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Ἡρακλῆς: Latin, Hercŭles). Heracles is not only one of the oldest heroes in the Greek mythology, but the most famous of all. Indeed, the traditions of similar heroes in other Greek tribes, and in other nations, especially in the East, were transferred to Heracles; so that the scene of his achievements, which is, in the Homeric poems, confined on the whole to Greece, became almost coextensive with the known world; and the story of Heracles was the richest and most comprehensive of all the heroic myths.

Heracles was born in Thebes, and was the son of Zeus by Alcmené, the wife of Amphitryon, whose form the god assumed while he was absent in the war against the Teleboi. On the day which he should have been born, Zeus announced to the gods that a descendant of Perseus was about to see the light, who would hold sway over all the Perseïdae. Heré cunningly induced her consort to confirm his words with an oath. She hated the unborn son as the son of her rival, and hence in her capacity as the goddess of childbirth caused the queen of Sthenelus of Mycenae, a descendant of Perseus, to give birth prematurely to Eurystheus, while she postponed the birth of Heracles for seven days. Hence it was that Heracles, with his gigantic strength, came into the service of the weaker Eurystheus. Heré pursued him with her hatred during the whole of his natural life. He and his twin brother Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon, were hardly born, when the goddess sent two serpents to their cradle to destroy them. Heracles seized them and strangled them. The child grew up to be a strong youth, and was taught by Amphitryon to drive a chariot, by Autolycus to wrestle, by Eurytus to shoot with the bow, and by Castor to use the weapons of war. Chiron instructed him in the sciences, Rhadamanthus in virtue and wisdom, Eumolpus (or according to another account, Linus ) in music. When Linus attempted to chastise him, Heracles struck him dead with his lute. Amphitryon, accordingly, alarmed at his untamable temper, sent him to tend his flocks on Mount Cithaeron.

It was at this time, according to the Sophist Prodicus, that the event occurred which occasioned the fable of the “Choice of Heracles” (Xen. Mem. ii. 2). Heracles was meditating in solitude as to the path of life which he should choose, when two tall women appeared before him—the one called Pleasure, the other called Virtue. Pleasure promised him a life of enjoyment, Virtue a life of toil crowned by glory. He decided for Virtue. After destroying the savage lion of Cithaeron, he returned, in his eighteenth year, to Thebes, and freed the city from the tribute which it had been forced to pay to Erginus of Orchomenus, whose heralds he deprived of their ears and noses. Creon , king of Thebes, gave him, in gratitude, his daughter Megara as wife. But it was not long before the Delphic oracle commanded him to enter the service of Eurystheus, king of Mycenae and Tiryns, and perform twelve tasks which he should impose upon him. This was the humiliation which Heré had in store for him. The oracle promised him, at the same time, that he should win eternal glory, and indeed immortality, and change his present name Alcaeus (from his paternal grandfather) or Alcides (from ἀλκή, “strength”) for Heracles (“renowned through Heré”). Nevertheless, he fell into a fit of madness, in which he shot down the three children whom Megara had borne him. When healed of his insanity, he entered into the service of Eurystheus.

The older story says nothing of the exact number (twelve) of the labours (ἆθλοι) of Heracles. The number was apparently invented by the poet Pisander of Rhodes, who may have had in his eye the contests of the Phœnician god Melkart with the twelve hostile beasts of the Zodiac. It was also Pisander who first armed the hero with the club, and the skin taken from the lion of Cithaeron or Nemea. Heracles was previously represented as carrying bow and arrows, and the weapons of a Homeric hero.

The twelve labours of Heracles were as follows:


The contest with the invulnerable lion of Nemea, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. Heracles drove it into its cavern and strangled it in his arms. With the impenetrable hide, on which nothing could make any impression but the beast's own claws, he clothed himself, the jaws covering his head.


The hydra or water-snake of Lerna, also a child of Typhon and Echidna. This monster lived in the marsh of Lerna, near Argos, and was so poisonous that its very breath was fatal. It had nine heads, one of which was immortal. Heracles scared it out of its lair with burning arrows, and cut off its head; but for every head cut off two new ones arose. At length Iolaüs, the charioteer of Heracles and son of his brother Iphicles, seared the wounds with burning brands. Upon the immortal head he laid a heavy mass of rock. He anointed his arrows with the monster's gall, so that henceforth the wounds they inflicted were incurable. Eurystheus refused to accept this as a genuine victory, alleging the assistance offered by Iolaüs.


The boar of Erymanthus, which infested Arcadia. Heracles had been commanded to bring it alive to Mycenae, so he chased it into an expanse of snow, tired it out, and caught it in a noose. The mere sight of the beast threw Eurystheus into such a panic that he slunk away

Heracles and the Nemean Lion. (Pompeian painting. Overbeck.)

into a tub underground and bid the hero, in future, to show the proof of his achievements outside the city gates. (On the contest with the Centaurs which Heracles had to undergo on his way to the chase, see Pholus and Chiron.)


The hind of Mount Cerynea, between Arcadia and Achaia. Another account localizes the event on Mount Maenalus, and speaks of the Maenalian hind. Its horns were of gold and its hoofs of brass, and it had been dedicated to Artemis by the Pleiad Taÿgeté. Heracles was to take the hind alive. He followed her for a whole year up to the source of the Ister in the country of the Hyperboreans. At length she returned to Arcadia, where he wounded her with an arrow on the banks of the Ladon, and so caught her.


The birds that infested the lake of Stymphalus, in Arcadia. These were man-eating monsters, with claws, wings, and beaks of brass, and feathers that they shot out like arrows. Heracles scared them with a brazen rattle, and succeeded in killing part, and driving away the rest, which settled on the island of Aretias in the Black Sea, to be frightened away, after a hard fight, by the Argonauts.


Heracles was commanded to bring home for Admeté, the daughter of Eurystheus, the girdle of Hippolyté, queen of the Amazons. After many adventures he landed at Themiscyra, and found the queen ready to give up the girdle of her own accord. But Heré spread a rumour among the Amazons that their queen was in danger, and a fierce battle took place, in which Heracles slew Hippolyté and many of her followers. On his return he slew, in the neighbourhood of Troy, a sea-monster, to whose fury King Laomedon had offered up his daughter Hesione. Laomedon refused to give Heracles the reward he had promised, whereupon the latter, who was hastening to return to Mycenae, threatened him with future vengeance. (See Laomedon.)


The farm-yard of Augeas, king of Elis, in which lay the dung of three thousand cattle, was to be cleared in a day. Heracles completed the task by turning the rivers Alpheus and Peneus into the yard. Augeas now contended that Heracles was only acting on the commission of Eurystheus, and on this pretext refused him his promised reward. Heracles slew him afterwards with all his sons, and thereupon founded the Olympian Games. (See Augeas).


A mad bull had been sent up from the sea by Poseidon to ravage the island of Creté, in revenge for the disobedience of Minos. (See Minos.) Heracles was to bring him to Mycenae alive. He caught the bull, crossed the sea on his back, threw him over his neck and carried him to Mycenae, where he let him go. The animal wandered all through the Peloponnesus and ended by infesting the neighbourhood of Marathon, where he was at length slain by Theseus.


Diomedes, a son of Ares, and king of the Bistones in Thrace, had some mares which he used to feed on the flesh of the strangers landing in the country. After a severe struggle, Heracles overcame the king, threw his body to the mares, and took them off to Mycenae, where Eurystheus let them go.


The oxen of Geryones, the son of Chrysaor and the ocean nymph Callirrhoé. Geryones was a giant with three bodies and mighty wings, who dwelt on the island of Erythea, in the farthest West, on the borders of the Ocean stream. He had a herd of red cattle, which were watched by the shepherd Eurytion and his two-headed dog Orthrus, the offspring of Typhon

Heracles and Bull. (From a bas-relief in the Vatican.)

and Echidna. In quest of these cattle, Heracles, with many adventures, passed through Europe and Libya. On the boundary of both continents he set up, in memory of his arrival, the two pillars which bear his name, and at length reached the Ocean stream. Oppressed by the rays of the neighbouring sun, he aimed his bow at the Sungod, who marvelled at his courage, and gave him his golden bowl to cross the Ocean in. Arrived at Erythea, Heracles slew the shepherd and his dog, and drove off the cattle. Menoetius, who tended the herds of Hades in the neigbourhood, brought news to Geryones of what had happened. Geryones hurried in pursuit, but after a fierce contest fell before the arrows of Heracles. The hero returned with the cattle through Iberia, Gaul, Liguria, Italy, and Sicily, meeting everywhere with new adventures, and leaving behind him tokens of his presence. At the mouth of the Rhone he had a dreadful struggle with the Ligyes; his arrows were exhausted, and he had sunk in weariness upon his knee, when Zeus rained a shower of innumerable stones from heaven, with which he prevailed over his enemies. The place was ever after a stony desert plain, and was identified with the Campus Lapidosus near Massilia (Marseilles). (See, further, Cacus; Eryx.) Heracles had made the circuit of the Adriatic and was just nearing Greece, when Heré sent a gadfly and scattered the herd. With much toil he wandered through the mountains of Thrace as far as the Hellespont, but then only succeeded in getting together a part of the cattle. After a dangerous adventure with the giant Alcyoneus, he succeeded at length in returning to Mycenae, where Eurystheus offered up the cattle to Heré (Apollod. i.6.1).


The golden apples of the Hesperides. (See Hesperides.) Heracles was ignorant where the gardens of the Hesperides were to be found in which the apples grew. He accordingly repaired to the nymphs who dwelt by the Eridanus, on whose counsel he surprised Nereus, the omniscient god of the sea, and compelled him to give an answer. On this he journeyed through Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia, where he slew Antaeus, Busiris, and Emathion. (See under these titles.) He then crossed to Asia, passed through the Caucasus, where he set Prometheus free, and on through the land of the Hyperboreans till he found Atlas. Following the counsel of Prometheus, he sent Atlas to bring the apples, and in his absence bore the heavens for him on his shoulders. Atlas returned with them, but declined to take his burden upon his shoulders again, promising to carry the apples to Eurystheus himself. Heracles consented, and asked Atlas to take the burden only a moment, while he adjusted a cushion for his head; he then hurried off with his prize. Another account represents Heracles as slaying the serpent Ladon, who guarded the tree, and plucking the apples himself. Eurystheus presented him with the apples; he dedicated them to Athené, who restored them to their place.


Last he brought the dog Cerberus up from the lower world. This was the heaviest task of all. Conducted by Hermes and Athené, he descended into Hades at the promontory of Taenarum. In Hades he set Theseus free, and induced the prince of the infernal regions to let him take the dog to the realms of day, if only he could do so without using his weapons. Heracles bound the beast by the mere strength of arm, and carried him to Eurystheus, and took him back again into Hades. While in the upper world the dog, in his disgust, spat upon the ground, causing the poisonous herb aconite to spring up.

His tasks were now ended, and he returned to Thebes. His first wife, Megara, he wedded to his faithful friend Iolaüs, and then journeyed into Oechalia to King Eurytus, whose daughter Iolé he meant to woo. The king's son Iphitus favoured his suit, but Eurytus rejected it with contempt. Soon after this Autolycus stole some of Eurytus's cattle, and he accused Heracles of the robbery. Meanwhile, Heracles had rescued Alcestis, the wife of Admetus (q.v.), from death. Iphitus met Heracles, begged him to help him in looking for the stolen cattle, and accompanied him to Tiryns. Here, after hospitably entertaining him, Heracles threw him, in a fit of madness, from the battlements of his stronghold. A heavy sickness was sent on him for this murder, and Heracles prayed to the god of Delphi to heal him. Apollo rejected him, whereupon Heracles attempted to carry away the tripod. A conflict ensued, when Zeus parted the combatants with his lightning. The oracle bade Heracles to hire himself out for three years for three talents, and pay the money to Eurytus. Hermes put him into the service of Omphalé, queen of Lydia, daughter of Iardanus, and widow of Tmolus. Heracles was degraded to female drudgery, was clothed in soft raiment and set to spin wool, while the queen assumed the lion skin and the club. The time of service over, he undertook an expedition of vengeance against Laomedon of Troy. He landed on the coast of the Troad with eighteen ships, manned by the boldest of heroes, such as Telamon, Peleus, and Oïcles. Laomedon succeeded in surprising the guard by the ships and in slaying Oïcles. But the city was stormed, Telamon being the first to climb the wall, and Laomedon, with all his sons except Podarces, was slain by the arrows of Heracles. (See Priamus.) On his return Heré sent a tempest upon him. On the island of Cos he had a hard conflict to undergo with Eurytion, the son of Poseidon, and his sons. Heracles was at first wounded and forced to fly, but prevailed at length with the help of Zeus.

After this Athené summoned the hero to the battle of the gods with the giants, who were not to be vanquished without his aid. (See Gigantes.) Then Heracles returned to the Peloponnesus, and took vengeance on Augeas and on Neleus of Pylos, who had refused to purify him for the murder of Iphitus. (See Augeas; Molionidae; Neleus; Peridymenus.) In the battle with the Pylians he went so far as to wound Hades, who had come up to their assistance. Hippocoön of Sparta and his numerous sons he slew in revenge for their murder of Oeonus, a son of his maternal uncle Licymnius. In this contest his ally was King Cepheus of Tegea, by whose sister Augé he was father of Telephus. Cepheus with his twenty sons were left dead on the field.

Heracles now won as his wife Deïanira, the daughter of Oeneus of Calydon. (See Acheloüs.) He remained a long time with his father-in-law, and at length, with his wife and his son Hyllus, he passed on into Trachis to the hospitality of his friend Ceyx. At the ford of the river Evenus he encountered the Centaur Nessus, who had the right of carrying travellers across. Nessus remained behind and attempted to do violence to Deïanira, upon which Heracles shot him through with his poisoned arrows. The dying Centaur gave some of his infected blood to Deïanira, telling her that, should her husband be unfaithful, it would be a means of restoring him. Heracles had a stubborn contest with Theodamas, the king of the Dryopes, killed him, and took his son Hylas away. He then reached Trachis, and was received with the friendliest welcome by King Ceyx. Next he started to fight with Cycnus (q.v.), who had challenged him to single combat; and afterwards, at the request of Aegimius, prince of the Dorians, undertook a war against the Lapithae, and an expedition of revenge against Eurytus of Oechalia. He stormed the fortress, slew Eurytus with his sons, and carried off Iolé, who had formerly been denied him, as his prisoner. He was about to offer a sacrifice to his father Zeus on Mount Cenaeum, when Deïanira, jealous of Iolé, sent him a robe stained with the blood of Nessus. It had hardly grown warm upon his body when the dreadful poison began to devour his flesh. Wild with anguish, he hurled Lichas, who brought him the robe, into the sea, where he was changed into a tall cliff. In the attempt to tear off the robe, he only tore off pieces of his flesh. Apollo bade him be carried to the top of Oeta, where he had a great funeral pyre built up for him. This he ascended; then he gave Iolé to his son Hyllus to be his wife, and bade Poeas, the father of Philoctetes, to kindle the pyre. According to another story, it was Philoctetes himself, whom Heracles presented with his bow and poisoned arrows, who performed this office. The flames had hardly started up, when a cloud descended from the sky with thunder and lightning, and carried the son of Zeus up to heaven, where he was welcomed as one of the immortals. Heré was reconciled to him, and he was wedded to her daughter Hebé, the goddess of eternal youth. Their children were Alexiares (“Averter of the Curse”) and Anicetus (“the Invincible”), the names merely personifying two of the main qualities for which the hero was worshipped.

About the end of Heracles nothing is said in the Iliad but that he, the best-loved of Zeus's sons, did not escape death, but was overcome by fate, and by the heavy wrath of Heré. In the Odyssey his ghost, in form like black night, walks in the lower world with his bow bent and his arrows ready, while the hero himself dwells among the immortals, the husband of Hebé. For the lives of his children, and the end of Eurystheus, see Hyllus.

Heracles was worshipped partly as a hero, to whom men brought the ordinary libations and offerings, and partly as an Olympian deity, an immortal among the immortals. Immediately after his apotheosis his friends offered sacrifice to him at the place of burning, and his worship spread from thence through all the tribes of Hellas. Diomus the son of Colyttus, an Athenian, is said to have been the first who paid him the honours of an immortal. It was he who founded the gymnasium called Cynosarges, near the city. This gymnasium, the sanctuary at Marathon, and the temple at Athens were the three most venerable shrines of Heracles in Attica. Diomus gave his name to the Diomeia, a merry festival held in Athens in honour of Heracles. Feasts to Heracles (Ἡράκλεια), with athletic contests, were celebrated in many places. He was the hero of labour and struggle, and the patron deity of the gymnasium and the palaestra. From early times he was regarded as having instituted the Olympic Games; as the founder of the Olympic sanctuaries and the Olympic truce, the planter of the shady groves, and the first competitor and victor in the contests. During his earthly life he had been a helper of gods and men, and had set the earth free from monsters and rascals. Accordingly he was invoked in all the perils of life as the saviour (σωτήρ) and the averter of evil (ἀλεξίκακος). Men prayed for his protection against locusts, flies, and noxious serpents. He was a wanderer, and had travelled over the whole world; therefore he was called on as the guide on marches and journeys (ἡγεμόνιος). In another character he was the glorious conqueror (καλλίνικος) who, after his toils are over, enjoys his rest with wine, feasting, and music. Indeed, the fable represents him as having, in his hours of repose, given as striking proofs of inexhaustible bodily power as in his struggles and contests. Men liked to think of him as an enormous eater, capable of devouring a whole ox; as a lusty boon companion, fond of delighting himself and others by playing the lyre. In Rome, as Hercules, he was coupled with the Muses, and, like Apollo elsewhere, was worshipped as Μουσαγέτης (Hercules Musarum), or master of the Muses. (On the connection between Heracles and the Muses, see Klügmann in the Commentationes in Honorem Th. Mommseni, p. 262 [1877], and Lobeck, Phryn. 430). Under Augustus, Philippus built a temple to him at Rome as Hercules Musarum (Suet. Aug. 29, with Peck's note). After his labours he was supposed to have been fond of hot baths (θέρμαι) which were accordingly deemed sacred to him. Among trees, the wild olive and white poplar were consecrated to him; the poplar he was believed to have brought from distant countries to Olympia.

Owing to the influence of the Greek colonies in Italy, the worship of Heracles was widely diffused among the Italian tribes. It attached itself to local legends and religion; the conqueror of Cacus, for instance, was originally not Heracles, but a powerful shepherd called Garanos. Again, Heracles came to be identified with the ancient Italian deity Sancus or Dius Fidius, and was regarded as the god of happiness in home and field, industry and war, as well as of truth and honour. His altar was the Ara Maxima in the cattle-market (Forum Boarium), which he was believed to have erected himself. (See Cacus.) Here they dedicated to him a tithe of their gains in war and peace, ratified solemn treaties, and invoked his name to witness their oaths. He had many shrines and sacrifices in Rome, corresponding to his various titles, Victor (Conqueror), Invictus (Unconquered), Custos (Guardian), Defensor (Defender), and others. His rites were always performed in Greek fashion, with the head covered. It was in his temple that soldiers and gladiators were accustomed to hang up their arms when their service was over. In the stonequarries the labourers had their Hercules Saxarius

Farnese Hercules. (Naples Museum.)

(Hercules of the Stone). He was called the father of Latinus, the ancestor of the Latins, and to him the Roman gens of the Fabii traced their origin. The ancient family of the Potitii were said to have been commissioned by the god in person to provide, with the assistance of the Pinarii, for his sacrifices at the Ara Maxima (Livy, i. 7). In B.C. 310 the Potitii gave the service into the hands of the servi publici. Before a year had passed the flourishing family had become completely extinct.

In works of art Heracles is represented as the ideal of manly strength, with full, well knit, and muscular limbs, serious expression, a curling beard, short neck, and a head small in proportion to the limbs. His equipment is generally the club and the lion's skin. The type appears to have been mainly fixed by Lysippus. The Farnese Hercules, by the Athenian Glycon, is probably a copy of one by Lysippus. Heracles is portrayed in repose, leaning on his club, which is covered with the lion's skin. (See Farnese Hercules.) The Heracles of the Athenian Apollonius (q.v.), now only a torso, is equally celebrated. See Vogel, Hercules secundum Graecorum Poetas, etc. (Halle, 1830); and Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon d. griech. und röm. Mythologie, s. h. v.

hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, 1.6.1
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.2
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 29
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 7
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