How Did the Greek Hero Hercules Die?

How Herakles Achieved Apotheosis and Became a God

Heracles, Nessus and Deianira
"Heracles, Nessus and Deianira" by Gaspare Diziani (1746). DEA / VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty Images

The hero Hercules (or Herakles) is considered both a mighty warrior and a demigod in Greek mythology, according to Herodotus and numerous ancient historians, poets, and playwrights. It was not unusual for Greek heroes to attain immortality as a reward for their heroic deeds, but Hercules is unique among them in that, after his death, he was brought up to live with the gods on Mount Olympus.

The story of the death of Hercules is famous today, and it was just as famous to the ancient Greeks, almost as well known as his 12 Labors. The death and apotheosis (deification) of Hercules appear in the works of Pindar, "The Odyssey," and choral passages from Sophocles and Euripides, as well as countless stories, television dramas, and films.

Marriage to Deianeira

Ironically, the death of Hercules began with a marriage. To win the hand of the princess Deianeira, daughter of King Oeneus of Calydon, Hercules battled and killed the river monster Acheloüs, rescuing her from her fate—having to marry Acheloüs. On the journey back to Oeneus' palace, the couple had to cross the river Evenus.

The ferryman for the Evenus river was the centaur Nessus, who transported clients across by carrying them on his back and shoulders. On the way across the river while carrying Deianeira, Nessus attempted to rape her. Enraged, Hercules shot Nessus with a bow and arrow—one of the darts still stained with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra, killed in Hercules' Second Labor.

Before dying, Nessus gave this dart to Deianeira (whose name in Greek means "man-destroyer" or "husband-killer") and told her that if she ever needed to win Hercules back, she should use the blood smeared on the dart as a love potion.

On to Trachis

The couple moved first to Tiryns, where Hercules was to serve Eurystheus for 12 years while he performed his Labors. Hercules quarreled with and killed Iphitos, the son of of King Eurytos. The couple was forced to leave Tiryns for Trachis, where Hercules was now in the service of the Lydian Queen Ompale, as punishment for slaying Iphitos. Hercules was given a new set of labors, and he left his wife, telling her he would be gone for 15 months,.

After the 15 months had passed, Hercules had not returned, and Deianeira learned that he had a longstanding passion for a young beauty named Iole, a sister of Iphitos. Deianeira prepared a cloak by smearing the poisoned blood from Nessus. She sent it to Heracles, asking him to wear it when he offered up a burnt sacrifice of bullocks to the gods, hoping it would bring him back to her.

Painful Death

Instead, when Hercules donned the poisoned cloak, it began to burn him, causing excruciating pain. Despite his efforts, Hercules was unable to remove the cloak. Hercules decided that death was preferable to continuing to suffer from this pain, so he had his friends build a funeral pyre on top of Mount Oeta; however, he was unable to find anybody who was willing to light the pyre.

Hercules then asked for help from the gods to end his life, and he received it. The Greek god Jupiter sent lightning to consume Hercules' mortal body and took him to live with the gods on Mount Olympus. This was the apotheosis, the transformation of Hercules into a god.

The Apotheosis of Hercules

When no remains could be found, Hercules' followers assumed he had undergone an apotheosis, and they began to revere him as a god. As Diodorus, a first-century Greek historian, explained:

"When the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods."

Although the queen of the gods, Hera—Hercules' stepmother—had been the bane of his earthly existence, once he was made a god, she was reconciled to her stepson and even gave him her daughter Hebe for his divine wife.

Hercules' deification was complete: He would thenceforth be seen as a superhuman mortal who ascended to the apotheosis, a demigod who would forevermore take his place among the other Greek gods as they ruled from their mountain perch.