The Laborious Life of Heracles

Herakles and the Hydra Water Jar (Etruscan, c. 525 BC) - Herakles clubs the Hydra, while a crab assists it by attacking Herakles

Whether you’re a Greek Mythology nerd or not, I’m sure you’ve heard the name Hercules at least once in your life, whether it be from the Disney movie, video games, or history class.

And so you might be thinking I spelled the name wrong in the title. Well, the truth is that Hercules is actually the Roman name for the older myth of Heracles! Regardless of the name, this hero was known as the strongest and smartest of all men; praised all over Greece and Rome for his bravery. So let me give you a quick rundown of the long and full life of the most beloved ancient Greek hero — Heracles.


Heracles was born from Zeus, the king of Gods, and a mortal woman named Alcmene. To trick Alcmene into fornicating with him, Zeus shapeshifted into the woman’s husband Amphitryon. The God ordered Helios, Titan God of the sun, not to rise for three days, so he could have more time with Alcmene. Afterwards, Alcmene became pregnant with twins, one the demi-god son of Zeus and one the mortal son of Amphitryon. 

Alcmene had heard stories of the women who had indulged with Zeus, and the wrath that had been inflicted from his wife Hera, queen of the Gods and Goddess of marriage. Out of fear Alcmene had exposed Heracles, keeping him unhidden and vulnerable to the Goddess’s fury, the Goddess Athena took him and brought him up to Hera. Luckily the queen didn’t recognize the baby and nursed him out of pity, giving him her divine breast milk. With this milk, Heracles grew to have inhuman powers and strength. Athena brought him back to Earth to be raised by his mother and step-father. But Hera never stopped being resentful, made clear by the time she sent two snakes to kill the eight month old Heracles — but the infant wasn’t startled as he killed them both with his bare hands and played with their dead bodies like toys. 

As Heracles grew older he married Megara and had three children. Unfortunately, Hera wasn’t done tormenting Heracles, as she sent a curse to turn the man to madness. This caused him to kill his wife and children. Looking for repentance, Heracles travelled to the Oracle of Delphi, where she directed him to serve king Eurystheus and perform any task he required. Eurystheus bestowed upon Heracles ten labours, and if he succeeded the man would be sinless and be granted godlihood and immortality.

The Labours of Heracles

His first labour was to slay the Nemean lion. Heracles slay the vicious lion with his bare hands and wore its skin as a cloak, successfully completing his first labour.

The second labour was to slay the nine-headed Hydra. This was a monster with multiple fire-breathing serpent heads. When one of its heads was slain, two more would grow in its place. After learning this, Heracles had trouble defeating it, but luckily his nephew Iolaus helped him burn the severed necks of the Hydra before the heads could regrow, rendering him victorious. He dipped his arrow in the monster’s poison blood to craft venomous arrows. However, Eurystheus did not count this task towards Heracles’s labours as he had gotten help on it, meaning he would have to do an eleventh labour.

For his third labour, Heracles was tasked with capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt. Heracles could not kill this animal, as it was sacred to the Goddess. After chasing the hind down for a year straight, he was finally able to capture it and bring it to Eurystheus, completing another labour.

Detail of the statue “Hercules and the Centaur” by Giambologna 1529-1608, The statue is located in the gallery of sculptures at the Piazza della Signoira.

His fourth labour was to capture the Erymanthian boar, an intimidating and wild boar running loose. Heracles stabbed the animal with his spear and trapped it in his net, then brought it back to Eurystheus. 

The fifth labour of Heracles was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. These stables housed 3,000 cattle given to Augeas by his father Helios. The cattle produced poisonous feces, and Heracles was doomed to clean it. Without telling Augeas about Eurystheus, he offered to clean the stables for a tenth of his cattle. So, Heracles made two holes in the walls of the cattle yard opposite of each other. Then, he dug trenches to two nearby rivers. Heracles redirected the course of the rivers into the yard, and the water flushed all the waste out, leaving the mess to flow out of the opposite hole. This labour was also not counted by Eurystheus as Heracles had been paid for it. Heracles was now to do a twelfth labour. 

Heracles’s sixth labour was to slay the Stymphalian birds. These were fearsome, man-eating birds. For this task, Heracles was given a rattle by the Goddess Athena, which he used to frighten the aggressive birds into flight and shoot them with his bow and arrow. This rendered another labour complete, marking Heracles’s half-way point to repentance. 

The seventh labour was to capture the Cretan bull. This bull was the father of the Minotaur, a monstrous man-bull hybrid. Heracles captured the out of control bull and carried it on his shoulders to Eurystheus, completing yet another task.

Heracles’s eighth labour was stealing the mares of Diomedes. These horses had been trained by Diomedes to eat human flesh, and Heracles was tasked to steal one. To settle this task, Heracles fed Diomedes to the animals before binding their mouths shut.

His ninth labour was taking the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. At first, Hippolyta and Heracles were friendly, and the queen promised him the girdle, but after the meddling of Hera, things took a turn for the worse. Hera persuaded the Amazons to fight Heracles, but the man was successful and thus obtained the girdle, fulfilling another task.

For his tenth labour, the man was ordered to obtain the cattle of Geryon, a giant with three heads and six arms. While walking through a hot desert, looking for the cattle, Heracles got so angry that he shot an arrow at the sun. The sun god Helios was so impressed by this that he granted Heracles his giant cup, which was then used to find Geryon, his two-headed guard dog–Orthrus–and the herdsman–Erytion. Heracles killed them with his club and poison arrow, and herded the cattle to Eurystheus, once again triumphant. 

The first of his two bonus labours was to steal the golden apple of the Hesperides. As Heracles tried to find the location of these apples, he stumbled upon Prometheus, the titan whom had been encaptured to a rock and cursed to have an eagle come everyday and eat his liver. The hero shot the eagle eating at the titan’s liver and in turn, Prometheus told Heracles that his brother Atlas would know where the apples were. And so, Atlas offered to help Heracles obtain the apples if he took on Atlas’s curse while he was gone, the curse to hold up the sky. Once Atlas had obtained the apples he returned back to Heracles, but just as Atlas was about to trick Heracles, the hero asked if Atlas could hold the sky for a bit so he could get a neck pillow. Atlas agreed as he knew the pain of the curse, but when the sky was off Heracles’s shoulders, he took the apples and didn’t return, thus finishing another task.

The last labour of Heracles, and the most dangerous, was to capture and bring back Cerberus, the massive three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the underworld. Heracles wasn’t fazed though, as he wrapped his arm around all three of its heads, and wrestled the beast into submission, bringing it back to Eurystheus slung on his shoulder. 

Other Details

Now, some versions of the myth say that he entered godliness after this, but there are others that state he died and was placed on Mount Oeta, his mortal body consumed, only leaving the divinity in him to ascend to heaven, becoming a God. Regardless of how it happened, Heracles successfully completed his repentance and ascended to a higher place. The man had many other adventures during his life as well; some include marrying the Deianira, fighting the river God Achelous, marrying Hebe–the Goddess of youth–, challenging the wine God–Dionysus–to a drinking contest, and many more.