Who Was Hercules?

The Basic Facts on this Major Greek Legendary Hero

Bronze statuette of Hercules resting
Bronze statuette of Hercules resting. Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was the Greek hero renowned for his strength and executive efficiency: his 12 Labors comprised a to-do list that would stymie a raft of lesser heroes. But they were no match for this determined son of Zeus. A favorite character in film, books, TV, and plays, Hercules was more complicated than most realize; an immortal hero on which nobility and pathos were write large.

The Birth of Hercules

The son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and the mortal woman Alcmene, Heracles (as he was known to the Greeks) was born in Thebes.

Accounts vary, but all agree that Alcmene's labor was a challenge. The goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, was jealous of the child and attempted to do away with him before he was even born. She sent serpents into his crib when he was just seven days old, but the newborn happily strangled the snakes.

Alcmene tried to get ahead of the problem and bring Hercules to Hera directly, leaving him at the doorstep of Olympus. Hera unwittingly suckled the abandoned babe, but his superhuman strength caused her to cast the infant from her breast: The spittle of goddess-milk that ensued created the Milky Way. It also made Hercules immortal.

Myths of Hercules

This hero's popularity is unmatched in Greek mythology; his greatest adventures have been cataloged as the 12 Labors of Hercules. These included slaying terrible monsters such as the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, and the Erymanthean Boar, as well as completing impossible tasks such as cleaning the vast and filthy stables of King Augus and stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides.

  These and other tasks were devised by King Eurystheus, Hercules' cousin, who was appointed by the Oracle at Delphi his taskmaster after the hero, in a misbegotten rage, killed his own family. Eurystheus also dubbed him Heracles—the "Glory of Hera"—as an ironic jab at the hero and his Olympian nemesis.

Hercules figured in a second suite of adventures, called the other labors the Parerga. He also was a companion of Jason on the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece. Ultimately, Hercules was deified, and his cult spread throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome.

The Death and Rebirth of Hercules

One of the Parerga relates of Hercules' battle with the centaur Nessus. Traveling with his wife Deianeira, Hercules encountered a raging river and a wily centaur willing to take her across. When the centaur forced himself upon Deianeira, Hercules slew him with an arrow. Nessus convinced the woman that his blood would render her hero forever true; instead, it poisoned him with a living fire, until Hercules begged Zeus to take his life. Mortal body destroyed, Hercules' immortal half ascended to Olympus.

Hercules Fact File

Occupation:

Hero, later God

Other Names:

Alcides (his birth name), Heracles, Herakles

Attributes:

Lion skin, club

Powers:

Superhuman strength

Sources

The Library of (Pseudo-)Apollodorus, Pausanias, Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus (Hercules worship in Egypt), Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Virgil, Pindar and Homer.