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Heracles


Heracles and the Cretan bull. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (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 first part of this article can be found here.

Heracles' fight against the Cretan bull, shown here on the Perge sarcophagus that is now at the archaeological museum of Antalya, was his next labor. The sources disagree about the nature of the bull: was it the animal that carried Europe from Phoenicia to Crete, or the father of the Minotaur? To make matters more complex, the same story is told about the Athenian hero Theseus. However this may be, in the canonical sequence of labors, the Cretan bull is number seven, and the first of four voyages that brought Heracles to the south, north, east and west. 

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Heracles and the mares of Diomedes. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. King Diomedes lived in barbarous Thrace. Eurystheus ordered Heracles to capture Diomedes' four flesh-eating mares. Heracles went north, captured two cobolds called Kercopes (initially one of the main labors, but not according to the official canon), and visited his friend Admetus in Thessaly. In return for the hospitality, Heracles descended in the Underworld, where he liberated Admetus' recently died wife Alcestis. Having settled this matter, Heracles reached Thrace, killed Diomedes, and fed him to his own horses.
Heracles and Hippolyte's girdle. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Hippolyte was queen of the Amazons, a legendary tribe of female warriors living on the southern shores of the Black Sea. Eurystheus demanded her girdle, which he wanted to give to his daughter Admete. Heracles manned a ship and sailed to the east, in a voyage that resembles the better-known story of the Argonauts, and which included a first Trojan War. When the Greeks arrived in the country of the Amazons, Hippolyte fell in love with Heracles and wanted to give the girdle spontaneously. However, Hera spread the rumor that the Greeks wanted to abduct the queen of the female warriors. War broke out, and Heracles was forced to kill Hippolyte.
Heracles and the cattle of Geryon. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. In the far west lived Geryon, the three-headed king of a mythological kingdom that was later identified as Cadiz. Eurystheus ordered Heracles to steal the cattle of Geryon. When Heracles had defeated him, he erected two columns to commemorate his victory: the Pillars of Heracles - what we call the Strait of Gibraltar. On his way back, Heracles founded several towns and dedicated cult sites to himself, a.o. at Rome (the temple of Hercules at the Forum Boarium) and Sicily. The historical truth behind these stories is the Phoenician colonization: everywhere, the Phoenicians dedicated temples to Melqart, a god that was later identified with Heracles.
Heracles and the apples of the Hesperides. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. The next scene on the sarcophagus from Perge in the museum of Alanya shows Heracles and the apples of the Hesperides, or "western girls". They were the daughters of Atlas, the giant that carried the heaven on his shoulders. The Hesperides guarded an orchard with golden apples. It is very likely that behind this story is a historical tribe of female warriors that lived in modern Mali, and controlled the trade in gold. On his way back, Heracles visited the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa, and founded the Egyptian city of Thebes.
Heracles and Cerberus. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Heracles' last labor was to catch Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld. This brought him back to the Peloponnese, where an entrance to the Hades could be found at Cape Tanaerum. During his last fight, Heracles was protected by the pelt he had obtained during his first labor. When he returned with the dog of hell to Eurystheus, Heracles was free. He immediately avenged himself by killing three of Eurystheus' sons. Heracles now became king of the Peloponnese and married Deianeira.
The divine Heracles. Gilded statue at the Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins. Heracles did many other things. When he and Deianeira once crossed a river on the back of a centaur, it tried to rape the woman, but was killed by Heracles' poison arrows. The centaur tricked her to use his blood to paint her shirt and give it to Heracles. When he wore it, he was struck by hellish pains, erected a pyre, and burned himself. After his death, he became a god or, in other traditions, a constellation. This gilded statue at the Musei Capitolini in Rome, found on the Forum Boarium, shows the emperor Domitian as the divine Heracles.

Later generations venerated him. The kings of Sparta and Macedonia claimed to be descendants of the demigod, and in the Hellenistic age, many Greek colonies in the Eastern Mediterranean claimed Heracles as their founder. Roman emperors (e.g., Commodus, Septimius Severus, and Maximianus) used Hercules in their propaganda.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 14 Julu 2010
A Heracles from the Museum of Burdur (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Heracles. Photo Marco Prins. Statue of Heracles with a lion. Archaeological museum of Susa (Iran). Photo Marco Prins. Statue of Commodus as Hercules Romanus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
A Heracles from the Museum of Burdur A Heracles from Ai Khanum A Heracles from Masjid-e Soleyman Commodus as Hercules
(Musei Capitolini, Roma)
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