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Heracles


Heracles as a child. Second-century mosaic from Antakya, Turkey. Photo Marco Prins. Heracles (Latin: Hercules): most important of the Greek demigods. Several dynasties, like the twin royal houses of Sparta and the Argeads of Macedonia, claimed to descend from this son of Zeus.

The Greek demigod Heracles (or Hercules, as the Romans called him) was the son of a mortal woman named Alcmene and the supreme god Zeus. Zeus' lawful wife Hera hated the child born out of wedlock, and sent two snakes to kill the baby. However, the young boy killed the animals, as is shown on this second-century mosaic from Antioch. Heracles became a strong warrior, but Hera struck him with madness, and he killed his own children.

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Heracles and the Nemean lion. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. When he had recovered, he consulted the oracle of Delphi, which ordered him to serve his relative Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns. His first task was to kill the lion of nearby Nemea, a terrible animal. Like all his labors, this fight is shown on a sarcophagus from Perge, now in the archaeological museum of Antalya (Turkey). The beast was resistant against all weapons, but Heracles strangled it. From now on, he wore the lion's invulnerable pelt as armor. The Greeks celebrated Heracles' victory every two years at the Nemean Games. It is an interesting question where this story comes from. Lions were extinct in Greece as early as the Mycenean age; the story may have come from the east, or may be extremely old.
Map of the places where Heracles performed his tasks. Map design Jona Lendering. After this labor, Heracles had to perform many other tasks, which were haphazardly described by many ancient poets. There was no distinction between Heracles and other heroes (Theseus, the Argonauts), so that many episodes have duplicates. The first to write a systematic account of the twelve labors was probably Diodorus of Sicily (Library of World History, 4.8-39; written c. 25 BCE). Until then, the number of works had varied; nor was there agreement about the tasks. Several now almost forgotten labors were still well-known in the fifth century.
Heracles and the Lernaean hydra. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins. Heracles' second labor was to kill the hydra (water snake) from Lerna, another town near Tiryns. This was difficult, because it had nine heads, and every time Heracles cut off one of these, three new heads grew in its place. However, Heracles' friend Iolaus burned down a tree, and the hero used the blazing branches to sear the roots of the new heads. Finally, he cut off the last, immortal head, and buried it alive. After the battle, Heracles dipped his arrowheads in the monster's poisonous gall. As an archer, he was now invincible.
Heracles and the Ceryneian hind. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins. Eurystheus now sent Heracles to Cerynia, where he had to catch a hind that was dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Larger than a bull, this terrible creature destroyed the northern Peloponnese. Heracles pursued it to the northernmost edges of the earth, where the legendary Hyperboreans lived, and finally overcame the animal, which he carried back home.
Heracles and the Erymantian boar. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. The Erymanthian boar lived on the slopes of the Erymanthus, a mountain range in the northern Peloponnese. Again, it was a dangerous monster that ravaged the farmer's fields. After a brief visit to the Centaurs, Heracles drove the animal into the snow, where he was able to capture it. On his shoulders, he carried the animal back home, as is again shown on the sarcophagus from Perge that is now at the archaeological museum of Alanya.
Heracles and the stables of Augias. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Heracles' next work was to cleanse the notorious stable of king Augias of Elis, in one day. The demigod ignored the terrible stench and bravely started to carry the dung away, but there was simply too much of it. Accepting the advice of Iolaus, he diverted a river through the stables, which swept away all the dirt. On his return, however, king Eurystheus refused to accept this as a really performed task. Until then, it had been agreed that Heracles would do ten jobs, but Eurystheus now decreed that his relative had to perform two additional tasks: one as a compensation for the help of the river god, and one as a compensation for the assistance of Iolaus when he had killed the hydra of Lerna.
Heracles and the Stymphalian birds. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins. The sixth labor was to remove the countless man-eating birds that invested the marshes near Stymphalus. They had wings, claws and beaks of metal and were dedicated to the war god Ares. Initially, even Heracles' arrows were inadequate, but the goddess Athena gave him a rattle that had been made by Hephaestus. The birds were terrified and flew away to the Black Sea; the remaining animals were killed by the poison arrows. From now on, there were no monsters on the Peloponnese anymore, and the next labors would bring Heracles to the edges of the known world.

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Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 26 May 2008
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