Marble reproduction of "Farnese Hercules" by Lysippos or one of his followers, 4th century BC
Herakles - the paradoxical figure of Ancient Greece who fascinates us still. Known to us today as Hercules, his Greek name is Herakles and this page will be comprised of Greek names with their Roman equivalents in parenthesis. Attributions for coins will carry the name appropriate to the culture.
Herakles embodied all that Greece, with the exception of Athens, most valued. The Athenians held Theseus as their hero, as he was more intelligent than Herakles. Herakles, however, was strong beyond measure, brave beyond logic and bold to an extreme. He was also very caring, but careless, which was his nemesis throughout his life. Often, he acted out of emotion, instead of logic and many innocents suffered as a result.
A son of Zeus (Jupiter) and Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon, Herakles was a demi-god and thusly, immortal. Zeus appeared to Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon and seduced her. The result was the birth of twins - Herakles from Zeus and another son, Iphicles, from Amphitryon. Hera (Juno), wife of Zeus, was incredibly angry and jealous at this act. Hera declared war on Herakles, even though his name means "glory of Hera". She sent two serpents to kill Herakles one night after Alcmene put the two children to bed. Iphicles woke up when he heard the serpents approaching and ran away. Herakles awoke as well, but instead of running, strangled the snakes to death. Thus began the tale of Herakles and his many adventures.......
Herakles remained in the house of Alcmene and Amphitryon during his youth and had numerous masters to train him in various studies. Amphitryon taught him to drive a chariot, Autolycus was his wrestling master, Pollux taught fencing, Eurytus taught archery and Linus was his music teacher. The first evidence we have of Herakles' inability to evaluate action and consequence is the inadvertent slaying of Linus with his own lyre when he reprimanded him. Herakles plead self-defense and was sent to guard the cattle pasture of Amphitryon as his education was considered complete.
Oddly enough, there is a series of Roman Republican coins dedicated to Herakles and the Muses. The Hercules coin of the series shows the demigod with a lyre, the very type of instrument he used to slay Linus.
When Herakles was eighteen years old, he killed a lion on Mount Cithaeron, who was preying on the herds of Amphitryon mentioned earlier. After slaying the lion, Herakles was on his way back to Thebes and ran into a group of messengers of Erginus. Erginus was the king of the Minyans of Orchomenus, who demanded tribute from Thebes. Herakles cut off the noses and ears of the messengers, hung them around their necks and sent them back to King Erginus with a message that there would be no more tributes paid. Erginus attacked Thebes, but was defeated by Herakles and the Theban army, backed by Athena (Minerva), who granted them weapons. Erginus was forced to pay a double tribute to Thebes. King Creon of Thebes was so grateful to Herakles for relieving them of the tribute burden that he offered his daughter, Megara, in marriage. Herakles and Megara were married and produced several children, until Hera decided to intervene. Hera cursed Herakles with a homicidal madness, during which he killed Megara and all of their children. After the slaughter, the curse was over, but the damage had been done. Herakles was forced into exile.
A tholos at Delphi in Greece, home of the famous Oracle - photo taken during my 1997 vacation.
He became a servant of King Eurystheus of Tiryns for twelve years, upon direction of the Oracle of Delphi, and would only be absolved of his crime after completing twelve labors.
A ceramic tile wall plaque, purchased in Crete, in 1997
The first of his labors was to defeat the Nemean Lion.
The Lion was sent by Hera to the region of Nemea, which it routinely ravaged. It lived in a cave and its hide was impervious to harm by weapons. Herakles fired his bow upon the lion, but his arrows glanced off its body. He used his club, but this also had no effect. Realizing the futility of his attacks, Herakles approached the lion and strangled it to death with his bare hands.
After the lion was dead, Herakles stripped the hide from its body and wore it as a trophy, it's head covering Herakles' head and made the wearer invulnerable to weapons. From this point on, Herakles was always to be found wearing the lion skin.
He brought the stripped body of the lion back to Tiryns for proof of completing the first labor. King Eurystheus was startled by the presentation and asked Herakles to leave any other objects he defeats outside the city. Zeus took the lion and placed him among the constellations, which we still see today as Leo.
The second labor was battling the Lernean Hydra.
The Hydra was the spawn of Typhon and Echidna. A dragon-kind, with multiple heads, who breathed a deadly venom. The creature's specific purpose was to test Herakles. Its den was in the marshes around Lerna in the Peloponnese. During this labor, Herakles was assisted by his nephew, Iolaus, son of his twin brother, Iphicles. Iolaus lit the marshes on fire to drive the Hydra to Herakles. In battle, Herakles would behead a part of the monster, but a new head would grow in its place. The only way to utterly defeat it was for Herakles to cut off a head and Iolaus to cauterize it. After the last head was defeated, the body was buried. The Hydra's blood was also poisonous, so Herakles dipped all of his arrows in it, making them even more deadly.
During his travels, Herakles married Deianira, daughter of King Oeneus of Calydon. Oeneus was the brother of Meleager, the hero of the Calydonian boar hunt. On the way back to Tiryns, Herakles and Deianira had to cross the Euenos River during flood season. As Deianira could not cross the river, a centaur named Nessus offered his assistance. The centaur then tried to rape her and Herakles shot him with one of the Hydra-poisoned arrows. As Nessus lay dying from the Hydra poison, he told Deianira to take some of his blood to smear on Herakles, in the event he lost interest and he would immediately fall back in love with her.
The third labor was to capture the Erymanthian Boar.
For this task, Herakles was to bring back alive to Tirnys, the boar who lived on Mount Erymanthus. Since it was winter when Herakles arrived at the mountain, the ground was covered with thick snow. Herakles scared the boar from his cave and chased it until it became exhausted.
During the chase, Herakles encountered Pholus, a centaur. Pholus was the son of Silenus and a nymph and offered hospitality to Herakles. They dined on cooked meat and Herakles asked for some wine to accompany the meal. Pholus stated there was only one jar of wine and it belonged to the centaurs. Herakles opened it anyway and the centaurs started swarming immediately, summoned by the fragrance. Instead of sharing the wine, Herakles started slaying the centaurs and Pholus was among them when he accidentally dropped one of Herakles' arrows on his own foot. The remaining centaurs fled to Mount Pelion in Cape Melea to seek Cheiron, wisest of the centaurs. Cheiron was the son of Cronus and Philyra and trained many Greek heroes. Herakles hunted the centaurs, found Cheiron and shot him in the knee with one of the Hydra-poisoned arrows. Since Cheiron was immortal, the wound only served to cause him great pain and suffering as he could not die and the wound could not heal. To relieve his suffering, he gifted his immortality to Prometheus, and died.
The fourth labor involved the Ceryneian Hind.
As the Hind was sacred to Artemis (Diana), Herakles was not allowed to kill the animal. He chased the hind for a year before finally sneaking up and capturing it while it slept. On the way back to show proof of completing the task, he encountered Artemis and Apollo, who asked for Herakles to release the creature. He agreed, as long as he could take it to Tiryns for credit, then release it.
The fifth labor was to destroy the Stymphalian Birds.
The wooded countryside around Arcadia was populated by wolves. The birds in the area fled to a lake at Stymphalus to escape the wolves. The lake became a perfect sanctuary for the birds, who then became a menace in their own right by feeding on the crops and fruits. Eurystheus tasked Herakles with eliminating the creatures. Herakles convinced Hephaestus to create a rattle to scare out the birds. This instrument worked well to drive the birds to flight, at which point Herakles shot them all with his bow.
The sixth labor was to clean the Augeias Stables.
The whole point of this labor was to humiliate Herakles by having him perform a menial task. Eurystheus assigned Herakles to clean the stables of King Augeias of Elis. Augeius was one of the Argonauts and his stables of a vast herd of cattle had never been cleaned and had naturally accumulated an enormous quantity of filth. Since the mighty hero was not terribly excited with this assignment, he asked Augeius for a payment of 10% of his cattle if he could accomplish the task in one day. Augeius agreed and Herakles removed one wall of the stable, diverted the Alpheius and Peneus rivers through it, quickly cleaning the buildings. Augeius refused to settle the payment and Herakles eventually punished him for it. Eurystheus learned of the payment and was going to negate the labor as counting toward the atonement, but payment was never completed, so the labor stood.
The first six labors all took place in areas around the Peloponnese. The next six were scattered throughout the land and other planes.
The seventh labor was to bring the Cretan Bull back to Tiryns.
King Minos of Crete had promised Poseidon (Neptune) he would sacrifice to him anything that came out of the sea. One day, a bull, like none Minos had ever seen, rose from the sea. Minos was so taken by the creature, he kept him for his own herd and sacrificed a lesser creature instead. Poseidon was infuriated and cursed the animal to be untamable. Eurystheus sent Herakles to Crete to capture and bring the bull back to Tiryns. Minos would not help Herakles, but would allow him to take the creature, if he were able. The powerful Herakles subdued the animal and took him back to Eurytheus, who was too scared of the beast to touch him. Herakles set the bull free and it wandered around the countryside, eventually taking new home in the Marathon plains of Attica.
The eighth labor was to bring the Mares of Diomedes to Tiryns.
Marble reproduction of Hercules throwing Diomedes to his Mares
Diomedes was not only King of the Bistonians, but also a son of Ares (Mars), god of war. Diomedes had a human flesh-eating herd of mares, which Eurytheus required Herakles to bring back to the city. There are differing accounts as to whether Herakles was able to perform this task alone or had assistance, but in the end, Herakles wrestled Diomedes and fed him to his own horses. This resulted in the animals becoming tame and able to be brought back to city safely. Having gained credit for completing the task, Herakles took the horses to Argos and dedicated to Hera.
The ninth labor was to obtain Hippolyta's Girdle for Eurytheus' daughter.
The tenth labor was the task of capturing Geryon's Cattle and returning to Tiryns with them.
The eleventh labor was to bring Eurytheus Hesperides' Golden Apples.
The twelfth and final labor was capturing Cerberus and bring him to Tirnys.
Herakles was involved in a great many adventures during and after his labors. One such adventure found him pitted against a ketos (sea dragon), sent by Poseidon to devour Hesione and Andromeda.
Herakles is still pictured on modern coinage, attesting to our never ending fascination with the hero. Here he is shown clad in his traditional lion-skin, standing behind Libertas and Aequitas.
And an example on a banknote from the Farmer's & Merchants bank of St. Joseph, Michigan from the late 1830s.
Disneyland, Florida, token made from US Quarter
Even Disney has taken to the ancient Greek hero and created a movie about his adventures, followed by a cartoon series in which many of the episodes stick to retelling some sort of Greek myth. I find this very encouraging as it brings children today a connection to ancient times, which is often neglected. Even though much of the cartoon is brought to a level appealing to children, the names are kept intact and the viewer may remember them as they grow and read about them in school.
Bulfinch. "Mythology". 1970.