Heracles (Ἡρακλῆς) known by the ancient Roman name Hercules is the most famous hero of ancient Greek mythology. Son of the Thunderer Zeus (myth of Zeus here) and the mortal Alcimena, his brother Ifikel. His birth name was Alcides and later became known as Heracles.

Bronze application of Hercules from the land of the village of Hadjievo, exhibit of Rome- Pazardzhik

Heros theos (“hero-god”), Pindar expresses himself in relation to Hercules, as the demigod is recognized as the strongest man, but also of divine origin (here he is very similar to Gilgamesh, who had a divine origin, but also human blood, and requires the gods to acknowledge his divinity).

Researchers and scholars speak of Hercules as a person who once belonged to the Olympic circle of the gods in ancient times (“The heart of Heracles’ history has been identified by Walter Burkert as the Neolithic culture of hunters and shamanic underworld traditions. It is possible that the myths surrounding Heracles are based on the lives of a real person or a few people whose achievements are exaggerated. Based on the common features in the legends of Heracles and Odysseus, the author Stephen Sora suggests that they are both based on the same historical figure who made his mark before the recorded story “).

Another interesting addition: Hercules is given as the basis for the creation of the Olympic Games in honor of Zeus (article on the Olympic Games here).

Twelve Labors of Hercules:

  1. The Nemean Lion – Hercules defeats the huge lion that attacks the city of Nemea.
  2. Lernean Hydra a monster with 9 heads inhabiting the swamp Lernea. Each time Hercules cut off one head, two new ones sprouted in its place.
  3. The Ceryneian Hind. – the labor here was for Hercules to catch the animal, not to kill it. After a long chase, he finally caught the hind.
  4. The Erymanthian Boar – the labor of capturing the boar and returning it to Mycenae, Hercules performs at the request of Eristeas.
  5. Augean Stables – an interesting feat that involves washing the stables from toxic cattle excrement given to Helios’ son by his father.
  6. The Stymphalian Birds – with a little help from Athens, the hero expels the man-eating birds from Arcadia.
  7. The Cretan bull – the raging bull ravaging everything because of Poseidon’s rage, Hercules catches him and carries him on his shoulders to Tirins.
  8. The Thracian King Diomedes – the feat in which Hercules must steal Diomedes’ man-eating horses.
  9. Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta – the task to steal a belt from the Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta.
  10. The Giant Geryon – the task of kidnapping the cows of the giant Gerion, who has three heads and six arms.
  11. The Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides – Heracles first helps Prometheus from his terrible punishment, and Prometheus directs him to the garden guarded by a fearsome dragon.
  12. Cerberus – the last labor, no less challenging, was Heracles to capture and bring out of the underworld the ferocious dog Cerberus.

Next Articles:

Hercules/Heracles Myths and The twelve Labors – Part 2 
Myths of Hercules/Heracles – Part 3 – The Stables, The Bull, The horses and The Belt
Myths of Hercules/Heracles – Part 4 – Cattle, Fearsome Cerberus and the Golden Apples 
Myths of Hercules/Heracles – Part 5 – Siege of Troy 
Myths of Hercules/Heracles – Part 6 – The Death of Hercules

Myth of Birth of Hercules

Mycenae was ruled by King Electryon. The teleboys led by King Pterelai’s sons abducted his flocks. The teleboys killed Electryon’s sons when they wanted to reclaim the abducted herds. Then King Electryon announced that he would give the hand to his daughter, the beautiful Alcmene, to the one who returned the herds to him and avenged the death of his sons. The hero Amphitryon managed to return the herds to Electryon without a fight, as the teleboy king Pterelaus ordered Polyxenus, king of Elis, to guard the abducted herds, and Polyxenus gave them to Amphitryon. Amphitryon returned his flocks to Electryon and received Alcmene’s hand. But he did not stay long in Mycenae. During the wedding feast, Amphitryon killed Electryon in a dispute over the herds, and he had to flee Mycenae with his wife. Alcmene followed her young husband abroad only on the condition that he avenge the slaughter of Pterelaeus’ sons for the slaughter of her brothers. In his absence, Zeus, captivated by the beauty of Alcmene, appeared before her, taking the image of Amphitryon. Amphitryon soon returned. Here that from Zeus and Amphitryon Alcmene was to give birth to two twin sons.

On the day when the great son of Zeus and Alcmene was to be born, the gods gathered on the high Olympus. Delighted that his son would soon be born, the pathetic Zeus said to the gods:

“Listen, gods and goddesses, what I will tell you: my heart commands me to tell you this! A great hero will be born today; he will rule over all his relatives who trace their lineage to my son, the great Perseus.”

But Zeus’ wife, the royal Hera, enraged that Zeus had married the mortal Alcmene, cunningly decided to deprive Alcmene’s son of power over all the Perseids – she hated this son of Zeus even before he was born. Therefore, hiding her cunning in the depths of her heart, Hera told Zeus.

“You are not telling the truth, great Thunderer! You will never keep your word! Give me a great, inviolable oath, as given by the gods, that he who will be born today as the first in the family of the Perseids will command his relatives.”

The goddess of deception Ate mastered the mind of Zeus and without suspecting Herina’s cunning, the Thunderer took an inviolable oath. Hera immediately left bright Olympus and set off in her golden chariot for Argos. There she hastened the birth of a son by the godly wife of the Perseid Sthenelus, and on that day a weak, sick child, Sthenelus’ son Eurystheus, was born into the family of Perseus. Hera quickly returned to the bright Olympus and said to the great cloudman Zeus:

“Oh, lightning striker, Father Zeus, listen to me! He was just born in the glorious Argos of the Perseid Sthenelus’ son of Eurystheus. He was the first to be born today and must command all the descendants of Perseus.”

The great Zeus was saddened, only now did he understand the whole insidiousness of Hera. He was angry with the goddess of deception, Ate, who had taken control of his mind; in his anger, Zeus grabbed her by the hair and threw her down from the bright Olympus. The lord of gods and men and forbade her to appear on Olympus. Since then, the goddess of deception, Ate, has lived among the people.

Zeus eased the fate of his son. He made an inviolable treaty with Hera that his son would not be under Eurystheus for the rest of his life. By order of Eurystheus, he will perform only twelve great feats, and then not only will he be freed from his power, but he will even receive immortality. The Thunderer knew that his son would have to overcome many and great dangers, so he ordered his beloved daughter Athena Paladas to help Alcmene’s son. Then Zeus often had the opportunity to grieve when he saw his son doing very hard work as a servant to the weak and cowardly Eurystheus, but he could not break Hera’s word.

On the day Stennel’s son was born, Alcmene also gave birth to twins: the first, the son of Zeus, whom they named Alcide at birth, and the second, the son of Amphitryon, named Ifikel. Alcid is the future greatest hero of Greece. Later, the soothsayer Pythia named him Heracles. Under this name (in Latin Hercules) he became famous, received immortality and was accepted in the midst of the bright Olympian gods.

Hera began to pursue Heracles from the first day of his life. After learning that Heracles was born and lying in swaddling clothes with her brother Ifikel, she sent two snakes to destroy the newborn hero. It was already night when the snakes with gleaming eyes crept into Alcmene’s room. They crept quietly to the cradle where the twins lay, and wrapped themselves around the body of little Heracles, they wanted to strangle him when the son of Zeus awoke. He stretched out his small hand to the snakes, grabbed them by the heads and squeezed them with such force that he immediately strangled them. In horror, Alcmene jumped out of bed; when they saw the snakes in the cradle, the women in the room shouted loudly. They all threw themselves at Alcid’s cradle. At the women’s cries, Amphitryon came running with a naked sword in his hand. Everyone walked around the cradle and saw an extraordinary miracle: the little newborn Heracles was holding two huge strangled snakes that were still moving in his tiny hands. Amazed by the power of his adopted child, Amphitryon called the prophet Tiresias and asked him what the fate of the newborn would be. Then the wise old man told what great deeds Heracles would perform and predicted that at the end of his life he would achieve immortality.

Heracles as a boy strangling a snake (marble, Roman work of art, 2nd century AD). Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy

After learning what great glory awaited Alcmene’s eldest son, Amphitryon gave him an upbringing worthy of a hero. Amphitryon took care not only to develop the power of Heracles, but also to give him an education. He was taught to read, write, sing and play the guitar. But Heracles did not show much success in science and music as he did in wrestling, archery, and the ability to use weapons. Often his music teacher, Orpheus’ brother Lynn, was angry with his student and even had to punish him. Once during a lesson, Lynn, irritated by Heracles’ reluctance to study, struck him. An angry Hercules grabbed his guitar and struck Lynn on the head with it. The young Heracles did not judge the force of his blow. The guitar hit was so severe that Lynn fell dead on the spot. Heracles was summoned to court to answer for this murder. In his defense, Alcmene’s son stated:

“After all, the fairest of judges, Radamant, says anyone who is hit can respond with a blow.”

The judges acquitted Heracles; but his second father, Amphitryon, fearing that something else of this kind might happen, sent Heracles to the wooded Kitheron.

Hecules goes to Thebes

Heracles grew up in the Kitheron forests and became a strong young man. He was a full head taller than anyone, and his strength far surpassed that of an ordinary man. At first glance, it was clear that he was the son of Zeus, especially in the eyes, which shone with some unusual, divine light. No one could compare to Heracles in dexterity in military exercises, and he wielded the bow and spear so skillfully that he never missed the target. As a young man, Heracles killed the terrible Kitheran lion that lived up in the mountains. The young Heracles attacked him, killed him and skinned him. He pulled this skin on himself, put it like a cloak on his powerful shoulders. With her paws he tied her to the front of his chest, and the skin of the lion’s head served as a helmet. Heracles made a huge mace out of an iron-hard ash, which he plucked along with the roots in the Nemean forest. Hermes gave Heracles a sword, Apollo a bow and arrow, Hephaestus forged gold armor, and Athena wove a garment for him.

As he matured, Heracles defeated the Orchomenian king Ergin, to whom Thebes paid a large tax every year. He killed Ergin in battle, and forced the Minoan Orchomenus to pay a tax twice the tax paid by Thebes. For this feat of Heracles, the Theban king Creon gave him his daughter Megara as a wife, and the gods sent him three beautiful sons.

Heracles lived happily in the seven-door Thebes. But the great goddess Hera, as before, burned with hatred for the son of Zeus. She sent a terrible illness to Heracles. The great hero lost his mind, madness gripped him. In a fit of rage, Heracles killed all his children and the children of his brother Ifikel. And when the attack passed, deep sorrow overtook Heracles. After cleansing himself of the pollution of his involuntary manslaughter, Heracles left Thebes and went to the holy city of Delphi to ask the god Apollo what to do. Apollo ordered Heracles to go to Tiryns, the homeland of his ancestors, and to serve Eurystheus for twelve years. The son of Latonia, through the mouth of Pythia, foretold to Heracles that he would receive immortality if he performed twelve great labors on the orders of Eurystheus.

The myths of Heracles are set out in the tragedies of Sophocles’ “Trachinians” and Euripides’ “Heracles”, as well as in the legends mentioned in Pausanias’ Description of Greece; A. Kuhn