The legend of Hercules starts before the great hero was even born…
Hercules’s father, Zeus, was known to slip out of his home on Mount Olympus in order to seduce nymphs and mortal women (with or without their consent… yeah, he kind of sucked).
Hera, Zeus’s wife, queen of the gods and goddess of women, marriage, and family, was jealous and vengeful toward her husband’s many mistresses and illegitimate children. But Zeus didn’t really care, so he kept stepping out on Hera and Hera kept exacting revenge on Zeus’ conquests.
On one such occasion, the object of Zeus’ affection was a mortal woman named Alcmene.
Zeus used his power to disguise himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, which was extra level creepy. Unable to spot the imposter, Alcmene welcomed the king of gods into her bed. That night, she got pregnant and later gave birth to a son. Alcmene and her husband named the baby Hercules which means “glorious gift of Hera” in Greek.
When Hera discovered her husband’s secret affair had bred a child, she was overcome with jealousy and rage. Determined to kill Zeus’s illegitimate son, Hera sent two snakes to strangle the baby in his sleep.
Luckily for Hercules, having Zeus as a father meant he was a demigod, unusually strong and fearless. He grabbed each snake by the neck and strangled them just before they were able to strike.
Hercules grew into a great warrior…
Without any more major interference from Hera, Hercules grew into a great warrior. He single-handedly led the attack that drove the Minyans out of Thebes. In gratitude, Creon, king of Thebes offered his eldest daughter, Megara, to the hero.
Hercules and Megara got married and had three strong sons. The family lived happily together.
But it wasn’t happily ever after…
It turns out, jealous Greek gods don’t let go of grudges so easily.
Determined to make him suffer, Hera once again interfered in Hercules’s life.
Hera used her power to get inside Hercules’s head. He fell into madness and went insane with rage. Under Hera’s dark influence, he gruesomely murdered his beloved wife and children.
Even worse, he had no idea that he had murdered his wife and children because of Hera’s trickery. When he came to, he was totally destroyed by his actions. With a broken heart, he set out to seek punishment for the horrifying crimes he had committed.
Hercules traveled to Delphi to ask Apollo (another son of Zeus and the god of prophecy) what he should do to rid his soul of this evil.
Even though it was no secret (amongst the gods at least) that Hera had truly been the cause of Hercules’s terrible crimes, Apollo commanded Hercules endure a long and harsh punishment to atone for his sins.
Apollo sent him to the city of Tiryns where he had to serve the cruel king, Eurystheus, for twelve years and complete twelve impossible tasks, known as the Twelve Labors.
Apollo promised that after he had completed his punishment, Hercules’ soul would be cleansed of evil and he could join the gods on Mount Olympus.
Sounds simple, right?
Not really. Here are the 12 labors that Hercules completed to fulfill Apollo’s wishes.
The 12 Labors
#1: The Lion – First, Hercules was sent to the hills of Nemea to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people. Hercules skinned the lion and wore the pelt as a cloak for the rest of his life.
#2: The Hydra – Hercules traveled to the city of Lerna to slay the nine-headed poisonous, snake-like creature called Hydra who lived underwater, guarding the entrance to the Underworld.
#3: The Hind – He had to capture the Cerynitian deer with the golden antlers who was sacred to the goddess Artemis.
#4: The Board – He was sent to Mount Erymanthus to capture a terrifying, man-eating wild boar.
#5: The Stables – He had to clean all the sh*t out of King Augeas gigantic stables in one day. While this may sound simple, this was actually a huge (and smelly) task.
#6: The Birds – He traveled to the town of Stymphalos and drove out the huge flock of carnivorous birds.
#7: The Bull – He journeyed to Crete to capture a rampaging bull that had impregnated the wife of the king. (The queen later gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head.)
#8: The Horses – He was sent to capture the four man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes.
#9: The Belt – He was sent to steal an armored belt that belonged to the Amazon queen, Hippolyte.
#10: The Cattle – He traveled nearly to Africa to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster, Geryon.
#11: The Apples – King Eurystheus sent Hercules to steal a set of golden apples (Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus).
#12: The Three-Headed Dog – The final challenge led Hercules to Hades, where he had to kidnap Cerberus, the vicious three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld.
Basically, for 12 years, he collected a lot of stamps on his passport and had to nearly die many, many times.
Hercules was fated to a life of hardship…
After Hercules successfully completed the 12 labors, Apollo’s promise of an immortal life on Mount Olympus was still many difficult years way. He had to rescue the princess of Troy from a hungry sea-monster and help Zeus defeat the Giants in a great battle for the control of Olympus before he could take his earned place among the Olympians.
Many years later, Hercules remarried to Deianira, whose name means “man-destroyer” or “destroyer of her husband”.
One day, upon returning home from what would be his last adventure, Deianira presented Hercules with a cloak. She had coated it in what she thought was a magic balm that would guarantee his love for her forever. However, the balm was actually poison.
When Hercules put the cloak on it began to burn him. Unable to get it off, Hercules was sure death was the only release from this agonizing pain. And so a huge funeral pyre was built for the hero atop Mount Oeta.
Just as the fire started to burn all around him, the gods looked down from Mount Olympus. At that moment, Hera finally agreed that Hercules had indeed suffered enough. Zeus sent Athena to save Hercules from the burning pyre and bring him to Mount Olympus on her chariot.
Finally, Hercules was welcomed home and allowed to spend eternity among the gods on Mount Olympus.
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- Mark J, Joshua. (July 23, 2014). The Life of Hercules in Myth & Legend. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/733/the-life-of-hercules-in-myth--legend/
- Pattanaik, Devdutt. (Accessed on June 9, 2018).The Infidelities of Zeus. Retrieved from http://devdutt.com/articles/world-mythology/the-infidelities-of-zeus.html
- Staff, History.com. (2011). Hercules. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hercules
- Staff, Perseus Project. (September 2, 2008).The Life and Times of Hercules. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/bio.html