The Life and Times of Hercules

Stories about the gods, called myths, were made up thousands of years ago. Was there a real Hercules, a man behind the stories? We will never know. Yet, his story is of a man who was so strong and courageous, whose deeds were so mighty, and who so endured all the hardships that were given to him, that when he died, Hercules was brought up to Mount Olympus to live with the gods.

Hercules was both the most famous hero of ancient times and the most beloved. More stories were told about him than any other hero. Hercules was worshipped in many temples all over Greece and Rome.

Berlin F 2278, Attic red figure kylix, c. 500 B.C.
Side B: Hercules, carrying his club and wearing his lion skin,
walks with a procession of gods and goddesses to Olympus.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Antikensammlung

Zeus and Alcmene

There are as many different versions of Hercules' life story as there are storytellers. Differences between the Disney movie version and other versions include the explanation of who Hercules' parents were, and why he had to perform the 12 Labors. Zeus, Hercules' father, was the most powerful of the gods. That meant Zeus could do anything he pleased, but it also meant that sometimes Zeus was not a very good husband to his wife, Hera, the queen of the gods.

Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Greek woman named Alcmene [Alk-ME-ne]. When Alcmene's husband, Amphitryon, was away, Zeus made her pregnant. This made Hera so angry that she tried to prevent the baby from being born. When Alcmene gave birth to the baby anyway, she named him Herakles. (The Romans pronounced the name "Hercules," and so do we today.) The name Herakles means "glorious gift of Hera" in Greek, and that got Hera angrier still. Then she tried to kill the baby by sending snakes into his crib. But little Hercules was one strong baby, and he strangled the snakes, one in each hand, before they could bite him.

Louvre G 192, Attic red figure stamnos, c. 480-470 B.C.
The baby Hercules wrestles with the snakes Hera has sent to his crib.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Hera remained angry. How could she get even? Hera knew that she would lose in a fight, and that she wasn't powerful enough to prevent Zeus from having his way. Hera decided to pay Zeus back for his infidelity by making the rest of Hercules' life as miserable as she could.

Eurystheus and the 12 Labors

When Hercules grew up and had become a great warrior, he married Megara. They had two children. Hercules and Megara were very happy, but life didn't turn out for them the way it does in the movie. Hera sent a fit of madness to Hercules that put him into so great a rage, he murdered Megara and the children.

When Hercules regained his senses and saw the horrible thing that he had done, he asked the god Apollo to rid him of this pollution. Apollo commanded the hero to do certain tasks as a punishment for his wrongs, so that the evil might be cleansed from his spirit.

Würzburg L 500, Attic red figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500 B.C.
The god Apollo.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg

Apollo had many divine responsibilities. As Phoebus, he was the sun god, and every day he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky. He was the god of healing and music. Finally, Apollo was a god of prophecy: the Greeks believed that Apollo knew what would happen in the future, and that he could advise people how to act.

Hercules hurried to the temple where Apollo gave such advice. It was in the town of Delphi and was called the Delphic oracle. Apollo said that in order to purify himself for the spilling of his family's blood, he had to perform 10 heroic labors (this number would soon be increased to 12).

Delphi, view looking SE across the Temple of Apollo's terrace toward the valley below.
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was built on a very steep hillside.
Photograph by Pamela Russell

Hercules got even more bad news. Apollo declared that he had to go to the city of Tiryns. The king of Tiryns was Eurystheus [You-RISS-theus]. Eurystheus had a reputation for being mean, and Hercules knew that the king would give him a tough time. The hero had to serve Eurystheus for twelve years while he performed the Labors. There was some good news, though. When the tasks were completed, Apollo said, Hercules would become immortal. Unlike other men, instead of dying and going to the Underworld of Hades, he would become a god.

Aerial view of the fortress-palace at Tiryns.
The citadel's impressively thick fortress walls have stood for over thirty centuries.
Photograph by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J., courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

You might want to explore the 12 Labors of Hercules, at this point, or you can continue to read about his life. Most of the pictures of Hercules shown at this web site were painted by the Greeks on vases around 2200 to 2500 years ago. Notice that Hercules wears a lion's skin, the prize from his first Labor, and wields a huge club.

Further Adventures of Hercules

After he completed the 12 Labors, Hercules didn't just sit back and rest on his laurels. He had many more adventures. One was to rescue the princess of Troy from a hungry sea-monster. Another was to help Zeus defeat the Giants in a great battle for the control of Olympus. You might want to read these other stories about Hercules now, or continue with the hero's biography, below.

Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
Hercules sneaks up on a sleeping giant, Alkyoneus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Hercules on the Pyre

Hercules got married a second time, to the beautiful Deianira [Day-an-EE-ra]. When Hercules was returning from his last adventure, Deianira gave him a welcome-home present. This was a cloak which she had woven herself. Deianira had a magic balm which a centaur had given to her. The centaur told Deianira that anyone who put on the balm would love her forever. But actually the balm contained a caustic poison. This balm she now smeared into the cloak.

London E 370, Attic red figure pelike, c. 440-430 B.C.
Hercules trades in his old lionskin for the new cloak Deianira has woven him.
Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, London

When Hercules received the cloak and tried it on, his body immediately began to burn with excruciating pain. He tried to pull the cloak off, but the pain burned even harder and deeper. Death, thought Hercules, would be better than unendurable pain. Bellowing in agony, he asked his friends to build a huge pile of wood on the top of Mount Oeta. This would be Hercules' funeral pyre. He laid himself upon the pyre, and told his friends to light it. As the fire began to burn Hercules alive, the great gods looked down from Olympus. Zeus said to Hera that Hercules had suffered enough. Hera agreed and ended her anger. Zeus sent Athena to take Hercules from the pyre, and she brought Hercules to Olympus on her chariot.

Munich 2360, Attic red figure pelike, c. 410 B.C.
Athena and Hercules leave the funeral pyre, headed for Mount Olympus.
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München


To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

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