympian games of 476 BCE (the same occasion for which Pindar wrote his Olympian 1 ode).

This section of the ode deals with Heracles’ journey to the underworld to fetch Cerberus, the three-headed dog (his twelfth labour) and his encounter with the dead hero, Meleager (slayer of the Calydonian Boar):


[56] So it was, they say, that the gate-destroying unconquerable son [Heracles] of Zeus of the flashing thunderbolt went down to the halls of slender-ankled Persephone, [60] to bring up into the light from Hades the razor-toothed dog [ Cerberus ], son of the fearsome Echidna. There he saw the souls of miserable mortals by the streams of Cocytus, [65] like leaves swirled by the wind along the sheep-pasturing headlands of shining Ida. Among them, the shade of Porthaon’s bold, [70] spear-wielding descendant [ Meleager ] stood out. When the marvellous hero [Heracles], son of Alcmene, saw him shining in his armor, he stretched the clear-sounding bowstring onto his bow, and opened the lid of his quiver and drew out a bronze-tipped [75] arrow. But the soul of Meleager appeared in front of him and spoke to him, knowing him well: “Son of great Zeus, [80] stand where you are, and calm your spirit— Do not shoot a harsh arrow from your hands in vain against the souls of those who have perished. You have no need to fear.” So he spoke. And [Heracles] the son of Amphitryon was astonished, [85] and said, “What god or mortal raised such a fine young plant as you? In what land? Who killed you? No doubt Hera with her beautiful belt will soon [90] send that killer after me. But that must be the concern of golden-haired Pallas.”


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0064%3Abook%3DEp%3Apoem%3D5#note2


The following summaries of the Twelve Labours are adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder and P. Rogak.

1. The Nemean Lion

Eurystheus first told Heracles to kill the lion that had been terrorizing the area of Nemea. This lion was no ordinary lion; it was the offspring of Typhoeus (see chapter 5). Heracles tracked the Nemean Lion to its cave, blocked off the entrance, and tried to kill the lion by shooting it with his bow and arrows. But the arrows bounced right off the lion’s hide, doing the animal no harm. Undeterred, Heracles used brute force to strangle the beast and brought the lion back to Tiryns for Eurystheus. Eurystheus, surprised that Heracles had survived the adventure, became very fearful of Heracles. Because Eurystheus did not want the lion, Heracles skinned it and used the hide as a cloak, with the lion’s head serving as a sort of helmet. The lion’s skin became Heracles’ trademark, and he wore it on all his future endeavors.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.1.

2. The Lernean Hydra

Next, Eurystheus sent Heracles to kill the Hydra. The Hydra was a sea-monster (its name comes from hydōr [ὕδωρ] which means “water” in Greek), that had many snake-like heads. The Hydra lived in a swampy area near Lerna, and Heracles came to its den. He engaged the Hydra by grabbing one of the heads and hacking at it with his sword until the head was severed from the body. But as soon as Heracles had cut off the Hydra’s head, two more heads grew in its place. At this point, Heracles realized that simply cutting off the Hydra’s heads was not going to work. He also realized that he could not kill the Hydra alone, so he called Iolaus, his charioteer and nephew, to bring a burning brand so he could cauterize the neck after Heracles cut off each head, to prevent new heads from growing back. Heracles and Iolaus managed to destroy each head and burn the neck for all the Hydra’s heads until just one head, which was immortal, survived. They buried this head beneath a giant rock. The Hydra’s blood was a deadly poison, so Heracles dipped his arrows in the blood to make sure that anyone he hit would die of his wound. Heracles would one day regret that the Hydra’s blood was so deadly.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.2.

3. The Cerynitian Hind

Eurystheus then sent Heracles to capture the Cerynitian Hind, a deer with golden horns which was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Since the deer was sacred to Artemis, Heracles could not kill it; he had to capture it alive. For a year he tracked the deer around the forests of the Peloponnese which was not an easy task since it was the fastest deer in the world, . He finally captured it in Arcadia when it had paused for a little rest by creeping up behind it and surprising it. On his way back to Tiryns, Heracles encountered Apollo and Artemis hunting. Artemis was not happy to find her sacred deer so constrained, but after he explained his task, Artemis allowed Heracles to take the deer as long as it remained unharmed and it would be released after he was finished with it.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.3.

4. The Erymanthian Boar

When the Cerynitian Hind had been released, Heracles now had to capture the Erymanthian Boar, which was ravaging the countryside around Mount Erymanthus and doing a lot of damage to the crops. On his way to find the Erymanthian Boar, Heracles met Pholus, a centaur who, unlike his fellow centaurs, was quite well mannered. Pholus hosted Heracles like a proper guest and offered him some wine. This wine was noticed by the other centaurs, however, who are known for loving wine but also for being unable to hold their liquor. When the centaurs smelled the wine, they went into a frenzy and started attacking Heracles and Pholus in order to steal it. The two successfully drove the centaurs away, but in the process, Pholus dropped one of Heracles’ arrows on his foot and, unfortunately, the Hydra’s poison caused him to die in agony. After this unfortunate incident, Heracles caught up with the Erymanthian Boar and trapped it by driving it into deep snow. He brought the boar back alive to Tiryns to show to Eurystheus, but Eurystheus was so frightened of the enormous beast that he hid in a large storage jar (called a pithos) and only peeked out a little so he could verify that Heracles had completed his task.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.4.

At this point, word had spread throughout Greece that Jason was looking for the greatest Greek heroes to go with him on an expedition for the Golden Fleece. Heracles took a break from his labours to join the crew. However, he did not make the entire journey to Colchis. The Argonauts left Heracles behind in Mysia while he searched for his lover Hylas. Unable to find Hylas, Heracles returned to Tiryns for his next labor.

For further discussion of Heracles, Hylas, and the Argonauts, see chapter 18.

5. The Augean Stables

The next task Eurystheus had for Heracles was to clean the Augean stables in one day. Augeas was king of Elis, and he had massive stables which had never been cleaned, and so were filled with many years’ worth of horse dung. Heracles came to Augeas and told him that he could clean out the stables in one day if he paid the right sum, one tenth of his cattle. Augeas agreed and Heracles set to work. He diverted the courses of two rivers so they flowed right through the stables and washed away the years of filth. Augeas had not believed that Heracles could perform the task, so he refused to pay the outrageous sum. Heracles was livid, but at this point there was nothing he could do, so he went back to Tiryns.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.5.

6. The Symphalian Birds

Next Heracles was sent to clear away the Stymphalian birds. Lake Stymphalus was overrun by a flock of man-eating birds. Heracles decided that a loud noise would be enough to accomplish this task, so he crashed a few shields together to scare the birds into taking flight. As the birds few into the air, he picked them off one by one with his arrows.

In some versions of this myth, he receives the help of Athena to complete this task. Athena gives Heracles a set of bronze castanets made by Hephaestus, which he uses to make noise and frighten the Stymphalian Birds out of hiding.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.6.

7. The Cretan Bull

Heracles was next sent to capture the Cretan bull. Bulls appear in many significant myths of Crete, and this particular bull was also the father of the Minotaur (see chapter 22). Heracles trapped the bull and brought it back to Tiryns alive. Eurystheus did not want it, so Heracles let the bull go. The bull wandered up to the area around Athens, and Theseus later killed it as one of his heroic feats.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.7.

8. The Mares of Diomedes

The eighth labor was to retrieve the mares of Diomedes. Diomedes was a Thracian king and he had man-eating mares. Heracles, with the help of his lover Abderus, stole the mares from their stable and herded them down to the sea-shore. Diomedes’ men were in hot pursuit, so he left Abderus to take care of the mares while he dispatched with Diomedes and routed his men. When Heracles came back, however, he found that the mares had eaten most of Abderus. Heracles was upset at the death of his lover, and he carefully buried Abderus’ remains. He then gathered the mares into his ship and took them back to Eurystheus. Again, Eurystheus did not want the terrible creatures in his city, so Heracles let the mares loose. They were eventually eaten by wild animals as they wandered on Mount Olympus.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.8.

9. The Belt of Hippolyte

For his next labor, Heracles had to retrieve the belt of the Amazon queen, Hippolyte. Heracles was joined on this expedition by his friend Theseus and they set off together. When they reached Themiscyra, Hippolyte came aboard their ship to meet them. She agreed to give them her belt with no fight. However, Hera was not about to allow this labor to be easy, so she came down from Olympus, disguised as an Amazon. Hera told the Amazons that Heracles was kidnapping their queen, and she roused them to fight the heroes. Growing angry because he believed the whole thing had been a set-up, Heracles killed Hippolyte and he and Theseus left taking Hippolyte’s sister, Antiope, and the belt.  Other versions say that Hippolyte was not killed at all, but that she was the one whom Theseus took with him to Athens, where she became the mother of Theseus’ son Hippolytus (see chapter 22).

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.9.

For further discussion of the Amazons, see chapter 23.

10. The Cattle of Geryon

Next, Heracles was sent to steal the cattle of Geryon, the King of Erytheia (which is modern day Cadiz in Spain). Geryon had three heads and three upper bodies, as well as six arms and six legs. Furthermore, his cattle were guarded by a two-headed watch dog named Orthus. Heracles decided to go through Africa to make his way to Spain. As he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, he set up large rocks on either side, called the Pillars of Heracles, to show how far he had come across the world. The sun beat down upon him, greatly annoying Heracles, so he drew his bow and pointed it at the sun, chastising it. Helios, the sun god, was amused by this little stunt, so he lent his golden cup to Heracles to use as a boat to take him the rest of his way to Erytheia. When he arrived, Heracles dispatched of Geryon and Orthus.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.10.

11. The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

Nearly done with his labours, Heracles now went to retrieve the apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were nymphs who lived in Libya near the mountains where Atlas held up the world (now called the Atlas Mountains) and tended a garden growing golden apples. On his way there, Heracles passed by the Caucasus Mountains and shot the eagle that had long tortured Prometheus, freeing him from his bonds. Grateful for his help, Prometheus gave Heracles some advice as to how to retrieve the apples. Prometheus told Heracles to ask Atlas, who happened to be Prometheus’ own brother, to go get the apples for him.

For further discussion of Prometheus, see chapter 14.

Heracles heeded Prometheus’ advice and asked Atlas to get the apples while he held up the world. Atlas was happy to retrieve the apples, but he had no intention of returning to his post. When he returned with the apples, Atlas offered to take them to Eurystheus for Heracles, intending to never return. But Heracles knew what Atlas was planning.  He made a show of agreeing to Atlas’ plan, but he asked the Titan to hold the world just for a minute so he could place a pad on his shoulders to made the task more bearable. Atlas took the world onto his shoulders again and Heracles picked up the apples and went back to Tiryns. After he had shown them to Eurystheus, he gave them to Athena, and she, in turn, returned them to the Hesperides.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.11.

12. Cerberus

Heracles’ final labor was to bring Cerberus back from Hades; and, of course, he could not kill the three-headed dog in the process. Heracles began this labor by being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystery cult of Demeter at Eleusis (see chapter 10). Then Hermes led him down into the Underworld. In Hades, Heracles saw his friends, Theseus and Pirithous, stuck to chairs and they begged Heracles to set them free. Heracles managed to pry Theseus loose and began to move on to Pirithous, but the earth began to shake, and Heracles desisted. Heracles and Theseus were allowed to leave, but Hades insisted that Pirithous remain.

For further discussion of Theseus and Pirithous’ descent to the Underworld, see chapter 22. For further discussion of katabasis (hero descents to the Underworld), see chapter 41.

When Heracles came to Hades’ palace, he asked the ruler of the Underworld if he could take Cerberus with him. Hades agreed as long as Heracles did not use weapons to capture him. Heracles grabbed the hell-hound and dragged him all the way to Tiryns. Eurystheus hid as soon as he saw Cerberus, and, from his hiding place, ordered that he be taken back to Hades and Heracles obliged. With all the labours completed, Heracles was now free to go about his life as he wished. He was also promised that he would become immortal upon his death.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.12.

Other Adventures

The Death of Iphitus

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder.

After the twelve labours, Heracles set out, looking for a new wife with whom he could start over. Eurytus of Oechalia, who had taught Heracles how to shoot a bow and arrow, was looking for a husband for his daughter, Iole. Eurytus had set up the condition that whoever could beat him in an archery contest would win Iole, and Heracles won easily.

However, Eurytus knew about the misfortunes Heracles had had with Megara and refused to give Iole to Heracles. Heracles was furious, but at this point there was nothing he could do. At the same time this was happening, some of Eurytus’ mares went missing (sources vary on whether Heracles had anything to do with the disappearance). Eurytus’ son, Iphitus, who believed Heracles was innocent, went with Heracles to find the mares. The two eventually ended up in Tiryns at Heracles’ house.  After they located the mares, the two friends were drinking on the roof of Heracles’ house. What happened after that is not clear, but somehow they got into an argument and Heracles ended up throwing Iphitus from the roof. Heracles was stricken with a disease as punishment for his crime. When he consulted the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia told Heracles that he had to sell himself as a slave for three years for whatever price Iphitus’ sons established.


The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder.

Heracles did as the Pythia said and he was sold to Omphale, the Queen and ruler of Lydia, who had inherited power from her late husband. The kingdom of Lydia had some enemies and now that Omphale had control of the kingdom, those enemies took the opportunity to cause problems. Heracles used his strength and fortitude to solve these problems for Omphale, who was incredibly grateful. She freed Heracles and the disease left him.


[content warning for the following section: sexual assualt]

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder.

After many years, and many adventures, Heracles found himself in Calydon, where he fell in love with King Oeneus’ daughter, Deianira. However, Achelous, a local river god, competed with Heracles for her hand. The two fought until Heracles managed to break off one of the god’s horns, which caused the god to yield. Heracles and Deianira married, but they were not able to live happily very long. Heracles, still not aware of his strength, killed Oeneus’ cupbearer when he gave the boy a quick blow as punishment for some offense. Oeneus forgave his son-in-law, but Heracles, in his guilt, insisted that he go into exile for his crime. Heracles left Calydon with Deianira in tow.

At some point in their trip, Heracles and Deianira came to a very deep and very large lake.  Heracles could easily swim across the lake, but Deianira could not and Heracles could not carry her while swimming across.  Just at that time, the centaur Nessus approached the newlyweds and he offered to ferry Deianira across the river.  Heracles gratefully agreed. Half way across the lake, however, Nessus began to rape Deianira. Heracles heard her screams and shot off one of his arrows dipped in the Hydra’s blood.  Of course, the arrow hit its mark and, as Nessus knew, Hydra’s blood was a deadly poison.  But Nessus decided to get back at Heracles, even though he would not live to see his revenge.  As he lay dying, Nessus told Deianira that if she took some of his blood and wiped it on a robe for Heracles to wear, it would act as a love potion.  This, of course, was a lie.  Deianira was aware of her husband’s wandering affections, so she collected some of Nessus’ blood and kept it in case she ever had need of it. She had no idea that the deadly Hydra poison was also a part of her “love potion”.


Sophocles, Women of Trachis (trans. R. Torrance, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek tragedy, 5th century BCE

This tragic play was written by Sophocles and performed at Athens sometime between 450-425 BCE. It examines Deianira’s distress, first at Heracles’ long absence from Trachis and then with the realization that he is replacing her with a younger woman, Iole, the princess of Oechalia. As this scene opens, the chorus, made up of women of Trachis, is recalling the contest between the river god Achelous and Heracles for Deianira’s hand in marriage.


[507-516] One was a violent river in a bull’s form,

four-leggèd, high-horned
Achelous from [the town of] Oeniadae; the other came from

Bacchian Thebes, and his bow

was bent and he wielded the spear and club –
Zeus‘s son [Heracles]; and they came together

in battle, desiring to win her [ Deianira ] in wedlock,

while Aphrodite the blesser of marriage sat in the middle and judged them.

Then was the clash of fists and arrows

mingled with the clatter of bull’s horns;

intricate grapplings were joined;

there were deadly blows of the forehead,

and groaning was heard from both.

But she, in tender beauty,

on a far-seen hilltop,

sat and waited for her husband

even as the battle raged.

The bride these men had fought for

piteously remained;

and then she left her mother

like a lost and helpless calf.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0222%3Acard%3D507

Further Labours

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae (trans. M. Grant, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin mythography, 1st century CE

The Roman mythographer Hyginus catalogued further labours of Hercules in his Fabulae, “Fables,” from the 1st century CE. Notice how the timeline of events differs here from what we have seen so far. Such is the nature of myth, particularly myths involving Heracles who, as a pan-Hellenic hero, inspired many different mythological traditions throughout Greece.


§ 31 INCIDENTAL LABOURS OF THAT SAME HERCULES: He slew Antaeus, son of Earth, in Libya. This man would compel visitors to wrestle with him, and when they were exhausted would kill them. He slew them in wrestling. In Egypt [he slew] Busiris, whose custom it was to sacrifice visitors. When Hercules heard of his customary practice, he allowed himself to be led to the altar with the fillet of sacrifice, but when Busiris was about to invoke the gods, Hercules with his club killed him and the attendants at the sacrifice as well. He killed Cygnus, son of Mars, conquering him by force of arms. When Mars came there, and wanted to contend with him in arms because of his son, Jove hurled a thunderbolt between them. He killed at Troy the sea-monster to whom Hesione was offered. He killed Laomedon, Hesione‘s father, with arrows because he did not give her back. The shining eagle that was eating out the heart of Prometheus, he killed with arrows. He killed Lycus, son of Neptune, because he was planning to kill his wife Megara, daughter of Creon, and their sons Therimachus and Ophites. The River Achelous used to change himself into all sorts of shapes. When he fought with Hercules to win Deianira in marriage, he changed himself into a bull. Hercules tore off his horn, presenting it to the Hesperides or the Nymphs, and the goddesses filled it with fruits and called it Cornucopia. He killed Neleus and his ten sons for refusing to cleanse or purify him at the time when he had killed his wife Megara, daughter of Creon, and his sons Therimachus and Ophites. He killed Eurytus because he refused him when he sought his daughter Iole in marriage. He killed the centaur Nessus because he tried to violate Deianira. He killed Eurytion the Centaur because he wooed Deianira, daughter of Dexamenus, his hoped-for bride.

§ 32 MEGARA: When Hercules had been sent for the three-headed dog [ Cerberus ] by King Eurystheus, Lycus, son of Neptune, thought he [Hercules] had perished and planned to kill his [Hercules’] wife Megara, daughter of Creon, and his sons, Therimachus and Ophites, and seize the kingdom. Hercules stopped Lycus and killed him. Later, when Juno sent madness upon him [Hercules], he killed Megara and his sons, Therimachus and Ophites. When he came to his right mind, he begged Apollo to give him an oracular reply on how to expiate his crime. Because Apollo was unwilling, Hercules wrathfully carried off the tripod from his shrine. Later, at the command of Jove, he returned it [the tripod], and asked him [ Apollo ] to give the reply, though he was unwilling to do so. Because of this offence, Mercury gave Hercules in servitude to Queen Omphale.


Taken from: https://topostext.org/work/206#


Encounter with Virtue and Vice

Xenophon, The Memorabilia, Book 2 (trans. H. G. Dakyns, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek Socratic dialogue, 4th century BCE

In this Socratic dialogue from the 4th century BCE, the Greek philosophical writer Xenophon uses the figure of Heracles allegorically to discuss the nature of virtue and vice.


[1.21-1.34] And that wise man Prodicus makes a similar statement about virtue in that speech of his about Heracles, which crowds have listened to.[2] This, as far as I can recollect it, is the substance at least of what he says:

“When Heracles was emerging from boyhood into the bloom of youth, having reached that season in which the young man, now standing on the edge of independence, shows plainly whether he will enter upon the path of virtue or of vice, he went out to a quiet place, and sat debating with himself which of those two paths he should pursue; and as he there sat musing, there appeared to him two women of great stature which drew near to him. The one was fair to look upon, frank and free by gift of nature, her limbs adorned with purity and her eyes with bashfulness; sobriety set the rhythm of her gait, and she was clad in white apparel. The other was of a different type; the fleshy softness of her limbs betrayed her nurture, while the complexion of her skin was embellished that she might appear whiter and rosier than she really was, and her figure that she might seem taller than nature made her; she stared with wide-open eyes, and the garment that she wore served but to reveal the ripeness of her bloom. With frequent glances she surveyed her person, or looked to see if others noticed her; while ever and anon she intently fixed her gaze upon the shadow of herself.

“Now when these two had drawn near to Heracles, she who was first named advanced steadily towards him, but the other, in her eagerness to beat her, ran forward to the youth, exclaiming, ‘I see you, Heracles, in doubt and difficulty what path of life to choose; make me your friend, and I will lead you to the pleasantest road and easiest. This I promise you: you shall taste all of life’s sweets and escape all bitters. In the first place, you shall not trouble your brain with war or business; other topics shall engage your mind; your only dilemma, what meat or drink you shall find agreeable to your palate; what delights of ear or eye; what pleasures of smell or touch; what darling lover’s intercourse shall most enrapture you; how you shall pillow your limbs in softest slumber; how to pick each individual pleasure without ruining it with pain; and if ever the suspicion steals upon you that the stream of joys will one day fade, trust me: I will not lead you where you shall replenish the store by toil of body and trouble of soul. No! others shall labour, but you shall reap the fruit of their labours; you shall withhold your hand from nothing that will bring you gain. For to all my followers I give authority and power to help themselves freely from every side.’

“Heracles hearing these words made the answer: ‘What, O lady, is the name you bear?’ To which she replied: ‘Know that my friends call me Happiness, but those who hate me have their own nicknames for me, Vice and Naughtiness.’

“But just then the other of those fair women approached and spoke: ‘Heracles, I too am come to you, seeing that your parents are well known to me, and in your nurture I have gauged your nature; for this reason I have good hope that if you choose the path which leads to me, you shall make a great effort to be the doer of many a brave deed of noble enterprise; and that I too shall be held in even higher honour for your sake, bathed in the splendour of your virtues. I will not cheat you with honeyed overtures of pleasure, but I will relate to you the things that are according to the ordinances of God in very truth. Know then that among things that are lovely and of good report, not one have the gods bestowed upon mortal men without toil and pains. If you wish to obtain the favour of the gods, then you must pay these same gods service; if you wish to be loved by your friends, you must benefit these friends; if you desire to be honoured by the state, you must give the state your aid; if you claim admiration for your virtue from all Hellas, you must strive to do some good to Hellas; if you wish earth to yield her fruits to you abundantly, to earth must you pay your court; if you seek to amass riches from your flocks and herds, on them must you bestow your labour; or is it your ambition to be potent as a warrior, able to save your friends and to subdue your foes, in which case you must learn the arts of war from those who have the knowledge, and practise their application in the field when learned; or if you wish to be powerful of limb and body, then you must train limbs and body to obey the mind, and exercise yourself with toil and sweat.’

“At this point, (as Prodicus relates) Vice broke in exclaiming: ‘See you, Heracles, how hard and long the road is by which this woman would escort you to her festive joys. But I will guide you by a short and easy road to happiness.’

“Then spoke Virtue: ‘No, wretched one, what good thing do you have? Or what sweet thing do you know that will stir neither hand nor foot to gain it? You do not even wait for the desire of pleasure, but are already satiated, or that desire always returns; eating before you are hungry, and drinking before you are thirsty; you, to fabricate an appetite, must invent an army of cooks and confectioners; and to stimulate your thirst must lay down costliest wines, and run up and down in search of ice in summer-time; to help your slumbers, soft coverlets are not sufficient, but couches and feather-beds must be prepared for you and rockers to rock you to rest; since desire for sleep in your case springs not from toil but from emptiness and from having nothing in the world to do. Even the natural appetite of love you force prematurely by every means you may devise, confounding the sexes in your service. Thus you educate your friends: with insult during the night season and slumber during the precious hours of the day. Immortal, you are cast out from the company of gods, and by good men are dishonoured: that sweetest sound of all, the voice of praise, has never thrilled your ears; and the fairest of all fair visions is hidden from your eyes that have never seen one good deed done by your own hand. If you open your lips in speech, who will believe your word? If you need something, no one will help you. What sane man will venture to join your inferior parties? Your revellers are indeed ill to look upon, young men impotent of body, and old men witless in mind: in the heyday of life they thrive in sleek idleness, and tiredly do they drag through an age of wrinkled wretchedness. And why? they blush with shame at the thought of deeds done in the past, and groan for weariness at what is left to do. During their youth they ran riot through their sweet things, and laid up for themselves large store of bitterness against old age. But my companionship is with the gods; and my conversation is with the good among men; no good deed, divine or human, is done without my aid. Therefore I am honoured in Heaven pre-eminently, and upon earth among men whose right it is to honour me; as a beloved fellow-worker of all craftsmen; a faithful guardian of house and lands, whom the owners bless; a kindly helpful companion of servants; a brave assistant in the labours of peace; an unflinching ally in the deeds of war; a sharer in all indispensable friendships. To my friends is given an enjoyment of meats and drinks, which is sweet in itself and free of trouble, in that they can last until desire ripens, and sleep more delicious visits them than those who do not work. Yet they are not pained to part with it [sleep]; nor for the sake of slumber do they let slip the performance of their duties. Among my followers the youth delights in the praises of his elders, and the old man glories in the honour of the young; with joy they call to memory their deeds of old, and in to-day’s well-doing are well pleased. For my sake they are dear in the sight of God, beloved of their friends and honoured by the country of their birth. When the appointed goal is reached they lie not down in oblivion with dishonour, but bloom afresh—their praise resounded on the lips of men for ever. O son of noble parents, Heracles, it is your role to meet with labours like these and, having endured, to enter into the heritage of transcendant happiness that I promise you.'”

This, Aristippus, in rough sketch is the theme which Prodicus pursues in his “Education of Heracles by Virtue,” only he laid out his sentiments, I admit, in far more magnificent phrases than I have. Is it not good, Aristippus, to take to heart these sayings, and to strive to think somewhat of that which touches the future of our life?


Taken from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1177/1177-h/1177-h.htm#link2H_4_0004

Death and Apotheosis


[content warning for the following section:graphic description of death, suicide]

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound by T. Mulder.

Deianira was justified in her suspicions of her husband, although it did not happen right away. But many years later, Heracles decided to get revenge on Eurytus, who had refused to give Heracles his daughter, Iole, in marriage. Heracles killed Eurytus and his sons in battle and brought Iole back home to be his concubine. Deianira knew about her husband’s many affairs, but she did not want to live in the same house with a younger rival, so she decided to put Nessus’ plan into action. She smeared Nessus’ blood on a beautiful new robe and gave it to her husband when he returned home, bringing Iole with him. Heracles put on the beautiful robe to give an offering to Zeus for a successful return home, but as soon as he put on the robe, his skin immediately caught fire. When Heracles tried to take off the robe, parts of his skin came off with it, and Heracles continued to burn. Realizing the terrible mistake she had made, Deianira took her own life. But Heracles was in agony; he could not take off the robe because it was sticking to his skin, he could not put out the fire, and Heracles was burning so slowly that it seemed to be taking forever for him to die. Heracles decided to end his life as soon as possible.

He took his son Hyllus up into the mountains and asked him to build a funeral pyre. Hyllus agreed to build the pyre, but he refused to light it because he could not bear to end his father’s life. A passing shepherd and his son, Philoctetes, agreed to light the pyre and so Heracles gave his famous bow and arrows to Philoctetes.

For the continuation of the story of Philoctetes, see chapter 29.

The fire burned away Heracles’ mortal flesh and he became immortal. He was taken up to Olympus to live with the other gods and he married his half-sister, Hebe. Hera finally put aside her anger against him. It seems that Heracles could only find peace after his death.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 9 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault (89-158), graphic description of death (159-210)]
In this section of the Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about the downfall of Hercules, from his winning of Deianeira’s hand through to his apotheosis, or transformation into a god:

[1-88] “Theseus, the hero, reputed son of Neptune, asked Achelous why he had sighed, and the reason for his damaged forehead. The Calydonian river-god, his uncut hair wreathed with reeds, replied: ‘You ask something painful of me. Who wants to recall the battles he has lost? But, I will tell it as it happened: since the shame of being beaten is no less than the honour of having fought. It is a great consolation to me that the victor was so famous.

“‘If her name has ever come to your notice, Deianira was once the most beautiful girl, and the jealous hope of many suitors. When, with them [the suitors], I entered the house of Oeneus, her father and the man I sought as my father-in-law, I said: “Accept me as your son-in-law, son of Parthaon.” Hercules, scion of Alceus, said the same. The others gave way before the two of us. Hercules declared that he could offer Jove as his bride’s father-in-law, spoke of his famous labours, and of how he had survived what his stepmother, Juno, had prescribed for him. On my side I said: “It would be shameful for a god to concede to a mortal”’ – He was not yet a god – “In me you see the lord of the waters, that flow in winding rivers, through your kingdom. As your son-in-law I would not be a stranger sent from a foreign shore, but a native, and wedded to your own interests. Only don’t let it harm my case that Queen Juno does not hate me, and all the punishment of the labours, she demanded, passed me by!

‘“Now, listen, Hercules, you, son of Alcmene: Jupiter, whose child you boast of being, is either wrongly called your father, or is truly a wrongdoer. You seek your father in a mother’s adultery. Choose whether you prefer this fiction of Jove as a father, or to be born the son of shame.” As I spoke, he gazed at me fiercely, the whole time, and unable to act like a man and control his blazing anger, he merely replied in these words: “My right hand is more powerful than my tongue. As long as I beat you at wrestling, you can win the talking”, and he came at me ferociously. I was ashamed to retreat, after my words: I took off my green robes; put up my arms; held my hands, fingers curved, in front of my chest in fighting stance; and readied my limbs for the match. He caught up dust in the hollow of his hands and threw it over me, and, in turn, was, himself, gilded by the yellow sand. Now he caught at my neck, or you might think he caught me, now at my legs, now at my loins: and attacked me from every side. My weight protected me, and his attempts were useless. I was like a massive pile that the roaring flood assaults with all its might: it remains, secure in its own bulk.

“’We pulled away for a moment, returned to the conflict, and stood firm, determined not to concede. Foot was set against foot, and I pushed at him, with my chest full forward, fingers locked with fingers, and head to head. I have seen two strong bulls come together like that, when they try for the sleekest heifer in the pasture as their prize in the contest. The herd watches in fear, not sure to which one victory will grant overriding supremacy. Three times without success Hercules tried to push my gleaming chest away from him. At the fourth attempt, he broke my grip, loosed himself from my constricting arms, and with a blow of his hand – certainly, I myself confess it is the truth – he turned me about, and clung, with all his weight, to my back.

“‘If you can believe it – I am not seeking to gain false credit by saying it – I seemed to have a mountain pressing on top of me. With difficulty I thrust my arms, pouring with sweat from the great effort it took, under him, and, with difficulty, freed his firm hold on my body. He pressed me hard, as I gasped for breath, prevented me from gathering my strength, and gripped my neck. Then, at last, my knee touched the ground, and my mouth tasted sand. Inferior to him in strength, I turned to my magic arts, and slipped from his grasp in the shape of a long snake. But when I had wound my body in sinuous coils, and, hissing fiercely, darted my forked tongue at him, Tiryns’s hero laughed, and mocking my magic arts, said: “My task in the cradle was to defeat snakes, and, though you are greater than other reptiles, Achelous, how big a slice of the Lernean Hydra would your one serpent be? It multiplied by its wounds, and not one of its hundred heads was safely cut off without its neck generating two more. I overcame it, and having overcome it, disembowelled that monster, with branching snake-heads, that grew from their own destruction, thriving on evil. What do you think will happen to you, who are only a false snake, using unfamiliar weapons, whom a shifting form hides?”

“‘He spoke and knotted his fingers round my throat. I was suffocating, as if my throat was gripped by a vice, and struggled to tear his thumbs away from my windpipe. Overpowered in this form, only my third, fierce, bull-shape remained. So I fought on, my limbs those of a bull. From the left he threw his arms around my bulging neck; and he followed me as I charged off; he was dragging at me, my horns piercing the hard ground as he pulled me down. And he toppled me into the deep sand. As if that was not enough, holding the tough horn in his cruel hand, he broke it and tore it away from my mutilated brow. The Naiads took it, filling it with fruit and scented flowers, and made it sacred: the Goddess of Abundance is rich now because of my horn of plenty.’

[89-158] “He spoke: and a nymph, one of his attendants, dressed like Diana, her hair streaming over her shoulders, came to them, bringing all of autumn’s harvest in an overflowing horn, and, for a dessert, delicious fruits. Light gathered, and as the first rays struck the mountain summits, the warriors left, not waiting for the river to flow calmly and placidly or for the falling waters to subside. Achelous hid his wild features and his head, marred by its broken horn, in the depths of the waves.

“Nevertheless he only had the loss of that adornment [the horn], which had been taken from him, to lament: he was otherwise unhurt. Also he hid his loss with a wreath of willow leaves or reeds. But you, fierce Nessus, the centaur, a passion for that same virgin girl destroyed you, when you were hit in the back by a flying arrow.

“Hercules, son of Jupiter, on his way to his native city with Deianira, his new bride, came to the swift waters of the River Euenus. The flood was higher than normal, increased by winter rains, with frequent whirlpools, and impassable. He had no fear of going on himself, but was anxious for his bride, when Nessus approached, strong of limb, and knowing the fords. ‘With my help, Alcides,’ he said, ‘she will be set down on the far bank. Use your strength to swim!’ The Theban handed over the Calydonian girl, she, pale with fear, frightened of the river and of the centaur himself.

“Straight away, weighed down as he was by his quiver and his lion’s skin – he had thrown his club and his curved bow across to the other bank – the hero said: ‘Let me endure the river since I have started to cross.’ He did not hesitate, and did not search for where the river was calmest, scorning to claim the water’s allegiance. He had gained the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown, when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted to Nessus, who was preparing to betray his trust: ‘Where are you carrying her off to, you rapist, trusting in vain to your swiftness of foot? I am speaking to you, Nessus, the twice-formed. Listen: do not steal what is mine. If you have no respect for me, the thought of your father, Ixion, on his whirling wheel might prevent this illicit union. However much you trust in your horse-craft, you will not escape. With wounds, not feet, I will follow you.’ He made good his last words with his actions, shooting the arrow he fired, across, at the fleeing back. The barbed tip jutted from the centaur’s chest. When the shaft was pulled out, blood, mixed with the deadly arrow-poison of the Lernean Hydra, gushed out simultaneously from the entry and exit wounds. Nessus trapped this, and murmured, to himself of course: ‘I will not die without revenge,’ and gave his tunic soaked with warm blood to Deianira, whom he had abducted, presenting it to her as if it were a gift for reviving a waning love.

“A long space of intervening time passed by, and the tales of mighty Hercules had filled the world, and overcome his stepmother’s hatred. As the victor at Oechalia, in Euboea (where he had avenged an insult offered him by King Eurytus) he was preparing to sacrifice to Jupiter at Cenaeum, when talkative Rumour, who loves to add lies to fact, and expands from the tiniest truth by her falsehoods, brought her tale on ahead, to your ears, Deianira. She [ Rumour ] claimed that Hercules, reputed son of Amphitryon, was filled with passion for Iole, daughter of Eurytus.

“The loving wife believes it, and terrified at first by the rumour of this new affair, she indulges in tears, and the poor girl vents her misery in weeping. But she soon says ‘Why do I weep? That adulteress will laugh at my tears. Since she is coming here, I must plan quickly, while I can, while another has not yet taken my place. Should I complain, or keep silent? Return to Calydon or stay? Should I leave my house? Or, if I can do nothing else, should I at least stand in their way? What if, remembering I am your sister, Meleager, I prepare, boldly, to commit a crime, and, by cutting that adulteress’s throat, show what revenge and a woman’s grief can do?’

“Her thought traced various courses. Of all of them she preferred that of sending the shirt, imbued with Nessus’s blood, to restore her husband’s waning love. Unwittingly, she entrusted what became her future grief, to the servant, Lichas, he not knowing what he had been entrusted with: and the unfortunate woman, ordered him, with persuasive words, to give the present to her husband. Hercules, the hero, took it, without a thought, and put on the shirt of Nessus, soaked in the poison of the Lernean Hydra.

[159-210] “He was making offerings of incense and reciting prayers over the first flames, and pouring a libation bowl of wine on to the marble altar. The power of the venom, warmed and released by the flames, dissolved, dispersing widely through the limbs of Hercules. With his usual courage, he repressed his groans while he could. When his strength to endure the venom was exhausted, he overturned the altar, and filled woody Oeta with his shouts.

“He tries at once to tear off the fatal clothing: where it is pulled away, it pulls skin away with it, and, revolting to tell, it either sticks to the limbs from which he tries in vain to remove it, or reveals the lacerated limbs and his massive bones. His blood itself hisses and boils, with the virulence of the poison, like incandescent metal, dipped in a cold pool. There is no end to it: the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle. His marrow liquefying with the secret corruption, he raises his hands to the heavens, crying: ‘Juno, Saturnia, feed on my ruin: feed, cruel one: gaze, from the heights, at this destruction, and sate your savage heart! Or if this suffering seems pitiable even to an enemy, even to you, take away this sorrowful and hateful life, with its fearful torments, that was only made for toil. Death would be a gift to me, a fitting offering from a stepmother.

“‘Was it for this I overcame Busiris who defiled the temples with the blood of sacrificed strangers? For this that I lifted fierce Antaeus, robbing him of the strength of his mother Earth? For this, that I was unmoved, by Geryon’s triple form, the herdsman of Spain, or your triple form, Cerberus? For this, you hands of mine, that you dragged down the horns of the strong Cretan bull: that the stables of King Augeas of Elis know of your efforts: the Stymphalian Lake: and the woods of Mount Parthenius, with its golden-antlered stag? For this, that, by your virtue, the gold engraved girdle of Hippolyte of Thermodon was taken, and the apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the sleepless dragon? Was it for this, that the Centaurs could not withstand me, nor the Erymanthian Boar that laid Arcady to waste? For this, that it did not help the Hydra to thrive on destruction and gain redoubled strength? What of the time when I saw Thracian Diomedes‘ horses, fed on human blood, their stalls filled with broken bodies, and, seeing them, overthrew them, and finished off them, and their master? The Nemean Lion lies crushed by these massive arms: and for Atlas these shoulders of mine held up the sky. Jupiter’s cruel consort is tired of giving commands: I am not tired of performing them.

“‘But now a strange disease affects me that I cannot withstand by courage, weapons or strength. Deep in my lungs a devouring fire wanders, feeding on my whole body. But Eurystheus, my enemy is well! Are there those then who can believe that the gods exist?’ So saying he roamed, in his illness, over the heights of Oeta, as a bull carries around a hunting spear embedded in its body, though the hunter who threw it has long gone. Picture him there, in the mountains, in his anger, often groaning, often shouting out, often attempting, again and again, to rid himself of the last of the garment, overturning trees, or stretching his arms out to his native skies.

[211-272] “Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. ‘Was it not you, Lichas,’ he said, ‘who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?’ The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero’s knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow, whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass, and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. Sailors are afraid to set foot on this, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas.

“But you [Hercules], famous son of Jove, felled the trees that grew on steep Oeta, and made a funeral pyre, and commanded Philoctetes, son of Poeas, who supplied the flame that was plunged into it, to take your bow, your ample quiver, and the arrows, that were fated to see, once more, the kingdom of Troy (as they did when you rescued Hesione). As the mass caught light from the eager fire, you spread the Nemean Lion’s pelt on the summit of the pile of logs, and lay down, your neck resting on your club, and with an aspect no different from that of a guest, reclining amongst the full wine cups, crowned with garlands.

“Now the fierce flames, spreading on every side, were crackling loudly, and licking at his body, but he was unconcerned and scornful of them. The gods were fearful for earth’s champion. Saturnian Jupiter spoke to them, gladly, since he understood their feelings. ‘O divine beings, your fear for him delights me, and I willingly congratulate myself, with all my heart, that I am called father and ruler of a thoughtful race, and that my offspring is protected by your favour also. Though this tribute is paid to his great deeds, I am indebted to you, also. But do not allow your loyal hearts to feel baseless fears. Forget Oeta’s flames! He, who has defeated all things, will defeat the fires you see, nor will he feel Vulcan’s power, except in the mortal part that he owes to his mother, Alcmene. What he has from me is immortal, deathless and eternal: and that, no flame can destroy. When it is done with the earth, I will accept it into the celestial regions, and I trust my action will please all the gods. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is unhappy at Hercules’s deification, and would not wish to grant this gift, he or she should know that it was given for merit, and should approve it, though unwillingly.’ The gods agreed. Juno, also, appeared to accept the rest of his words with compliance, but not the last ones, upset that she was being censored.

“Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. As a snake enjoys its newness, shedding old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales; so, when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater, and more to be revered, in his high majesty. The all-powerful father of the gods carrying him upwards, in his four-horse chariot, through the substance-less clouds, set him among the shining stars.

[273-323] “Atlas felt the weight of the new constellation. But even now the anger of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, was not appeased, and he pursued his unyielding hatred of the father through the children. Argive Alcmene, troubled by endless cares, had Iole, as one to whom she could confide an old woman’s miseries, to whom she could relate her son’s labours, known to all the world, and her own misfortunes. At Hercules request, Hyllus, his son by Deianira, had taken Iole to his marriage-bed, and his heart, and had planted a child of that noble race in her womb. Alcmene said to her: ‘Let the gods at least favour you, and shorten that time when, in childbirth, you call on Ilithyia, that Lucina who watches over frightened women, who, thanks to Juno’s influence, made things hard for me.

“‘When the time for Hercules’s difficult birth came, and Capricorn, the tenth sign, was hidden by the sun, the weight of the child stretched my womb: what I carried was so great, you could tell that Jove was the father of my hidden burden. I could not bear my labour pains much longer. Even now, as I speak, a cold horror grips my body, and part of me remembers it with pain. Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi. Indeed, she came, but committed in advance, determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and held with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth, She murmured spells, too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began. I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers, and gave me encouragement in my pain.

“‘Tawny-haired Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said “Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmene of Argolis is eased, and the prayers to aid childbirth have been answered.”

“‘The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds, herself, easing the birth. They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down, and as she tried to lift her body from the ground, she arched her over, and changed her arms into forelegs. Her old energy remained, and the hair on her back did not lose her hair’s previous colour: but her former shape was changed to that of a weasel. And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and often visits my house, as before.’”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph9.php

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

Apotheosis and Afterlife

Homeric Hymn 15, “To Heracles the Lion-Hearted” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

Even in the archaic period,  ancient Greeks celebrated Heracles apotheosis, or transformation into a god such as in this 7th century BCE poem, Homeric Hymn 15 “To Heracles the Lion-Hearted.”

“[1] I will sing of Heracles, the son of Zeus and much the mightiest of men on earth. Alcmene birthed him in Thebes, the city of lovely dances, after the dark-clouded [ Zeus ] Son of Cronus had slept with her. Once he [Heracles] used to wander over unmeasured stretches of land and sea at the bidding of King Eurystheus, and he himself did many deeds of violence and endured many; but now he lives happily in the glorious home of snowy Olympus, and has neat-ankled Hebe for his wife. Hail, lord, son of Zeus! Give me success and prosperity.”


Taken from: theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns3.html#15


Homer, Odyssey, Book 11 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek epic poem, 8th century BCE

As part of his katabasis, or journey to and from the Underworld in Book 11 of the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus encounters the shade (ghost) of the dead Heracles in Hades.

[593-640] “Then I [ Odysseus ]caught sight of mighty Heracles, I mean his phantom, since he enjoys feasting among the deathless gods, with slim-ankled Hebe for wife, she the daughter of great Zeus and golden-sandalled Hera. Around Heracles a clamour rose from the dead, like wild birds flying up in terror, and he dark as night, his bow unsheathed and an arrow strung, glared round fiercely as if about to shoot. His golden shoulder-belt was terrifying too, on which there were marvellous decorations, bears, wild boars, lions with glittering eyes, battle and conflict, murder and mayhem. I hope that whatever craftsman retained the design of that belt, he never made another, and never will.

“When he saw me, he in turn knew me, and weeping spoke in winged words: ‘Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, wretched spirit are you too playing out your evil fate such as I once endured under the sun? A son of Zeus, Cronus’ son, I still suffered misery beyond all measure, since I served a man far inferior to me, and he set me difficult tasks. He even sent me here [to the Underworld] to bring back the Hound of Hades [ Cerberus ], unable to think of a harder labour. I carried off the creature too, and led him away. Hermes and bright-eyed Athena were my guides.'”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Odyssey11.php#anchor_Toc90267986

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved.


Pindar, Odes, “Isthmian 4” (trans. D. A. Svarlien, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek victory ode, 5th century BCE

Pindar wrote this ode for Melissus of Thebes, the victor in the pankration (an empty hand combat sport with few rules that could involve boxing, wrestling, kicking, holds, joint locks, and chokes) at the Isthmian games in 474/3 BCE.

As part of the ode, Pindar celebrates the apotheosis of Heracles.

“[55] He went to Olympus, after he had explored all lands and the high-cliffed hollow of the gray sea, and had tamed the straits for sailors. Now he lives beside aegis-bearing Zeus, and has the most beautiful prosperity. He is honoured as a friend by the immortals and is married to Hebe; [60] he is lord of a golden house, and son-in-law to Hera. For him, we Thebans, busily preparing the feast and the circle of newly-built altars above the Electran gates, pile up burnt offerings,in honour of the eight bronze-clad sons, now dead, whom Megara, Creon’s daughter, bore him. [65] For them the flame rises in the rays of the setting sun and blazes all night long, prodding the air with fragrant smoke.”


Taken from: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DI.%3Apoem%3D4

Art and Symbolism

Heracles, standing nude except his lion skin and a laurel crown. He holds a bow in one hand and a club in the other.
Heracles, black-ground krater, ca. 450 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Heracles wrestles with the Nemean Lion.
Heracles and the Nemean Lion, black-figure oinochoe, ca. 500 BCE (British Museum, London)


In the centre of the image, small Heracles and Iphicles sit on a crib. Heracles is holding two snakes in his hands. Alcmene holds Iphicles by the arms, and two other women and a man stand by and watch.
Young Heracles strangling the snakes, red-figure stamnos, ca. 480 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

In Greek art, Heracles was one of the most popular heroes, and was represented on all sorts of mediums. He was usually depicted as a muscular man, either bearded or clean-shaven. One exception to this portrayal is whenever the hero is depicted as a child performing his very first feat of strength, strangling the snakes sent by Hera to kill him and his brother in their cradles.

In vase paintings, sculptures, and coins, one of his most recognizable attributes is the leonte’, the hide of the invulnerable Nemean Lion, worn as a garment with the head of the beast usually working as a hood. Heracles’ main weapons are the club, bow, and arrow. The hero is easily recognizable because he is almost invariably represented with one, two, or all three of these attributes. Occasionally, he could also be portrayed wearing an olive or oak wreath.


Heracles down on one knee, one arm held out and the other drawn back to shoot a bow (though the bow is missing from the statue. He wears armour and the lion skin cap.
Heracles as an archer, Temple of Aphaia in Egina, east pediment, ca. 500 BCE (Glyptothek, Munich)

The most commonly represented mythical scenes involving Heracles are, naturally, his labours.


Heracles aims a sling as 16 swans surround him, some lying on the ground and others flying around.
Heracles and the Stymphalian birds, black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BCE (British Museum, London)
Heracles holding the stag by the antlers. Athena stands behind Heracles holding his sword, and Artemis stands to the right holding a bow.
Heracles capturing the Keryneian stag, black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BCE (British Museum, London)
Heracles, holding the boar, stands with one foot on the rim of a pot that is set into the ground. Eurystheus hides in the pot, his arms and head sticking out, as Heracles drops the boar down on him. Iolaus stands behind Heracles with a deer at his feet and holding Heracles' club, and Athena stands to the right.
Heracles throwing the Erythmanthian boar onto Eurystheus, black-figure amphora, ca. 520 BCE (British Museum, London)
Heracles fighting 3 Amazons. He has his sword raised to strike on of them, who is on one knee, while the other two lunge in towards him with spears.
Heracles fighting the Amazons, black-figure amphora, ca. 510 BCE (British Museum, London)





Heracles wield a club and bow, lunging towards Geryon, a man with three attached bodies. Geryon holds a shield depicting a winged boar. The 2-headed dog Orthrus lies dead, pierced by an error, at Heracles' feet. Athena stands behind Heracles, holding her shield with the face of Medusa on it.
Heracles fighting Geryon, red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

Art also often depicts his fights with other adversaries, both human and divine, such as the Amazons, the centaur Nessus, Apollo himself, a group of Egyptian priests who wanted to sacrifice him, and the sea-monsters Triton and Nereus, among many others.


Heracles stands beside an altar, throwing Busiris over his shoulders. Two of Busiris' attendants cower before Heracles, one of them holding an axe.
Heracles fighting Busiris, red-figure pelike, ca. 470 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Heracles lunging at the centaur Nessus with a sword, kicking him in the back and grabbing his hair.
Heracles fighting Nessus, black-figure pithos (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Apollo, the head of his statue missing, stands holding a tripod. Heracles is grabbing the tripod and trying to wrest it from him.
Heracles and Apollo struggling for the tripod, pediment of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, 525 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Delphi)

The importance of the hero as a slayer of monsters cannot be overstated, so much so that during the Archaic Period (ca. 776-480 BCE) the scene of Heracles fighting Triton was employed by tyrants to celebrate their naval victories, as well as the construction of aqueducts and fountains for their own cities, drawing a parallel between themselves ‘taming’ rivers and Heracles defeating water monsters.


Heracles has his arms wrapped around Triton, a fish-tailed man, from behind. Nereus, a white-haired man stands behind them.
Heracles wrestling Triton, black-figure hydria, ca. 550 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Heracles with his arms wrapped around Triton as the two wrestle. To the right stands Nereus, an old man with a white hair and beard, and to the left is another man.
Heracles wrestling Triton, black-figure amphora, ca. 520 BCE (British Museum, London)
Heracles grabbing the hair of Triton, a giant bearded man with a fish tale
Heracles fighting Triton, Sicily altar relief, 6th century BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Heracles clings to a wriggling red and black sea serpent.
Heracles fighting a sea monster, from west pediment of the Hekatompedon, ca. 490 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

Another popular scene with Heracles was that of his deification. The hero is usually represented either on a chariot with Athena as the driver, or alongside the goddess to Zeus and the rest of the Olympians.


Heracles, with his club, sword, and lion skin, stands in a chariot. Athena stands before him.
Apotheosis of Heracles, black-figure hydria, ca. 530 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

The image of Heracles was also used on coins minted in Macedon by the Argead dynasty, whose kings considered themselves descendants of the hero. hero. Later on, the generals of Alexander the Great also used this motif in order to present themselves as the king’s legitimate successors.


Side 1: the head of Alexander the Great wearing a lion skin cap. Side 2: Zeus throned with a scepter and eagle.
Alexander the Great in a lion skin, Macedonian coin, ca. 300 BCE.
Side 1: the head of Philip of Macedonia wearing a lion skin cap. Side 2: the front half of a running lion.
Philip II of Macedonia in a lion skin, Pella coin, ca. 359 BCE


Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. "Pollution" here refers to the Greek concept of miasma, the idea that death defiles someone or makes them impure. For further explanation, see Mythology Unbound.
  2. Prodicus was a famous Greek philosopher and Sophist who gave many speeches on ethics. This Xenophone passage refers to a well-known speech Prodicus made about Heracles, though the text of Prodicus' original speech is not preserved.


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