Hercules was perhaps the greatest hero in all mythology. He was the son of Jupiter and Alcmena, and was hounded all his life by Juno. (This is deliciously ironic, because in the original Greek myths, Juno is named Hera and Hercules is Heracles, which means "glory of Hera.") Juno was unhappy with Jupiter's infidelity, and saw Hercules as a living, breathing symbol of her shame. She delayed his birth, and when Hercules was a mere baby (but a big one!) sent two snakes into the crib he shared with his mortal half-twin Iphicles. Hercules killed them both with his bare hands, marking the beginning of his career as a monster-killer.

After a precocious childhood and adolesence, Hercules married Megara (daughter of Creon, king of Thebes). Juno succeeded in driving him mad, though, and he killed his wife and his children. As atonement, he serves the king Eurystheus, performing the twelve labors for which he is most famed:

  1. He wrestled and killed the Nemean Lion (Leo) in its den, then used one of the beast's teeth to remove the otherwise impenetrable hide. He wore the hide as protection from then on.
  2. He killed the Lernaean Hydra, a poisonous monster which could regenerate its heads, growing two each time one was lopped off. Hercules managed this by burning the stump of each before anything could grow back and burying the one immortal head beneath a rock. While battling the Hydra, his feet were nipped by a crab sent by Juno.
  3. He captured the Cerynean Hind, a stag with golden horns which was famous for its speed, after a year-long pursuit.
  4. He captured the Erymanthian Boar and killed the centaurs Pholus and Chiron who opposed him.
  5. He successfully cleaned the Augean Stables, which had held 3000 oxen for thirty years without ever having been cleaned, in one night by redirecting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through them.
  6. He killed the Stymphalian Birds, which fed on human flesh in Arcadia.
  7. He captured the Cretan Bull.
  8. He captured the mares of Diomedes, which fed on human flesh, by feeding them their owner.
  9. He stole the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.
  10. He stole the man-eating cattle of Geryon.
  11. He stole the three-headed guard dog Cerberus from the underworld.
  12. He obtained the golden apples of the Hesperides, killing a dragon to do so.

Hercules also accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece and assisted in the war between the gods and the giants. He remarried, and eventually died after accidentally poisoned by his wife Deineira. He was subsequently immortalized, even though he was by birth only half immortal.

The constellation Hercules, found between Lyra and Bootes, shows the hero wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion while holding his characteristic club and Cerberus the three-headed dog. He also rests his foot atop the head of Draco the dragon. The constellation is huge--the fifth-largest in the sky--but rather dim, which is an interesting parallel with Hercules himself. The hero was famed for his brawn, but his wits were rather lacking.

Back to the main myth page.

These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.