Why Hercules Had to Perform the 12 Labors

Eurystheus hiding in a jar as Heracles brings a boar
Eurystheus hiding in a jar as Heracles brings him the Erymanthian boar.

Wikimedia Commons/CC0

For most of his life, Hercules (Greek: Herakles/Heracles) was in thrall to his cousin-once-removed, Eurystheus, the King of Tiryns, but it was not until Hercules committed unspeakable acts that Eurystheus got to have some fun at his cousin's expense—with the help of Hera.

Hera, who had been angry with Hercules since even before he was born and had repeatedly tried to destroy him, now drove the hero mad and delusional. In this state, Hercules imagined he saw Lycus, the tyrant of Thebes who killed Creon and plans to kill Hercules' family, accompanied by his family.

Here is a section on the slaughter, from a 1917 English translation of Seneca's tragedy (Translated by Miller, Frank Justus. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1917):

" [He catches sight of his children.]
[987] But look! here lurk the children of the king, my enemy, the abominable spawn of Lycus; to your detested father this hand forthwith shall send you. Let my bowstring discharge swift arrows
so it is meet that the shafts of Hercules should fly."
[1014] Husband, spare me now, I beg. See, I am Megara. This is thy son, with thine own looks and bearing. See, how he stretches out his hands.

[1017] I have caught my stepdame [Juno/Hera]. Come, pay me thy debt, and free o’ermastered Jove from a degrading yoke. But before the mother let this little monster perish."
Seneca Hercules Furens

In reality, the figures the Greek hero saw were his own children and his well-loved wife, Megara. Hercules slew them all (or most of them) and incinerated 2 of the children of his brother Iphicles, as well. In some accounts, Megara survived. In these, when he came to his senses, Hercules transferred his wife, Megara to Iolaus. [To learn more about Hercules' murderous rage, you should read the Hercules Furens tragedies of Seneca and Euripides.]

Here is an extended passage from the same translation of Hercules Furens, on the motivation of Juno:

" [19] But I lament ancient wrongs; one land, the baneful and savage land of Thebes, scattered thick with shameless mistresses, how oft has it made me stepdame! Yet, though Alcmena be exalted and in triumph hold my place; though her son, likewise, obtain his promised star (for whose begetting the world lost a day, and Phoebus with tardy light shone forth from the Eastern sea, bidden to keep his bright car sunk beneath Ocean's waves), not in such fashion shall my hatred have its end; my angry soul shall keep up a long-living wrath, and my raging smart, banishing peace, shall wage unending wars.
[30] What wars? Whatever fearsome creature the hostile earth produces, whatever the sea or the air has borne, terrific, dreadful, noxious, savage, wild, has been broken and subdued. He rises anew and has thrives on trouble; he enjoys my wrath; to his own credit he turns my hate; imposing too cruel tasks, I have but proved his sire, but give room for glory. Where the Sun, as he brings back, and where, as he dismisses day, colours both Ethiop races with neighbouring torch, his unconquered valour is adored, and in all the world he is storied as a god. Now I have no monsters left, and 'tis less labour for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands. What cruel biddings of his tyrant could harm this impetuous youth? Why, he bears as weapons what he once fought and overcame; he goes armed by lion and by hydra.
[46] Nor is earth vast enough for him; behold, he has broken down the doors of infernal Jove, and brings back to the upper world the spoils7 of a conquered king. I myself saw, yes, saw him, the shadows of nether night dispersed and Dis overthrown, proudly displaying to his father a brother's spoils. Why does he not drag forth, bound and loaded down with fetters, Pluto himself, who drew a lot equal to Jove's? Why does he not lord it over conquered Erebus and lay bare the Styx? It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shades has been annulled, a way back has been opened from the lowest ghosts, and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared. But he, exultant at having burst the prison of the shades, triumphs over me, and with arrogant hand leads through the cities of Greece that dusky hound. I saw the daylight shrink at sight of Cerberus, and the sun pale with fear; upon me, too, terror came, and as I gazed upon the three necks of the conquered monster I trembled at my own command.
[63] But I lament too much o'er trivial wrongs. 'Tis for heaven we must fear, lest he seize the highest realms who has overcome the lowesthe will snatch the sceptre from his father. Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey as Bacchus did; he will seek a path through ruin, and will desire to rule in an empty universe. He swells with pride of tested might, and has learned by bearing them that the heavens can be conquered by his strength; he set his head beneath the sky, nor did the burden of that immeasurable mass bend his shoulders, and the firmament rested better on the neck of Hercules. Unshaken, his back upbore the stars and the sky and me down-pressing. He seeks a way to the gods above.
[75] Then on, my wrath, on, and crush this plotter of big things; close with him, thyself rend him in pieces with thine own hands. Why to another entrust such hate? Let the wild beasts go their ways, let Eurystheus rest, himself weary with imposing tasks. Set free the Titans who dared to invade the majesty of Jove; unbar Sicily's mountain cave, and let the Dorian land, which trembles whenever the giant struggles, set free the buried frame of that dread monster; let Luna in the sky produce still other monstrous creatures. But he has conquered such as these. Dost then seek Alcides' match? None is there save himself; now with himself let him war. Rouse the Eumenides from the lowest abyss of Tartarus; let them be here, let their flaming locks drop fire, and let their savage hands brandish snaky whips.
[89] Go now, proud one, seek the abodes of the immortals and despise man's estate. Dost think that now thou hast escaped the Styx and the cruel ghosts? Here will I show thee infernal shapes. One in deep darkness buried, far down below the place of banishment of guilty souls, will I call upthe goddess Discord, whom a huge cavern, barred by a mountain, guards; I will bring her forth, and drag out from the deepest realm of Dis whatever thou hast left; hateful Crime shall come and reckless Impiety, stained with kindred blood, Error, and Madness, armed ever against itselfthis, this be the minister of my smarting wrath!
[100] Begin, handmaids of Dis, make haste to brandish the burning pine; let Megaera lead on her band bristling with serpents and with baleful hand snatch a huge faggot from the blazing pyre. To work! claim vengeance for outraged Styx. Shatter his heart; let a fiercer flame scorch his spirit than rages in Aetna's furnaces. That Alcides may be driven on, robbed of all sense, by mighty fury smitten, mine must be the frenzy firstJuno, why rav'st thou not? Me, ye sisters, me first, bereft of reason, drive to madness, if I am to plan some deed worthy a stepdame's doing. Let my request be changed; may he come back and find his sons unharmed, that is my prayer, and strong of hand may he return. I have found the day when Hercules' hated valour is to be my joy. Me has he overcome; now may he overcome himself and long to die, though late returned from the world of death. Herein may it profit me that he is the son of Jove, I will stand by him and, that his shafts may fly from string unerring, I'll poise them with my hand, guide the madman's weapons, and so at last be on the side of Hercules in the fray. When he has done this crime, then let his father admit those hands to heaven!
[123] Now must my war be set in motion; the sky is brightening and the shining sun steals up in saffron dawn."

Hercules Seeks Purification for His Crimes

Madness was not an excuse for the carnage—not even madness sent by the gods—so Hercules had to make amends. First, he went to King Thespius on Mt. Helicon [see a map of northern Greece, Dd, in Boeotia] for purification, but that wasn't enough.

Hercules' Expiation and Marching Orders

To learn what further course he must take, Hercules consulted the oracle at Delphi where the Pythian priestess told him to expiate his crime by serving King Eurystheus for 12 years. During this 12-year period, Hercules had to perform the 10 labors the king would require of him. The Pythian also changed Hercules' name from Alcides (after his grandfather Alcaeus) to what we normally call him, Heracles (in Greek) or Hercules (the Latin form and the one most commonly used today regardless of whether the reference is to a Greek or Roman myth). The Pythian also told Hercules to move to Tiryns. Willing to do anything to atone for his murderous rage, Hercules obliged.

The Twelve Labors—Introduction

Eurystheus set before Hercules a series of impossible tasks. If completed, some of them would have served a useful purpose because they removed the world of dangerous, predatory monsters—or excrement, but others were capricious whims of a king with an inferiority complex: Comparing himself with the hero was bound to make Eurystheus feel inadequate.

Since Hercules was doing these tasks to atone for his crimes, Eurystheus insisted there be no ulterior motive. Because of this restriction, when King Augeas of Elis [see Peloponnese map Bb] promised Hercules a fee for cleaning his stables (Labor 5), Eurystheus denied the feat: Hercules had to do another to fill his quota. That King Augeas reneged and did not pay Hercules made no difference to Eurystheus. Other tasks the king of Tiryns set his nephew were make-work. For instance, once Hercules retrieved the apples of the Hesperides (Labor 11), but Eurystheus had no use for the apples, so he had Hercules send them back again.

Eurystheus Hides From Hercules

One more important point needs to be made in connection with these tasks. Eurystheus did not just feel inferior to Hercules; he was also afraid. Anyone who could survive the suicide missions on which King Eurystheus had sent the hero must be very powerful indeed. It is said Eurystheus hid in a jar and insisted—contrary to the instructions of the Pythian priestess—that Hercules stay outside the Tiryns city limits.

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Gill, N.S. "Why Hercules Had to Perform the 12 Labors." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/hercules-perform-twelve-labors-118940. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Why Hercules Had to Perform the 12 Labors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hercules-perform-twelve-labors-118940 Gill, N.S. "Why Hercules Had to Perform the 12 Labors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hercules-perform-twelve-labors-118940 (accessed June 4, 2023).