All About the 12 Labors of Hercules

About the impossible tasks known as the 12 Labors of Hercules

Hercules was one of the most popular heroes in classical mythology. Despite his involvement in escapades all over the Mediterranean, he is known best for the 12 labors. After he killed his family in a fit of madness, he was given a seemingly impossible set of tasks to perform for atonement in fulfillment of the words of the Delphic Oracle. His amazing strength and occasional bouts of shrewd inspiration made it possible to finish not just the original 10, but an extra pair.

Head of Hercules. Roman, Imperial period, 1st century A.D.
Head of Hercules. Roman, Imperial period, 1st century A.D. Copy of a Greek statue of the second half of the 4th century B.C. attributed to Lysippos. CC Flickr User giopuo.

It is not going to make much sense reading about the 12 Labors of Hercules if you do not know who he is. Hercules is the Latin name. The Greeks' version -- and he was a Greek hero -- is Herakles or Heracles. His name means "the glory of Hera," which is worth noting because of the trouble the queen of the gods inflicted on Hercules, her stepson.

  • The Birth of Hercules

That Hercules was the stepson of Hera meant that he was the son of Zeus (Roman Jupiter). Hercules' mother was the mortal Alcmene, granddaughter of the Greek hero Perseus and Andromeda. Hera was not just Hercules' stepmother, but also, according to one legend, his nurse. Despite this intimate connection, Hera tried to kill the baby shortly after he was born. How Hercules dealt with the threat (sometimes attributed to his cuckolded foster-father) showed that even from the moment of birth, he had amazing strength. More »

Image ID: 1623849 [Kylix depicting Hercules wrestling with Triton.] (1894)
Image ID: 1623849 [Kylix depicting Hercules wrestling with Triton.] (1894). NYPL DIgital Gallery

Hercules had lots of adventures and at least a couple of marriages. Among the heroic myths about him, it is told that Hercules went to the Greek Underworld and traveled with the Argonauts on their voyage to collect the Golden Fleece. Were these part of his labors?

Hercules went to the Underworld or towards the Underworld more than once. There is debate about whether he faced Death within or outside the confines of the Underworld. Twice Hercules rescued friends or the wife of a friend, but these excursions were not parts of the assigned labors.

The Argonaut adventure was not connected with his labors; nor were his marriages, which may or may not include his transvestite stay with the Lydian queen Omphale. More »

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List of the 12 Labors of Hercules

Sarcophagus Shows the 1st 5 Labors of Hercules.
Sarcophagus Shows the 1st 5 Labors of Hercules. CC levork at Flickr.com

In this article, you will find links to a description of each of the 12 labors -- the seemingly impossible tasks Hercules performed for King Eurystheus, providing further links to translated passages from ancient writers on the labors, and pictures illustrating each of the 12 labors.

Here are some other descriptions of the 12 labors by more modern writers:

Hercules Punishing Cacus by Baccia Bandinelli, 1535-34
Hercules Punishing Cacus by Baccia Bandinelli, 1535-34. CC Vesuvianite at Flickr.com

People today might never forgive a man who did what Hercules did, but the great Greek hero survived the stigma of his horrific acts and became even greater in their aftermath. The 12 Labors may have been not so much a punishment as a way to atone for the crime Hercules committed while mad. It did not matter that the madness came from a divine source. Nor was a plea of temporary insanity an option to get Hercules out of trouble.

More »
Jupiter leads Hercules to Mount Olympus to live after burning his mortal body on a funeral pyre.
Image ID: 1623845. Hercules ex rogo in polum. Alternate Title: [Hercules, led by Jupiter, goes to Mount Olympus to live with the gods after burning his mortal body on a funeral pyre.] Creator: Baur, Joh. Wilhelm (Johann Wilhelm), 1600-1642 -- Artist. NYPL Digital Gallery
The historian Diodorus Siculus (fl. 49 B.C.) calls the 12 Labors a means to Hercules' apotheosis (deification). Since Hercules was the son of the king of the gods to begin with and then suckled by his stepmother goddess, his route to Mt. Olympus seems to have been pre-ordained, but it took an act of Hercules' father to make it official. More »
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Why 12 Labors?

Hercules and the Centaurs
Hercules and the Centaurs. Clipart.com

The general story of the 12 labors includes two extras performed because, according to King Eurystheus, Hercules violated the terms of the original punishment, which consisted of 10 labors to be performed with no remuneration or help.

We do not know when the number of labors assigned to Hercules (Heracles/Herakles), by Eurystheus, was fixed at 12. Nor do we know if the list we have of the Labors of Hercules contains all the labors ever included, but those we do consider the 12 canonical Labors of Hercules were carved into stone between 470 and 456 B.C.

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The Labors of Hercules Through the Ages

Hercules leading a big headed four-legged monster, late black figure bowl
Hercules leading a big headed four-legged monster, with black woolly fur, white belly, and floppy puppy ears. A late black figure bowl at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Photo © by Adrienne Mayor

There is an amazing amount of material of Hercules even from an early age. Herodotus writes about a Hercules in Egypt, but that doesn't mean the 12 Labors we know about were a standardized part of the literary tradition. Our information on what the ancients considered the 12 labors increases through time, with relatively little information coming from the Archaic Age, monumental evidence during the Classical Age, and the canonical list written in the Roman Era.

Hercules Fights Achelous
Hercules Fights Achelous. CC dawvon at Flickr.com

Hercules' 12 labors have inspired visual artists for about 3 millennia. It is worth noting that even without his head, archeologists can recognize Hercules by certain traditional traits and objects. Here are some sculptures, mosaics, and other artwork showing Hercules at his labors, with commentary. Also see: How Do You Recognize Hercules?. More »