Better-known as Hercules (the Latin version of his Greek name), Heracles was the all-round action hero of Greek mythology. He was ordered to carry out his famous ‘Twelve Labours’ as penance for the murder of his own wife and children, while he was in the service of King Eurystheus, Hercules’ cousin. A few of them are quite famous – Hercules killing the Nemean lion, or stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides – but others, such as slaying the Stymphalian birds, are more obscure.
Let’s take a closer look at all of Hercules’ twelve labours, and explore their meaning and significance within Greek myth, subjecting them to analysis.
Twelve Labours of Hercules: summary
Hercules was given twelve years to complete his twelve labours. For the following summaries of the details of the labours, we follow Pierre Grimal’s excellent entry on Heracles in The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary).
Strangling the Nemean lion. The Nemean lion was a monster, the son of Orthrus and Echidna. It dwelt in the region known as Nemea, living in a cave and feeding on whatever it could find, causing havoc and terror throughout the land.
The lion’s cave had two entrances. After failing to kill the fearsome animal with his bow and arrow and his club, Hercules forced the lion back into its cave, blocked up the other exit, and then strangled it to death. He flayed the dead animal and wore its skin (with the animal’s head serving as a helmet).
Slaying the Lernaean Hydra. This monster was another of Echidna’s offspring, this time with Typhon. The Hydra – a snake with several heads (how many differs from telling to telling, from around five right up to a hundred) – had breath so foul that even that was enough to kill a man. This time, Hercules’ arrows were successful against the beast, especially when he set them on fire. He then chopped off the animal’s numerous heads.
Thankfully, Hercules was assisted by Iolaus, his nephew, which was just as well, since beheading the Lernaean Hydra was a bit like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as a head was lopped off, it immediately grew back. Together, the two of them used burning brands to seal up the various necks of the beast so new heads couldn’t pop out.
Capturing the Erymanthian Boar. This creature lived on the snow-capped Mount Erymanthus, and Hercules caught it by calling to it so it came out of its lair, and then leading it a merry dance among the snow until, exhausted, the animal collapsed and he was able to capture it and bring it alive to Mycenae.
Capturing the Hind of Ceryneia. Next, Hercules had to capture a large female deer that was ravaging the crops at Oenoe. This creature gave him the runaround, and it was only after tracking it across vast northern terrains for over a year that he could eventually wound it with an arrow and then capture it, taking it alive.
Killing the Stymphalian Birds. For this labour, Hercules faced a whole flock of these birds which lived in Arcadia and were munching away at the crops. Using bronze castanets, Hercules was able to shoo them out of the bushes and kill them with – you’ve guessed it – his arrows.
Cleaning out the Augean Stables. This is one of the more famous labours of Hercules. Eurystheus wanted to humiliate him by making him perform such drudgery. Augius owned substantial herds, but he didn’t bother to have the dung cleared out of the stables. Hercules completed this menial – and doubtless very smelly – task, but insisted on a wage for doing so.
Capturing the Cretan Bull. This creature also turns up in another famous myth, involving Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a man with the head of a bull: the product of a rather twisted coupling between Pasiphaë, King Minos’ wife, and a ferocious bull that Poseidon had brought out of the sea so that Minos could sacrifice it to him. However, Minos was so taken by the bull that he sacrificed a different animal and hoped Poseidon wouldn’t notice.
But Poseidon wasn’t fooled, and to punish Minos for his deceit he made the bull so savage that it was a menace to Minos, and Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, desired the bull – lying with it and conceiving the famous Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull. Hercules travelled to Crete and Minos gave him his blessing in his quest to capture the bull. Hercules then took the bull to Hera, who freed it.
Stealing the Mares of Diomedes. Accounts vary for this labour, but the general plot sees Hercules having to bring the four mares belonging to Diomedes, the King of Thrace, alive to Eurystheus. But although Hercules managed to free the horses from the bronze mangers in which they were kept, bound fast with iron chains, in some versions Hercules fed Diomedes to his own horses, which devoured human flesh.
Capturing the Girdle of Queen Hippolyta. Eurystheus’ daughter Admete gave Hercules this challenge: capture the girdle worn by Hippolyta, the fearsome Amazon warrior. Hercules travelled to the land of the Amazons and persuaded Hippolyta to give him the girdle, but Hera sowed division between the two parties and Hercules ended up killing Hippolyta.
The Cattle of Geryon. This adventure could form the basis of an epic in itself. Tasked with travelling to the island of Erythia, where a man named Geryon owned a huge herd of cattle, Hercules had to cross the Libyan desert and, growing sick of the heat, threatened to shoot the sun, until Helios lent the hero his Cup of the Sun, which Hercules used to cross the ocean. But when the waves threatened to capsize the vessel, Hercules aimed his bow at Oceanus, who, also fearful of being shot at, stopped making the waves rise up around the Cup, allowing Hercules to make it safely to the island.
Once there, our hero gathered up the vast herds, slew the shepherd guarding them, and killed Geryon with his arrows. On his way back to north Africa, he inspired a further legend, erecting two columns (the rocks of Gibraltar and Ceusa) which became known as the ‘Pillars of Hercules’.
Fetching the dog Cerberus from the Underworld. No epic adventure story from classical antiquity would be complete without a descent into the Underworld. For his next labour, Hercules had to travel there to find Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Pluto, the god of the Underworld, agreed to give Cerberus to Hercules, if he could train the dog without using a weapon. Hercules eventually managed this, and brought the dog back up to the land of the living with him. After he had shown Cerberus to Eurystheus to prove he had completed the task, he returned the dog to Pluto.
Stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The last of Hercules’ twelve labours is also one of the more famous, even though it sounds essentially like the ancient Greek version of scrumping apples (or oranges, as the case may well have been). The Garden of the Hesperides belonged to Hera, who put them under guard, the guard being a fearsome dragon with a hundred heads (yet another monster that was one of Echidna’s offspring).
Hercules tricked Atlas into retrieving some of the golden apples for him, while he offered to help shoulder Atlas’ burden (shouldering the heavens). When Atlas came back, he declined to take back the heavens onto his own shoulders, but Hercules was having none of this. He tricked Atlas by initially agreeing to the request, but asking that Atlas take the heavens back onto his shoulders for just a moment while Heracles adjusted his cloak (or added a cushion behind his head). Atlas, clearly not the brightest of Titans, agreed, whereupon Heracles strolled off with the apples Atlas had retrieved for him.
In some accounts, however, Hercules didn’t require Atlas’ help and slew the dragon and made off with the golden apples himself.
Twelve Labours of Hercules: analysis
Hercules (or Heracles in the original) is the consummate Greek hero: strong, fearless, cunning (perhaps it’s only Odysseus who outdoes him for wit and wiles), and a man of action who manages to complete every single one of his twelve labours, despite the various hardships and setbacks he faces. Some of the voyages take him months to undertake, and it’s only the main details which we remember from the labours; but the early compilers of the myths describe the specific details of Hercules’ numerous journeys across land and sea as well as the apple-stealing and lion-slaying.
Heracles is a classic example of the hero who triumphs against the odds. At many points in the twelve labours, he looks set to fail, be thwarted, or even be killed, but – like Odysseus making his way home from the Trojan Wars – he always manages to succeed, despite the problems he faces in a particular quest.
But did the Labours of Hercules hold a deeper symbolism? They have been subjected to allegorical interpretation and analysis, perhaps most famously by Heraclitus the Grammarian, a first-century thinker who wrote a commentary on Homer, among other things.
Heraclitus argued that each of the labours represents some aspect of man: the Erymanthian boar is man’s ‘incontinence’ or intemperance, the Nemean lion represents man’s determination to rush towards the wrong goals in the pursuit of something, the hind of Ceryneia represents cowardice, and so on. That dung in the Augean stables is symbolic of the foulness of humanity – something Jonathan Swift, if his fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels is anything to go by, would probably agree with.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.