12 Labors of Hercules (Herakles/Heracles)

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Hercules Labor 1

Hercules Fights the Nemean Lion. From a Roman Sarcophagus of the 2nd-3rd Century A.D.
Hercules Labors - Nemean Lion Hercules Fights the Nemean Lion. From a Roman Sarcophagus of the 2nd-3rd Century A.D. CC thisisbossi at Flickr.com

Larger than life, Hercules (Heracles) the demi-god surpasses the rest of the heroes of Greek mythology in almost everything he tries. While he became an example of virtue, Hercules also made serious errors. In the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, Hercules violates the guest-host covenant. He also destroys families, including his own. Some say this is the reason Hercules undertook the 12 labors, but there are other explanations.

Why Did Hercules Perform the Labors?

• Diodorus Siculus (fl. 49 B.C.) (historian) calls the 12 labors the hero undertook a means to Hercules' apotheosis (deification).

• A later historian, referred to as Apollodorus (fl. second century A.D.), says the 12 labors are a means of expiation for the crime of murdering his wife, children, and the children of Iphicles.

• In contrast, for Euripides, a dramatist of the Classical period, the labors are much less important. Hercules' motive for performing them is to gain permission from Eurystheus to return to the Peloponnesian City of Tiryns [see map].


Labor 1 of the Labors of Hercules, according to Apollodorus.

Apollodorus Labor 1

The Typhon was one of the giants who rose up against the gods after they had successfully suppressed the Titans. Some of the giants had a hundred hands; others breathed fire. Eventually they were subdued and buried alive under Mt. Etna where their occasional struggles cause the earth to shake and their breath is the molten lava of a volcano. Such a creature was Typhon, the father of the Nemean lion.

Eurystheus sent Hercules to bring back the skin of the Nemean lion, but the skin of the Nemean lion was impervious to arrows or even the blows of his club, so Hercules had to wrestle with it on the ground in a cave. He soon overcame the beast by choking it.

When, upon his return, Hercules appeared at the gates of Tiryns, Nemean beast pelt on his arm, Eurystheus was alarmed. He ordered the hero henceforth to deposit his offerings and to keep himself beyond the city limits. Eurystheus also ordered a large bronze jar to hide himself in.

From then on, Eurystheus' orders would be relayed to Hercules through a herald, Copreus, son of Pelops the Elean.

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Hercules Labor 2

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra Mosaic
Hercules Labors - Decapitating the Lernaean Hydra Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra Mosaic. CC Zaqarbal at Flickr.com

Labor 2 of the Labors of Hercules according to Apollodorus

In those days there was a beast living in the swamps of Lerna that ravaged the countryside devouring cattle. It was known as the Hydra. For his second labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to rid the world of this predatory monster.

Taking his nephew, Iolaus (a surviving son of Hercules' brother Iphicles), as his charioteer, Hercules set out to destroy the beast. Of course, Hercules couldn't simply shoot an arrow at the beast or pummel him to death with his club. There had to be something special about the beast that made normal mortals unable to control it.

The Lernaean Hydra monster had 9 heads; 1 of these was immortal. If ever one of the other, mortal heads was cut, from the stump would immediately spring forth 2 new heads. Wrestling with the beast proved difficult because, while trying to attack one head, another would bite Hercules' leg with its fangs. Ignoring the nipping at his heels and calling upon Iolaus for help, Hercules told Iolaus to burn the neck the instant Hercules took a head off. Searing prevented the stump from regenerating. When all 8 mortal necks were headless and cauterized, Hercules sliced off the immortal head and buried it underground for safety, with a stone on top to hold it down. (An aside: Typhon, the Nemean Lion's father, was a perilous underground force, too. Hercules was often pitted against chthonic dangers.)

Having dispatched with the head, Hercules dipped his arrows in the gall of the beast. By dipping them Hercules made his weapons lethal.

Having accomplished his second labor, Hercules returned to Tiryns (but only to the outskirts) to report to Eurystheus. There he learned that Eurystheus denied the labor because Hercules had not accomplished it on his own, but only with the help of Iolaus.

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Hercules Labor 3

Hercules and the Cerynitian Hind
Hercules Labors - Artemis' Sacred Cerynitian Hind Hercules and the Cerynitian Hind. Clipart.com

Labor 3 of the Labors of Hercules according to Apollodorus


Apollodorus Labor 3

Although the golden horned Cerynitian hind was sacred to Artemis, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring it to him alive. It would have been easy enough to kill the beast, but capturing it proved challenging. After a year of trying to capture it, Hercules broke down and shot it with an arrow -- apparently NOT one of those he'd previously dipped in the hydra's blood. The arrow didn't prove fatal but did provoke the indignation of the goddess Artemis. However, when Hercules explained his mission, she understood, and let him be. He was thus able to carry the beast alive to Mycenae and King Eurystheus.

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Hercules Labor 4

Attic Black-Figure Amphora of Heracles, the Erymanthian Boar, and Eurystheus Hiding in a Jar.
Hercules Labors - Erymanthian Boar Attic Black-Figure Amphora of Heracles, the Erymanthian Boar, and Eurystheus Hiding in a Jar, by the Rycroft Painter (515-500 B.C.). CC Zaqarbal at Flickr.com

Hercules' 4th Labor was to capture the Erymanthian boar.

Apollodorus Labor 4

Capturing the Erymanthian Boar to bring it to Eurystheus would not have proved particularly challenging to our hero. Even bringing the frightening tusked beast live might not have been so hard, but every task had to be an adventure. So Hercules dawdled and spent time hedonistically enjoying the finer things in life in the company of one of his friends, a centaur, Pholus, son of Silenus. Pholus offered him a cooked meat meal but tried to keep the wine corked. Unfortunately, Hercules prevailed upon him to let him have a drink.

It was a divine, aged wine, with a heady aroma that drew the other, less friendly centaurs from miles around. It was their wine, too, and not really Hercules' to commandeer, but Hercules chased them away by shooting arrows at them.

Amid the shower of arrows, the centaurs scurried off to Hercules' friend, the centaur teacher and immortal Chiron. One of the arrows grazed the Chiron's knee. Hercules removed it and applied a medicine, but it wasn't enough. With the wounding of the centaur, Hercules learned the potency of the gall of the Hydra in which he had dipped his arrows. Burning up from the wound, but unable to die, Chiron was in agony until Prometheus stepped in and offered to become immortal in Chiron's place. The exchange was accomplished and Chiron was allowed to die. Another stray arrow killed Hercules' erstwhile host Pholus.

After the melee, Hercules, saddened and angered by the deaths of his friends Chiron and Pholus, continued on his mission. Filled with adrenaline, he easily outran and trapped the cold, tired boar. Hercules brought the boar (without further incident) to King Eurystheus.

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Hercules Labor 5

Hercules Cleanses the Augean Stables
Hercules Labors - Augean Stable Hercules cleans the Augean stables by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. Detail of 'The Twelve Labours' Roman mosaic from Lliria (Province of Valencia, Spain), at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid). 1st half of the 3rd century CE. CC Flickr User Cea.

Apollodorus Labor 5 - Stables of Augeas

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Hercules was next instructed to perform a smelly service that would benefit mankind in general, but especially King Augeas of Elis, son of Poseidon.

King Augeas was cheap, and while he was rich enough to own many, many herds of cattle, he had never been willing to pay for the services of someone to clean their mess. The mess has become proverbial. Augean stables are now synonymous with "Herculean task," which is itself the equivalent of saying something is all but humanly impossible.

As we've seen in the preceding section (Labor 4), Hercules enjoyed the finer, costly things in life, including a large meat meal like the one the unfortunate Pholus provided him. Seeing all the cattle Augeas wasn't taking care of, Hercules got greedy. He asked the king to pay him a tenth of his herd if he could clean the stables in one day.

The king didn't believe it was possible, and so agreed to Hercules' demands, but when Hercules diverted the neighboring river and used its force to cleanse the stables, King Augeas reneged on his deal. (He would eventually rue the day he thwarted Hercules.) In his defense, Augeas had an excuse. Between the time he made the bargain and the time Hercules delivered the goods, Augeas had learned that Hercules had been ordered to perform the labor by King Eurystheus, and that Hercules wasn't really offering the services of a man free to make such bargains -- or at least that is how he justified keeping his cattle.

When Eurystheus learned that Hercules had offered to work for King Augeas for pay, he denied the labor as one of the ten.

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Hercules Labor 6

Hercules and the Stymphalian birds
Hercules Labors - Stymphalian Birds Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain). Between 201 and 250 AD Opus tessellatum. National Archaeological Museum of Spain. CC Attribution: Luis García

Labor 6 - The Stymphalian Birds: Athena helps Hercules in the course of the 6th Labor.


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Getting help from a goddess is not the same thing as getting help from one's nephew (Iolaus), whose help in the 2nd labor invalidated Hercules' decommissioning of the Lernaean Hydra. Thus, when in the completion of the 3rd labor, Hercules had to prevail upon Artemis to let him take the Cerynitian hind to his master, Eurystheus, the labor counted as Hercules' alone. Of course, Artemis didn't exactly help. She just didn't hinder him further.

In the course of the 6th labor, the chasing away of the Stymphalian birds, Hercules was at a loss, until that goddess-who-helps-heroes, Athena, came to his assistance. Imagine Hercules in the woods, surrounded by a great cacophony of frightened birds cawing and screeching at each other and at him, trying to drive him away -- or at least mad. They almost succeeded, too, until Athena gave him advice and a gift. The advice was to scare the birds using the gift, Hephaestus-forged brazen castanets, and then, pick the Stymphalian Birds off with his bow and arrows, as they emerged from their sheltering forest in Arcadia. Hercules followed the advice, and so completed the sixth task set forth by Eurystheus.

Birds removed, Hercules was halfway finished with his 10 tasks in 12 years, as set forth by the Pythian.

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Hercules Labor 7

Hercules and the Cretan Bull. Attic Black-figure mastos. C. 500-475 B.C. at the Louvre.
Hercules Labors - Cretan Bull Hercules and the Cretan Bull. Attic Black-figure mastos. C. 500-475 B.C. at the Louvre. H. 8.5 cm (3 ¼ in.), Diam. 10 cm (3 ¾ in.), W. 16 cm (6 ¼ in.). Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Apollodorus Labor Seven - Cretan Bull


Apollodorus Labor 7

With the seventh labor, Hercules leaves the area of the Peloponnese to travel to the far corners of the earth and beyond. The first of the labors brings him only so far as Crete where he is to capture a bull whose identity is unclear, but whose indisputable nature is to cause trouble.

The bull may have been the one that Zeus used to abduct Europa, or it may have been one associated with Poseidon. King Minos of Crete had promised the beautiful, unusual white bull as a sacrifice to Poseidon, but when he reneged, the god made Minos' wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with it. With the help of Daedalus, the craftsman of a labyrinth and melting-winged Icarus fame, Pasiphae had built a contraption that allowed the beautiful beast to impregnate her. Their offspring was the minotaur, the half-bull, half-man creature who yearly ate the Athenian tribute of fourteen young men and women.

An alternative story is that Poseidon revenged himself on Minos' sacrilege by making the white bull savage.

Whichever of these bulls was meant by the Cretan Bull, Hercules was sent by Eurystheus to capture it. He promptly did so -- no thanks to King Minos who refused to help and brought it back to the King of Tiryns. But the king didn't really want the bull. After he released the creature, its troublesome nature -- held in check by the son of Zeus -- returned to the surface as it ravaged the countryside, traveling around Sparta, Arcadia, and into Attica.

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Hercules Labor 8

Hercules Labors - Diomedes' Mares Alcestis. Clipart.com

Apollodorus Euripides Labor 8 - Mares of Diomedes. The picture shows Alcestis whom Hercules rescues before completing the labor.


Apollodorus Labor 8

In the eighth labor Hercules, with a few companions, heads to the Danube, to the land of the Bistones in Thrace. First, however, he stops off at his old friend Admetus' house. There Admetus tells him the morning Hercules sees around him is for just some member of the household who has died; not to worry about it. Admetus insinuates the dead woman is no one important, but in this he deceives. It is Admetus' wife, Alcestis, who has died, and not just because it was her time. Alcestis has volunteered to die in place of her husband in accordance with a deal wrangled by Apollo.

Hercules' concern is assuaged by Admetus' statements, so he takes the opportunity to indulge his passions for food, drink, and song, but the staff is appalled by his lighthearted behavior. Finally, the truth is revealed, and Hercules, suffering a pang of conscience again, goes off to rectify the situation. He descends into the Underworld, wrestles with Thanatos, and returns with Alcetis in tow.

After a brief scolding of his friend and host Admetus, Hercules continues on his way to an even worse host.

Ares' son Diomedes, King of the Bistones, in Thrace, offers newcomers to his horses for dinner. When Hercules and his friends arrive, the king thinks to feed them to the horses, but Hercules turns the table on the king and after a wrestling match -- prolonged because it is with the war god's son -- Hercules feeds Diomedes to his own horses. This meal cures the mares of their taste for human flesh.

There are many variations. In some, Hercules kills Diomedes. Sometimes he kills the horses. In one version of Euripides, his Heracles, the hero harnesses the horses to a chariot. The common thread is that the horses eat people and Diomedes dies defending them.

In Apollodorus' version, Hercules brings the horses back to Tiryns where Eurystheus, once again, releases them. They then wander off to Mt. Olympus where wild beasts eat them. Alternately, Hercules breeds them and one of the descendants becomes the horse of Alexander the Great.

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Hercules Labor 9

Heracles Fighting the Amazons. Attic Black-figure Hydria, c. 530 B.C.
Hercules Labors - Hippolyte's Belt Heracles Fighting the Amazons. Attic Black-figure Hydria, c. 530 B.C. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. PD Bibi Saint-Pol

Apollodorus Labor 9 - Belt of Hippolyte: This picture shows Hercules fighting Amazons.


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Eurystheus' daughter Admete wanted the belt of Hippolyte, a gift to the queen of the Amazons from the war god Ares. Taking a band of friends with him, he set sail and stopped over at the island of Paros which was inhabited by some of Minos' sons. These killed two of Hercules' companions, an act which set Hercules on a rampage. He killed two of Minos' sons and threatened the other inhabitants until he was offered two men to replace his fallen companions. Hercules agreed and took two of Minos' grandsons, Alcaeus and Sthenelus. They continued their voyage and landed at the court of Lycus, whom Hercules defended in a battle against the king of the Bebryces, Mygdon. After killing King Mygdon, Hercules gave much of the land to his friend Lycus. Lycus called the land Heraclea. The crew then set off for Themiscyra where Hippolyte lived.

All would have gone well for Hercules had it not been for his nemesis, Hera. Hippolyte agreed to give him the belt and would have done so had Hera not disguised herself and walked among the Amazons sowing seeds of distrust. She said the strangers were plotting to carry off the queen of the Amazons. Alarmed, the women set off on horseback to confront Hercules. When Hercules saw them, he thought Hippolyte had been plotting such treachery all along and had never meant to hand over the belt, so he killed her and took the belt.

The men set off to Troy where they found the people suffering the consequence of their leader Laomedon's failure to pay promised wages to two laborers. The laborers had been gods in disguise, Apollo, and Poseidon, so when Laomedon reneged they sent a pestilence and a sea monster. An oracle told the people the way out was to serve up Laomedon's daughter (Hermione) to the sea monster, so they had done so, fastening her on the rocks by the sea.

Hercules volunteered to rectify the situation and rescue Hermione on condition that Laomedon gives him the mares which Zeus had given him to compensate for Ganymede's abduction. Hercules then killed the sea monster, rescued Hermione, and asked for his mares. The king, however, hadn't learned his lesson, so Hercules, unrewarded, threatened to wage war on Troy.

Hercules encountered a few more trouble makers, including Sarpedon and the sons of Proteus, whom he easily killed, and then proceeded safely to Eurystheus with the belt of Ares.

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Hercules Labor 10

Orthrus dead at the feet of Geryon and Heracles, red-figure kylix, 510–500 B.C.
Hercules Labors - Geryon's Cattle Orthrus dead at the feet of Geryon and Heracles, red-figure kylix, 510–500 B.C. Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia.

Apollodorus Labor 10 was to fetch the cattle of Geryon.


Apollodorus Labor 10

Hercules was ordered to fetch the red cattle of Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirhoe, daughter of Ocean. Geryon was a monster with three bodies and three heads. His cattle were guarded by Orthus (Orthrus) a two-headed dog and a herdsman, Eurytion. (It was on this trip that Hercules set up the Pillars of Hercules at the border between Europe and Libya.) Helios gave him a golden goblet to use as a boat to cross the ocean. When he reached Erythia, the dog Orthus rushed at him. Hercules clubbed the hound to death and then also the herdsman and Geryon. Hercules rounded up the cattle and put them into the golden goblet and sailed back. In Liguria, sons of Poseidon tried to rob him of the prize, but he killed them. One of the bulls escaped and crossed over to Sicily where Eryx, another son of Poseidon, saw the bull and bred it with his own cattle. Hercules asked Hades to watch the rest of the herd while he rescued the errant bull. Eryx wouldn't return the animal without a wrestling match. Hercules agreed, easily beat him, killed him, and took the bull. Hades returned the rest of the herd and Hercules returned to the Ionian Sea where Hera afflicted the herd with a gadfly. The cattle ran away. Hercules was only able to round up some of them, which he presented to Eurystheus, who, in turn, sacrificed them to Hera.

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Hercules Labor 11

Heracles in the Hesperides garden. From an Attic Red-figure Pelike, 380-370 B.C. From Cyrenaica.
Hercules Labors - Apples of the Hesperides Heracles in the Hesperides garden. Side A from an Attic Red-figure Pelike, 380-370 B.C. From Cyrenaica. H. 25.50 cm; D. 20.70 cm. Louvre. PD Bibi Saint-Pol

Apollodorus Labor 11 - The Apples of the Hesperides: The picture shows Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides. (More below....)


Apollodorus Labor 11

Eurystheus set Hercules on the extra task of fetching the golden apples of the Hesperides that had been given to Zeus as a wedding gift and were guarded by a dragon with 100 heads, offspring of Typhon and Echidna. On this journey, he wrestled Nereus for information and Antaeus to pass through his country of Libya. On his travels, he found Prometheus and destroyed the eagle that was eating his liver. Prometheus told Hercules not to go after the apples himself, but to send Atlas instead. When Hercules reached the land of the Hyperboreans, where Atlas held the heavens, Hercules volunteered to hold the heavens while Atlas got the apples. Atlas did so but didn't want to resume the burden, so he said he'd carry the apples to Eurystheus. Trickily, Hercules agreed but asked Atlas to take back the heavens for a moment so he could rest a pad on his head. Atlas agreed and Hercules went away with the apples. When he gave them to Eurystheus, the king returned them. Hercules gave them to Athena to return them to the Hesperides.

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Hercules Labor 12

Hercules and Cerberus Mosaic
Hercules Labors - The Hound of Hades Hercules and Cerberus Mosaic. CC Zaqarbal at Flickr.com

Apollodorus Labor 12 - Hound of Hades: For the 12th labor Hercules must fetch the Hound of Hades.


Apollodorus Labor 12

[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. However, it was not then lawful for foreigners to be initiated: since he proposed to be initiated as the adoptive son of Pylius. But not being able to see the mysteries because he had not been cleansed of the slaughter of the centaurs, he was cleansed by Eumolpus and then initiated. And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it. But when the souls saw him, they fled, save Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa. And Hercules drew his sword against the Gorgon as if she were alive, but he learned from Hermes that she was an empty phantom. And being come near to the gates of Hades he found Theseus and Pirithous, him who wooed Persephone in wedlock and was therefore bound fast. And when they beheld Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they should 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 ho. And he rolled away also the stone of Ascalaphus. And wishing to provide the souls with blood, he slaughtered one of the kine of Hades. But Menoetes, son of Ceuthonymus, who tended the kine, challenged Hercules to wrestle, and being seized round the middle had his ribs broken; howbeit, he was let off at the request of Persephone. When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and cased 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 till 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.

Source: Loeb Apollodorus, translated by Sir James G. Frazer, 1921.