Twelve Labors of Hercules:

  1. The Giant Geryon – the task of kidnapping the cows of the giant Gerion, who has three heads and six arms.
  2. 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.
  3. Cerberus – the last labor, no less challenging, was Heracles to capture and bring out of the underworld the ferocious dog Cerberus.

Related Articles:

Hercules/Heracles Myths And The Twelve Labors – Part 1
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 5 – Siege of Troy 
Myths of Hercules/Heracles – Part 6 – The Death of Hercules

Heracles Saves Hesion, Daughter of Laomedon

On his return from the Amazons to Tiryns, Heracles arrived in Troy with his troops loaded on ships. As the heroes dropped anchor to the shore, not far from Troy, a sad picture appeared before their eyes. They saw that the beautiful daughter of the Trojan king Laomedont, Hesiona, was nailed to a rock by the sea. Like Andromeda, she was doomed to be torn apart by a monster coming out of the sea. This monster was sent by Poseidon, who wanted to punish Laomedon for refusing to pay him and Apollo the reward for building the walls of Troy. The proud king, whom the two gods were to serve by order of Zeus, even threatened to cut off their ears; if they continue to want to be paid. Then the angry Apollo sent a terrible plague to all the lands of Laomedon, and Poseidon – the monster that devastated the surroundings of Troy, without sparing anyone. Laomedon could save his country from the terrible disaster only by sacrificing his daughter’s life. He had to nail his daughter Hesion to the rock by the sea against his will.

Seeing the unfortunate girl, Heracles himself offered to save Hesion and, as a reward for her rescue, asked Laomedon for the horses that the thunderer Zeus had given to the Trojan king to compensate him for his son Ganymede. Ganymede was once abducted by the eagle of Zeus and taken to Olympus. Laomedon agreed to Heracles’ request. The great hero ordered the Trojans to build an embankment near the sea shore and hid behind it. Only Heracles had hidden behind the embankment, and the monster emerged from the sea; opening its huge mouth, it threw itself on Hesion. Hercules came out from behind the embankment, charged the monster with a loud shout, and thrust his double-edged sword deep into his chest. Heracles saved Hesion.

But when the son of Zeus asked Laomedon for the promised reward, the king tried to part with the wonderful horses, he did not give them to Heracles and even drove him from Troy, threatening him. Heracles left the possessions of Laomedon, hiding his anger deep in his heart. At the moment, he could not take revenge on the deceitful king, as his army was extremely small and the hero could not hope that he would soon conquer the impregnable Troy. And the great son of Zeus could not stay near Troy for a long time – he had to hurry to take the Hippolytian belt to Mycenae.

Cattle of the Giant Geryon (Tenth Labor)

Shortly after returning from the campaign to the Amazon, Heracles set out on a new labor. Eurystheus instructed him to bring to Mycenae the cows of the giant Geryon, son of Chrysaor and of the oceanid Kaliroya. It was a long way to Geryon. Heracles was to reach the westernmost part of the earth – those places where at sunset the radiant sun god Helios descends from the sky. Heracles set out on the long journey alone. He crossed Africa, the barren Libyan deserts, the lands of savage barbarians, and finally reached the ends of the earth. Here he erected on both sides of the narrow strait two giant stone pillars as an eternal memory of his labor.

Heracles still had a long way to go before he reached the shores of the white-haired Ocean. The hero sat on the shore by the ever-roaring waters of the Ocean. How can he get to the island of Eritrea, where Gerion grazed his flocks? It was already getting dark. Here came the chariot of Helios, which descended to the waters of the Ocean. The bright rays of Helios blinded Heracles and he was overwhelmed by unbearable, burning heat. Heracles jumped angrily and grabbed his terrible bow, but the bright Helios was not angry with him; he smiled amiably at the hero, liking the extraordinary manhood of the great son of Zeus. Helios himself suggested that Heracles cross to Eritrea in the golden boat with which the sun-god with his horses and chariot sailed every night from the western to the eastern end of the earth – to his golden palace. The delighted hero bravely jumped into the golden boat and quickly reached the shores of Eritrea.

He had just set foot on the island, and the terrible two-headed dog Ort sniffed him and barked at the hero. With one blow of his heavy mace, Heracles killed him. But it wasn’t just Orth who guarded the Herion flocks. Heracles also had to fight the shepherd of Gerion, the giant Eurytion. He quickly overcame the giant, the son of Zeus, and drove Geryon’s cows to the seashore, where the golden boat of Helios awaited him. Geryon heard the mooing of his cows and walked towards the herd. Seeing that his dog Orth and the giant Eurytion had been killed, he ran after the thief of the herd and overtook him on the beach. Geryon was a monstrous giant: he had three bodies, three heads, six arms and six legs. He used three shields to cover himself during battle, throwing three huge spears at the enemy at once. Heracles had to fight such a giant; but the great and warlike Athena Paladas helped him. As soon as Heracles saw the giant, he immediately fired one of his deadly arrows at him. The arrow struck the eye of one of Geryon’s heads. After the first arrow flew a second, followed by a third. Heracles swung terribly with his crushing, mace; as Gerion struck him with lightning, and the giant with the three bodies fell dead to the ground. Heracles carried Helion’s cows from Erithea across the stormy ocean in the golden boat of Helios and returned the boat to Helios. Half the feat was done.

He still had a lot of work to do. The cattle were to be taken to Mycenae. Hercules took the cows all over Spain, through the Iberian Mountains, through Gaul and the Alps, and through Italy. In southern Italy, not far from the city of Regium, one of the cows separated from the herd and swam across the strait to Sicily. There King Eric, son of Poseidon, saw her and took her to his flock. Hercules searched for the cow for a long time. Finally, the god Hephaestus asked to guard the herd, and he himself went by sea to Sicily and there he found his cow in the herd of King Eric. The king did not wish to return her to Heracles; hoping for his strength, he summoned Heracles to a duel. The cow was to serve as a prize for the winner. Eric was not an opponent like Heracles. The son of Zeus squeezed the king in his powerful arms and strangled him. Hercules returned with the cow to his herd and drove it on. On the shores of the Ionian Sea, the goddess Hera made the whole herd click. The croaking cows ran in all directions. With great difficulty, Heracles barely managed to gather most of the cows all the way to Thrace and finally took them to Eurystheus in Mycenae. And Eurystheus sacrificed them to the great goddess Hera.

Hercules and the Cattle, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Cerberus (Eleventh Labor)

Heracles had just returned to Tiryns, and Eurystheus sent him on a feat again. This was already the eleventh feat to be performed by the servant of Eurystheus Heracles. During this feat, Heracles had to overcome incredibly great difficulties. He was to descend into the dark, terrified, underworld kingdom of Hades and bring to Eurystheus the guardian of the underworld, the terrible hell dog Cerberus: Cerberus had three heads, snakes howled around his neck, his tail ended in a dragon’s head with a large mouth. Heracles went to Laconia and descended through the dark abyss near Tenar into the darkness of the underworld. At the very door of the kingdom of Hades, Heracles saw the heroes Theseus and Peiritoi, the king of Thessaly, healed by the rock. They were punished by the gods for wanting to kidnap Hades’ wife Persephone. Theseus prayed to Heracles:

“Oh, great son of Zeus, set me free! You see my suffering! You are the only one who can save me from them!”

Heracles extended his hand to Theseus and released him. But when he wanted to free Peiritoi, the earth shook and Heracles realized that the gods did not want him released. Heracles obeyed the will of the gods and passed on into the darkness of eternal night. He was introduced to the underworld by the messenger of the gods Hermes, the leader of the souls of the dead, and the companion of the great hero was Athena Paladas herself, the beloved daughter of Zeus. When Heracles entered the kingdom of Hades, the shadows of the dead in terror flew in all directions. Only the shadow of the hero Meleager did not escape when he saw Heracles. She turned to the great son of Zeus with a request:

“Oh, great Heracles, in the name of our friendship I ask you for one thing: have mercy on my orphaned sister, the beautiful Deianira! After my death she remained defenseless! Take her for a wife, great hero! Be her protector!”

Hercules promised to comply with his friend’s request and went after Hermes. The shadow of the terrible gorgon Medusa rose against Heracles, she stretched out her copper arms terribly and waved her golden wings, snakes fluttered on her head. The fearless hero grabbed his sword, but Hermes stopped him with the words:

“Leave the sword, Heracles!”This is just a disembodied shadow. It does not threaten you with death!”

Heracles saw many horrors on his way; he finally stood before the throne of Hades. The ruler of the realm of the dead and his wife Persephone watched with admiration the great son of the thunderer Zeus, who fearlessly descended into the realm of darkness and sorrow. Majestic, calm, he stood before the throne of Hades, leaning on his huge mace, in a lion’s skin slung over his shoulders, and with a bow over his shoulder. Hades welcomed the son of his great brother Zeus and asked what made him leave the light of the sun and descend into the realm of darkness. Bowing to Hades, Heracles replied:

“Oh, lord of the souls of the dead, great Hades, do not be angry with me for the request, you, omnipotent! You know that I did not come to your kingdom of my own free will and I do not turn to you with my own will. Allow me, Lord Hades, to take your three-headed dog Cerberus to Mycenae. Eurystheus, whom I serve on the orders of the Olympian gods, commanded me to do so.”

Hades replied to the hero:

“I will grant your request, son of Zeus, but you will have to tame Cerberus without a weapon. If you tame him, I allow you to take him to Eurystheus.”

Heracles searched Cerberus for a long time in the underworld. He finally found it off the coast of Acheron. Hercules wrapped his arms around Cerberus’s neck, which was as strong as steel. The dog of Hades howled terribly: his howl filled the whole underworld. Cerberus struggled to free himself from Heracles’ powerful hands, but they only gripped his neck even tighter. Cerberus wrapped his tail around the hero’s legs, the dragon’s head sinking its teeth into his body, but to no avail. The mighty Hercules tightened his grip on his neck. Finally, Hades’s half-strangled dog fell at the hero’s feet. Heracles tamed him and led him from the realm of darkness to Mycenae. Cerberus was frightened by the daylight; he was drenched in cold sweat; a poisonous foam chapel from his three large mouths on the ground; poisonous grasses sprouted wherever a drop of foam fell.

Hercules led Cerberus to the walls of Mycenae. The cowardly Eurystheus was horrified even just when he saw the terrible dog. Almost on his knees, he begged Heracles to take Cerberus back to the kingdom of Hades. Heracles complied with his request and returned to Hades his fearsome guard Cerberus.

Heracles and Cerberus, Rubens, Peter Paul

The Golden Apples of the Hesperides (Twelveth Labor)

Heracles’ most difficult feat while serving under Eurystheus was his last, his twelfth labor. Heracles was to go to the great titan Atlas, who held the firmament on his shoulders, and bring from his orchards, overseen by the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, the three golden apples. These apples grew on the golden tree that the goddess of the earth Gaia extracted from her bowels as a gift to the great Hera on the day of her wedding to Zeus. To accomplish this feat, Heracles had to learn first of all the way to the gardens of the Hesperides, guarded by a dragon who never fell asleep.

No one knew the way to the gardens of the Hesperides and the Atlas. Heracles roamed Asia and Europe for a long time, passing through all the countries he had traveled before when he went for the cows of Gerion; everywhere he inquired about the road, but no one knew it. In his quest, he reached the farthest north, the Eridan River, carrying its lush, boundless waters forever. On the shores of Eridanus, the great son of Zeus was honorably greeted by beautiful nymphs and advised on how to know the way to the gardens of the Hesperides. Heracles was to attack suddenly the sea-old prophet Nereus when he came ashore, and learn from him the way to the Hesperides; no one but Nereus knew this time. Heracles searched for Nereus for a long time. He finally managed to find him on the beach. Heracles attacked the sea god. The fight against him was difficult. In order to free himself from the iron embraces of Heracles, Nereus took various images, but the hero still did not let him go. He finally bound the weary Nereus, and the sea god had to reveal to Heracles the secret of the way to the gardens of the Hesperides if he wanted to get his freedom. After learning this secret, the son of Zeus released the old man of the sea and set off on a long journey.

He had to go through Libya again. Here he met the great Anthea, son of Poseidon, the god of the seas, and the goddess of the earth Gaia, who gave birth to him, nursed him and raised him. Antey forced all passers-by to fight him and ruthlessly killed all those he defeated in the fight. The giant also asked Heracles to fight him. No one could defeat Antey in a duel if he did not know the secret of where the giant got more and more strength during the fight. And the secret was this: every time Anthea felt that he was beginning to lose strength, he touched his mother, the earth, and received new powers: he drew them from his mother, the great goddess of the earth. But it was enough for Antey to be torn from the ground and lifted into the air, and his strength disappeared. Heracles fought with Antey for a long time, knocking him to the ground several times, but so Antey’s strength only increased. Suddenly, during the fight, the powerful Heracles lifted Anthea high into the air – Gaius’ son’s forces disappeared and Heracles strangled him.

Heracles continued on his way to Egypt. There, tired from the long journey, he slept in the shade in a small grove by the banks of the Nile. The king of Egypt, Buzyris, son of Poseidon and Epaph’s daughter Lisianas, saw the sleeping hero Heracles and ordered him to be bound. He wanted to sacrifice Heracles to his father Zeus. There was infertility in Egypt for nine years in a row; the prophet Trazius, who came from Cyprus, predicted that infertility would cease only if Buzyris sacrificed one foreigner to Zeus every year. Buzyris had the prophet Trazius captured and was the first to sacrifice him. Since then, the cruel king sacrificed to the Thunderer all the foreigners who came to Egypt. Heracles was also brought to the altar, but the great hero tore the ropes with which he was tied and killed Buzyris himself and his son Amphidamant at the altar. This is how the cruel king of Egypt was punished.

Heracles had many more dangers to face on his way to the end of the earth, where the great titan Atlas was. The hero stared in amazement at the mighty titan, who held the entire firmament on his broad shoulders.

“Oh, great Titan Atlas!”, Heracles turned to him. “I am the son of Zeus, Heracles. Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, rich in gold, sent me to you. Eurystheus ordered me to take from you the three golden apples of the golden tree in the gardens of the Cheoperides.”

“I will give you the three apples, son of Zeus,” Atlas replied. “And while I go for the apples, you must stand in my place and hold the firmament on your shoulders.”

Hercules agreed. He stood in the place of Atlas. An incredible weight fell on the shoulders of Zeus’ son. He exerted all his strength and held the firmament. The heavy shoulders of Heracles pressed terribly. He bent under the weight of the sky, his muscles swelled like mountains; from the tension sweat covered his whole body, but his superhuman strength and the help of the goddess Athena enabled him to strengthen the firmament until the Atlas returned with the three golden apples. When he returned, Atlas said to the hero:

“Here are your three apples, Heracles; if you want, I will take them to Mycenae myself, and you will keep the firmament until my return; then I will stand still again.”

Heracles realized that Atlas was cunning; he realized that the titan wanted to get rid of his hard work completely, and he used cunning against cunning.

“All right, Atlas, I agree!”, Heracles replied. “Only let me make a pillow beforehand; I will put it on my shoulders so that the firmament does not press them so terribly.”

Atlas stood still and took the weight of the sky on his shoulders. And Heracles gathered his bow and archer with his arrows, took his mace and the golden apples and said:

“Farewell, Atlas! I supported the firmament as you walked for the apples of the Hesperides, but I do not want to carry all the weight of heaven on my shoulders forever.”

With these words, Heracles left the titan, and Atlas again had to support, as before, on his mighty shoulders the firmament. Heracles returned to Eurystheus and handed him the golden apples. Eurystheus gave the apples to Heracles, and he gave them to his patron Athena Paladas, the great daughter of Zeus. Athens returned the apples to the Hesperides so that they would remain in their gardens forever.

After his twelfth feat, Heracles freed himself from serving Eurystheus. Now he could return to the seven-door Thebes. But the son of Zeus did not stay there long. New feats awaited him. He ceded his wife Megara to the husband of his friend Yolai, and he himself went to Tiryns again.

But not only victories awaited Heracles. Severe misfortunes awaited him, as the great goddess Hera persecuted him, as before.

Heracles and the apples,  Lucas Cranach the Elder

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