Heracles (or Hercules) is best known as the strongest of all mortals, and even stronger than many gods. He was the deciding factor in the triumphant victory of the Olympians over the giants. He was the last mortal son of Zeus, and the only man born of a mortal woman to become a god upon his death.
Offsetting his strength was a noticeable lack of intelligence or wisdom. Once, when the temperature was very high, he pulled his bow out and threatened to shoot at the sun. This, coupled with strong emotions in one so powerful, frequently got Heracles in trouble. While his friend and cousin Theseus ruled Athens, Heracles had trouble ruling himself. His pride was easily offended. He took up grudges easily and never forgot them. His appetites for food, wine, and women were as massive as his strength. Many of Heracles' great deeds occurred while doing penance for stupid acts done in anger or carelessness.
It would be easy to view Heracles as a muscle-bound buffoon. Indeed, many of the Greek comedy playwrights used his character this way. Even among serious critics, he was often seen as a primitive, brutal, and violent man. There is much evidence to support this view; his weapon of choice was a massive club; his customary garment was a lion skin, with the head still attached; he impiously wounded some of the gods; he threatened a priestess of Apollo at Delphi when an answer to his questions was not forthcoming. He created most of his own problems.
However, viewing Heracles as simply a strong buffoon is unfair. He may have held grudges, but he would also do anything to help a friend. Once his anger passed, he was the most critical judge of his own actions. He was too strong for anyone to force a punishment on him. That he willingly did severe penance shows a fundamental sense of justice. During his punishments he showed patience, fortitude and endurance that were as heroic as his strength. Terrible things happened to him because of Hera's hatred, a hatred that he was not responsible for. That he persevered through it all was a moral victory beyond simple strength.
The view of Heracles shifted considerably over time. The early view focused on how badly he managed despite his obvious gifts. As time passed the focus shifted to his virtues. The Romans valued him highly as he best fit their idea of a hero. He eventually had a fair sized cult that worshiped him as a god.
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Hercules Was the Most Remarkable Figure of Greek Mythology
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 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 most beloved. More stories were told about him than any other hero. Hercules was worshipped in many temples all over Greece and Rome.
There were many heroes who could claim Zeus as their father, but few were immortal. Hercules (also called Heracles) and his half brother Dionysus (Bacchus) claimed immortality as an accident attendant at birth. Dionysus was immortal because, although conceived by the mortal Semele, he was actually given birth to from the thigh of Zeus. Hercules' father was also Zeus, but his final dose of immortality sprang from Hera whose milk he drank at birth.
Hercules's mother was Alcmena or Alcmene, the wife of King Amphitryon of Troezen. His father was none other than Zeus, the king of the gods, who disguised himself as Amphitryon and visited Alcmena on a night that lasted as long as three ordinary nights.
Zeus's wife, Hera, was furious when she learned that Alcmena was pregnant with Zeus's
child. She sent witches to Troezen to stop Alcmena from going into labor, but the witches failed and Alcmena gave birth to twins: Hercules (or Heracles), Zeus's son, and Iphicles, Amphitryon's son.
Hera sent two giant snakes to kill Hercules in his cradle. His mother saw the snakes and called to her husband for help, but Hercules stood up and strangled the snakes with his bare hands. In another version of this story, it was Amphitryon who put the snakes in the babies' bed. A soothsayer had told him of Zeus's visit to Alcmena, and Amphitryon wanted to find out which twin was Zeus's son. When Hercules killed the snakes while Iphicles cried and tried to escape, Amphitryon's question was answered.
Amphitryon acted as a father to Hercules and even taught him to drive a chariot. Hercules had many teachers. A famous thief, Autolycus, taught him to wrestle. Prince Castor of Sparta taught him to fence, and Prince Eurytus of Oechalia taught him to shoot a bow. Hercules's low intelligence and terrible temper sometimes interfered with his lessons. When his music teacher, Linus, hit him, Hercules went into a rage and smashed Linus with his lyre, killing him. He was tried for the murder, pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted.
Afraid that his stepson would kill someone else, Amphitryon sent Hercules away from Thebes, where the family was living, to a cattle ranch. There Hercules grew to be seven or eight feet tall. He was the strongest man on earth, a fact he demonstrated by
single-handedly killing a lion that attacked the cattle of King Thespius of Thespiae. After that he always wore the lion's skin as a cloak, with its head as a helmet.
Thespius was so impressed with mighty young Hercules that he decided that each of his fifty daughters should have Hercules's baby. He sent a different daughter to Hercules every night, and Hercules never noticed the difference - he thought they were all the same person! Altogether Thespius's daughters had 51 babies by Hercules. (One of the daughters didn't sleep with him, but two sisters had twins.) Hercules had many, many girlfriends and children in his career.
One day Hercules met some heralds who were going to Thebes to collect a yearly tribute of cattle Thebes owed to King Erginus of Orchomenus. The heralds told Hercules that the Thebans were lucky Erginus hadn't previously cut off their ears, noses, and hands. Infuriated, Hercules promptly cut off the heralds' ears, noses and hands and sent them home.
This was a terrible crime - you weren't supposed to hurt a herald, no matter what he did. In retaliation Orchomenus attacked Thebes, and Hercules's stepfather Amphitryon was killed in the fighting. Hercules commanded the Theban army and defeated the enemy. The king of Thebes was so grateful that he let Hercules marry his daughter Megara. Hercules's brother Iphicles married Megara's youngest sister. Their widowed mother later married Rhadamanthys, a son of Zeus.
Hercules and Megara had two or more sons. But Hera still hated Hercules, and eventually she drove him insane. He threw his sons, and two of his brother's sons, into a fire - then returned to his senses and realized what he had done. He consulted an oracle to find out how he could be purified. The oracle told him that he must serve King Eurystheus of Tiryns for twelve years and perform ten labors for him. He was assisted in some of his labors by Iphicles's young son, Iolaus.
The first labor Eurystheus gave Hercules was to kill the Nemean lion, which couldn't be hurt by weapons. Hercules hit it with his club and shot it without success. Finally he strangled it to death and carried it on his shoulders back to Eurystheus. Terrified by Hercules's strength, the king forbade him to enter the city again. He even had a bronze jar made that he could hide in when Hercules was around!
Hercules's next labor was killing the Lernaean Hydra, a swamp monster with nine heads, one of which was immortal. Every time Hercules knocked off one of the Hydra's heads with his club, two new heads grew. A giant crab helped the Hydra by biting Hercules's foot. Hercules managed to kill the crab, but he couldn't defeat the Hydra until Iolaus set fire to the nearby trees and used burning brands to sear the Hydra's necks after Hercules cut its heads off. That prevented new heads from growing, and the Hydra was finally slain except for the immortal head, which Hercules and Iolaus buried under a rock.
The Hydra's gall was poisonous, so Hercules dipped his arrows in them. This would later cause Hercules's death.
Because Iolaus had helped Hercules, King Eurystheus said that the second labor didn't count. Next he ordered Hercules to capture a stag called the Ceryneian Hind and bring it to Mycenae alive. The hind had golden horns and was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Hercules spent a year trying to catch it. Finally his patience ran out and he shot it. It was wounded, but still alive, so he picked it up and started to carry it away. Artemis and Apollo confronted him for attacking the sacred animal, but Hercules put the blame on Eurystheus and the gods let him go on to Mycenae.
The fourth labor was to capture the large Erymanthian Boar and bring it alive to Mycenae. Hercules did that easily. The next labor was to clean the stables of Augeas, King of Elis, in one day. The catch was that Augeas had 3,000 oxen, and his stables hadn't been cleaned in 30 years. Hercules handled this in a clever way (probably suggested by Iolaus). He re-routed two rivers to run through the stables, cleaning them out quickly. Augeas had promised to pay Hercules, but he backed out of the deal. Nonetheless, Eurystheus said the job didn't count as one of the labors because Hercules had done it for profit.
For his next labor Hercules had to scare a flock of man-eating birds away from the woods around the Stymphalian Marsh. He couldn't figure out how to accomplish this, so the goddess Athena gave him some castanets to clash. This scared the birds out of the trees and Hercules shot them.
Next Hercules had to capture the fire-breathing Cretan Bull, a simple enough task for Hercules. After that he caught the four man-eating mares of King Diomedes of Thrace. To soothe the animals Hercules fed their master, Diomedes, to them, after which he had no trouble taming them.
Then Eurystheus ordered Hercules to steal the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, a race of fierce warrior women who only raised their daughters. Their sons were sent to foreign countries or killed. The Amazons were so dedicated to war that they each cut off one of their breasts to make it easier to throw their javelins. Hippolyte fell in love with Hercules and agreed to give him her girdle, but Hera disguised herself as Hippolyte and told the Amazons that Hercules wanted to kidnap her. The Amazons raced to attack Hercules's ship. Assuming that Hippolyte had lied to him, Hercules killed her, then fought off the whole Amazon army and sailed away with the girdle.
For the next labor he captured the oxen of Geryon, a monstrous creature with three heads and three bodies. Geryon's cattle was guarded by a two-headed dog, but Hercules killed Geryon and his dog and took possession of the cattle.
Hercules had performed ten labors in eight years, but Eurystheus insisted that Hercules owed him two labors more. He told Hercules to steal some golden apples that were guarded by the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, the Titan who held the heavens on his shoulders as punishment for warring with Zeus. So Hercules visited Atlas and offered to hold the sky up for a while if Atlas would get the apples for him. Atlas agreed; but once he had the apples he refused to take his burden back from Hercules. For once Hercules thought quickly. He asked Atlas to take the sky back for just a moment so he could put a pad on his shoulders. Atlas acquiesced, and Hercules took the golden apples and left.
Hercules's last labor was to bring the three-headed dog Cerberus up from the underworld, Hades. The god of the underworld, also called Hades, told Hercules that he could have the dog if he caught it with his bare hands. Hercules managed to do that. At last he was purified of his crime, and free from Eurystheus's service.
But Hercules didn't stay out of trouble for long. He thought that his first marriage was unlucky because he had murdered his children, so he gave his wife, Megara, to his nephew Iolaus and went looking for a new bride.
Prince Eurytus of Oechalia (who had taught Hercules to shoot) had promised his daughter, Iole, to anyone who could beat him and his sons in an archery match. Hercules accepted the challenge and won. But Eurytus refused to let Hercules marry Iole because he was afraid Hercules would lose his mind again. Hercules soon proved that Eurytus was right. He unknowingly bought some cattle that had been stolen from Eurytus, and Iole's brother Iphitus, who was Hercules's friend, went to Hercules to discuss the theft, whereupon Hercules went insane and threw Iphitus from the highest tower in Tiryns.
Once again Hercules was a murderer, and once again he wished to be purified. He went to the priestess who had helped him before, but she said, "You murdered your guest! I have no oracles for such as you!" So Hercules went crazy again and tore her shrine apart. Angry at this sacrilege, the god Apollo attacked Hercules, and they fought until Zeus intervened and made them shake hands. Hercules put the shrine back together and the priestess told him that he could be purified by becoming a slave for three years.
So the god Hermes sold Hercules to Queen Omphale of Lydia. She had him dress in women's clothes and made him weave and do other chores usually assigned to women. She also made him her lover. When his three years of slavery had ended, Hercules left Lydia and returned to his adventures.
Eventually Hercules married Deianeira, the warrior step-daughter of King Oeneus of Calydon (her real father was the god Dionysus). When Hercules was returning from his last adventure, Deianira gave him a welcome-home present. This was a cloak she had woven herself. Deianira had a magic balm which a centaur, named Nessus, had given to her. The centaur told Deianira that anyone who put on the balm would love her forever. But Nessus had tricked Deianeira. Nessus in fact had been shot by an arrow of Hercules that had Hydra's poison on the tip. The balm that he gave her was actually his blood which contained the Hydra poison that she now smeared into the cloak.
When Hercules received the cloak and tried it on, his body immediately began to burn with excruciating pain. He jumped into a stream, but that only made the pain worse. He tried to pull the cloak off, but the pain burned even harder and deeper. When he tore it off pieces of his body came off with it. Enraged, he found the man who had delivered the cloak and killed him. Death, thought Hercules, would be better than unedurable 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's 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. Proud of Hercules for dying so nobly, Zeus made him immortal. Somehow he even convinced Hera to let Hercules marry her daughter Hebe. Hercules became the porter of Olympus, where he remained forever. However, since Hercules was half mortal, a part of him went to the underworld, to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields with other great heroes.
Hercules's death resolved the major conflicts of his life, the one with Hera and the condition of being half mortal. By Hercules's marrying into Hera's side of the family, all strife between the queen of the gods and her namesake miraculously ended.