In Greek mythology, Heracles, or Heraklês ("glory of Hera", Ηρακλής;) was a divine hero, the demigod son of Zeus and Alcmene, and stepson of Amphitryon – Alcmene's rightful husband and grand-son of Perseus. In Roman mythology he was called Hercules. He was, arguably, the greatest of the mythical Greek heroes, best known for his superhuman strength and many stories are told of his life. The most famous group of stories tell of The Twelve Labours of Herakles.
Curiously, in temples that were set up to praise Herakles, the priests wore female clothing, possibly connected to the myth of Omphale.
Birth and childhood
Heracles was a son of Zeus and Alcmene.
A major factor in the tragedies surrounding Heracles stem from Hera's hatred of him as the wife of Zeus she often hated his mortal offspring because they were living proof of Zeus' constant affairs, and she especially hated Heracles. Zeus had tricked Alcmene into thinking that he was her husband, Amphitryon, returned early from war. Amphitryon did return later the same night, and Alcmene became pregnant with twins.
One of the boys was a normal mortal, Amphitryon's son Iphicles, and the other was the demi-god, Heracles. While Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera, who was already informed of Zeus' adultery, persuaded Zeus to swear an oath on the night Heracles was to be born that the child born that night to a member of the House of Perseus would be High King.
Once the oath was sworn, Hera hurried to Alcmene's dwelling and slowed the birth by sitting crosslegged with her clothing tied in knots. Meanwhile, she caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely and so become High King. She would have permanently delayed the birth had she not been foiled by Galanthis, her servant, who told Hera that she had already delivered the baby which made Hera jump in surprise, thereby untying the knots and finally allowing Alcmene to give birth (another version says that Hera made Eileithya sit in said position and that Galanthis tricked this goddess).
Hera turned Galanthis into a weasel and forced her to give birth by laying eggs through her mouth.
Heracles was named in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. A few months after he was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as a he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys.
One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles: discovering who he was, she had pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can be seen to this day (a similar story is told about Hera and Hermes; however, in that case, the trick worked better and Hera actually started to like Hermes).
According to Greek tradition, probably based on Libanius, "Oration" XII, 99, or on the Epitome of the Library of Apollodorus, Heracles was conceived in the womb when Zeus extended the night into three during his parents' nuptial. That miraculous event may have been a solar eclipse near daybreak, which took place on September 7, 1251 BC. It lasted from 6:51 to 9:41 in the morning at Sparta, with 75.9% magnitude.
The Legend has it that Heracles was born in Thebes, Greece, where Alcmene and Amphitryon lived. The eclipse could well be visible there also. Alternatively it is more likely to have been the total solar eclipse which occurred at around about midday on February 10, 1286 BC thereby making one night into three. Totality occurred at 10:52 UTC according to NASA projections. This would place Heracles' birth in early November of the same year.
The ancient Greeks celebrated Heracles' birth on the 4th day of each Greek month.
He continued to perform feats such as slaying a lion that was preying on the local flocks and defending Thebes against a neighbouring army. For the latter he was awarded the King of Thebes' (Creon) daughter, Megara.
The Twelve Labours
In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife, children, and brother's children and as penance as told to him by the Delphic Sibyl, he was required to carry out ten tasks set by his arch-enemy, Eurystheus (who had become King in his stead). Herakles successfully carried them all out, but Eurystheus was told by Hera to deem that two of the tasks had been failed due to Herakles being helped, and allocated two more, which Herakles also completed, making 12.
The traditional order of the labours is:
- The Nemean Lion.
- The Lernaean Hydra.
- The Ceryneian Hind.
- The Erymanthian Boar.
- The Augean stables.
- The Stymphalian Birds.
- The Cretan Bull.
- The Mares of Diomedes.
- The Girdle of Hippolyte.
- The Cattle of Geryon.
- The Apples of the Hesperides.
According to Jerome's Chronicon, Herakles completed his Twelve labours in 1246 BC.
Omphale was a queen or princess of Lydia. As penalty for a murder, Heracles was her slave. He was forced to do women's work and wear women's clothes, while she wore the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried his olive-wood club. After some time, Omphale freed Heracles and married him. Some sources mention a son fathered on Omphale who is variously named. For further details see Omphale.
It was at that time that the cercopes, mischievous wood spirits, stole Heracles' weapons. He punished them by tying them to a stick with their faces pointing downward.
While walking through the wilderness, Heracles was set upon by the Dryopians. He killed their king, Theiodamas, and the others gave up and offered him Prince Hylas. He took the youth on as his weapons bearer. Years later, Heracles and Hylas joined the crew of the Argo. As Argonauts they only participated in part of the journey. In Mysia, Hylas was kidnapped by a nymph. Heracles, heartbroken, searched for a long time but Hylas had fallen in love with the nymphs and never showed up again. The ship set sail without them. Story of Heracles and Hylas
King Eurytus of Oechalia promised his daughter, Iole, to whoever could beat his sons in an archery contest. Heracles won but Eurytus abandoned his promise. Heracles killed him and his sons and abducted Iole.
Killing various giants
Laomedon planned on sacrificing his daughter Hesione to Poseidon in the hope of appeasing him. Heracles happened to arrive (along with Telamon and Oicles) and agreed to kill the monster if Laomedon would give him the horses received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus' kidnapping Ganymede. Laomedon agreed.
Heracles killed the monster, but Laomedon went back on his word.
Accordingly in a later expedition Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked it and slew all Laomedon's sons present there save Podarces, who saved his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil Hesione had made. Telamon took Hesione as a war prize; they were married and had a son, Teucer.
- Heracles defeated the Bebryces (ruled by King Mygdon) and gave their land to Prince Lycus of Mysia, son of Dascylus.
- He killed the robber Termerus.
- Heracles visited Evander with Antor, who then stayed in Italy.
- Heracles killed King Amyntor of the Dolopes for not allowing him into his kingdom. He also killed King Emathion of Arabia.
- Heracles killed Lityerses after beating him in a contest of harvesting.
- Heracles killed Poriclymenus at Pylos.
- Heracles founded the city Taras (modern: Taranto) in Italy.
- Heracles learned music from Linus (and Eumolpus), but killed him after Linus corrected his mistakes. He learned how to wrestle from Autolycus. He killed the famous boxer Eryx of Sicily in a match.
- Heracles later participated in many other adventures. He was an Argonaut. He killed Alastor and his brothers.
- When Hippocoon overthrew his brother, Tyndareus and killed Tyndareus' son, Lycon, as King of Sparta, Heracles reinstated the rightful ruler and killed Hippocoon.
Marriage, affairs and death
Heracles had countless affairs with women. He naturally had a great many children from various women, collectively referred to as the Heracleidae (most notable: Macaria). One event that stands out was his stay at the palace of King Thespios, who liked his build and encouraged Heracles to make love to his daughters, all fifty of them, in one night. They all got pregnant and all bore sons. Many of the kings of ancient Greece traced their lines to one or another of these, notably the kings of Sparta and Macedon.
During the course of his life, Heracles married three times. His first marriage was to Megara, whose three children he murdered in a fit of madness and whom he later gave in marriage to his companion Iolaus, because the sight of her was too painful. His second wife was Omphale, the Lydian queen or princess to whom he was sold as a slave. His last marriage was to Deianira, for whom he had to fight the river god Achelous. (Upon Achelous' death, Heracles removed one of his horns and gave it to some nymphs who turned it into the cornucopia.) Soon after they wed, Heracles and Deianira had to cross a river, and a centaur named Nessus offered to help Deianeira across but then attempted to rape her. Enraged, Heracles shot the centaur from the opposite shore with a poisoned arrow (from the Lernean Hydra) and killed him. As he lay dying, Nessus told Deianira that if she ever wanted to make sure of Heracles' love, she should gather up the centaur's blood and spilled semen and save them. Later, when Deianira suspected that Heracles was preferring the company of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture. Heracles' servant, Lichas, brought him the shirt and he put it on. Instantly he was in agony, as the shirt burned into his flesh and ripped it from his bones, for it had mixed with poison. Heracles died a voluntary death, asking that a pyre be built for him to end his suffering. After his death on the pyre the gods transformed Heracles into an immortal. He then married Hebe.
No one but Heracles' friend Philoctetes (in some versions: Iolaus or Poeas) would light his funeral pyre. For this action, Philoctetes (or Poeas) received Heracles' bow and arrows, which were later necessary for the Greeks to defeat Troy in the Trojan War.
According to Eusebius in book 10(XII) of his "Preperation of the Gospel", Clement states that "from the reign of Hercules in Argos to the deification of Hercules himself and of Asclepius there are comprised thirty-eight years, according to Apollodorus the chronicler: and from that point to the deification of Castor and Pollux fifty-three years: and somewhere about this time was the capture of Troy." Since Heracles ruled over Tiryns in Argos at the same time that Eurystheus ruled over Mycenae, and since at about this time Linus was Heracles' teacher, we can conclude based on the date for Linus' notoriety in teaching Heracles in 1264 BC (given by Jerome in his Chronicon,) Heracles' death and deification occurred 38 years later in approximately 1226 BC. October 12 was the day of the year when the ancient Greeks celebrated the festival of the Herakleia which commemorated the death of Heracles.
Modern and ancient interpretations
Later interpretations of Heracles' legend cast him as a wise leader and a good friend (many of the movie and TV adaptations cast him in this light, especially the recent syndicated TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and the movie Hercules). While he was a champion and a great warrior, he was not above cheating and using any unfair trick to his advantage. However, he was renowned as having made the world safe for man by destroying many dangerous monsters, and he was also held up as an example for never having attacked first, but for having conquered all merely by defending himself when attacked, and protecting the helpless and distraught. His self-sacrifice obtained Him the ascent to the Olympian realms and He was welcomed by the Gods. The legend of Heracles endures, though often co-opted to suit the political fashion of the day.
As a public domain character Hercules or Heracles have appeared in several comic book adaptations.
Spoken-word myths – audio files
|Heracles myths as told by story tellers
|1. Heracles and Hylas, read by Timothy Carter
|Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer, Odyssey, 12.072 (7th c. BC); Theocritus, Idylls, 13 (350–310 BC); Callimachus, Aetia (Causes), 24. Thiodamas the Dryopian, Fragments, 160. Hymn to Artemis (310–250? BC); Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika, I. 1175 - 1280 (c. 250 BC); Apollodorus, Library and Epitome 1.9.19, 2.7.7 (140 BC); Sextus Propertius, Elegies, i.20.17ff (50–15 BC); Ovid, Ibis, 488 (AD 8 –18); Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, I.110, III.535, 560, IV.1-57 (1st century); Hyginus, Fables, 14. Argonauts Assembled (1st century); Philostratus the Elder, Images, ii.24 Thiodamas (170–245); First Vatican Mythographer, 49. Hercules et Hylas