“In the middle sat Antaeus and mighty Heracles, and near him, he laid his club, and beneath his tread, the ship’s keel sank deep.” – Apollonius’ Argonautica

Who was Heracles (Herakles or Hercules)?

Many believe that behind Heracles’ complicated mythology there was probably a real man, perhaps a chieftain of the kingdom of Argos. Other scholars suggest the story of Heracles is an allegory for the sun’s yearly passage through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Others yet point to earlier myths from other cultures, showing the story of Heracles as a local adaptation of hero myths already well established.

In most traditional Greek myths, Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, granddaughter of Perseus. His fantastic exploits provided much material for popular legend. In art and literature, Heracles was represented as an extremely strong man of moderate height; his weapon of choice was the club and the bow. Vase paintings demonstrate the unparalleled popularity of Heracles, his fight with the Nemean lion being depicted many hundreds of times.

Heracles also entered Etruscan and Roman mythology and cult, and the exclamation “mehercule” became as familiar to the Romans as “Heracles” was to the Greeks.

Heracles attained the highest social prestige through his appointment as official ancestor of the Dorian kings (who called themselves Heracleidae or Heraclids). This probably served as a legitimation for the Dorian migrations into the Peloponnese. These Dorian Heraclids conquered the Peloponnesian kingdoms of Mycenae, Sparta, and Argos, claiming, according to legend, a right to rule them through their ancestor Heracles. This Dorian rise to dominance is frequently called the “Dorian invasion”. The Lydian and later the Macedonian kings, as rulers of the same rank, also became Heracleidae.

Heracles

Jason and the Argonauts

Agamemnon

Achilles

Odysseus

The 12 labors of Heracles

Heracles is best known for his 12 labors. The story starts in Thebes where Heracles married King Creon’s daughter, Megara. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles killed his children by Megara. After his madness had been cured with hellebore by Antikyreus, he realized what he had done and fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. He was directed to serve King Eurystheus for ten years and perform any task Eurystheus required of him. Eurystheus decided to give Heracles ten labors, but after completing them, Heracles was cheated by Eurystheus when he added two more, resulting in the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Those 12 labors were the following:

  1. Slay the Nemean Lion
  2. Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
  3. Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis
  4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
  5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day
  6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds
  7. Capture the Cretan Bull
  8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes
  9. Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
  10. Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
  11. Steal the apples of the Hesperides
  12. Capture and bring back Cerberus

Read more about Heracles here: The life and labours of Heracles, the protector of mankind

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